Checking the Score: The Legend of Ennio Morricone

While many point to how lifelike the next blockbuster action title is or how gorgeous an artistic indie darling is when it comes to evaluating a game, these visuals would lose their impact without a stirring soundtrack to score them. From the chip-tunes of Super Mario Bros to the Gregorian chants of Halo, video game music brings players closer to immersion and fantasy. Much like how a movie’s soundtrack sets the tone for dramatic scenes, game music also helps players connect emotionally with the story.

Checking the Score is a monthly feature devoted to these crucial compositions which are literally the soundtrack to our gaming lives. Delving into what makes them impactful, the process of composing them and the intricacies of each score, our aim is to put a spotlight on the aural backbone of gaming.

A little over a week ago, the world lost one of the greatest musical minds and influences in cinema as Ennio Morricone passed away from complications after taking a nasty fall. To say that this man was a legend is putting it lightly. He was such a legend that he, himself, released his own statement upon his death (read by his lawyer), “I, Ennio Morricone, am dead.” Even if you haven’t heard of Ennio Morricone, you have heard Ennio MorriconeIf we were to play a musical association game, dear reader: what song or musical melody, would you think of if I just said the term” Wild West”? Did you think of this one? Or perhaps this melody? You probably imagined the former because that’s the melody that’s been used in every pop culture reference since then to illustrate the concept of the “Wild West.” The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1967) was actually my first ever Morricone exposure as I sat watching Spaghetti Westerns on the couch with my dad once upon a time. So if you aren’t aware of who Ennio Morricone is, you’ve heard his influence. He helped to propel the film industry forward with his original compositions and masterful storytelling. His influence gained traction during a time when soundtracks for movies were starting to become more robust as parts of the overall experience. With some 500 films under his belt, Morricone was an ever-present influence in visual media and pop culture.

So how does one of the most prolific movie composers of all time fit into the video game genre? The rise of Ennio Morricone in the film industry also meant a rise in standards for game music as well. As mentioned in previous features, music to compliment visual media has now become one of the most important elements to storytelling. What Morricone created was more than just a style of music, it was an attitude. I could name so many emotional moments in games that wouldn’t have the same impact without the driving force of a soundtrack behind them. The intricacies of game music came from these humble film roots as video games came closer and closer to being playable movies. In fact, some of the greatest game soundtracks even have a lot of Morricone influence. To pay homage to the late maestro, this Checking the Score will highlight some great Morricone style across various tracks.

A super obvious choice to begin with is none other than Red Dead Redemption. The series overall is a love letter to the fantasy of the Old West, but the first Red Dead was so obviously supposed to mimic the freedom and lawlessness that we could see in a Clint Eastwood film. The track “Born Unto Trouble” is an opening theme from the first game, but it’s so strong out of the gate that it gets the influence across immediately. The track opens with the iconic “desert whistle” that’s reminiscent of Morricone’s work. It parallels the music we see in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as well as other titles. It’s a track that paints a picture for us without knowing any plot details yet as these melodies rise and fall like the open plains. We understand that this is a Western title, but that’s not all. We also understand that, whoever our protagonist is, we’ll need to fight to survive. “Born Unto Trouble” takes iconic Morricone themes and blends them with original composition while keeping the influence strong. It’s purposeful, though. Like how John Marston kind of looks like Clint Eastwood and it’s no surprise that we see a plot similar to Spaghetti style — it wasn’t a case of reinventing the wheel. Now when we talk about greatest Western games of all time, Red Dead Redemption leads the conversation.

Hands down, Morricone is the master of composing for Western films (even working on the more contemporary The Hateful Eight not too long ago). Maestro was more than just the face of Western-film music, though. He also dabbled in the horror genre and eventually composed John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Carpenter flew all the way to Rome to beg Morricone to consider writing a score that blended Carpenter’s previous synth style with his own. The score helped propel The Thing forward as one of the iconic monuments to cult classic films. It was the first thing I also thought of when I started playing Dead Space back in the day. Carpenter himself even said that he would love to make a movie adaptation of Dead Space because it takes so much inspiration from The Thing –– not just in subject matter, either. Dead Space always reminded me of The Thing because of its music, actually. The blend of synths with orchestra is a true Ennio feat. By the early 80s, Ennio felt that he was experienced enough to step into electronic music. He kept true to his composition by combining classical instrumentation for tense moments with creepy, off-tune synths. This is something we can hear in Dead Space, especially in its opening track “Dead Space Theme.” We hear strong similarities to Ennio’s musical composition that help tell the story while creating intense emotion. While Dead Space uses a little more orchestra than The Thing’s soundtrack, we hear similarities in the composition tone that is used to help set the scene. The relationship between the audience’s emotional state and what unfolded on screen was of upmost importance to Morricone. His mastery of emotional influence through music became a standard in the industry.

Ennio Morricone primarily did work with film scores throughout his career, but there was one person who was able to snag the legendary composer for a contribution to a legendary game — Hideo Kojima. Of course only a legendary game director could grab a legendary composer to provide one of the greatest ending tracks of all time. Ennio Morricone actually contributed one of his classics tracks “Here’s To You” to Metal Gear Solid 4. The track originally comes from an Italian movie called Sacco & Vanzetti (1971). This track also plays as a closing song for its original movie, so it was fitting that Kojima would choose it as a closing song for MGS4 (it’s also especially fitting because there’s a lot of thematic overlap in the two stories). This new iteration is a re-recording with fresh vocals and orchestra. The melody remains the same as its original, but to capture the essence of the franchise, Morricone took a more serious tone with downplayed tempos and more solemn instruments. Its original has more of a 1970s mod-pop style that make the two recordings sound like completely different songs. The genius of Ennio Morricone, however, means taking the same song and changing it enough to give new emotion.  

The world may have lost a great artist, but Ennio Morricone’s influence is eternal. Not only does his work continue to inspire film making today, we also see heavy inspiration in the video game industry that Morricone didn’t work with too often. It shows that the influences in film can carry over into the video game genre as the two types of media grow closer and closer. We only discussed a few tracks here, but Ennio’s influence is heard far and wide in unforgettable ways. As one of the first major film composers of our time, he created the building blocks needed for emotional music that also carries heavy storytelling themes. Here’s to you, Ennio Morricone. Without you, we may not have the iconic scores we enjoy today.

To delve deeper into the sound of gaming, read our complete Checking the Score series here.