What makes a good piece of music, well, good?


In a way, video games have an easier and harder job than film or television with regards to music composition: easier in the sense that as a medium, video games favour repeated motifs, and conversely harder as it’s very difficult to write anything other than repeated motifs, owning to the fact that the action is controlled by a player and not by the director’s vision.

It’s an interesting dynamic. Musical scores become iconic and memorable for their motifs, or themes, and the way that they’re matched to the visuals. These motifs are generally repeated throughout a score, usually during the more emotionally stimulating scenes. John Williams is an absolute genius in this regard, given his ability to write multiple motifs within a single soundtrack, and for each of them to be as memorable as the last. Star Wars is the perfect example of this: not only is the main title theme for the films committed to the memory of everyone who has watched them, but pieces such as The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme) and Binary Sunset are equally famous.

John Williams’ "The Imperial March" from Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back
John Williams’ "Binary Sunset" from Star Wars

At first glance, videos games are perfect for this, and there’s certainly an array of soundtracks in history that have proven it. Video games are generally forced to write repeating melodies, so the use of a motif is assured: it’s impossible to compose a score that accurately punctuates the action on screen, as there’s no way to force the player to adhere to the rhythm set by the music. A player may decide to just stay in one area for an extended period of time before moving on to the next set piece. As a result, repeating, or looping melodies are relied on to establish the mood and tone of a scene, without strictly matching the action onscreen. Koji Kondo’s work for Nintendo is the perfect example of this: the Super Mario Brothers theme is one of the most iconic ever written, but all of the other music written for the game beautifully matches its environment (such as Underwater, and Castle). Toshikazu Tanaka’s work on the Metal Slug series also exemplifies this, despite the lack of an overarching theme for the series.

Koji Kondo’s "Underwater" from Super Mario Brothers. Note the change in ‘instrumentation’ and the waltz structure of the piece, giving it a floaty, dance-y feel.

Toshikazu Tanaka’s "Windy Day" from Metal Slug 5. There’s a very clear motif repeated throughout this piece. Every level has its own theme.

An interesting stylistic pattern emerges from the notion of motifs in video game music: the technique is greatly favoured by Japanese composers. A great variety of Japanese developed video games utilise music built around a strong theme, or various themes. Games produced in the west don’t seem to follow the same dynamic, instead opting to produce music that evokes a particular tone or mood, rather than establish patterns. This particular technique is favoured by games that wish to capture the cinematic feel of a film score and circumvent the inability to compose for a tightly edited sequence. While the end result is less memorable, the music perfectly accentuates the tone of the visuals.

Both of these techniques are traditional and rooted in the rules of composing for a visual medium. However, music that adheres to the player’s action (or even composed by the player’s action) is something that’s (hopefully) going to become more prominent. Portal 2 utilised this to great effect, where in-game events formed part of the score underpinning the scene. For example, running on the Propulsion Gel, or bouncing off the Repulsion Gel produces very melodic tones that compliment the music. While the overall soundtrack leans more towards establishing an ambient mood than producing a memorable hook, it’s closer to the notion of cinematic composing while taking advantage of the player’s actions. This is where music in video games will undoubtedly head to in the coming years.

Portal 2 gameplay featuring the Repulsion Gel. At 1:12, you will hear the Gel’s relation to the background music.

I'm a big fan of game music. A really big fan.

By Logic & Trick

As in, that’s pretty much the only music I listen to. So when I play a game, the music is pretty important to me. But it’s not just because I’m constantly looking for new good game music to add into my playlist, but because it is one of the most important parts of setting the mood in a game.

It isn’t exactly difficult to choose appropriate music for a particular scene in a game – you play dramatic music for action scenes, sad music for emotional scenes, ambient music for exploration areas, and so on. No, the hard part is getting that music absolutely perfect. So many games are forgettable simply because their music doesn’t have that extra bit of impact that it needed. I’m not just talking about the memorable tracks, but the ambient ones too – every piece of music needs to pull its weight when used in the game.

…Oh, the hell with this. Just watch the Extra Credits video on video game music. They can say everything I want to say in a far better way than I can.

…Finished it? Great. There’s nothing more I need to say about that then! I can get onto the really good stuff: the games, and their awesome music!

The Halo series is an enormously popular franchise on the Xbox. If you don’t know of it, why are you reading gaming blogs? Anyway, the theme was already mentioned in the EC video, but I’m going to mention it again, simply because it is really great, as is the rest of the Halo soundtrack. The entirety of Martin O’Donnell’s work on the series integrates extremely well into the game as a whole.

Here’s another great track from the Halo series.

What’s a list of game music without Phoenix Wright? I could write an article on the Ace Attorney series’ music alone, but you’d probably find that pretty boring. Needless to say, the series is packed full of awesome music. Deep breath…here we go! An interesting bit of trivia is that my username, Logic and Trick, is the name of a track from Phoenix Wright 1, composed by Masakazu Sugimori. PW1’s most notable track is Pursuit Cornered, which is also the most well-known track in the entire series. It’s joined by other great tracks like Cross Examination 2001 and The Steel Samurai, which is revisited in the second game in the Steel Samurai’s Ballad. PW2 is a bit of a black sheep in the series music-wise, merely being good, rather than great. However composer Akemi Kimura still deserves to be recognised for some really stand-out tracks such as Scars Carved by Fire. My favourite game is definitely PW3, and Noriyuke Iwadare did an excellent job composing the soundtrack. We have some fine examples of music in tracks like Cross Examination 2004, Pursuit Caught, The Bitter Taste of Truth, and the Ending Theme. I’ve embedded an excellent remix of the Pursuit Cornered theme for your listening pleasure.

Easily the best remix of any Ace Attorney track I’ve ever heard.

Danny Baranowsky did the soundtracks for both Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, among other games like Canabalt and Cave Story 3D. Kotaku has a good write up on some of this stuff, and I’ll embed one of my favourite tracks from Super Meat Boy.

I love this track; it’s action-packed and upbeat!

Anyway I could mention any of a hundred other games that have great music, but I better stop there. Oh, why the hell not. Metal Slug, VVVVVV, Ghost Trick, Final Fantasy XIII, Golden Sun, Myst III: Exile, Super Mario Galaxy, Anno 2070, Professor Layton, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Chrono Trigger, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, Mass Effect 2, Xenoblade, Advance Wars: Dual Strike, Mirror’s Edge, Unreal Tournament, The World Ends With You, Trauma Center, Alan Wake, Metro 2033….

Anyway, I’m sure you get the point. Go out there and start listening to game music!