Beneath the Mask: What Makes a Great Video Game Soundtrack?

Koji Kondo. Nobuo Uematsu. Jeremy Syd. No, these names are not random. These are well-known music composers in the video game industry. Koji Kondo created the iconic tunes on certain Nintendo titles such as Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda, and Punch-Out!! Nobuo Uematsu composed a majority of Final Fantasy titles since Final Fantasy I in 1987. Jeremy Syd composed the heart-pounding soundtrack in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

A 2021 photograph of Persona 5 composer Shoji Meguro.
Persona 5 composer Shoji Meguro

Looking at the impact of those soundtracks to their respective gaming experiences begs this question: What makes a video game soundtrack great? To answer this, I want to take a closer look at Persona 5's soundtrack, composed by Shoji Meguro.

A Little Info on Persona 5

The Persona series of games are spin-off titles of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise. In the sixth entry of the series, players take control of a protagonist (named by the player) who is a high school student on probation for a crime he did not commit. As part of his probationary sentence, he is taken in by Sojiro Sakura who lets him stay in his coffee shop attic for a year while studying at the fictional Shujin Academy in Tokyo, Japan.

The protagonist, code-named Joker, meets friends along the way as he finds out the world around them is toxic and oppressive, almost like a prison! Each new friend joins the Joker's team, the Phantom Thieves, who are kids fighting off enemies that are supernatural manifestations of a real-life person's evil desires. Each team member has their own supernatural persona, and they can jump into otherworldly dimensions to aid in the fight. They ultimately defeat each enemy and, in turn, free the world around them from the evil forces that trapped them.

The Music Stands Out on its Own

I actually discovered the Persona 5 soundtrack with no knowledge of the games at all. Believe it or not, I heard the track "Last Surprise" from a dance-off video between a Houston Astros security guard and the team mascot, aptly named Astro, in Minute Maid Park back in 2018. Watch the video below and see the madness:

After seeing that video, I was curious what the entire soundtrack sounded like. A Spotify search later to find the entire soundtrack, and I was hooked. The blend of jazz, hard rock, electronic, and disco used in the soundtrack really made this stand out as a solid collection of music. The catchy licks and composition stuck with me since listening to it. Oftentimes I would add the songs to a playlist that I would listen to while I was working on something else. If there’s a deadline that needs to be met at work, “Blooming Villain” and other tracks from the game will be part of a playlist to blast through the work day. Check out the video below and feel the adrenaline surge the track can provide:

As I got around to playing Persona 5 this year, the soundtrack revealed its true form. (If you get that reference, I tip my hat to you!)

The Music Enhances the Game

Persona 5 screenshot of the player's character walking through Shibuya Station in Tokyo, Japan.
Shibuya Station in Tokyo, Japan: one of the many locations to traverse in Persona 5. (Credit: Atlus)

Sure, the Persona 5 soundtrack itself can stand on its own. But complementing it with a video game is even better. "Last Surprise" is the battle theme for every small fight. "Blooming Villain" becomes the level boss’s theme. The songs that are just pastimes on a playlist have context in the bigger picture of the game. It brings the excitement out of a fight!

A screenshot of the Persona 5 user interface when the player is in battle.
The HUD system in Persona 5. (Credit: Atlus)

Besides enhancing the fights, the songs add to the world-building of the game. Unlike movies where the audience is just watching the story unfold, video games are an interactive experience. The player is a part of the game’s world as Joker. So a song like "Tokyo Daylight" fits the bill to match the busyness of Tokyo, Japan. 

