Are video game soundtracks the new concept albums?

Does the brilliant soundtrack for Max Payne 3 hint at a future in which bands use game scores as a new creative medium?

US punk merchants Health recorded the soundtrack for Rockstar's Max Payne 3

While Max Payne 3 has its detractors (and we're not among them), there's one thing most gamers agree on about Rockstar's latest slab of edgy interactive mayhem: the music is awesome. Over several months of intense sessions, US noise punk merchants Health recorded around six hours of new material for the score, producing a soundscape every bit as enthralling and messed up as the onscreen action.

This perfectly pitched collaboration isn't merely a one-off novelty – it could well hint at both the future of game music and a whole new creative avenue for musicians. In the past, building a game soundtrack was usually all about licensing a selection of chart hits, or paying a composer to bash out an identikit orchestral score.

But we're now entering an era of close co-operation; game developers are employing musicians who love games and understand them. And in return, music is becoming part of the design process.

"We like working with bands and musicians who aren't strictly composers," says Ivan Pavlovich, Rockstar's soundtrack supervisor. "They bring a different perspective and I think we learn from each other. I've been a fan of soundtracks for a long time, but I feel like the whole genre was getting boring.

"You had these composers sitting in their studios with orchestral software ... it all started to bleed together. I can't tell the difference between movie and game soundtracks anymore. To me, Health has taken the whole concept of the score and given it six big blows to the ribs. It's very exciting."

The key challenge for musicians is to understand and exploit the non-linear nature of game music. Unlike a movie score, the audio has to be able to respond in real-time to the movements of the player, so it is usually chopped up into separate instrumental tracks and stems, which are automatically combined during play to match the on-screen action.

In Max Payne 3, Health's distorted guitar feedback and pummelling drums swell to savage crescendos as soon as any shootout starts, like some bloody post-punk opera.

Max Payne 3

"Everything has to loop indefinitely," says the band's bassist and resident gamer, John Famiglietti. "We recorded it all while watching video captures of gameplay – everything we did we put up against that footage and said, is this working? Does it make sense?

"We were inspired by the mood of each level, and where the story was going. And we've learned a lot from this. We had to come up with so much music! Our sound is based around tricks, effects and any weird stuff we can find, and we discovered a ton more while doing this game."

Rockstar isn't alone in handing over a whole soundtrack to one artist, capable of truly understanding and interpreting the action. For Halo 4, developer 343 Industries called in Massive Attack producer and film soundtrack composer Neil Davidge to totally redesign the game's distinctive choral soundtrack.

"As a fan of the game, I didn't want to revolutionalise the sound of Halo, I wanted to progress it, to take it to places it hadn't been before" he says. "I've got a lot of processing devices in my studio – I delve through huge libraries of raw, organic sounds and process those, record them, process them again – I've been doing that for many years with Massive Attack, but this experience has been amazing, it's incredibly inspiring."

As with Max Payne 3, this was all about using music not as an accompaniment to story, but as a story-telling device in its own right.

"With a film score you can cue music to specific moments, the way a character looks away, a shift in the eyes," says Davidge. "You'd also be scoring to the subtext of what's being said – the hidden intent.

With a game, because there's a lot of chasing around, a lot of action, it's often difficult to tie the different aspects of the plot together; music can play a hugely important role in helping the player understand the journey they're on, too feel that journey, so that the story hangs together and is less disjointed. It isn't just about scoring the movie snippets between each mission, the music is the undercurrent, it illustrates the emotional context of the scene."

Halo 4

And apparently, the Halo 4 score was so effective that it ended up feeding into the game design process. As Davidge explains: "The creative director Josh Holmes told me he had a particular vision of one scene but on listening to the music he found that it created a different picture for him, it helped him flesh it out, emotionally.

"I don't think the music has changed the course of the game, but it has had a significant influence, it's helped the designers reach a certain depth with the characters – now they have a device to illustrate what's going on in the characters' minds. There are some things that you want to communicate that are too elusive to convey through play."

However, perhaps the most interesting developments are coming out of the indie sector, where small studios are teaming up with offbeat musicians to work on collaborative, highly experimental projects.

