A topic that seems to come up every few months on GAF is the discussion of Eastern vs Western video game music (which is functionally co-opted into a Japan vs. the West debate). It's a topic that never ceases to annoy me, mostly because Western music tends to be dismissed out of hand by so many people. Comments like "Japan without a doubt" or "If a game isn't Japanese, I just turn music off" or "Western music isn't memorable" all of which I find to be intensely and completely unfair.
So to (hopefully) correct what I believe to be a massive oversight in respect and knowledge about music in the West, I offer this little primer. For each composer, I've generally picked out two or three OSTs that I found to be the most memorable. Most of the composers have more to their resume than that, but I thought it would be best to zero in on some of their work. Many great composers have been left off, so this primer of course does not represent the full breadth of everything the West has to offer.
Jake Kaufman - Shovel Knight, Double Dragon Neon, Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, Mighty Switch Force!
Yes, yes, Manami Matsumae shares credit on the Shovel Knight album for work on two tracks. But the star of the show there is undoubtedly the very talented Jake Kaufman, evident by the other stupendous scores he has put out. However, Shovel Knight is the easiest case to exemplify what makes Jake’s musical talents so noteworthy. What’s particularly impressive about Shovel Knight’s OST is that it manages to lend a nostalgic wave to the golden age of 8-bit games, while simultaneously feeling fresh and energetic. Although Shovel Knight could have easily been plain nostalgia-bait or overly reliant on the work of past musicians, with excellent tracks like La Danse Macabre, Shovel Knight manages to rise above and stand proudly on its own two feet. Every song is about moving you forward, making you excited just to be playing the game and bringing a smile to your face, qualities that are a constant across his body of work.
Mick Gordon - Killer Instinct, Wolfenstein: TNO, DOOM
Mick Gordon rocks hard. The tracks in TNO are simply a stellar mix of pulse-pounding themes with amazingly catchy and adrenaline boosting blends of guitar and electronics that Mick himself called "a tribute to all things guitar.” Even in moments when the game takes a breather, there’s an earnest intensity to everything going on in the music. Hard to believe that it’s possible, but DOOM might rock even harder, with tracks that flow from the ominous, to the intensely somber to the downright violent. Similar in a way to Kaufman’s work, the album is a profound tribute to DOOM’s past, but remains intensely modern and furiously “alive,” never allowing itself to just become a cadaverous reminiscing for yesteryear.
Peter McConnell - Grim Fandango, Psychonauts, Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (with Michael Bricker)
How do you compose a soundtrack that suits a game set in the minds of several incredibly eccentric and diverse characters without letting the music become disjointed? Looking at what McConnell was asked to do with Psychonauts, it would have been very easy to create a very disjointed tracklist, but somehow, he created a masterpiece of variation that bounces with ease from music that ranges from the Western to carnivalesque to jazzy. And speaking of jazzy, Grim Fandango and Thieves in Time have two of the better jazz soundtracks around, along with plenty more trademark McConnell genre-hopping.
Danny Baranowsky - Crypt of the Necrodancer, Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac
Danny has been stamping his mark on the indie scene for quite a few years now, with his breakout being the excellent Super Meat Boy OST. Somewhat similar to the way that McConnell is a proven genre-hopper, if you let him, Danny will take you for a trip. With everything from chiptunes to bombastic symphonic arrangements to discoesque tracks, Danny knows how to craft a pumping ride. Even if for some crazy reason someone was tempted to dismiss the SMB and BoI OSTs, last year's Crypt of the Necrodancer OST really shows how Danny can be tasked with putting his music right at the very center of a game and make something stupendous.
Grant Kirkhope - Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Viva Piñata
With a resume boasting Banjo-Kazooie, Kingdoms of Amalur, Perfect Dark, Golden Eye and more, you simply can't do Western video game music without Grant Kirkhope. One of his best soundtracks though comes from the often underappreciated Viva Piñata. With Viva Piñata, Kirkhope could have stuck to the tried and true "Saturday morning cartoon" styling that he was familiar with, but instead chose to step up his game. There's an incredibly sweet delicacy to many of the tracks that's not often found in the oh-so-fast world of video games.
