We run down the 18 (ish) different moods that video game music tends to adhere to, from ‘anxious’ to ‘victorious’.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
When you have a sizeable collection of something — for example fridge magnets, traffic cones or video game music — it can be a relaxing, slightly mindless pastime just to sit and re-sort your treasured possessions. How much time can one spend alphabetising one’s Barbie dolls or digitising one’s collection of 19th Century accordion music? Too much time, that’s for sure.
One rainy day some years ago (likely a Tuesday), I started labelling my digital game music tracks by mood, with the vague notion that I would someday study the characteristics of each grouping. 6,000 tracks later (there were a lot of rainy Tuesdays), I had identified 18 different moods that were common within game soundtrack music.
These 18 ‘moods’ are, of course, completely subjective and not a little arbitrary — I pretty much ignored outliers that didn’t neatly fit into my nonsense framework. That said, I still thought it would be fun to briefly run through these moods and my general observations about them. I’ve blogged at greater length about this elsewhere (including film music picks), but we’re aiming for maximum pith and concision here.
And you must please forgive the galaxy-sized hole in my knowledge of Nintendo scores.
Click to jump around:
16. Sunset journey
“Connor’s Life” by Lorne Balfe from Assassin’s Creed III
What does anxiety sound like? In video game music terms, you’re talking long, held minor string chords, usually with a downtrodden version of the otherwise triumphal main theme over the top. Picture our hero having encountered a major setback and they’re pouting about it in the rain; or the Big Bad has made off with the Crystal of Wossitsname and will soon summon an unsightly, world-ending tentacle fiend.
What I like about this track by Lorne Balfe from Assassin’s Creed III is that it conveys the weight of the game’s melodrama, whilst keeping things interesting with a variety of instruments and melodic material:
Further anxiety-inducing listening:
- We recently wrote about “The anxious calm of Resident Evil save room music” and how the majority of unsettling yet calm Resi save room tracks effectively form their own game music subgenre.
- Shout out to Normand Corbeil’s (R.I.P.) score for Heavy Rain, particularly Redemption.
- Also Andrew Hale’s incredible jazz score for L.A. Noire, especially Temptation, Pt. 2.
2. Darkness is upon us
“Mandus Awakes” by Jessica Curry from Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
This mood is pretty straightforward — if a track makes you want to hide behind the sofa and cower in terror, it belongs here.
There are a few different flavours of ‘darkness’ in games (as in other fictional mediums), for instance: ‘ unseen evil lurking in a slimy dungeon’, soundtracked by low bass notes and ethereal scraping noises (as with Jessica Curry’s Amnesia track below); frenzied battles with horrific foes which require more aggressive, percussion-led tracks (like some of Garry Schyman’s stuff from BioShock Infinite); and then the barely-listenable dread racket of psycho-horror (e.g. Akira Yamaoka’s industrial noise for the Silent Hill series).
Further dread listening:
- Steve Vancouver of the VGM Moments podcast helped pick out some properly sinister tracks as part of our Halloween game music round-up.
- I’m a fan of Christopher Drake’s score for Batman: Arkham Origins, especially Hallucinations.
3. Dawn or dusk stillness
“Birth” by Austin Wintory from flOw
If you’ve had the pleasure of being in a completely quiet outdoor location during a picturesque sunrise or sunset, you’ll know exactly what I’m getting at with this mood. Proper meditative stillness in game worlds seems to be to be a rare thing — not just putting the controller down and having your character rooted to the spot, but experiencing a situation where everything feels naturally at peace.
I’ve always enjoyed one of Austin Wintory’s early game scores: that for thatgamecompany’s first commercially released title, flOw. You’ve got to love his minimalistic choice of musical material, all passed through an incredibly wet reverb that I’ve nicknamed the ‘Giant Bathroom’.
Further zen listening:
- We wrote about the value of ‘stillness’ — “Sparsity blues: An ode to peace and quiet in video games”
- Hohokum features some gorgeous ambient electronica, including Reticent Reminiscence.