Award-winning Czech studio Amanita Design has just released Botanicula, a beautiful adventure game, following the tiny inhabitants of an enchanted tree. Like an old Oliver Postgate show, the game uses traditional hand-drawing and animation techniques — and to accentuate this retrospective feel, the designers worked with local avant garde folk band Dva, who provided a rich, earthy score using traditional Eastern European instruments, as well as toy pianos and kitchen pots.

"Their music is cheerful, funny, a little weird and fits perfectly to the game," says Amanita founder, Jakub Dvosky. "The same is true for the sound effects – they generated most of them with their own voices which make the animations come alive and added to the humour.

"We didn't need to explain anything to them because the band are our friends, they knew exactly what the game needed."

And while game designers get highly evocative scores out of these close collaborations, the musicians get a whole new medium to explore; a new way to think about music.

Composer Austin Wintory was involved from the very beginning with the recently released PlayStation 3 game Journey, a mystical, highly artistic experience, which traces a mute character's quest to the top of a mountain. It's a metaphor for life and re-birth, and Wintory used instrumentation to reflect and explore this.

"In the Journey soundtrack, I wanted the cello part to undergo a metamorphosis that exactly mirrors what the player is going through. The cello IS the player," he says.

Journey, games

"The instrument starts off immersed in a sea of electronic sound, where it hasn't really discovered itself, and it gradually starts to emerge, eventually transcending and then disappearing back into the fabric, except the fabric has now become a full orchestra — it's the cello times a million, a community of similar souls.

"The cello is starting in a world where it doesn't know its place then eventually finds a place and surrenders itself to that. It's a metaphorical, musical parallel to the game."

Most intriguing perhaps is the emerging generation of game designers who also make music. Alec Holowka, for example, is the Canadian programmer and musician who co-wrote the award-winning action adventure game Aquaria.

And Rich Vreeland – aka Disaterpeace – provided the music for the astonishing Xbox 360 title, Fez, but has also build his own audio games, including January, billed as "an experiment in algorithmic music generation".

"I think developers are realising the potential of having musical people deeply involved," says Vreeland. "Or even better, the developers already happen to be musicians. In recent years, with the rise of independent games and crowd funding there has been more of an opportunity for game makers to truly make the games they want, and I think with this comes a passion and a freedom to try lots of things."

There's a commercial angle, of course. Rockstar has now released the Max Payne 3 soundtrack as a digital album, just as Sony did with Journey (and incredibly it found its way into the iTunes top 10 in more than 20 countries) – in some ways, it's an evolution of the business model that sprang up around the Guitar Hero and Rock Band titles, with musicians rushing to get their new releases into the download packs.

But game scores are also about creativity and exploration – and the best of them are created specifically for the experience taking place on the screen by musicians who understand the medium.

"We all want to make music that connects with people," says Wintory. "It doesn't matter if that's on a stage or a film or in a game. I don't think someone should aspire to score films if you don't love films and you really need to be a gamer to score games.

"To be able to really make something that's intimately attached to the game experience means writing with an understanding of those mechanics. You have to speak the language of game design … but, you know, good music is good music."

Davidge agrees. He certainly sees a future in which game music becomes a whole new form of expression.

"It's a very exciting process to create something like this," he says. "There are a lot of opportunities out there to experiment. The games industry is becoming far more open – it's caught up with the film industry in terms of the level of quality it aspires to.

"It's possible to do something with integrity, with heart, with passion in a video game. It's not just about shooting and car chases any more."


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  • lozinger

    28 May 2012 3:19PM

    I can't offer value here as I never took up gaming after my C64 broke, but I will say that the loading music for "Rambo" rocked. :)

  • rorke

    28 May 2012 3:23PM

    Cannot help now but think of the music for Homeworld and Homeworld 2, both games had
    a soundtrack that complemented the game immensely.

  • mathewclarke

    28 May 2012 3:28PM

    the splinter cell soundtrack done by amon tobin is brilliant

  • silvernose

    28 May 2012 3:30PM

    Red Dead Redemption is a great example of the music really making the game.

    That and Manic Miner

  • Tweedskin

    28 May 2012 3:32PM

    "Who do your Voodoo, bitch?!"

    I now only play games that have a rap that's lyrically tied to the game at the loading screen. Trials Evo and Dead Island are getting a bit boring now though.

