One of the most important aspects of MMORPGs is replayability, because eventually every MMO is going to involve grinding, raiding, and rehashing areas which have been explored before. The beauty of the WoW expansion Wrath of the Lich King is that it introduced a significant amount of content that increased said replayability. A lot of what makes it a game to come back to is music that can remain fresh after millions and millions of listens. Trust me when I say that the Mountains of Thunder track is one that can bear repeating.
The use of choral "oohs" as an integral piece of instrumentation is the most noticeable aspect of this piece - it creates the sense of wind over top a creepy yet magical string part. The use of oboe as a solo instrument also adds to this melancholy sound. The use of lower choir voices and horns create a sensation that reminds one of the great works of architecture reminiscent of the Lord of the Rings' dwarves - grand, cold, impenetrable pieces of immutable stone. Floating amongst this stonework sound remains the oohing choir, like echoes bouncing off of long-silent hallways. The strings remain constant, maintaining the cold gloomy lifelessness that permeates the entire piece. All in all, this is a piece that creates the barren feeling of emptiness that embodies most icy wastes of video games. Half of replayability is simply the ability to convey emotion, and "Mountains of Thunder" has that down pat.
Honorable Mention That Didn't Fit Anywhere Else - Kingdom Hearts - Hollow Bastion
This track fit perfectly into the setting of Flanoir. The orchestration of a string section coupled with a cymbal-based percussive sound became the perfect backdrop for the high piano and clarinet. The grand, dancelike harmony and rhythm set a waltz pattern for the other two melodic instruments as they alternate between each other, playing a melody cribbed from a Christmas concert. It is a song of ice skating; the piece uses myxolydian arpeggios to create movement in the main sections. In the bridge however, the duet between the woodwind and the slightly out-of-tune piano was a coup de grace; this instrumentation is sweeping and bold, flavored to entice that waltz feeling in 6/8 time.
Tales of Symphonia has several excellent pieces as well as a strong cast of characters and script. This piece is but one example of how subtly crafted music can be used to evoke a particular theme: in this case, the idea of wintry activity: the outdoor skating and the indoor balls of a bygone era. The music does well to also bring to the front the concept of times past; indoor balls for dancing are mostly a thing of the past, but here it meshes excellently into the time period in which Symphonia relishes.
Honorable RPG Mention: Secret of Mana - A Bell is Tolling (Ice Palace)
Xenoblade is certainly one of the best games on the Wii, and from a listen to its music, its easy to see why I feel confident in making that statement. In this piece, the intent is to provide a theme for not only a winter-inspired setting but also to focus that larger theme into a time period - night.
How is this accomplished? First, the use of piano and brushstroke cymbal patterns create that ethereal feeling of light snowfall. The reverb effect on the piano creates a depth to the sound, allowing the echo to speak volumes in quiet places. This calm is a pervading force in the piece; using it gives the sense of a world at rest. The cymbals easily provide the context of light snowflakes gently kissing the ground like specks of light in a darkened world. The piano's progression with the use of vocals on synth exist as a motif for the cymbals to continue their patter. It's a subtle but extremely complex piece that can evoke a definite emotional reaction from the listener as they guide themselves through the area. The piece ends itself very lightly on an unresolved chord, signifying the ill-at-ease sense a traveler in the night may feel after the initial sensation of the snow.
Xenoblade is chock full of instant video game classics, with a soundtrack that really demonstrates how the scoring of games has matured from generation to generation.
Honorable 3D RPG Mention: Shenmue - Christmas on Dobuita Street
Perhaps the best frozen-inspired piece for the Gamecube, Ice Valley captures a bizarre and ethereal quality of a world grasped in the clutches of permafrost. The concept of an abandoned if not totally lifeless world wrapped in the snowy sleep of winter is captured brilliantly in this area's musical theme. Atop a techno-inspired beat, strains of quarter-note triplets rhythmically tinkle with hollow crystal sounds of ice in a cave. The underlying beat provides a sense of life existing behind the scenes, even as the sterile yet magical legato melody line hypnotizes the unwary listener. After the melody plays its course, the piano enters with striking sets of six repeated chords. Each set sits uncomfortably on top of the melody, creating a disharmony that adds great tension to the piece as a whole. Then the piano adds in minor chord arpeggios that refuse to resolve; the listener continues to anticipate, building even more tension as the piece repeats.
