Sensory Indulgence: The Power of a Great Video Game Soundtrack

Opinion by Marc Hollinshead,
During one of my regular visits to my local gym, I followed the usual routine of jumping onto a nearby treadmill or cross trainer, accompanied by some water for necessary hydration and my phone for arguably just as necessary entertainment. The common practice for gym-goers is, in most people's eyes, to crank up the workout playlist and train to the rhythm. However, I found myself feeling the burn in my legs as I powered through the treadmill's steep gradient to the soundtrack of Darkeater Midir from Dark Souls III. Not your typical workout track, I admit, but as a gamer this motivates my body far more than Justin Timberlake's new album ever could.

It would come as no surprise that those who are ignorant of the brilliance of gaming would be perplexed at this choice of music. Even some avid gamers may think that this music is only fit for the confines of your bedroom, but not me. I find a game's soundtrack to be both a testament to how far the industry has advanced. Although it is a passive form of engagement in a game, it isn't far-fetched as to say that a well executed soundtrack can make a good game an absolutely fantastic one. Music is not something to be taken lightly in video games; rather it is something to be cherished and truly enjoyed.

Dark Souls III: The Ringed CityDragons always seem to have the best music.

Whereas the film and TV industries have decades of history behind them, the games industry is still very much in its infancy in comparison to other audiovisual media. While it has come leaps and bounds since the original inception of games like Pong, it still feels like it is being hidden away as the black sheep of entertainment by mass media. On the contrary, it is absolutely massive, having even surpassed Hollywood as being one of the biggest entertainment markets in the world.

With this in mind, many of the finer details of video games have had extra work put into them over the years, with soundtracks arguably being at the helm of this movement. While visual feedback will often reign supreme in how gaming is truly enjoyed, engaging with a game on an audible level also helps to add a much deeper level of immersion and entertainment. A quirky tune in the background is simply not enough for the cinematic games of today; the soundtrack needs to mirror what we see on screen so that our imagination can unravel a bigger story that is happening off-screen.

A franchise that really encapsulates this notion is Mass Effect, with the first game demonstrating it most effectively. BioWare prided themselves on creating a universe that is incredibly dense, exciting and crammed full of lore, so for it to be the masterpiece that it eventually became, the music needed to perfectly reflect the situations and environments that Shepard found him/herself in. A stellar example of this would be the Citadel. When we encounter the Citadel for the first time, it is also the first time Shepard encounters it too. The pure majesty of the communal centre of the galaxy is reflected in the soundtrack of The Presidium, playing as you wander the massive, regal halls of the station. On the flip side, you have The Wards. This track brings the dark underbelly of the Citadel to life, juxtaposing the higher classes of the Presidium to the poverty-stricken species and criminals of the Wards.

PresidiumWith a beautiful soundtrack in tow, these pixels become so much more.

That's what Mass Effect does so brilliantly. It uses music to build upon the world we see before us. Do you remember watching over the skyline by the markets in the wards as the cars shot past? With the music playing in the background, you can just about imagine the many stories that are happening across the Citadel. While we may never actually see them, the mixture of visuals and the soundtrack spark our creative minds just enough. Without the soundtrack, I believe that the world of Mass Effect throughout the trilogy would not have created the impact that we recognize today.

Music, of course, spans so many different genres, and in the games industry alone, it is able to achieve a multitude of effects. As we've discussed, it can expand on the world we see before us, but it can also create an atmosphere that no amount of visuals can. Boss fights are the prime example. I give you my second go-to series, Dark Souls.

What the entire Souls series does is save the majority of the soundtrack for boss encounters. While there are a number of occasions outside of boss fights that harbour music to fit a specific purpose, it isn't until you set foot through the fog gates that it blasts out. Because of this almost unprecedented use of music, a special atmosphere is created in every boss you face throughout the series. Take Sif's theme in the first Dark Souls, for instance. There are a beauty and elegance in it that mirrors Sif himself. However, if you begin to uncover Sif's lore, a saddening undertone of this theme will come to the surface. It may subconsciously affect the way you fight or have you questioning who this great wolf was.

Another slightly different example is the Burnt Ivory King of Dark Souls II. His theme, while conveying sombre undertones like Sif if you delve further into his lore, focuses more highly on a cinematic experience. The fight itself is in "The Old Chaos", Dark Souls' very own version of Hell. With the help of the remaining knights of Eleum Loyce, a war against the charred Loyce knights begins, with the Ivory King himself making his appearance from the mouth of Chaos. It's an extremely epic boss entrance, and the soundtrack accentuates everything that is great about this fight, turning the challenge into a cinematic experience right in your own bedroom.

Burnt Ivory KingCinematic fights can be just as thrilling as challenging ones, given the right music.

Dark Souls' soundtrack is obviously not the only video game music to create this effect. Games from years past have been able to do just the same, and arguably even more so. With technological advancement, games are visually able to reveal more to us, sometimes allowing our imaginations to take more of a backseat because everything we could possibly comprehend is already in front of us. The likes of the older The Legend of Zelda games didn't quite possess this advantage.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is considered a classic amongst many gamers. Even today, when lined up next to marvels such as Uncharted 4 and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, it easily holds up. One such aspect that fans of Link's adventures remember so fondly is the soundtrack. Nostalgia can occasionally be a cruel mistress, but in this instance, it can bring back gleeful childhood memories. The Spanish inspired theme of Gerudo Valley, when listened to after many years, can have memories that were thought to be locked away flooding back in an instant. Music tends to be regarded as a trigger for resurfacing particular memories, and for gamers it's no different. Looking back, graphics don't do much for these older games, but the music fills in any blemishes in a similar vein to the Citadel of Mass Effect. A rickety bridge in a block-infested world doesn't achieve a great deal on its own, but a memorable theme that instills the feeling of being in a vast valley is just as good, if not better. Before you know it, you're galloping across that bridge and humming along to the catchy tune.

Gerudo ValleyIf there's one thing gamers remember about Gerudo Valley, it's the catchy theme . . . and probably this bridge.

Now we come back to me at the gym. I'm listening to battle music for a giant dragon while I sweat it out. As I do this, I'm taking my mind away from the aches and pains my body is enduring and transporting it to a different scenario. Perhaps I'm overlooking an open plane, with the sun shining down upon the grass, or I'm witnessing a glorious battle between the world's greatest heroes. Before you know it, half an hour has passed and I'm back in the room with what I hope is an ever so slightly fitter body. If I'm at home working on a project, I open YouTube and load up the playlist. Right now, as I write up this editorial, I have the Gerudo Valley theme on loop and I feel my productivity levels going through the roof. Video game soundtracks are a powerful thing, and with the proper craftsmanship, they can be the perfect companion to what we see on our screens.

Where do you stand on the spectrum? Are gaming soundtracks more than just background noise? Whatever your opinion, it is clear that music in games is only going to get bigger and better as the industry advances.
Marc Hollinshead
Written by Marc Hollinshead
To summarize Marc in two words, it would be "Christian Gamer." You will usually find him getting stuck into story heavy action-adventure games, RPG's and the odd quirky title when he isn't raving about Dark Souls and Mass Effect. Outside the world of gaming, Marc attends and helps out in his church on a regular basis and has a not-so thrilling job in a supermarket.