As we’ve been exploring in our blog series, ‘Why we ♥ video game music’, game soundtracks can come to mean an awful lot to people, not least because they become wrapped up with memories and emotions of specific gaming moments.
We asked some of the most passionate game music fans—including writers, podcasters and other industry professionals—to highlight their favourite occasions where a game’s soundtrack made a moment for them, forging a strong memory in the process.
Some have chosen to include minors spoilers, others have danced around them but ***MAJOR SPOILER ALERT*** for Suikoden, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy VI and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.
Hollie Bennett, PlayStation Access Channel Manager at SIEE: “As a long time Final Fantasy and JRPG fan, people would probably expect me to choose something along those lines, but I really wanted to highlight something less obvious (for me).
“I was a little late to the party with Life Is Strange, playing it at the end of 2016—but I fell in love with it. It’s a game that plays with your emotions while beautifully portraying the excitement and difficulties of navigating both adolescence and high school… and having super powers.
“Near the beginning of the game the player character, Max, is introduced—she’s a transfer student who faces the dual challenge of being accepted by a new institution—Arcadia Bay High School—and by her teenage peers. You wander the halls of your new school interacting with various students and items before eventually putting your headphones in, pressing play and cranking up the sound; a method of escape that nearly all of us can relate to.”
“I tend to enjoy orchestral game music, particularly from JRPGs, but Life Is Strange includes a modern and mainstream collection of tunes. This song is by a contemporary French band, Syd Matters (fronted by Jonathan Morali), whose music can be found on streaming services [Spotify]—it’s also a timeless acoustic piece with a beautiful melody and a soulful vocal.
“It works so well in the game because it feels relevant, it’s implemented in such a way that I can instantly relate to our protagonist Max—and become her. It transports me. In that moment, I’m 16 years old, attempting to traverse adolescence and wandering those halls. I’m lying on my bed clutching my iPod. I’m listening and lost in thoughts of young love, rebellion amidst intense emotions.
“It’s striking how quickly To All Of You helps set the stage for one of the best games I’ve played of late.”
Liam Edwards, host, Final Games podcast: “I was a little late to Undertale and some general life advice: if you haven’t played, GO DO IT ASAP!
“It’s magnificent in so many ways, one of which is the soundtrack. The game’s creator, Toby Fox, must be a god-like creative genius. Not only did he write, draw, design and code the game—he also composed all of the music too, and it just happens to be one of the most inventive and incredible game soundtracks of the modern era.”
“Megalovania stands out to me as a perfect example of this. It’s so upbeat and crushing at the same time. It plays at different points during the game, but there is one specific boss—no spoilers—where it’s so freaking hard and upsetting. But, after hours and hours of listening to this track getting pumped up to beat that boss, it gets me so incredibly worked-up and energetic.”
“I could have chosen any of the classics—e.g. Earthbound, Final Fantasy, Zelda—but truly, Undertale is special in so many ways and the soundtrack needs to be heard by more people. Megalovania, Dating Start, Heartache, ASGORE… just go binge yourself on them! [YouTube, Spotify]
“I salute you Toby Fox.”
Jayson Napolitano, Owner, Scarlet Moon Productions: “Gremio is a companion to, and watcher of the main character Tir for the entire game, so they have a special bond. Towards the end of the story, Gremio sacrifices himself by locking the door to prevent a flesh-eating toxin reaching the rest of the party.
“It’s pretty emotional, thanks to this track which makes me feel helpless and heartbroken—it also plays when other characters important to the main character die and as it’s a Game of Thrones-esque political drama, of course loads of people die!”
“Genso Suikoden is an amazing saga spanning five games, with the first being my absolute favourite game of all time. It has wonderful music, a fantastic story, memorable characters and is not overly long.”
