Video Game Music Spotlight #7: Orchestral Symphonies - ArticleTaneli Palola , posted on 22 May 2019 / 1,345 Views
Ever since it became possible to add actual music to video games, composers have been trying to emulate the sound of orchestral music as closely as the technology they had to work with would allow. From Koichi Sugiyama's early Dragon Quest scores to the many wonderful SNES soundtracks that pushed the console's sound chip to its limits, aiming for true orchestral sounds has been the goal of many a video game composer over the years, long before such a thing was in any way feasible.
It wouldn't be until the mid-90s that the technological limitations would begin to lift, and with the advent of CD-based video game consoles the door was suddenly opened towards much higher fidelity music. From then on countless composers have employed full symphonic orchestras in their scores, and today we take a look at some of the best examples of those from the last 25 years.
Battle at Journey's End
(from Octopath Traveler)
Yasunori Nishiki may not be a very well known composer, at least not yet, but his work on the score of Octopath Traveler suggests that in a few years' time he might be one of the most sought after talents working in the industry. I keep up with the world of video game music very actively and I had never heard of him prior to this project, but I will certainly keep a close eye on whatever he ends up doing next.
Octopath Traveler is something of a modernized version of traditional 16-bit JRPGs and the game's music has a very similar feel to it. It's something I could imagine playing in games like Final Fantasy VI or Secret of Mana if the platforms had been capable of producing such sounds. It's a testament to Nishiki's talents as a composer that he has managed to capture this essence in his work and hopefully we'll get to hear much more from him in the future.
Power of Innocence (2017)
(from Divinity: Original Sin II)
Divinity: Original Sin II has some of the absolute best music I've heard in any video game in recent years, which is fitting for a game considered to be among the best RPGs of all time. The music was composed by Borislav Slavov, who replaced the series' previous composer, Kirill Pokrovsky, after the latter's passing in 2015, and he proved to be a worthy successor even if the reasons behind it were quite sad.
Original Sin II is a massive game, with dozens upon dozens of hours of content to play through, and the soundtrack is very much up to par in that regard. Fortunately, this is not a case of quantity over quality, as despite the fairly extensive score there are few if any bad or even mediocre tracks. It is genuinely a delight to listen to from beginning to end, and the variety found within simply makes it even more enjoyable.
(from Total Annihilation)
Jeremy Soule has been among the best composers working in the video game industry since the mid-90s, since he had his first break composing music for the SNES title Secret of Evermore. Soon after he would land another big project when he was contracted to compose the music for Total Annihilation, a real-time strategy game released in 1997. It marked his first opportunity to work with a real orchestra and the results were immediately excellent.
What makes this particular score even more amazing is the fact that at the time of the game's production Soule was just 21 years old. For someone so young to be able to not only compose some amazing music, but also work with an entire symphonic orchestra is quite exceptional. The score for Total Annihilation is relatively short, but it features a wide variety of different styles of tracks from battle themes like the one above to many slower, more ambient pieces that are well suited to the many quiet moments that occur during gameplay.
(from The Last Guardian)
The Last Guardian was a somewhat divisive game when it was finally released after years of development hell. Various aspects were criticized for being dated or obtuse, and some of the design decisions were also seen as flawed. At the same time, however, certain other elements were genuinely excellent and at times inspired, among them the game's story and the relationship between the boy and the beast.
In addition, the score by Takeshi Furukawa is truly great as well, mixing powerful and bombastic tracks with more quiet, introspective ones, each filled with emotional weight and purpose that fits perfectly into each scene they are a part of. The Last Guardian may be a flawed game, but behind those flaws is still a title with a lot of heart and passion, much of which can be heard in the game's music.
Trouble in Russia
(from Hitman 2: Silent Assassin)
Jesper Kyd is in a fairly interesting position of being one of the most prolific video game composers working today while at the same time still being somehow underrated and relatively unknown by the general gaming populace. But it's more than likely that you've played at least one game featuring his work, as over the last 20 years he has composed music for such series as Assassin's Creed, Borderlands, Darksiders and, of course, Hitman.
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin was among Kyd's earlier high profile projects, although by that time he had already been working in the industry for well over a decade. The track 'Trouble in Russia' is a great example of his skill at capturing the essence of a specific location and situation in a very short amount of time. It's a shame he hasn't been brought back to compose music for the last few entries in the Hitman series.
Behold a Pale Horse
(from Halo 3)
The Halo series has always had excellent music, that much is obvious. Even if you're not otherwise a fan of the franchise it is generally accepted that the soundtracks for the games have almost always invariably been excellent. After all, there is a good reason why the series' main theme has become one of the most iconic pieces of video game music of all time.
The main theme also serves as the core of this particular track, simply expanded and adapted to fit into a different situation, with various added sections and elements giving it a very different feel compared to the theme that it's built upon. Touches like this not only make every track feel like a part of a greater whole, but also give it a feeling of cohesion and structure.
The Road of Trials
Journey is filled with beautiful moments, but out of all of them my personal favourite happens fairly early on as the player is sliding down a hill with the cloth creatures that accompany you throughout the game. The entire section is simply wonderful, but it is the moment at the very end where the sun illuminates the sand and frames the player in light right before the final dive into the dark depths below that truly stayed with me long after I first played the game.
Composed by Austin Wintory over a period of three years, the score in Journey reacts dynamically to the player's actions, smoothly changing as you progress from one location to the next. This makes the score feel like one continuous, uninterrupted track, with emotional weight and an arc that always suits the situation at hand. It's a masterwork by itself and it makes the rest of the game even better by association.
After the Storm
(from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt)
Often when I write these short passages of text it's difficult to properly describe exactly what makes a specific song or soundtrack stand out, and what it's meant to convey in a particular scene or moment in a video game. Sometimes a song's meaning or message can be just too difficult or too layered to put into writing in such a brief written section. 'After the Storm' from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has that quality to it.
You can definitely hear the almost bittersweet sense of closure and passing, which in some ways the entire game contains as it marks the supposed end to the story of Geralt, but underneath there is so much more as well. There is relief, sadness, regret, even a happiness, and so much more. It's a powerful track from an excellent soundtrack.
Question of the Month:
What is your favourite orchestral score in a video game?
This is a really difficult one to choose, as there are simply so many amazing video game scores performed with real orchestras and a massive number of amazing pieces to pick from. The first one that stood out to me as something truly special was Jeremy Soule's work on Total Annihilation, but I'm not sure if I would call it quite my favourite soundtrack of its kind.
That distinction would probably go to the score from Shadow of the Colossus, a marvel of video game music that never fails to make me want to go back and replay the game all over again.
Finally, if you have any suggestions for future themes for these spotlights leave them in the comments below!