- I’ll never stop recommending Pixel Audio’s Lara Croft GO soundtrack, especially The Bridge Of Many Sides.
“Heart of Pandaria” by Russell Brower & co from World of Warcraft – Mists of Pandaria
💪 !!! E P I C !!! 💪 — that most overused of adjectives, especially when it comes to video games. I’ve employed it here in a fairly cheaty way as, to my mind, it encompasses longer score cues that may go through several different moods — but they usually reach a climactic section involving a full orchestra and choir belting out the main theme of a game.
There have been hundreds of classic film soundtracks with great ‘epic’ cues — by John Williams, James Horner, Howard Shore and so on — and the equivalent tracks in game soundtracks tend to stick to the same big sound (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!) To its credit, some of the wonderful World of Warcraft music echoes that traditional Hollywood grandeur, as with the main theme to the Mists of Pandaria expansion:
Further humongous listening:
- When Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV composer Yoko Shimomura goes big, she goes EPIC, as with this from Kingdom Hearts II — Fantasia alla marcia for piano, chorus and orchestra.
- There’s some giant cues on the Civilization VI soundtrack, including Russia (The Atomic Era).
“Crossing3084” by Hideaki Kobayashi from Phantasy Star Online
It’s the uniquely Japanese sci-fi vision of the future that I’m referring to here; that cyber-SEGA aesthetic, with light grey and sky blue interiors sporting clean lines and sliding doors. I also think of various gaming locales: Mirror’s Edge’s utopian city; Balamb Garden in Final Fantasy VIII; The Citadel in Mass Effect; sections of P.N.03.
But this mood is mainly defined by my outsider’s impression of the Phantasy Star Online series, almost entirely formed by listening to Hideaki Kobayashi’s light and breezy synth work:
Further Neo-Tokyo Moonbase listening:
- Final Fantasy XIII-2 features some seriously chill tracks in this vein, particularly by Mitsuto Suzuki (e.g. Temporal Rift)
“L.A.A.S.” by Robin Finck & Wordclock from Noct
To distinguish ‘gloomy’ from ‘darkness is upon us’, I’m thinking of more ambient and less overtly evil music here; tracks that are trying to tell players that these dank caves might be dangerous, or they might just be poorly lit.
Laced Records released the soundtrack to Noct back in 2015, and it features a sonically massive, broody set of tracks from Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck and ambient electronica artist Wordclock. This is a track that would work for both a shadowy alien cave system and the dark back alleys of a Blade Runner-esque dystopian city.
The track starts at 23:07 and ends at 29:50:
Further oppressive listening:
- Unsurprisingly, the Resident Evil series has loads and loads of great gloomy tunes — Underground from Resident Evil HD Remaster is pretty unsettling. The same goes for Silent Hill, of course.
- Portal 2 features some unnerving tracks, including Robot Ghost Story.
- Troels B. Folmann recorded some intense ambient tracks for Crystal Dynamics’ initial Tomb Raider trilogy, including England 9 from Tomb Raider: Legend.
“Metallic Archaea” by Harry Gregson-Williams from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
A significant portion of our time playing modern big-budget games is spent performing heroic feats of derring-do. I imagine most game composers have a go-to template for enormous-sounding fight music which they reach for (whilst emitting a sigh) whenever the time has come to write cue ‘Combat02_A4’, followed by ‘Combat02_A5’ etc.
It’s also where a lot of composers are allowed to shine, creating exciting, densely packed tracks that — as with major action movie scores — deftly combine live playing with electronic instruments. Harry Gregson-Williams’ career has zig-zagged back and forth between games and movies, and some of his cues for the Metal Gear Solid series have benefitted from that Hollywood blockbuster experience, in my opinion:
Further ‘fight me’ listening:
- JRPG battle music falls squarely within this grouping, and Revo’s Bell of Battle/Conflict’s Chime from Bravely Default brings a new energy to the template established by Nobuo Uematsu with his classic Final Fantasy battle themes.
