Games are all about a gripping story, characters you can relate to, stunning visuals and surprising ideas and concepts. But what really, really makes them great is their musical score. This is something that, at least to me, begins with the trailer music. One of the best trailers ever is that of Assassin’s Creed Revelations, because Woodkid’s monumental title “Iron” is a great combination of brooding, martial drums and death-defying lyrics that fits the images perfectly.
Another great trailer is that of Deus ex: Human Revolution, with that hauntingly majestic Icarus-theme. But this is not about trailers, it is about in-game music that was just perfect for setting the mood. No easy pickings, but here are some of my favourites:
1. Thief 4 – Give me a challenge
The music of Thief (Luc St. Pierre) is a little jarring, e-guitars mixed with strings. While playing the game the score seems just a very well-composed atmospheric background noise. But once I got to the challenges, missions where the master thief is on the clock trying to grab as much loot as possible across a specific building from the game proper while avoiding being spotted by the guards, the dense atmospheric setting really made the music shine and stand out.
2. Castlevania: Lords of Shadows 2 – Dracula’s Theme
The game itself is really fast-paced. Dracula aka Gabriel Belmont will find himself fighting monsters and, above all, giant bosses, most of the time. Yet if you fail – and die – you get an indefinite moment’s respite while the game throws at you the image of a prettily brooding Gabriel Belmont, contemplating the challenge he’s currently facing. But whereas that enforced pause itself is somewhat annoying, the music makes up for it. Actor Robert Carlyle’s quiet voice is accompanied by a piece called “Dracula’s Theme”, a rather simple, piano-driven melody that got really stuck in my head and did its part of calming my nerves after yet another boss fight gone awry.
3. Deus ex: Human Revolution – Club tune
While passing through the Hung Hua Brothel in Hengsha I actually took no note of the music because I knew exactly where I needed to go to get the member card for the club I had to enter to further the main mission. But I liked the overall soundtrack by Michael McCann and decided to buy it. There are numerous references to the Icarus-theme, but a few pieces stand out, one of them being the “Hung Hua Brothel”-track. It is not so much soundtrack as club music, which I think was brillantly done, and it does weave the two most prominent themes of the game’s soundtrack, Icarus and the Opening Credits, into the tune in a very clever way.
4. Assassin’s Creed – Clerical visions
Jesper Kid’s soundtrack of the first Assassin’s Creed game is intense and atmospheric and it is no surprise that some of his tracks were also used in the later installments. One is the most beautiful piece of the Assassin’s Creed soundtrack called “City of Jerusalem”. It mixes oriental flair and clerical chant into a relaxing composition that is perfect for contemplation aka sitting on top of buildings and just enjoying the view. But the way the theme was reused in Assassin’s Creed Revelations topped that by miles. In this specific mission Ezio Auditore needs to traverse the inside of the gigantic dome of the Hagia Sofia in Instanbul and the setting, so beautiful and detailed, combined with that music, made me really angry at the developers for putting Ezio on a clock to get full synchronization. So I simply played twice, once for the synchronization, once for the atmosphere.
5. Dragon Age Inquisition – And now presenting… Skyhold
This list is not about game trailers, but Dragon Age Inquisition manages to feature a very nicely done in-game trailer for the Inquisition’s fortress, Skyhold. The music (Trevor Morris) and images are set to an explanatory monologue by elven mage Solas, the Inquisitor’s, for lack of a better word, mentor. While he speaks of hope and renewal the images show our heroes travelling across breathtaking mountain vistas, not unlike those featured in the “Lord of the Ring”-movies, which, I guess, is fully intentional. The music is actual trailer music, accompanying each word, each image perfectly and culminating in a last climactic scene, where the Inquisitor and Solas top that final rise and the player gets the full view of Skyhold and both images and music tell you in no uncertain terms that this fortress is very large, very impressive and utterly unconquerable.
6. Deus ex: Human Revolution – Endings
I think I do have a good ear for music, I usually have an inkling of where a composer is taking a piece to get the best effect. But Michael McCann truly surprised me with this one, dubbed “Endings”, and if you haven’t played Deus ex: Human Revolution and don’t know the ending(s), the title is a dead giveaway that this will be a spoiler.
Anyway. At the end of DXHR I had made the hero’s lonely choice of blowing the station and myself into the ocean, trusting mankind to make its own choices. And while Adam Jensen (Elias Toufexis) contemplates his actions and his hopes for the future this beautiful theme plays out right upto the point where all one sees is the blue of the ocean. The strings drive the track onward, but the wordless song of female voices sets the mood. Strings and voices begin to rise in a promise of hope and I was mentally preparing for a cheesy climax, something bombastic and heroic, when the strings quietly faded, leaving only one voice standing out that, with a majestic sense of finalty, ended not on a high, but a deep note. As if it too had sunk to the bottom of the sea. Brillant.
If you’ve unintentionally ended Dishonored on High Chaos, the way I did, you probably know what I mean. If not, imagine this – wait, do I need to warn you of spoilers? Well. Yes. So, imagine this: You’ve returned to the tower to save Emily and take your revenge on the men who betrayed you. Dear old Sam has just told you that actually he’ll alert the guards to your presence, just because he’s got your murderous antics up to here, like, then you need to stealth/kill/panic your way through the entire complex and kill a few traitors on the way. Easy, right? Not at all! By the time you get to Emily your blood is pumping like crazy, you save her (maybe?), thinking – phew, at last, I’m sure now everything will be well? Turns out, nothing is. I remember sitting through the Outsider’s monologue, the controller held in my slack hands, mouth hanging open, trying to grasp just WTF my clumsiness and impatience, all the choices I had made, had brought me to. And then this song, “Honor for all” by Jon and Daniel Licht. Its lyrics were mocking me, the tune was just a little too off-hand, it was all really galling. But it fit. And it stuck. Best moment of the game.