Scarlet Moon produces game soundtracks and arrangement albums, as well as promoting musicians and connecting them with developers – Scarletmoonproductions.com | Twitter – @scarletmoon_ & @jayson_n | Facebook | SoundCloud
Andy Corrigan, freelance games writer (IGN AU): “1996’s Resident Evil, despite clunkiness in some areas, provided 15-year-old me with so many important lessons about what games could be—I can almost certainly credit it as one of those that made me realise just how important a good soundtrack could be.
“Resident Evil‘s score made an action as simple as walking down an empty corridor fraught with tension, almost single-handedly heightening the senses by way of its looping mix of high strings and foreboding pads. Did I really want to keep going? The music constantly reinforced the fear that anything could jump out at me at any moment. Whether it did or not was irrelevant.
“If a zombie did lurch or a hunter leap, causing a moment of panic, the music was every bit as responsible for the scare as the action itself. Getting through an area completely unscathed rarely brought relief, because the cycle of tension only began again around each corner and at every new door, usually exacerbated in direct proportion to the length of time since I last saved.
“But why am I talking about music which isn’t even that which I chose? Because without explaining the contrast, understanding the magic moment becomes impossible.”
“In that first ever play through, Resident Evil oppressed and bombarded me with so much anxiety, that when a door would creak open and finally, the calming, peaceful tones of a safe room would start to filter though, it was only then I’d realise how much I’d been holding my breath.
“This piece of music meant many things: a place to save, a place to store items. Yet most of all it meant relief. Safety. Sanctuary. It meant a chance to take a breather, to settle my poor nerves before heading out to do it all over again.
“In a game of constant tension, those little moments of calm were priceless.”
Twitter – @FlameRoastToast
Kate Remington, podcaster (Music Respawn) and Classical Music director and on-air announcer at WSHU Public Radio (Fairfield, CT): “OK, true confessions time! I’m not actually very good at combat in video games, but this battle in the Tomb Raider reboot featuring Jason Graves’ music was a life-changing (or ‘game-changing’!) experience. Until this moment, combat with multiple enemies was my least favourite part of any game.”
“This time, though, Jason’s incredible, energetic drumming, reminiscent of traditional taiko drumming, made me feel like I (or Lara) could take on anyone. This was the very first time I felt that ‘bring ’em on!’ surge of adrenaline and even now when I feel overwhelmed by bad guys in other games, I recall the confidence that music gave me.”
“In fact, I was so carried away by the music that I was honestly sorry when this skirmish ended.
“This music isn’t included in the original soundtrack album, to my disappointment. The closest sounding in feel is Scaling the Ziggurat; also the cue The Oni has a similar feel.”
Frederik Lauridsen, writer, Blip Blop Wax: “The music and this scene work together perfectly. Main character Zidane has just learned about his origins, triggering existential crisis: he’s a clone, created for destruction. He decides that he’s not worth the friendship of his companions and that he doesn’t want to trouble them anymore.
“The music starts out sombre, but as Zidane tries to fight his way through the castle [Pandemonium] alone, he is joined by his friends who want to fight alongside him and support him. Gradually the song opens up to reveal something more hopeful and triumphant, making it a perfect fit for the scene as Zidane’s friends’ attempt to show that they care about him no matter where he’s from or what he is.”
“This song is only used in this one relatively short sequence and it fits the mood perfectly. For teenage Frederik playing Final Fantasy IX back in the 90’s, this was a standout emotional scene where the action and music fuse to create a majestic moment in what I already considered to be a fantastic game. To this day, it is hands-down my favourite Final Fantasy track and when I had the opportunity to see one of the Distant Worlds orchestral concerts, I went to a performance in Vienna where I knew this would be played.”
Leon Cox, podcaster, Cane and Rinse & Sound of Play: “As with its spiritual predecessor and SEGA stablemate, Panzer Dragoon Zwei, the on-rails nature of Rez allowed developer Tetsuya Mizuguchi to perfectly choreograph the on-screen action with the in-ear soundtrack. Not only this, but though Rez is no rhythm action game, the diegetic effects—shots and explosions—are quantised in such a way that they feed into the beat of the music present in each of its five stages.
