Soundtrack Synopsis

Music is everywhere. Whether it’s the prepubescent wailings of turd-faced, snot-nosed urchins like One Direction and Justin Bieber on the radio, or the annoyingly cheerful TV jingles which find it necessary to incessantly warble the words ‘go compare’ at you until your sanity takes an unscheduled holiday and blood begins pouring from your every orifice, there is no escape.  As a child it was a painful fact of life that I had absolutely no musical talent, and music proved to be an endless source of irritation for me (though, to be fair, I did grow up in the decade which gave us Vanilla Ice). As I’ve grown older though my attitude to music has mellowed somewhat, and while I still have no discernible musical ability I have gained a growing appreciation of it.

This change in opinion can only be the result of one of two options in my mind. Either music has got better over time (which I think my previous comments towards Bieber and One Direction indicates it hasn’t) or I’ve listened to so much music over the years that it was inevitable that I’d eventually find some I like. This is the most plausible reason, especially when you notice that a lot of the music I enjoy comes from films and, more importantly, videogames.

I tend to find that videogame soundtracks are underrated as a music form. Perhaps this is less true in recent years with game developers including copies of the soundtrack along with the game and with the ease of using iTunes to upload and download entire albums of music, but I’m going back to a time before iTunes. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m going back to before I started using iTunes, which admittedly could be anywhere up until a few months ago, but even so, as far as I’m concerned, it’s before people I knew were using it at all, let alone for videogame soundtracks.  As such, the only real way to listen to a soundtrack was to play the game, something I did extensively.  As a result video game soundtracks have formed a huge part of my childhood, which only now that I can truly understand nostalgia do I fully appreciate. The iconic chip-tunes of Pokémon are forever ingrained into my mind, the tunes to games like Army Men 3D and Worms hold special places in my heart and even the music mode of the Pingu game I used to play on my Windows ’98 is lodged somewhere up in my brain.

That in mind there are some games that did it better than others (just because I remember Pingu doesn’t mean that I want to, or that I like it… much). So which do I think did it best? Well three stick out in particular, Oblivion, Fallout 3 and the Mass Effect series (I know the last one’s cheating, but I’m writing this so meh). Each of these games had genuinely great soundtrack, music that added to the atmosphere, complimented the game’s theme and stay in both my heart and my head.

So let’s talk about Oblivion. This was one of the first games I got for my Xbox 360, and for two years it would almost rule my life. It was the first game I had played that I could truly call big. Everything about it, the story, the setting, the looks and the music were, and still are, epic in scale. True it isn’t as impressive as it was in its heyday, but a nostalgic mind can still find a lot of charm in this game; it had ambitions and while didn’t did reach them all it tried bloody hard (as Bethesda always does).  As befitting a big game, the developers went with a large orchestral score for the majority of the soundtrack. In a similar way to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this type of music works excellently with the worlds of high fantasy, where practically everything that happens is treated as a significant event. That’s not to say that this is a bad thing, it just wouldn’t really work in a different setting, such as an FPS.

I personally divide the music of Oblivion into two groups: ‘grand’ and ‘elegant’. Though both make use of a range of orchestral instruments like violins, drums and flutes they achieve quite different effects. The ‘grand’ music typically takes place during a fight or when the player is meant to be inspired by what’s taking place.  The game’s best example of this type of music is in the menu screen. Obviously this is the first thing a player sees when booting up the game and through the use of just a piece of music Bethesda have managed to turn this into an event. The song, ‘Rise of the Septims’, is possibly the game’s most iconic piece of music. A low and rumbling intro works to build an element of tension before the game’s title appears on screen in full to the accompaniment of a fanfare. This is fantastic, I’m still in the menu and I’m already hyped up to play the game, just point me at the enemy and let’s get to hacking off heads.