Another example of this world-building is in the different Palaces where the main bosses are housed throughout the game. Each palace represents a loose interpretation of the 7 Deadly Sins found in Christian non-biblical theology. One such Palace, for example, is based on greed. And the Palace itself is based around a bank, a modern version of what greed looks like. So what is the score associated with this Palace? It's a tune that sounds like it's straight out of a heist movie! Check it out in this next video:

The Music Creates Memories

As the game progresses, something truly amazing happens within the game’s soundtrack. Something that I really didn’t expect as the game’s ending and resolution were looming. Poet Oscar Wilde said: "Music is the art which is most nigh (near) to tears and memory." This is the most important part of a great soundtrack, whether it’s a video game or a movie. The song goes past enhancing the game itself. The music bridges the player and the game on a more personal level. Was there a hilarious scene in Persona 5 you found laughing your eyes out? There’s a song for that. Was there a boss that was so hard to beat, and then you miraculously beat it after an hour of gameplay? There’s a song for that, too! The links here are just some of my personal favorite songs that I associate with a fond memory I had in the game.

As the credits rolled on my playthrough, the different scenes of meeting each and every Phantom Thief member hit hard in the feels as I reminisced about creating a relationship with them. Building that relationship benefits the player in battle, so that was something I had invested time into. The accompanying score on "With The Stars and Us" made it hard to say goodbye. But the lyrics on this song were in Japanese, a departure from the majority of songs that were written in English. After looking at the translated lyrics, it made leaving the game much easier. Here’s an excerpt of one part of the song that cemented that feeling:

Never forget when we're apart
We are as one under the stars
It's okay for us to say goodbye

Artistic group shot of the Phantom Thieves characters in Persona 5.
The Phantom Thieves are here! (Credit: Gamespot)

Little did I know there was a sequel, Persona 5 Strikers, that I played immediately after. But that’s for another article!

Going back to my earlier question, what makes a great video game soundtrack? In short:

I can safely say, after 100 hours of gameplay, Persona 5’s soundtrack is amazing! If you haven’t played it, give Persona 5 a try! It’s a worthwhile experience. Persona 5 and its sequel are out now on PlayStation 4.

What do you think makes a great video game soundtrack?

Dear Uncle Alice: A Fan Letter!

Dear Uncle Alice:

I know this is an unusual way to begin a fan letter, but then again, you are known for being unusual. Over the years (especially in the last ten), you have come to mean a lot to me. For those reading along with Alice and you don’t know who I am writing to, here is a bit of background.

Alice Cooper: born Vincent Damon Furnier on February 4, 1948, has created nightmarish music for over fifty years! His latest album, Detroit Stories, is a tribute to his hometown. If you would like to know more about this preacher's son turned “Teenage Frankenstein,” you can read his autobiography, Alice Cooper, Golf Monster: A Rock and Roller’s Life, and 12 Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict.

I have two vivid memories that are linked with you and someone I miss dearly.

I was introduced to you at the age of 6 by a talking frog. I will never forget seeing you rise out of the coffin dressed in the classic Dracula costume. Halloween was just around the corner and I told my Dad, “That’s really cool. He dressed up for Halloween!”

“No, honey, that’s Alice Cooper. He dresses up like that all the time,” he explained.

Then I replied, “Wow, he must really like candy!”

The second was a rainy afternoon, and Dad was cleaning out the garage when he came across a record case. He thumbed his way through until he found a record called Welcome To My Nightmare. My mother came from the kitchen and, in a scolding tone, said, “Don’t play that! He’s evil!!”

Dad winked and replied, “Hey Sandi, it’s better she learns about Alice from me than some weird kid at school.” Her only response was to let out a sigh, shake her head in disappointment while heading back to the kitchen. It was at that moment a father and daughter’s bond grew stronger, and your music would become the soundtrack for my life.

I have told my friends often that I can not think of my Dad without thinking of you, and vice versa.

Artist and friend S Raphael Vinci did this lovely work! In the painting is Daddy’s buddies Hilton and Harley

Clarence Duane Martin: Served two tours in Vietnam with the United States Marine Corps. Several years later, he was diagnosed with PTSD and some other health issues that required him to be put on oxygen 24/7. My Dad persevered. Perhaps, (in part) seeing me go through similar challenges with my own disability helped him to deal with his own situation. I say ‘part’ because you, Uncle Alice, had a hand in helping him as well. Whenever he had a dark moment, we would sit and reminisce about your music.  That would open the door to much happier memories! His two favorite songs were “Only Women Bleed” and “Poison”.

