Every week, we ask our panel of PC Gamer writers a question about PC gaming. This week: what's your favourite game soundtrack? We also welcome your answers in the comments.
Evan Lahti: Cuphead
I'll go with the best soundtrack right now, and surely of the year: Cuphead. The ragtime, '30s jazz looks to Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway as big influences, but it's so much more than an attempt to put a period-authentic sound into a game inspired by the animation of that era. Cuphead's music is inseparable in its style and tempo, and the big band/jazz sound enhances the calamity of its boss fights and platforming, where you're meant to feel off-balance and improvise to stay alive.
This great Paste interview with composer Kris Maddigan (who'd never written game music or this style of music before), highlights one unique approach they took to recording, too: "... [I]n most of the big band tunes you'll have some ensemble piece which is written out and then you'll have a section where someone takes a solo and then you'll have another ensemble section, and what we did with all the solo stuff is we recorded all of that separately," Maddigan says in the interview. "Once we had completed all the big band sessions we brought in half a dozen soloists and we recorded them playing over top of a lot of the solo sections on the charts. So that's why you might have one tune but six different versions of it. So each tune, you can have the same tune but it's going to have different solos on it, just to keep things interesting in the game. So if you die at a boss, if you leave and you come back to that tune, it's going to be the same tune but it's going to have somebody else soloing over it. We were conscious of it that way, too, trying to maintain a certain amount of interest on repetition like that."
Phil Savage: Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Obviously the correct answer is a Command & Conquer soundtrack. But which one? Clearly not Tiberian Sun. Its brand of dark, ambient electro is pleasantly late-'90s, but I played that game for tens of hours and I can't remember a single one of its tunes. Red Alert 2 is strong—Grinder is arguably the best bit of menu music in PC gaming. But HM2 is just a touch overproduced, and I'll be damned if I'm calling a soundtrack with the second best version of Hell March my favourite.
It's between the original Command & Conquer and Red Alert then. I have a lot of love for the former, mostly because of how weird and experimental it is. Act On Instinct is a legit good industrial pop song, soundtrack or not. And Just Do It Up is just amazing. Yes. But, if I'm honest with myself, there's something that feels slightly off kilter and embarrassing about it all, sort of like that time in Nine Inch Nails' Pretty Hate Machine where Trent Reznor—for no particular reason—recited the nursery rhyme “rain, rain, go away” and it felt inherently silly but we all collectively agreed to pretend it didn't happen for 28 years. So: Red Alert, the Broken to Command & Conquer's Pretty Hate Machine. It's full of driving, churning aggression trapped inside a harrowing machine, which is probably a metaphor or something. Also, it's got Hell March, so obviously it's the best.
Jody Macgregor: Bastion
Darren Korb calls the soundtrack for Bastion "acoustic frontier trip-hop", because he's a musician and they say things like that. It's a mix of folksy guitar, sampled beats, and instruments from all over the world that sounds unique to its fantasy setting. It's excellent enough on its own, but even better in context.
You're exploring and rebuilding fragments of a broken city, and one of the vocal tracks, Zia's Song, has an entire level built around it. You walk across rusted train tracks, cross wooden beams connecting floating islands, and as you do the music gets louder. Vocalist Ashley Barrett's singing gets clearer too, cutting through the reverb. And then you realize why—this isn't just a soundtrack you the player are listening to. It's being sung by another survivor, a lament both sad and hopeful, and at the level's end you meet its singer.
Bastion's music isn't just good stuff to listen to while you smack monsters with a hammer or shoot them with a bombard cannon. It's a part of the game that matters to its characters the way great music matters to us, that allows them to remember their past and look forward to a better future even while their world's in ruins. The soundtrack is available at Bandcamp.
