Well, not quite on schedule, but still not too far off schedule. I finished up a almost a week of Darren Korb and some other video game soundtracks that I love, but had not found the time to talk about them. Well, here we are, and I’ve moved on to a new artist, but I need to say a few words about last week first.
Some people might think it’s weird to enjoy video game music. I mean, most of it is very repetitive, since the composer has no idea how long you’re going to actually spend on a level or in an area. It would be a bit embarrassing if, in the middle of fighting some boss in the game, the music suddenly cut out and all you had to listen to were the grunts of your character taking damage or the taunts of the creature you’re trying to defeat. But that brings up the best part of video game music. It is there to set a mood, and to assist in the feeling of achievement that most games are trying to foster. I mean, even games that pride themselves on difficulty are beatable, and it makes the victory that much sweeter. Even notoriously difficult games like XCom or the Dark Souls games or Super Meat Boy are beatable, depending on your skills. But how hollow would that victory be without the music to back it up. Be it a fanfare or just a calming musical cue after an intense battle, the music is there to help set the mood.
Games, like movies, are trying to tell a story. And it’s a lot easier to tell the story if you have the right music to go along with it. No one says listening to The Imperial March from Star Wars is silly, and people consider John Williams a great composer for it. The rooftop chase in Batman Begins would be nothing without the work Hans Zimmer and James Netwon Howard but into the score for that scene. Why should the score to video games be any less. They are just as evocative, if not more due to the interactive nature of games. I still get the chills and anxiety of a attack by the huge Songbird monster in Bioshock Infinite when listening to Gary Schyman’s theme from that in-game moment:
Granted, not all video game music is epic, just like not all movies can be scored by Oscar winners. I love it just the same though, albeit for different reasons. Since I have such a long history with video games, I have an equally long history with their music. I have a special place in my heart for the chiptune classics of the 16-bit era. They really tried there best, although it sounds a bit silly to our ears now:
Some of the video game music I listen to is not because of it’s quality, but because of the memories and the nostalgia. The Suikoden series of games is one of my all-time favorite JRPG games. You Final Fantasy fans can have all of the disparate “sequels” you want, I still think these five games are far superior and tell a much better story. I listen to the soundtracks to these games not because they’re good, because they really aren’t, but because they remind me of how much fun I had playing these games. Entire days of my life have been spent playing them, and every now and again I get the hankering to return to them. Instead of digging out my PS2 and losing another 40-60 hours (per game) to them, I can listen to these soundtracks and be reminded:
In fairness, some video game music is both for the nostalgia and because it’s good music. Michael Hoenig’s work from the Baldur’s Gate games, or Matt Uelman’s soundtracks to the first two Diablo games and then the Torchlight series are all really good music in their own right, and they also remind me of the fun I had playing.
There are really a lot of great video game composers out there who don’t get the musical recognition they are due. From Jesper Kyd to Tim Wynn to Mark Morgan, they all have their own styles and yet all have tremendous versatility to help the stories of their various games, and yet I think don’t get the fanfare that their musical talent deserves. Composers like Austin Wintory do some amazing work, yet I don’t think people see it on the same level as a Howard Shore or Alan Silvestri. Just listen to his work from The Banner Saga. Even if you’ve never even heard of the game, let alone played it, you can’t deny its genius or its power:
I have played so many games, and though I did not always find the music to be good on its own, and frequently didn’t find it to be memorable, I still appreciate it. Peter McConnell didn’t break any boundaries in his work on various titles from DoubleFine games, but I still appreciate that he kept the level of whimsy the game needed high with his soundtracks. Jon Everist didn’t create hugely memorable themes in the recent Shadowrun games, but the music set the tone and helped immerse you into the world that the game designers built.
Some composers do rise above just the simplicity of being background sounds to the visuals. I don’t think Pillars of Eternity would have resonated so well if not for the accompanying music from Justin Bell. I may not have felt as motivated to save the galaxy from the Reaper threat in the Mass Effect series if not for the care that Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, Chris Velasco and others but into crafting the soundtrack. And slowly taking over the universe in Stellaris would not be nearly as awesome if not for the brilliant score by Andreas Waldetoft:
But my favorite composer, as this week makes plain, is Darren Korb. I loved playing Bastion, and I loved playing Transistor, and I’m certain I will love playing Pyre. That is a credit to the people at Supergiant Games. But I would wager that I would not have loved them as much if Darren Korb hadn’t created such great music to go along with them. The music fits the games perfectly. The mixture of American country influences with Middle Eastern is inspired, and to but that all over a great beat fits the journey of the Kid in Bastion so well. It’s rugged and daring, and forces you to move forward. But there are some great sentimental bits of loss and tragedy sprinkled in to enhance the story. The techno inspired music of Transistor is flavored well with accordions to give it a feel of a French street performer. The mourning vocalist, straining every note reminds you well of the pain that Red is going through as she attempts to recover her voice and seek vengeance for her fallen lover. I’m sure when I play Pyre that the bits of harpsichord sprinkled in there will be the perfect touch.
The most surprising thing about Darren’s work, though, is how well it exists outside of the games. Unlike a lot of the video game soundtracks, I feel it has the ability to stand on it’s own, without the games. I proved that to myself this week by listening to Pyre, having no context for the various musical cues and emotional beats. It still works in a vacuum. And that’s why, out of all of the composers to all of the games I love, I come back to him again and again.