This use of constant rhythmic beat with unresolved lines of melody and harmony ultimately capture the sense of danger and movement going on in this game; Metroid Prime is a unique game that feels part platformer, part sleuth and part first-person shooter. From that angle, the music must contribute to each of those realms and does so successfully, all while remembering to set the tone for the Ice Valley area as a whole.
Honorable Metroid Prime Mention: Phendrana Drifts
This song provides instant nostalgia factor for fans of the DKC series, but on closer inspection the song holds up well under a musically-based scrutinization. As with most DKC tracks, the goal of "In a Snow-Bound Land" is to build a tonally mature piece of environmental music that is less like the heavily melodic soundtracks of contemporary games (Link to the Past, Sonic, Final Fantasy VI); instead the goal here is to create music that supplements rather than music that hogs the spotlight.
To that end, the instrumentation is key. The rhythm is provided almost entirely on the higher percussive sounds of a drum set; the bass line is light and high as well. The concentration of rhythm is in one snare catch per measure and tambourine. Synth sounds simulating bells and clavinova-based choir are the melody line's primary instruments; neither of these sound effects are intrusive but work together to create a single congruous sound that is appropriately lithe and sonorous. The sense of being deep in a frozen cave, with the only light being glinted across an entire walls of ice like glowing swatches of brilliant pastels, is one that provides thick and emotionally resonant musical imagery. The pattern of progression is also bittersweet; the bridge is one section in particular that uses chord progression that lingers on melancholy before resolution. Sections like these are paramount in pulling at a listener's heartstrings, and creating a bond between music and gamer.
DKC2 is well-regarded in the gaming community for not only its gameplay and level of challenge, but also tastes of music that provide listeners with some of gaming's mostly competently scored tracks. "In a Snow-Bound Land" measures up with other titanic tracks of the era, whether they be from Chrono Trigger or Mega Man X.
Honorable Donkey Kong Mention: Diddy Kong Racing - Frosty Village
While Fable III, was a miss in terms of gameplay and story for many reasons, listener's are surely hard-pressed to find error in the amazingly well-written score provided by composer Russell Shaw. This is one of those themes that really can set the mood for you. With a great Gypsy-fiddler solo, The Dwellers is a mournful and plaintive cry that evokes strong melancholy in the listener. The underlying string section is quiet and provides a great base line for the solo fiddle to sort of sleepwalk in and amongst the chords. It's a very excellent improvisational sound that Shaw creates here, and it serves more purpose than to simply create a barren, snowy theme. It also seems to evoke emotion and sound representative of a people within the context of the game's narrative.
While this is not a traditional sort of theme for a game, it has strong roots in the folk music of eastern European countries such as Hungary, and hearkens back to the Hungarian Dances of Brahms and other 19th century composers who took such fancy in that type of music. It really is a cut above in terms of musical expression within video gaming.
Another Honorable Mention That Didn't Fit Anywhere: Christmas NiGHTS - Jack Frost's Chime
One of the first songs to hit the ears of Nintendo 64 gamers on the system's release, it is important to recognize the strides of progress Super Mario 64 made in terms of instrumentation and orchestration - a fact often glossed over when compared to its other numerous gameplay innovations (and fairly so). Gaming has always been held hostage by technical limitations: 8-bit meant chiptunes, and 16-bit meant synthtunes. Here, however, we had expanded into the realm of 64-bit. And with this brand new smattering of bytes, gamers discovered that music had also received broad innovation.
Look at this piece as a great example: Cool, Cool Mountain utilizes an organ on top of an accordion harmony and rhythm line that includes a bass line organ as well. In the past, perhaps one distinct instrument could be heard over top generic synth sounds; now, Mario had provided us with a tune that took full advantage of several distinct sounds. The result is inspiring. The instrumentation (especially the accordian-bass line-organ combo) are pitch perfect in creating the feeling of an Alps lodge band. You can feel the lederhosen and the biersteins as the melody relentlessly pounds away an almost ecstatically joyous tune. After this, a harp-sound is used to create a light atmosphere environmental bridge before the melody returns.
Music like this helps to define and reinforce exactly what games were originally meant to be - an escape. You can never overestimate the importance a song has in establishing a well-regarded game and creating a setting that gamers can really travel to forget that daily grind.