Wes Fenlon: Neotokyo
Here's a bit of an odd one: Ed Harrison's soundtrack for Neotokyo, a years-old multiplayer shooter mod for Half-Life 2. It's not that the music is odd—it's just a slightly strange pick for me, because I've never actually played Neotokyo. I once went hunting for moody electronic music that evoked cyberpunk, and I came across Neotokyo. It's the more menacing alternative to Deus Ex's peppier score, and for years one of my go-to soundtracks to write to. I could put it on, lean back into it, and enter a cyberpunk trance.
You can listen to it for free on Bandcamp, and I especially like disc one of the double album. It all blends together for me—I can't call out any particular tracks—but if cyberpunk to you is more ominous than Vangelis, you won't be disappointed.
Austin Wood: Nier: Automata
I love Nier: Automata's soundtrack for its quaking, operatic ancientness, but I'm highlighting it here because, like the game itself, it gets better with age. Automata's layered endings gain poignancy with each subsequent play through, and the music piles on verve in kind. Composer Keeichi Okabe did a fabulous job of not only keeping pace with Automata's replay value and preventing the music from getting repetitive, but also leveraging that design with a truly dynamic OST. On top of orchestral and vocal variants, there are low, medium and high intensity versions of most tracks—which add up to roughly six hours of music altogether. There are some real bangers tucked away in the song list, and the way versions build on each other is a tidy echo of Automata's central themes.
Andy Chalk: Machinarium
The one soundtrack I always seem to come back to is Machinarium, by Czech artist Tomáš Dvořák, also known as Floex. All of Amanita's games are beautifully musical, but this is the one that that's stuck with me. A lot of it is mechanically percussive, and some of the songs are really upbeat—the Robot Band Tune comes to mind—but what I particularly enjoy is the distant dreaminess of the ambient electronica in tracks like The Glass House With Butterfly or By the Wall. Wonderful game, wonderful music.
The soundtrack is available for purchase or free listening here: http://store.floex.cz/album/machinarium-soundtrack
The bonus EP is a free download: http://store.floex.cz/album/machinarium-soundtrack-bonus-ep-free-dwnld
Steven Messner: Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
MMO soundtracks are massive, messy beasts meant to accompany an entire world's worth of themes and flavors. But Final Fantasy XIV's soundtrack deftly explores new sounds and styles while still feeling true to Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu's original work. There's a stunning breadth of genres on display, but each becomes a piece of a mosaic that colours in the wider world of Eorzea. And like the best Final Fantasy scores, each composition becomes a part of the area it accompanies. I love the quiet, comforting piano that plays as I walk the streets of Ul'Dah at night.
One other aspect that deserves being recognized is how incredible the boss fight music is. It turns every raid fight into a WWE match, where the boss steps into the area accompanied by a theme that becomes inextricably linked with their persona. That music sets the tone and makes each raid fight feel climactic. Again, there's an amazing breadth of musical flavor on display, from the raging tempest of guitars that accompanies Garuda to the rousing and catchy Lakshmi theme.
Samuel Roberts: Silent Hill 2
If I had to pick a single entry from Konami's once-great series, it'd be Silent Hill 2. Akira Yamaoka's score is somehow extremely chilled out despite being the soundtrack for one of the best horror games ever made. The highlight is probably The Theme of Laura, as embedded above, but there are tons more great instrumental tracks that make for perfect working music. Heaven's Night, for example, or Restless Dreams.
The series has fantastic music across the board, particularly the title tracks. A special shoutout for the grunge-infused and deeply mid-'00s Cradle of Forest from Silent Hill 4: The Room, which is a personal favourite, and obviously You're Not Here from Silent Hill 3. I saw Yamaoka and his band play a bunch of these live two years ago, and it was an amazing experience.
My only gripe: Konami appears to have pulled Silent Hill 2's soundtrack from iTunes in the UK (you can still get it in the US), so even though I've bought Theme of Laura to listen to on my phone, I can no longer redownload it because they stopped listing the album, which is...shit. Ah, the digital future. The music's amazing, though.
What's your favourite game soundtrack? Let us know in the comments.