Thunderbolt logo

Five compelling uses of music in videogames

Game designMusic

Music can be immensely powerful when used at the right moment. It can transform a steady male into an emotional wreck, a good movie into a great one. Think of the end of Gladiator, or that scene in Shawshank when Andy puts on some Anna Moffo, or even Titanic. The same rule applies to our beloved videogames. Arguably the most powerful moments are when a memorable piece of music accompanies a particularly memorable piece of gameplay. Unlike in a cutscene, you become more involved in the game, and the accompanying music makes your actions feel a lot more important. It’s ultimately a lot more effective. Here’s five particularly compelling uses of music in videogames.

Red Dead Redemption – Welcome to Mexico

José González – Far Away

After drifting downriver on a raft, shooting foes and trading quips with good friend Irish, John Marston approaches the shore, and the beautiful Nuevo Paraíso. He saddles his trusty steed, and climbs on its back. It’s early morning. In the far distance, the huge sun rises over the horizon, piercing through the clouds. The sky is a warm orange. With nothing to hear but the sounds of his horse’s hooves on the dusty ground, John Marston enters New Paradise. Welcome to Mexico. Then, in the background, José González’ Far Away starts playing, making Marston’s entry even more memorable. The lyrics are entirely relevant. Step in front of a runaway train, just to feel alive again; pushing forward through the night, aching just to blow aside – they speak of Marston’s indifference to life, after almost dying himself. The chorus is similarly quite literal: It’s so far, so far away. They tell of John’s seemingly impossible mission, and the difficulty of tracking down his two foes. González’ voice is wonderfully folky, and unaltered, fitting the game’s early 20th Century timeline perfectly.

Beyond Good & Evil – The Lighthouse. The Black Isle.

Christophe Héral – Blue, Christophe Héral – Home Sweet Home

The use of music in Beyond Good & Evil is lovely. Christophe Héral’s Blue is a wonderfully simple but affecting song, which shares elements with Thomas Newman’s amazing Any other name. It plays at the beginning of the game, whenever Jade enters her quaint lighthouse home. Her room is a collection of photos, of memories. The orphans she houses roam the many floors, while Woof the dog sleeps in his comfy den. The music hints at what’s to come – an emotional adventure, and a story beautifully told. Later, Jade boards her uncle’s hovercraft in search for the Black Isle. After speeding through the busy streets of the main canal, the Black Isle looms large in the distance. Heral’s Home Sweet Home begins, its orchestral loveliness accompanying the hovercraft’s journey to the Isle, and Jade’s first meeting with the IRIS network. Her life will soon change – the song highlights the simplicity of her current existence, and home comforts that will soon be lost to a web of conspiracy.

Halo 3 – Meeting the Scarabs

Martin O’Donnell – One Final Effort

It happens in chapter eight, The Covenant. Master Chief and co are about to storm the Citadel. After destroying a considerable amount of covenant, they carve a path down the cliffside. Martin O’Donnell’s epic One Final Effort begins to play, almost as if its use is meant to motivate the plucky soldiers on the battlefield for what is to come. Suddenly, a Scarab drops. Its hulking mechanic structure is both menacing and gigantic. As it crawls on the hard snow, its metal body crunches, its lasers prepare to engage. Master Chief expects a tough battle, but never what happens next. A second Scarab drops, as large and monolithic as the first. Two Scarabs. Lasers and rockets fly across the icy plains. Ghosts and Banshees dance with Warthogs and Hornets. Spartan soldiers square up to covenant aliens. Master Chief has his eyes set on both Scarabs. He sneaks aboard the first and dives into the guts of the giant bug. Meanwhile, an emphatic chorus of violins and cymbal crashes underscore the action perfectly. After making waste of group after group of guards, he finds the core. He throws a sticky grenade into the pulsating light, and the music reaches a crescendo. Now, he only has a few seconds to escape before the mech blows. He jumps off and runs, turning around at a safe distance to enjoy the fireworks. It’s one down, one to go, while the iconic music keeps on playing.

Final Fantasy X – Crossing the Zanarkand Ruins

Nobuo Uematsu & Kazushige Nojima – A Fleeting Dream

Tidus, Yuna, Auron, Lulu, Wakka, Rikku and Kimahri are almost at the end of their journey. They have reached the summit of the Zanarkand Ruins and are now sitting quietly by a warm fire. The unforgettable To Zanarkand plays in the background. Now, the group head for the Yevon Dome. A Fleeting Dream starts to play. It doesn’t end for a while. It simply loops as Tidus travels across the overpass. Monsters appear for battle, but the beautiful music still plays, romanticising Tidus’ every move. From the way his sword carves through the air to his light footsteps, everything that happens in this fleeting gameplay section is made dreamlike by the hauntingly beautiful music. Fireflies light up your way, and the remains of a thousand buildings litter your path. The story is nearing its conclusion, and scenes have rarely been so emotional.

BioShock – Entering Rapture

Garry Schyman – Welcome to Rapture

Jack has just survived a plane crash. He’s lucky to be alive. Underwater and screaming for air, he reaches the surface. Flames roar all around him, and pieces of aircraft sink to the depths of the ocean. He spots a building in the distance, its shape made striking by the bright full moon behind it. He swims over and enters, and the doors close behind him. The only way is down, so he walks. Lights switch on like magic as he delves deeper. Jack hears music. As he reaches the bottom floor he notices a strange pod like structure. There’s a radio, and it’s playing an instrumental of Bobby Darin’s Beyond the Sea. Due to the strange circumstances, the music takes a new meaning. It’s eerie and foreboding. A lever stands in the middle of the pod. Jack pulls it. The pod plummets deep underwater – ten fathoms and counting. The glass window disappears and a projected image comes into view.

A voice:

‘I am Andrew Ryan, and I am here to ask you a question. Is a man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?
‘No,’ says the man in Washington, ‘it belongs to the poor.’
‘No,’ says the man in the Vatican, ‘it belongs to God.’
‘No,’ says the man in Moscow, ‘it belongs to everyone.’
I rejected those answers. Instead, I chose something different. I chose the impossible. I chose… Rapture.’

And then it happens. The projection stops, the screen retracts, and you get your first glimpse of Rapture. Schyman’s Welcome to Rapture is a little ways in, and is utterly chilling. The strings arrangement is phenomenal. They build and build in a rapid pace before slowing into a tragic tune that tells you that the story of this city is not a happy one. As the player soaks in the atmosphere and the stunning architecture ahead, the chimes of a melancholy piano tune ring around the bathysphere. A whale passes by, looking as oblivious and graceful as ever. The ride is almost over, and the submersible approaches a docking point. The violins reach a dizzyingly high climax, and the final notes paint the perfect picture of Rapture: one of utter hopelessness, and total sadness.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in July 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @_Frey.

Gentle persuasion

You should follow us on Twitter.