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Gaming soundtracks: essential or overplayed?

Mhairi Winfield discusses her favourite soundtracks and how vital they are to her gameplay experience.

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Image Credit: God of War, SIE Santa Monica Studio.

For me, soundtracks are one of the most important aspects of any digital media. The movie classics that we all love: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, to name a few, would not have been the same without the soundtrack that the great John Williams created. Music and the feelings it evokes has the same power and prominence in games. Two of the most popular and memorable game soundtracks come from God of War and the Uncharted series.

When Playstation released their announcement trailer for God of War at E3 in 2016, the game’s soundtrack was centre stage. Before showing anything visually, the live orchestra in the venue’s pit played the famous God of War theme for five minutes. Composer Bear McCreary and executives at Santa Monica Studios knew the importance of getting this score right as they were resurrecting a beloved video game franchise. On his blog, McCreary writes about the creation of Kratos’ theme: “Bombastic, powerful instrumentation combines with beautiful melodies and harmonies to yield what I hope is a memorable and iconic theme that adapts and evolves to guide the player through Kratos’ emotional journey.”

Without the powerful and emotive score running throughout God of War, I wonder how far I would have journeyed into this enormously popular game. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I hadn’t played any one of the original God of War games previously. I also didn’t have the context to want to spend hours and hours completing something that left me a bit confused the whole time. The score, however, allowed me to develop emotional connections to this game. The hints of sadness and grief felt through the loss of Atreus’ mother and the hopeful notes throughout led me to finish God of War and I felt for each of the characters in different ways, driven by their individual themes within the soundtrack.

Another video game series with a large following is the Uncharted games. While potentially not as famous as the God of War theme, it is still essential for the game and gameplay of this action-adventure. The score is produced by Henry Jackman, another composer with an impressive roster, most recently working on the highly-anticipated film Cherry and the TV-series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

While I might be a bit biased, as this series is the one that truly got me interested in playing video games, this score is one of the most emotional but also brilliantly timed pieces of music I have heard in a video game. The music is used in discrete ways – the score changes to a more minor tone which adds tension when you are coming up to a potential fight, and sounds more hopeful when you are about to hit a milestone in your adventure. In this way, Uncharted’s soundtrack is an integral part of the experience of gameplay. Without it, there is a potential for the game to become dry and lose its character.

The emotions and connections that soundtracks inspire remain an integral part of a video game, just like in any media. While games can technically function without pieces of music playing in the background, in my opinion, they would lose their soul. The characters and the beautiful graphics create visual interest in a game. Yet, the combination of these visual components with the sounds of the music is what truly makes playing video games a complete experience and is what drives the active participation of gamers.

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