I am currently playing through The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. The first time I booted it up, I was greeted by the same file select/fairy fountain song found in A Link to the Past. I always take a minute or two to listen; but this time I left it, cleaned up around my place a bit, made some food, then sat down to really dive in.
I never want to leave the file selection screen in any Zelda game. Not because the adventure ahead is too daunting, or that I’m afraid Link won’t be able to stab Ganon in his big dumb pig-man head. It’s because in that very moment, the music is perfect. This song is like the sound of transitioning from real life into a dream-state. While I am more of a music/audio geek than many gamers, I think we can all agree that there have been some amazing music moments in video games over the years.
The Zelda example is my first memory of music in a game, so there’s no doubt nostalgia plays into my love for the soundtrack. The moment Link steps out into the Overworld, and the classic theme starts to play, it just feels special, every time.
In the NES/SNES years, music was usually assigned to specific levels or bosses and always added another layer of variation to what you were playing on screen. Anyone who’s played a lot of Mega Man has their favorite level theme; I’m partial to Pharaoh Man’s (love those dotted eighth notes). All the retro music is great, but the way music is implemented in some of today’s games has really set them apart from older ones and even from films.
Over the summer as Grand Theft Auto V was approaching, I decided to go back and replay some of my favorite Rockstar games. The soundtracks are always excellent in the GTA series, but as I said, it’s the way the music is implemented into the game that makes it so special. I’ll be cruising down the road, flipping through stations, and the right song will come on under the right weather conditions, and it all syncs up. It feels like a moment that Rockstar created just for me, but they didn’t; they just gave me the tools to make it happen. Even the music in their games fits into the sandbox. But as it turns out, my favorite music moment in any game ever, is actually a scripted one. We’ll get to that moment in a sec, but first I need to provide some background.
Red Dead Redemption has one of the most brilliant scores of any video game, in my opinion. Composed by Billy Elm and Woody Jackson, it was built on a stem system, meaning that they created multiple layers of music at the same tempo (130 bpm) and in the same key (A minor) for the entire score. This enabled them to mix and match layers depending on what’s happening in the game. When you hop on a horse, you might hear timpani start pounding; or when a firefight breaks out, distorted guitars may start sweeping through the soundscape. Most players will probably never even notice this stem system, because it happens so naturally.
All of this was recorded with the actual instruments from the time: fiddles, tons of odd percussion, horns mixed and matched with different mutes and even played up against a timpani. It’s as authentic as music recording gets. That’s tough to find these days, especially in games where synthetic audio is so much easier and cheaper to make. And I’m not saying that electronically created music is worse by any means, but I generally prefer a collaboration with a bunch of different musicians and their varying instruments. Okay, I think you get the idea, let’s get to that magical music moment.
For those unfamiliar, Red Dead Redemption follows former outlaw John Marston as he seeks revenge and the safety of his family. That is the very TL;DR version. The first half of the game takes place in America, just north of the Mexican border. But following the mission titled “We Are Together in Paradise,” Marston arrives with his accomplice Irish at the shore of Nuevo Paraiso, Mexico. There are two horses waiting for you on the shore, and when you hop on and start riding is when the music starts to play.
I’ll never forget how taken aback I was by how the game audio slowly dips down, and this beautiful song starts to creep in as you ride toward the sunset. It’s by Swedish musician José González, whom I had never heard before. He has this soft, air-filled voice, coupled with his interesting classical guitar playing style and often odd tunings.
The song is called “Far Away,” and really helps drive home the feeling of being out in the Wild West, away from your family. The first lines read, “Step in front of a runaway train, just to feel alive again. Pushing forward through the night, aching chest and blurry sight.” It’s a powerful moment, especially with its placement within the story. I haven’t played anything quite like it since.
Fast forward to today and I am now a huge José González fan, and of his band Junip, who have since reunited and released two albums after his exposure from the game. It’s so cool that a video game brought my attention to this all this great music that I had never heard before. I even got to see Junip perform in Los Angeles, I had been waiting a long time for that and they were flawless. If I may recommend an album of theirs, check out Fields.
There are a couple other special songs in Red Dead that are triggered after story missions; and if you haven’t played this game, I urge you to go do so immediately and pay close attention to the music. I hope that developers will continue to acknowledge the power of a well placed song in a video game. There’s been plenty of great game music over the years, but only so many music moments. What have been some of your favorite moments? I’d love to add some to the list of things I need to hear.