The other songs of this vain are equally good if perhaps a little less memorable, all save for the song ‘Death Knell’. The most commonly used piece of ‘fight’ music ‘Death Knell’ always foretold the presence of a hostile enemy and to this day I can’t help but hum it when something’s chasing me regardless of what I’m playing.  The ‘elegant’ music fills the voids when you’re not fighting. Softer and gentler, its mellow tones follow you through the cities and scenery of Oblivion. In my youth these songs were kind of nothing to me, but looking back now it’s clear that they stuck with me more than I’d thought. After purchasing the soundtrack on iTunes the other week and listening through it I remembered just how soothing songs like ‘Through the Valleys’ and ‘Harvest Dawn’ really were and how much they added to the character and atmosphere of the game.

All in all the Oblivion soundtrack is not only a set of excellent pieces of music, but also a set of memorable pieces of music. Assuming you’ve played the game it’s very likely that they’ve stuck with you whether you know it or not, and are only a listen away from recalling the enjoyment these songs bought and how much fun you had while they were playing.  As time passed both Oblivion and I were oblivious to the fact that its life was slowly drawing to an end, and that it would be Bethesda’s latest video game instalment Fallout 3 which would hammer the nails into its metaphorical coffin.  Fallout 3 bore many similarities to Oblivion: it had large open landscapes, a world altering plot and, of course, a big soundtrack. Unlike in Oblivion though the soundtrack to Fallout 3 wasn’t ambient, the game actively encouraged you to choose what you listened to.

Within the game there are a number of radio stations which can be accessed by the player via their Pip-Boy (which, for those of you who haven’t played the game, is a device that’s a cross between an iPod an iPad that’s been welded to your wrist… let’s face it, it’s only a matter of time before Apple decides it’s a good idea) and each one plays a set number of tracks.  Now, I’ll admit that this isn’t an original idea. Games like GTA having been using the radio gimmick to work in popular (and I use the term relatively loosely) music for years. However, Fallout 3 is set apart from the pack by a few things.

Bethesda’s choice in music was different from anything else at the time. The Fallout games are set in a post-apocalyptic world with a retro-futuristic edge, meaning it uses older ideas of what the future will be like. For instance, many of the robots in the game look like they’ve come straight out of a 1950’s Si-Fi movie. As such they’ve gone with an old-fashioned soundtrack, using so called ‘big band’ music from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.  This works exceedingly well with the universe of the game. A lot of the technology in the games is either lifted from the same decades that the music is taken from, e.g. old-fashioned looking radios and TVs or from the Sci-Fi of the time. The environments further compliment this; much of the architecture has been borrowed from the same time periods, such as suburban homes with white-picket fences and odd shaped coffee tables. This shows that effort has been put into the music to ensure it develops the world they’re creating – an effort that pays off.

Not only has thought been put into the music choice, but also into how it has been implemented, and that of course brings me on to Three Dog. The charismatic DJ of the Galaxy News Radio, he rapidly becomes something of an audio-only companion to the player. To the credit of the writers he has some genuinely funny lines, along with a host of memorable catchphrases like ‘Because one dog ain’t enough, and two is too low, it’s me, Three Dog!’ Three Dog typically introduces each song (after all that is the job of a DJ), reads the news and provides the comic relief.

Combined, Three Dog and his songs not only make GNR the best radio station, they also make it one of the game’s more standout features (something Fallout: New Vegas couldn’t emulate). So I suppose I should list some of the songs. Most people who’ve paid attention the game will know from the trailers that ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’ by the Ink Spots makes a heavy appearance in the game. Used in the trailer, intro and played commonly this is not just a great song in general, but it also has a certain irony to the situation (like playing ‘Disco Inferno’ to a burning man).

