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 chill in the air, changing of the leaves and the sudden appearance of mountains of candy in stores mark the coming of Halloween for many. This is a time of year when we may feel change and heightened energies. What better way celebrate this time of year than by breaking down some of our favorite spooky tracks across a myriad of genres? Unnerving, macabre or horror tracks in games can help to signal a variety of emotions. Much like the sweeping, orchestral symphonies found in more cinematic titles, horror music in games help to elevate much-needed ambiance. Horror music has different motivations for its titles — horror games, or horrific moments, take time to escalate. To help create the mood of a title, we often hear mismatched notes in compositions with unsettling melodies. We are creatures of rhythm — feel your heart beat, listen to your breathing — all of what we do has specific beats. We know there’s something wrong when these beats are off somehow. There’s a natural desire to resolve melodies and the beauty of horror music is to take that comfort away. This Checking the Score is devoted to those creepy melodies that are synonymous with the spirit of the season.
Pokémon: “Lavender Town”
It’s a classic. It’s also one of my most vivid memories of feeling unnerved by a game. With a combination of eerie chiptunes and an unsettling, slightly off-beat melody, “Lavender Town” has followed players throughout history as a surprisingly macabre area in Generation 1. It’s a track that creates the backdrop for melancholic moments in the game while also priming players before going ghost hunting. To this day, it remains a monolith of creepy video game music.
Luigi’s Mansion: “Catching Ghosts”
There are actually a ton of tracks across the Luigi’s Mansion titles that are worthy of being considered scary. None caused me to go running for a night light quite like “Catching Ghosts,” though. What makes this track so legitimately scary is the main focus on that eerie rewind “reverse” noise. It’s a track that also compliments the frantic gameplay of the title. Where it truly shines is in the unsettling, out of tune, melody — it feels like nails on a chalkboard. It’s exactly the kind of horror track that takes our comfort in familiar patterns and throws them right out the window. Like some kind of freaky sideshow exhibit, “Catching Ghosts” provides thrills and chills in one track.
Observer: “I am What They Fear”
When you consume as much horror media as someone like I does, you feel that after a time a lot of titles overlap and tend to rely on the same tropes. While there are classic elements that work across all horror titles, I sincerely was hit out of nowhere by Bloober Team’s cyberpunk horror-thriller, Observer. Observer is a title that takes inspiration from Blade Runner and puts its own refreshing spin on it. It’s a title that forever remains one of my favorites and much of that has to do with its amazing soundtrack. “I am What They Fear” is a haunting track that plays in the opening. Featuring industrial composition along with heavy synth and bass, this is a track that sets the tone for the game. Having it play during the opening cinematic truly marries the industrial sound with cyberpunk themes. A creepy melody with grinding machine sounds embodies everything about the game and the genre. It does the title justice in the best way by adding to its world building. Take a look at the opening sequence. Then take a look at the game — if you dare.
Silent Hill 2: Promise (Reprise)
Silent Hill 2 is a horror masterpiece. If you haven’t played it, you have permission to stop reading now and go pick it up. Go, go. For the rest of us, how could we forget this track? It’s both emotional and macabre. It’s so lonely and raw. Yes, it’s soft in its composition, but a haunting piano takes the lead to help tell a story. The story of Silent Hill is one of loss and coping. Our fears and insecurities may manifest to be our greatest monsters if we let them. “Promise (Reprise)” plays during a key moment in the title when our main protagonist attempts to talk down a suicidal character. It’s a track that embodies loneliness and inevitability. Is Silent Hill a singular event or one that repeats itself? This piano can tell us for sure.
Darkwood: Burn Them All
Back in 2017 a horror indie hit swept the scene. Darkwood is a top down twin-stick title, but don’t judge it by its format. This is one of the scariest games that you could possibly play. The reason Darkwood was so successfully horrifying all comes down to its sound design. Never have I ever heard such sound come from a game. Hearing a twig snap in the distance would be cause for pause — was it a wild animal or a forest dwelling mad-man? The premise is to survive long enough to leave the Darkwood. Each day, we must set out for supplies and for a way out of this cursed forest. Each night we must return home to fight off nightly apparitions and terrifying enemies. The deeper we go into the woods, the closer we get to our exit. “Burn Them All” is horrifying track for a horrifying end. Yes, that is a flamethrower noise incorporated into the track. It’s a drone of a track, but we can hear the screams of our enemies if you listen closely. To add even more symbolism to this ending track, pay deep attention to the heart beat at the end. If you can’t leave the woods, force the woods to leave you in this Soviet-inspired tale.
There are so many great horror tracks out there that have helped to create amazing masterpieces. These handful are a great representation of where creepy game music started and how far its come. There’s a unique science behind the sound of horror. Much like how we gravitate towards the familiar, horror music takes our comfort and contorts it into nightmares. Music can sound like a lot of different compositions, but what drives horror music is its commitment to its identity. In the horror genre, it may take some time to build up anticipation before the story takes off. To help with this, off-beat tracks featuring unsettling noises help create the atmosphere so desperately needed for the genre. Great music doesn’t just come from the sweeping fantasy RPG, or the epic shooter title — it can also come from the most macabre corners of our libraries.