Conor Halion explores what a good soundtrack can do for videogames
It is said that man can weather any storm, stand up to anyforce no matter how insurmountable, but crumbles at the mere thought ofsilence. Silence has a demotivating effect upon people,it makes us think too inwardly, examining facets of ourselves we would ratherhave not seen. Sound,or to be more precise, Music has the effect of granting the unquiet soul a formof escape from the daily grind. Studies show that videogame soundtracks have aparticularly motivating effect upon the listener, making them work faster andsolve problems quicker. But it is not enough for a soundtrack to be merely fastpaced or catchy, I could listen to Katy Perry for that. No, a good videogamesoundtrack must not only match the tone of the game but improve its overallexperience. In terms of a sheercrazy enjoyable soundtrack, you need look no further than the excellent, DevilMay Cry V.
Devil May Cry, all the way from its first instalment back in 2001, to its latest instalment of March of this year, just oozes style. While its flawless gameplay is big part of this style, it also owes its crown of cool to its super suave soundtrack.
Each of the three playable characters, Nero, Dante, and V, have a distinct battle theme which plays during their battle sequences. The theme begins playing quite faintly in the background, but as you pull off more stylish combos, your style rank increases. (All the way from D for Dismal, to SSS for Smokin’ Sexy Style!!) With each increase in rank, the theme becomes a bit louder, a bit faster, getting you absolutely pumped. Nero’s theme ‘Devil Trigger’ is a particular treat, and you’ll never get tired of hearing its powerful vocals and techno beats.
At times, it feels less like you are playing a video game, and more like you are shredding a gnarly riff on an electric guitar to a crowd of adoring fans. You’ll find yourself actively trying to become better at the game just so you can listen to more of its Smokin’ Sexy Soundtrack. A slightly overlooked gem in the soundtrack is “Your Legacy”, which is a stark departure from the game’s other crazy cool beats. A slow elegy, which sheds light on the characters' motivations and hopes, it manages to fill the player with both a sense of melancholy and hope.
And this leads us to our next point, which is tone. A good soundtrack not only matches its world, but actively adds to its atmosphere and story. The world of Dark Souls is, to say the least, bleak. You play as a cursed nameless undead, a walking piece of beef jerky destined to die and die again, until you eventually lose your mind and become a "Hollow" The soundtrack of the game drives this point home to the very core, with the main area themes mostly consisting of morose string pieces which make you want to grab a tub of Ben & Jerrys, they’re so depressing. The boss' themes on the other hand, are a complete and utter blast, and you’ll find yourself equally frustrated and exhilarated as you die and die again to the same boss. (Damn you Taurus demon, Damn you to hell!)
What is truly impressive is the sheer variety to be found in the boss themes alone, for example, the aforementioned Taurus Demon features a full-blown orchestra of male voices, while the Moonlight Butterfly is a haunting elegy delivered by a single female voice, and each boss theme fits thematically with its boss. The most powerful moment that I have ever experienced in a videogame arrives at the final boss of the first Dark Souls game. Let me paint the scene: You step past the fog gate into the boss room, you have died countless times to many fearsome foes. And naturally, you expect an epic track to accompany the final confrontation. But you don’t get that.
A life bar appears; “Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.”, and a heart-breaking piano arrangement begins to play. You realise as the battle continues, Gwyn is not an all-powerful god, and this is not an epic culmination. Gwyn is a hollow who gave everything to save his kingdom, and this is, at best, a mercy killing. It is not the combat or story which make this point clear, but rather the slow piano arrangement, meticulously composed to resemble the tempo of a fading flame, desperately trying, and failing, to regain its former splendour, which will leave you feeling, fittingly, hollow.