    I'm loving the background tinkling's of Minecraft at the moment. I'm going to try and re-create it using the music note blocks in game.

  • EconGamer

    28 May 2012 3:34PM

    Sega/Sonic Team/Smilebit did great work in trying to produce good game music that was actually pretty commercial - see Jet Set Radio Future and the Sonic Adventure series.

  • NeilHorlock

    28 May 2012 3:39PM

    No mention of Grand Theft Auto with its 10s of radio stations and original and old hit music. For Vice City I think Rockstar produced about 10 soundtrack albums. I imagine the new one will have new heights of music input involved.

  • yingguoguizi

    28 May 2012 3:39PM

    The Donkey Kong Country 1 and 2 soundtracks were amazing, and were probably the first things that sparked my interest in electronic music. So, maybe not such a new thing?

  • Dancingstagequeen

    28 May 2012 3:40PM

    It takes a lot of talent to compose a song that repeats without getting majorly annoying. Pheonix Wright games were great for doing that.

  • yingguoguizi

    28 May 2012 3:42PM

    Also, the Resident Evil and Silent Hill soundtracks were always suitably edgy, although in RE there was like the feeling of clicking on a door, tensely waiting for it to open, and just before it had fully loaded hearing that comforting 'save room' music- what a relief!

  • pipgirl

    28 May 2012 3:43PM

    Game soundtracks are often underrated as sources for some truly excellent pieces of music. There's some really beautiful stuff to be found, like the Mass Effect and Halo soundtracks.
    Can't beat a bit of Galaxy News Radio/Radio New Vegas though...

  • Killerbee

    28 May 2012 3:49PM

    There is so much brilliant game music out there.

    Everything from Nobuo Uematsu's wonderful scores for the Final Fantasy games (so good, I reckon the forthcoming Theatrhythm Final Fantasy will be worth getting on this basis alone) via games like Child of Eden and all the way to the Hollywood-style bombast of Harry Gregson Williams' music for Metal Gear Solid, Greg Edmondson's Uncharted scores or Joris De Man's work on Killzone 3. It's incredible stuff.

    But what I love most are those games that really understand how music must be interwoven with the gameplay. It's not looping background music to keep your ears amused whilst you get into the gameplay, but music that plays a part in the experience. There's Child of Eden, obviously, and Journey is a great example with its vocal calls between anonymous players, but I actually reckon thatgamecompany's previous release, Flower is (ever so slightly) better.

    It's in the way every petal you collect releases a stab or strings or woodwind, and how all the notes slip perfectly into a blended mix of harmony. It's what makes the wind level or the finale where you return colour to the city, so powerful and emotional.

    Even better, the Flower soundtrack is a mere £1.59 on the Playstation Store at the moment. It's incredible.

  • rikkit

    28 May 2012 3:53PM

    Mirror's Edge! Mirror's Edge! Mirror's Edge!

  • philstyle

    28 May 2012 3:56PM

    Love the soundtrack to Skyrim...

    Most of it is updated from their previous title Morrowind... for those that have played through the various titles by Bethesda, the songs have developed a real life nostalgia... akin to a favourite non-game album.

  • squarejawhero

    28 May 2012 3:56PM

    No mention of Nier yet? That had an incredible soundtrack. A sadly underplayed gem. Deus Ex Human Revolution had a great OST as well - and I'll also give a mention to Castlevania Lord Of Shadows for Belmonts Theme. Oh, and whilst I'm at it, Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill) did a recent soundtrack for Shadows Of The Damned that's well worth a listen...

  • bladesew

    28 May 2012 3:57PM

    The arrangement of The Mystery of Hungarian Voices for the soundtrack to Alone in the Dark is awesome.

  • OirishMartin

    28 May 2012 3:57PM

    Recent game soundtracks I've enjoyed were for Deus Ex Human Revolution and Skyrim (Jeremy Soule, who also did the soundtracks for KotOR and Total Annihilation).

    For older games, the original Deus Ex also had a great soundtrack, and Eric Brosius' soundtrack for System Shock 2 was excellent.

  • Valten78

    28 May 2012 3:59PM

    I’ve been enjoying Video Game music for a few years now. The Soundtracks to the first 2 Mass Effect games are amongst the finest example of what it’s possible to do with electronic music I can think of. The electronic music played in clubs seem tedious and simplistic in comparison.

