We look at some of the different ways in which video game composers have soundtracked watery settings such as the high seas, underwater caves and the deep, dark abyss.
By Mathew Dyason and Thomas Quillfeldt
Most of us have a utilitarian relationship with water. We drink it. We use it to wash. Occasionally we’ll go swimming, or take a dip in the ocean. Video games let us explore places and experience situations that most will never encounter IRL, including all manner of wet and wild scenarios such as diving into giant, sub-aquatic caves; getting soaked by the ocean spray as we sailing the high seas; or chillaxing in a bioluminescent pool as alien-looking glowing creatures float around.
Since we can’t yet smell or feel the sensations of game worlds, audio and music is an absolutely essential part of selling the illusion of virtual bodies of water and underwater spaces. With the aid of YouTuber Mathew Dyason, the man behind the Game Music Fanfare channel, we picked out some of our favourite ‘watery’ music, highlighting the different ways composers have approached the challenge of conveying wetness to gamers.
Each track is embedded below, but here’s a handy YouTube playlist if you prefer (sadly not every track is available on Spotify et al).
1. Floating in a bubbly pool
“Sea of Serendipity ~ The Lums' Dream” by Christophe Héral and Billy Martin from Rayman Origins
French impressionist composer Claude Debussy, rather than stick to an easily discernible key, flitted through different keys and modes making his compositions sound dreamlike and ethereal. In a similar, albeit simplified way, (the also French) composer and vocalist Christophe Héral does the same with “Sea of Serendipity ~ The Lums' Dream”, adding multi-tracked, pitched-up voices singing complete nonsense lyrics over the top. The shimmering gold Lums (pronounced: looms), like most things in Rayman Origins (OST on YouTube), are cute and hilarious, and here Héral wields them to create a subaqueous atmosphere that is simultaneously floaty and silly. Trust the Rayman series to imbue core platforming collectibles with daft personalities.
2. Avast, me hearties!
“Maiden Voyage” by Robin Beanland from Sea of Thieves
It feels like ever since Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in 2013, the appetite for AAA, fully-realised pirate games has grown. Along those lines, Rare’s ‘shared world action-adventure’ game Sea of Thieves (OST on YouTube) seems to have struck a chord with players, especially in 2018 where it benefits from the popularity of game streaming, YouTubers, a thirst for multiplayer hijinks and an appreciation of “player-centric storytelling” (i.e. memorable mucking about with mates).
I’m sure Klaus Badelt and Hans Zimmer’s main theme for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (“He’s a Pirate”) wasn’t the first to associate the pirate genre in popular culture with a pacey 12/8 time signature, but it certainly became a signature sound from the mid-’00s onwards. In a more modest and measured way in the 12/8 “Maiden Voyage”, Robin Beanland uses that same idea of a melody bouncing along on ever-changing minor and 7th chords — combined with fun, tropey instrumentation that includes a solo cello, harpsichord and hand-held, makeshift percussion (e.g. what sounds like spoons). Later in the cue, it becomes more traditionally orchestral whilst still retaining that certain sense of Rare fun.
Of course, the real instrumental stars of Sea of Thieves are the hurdy gurdy and bandoneon concertina....
3. Battling a sea monster
“A Thousand Leagues Below (Iron Whale)” by Manami Matsumae from Shovel Knight
This is the underwater Mega Man theme that never existed.
Shovel Knight (Spotify; Apple Music) is a rose-tinted love letter to 8-bit games of the ‘80s, in particular Mega Man. The soundtrack even has a pair of tracks from Manami Matsumae who, 30 years after her original Mega Man soundtrack, proves she still has great musical chops. The Iron Whale stage sees Shovel Knight embark on an aquatic adventure through a submarine, and then down into the oceans depths to find sunken treasure and monstrous deep sea fish.
Matsumae’s “A Thousand Leagues Below (Iron Whale)” captures Shovel Knight’s valiant bravery with a bold melody and a downward momentum as you sink ever deeper. Extra credit is due for this being a genuine 8-bit track, using the Japanese Famicon-only VRC6 sound chip that added a lush extra 3 sound channels to the mix.
4. Flowing fluidity
“Aquamarine Bay” by Tim Follin from Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future
The original Ecco the Dolphin on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis provided a unique musical treat: watery ambient soundscapes with an FM synth. The soothing electronic ambience felt right at home on the Yamaha YM2612 sound chip. For Ecco’s Dreamcast follow-up, Defender of the Future (OST on YouTube), the musical reigns were handed over to accomplished chiptune artist Tim Follin. Despite being one of the most prolific and celebrated chiptuners, Follin held a particular hatred for synthesised music, calling it “a silly idea to begin with” and a waste of time! So, naturally, the transition to CD-quality Redbook audio on the Dreamcast was kind to him.
With Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future, Follin kept that that classic Ecco sound, but also pursued musical realism, featuring washy synths that sound like a chorus of violins and rolling cymbals that crash over you like ocean waves. It’s like the greatest relaxation CD that your mum never owned.
5. Sturm und drang
“Arctic Sea - Out Of Time” by Colin O'Malley from Tomb Raider: Underworld
The final part of Crystal Dynamics’ first Tomb Raider trilogy, Underworld (OST on YouTube), featured some huge underwater diving and exploration sections, as well as a diverse and expensive-sounding score. Composer Troels B. Folmann had scored the first two games, but his role changed as he became more of a supervisor to, and collaborator with Underworld’s lead composer, Colin O’Malley.
There are some exquisite ambient tracks on the soundtrack (such as “Coastal Thailand – Ruins”), alongside some stridently bombastic orchestra & choir cues. In “Arctic Sea - Out Of Time”, O’Malley employs Folman’s main theme like a grand ship (voiced by the horn section) nonetheless being tossed around by 100ft waves. The brass and percussion smash about, dominating the piece, before a choir, yelling at full volume, take things to the next level about halfway through. The cue plays during a climactic battled with series antagonist Natla — and, if anything, is a bit over the top even for a final boss fight!
6. Magical sub-aqua mysteries
“Elasmosaurus Platyurus” by Austin Wintory from ABZÛ
It was inevitable that the astonishingly beautiful underwater adventure ABZÛ (Spotify; Apple Music) would make it onto this list. And it’s that man again — Austin Wintory — the busiest body in video games, coming up with the soggy goods. During her run of game music radio shows aired on UK station Classic FM, host and composer Jessica Curry repeatedly sung the praises of Wintory’s choral writing.
This subtle, spaced-out track has it all: synthesised sounds, groovy mixing techniques, tasteful (looooooong) reverb tails and oh-so delicately scored orchestra and choir. Just like water, it’s impossible to hold onto any element of the music — chords, melodies and harmony all float in and out, around and about like a swarm of eels. There are a few moments that are reminiscent of Kot Otani’s score to Shadow of the Colossus.
In case you were wondering, Elasmosaurus Platyurus was named by paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope in the 19th Century: Elasmosaurus (thin-plate reptile) is a genus of plesiosaur (a Late Cretaceous dinosaur); and Platyurus means flat-tailed.
7. Gentle sailing
“The Waters Cleansed” by Gareth Coker from Ori and the Blind Forest
In the Microsoft-published, rock hard platformer Ori and the Blind Forest, the forest of Nibel is dying. Noxious weeds proliferate, and the forest has lost the essence of three elements that give it life: Warmth, Wind and Water. It’s up to the forest spirit Ori to restore these elements and revitalise Nibel. At first, water is toxic to Ori, but upon climbing atop the Ginso Tree it releases a deluge of pristine water, cleansing the rancid pools throughout the forest and opening up new areas of the map.
Gareth Coker’s gorgeous orchestral score for Ori & The Blind Forest (Spotify; Apple Music) captures not only the beauty of Nibel, but fosters a sort of spiritual connection between Ori and nature. This is particularly felt in “The Waters Cleansed” — a lush, joyous highlight of the soundtrack. The solo oboe performance by Tom Boyd is stunning, brimming with the same life and warmth that the water brings to the forest.
8. Epic seafaring adventure
“Sailing the Sea” by Revo from Bravely Default
The best moment of any JRPG (subject to personal taste, of course) is when you finally get a ship and set sail across the ocean. No longer are you confined to the starting continent — the deep blue that once was a barrier now represents freedom, and offers a slew of new places and side quests. A favourite part about sailing the open seas is the adventurous new tune that soundtracks you on your travels.
Bravely Default (OST on YouTube), a spiritual successor to the Final Fantasy series for the Nintendo 3DS, features a landmark soundtrack by Japanese composer Revo, possibly best known as the creator of the Attack on Titan opening theme. He is a master of knitting various themes together to create a musical tapestry that tells the game’s story. For “Sailing the Sea”, Revo cleverly reworks the main map theme into a soaring waltz, with a bouncy rhythmic motion to give it a swashbuckling feel.
9. A little light underwater exploration
“Atlantis” by Grant Kirkhope from Banjo-Tooie
Banjo-Kazooie did a really cool thing with underwater music: instead of transitioning to a different track when diving below the water line, or simply applying a low-pass filter to muffle the sound, the area’s theme would dynamically change its instrumentation to a unique underwater arrangement. Luckily, composer Grant Kirkhope has a knack for writing versatile melodies that sound great in both variations.