- Greg Edmonson’s chopped up fight music for the initial Uncharted trilogy is thrilling, especially Oh No Chateau from Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
- The God of War games are chock-full of fight music (it’s mostly smashing monsters in the face, after all), with Cris Velasco’s The Barbarian King Returns from God of War II being a highlight.
8. Light and incidental
“Porte Pluto” by Daniel Olsén from DEVICE 6
This one’s a bit of a fudge. It lumps together most of the ‘not-one-thing-or-the-other’ tracks, where the player character might be doing a bit of light sneaking around, but the stakes aren’t that high. Noncommittal musak, you might say.
For me, jazz-influenced soundtrack cues tend to find themselves in this grouping, which brings us to Daniel Olsén’s fantastic, low key score for Simogo’s DEVICE 6. The game takes cues from Mad Men, 60’s TV show The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte, whilst the music gives prosaic lounge jazz and bossa a creepy twist:
Further ‘lift music’ listening:
- Jared Emerson-Johnson’s jazz band score for Telltale’s Sam & Max: Season One is a delight, especially The Office.
- Ditto Peter McConnell’s jazzy work for Grim Fandango and Jim Fowler’s for Diggs Nightcrawler.
- Indeed, McConnell has become incredibly adept at writing light music loops for point-and-click games — evidenced by Broken Age’s score, including Welcome to Merriloft.
- Nobuo Uematsu’s golden age Final Fantasy scores have some classic examples of this mood, including Vivi’s Theme from Final Fantasy IX.
9. On a journey
“Juchu” by DVA from Botanicula
Video game characters travel. A lot. They walk, ramble, roam, hike, jog, run, sprint, climb, shimmy, jump, leap, cycle, drive, fly, hand-glide, ride a shoopuf… you get the idea. And whilst that is often soundtracked by grandiose orchestral themes (as with certain Lord of the Rings-esque JRPG world map themes), there’s also different musical strand here — the quirky, upbeat ‘we’re on the move’ cue. What unites them all within this grouping is that they are upbeat and positive-sounding.
DVA is an Czech alternative rock duo that created some adorably daft yet completely fitting music for the charming point-and-click game Botanicula:
Further listening for the hero’s journey:
- Another quirky soundtrack is that for Tearaway, including the brilliantly ramshackle Pig Riding.
- We recently argued that JRPG world map themes are, in effect, their own game music subgenre.
“Atrus’ Study” by Jack Wall from Myst III: Exile
Arcane temples, fog-covered ritual grounds, ancient ruins… Those cantankerous priests with their silly headdresses and fetch quests.
Mysterious locations and characters are par for the video game course, and one series above all others has turned this mood into its stock-in-trade, musically speaking: Myst (the clue’s in the name). Jack Wall’s scores for the third and fourth games in the series are extremely effective, with the cue embedded below — Atrus’ Study — reaching peak mysteriousness, for me:
Further ethereal listening
- Jack Wall’s The Serenians from Myst IV: Revelation is also wonderfully mysterious, featuring a haunting choir.
- Austin Wintory’s ABZÛ is truly magical, especially Elasmosaurus platyurus.
- Kow Otani’s score for Shadow of the Colossus is a classic, including the sombre Prohibited Art.
- We picked out some of our favourite tracks filled with awe and wonder.
“Palace Theme” by Kenji Ito from Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song
The parochial video game village is a place most gamers hold a special place in their hearts for. It is a little ironic that what we think of as the typical idyllic in-game town is often an impressionistic take on European countryside life in the Late Medieval/Early Modern periods, refracted through the lens of Japanese game development. Hence the thatched cottages, chickens running loose and friendly taverns, with very little representation of the misery of feudalism and limited life expectancy caused by nasty incurables.
Romancing SaGa, an early 90’s Square joint, features some deliciously relaxing, traditional JRPG music. This tune (from the 2005 remake) may be for a palace setting (hence the regal harpsichord), but it encapsulates that charming aura of twee JRPG locales:
Further chillaxing listening:
- We picked out some of our favourite game music tunes for a peaceful, sunny day.
