In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil praises the Half-Life 2 soundtrack.
I sometimes hear it argued that the best soundtracks are the ones that go unnoticed. The theory is that a good soundtrack should work in tandem with the work its attached to—subconsciously enhancing a game or movie without going out of its way to reveal itself. The reasoning seems sound, but I don't agree. I'm perfectly capable of noticing music while simultaneously appreciating a stunningly realised set piece or top notch wall texture, thank you very much.
I mention this because, to me, most FPS soundtracks do go unnoticed—moreso than perhaps any other genre. Partly its because shooters are designed to offer tense firefights that sharpen your focus until survival and the elimination of your enemies is all that matters. Partly, though, it's because so many FPS soundtracks borrow from each other to the point that they all blur into a haze of hurried orchestral suspense, deep, rumbling guitars and that dark ambient soundscape that seems to state, "hey, war is all technological and complicated now. That's cool, right?"1
There are a lot of great things about the Half-Life 2 soundtrack, most of which are tied to how and where each individual track is used within the game. But on a broader level, the thing that I love about it is that it sounds like nothing else.
Half-Life 2's soundtrack isn't afraid to make itself known. In addition, it's not afraid to make itself scarce. Valve is content to let long stretches of the game go without an accompanying track. Instead, they let the sound design come to the fore. By trusting in the strength of the sound design, Valve is able to hold back the soundtrack for those moments when it's needed. When the music does appear, it's usually for a reason. Shit has, is, or is about to go down.
It's not just that the songs are good, it's that each is perfectly tailored to the moment it's used in.2 Take the obvious example: Hazardous Environments.
It comes at the point where Gordon is finally able to take some control over his surroundings. We're never privy to Gordon's state of mind, but the opening of Half-Life 2 must be a disorientating experience for the physicist. He's awoken from stasis, dumped onto a train arriving at the dystopian centre of an unrecognisable world, and forced to escape a brutal police force operating under the orders of an alien collective.
Now, finally, he's among friends, and in possession of the suit that helped him survive the last deadly situation he found himself in. It's an artefact that links that world to this one, and so it's fitting that it's accompanied by the corresponding song from Half-Life 1. It's nostalgic, slow and assured.
Throughout Half-Life 2, the soundtrack plays with elements of techno, drum-'n-bass and industrial, and never lets itself get tied down to one genre. Just as one chapter of the game may play differently from another, so a music track can stand apart while still somehow feeling cohesive. It helps that the music is artificial throughout—perhaps as a parallel of the story's ramshackle resistance force, and how they repurpose and rebuild old machines and enhance them through the stolen tech of the alien race now subjugating them.
Take Ravenholm Reprise, which builds on the dark horror of that chapter with what essentially amounts to an extended electronic howl. It's unnatural and unnerving. Earlier in the game, players are treated to CP Violation—a perfect accompaniment for the Civil Protection, in that it sounds like an alarm that builds in intensity as you're hunted through the city's abandoned tunnels, warehouses and sewers.
My favourite track isn't tied to action or foreboding, but quiet reflection. It's called Triage At Dawn, and it plays shortly after Ravenholm, as you stumble across a recently attacked resistance outpost.3 Someone's been hit. It's Winston.
In isolation, the scene is kind of ridiculous, but it's effective in game—a reminder that the Combine's actions aren't simply limited to the isolated horror of Ravenholm, but affect everyone fighting for their freedom. Death hangs over them all. Or just being injured a bit. Winston's probably fine.
It's the music that sells this moment. It's a haunting, sad refrain that lends poignancy to the action. It's a manipulative shortcut, sure—the scene is otherwise too short to make anybody care about Winston—but then, that's a soundtrack's job. And Half-Life 2's soundtrack does its job exceptionally well.
1Yes, this is an exaggeration. But I'd argue that there is a noticeable homogeneity among military shooters in particular—a phenomenon that is perhaps ironically fitting, given the stories that tend to lay at the heart of these games. That said, even noting this, the individual compositions can be excellent. It's a shame that in adhering to a particular style, so many of these pieces are lost. Outside of this one particular sub-genre, though, there are plenty of distinct sounds. Borderlands 2's electro-Southern rock strikes me as an obvious example.
2Valve is continually a master of this, and I could have easily written this piece about any of their games. Of particular note is Portal 2, the music of which nicely mirrors the plot of the game. Its music sounds broken and chaotic, as if degraded by thousands of years of disuse. Portal 2 is also worth praising for its use of dynamic music—giving it a playful quality as it reacts to your interactions with the game's puzzle elements.
3My favourite track from the Half-Life 2 series as a whole is Sector Sweep, from Episode 2. It comes at the perfect time, after a tense encounter with a Combine Advisor. It's such a driving, adrenaline-building instrumental that it makes what could be a difficult fight in tight hallways feel like a liberating licence to take out your frustration on the Combine forces. It's the sort of song that says, "no, no, get the shotgun out for this bit."