“The final level of the game, Area 5, was instantly hailed as something special upon its release in 2001 and has since deservedly gone on to acquire legendary status across multiple releases including most recently, on PS4 and PSVR [Rez Infinite].
“The entire 10-minute sequence is a masterclass in symbiotic, interactive audio visual feedback that only videogames can provide. The moment where the experience really begins to transcend all of its individual media arrives about three minutes and 20 seconds in:
“The player avatar ascends from its previously low altitude horizontal course, rising into the blue as the music soars. The sky darkens once more as a cluster of cannon fodder fighters creep up behind and a cylindrical monolith of a mini-boss looms above. Despite being enraptured by the spectacle, somehow I am still focused on maximising my multiplier while simultaneously avoiding any flak. I find it almost impossible not not to nod my head along to the determined, pulsating beat of Freeland’s Fear every single time I play this level—and I have played it many, many, many times.
“I’m always completely entranced by the time an unmistakeable sample is layered into the mix. Heavily treated but instantly recognisable, the horns from Marlena Shaw’s blissful 1969 version of California Soul embellish the surreal, alien landscape with a curiously comforting air. Written by Motown stalwarts Ashford & Simpson, California Soul had previously been a more conventional ‘B’ side for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It is undoubtedly Shaw’s hazy, hot-boxed version—arranged by genius producers Charles Stepney and Richard Evans—that Freeland appropriated for Fear though.
“If some kind of ‘cool-o-meter’ was connected to Rez‘s Area 5, it would be merrily bouncing along at the top end of the green up to this point and then, cartoon style, the indicator needle slams hard into the red as steam and bits of spring start to spout from the gauge.
“Every aspect is working in unison, achieving the lofty aim of Miz’s Project K in providing something that at least invokes a convincing illusion of synesthesia. This marriage of the work of multiple artists across many decades still has the capacity to evoke in me something close to elation.”
Pete “Noob” Boyle, writer & podcaster, Gamestyle/DorkTunes: “This is a poignant moment of love & loss.
“Just prior to the release of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of the soundtrack, which I hungrily listened to on repeat. As a soundtrack, it is possibly my favourite that I’ve heard in recent years, full of love, loss, hope, despair and pain which is interwoven beautifully throughout the experience of the game. I have several favourite music moments from the game, but the one I’ve chosen has me with tears in my eyes as I type.
“The scene takes place in the holiday camp main hall, where teenager Rachel is left in charge of the surviving children. They have been rehearsing a musical—Peter Pan—contrived to keep the children busy so they don’t think about the events unfolding around them. Rachel is sitting on the stage with baby Dylan in her arms at that moment the military’s planes fly over, dropping their payload of nerve gas to try to contain the fatal effects of ‘The Pattern’. In a cooing voice, she recites the lyrics of Clouds & Starlight, which are repeated in the choral music cue which quietly comes in:
“I remember at the time it made my tears flow freely and was one of a few moments where I had to walk away from the game to compose myself.
“When I first heard this piece, weeks before playing the game, it moved me to tears. Now I know why. The power of the music, the writing and the performances in the scene are nothing short of spectacular—it’s possibly the most memorable moment of I have ever experienced playing any game. Even now, almost two years since its release, for it to have such an effect on me is something rather special.
“A moment I will treasure, never to forget.”
Richard Stokes, @WeLoveGameMusic fan community: “Hyrule Field was my first experience of what we would now call an ‘open-world’ area of a video game. Back in 1998, it was so exciting when Link leaves Kokiri Forest and enters Hyrule Field for the first time: the camera pans across the top part of the field showing the entrance to Hyrule Town and the drawbridge, Death Mountain in the distance and across the field to the short path that leads back to the forest entrance. We now take these seemingly unrestricted environments for granted and when compared to later games in the Zelda series, Hyrule Field now feels comparatively small. But to 12-year-old me it was a huge place waiting to be explored.