  • Tomlinator

    28 May 2012 4:00PM

    I remember getting Quake just because it came with a CD of the Trent Reznor soundtrack back in the day...

    As it turned out, the music was fairly unlistenable unless you were playing the game, but still a fairly groundbreaking concept back then - mid nineties(?)

  • DanielBurden

    28 May 2012 4:02PM

    The soundtracks for Halo are a huge part of what makes the games such an enjoyable experience for me.

  • scipio16

    28 May 2012 4:03PM

    I strongly recommend the soundtrack to the indie title "Frozen Synapse". It's ambient trance, if that's your thing.

    You can buy it bundled with the game on Steam. The extra cost of the soundtrack is about £2.

  • ocelotwildly

    28 May 2012 4:03PM

    Every ounce of praise that has been flung in the direction of Botanicula is fully deserved, it truly is one of the most beautiful and majestic baubles ever have to have been hewn from code. Also, the decision to bundle the sale with the soundtrack was brilliant and I can genuinely say that the resultant album is in my top 5 albums so far this year.

    I also really like the work of Danny Baranowsky, who composed the soundtrack for two of the best indie games of the last few years, Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac. He really captures the sense of infectious fun of the old 8 bit era chiptune soundtracks like Megaman, whilst not being too infused with retro sounding bleepy bloops.

    It does seem like the importance and visibility of game music is always increasing though and I think the currently burgeoning indie scene is a really productive place to work for up and coming musical talents.

  • MikeBarnes

    28 May 2012 4:04PM

    Rockstar are geniuses. No other word.

    Here's my bank account number guys, feel free to take whatever you need from it, because I want what you are making.

  • Tweedskin

    28 May 2012 4:04PM

    Yeah, but no one at Rockstar actually wrote those songs, and those songs weren't written for the game....kinda missing the point of the article there chap.

    Although I agree with you, they were great soundtracks!

  • epinoa

    28 May 2012 4:04PM

    If you play a game lots you turn the music off and play your own because it gets really annoying.

  • interestedofnorfolk

    28 May 2012 4:05PM

    Surely the theme from Megablast deserves a mention here.

    All these years later and it still reverberates around my head, Bomb the Bass I think?

  • Valten78

    28 May 2012 4:10PM

    I remember that as well, though I was known to listen to it without playing the game. It was eerie and twisted and fantastic to listen to in the dark. It was also my introduction to the music of Nine Inch Nails.

  • alancanniff

    28 May 2012 4:11PM

    To my mind the first example of this would have been Quake, which had a soundtrack scored by Trent Reznor (it's why all the nail gun boxes have NIN written on them), you could even put the game disk into a CD player and it would play the music. It was also tremendously atmospheric, and had you constantly looking over your shoulder wondering whether that ambient sound was a monster around the corner or just a trick of your imagination. It suited the game perfectly.

  • Dynasty2021

    28 May 2012 4:11PM

    Skyrim's soundtrack was epic enough to make the likes of Gladiator take notice and quiver a bit in fear.

    For me though, I've yet to come across a better theme tune for a song than Mirror's Edge's theme; Lisa Miskovsky - Still Alive.

    That song was just, well beautiful firstly nobody can deny that, but it's lyrics fitted the game PERFECTLY when you actually listen to them, and it wasnt even written for the game, simply because they refer to the main character Faith in so many ways.

    It's like it was mean to be.

  • BeechTree

    28 May 2012 4:11PM

    It is not unusual to have high profile award winning soundtrack composers in solved in scoring games either.
    Michael Giacchino (Lost, Fringe, Star Trek) doing Medal of Honour, Bear McCreary (nuBSG) on Dark Void and Clint Mansell (Black Swan, Moon) on Mass Effect 3.

    To my mind the first Wipeout in 1995 was one of the classic game soundtracks - Chemical Brothers, Propellerheads and Orbital, it was wonderful stuff to crash and explode your flying-space-car-thing to.

  • zanthia

    28 May 2012 4:12PM

    Not if the music is good, though. I listen to the Skyrim soundtrack and the Tropico soundtracks when I'm not even playing. I like the soundtrack to the original The Sims and its expansions, too. And the jazz and orchestral Phoenix Wright cds, they're excellent! And Katamari Damacy... and... and...