Honorable Nintendo Mention: Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess - Snowpeak
This is a theme that makes full use of an orchestra to the Nth degree; not only is there are a very strong string melody, but the woods and brass are brought in to serve purposes that they are uniquely suited for. The flutes and clarinets create brilliant bubbles of sound underneath the smooth melody, which turns around later into the piece to do the complete opposite. The result is the sound of enchantment; music that is full and comfortable and at the same time completely full of the awe-filled wonder of youth. You can imagine a child on a cold winter's eve, staring into the night as they witness a gentle fall of snow.
There's also an excellent use of chimes in this piece that cannot be ignored. The light, melodic percussion works wonders in this piece, helping to paint the picture this song does such of great job of creating. In recent years, with the ability technology provides, games have been able to utilize every sound at a composer's disposal. This piece demonstrates how a full live orchestra can ultimately reinvigorate a gamer's desire to experience the world within a video game by immersing said player in a world of sound. Pieces like this are essential for an excellent gaming experience.
Honorable XBox 360 Mention: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World - Another Winter
Sandwiched between arguably two of the greatest games ever made, Final Fantasy V is an underrated classic that brought a level of whimsy and humor to franchise known for epic classics. There's an all-ages mentality to the game that is underlines by music that moves away from the more sonorous sounds of FFIV to a lighter, bouncier FFV. The prime example of this shift is embodied in "Walking the Snowy Mountains."
This piece sets up a heavy but not overwhelming bass line that is punctuated by banjo scales; using this as the mode for the piece, a listener definitely feels the sensation of traveling, while also being pulled into a pattern of peril. While on one hand, the journey feels light and bright, there's a pervading sense of danger in this bass line, whether it be from perilous heights or the monsters that lay in wait amongst the peaks. Then comes the resounding trumpet duet that punctuates the danger with a glorious sense of chivalry and pomp - as if our heroes are suddenly swept up into the said journey. Naturally, while the danger continues to repeat, the trumpets provide the listener some comfort. This juxtaposition between brightness and danger is further highlighted in the bridge section with a organ and string combination that appeals to the brightness at a height above the clouds while reminding us that this cold altitude also brings peril.
Overall, this is a short piece that utilizes an economy of instrumentation and progression to convey its point; that is the beauty of 16-bit video game music. Final Fantasy in the era of the Super Nintendo fully explored the limits of the system to develop music that packed an emotional impact without overshadowing the gameplay. When many gamers think of nostalgic games, this is the system and era they go to. Is it any wonder why?
Honorable Final Fantasy VII Mention: Final Fantasy VII - Buried in Snow
Rareware on Nintendo 64 was an exercise in brilliant gaming compositions, with pieces that truly legitimized the art of video game scores. No game more embodies the revolution that was taking place better than a game that had players literally collecting musical notes in order to progress - Banjo-Kazooie.
Take, for instance, the epitome of Christmastime hijinks that plays in Freezeezy Peak. We're instantly bombarded with a joyous Yuletide violin, punctuated by a French Horn trio that breaks into a bizarre but brilliant pattern in the string section, with violin pounding overhead. Soon, the French Horn sets up a bridge to a baritone saxophone duet with a flute. Talk about a mismatch of epic proportions - but there's no time to revel in this acoustic amazingness - we're off to a different French horn string set up, then flute and horns, then.... the song never ceases experimentation with instrumentation. That's what makes it work; it finds a full orchestra at its disposal, and uses it to take a fairly simple melody and rhythm line from elementary to brilliant. It is the continued use of variations on the same theme that demonstrates the true breadth of emotions that can be evoked by the wintry setting around the player. From the top of the snowman's hat to the quiet village basking in the warm glow of candles in windows, Freezeezy Peak continues to hit all the right notes at the right time in an effort to bring to the player the full experience of Christmas in three minutes or less.
While my description doesn't do this piece justice, I hope you can see all of the nuance brought by careful if rapid changes in orchestration. From one phrase to the next, the listener is whisked on a world-spanning journey of a night before Christmas, from anticipation to glee to tranquility to unbridled ecstasy.
The 11th Place Theme: EarthBound - Snowman
Naturally, there are a heaping helping of tunes that didn't make this list. I'm loathe to leave off some classics that are deserving of some attention. Did I tragically pass over one of your favorites? Drop by the Top 10 board and let me know! I'm scarletspeed7, wishing you good luck and good listening.
List by scarletspeed7 (01/28/2013)
Discuss this list and others on the Top 10 Lists board.