- Grant Kirkhope’s score for Viva Piñata is so pastoral and peaceful, it makes me want to set up camp in the English countryside for good. Whilst Oven-Fresh Day has one of the best melodies you’ll ever hear (honestly), Soil Song is also lovely.
- The Dragon Quest series is stuffed to the gills with peaceful tunes — A Quiet Village ~ Town Theme 2 from the symphonic suite for Dragon Quest VIII is charm-central.
“Smiling Face” by Nobuo Uematsu from Blue Dragon
Romance. Love. Sex. Video games don’t always (i.e. very rarely) treat these things which much nuance or realism, but that’s OK — there’s always the novels of the Brontë sisters, French cinema and Rembrandt paintings to fall back on. But of the types of amorous activity that game music tends to evoke most effectively, that certain sense of innocent infatuation and longing — the warm love of youth — is up there. Earnest passion is something that game composers, especially for Japanese games, have been able to nail for a long while.
Since Nobuo Uematsu and his classic Final Fantasy back catalogue usually turn up all over Laced With Wax blogs, I’ll veer away from his best-known work and highlight a deeper cut: Smiling Face from 2006’s Blue Dragon, is evidence that his melody-writing skills remained as sharp as ever after stepping down as the principal Final Fantasy composer:
Further listening to help one swoon:
- Another strand of romantic game music includes the various Strauss-esque waltzes that turn up here and there, especially in Final Fantasy games — Waltz for the Moon from Final Fantasy VIII is possibly the best loved, but the Starlit Waltz from Final Fantasy XV is also pretty.
- Then there are the songs: including a bunch from JRPG series like Kiss Me Good-Bye from Final Fantasy XII; the Bond theme homage Snake Eater from Metal Gear Solid 3; the sultry jazz songs from L.A. Noire like Torched Song; and the touchingly poignant Everything’s Alright from To The Moon.
“Arkham City Main Theme” by Nick Arundel from Batman: Arkham City
Distinct from the ‘epic’ grouping, rousing game music (whilst still epic-sounding) is all about the build — by the end of a track, you’ll be so pumped up that you’re ready to fight a bear (please don’t though).
There’s something endearingly melodramatic about Rocksteady’s video game interpretation of Batman, and Nick Arundel’s main theme for Arkham City will leave you feeling like you can single-handedly smash Gotham’s crime lords — with your dynamite fists.
Further ‘F*CK YEAH!’ listening:
- Thomas Was Alone composer David Housden does a good line in uplifting music, for instance Infiltration from Volume. (The full Volume OST is available from Laced Records’ Bandcamp and major digital music stores). Michael McCann nails it with Icarus from Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
“The Knighthood” by Jason Graves from The Order: 1886
As with creating a mysterious atmosphere, choral music also works well in conveying sadness and loss. And, if we take Barber’s Adagio for Strings as the default ‘In Memoriam’ piece for mourning the dead, orchestral strings are also a key component of bumming everybody out through music.
Jason Graves combines both a men’s choir and string ensemble here to create a devastatingly beautiful piece that would be completely at home in the biggest budget Hollywood movie or heavy TV drama like Game of Thrones:
Further 😭 listening:
- The original NieR soundtrack features some delicate, sorrowful songs including Grandma.
- Suikoden literally has a Theme of Sadness and I am very partial to the Guitar Version.
“Rosalina in the Observatory 3” by Koji Kondo from Super Mario Galaxy
Game developers can literally make the sun shine whenever they want as they tweak the code of their expansive game worlds (from their basement office with no windows during the Montreal winter, probably). And fiction usually requires that there is a contrast between the good times and the bad times, the light and the dark, so that when you’re lost, deep within the final dungeon, you might remember back to when you were running carefree through the sun-bathed fields at the top of the adventure.
This is another of those moods where composers working on Japanese games seem to excel — it’s all about that summertime whimsy:
Further sunny listening:
- We picked out some of our favourite game music tunes for a sunny day.
