If you’re a PC gamer you’re probably also a soundtrack collector, you just might not realise it. When you buy bundles, whether humble, regal or otherwise, old games, non-existent ones, or simply when you put down your hard-earned for a preorder, chances are they’ve sweetened the deal with a game soundtrack – you’ve just never bothered to sit down and listen to it. That’s where I come in; I’ve done the earwork for you and I’m hear to tell you what’s worth listening to outside the game.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Soundtrack by Mikko Tarmia
I don’t cope well with scary games. With films you just have to sit there and let it happen, but with games you’re the one pushing yourself ahead into the frightening situations. Thus, as excited as I am by the idea of Amnesia: The Dark Descent, I can’t play it for more than twenty minutes at a time.
Amnesia is a perfect example of how well horror can be done in games. It ignores the industry’s predilection for gun violence, putting us in the shoes of someone who is completely helpless and totally vulnerable to the situation they find themselves in. The music often sits quietly, subtly in the background, a mix of orchestral music and grand choral harmonies that do an amazing job of building tension.
Outside that context though, the music isn’t as effective for reasons both obvious and not. Partially it’s related to the short track length, with nearly all of them coming in under two minutes; just as a track gets its moody claws into you, it’s over and the next piece begins. I could see people listening to Tarmia’s work to get inspiration for their own tense and horrific art – whether that be music, fiction or game – but apart from that narrow field, I can’t see this soundtrack getting much rotation. Still, it’s well worth a listen simply for the quality on display.
Recommended if you like: The soundtracks to Guillermo del Toro’s (non-Hollywood) films.
Soundtrack by Various Artists
As recently as last year I would have told you the resurgence of ‘80s sounds in modern music was a movement we could all do without. It’s surprising then that the Hotline Miami soundtrack has so completely hijacked my ears. The electronica here is unashamedly inspired by music from the 80s, but these indie producers make it work. The soundtrack features songs from a number of artists – M O O N, Scattle, Elliot Berlin, Eirkik Suhrke, El Huervo, Coconuts, Perturbator, Sun Araw, and Jasper Byrne. The soundtrack ranges from Sun Araw’s stripped back, low-fi, reverb-heavy tracks, to the high-energy, bass-heavy 80s wonderment that is M O O N.
In the context of the game, the music is perfect. It sounds like a time-travelling PCP and LSD binge, further underpinning the violence and madness that seeps through every level of Hotline Miami. You’d think something so perfectly tailored to the game would fall apart out of that framework, but you’d be wrong. Unlike many game soundtracks the selection here is broad, and the quality and energy of the songs makes them perfect for driving, party playlists, or general background listening… Just try not to murder anyone.
M O O N is a standout, providing all four tracks off their self-titled EP. The attention to detail in the tracks, coupled with the driving bass lines earmarks them for a spot on high rotation. Sun Araw is weird enough to draw me in, but the eight and ten minute songs might put some people off. Jasper Byrne’s Miami feels like the soundtrack to a movie I only ever saw in my dreams as a child. Out of all the songs here, it comes closest to emulating that ‘80s film soundtrack feel, generating nostalgia for something that doesn’t even exist. It’s quite simply masterful.
Recommended if you like: The Drive soundtrack, or ‘80s-style electro in general. Sun Araw and Coconuts might appeal to fans of the more ambient work from Liars, Boris, Comets on Fire, and the like.
Soundtrack by Jasper Byrne
Lone Survivor, like Amnesia, would be classed as a horror game, but where Frictional Games’ first person horror-thon induces a palpable sense of dread, the tension of Lone Survivor comes from the uncertainty of your situation, and the Lynchian spaces you find yourself in.
Jasper Byrne is the sole developer of the title, making Lone Survivor on his own, even creating the soundtrack. As with Amnesia, the atmosphere of Lone Survivor hinges on the sound, drawing the player in with subtle layers of largely-gentle music, before scaring them out of their skin with the electronic screech of a skinny, shambling horror.
With the eclectic range of songs on display in the soundtrack it could easily come across as clumsy, but Byrne pulls all the sonic elements together without damaging the game. Lone Survivor, the game, is as brilliant as it is strange, and the soundtrack is varied and interesting to be taken on its own merits. Again, the tracks here are a little short, but they still feel complete.
Recommended if you like: The soundtracks to David Lynch’s work (minus Lost Highway, which is mostly ‘90s alterna-rock).
Jagged Alliance 2
Soundtrack by Kevin Manthei
An oldie and a goodie – Jagged Alliance 2 is possibly the high-water mark for turn-based tactical combat. With a little help from the 1.13 patch to squash some bugs and bump the graphics up to a modern resolution, JA2 is still more than capable of ruthlessly eliminating your free time.
The music is suitably “epic” for a game about freeing an entire nation from the iron grip of its dictator, but “epic” orchestral scores have been used in exactly ninety percent of all video games ever*, and there’s nothing here that really lets it stand out above the crowd. The JA2 faithful will instantly recognise a number of the themes here after their hours on the battlefield, but I imagine anyone else will find it boring.
*Not an actual fact.
Recommended if you like: The orchestral scores of John Williams, Danny Elfman and all that other boring – I mean, technically brilliant – shit.
Soundtrack by the Aperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory aka Mike Morasky
The last stop on today’s inaugural tour of PC game soundtracks is everybody’s favourite insane-AI-run testing facility. To be completely honest, I don’t remember hearing much music during my playthroughs of the Portal 2 single player and co-op campaigns; I was too distracted by GLaDOS’ dulcet tones I suppose.
Ok, I’m back.
Playing back through the first half an hour or so of the game, the soundtrack hardly features at all, reduced to snippets of music playing in small areas throughout the environment – like near a ceiling that you might fly past at great speed, hearing mere seconds of music.
It’s a shame really, because the soundtrack is superb, but thankfully all three volumes are available for free thanks to the kindness of Valve. The majority of the soundtrack is electronica, but there are large orchestral flourishes and subtle ambient moments in amongst the upbeat digital noise. It has everything really, Hollywood-style scores right through to indie-style electro but with a production budget that would likely fund a few indie games.
The 64 tracks available would be perfect background noise for anything you might be doing at your desk – doubly so if you’re studying or performing SCIENCE.
Recommended if you like: Listening to robots make sweet, rusty love to one another.
Next time: Some more indie games with their electronica-based soundtracks, more AAA orchestral scores, and hopefully something completely different.