    There are definitely two approaches to good game music. I prefer games with actual songs. The whole 'dynamic sounds while you play' thing isn't as innovative as this article makes out, either. A game should have fitting, quality music as well as sound effects, surely?

  • CeilingCat

    28 May 2012 4:16PM

    The Frozen Synapse soundtrack by nervous_testpilot is good. But I still remember enjoying the music from the old Xenon games and Xenomorph theme music.

    Most of the time though, i turn the music down or off. Ruins immersion I find.

  • Valten78

    28 May 2012 4:18PM

    Ok confession time, years ago I used to play allot of tabletop RPG’s. The Quake Soundtrack was frequently used by my group in games of Vampire the Masquerade. It was perfect for evoking the appropriate atmosphere.

  • nobbyjon

    28 May 2012 4:19PM

    You mean Xenon II? Yes it was the Bomb the Bass - the music just seemed to fit for some reason. Why don't they make games like that any more? A great shoot-em up

    Can I make a special mention for Lumines on the playstation vita? I realise most of the music wasn't written for the game, but effectively the music makes the game

  • HonestIago

    28 May 2012 4:22PM

    How can you do an article on original music in games and not talk about Still Alive and Want You Gone from Portal 1/2? Genius lyrics and amazingly sung by Ellen McLain

  • BeechTree

    28 May 2012 4:22PM

    If you like the Skyrim soundtrack I highly recommend the Lindsay Stirling/Peter Hollens version.
    Simply wonderful.

  • Kedgeree

    28 May 2012 4:22PM

    I play certain levels of Rayman Origins just for the music. The water one is great, so is the tricky treasure music. I cannot think of virtually any of the Mass effect 2 music - I may give it a listen later.

  • Lushattic

    28 May 2012 4:43PM

    The greatest soundtrack was Quake, totally atmospheric and could scare the crap out of you at times.

  • Lushattic

    28 May 2012 4:45PM

    GTA London 1969 was a superb soundtrack too (especially when you stole the sweets van).

  • Hackmuth

    28 May 2012 4:48PM

    Mike Patton of Faith No More (and a whole catalogue of other amazing musical projects) is also involved in scoring/sound effects for film and computer games... such a versatile musician!

    He was the voice of the zombie/vampires in I am Legend among other things...

  • Kyza06

    28 May 2012 4:48PM

    Game soundtracks have been lifting sometimes average games into the realm of excellence for a while - Outrun wound't have been half as much fun without Magical Sound Shower, Delta would have been just another sideways scroller without Hubbard's weird mix of Koyaanisqatsi & On The Run, just as Journey wouldn't carry with it half the emotive content it does without the way it's soundtrack is so-good-you-don't-consciously-notice-it-except-for-the-moments-you-do.

  • vampsinthe

    28 May 2012 4:51PM

    I still find myself listening to Peter McConnell (?) soundtrack to grim Fandango and Psychonauts. Added to that, Sidplay and Modplug/Deliplayer are great for listening to C64 and Amiga tunes respectively!

  • Killerbee

    28 May 2012 4:52PM


    I absolutely love Still Alive / Want You Gone from the Portal games. They're brilliant songs, but they're not really soundtracks to the gameplay... they're just songs that play over the end credits. Keef may well correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the article was actually getting at something different from just the inclusion of original songs (great though they are).


    If you play a game lots you turn the music off and play your own because it gets really annoying.

    I can honestly say I never do this. It'd be like watching a movie with your ipod on. Maybe there's an argument for BGM in, say, a racing game to be user-selected, but for proper, scored games, the music is an intrinsic part of the experience.

    A great example is Bayonetta - on the whole the music is pretty awful to listen to (in my opinion), but you can't deny that it actually suits the game's quirky, off-the-wall craziness pretty much perfectly. I certainly can't think what would fit the game better.

  • Tail

    28 May 2012 4:54PM

    Bastion is the best recent example I've played of music really being part of the game. It also stands alone as decent music.

    Outcast had the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra perform all the music. And I remember the music changing to suit the situation being touted as a feature in that.

    Omikron: The Nomad Soul featured Reeves Gabrels and David Bowie. Bowie also had some input with the game design there, apparently.

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