- I just cannot get this crazily catchy tune out of my head — Jungle Run, from Rayman Jungle Run.
- The ending song from NiGHTS into Dreams — Dreams Dreams — is just… I mean… it’s special.
16. Sunset journey
“Aurora's Theme” by Coeur de Pirate from Child of Light
This grouping is especially subjective, but I’m essentially referring to that bit where game characters are gazing towards the far horizon during the golden hour — they’ve come so far, but they've still got further to go. The accompanying music tends to be highly melodic, full of longing and somewhat bittersweet; pieces also tend to keep things moving along with a steady, driving pulse.
The piano is often the flavour of the day, and you get a lot of classic pop song chord sequences that pass through IV and vi (for instance, if you start in C major [happy] and you want it to sound yearning, head to an A minor [sad], then to an F major [sounds like it’ll lead back to happy]).
The Canadian singer-songwriter Béatrice Martin (AKA Coeur de Pirate) was brought onboard to score Ubisoft Montreal’s Child of Light, and the results were truly lovely:
Further ‘we’re nearly there’ listening:
- As I wrote in my contribution to our Nobuo Uematsu celebration, Final Fantasy has always excelled at evoking that ‘sunset journey’ mood — typified by Shirō Hamaguchi’s piano arrangement of Ahead On Our Way from Piano Collections FINAL FANTASY VII.
- Jessica Curry’s BAFTA-winning score for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has oodles of beautiful music in this mould, including The Mourning Tree.
- David Housden’s music for Thomas Was Alone is rammed with ‘striving towards a goal’ tracks, exemplified by Where Are You?
“NYC Streets” by Alexander Brandon from Deus Ex
“Grandpa, what did you used to do when you were younger?” “Well Jimmy, I snuck into an awful lot of military bases and bad guys’ lairs. I must have spent thousands of hours hiding behind barrels and other conveniently positioned waist-high cover. I’m not proud of it, but I probably strangled, garroted and stabbed thousands of henchmen. Not in real life, obviously.”
Probably the next most used music template for game composers (next to ‘battle music’) must be ‘stealth’. As stealth mechanics infiltrated video games [pun intended] as a whole, so there has been a proliferation of tense, mostly electronic music. I associate this mood most strongly with the technology-assisted base-sneaking of the Metal Gear Solid, Batman: Arkham and Deus Ex series:
Further sneaky listening:
- For my money, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker has some of the best tunes in the series, including Entry Gate.
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt features some great tracks to perform covert operations by, including Breaking In from the Hearts of Stone DLC.
- Resident Evil: Revelations, as with most Resi titles, regularly ratchets up the tension — Trace of Riddles does this well.
“EXEC_VIENA/.” by Haruka Shimotsuki from Flame ~Homura Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson
And here we are — the eighteenth and final mood. In video games, we fight/solve/jump/drive/score/explore/explode our way to success, and success has to sound fittingly triumphal. But I’ve cheated here, because into this mood falls a number of triumphal-sounding overtures that feature at the beginning of some games. What unites it all is that it usually involves a giant orchestra belting out a cheerfully militaristic victory march.
But, in an effort to pick something a bit leftfield, I’ve gone with one of the most infectiously upbeat pieces of game music I’ve ever heard — the song EXEC_VIENA/. from Ar tonelico 2. And no, I don’t think the name of the album it comes from — Flame ~Homura Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson — was created using a random word generator, but you never know:
Further ‘huzzah!’ listening:
- Beloved Halo composer Marty O’Donnell released a prequel album to the upcoming VR game Golem, with a rather good Fanfare on it.
- Ending from Streets of Rage 2 is waaaaay cheesy, 90’s style, but also amazing.
- Nothing beats the Final Fantasy series theme when it’s fully orchestrated.
And that’s the lot! I’d be very interested to know what any actual game composers thought about my arbitrary mood groupings. I really hope that one of them replies: “There’s only one mood for game music — the right mood.”
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Be sure to check out our blog series — “Why we ♥ video game music”:
– 'The feels'