 

Those who are reading this along with you may find the irony in the fact that you, who write and sing about nightmares, helped a man keep one of the most horrific and terrifying nightmares at bay with that very same music. And at the same time, it strengthened the bond between father and daughter. However, you never know how strong a bond is until something comes along to test the line that binds.

May- 2011

I told Dad about your album Along came a Spider, as well as your recovery from alcoholism. He, at this point, was 20 years into his sobriety. I also told him that you had taken up golf. He found this hard to believe. I had to google it to show him proof. He was quiet for a moment and then said.

“I can’t believe he plays golf. I thought he’d be more into tennis.”

Late one night, Mom called for an ambulance, and he was taken to the ER. Once stable, he was taken to the VA hospital...

June 25, 2011

Even as I write this, I can not put into words what I felt and still feel when I look at that date. What does a ‘daddy’s girl’ do when her daddy is gone? How does she find the strength to carry on...?

The answer came in a flash... Music! Music helped my Dad! A still small voice inside my head said, just a name...

“Alice Cooper!”

Of course, just because he’s not physically here doesn’t mean we aren’t connected!

“Death can not stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.” ~Westley, Princess Bride

A souvenir a fan gave me from the last concert!

So I did a search on Youtube for your music Uncle Alice, and this is what I found:

Before we say goodbye

All I wanna say is I......

I just wanna give you something to remember me by

Something that lasts forever

Coz our love is for all time.

Song: Something To Remember Me By

Album: Welcome 2 My Nightmare

In the lobby of Ruth Eckerd Hall. I love this place! It is very accessible, and the staff are very helpful!!

From that moment, I spent every day making a playlist of your music to get me through that first year without my Dad.

I also have been to some of your concerts. The last one was the 2019 OL Black Eyes Tour. For those following along, if Alice has a concert in your state or country, please go! You will not be disappointed!!

I know that even a musician as well known as you can have doubts about your music-making an impact?

My hope is that while you have read this letter, it has laid those doubts, and may they permanently rest in peace! (insert evil laugh here).

I love you, and you will always be my Uncle Alice!

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read this. Also, for those grieving for the loss of a loved one, it’s ok to cry. It’s ok to still ask why. Just don’t let it drag you under and be torn asunder. Remember those and love each other.

This is my friend Jordan. This was her first time seeing him in concert. She never heard of him until she met me.

What songs or artists have you listened to that help you through rough times?

The Magic Of TV And Film Scores

What makes a movie memorable?  Is it the writing of the script?  Is it the performance of the actors?  Is it the cinematography, CGI, or set design?  In truth, every single one of these items contributes to the lasting impression a good movie or show can leave.  The directing, camera shots, and acting all play an incredibly important role in how a movie is produced and finalized into a finished product.  However, there is one role within a movie that often gets overlooked or doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves. I’m talking about the ever-important role of the movie score!

This invisible presence in a movie has more impact than most people realize.  Imagine this scenario; during an action sequence of Die Hard, you hear a love melody.  Insert confused meme here!  It wouldn’t have the same effect as the fun, action-filled music sequence Michael Kamen was able to put together for it!  The role of a movie soundtrack is more than just filling the theatre with sound and noise; movies can do enough of that on their own.  No, the role of a movie score is to provide depth, adventure, sorrow, familiarity, and a sense of knowing as a movie progresses.

Have you ever heard a song and gotten goosebumps?  Have you ever heard a song from a movie and it instantly transports you back to the scene you know it from?  This is the magic of a well-incorporated score.  I would like to open this to more than just movies.  One of the scores that really sticks out to me is that of the world-renowned TV series Game of Thrones.  If you are able to tear your eyes away from the handsome actors and beautiful actresses and listen to the music, you will hear familiar melodic choruses, moving and manipulating the emotion of the scene depending on what is happening, or about to happen, in the show.