For sequel Banjo-Tooie (OST on YouTube), areas were much larger in size, and some were given entirely unique themes for certain sections such as the hidden world of Atlantis in Jolly Roger’s Lagoon. It was a treat to have a Kirkhope underwater theme written from the seabed up, able to include all the hallmarks we’ve come to love: reverby marimba, pretty arpeggios and a feeling of weightlessness. Some might dismiss Grant’s work as cliché, but when you look deeper, beyond the (figurative) bells and whistles, you’re always left with a catchy melody that does what its supposed to in conjuring a certain atmosphere.
10. Warm water tranquility
“Dragon Palace” by Rei Kondoh from Ōkami
Ōkami is a very, very Japanese game, based as it is on Japanese myths, legends and folklore — the stated aim of the composition team was to draw upon classical Japanese music. And, like other Eastern classics like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII, its soundtrack (a mere 186 tracks on YouTube, actually 218 on the five disc CD release) has launched a thousand covers and arranged albums, whether fan- or professionally-produced.
Harp arpeggios, choir synth pads, synth flute, yearning chords, lashings of reverb… “Dragon Palace” is the quintessential relaxing, watery — and especially ‘gamey’ — VGM track. It immediately evokes Japan, as well as the sensation of lazing back in a warm jacuzzi.
11. Horrors of the deep
“Underwater Depths” (AKA “Sector 4 (AQA) Underwater Area”) by Minako Hamano and Akira Fujiwara from Metroid Fusion
The deep sea is, quite frankly, terrifying. We know less about Earth’s own oceans than we do about outer space, but the two share many similarities: they’re pitch dark, impossibly cold places filled with monstrous, alien jellyfish (probably).
Minako Hamano, best known for her work on Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, conflates the creepiness of both space and water in Metroid Fusion’s “Underwater Depths” (OST on YouTube). The track retains many of the typical aspects of underwater music: atmospheric sonic textures, mellow melodies and of course, floaty arpeggios. It captures the isolation and directionlessness commonly associated with Metroid games, but doubles down on the dissonance to make you feel entirely unwelcome. This can be genuinely uncomfortable to listen to at times — clashing all the wrong notes in spectacular fashion, contradictorily aided by the Game Boy Advance’s unfortunately low audio fidelity.
In a series famous for its creepy ambience, “Underwater Depths” rises to the top.
12. Island life
“Shellmound Festival” by Peter McConnell from Broken Age
A regular among our Laced Listicle™️ entrants, Peter McConnell just cannot help but show off his wit, talent and versatility with ever new score. Double Fine’s Broken Age (Spotify; Apple Music) may have been a bit divisive for fans of classic point-and-click adventures, but it brought forth another quirky McConnell soundtrack that mashes together all sorts of different instruments and ethnic styles of music. Importantly, he combines sounds and genres that aren’t often heard in video games in an effort to imbue every track with character and colour.
In “Shellmound Festival”, every instrument — principally flute, steel pan, marimba and guitar — screams sunshine, beach life and clear blue seas. It’s unapologetically upbeat, sunny stuff with a light groove plenty of noodling.
13. Getting wet in the ‘90s
“Diving” by Dean Evans from Waterworld
(This is one for the Donkey Kong Country fans — who might not like its conclusion 😤.)
Games based on films are, as a rule, rubbish. Thankfully, the days of cheaply made movie tie-in console games are mostly behind us, but back in the ‘90s there couldn’t be a big budget film released without an obligatory cash-in for every home console.
Then came Waterworld, the 1995 post apocalyptic sci-fi film starring Kevin Costner (trailer). You know the one (and if you don’t, best not to trouble yourself by watching it). It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, and bombed harder than a B-52. Oh, and critics hated it.
You might not be entirely surprised to learn that the SNES tie-in game was also a steaming pile of rotting fish matter. The game’s single redeeming feature, however, is its bafflingly incredible soundtrack (YouTube) by Dean Evans. With atmospheric synth soundscapes of such a high fidelity that it should be impossible to be played back by the SNES, the comparisons to David Wise’s work on the Donkey Kong Country series are striking.
The underwater exploration track “Diving” manages to somehow be equal parts relaxing, adventurous and terrifying. To top it all off, the track extends to five-and-a-half minutes without looping. It truly is the aquatic ambient opus of the SNES (don’t hate me).
Mathew Dyason produces game music analysis videos on the Game Music Fanfare YouTube channel. You can follow him @mittopotahis on Twitter; and if you like his work, you can support him on Patreon.
If you’re thirsty for more wonderfully watery game music, here’s Mathew’s video on the matter (the tracks are mostly different picks from those above):