A couple of the other songs that really standout for me are ‘Butcher Pete (Part 1)’ by Roy Brown, whose lyrics about a serial killer are both surprisingly jolly and surprisingly catchy, and ‘Fox Boogie’ by Gerhard Trede with its fast pace and jazzy swing. The character and charm of these songs really does help to break up the monotony of travelling over vast open spaces, not to mention that their heavy reliance on lyrics makes up for the long stretches of time where there is nobody to talk to. The other songs are all really good and definitely worth a listen though, I just wasn’t prepared to list them all (look online for the GNR playlist if you fancy trying out some old-timey soundtracks, see? – (that’s my attempt at speaking 1940’s style)).

As with Oblivion, Fallout 3 was inevitably shelved as something else eventually rose to take its place. I’ll admit that I wasn’t its biggest fan at first, but that would soon change to the point where I now have what many people would call and unhealthy obsession towards the Mass Effect franchise. So, with that said, I’ll try and just keep to talking about its soundtrack.  BioWare, like Bethesda, made a stellar job of choosing a fitting soundtrack. Set in a Si-Fi-esque future where mankind has ventured out into the stars and found a host of alien races, the Mass Effect soundtrack uses a range of strange synthetic tones to create music that is both mesmerising and perfectly at home in an technologically advanced universe.

These songs vary between fast paced and edgy for the game’s more intense moments, and slower and more calculated for when the player is meant to be engrossed by what they are seeing. To me there is little comparison across the three games; they all have and equally good selection of tracks in their playlist, as such I’ll pick out the one song that stands out with me from each one.

My selection from Mass Effect is easy: the song entitled ‘The Wards’ is, in my mind, exactly what the soundtrack to a game set in space should be like. The first half of the track is quiet, slow and a mix between awe-inspiring and eerie, capturing the isolation and essence of what I imagine it feels like to travel through a giant, airless black void. The second half picks up with some menacing tones and even stranger synth sounds, suggesting an element of the unknown and of danger.  As well as being played in the game, ‘The Wards’ is also played in the main menu where the tune starts up over an image of earth from orbit and a sky full of stars. I love this bit; it might only be the menu screen but it has weight and power, much like Oblivion has using ‘Rise of the Septims’. Yes, this does make me sound like a very sad man, but consider that if they are putting this much effort into the menu, how much are they putting into the game? Answer: tonnes.

The two songs I’m choosing from Mass Effect 2and 3 I’ll talk about together: ‘Suicide Mission’ from Mass Effect 2 and ‘Leaving Earth’ from Mass Effect 3 are both played over two immense powerhouse scenes from the two games. Similar in style they both capture the tension and seriousness of the situations as they unfold, complementing the events onscreen in their tone and pace.  ‘Suicide Mission’ is played during a mission of the same name set towards the end of the game. As you can probably tell by the title, things are pretty bleak and the song does well to emulate the feelings at the time. In comparison, ‘Leaving Earth’ is played close to the start of the game, during a scene that runs between action packed and heart-stopping to incredibly sad and almost heart-breaking.

I don’t want to say more for risk of ruining anything for those who haven’t played the game, as I feel it is something everyone should do and I don’t wish to put people off by spoiling things. Needless to say every song they use is implemented to great effect alongside the scenes over which they play. Somehow BioWare have crafted three perfect soundtracks to three games that to me get as close to perfection as anyone ever has.

Words struggle to express the sheer amount of love I have for these songs and these games, not to mention the huge amounts of joy I get out of them. I might have poured years of my life into them, but I’d do it all over again and I’ll continue to listen to, play and thoroughly enjoy them until my family and friends gather around me for the inevitable intervention.

Last five articles by Tom



  1. Tom Commissar Tom says:

    As a dedicated Mass Effect fan, and a thoroughly pernickety bastard, I should correct myself and state that in actual fact it is the track ‘Vigil’ that is used in the Mass Effect main menu. This said the points made stand for both tracks, which are very good indeed.

  2. Tim Tim says:

    I agree with you on Mass Effect. Alan Wake’s got a pretty good soundtrack too, an original score mixed with one of the best licensed tracklists since Vice City if you ask me.

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