“I liked the rolling, slightly dramatic start to the Hyrule Field theme, which then flowed into something bright and exciting. I also liked how the music could go from being happy and bright at one moment, to being something more dramatic and unnerving the next.”
“I now think changes to the feel and tempo of the music—for instance when Link heads towards the entrance to Gerudo Valley or encounters a Peahat enemy—as an early example of ‘dynamic game music’ whereas my younger self would have been anxious about where the happy music had gone! It made me focus more on my surroundings and be wary about whether something scary could be over the brow of the next hill.
“Hyrule Field is still my one of my favourite video game themes, and I felt extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to hear it played live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2011 The Legend of Zelda: 25th Anniversary Symphony concert in London. That was my first of many VGM concerts, and it was a very happy moment that I will never forget.”
Mark Robins, campaigner, ClassicVGMusic (Keep Video Games Music in the Classic FM Hall of Fame): “I remember reading about Final Fantasy VI’s opera scene [known as either Maria and Draco or The Dream Oath] before I played it—in Super Play magazine, which was basically my gaming bible in the 90’s.
“When they said there was a Super Nintendo cartridge game that featured actual people singing I was, to be fair, sceptical. And looking back at it now, when you eventually hear those voices, you realise it’s pretty basic stuff, but hearing that audio wizardry for the first time was mesmerising.”
“The whole scene was amazing. The idea of having to be a body double for an opera diva and then the player having to hit all of the singing cues to keep the audience happy—when does that ever happen in a game? And Uematsu’s amazing melodies are completely timeless.”
“It was a great moment in gaming: technically astounding for the time, a brilliant change of gameplay pace and a real surprise for players who had been playing the game for six or seven hours already. A perfect synergy of story, music and emotion.
“And then Ultros turns up and spoils everything.”
We recently took a track-by-track look at the original Nobuo Uematsu tunes which were weaved into the classical arrangement, Final Fantasy VI Symphonic Poem, from the Final Symphony concert suite.
Leah Haydu, podcaster, Cane and Rinse & Sound of Play: “If you know me at all (and by ‘know me’ I mean ‘have talked to me for more than five minutes’), then you’ve probably heard me ramble on about Persona 3 and Persona 4 at some point. Trying to pick which is my favourite really isn’t possible—not on a permanent basis, anyway! It changes constantly. One thing that does remain consistent, though, is how much I love the soundtracks to both. I think they might have made me unironically like J-pop. Is that bad?
“If you’re playing Persona 3, you’ll hear the battle theme a lot. A LOT. It’s my favourite JRPG track. At least for today.”
Thomas Quillfeldt, Community Manager, Laced Records: “LittleBigPlanet was a revelation when I first played it back in 2009. Everything looked so physical, so tangible, thanks to the expert and artful use of the powerful new PlayStation 3. And, in keeping with the heritage of certain PlayStation games like WipEout and Gran Turismo having brilliantly curated licensed soundtracks, the track choices were inspired. I was blown away by the use of the famously bland lift/museum music, Left Bank Two, to underpin Stephen Fry’s spoken introduction as part of a wonderfully creative opening level.
“But it was the remarkable sound of Malian kora player Toumani Diabeté that really caught my ear. I’d never heard anything like it, let alone in a video game. As the beat kicks in after a long intro, it strongly piqued my interest, making the Africa-themed Swinging Safari level stand out in my memory ever since. It’s also a mesmerising track—from a Grammy-winning artist—in and of itself.”
“It was saddening to learn that Sony later patched out the wonderful vocal version of the song and recalled physical copies after some controversy surrounding the lyrics, which originally including passages from the Qur’an. I can imagine that music licensing teams across the industry became just a little bit more conservative after that.”
For more great music moments, check out ’10 of the best licensed music moments in video games’.