Take the Stark family theme, for example.  The long, slow movements of the violin almost always incur tears of sorrow, due to their misfortune throughout most of the show.  The only time it can be conceived as positive is when one family member meets up with another.  It is a familiar tune we’ve become accustomed to hearing and are able to almost subconsciously know the direction the scene is going based on if we hear it or not.

For another example, listen to the Lannister theme.  This is a some-what jovial tune that can be transitioned to incredibly sinister with the simple change of pace (and timing).  Typically, it is heard once the Lannisters have been victorious, or carried out some evil scheme (*ahem*, Season 3 anyone?).  Once again, it is a tune we became familiar with that almost provides us with a premonition of what is about to happen. The viewers themselves become the Three-eyed Crow, instinctively and subconsciously expecting what will happen next (see what I did there?).

All of this is to say that the importance of a seemingly simple instrumental collaboration is unequal to any other part of a production in portraying the director’s vision on-screen.  Music has an amazing ability to turn a sad scene, into a tear-jerking scene.  Or an action sequence, into a curse-word inducing fun time. 

If you would like to hear a compilation of some of the best of Game of Thrones click the link below:

The other fun aspect of all of this is how you are able to tell who composed a specific movie without looking it up.  Many of you may not know the name John Williams (am I aging myself yet?) but many of you will recognize the movies Star Wars, E.T. The Extra-terrestrial, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Superman, etc.  If you listen to each of these individual soundtracks, you will hear raucous horns (trumpets) that mimic that of Gustav Holst's’ The Planets. Each soundtrack, respectively, carries an impressive single melody, and builds from there, typically beginning with the trumpet.  If you listen to Batman by Danny Elfman, you will hear a quieter approach to a single melody, with a build-up of several instruments instead of relying on one.  *Fun fact about Danny Elfman, he was in a rock band called Oingo Boingo and had never composed a movie until Tim Burton asked him to write the music for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which he also sang as Jack Skellington!  He has since composed over 100 feature film scores, including 16 Burton-directed films. (Wikipedia, “Danny Elfman,” n.d.)

Danny Elfman performing as Jack Skellington

The final example I would like to provide is that of the beautiful Marvel cinematic universe.  Ramin Djawadi (who did Game of Thrones) opened us up with Iron Man.  (I would love for anyone to spot the similarities in those soundtracks- they are there!)  Only one composer did a total of 4 of those movies, which is the most done by one single composer in that entire universe! That composer is Alan Silvestri, who also composed one of the most hummable and enjoyable soundtracks in the 80s which is Back to the Future.  Michael Giacchino even had a hand in the Marvel universe (he also did the new Star Trek films and Jurassic World.)  All in all, there were 14 different composers, including Henry Jackman (UNCHARTED 4 THEME!!) that had a hand in the Marvel movies.  However, there was always 1 Music Supervisor for them all, being Dave Jordan.  This is the magic and marvel (HA) of movie scores.  Not only is it a seemingly small world in TV and film making, but each one of these composers was able to reference the work of another MCU composer, to retain a similar sound throughout, all while properly providing an individual theme per the respective main character of that movie.  How amazing is that?!

For a compilation of some of the many songs throughout the Marvel Universe check out the link below:

 

I hope this sparks a curiosity in someone to perk up when watching a new (or old!) TV show or movie to listen to the beauty behind the visuals.  The magic in scores is emphasizing the meaning behind every scene and connecting a theme with a completely curated world.  No other part of a movie or TV show allows you to connect so immediately to that world, than simply listening to a theme.   Perhaps you are a person that doesn’t pay attention to that at all, which is completely common!  I do, however, urge you to begin to listen even a little bit, to allow the world of a show or movie you love to open up that much more for you.  I promise you won’t regret it.

 What movie score transports you back to a particular movie? Feel free to leave your comments below.