Michael Giacchino - Medal of Honor, Medal of Honor: Frontline
If you grew up in the early 2000s playing Medal of Honor, you grew up listening to Michael Giacchino. As mentioned earlier, it's often complained about Western games that their OSTs are "too cinematic" or "too orchestral." And while that's a gross overstatement of the current state of Western game music, there is of course some truth to the claim that AAA Western games have been trying to ape film scores. The issue though, more often than not, isn't just that they're aping film scores (which leads to a broad sameness across some games), but that they do it poorly. To digress for a moment, part of that stems from the trend for action games to treat war as "look how badass this is." In contrast, Medal of Honor and Giacchino tried to lend at least some amount of gravitas to the subject matter. As an example, in Frontline which dealt with the failed Operation Market Garden, Giacchino has two tracks Arnhem and After the Drop which serve as a haunting reminder of the lives lost in the war. For better or worse, Giacchino will go down as one of the most influential composers in video game history because he was one of the earliest to actually bring orchestral action music to the industry in a beautiful and memorable way.
Darren Korb - Bastion, Transistor
Korb is another indie star, having birthed the two particularly excellent OSTs for Supergiant's games. Neither game would be remotely the same without their OSTs, with both forming part of the backbone for the games' worldbuilding. In the case of Bastion, the jaunty Old Western guitar vibe is paired with modern sounding percussions/electronics and exotic instrumentation from sources like an Indian sitar, to create a wholly unique feel to the world. In the case of Transistor, with the protagonist being a muted singer, music again takes a central stage in bringing together the aesthetics and characterization.
David Wise - Donkey Kong Country, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.
I don't really need to say anything about David Wise do I? I think his legacy and reputation speak for themselves.
Michael Land - The Dig, The Curse of Monkey Island
For many of you, hearing a Michael Land piece will be a trip right down memory lane, back to the glory days of LucasArts. A mainstay of LucasArts for many years, Michael Land composed for some of their most celebrated favorite games. Two highlights are The Dig and The Curse of Monkey Island, as they show two sides of Land. With The Dig, there is a beautiful evocation of the mysteries and depth of space in a majestic, classic sci-fi sound. Monkey Island on the other hand is intensely whimsical and fun, a completely different tone, but one that Land performs immensely.
Jeremy Soule - Total Annihilation, Secret of Evermore, Skyrim
Most people probably know Jeremy Soule from his excellent Skyrim soundtrack, the most memorable part probably being the now iconic Dragonborn theme. But Jeremy has been around for much longer than some might know, with his first big break coming on his often criminally underrated Secret of Evermore OST. A far more subtle and intimate soundtrack than perhaps the bombast of Dragonborn, but one that shows what a champion Jeremy was, even as a newcomer way back in '95. It may be quite a controversial claim to make, but the SoE OST is one of the best from the SNES era.
Chris Hülsbeck - Turrican, Rogue Squadron (N64/PC), Great Giana Sisters
In the defense of many who poo-poo Western gaming music, one issue is that some of the most fantastic stuff comes from the early PC era that so many are unfamiliar with. However, Hülsbeck's music should be something that anyone who claims to be a gaming or video game music enthusiast should know. The 80s-esque synth rock makes for some of the best music on offer from the era. Hülsbeck's classic music spans all of Turrican 1 through 3, but it's Turrican II that's the highlight. His theme for the Giana Sisters game is also humorously noteworthy because it remains the main memorable part of an otherwise fairly unmemorable game.
Tomáš Dvořák - Samorost 2, Machinarium, Samorost 3
Dvořák has worked on some incredible point-and-click games, with Machinarium arguably being the standout. Many of history's greatest PnC games rely heavily on witty dialogue for their characters, but Machinarium is a bit different. Machinarium instead takes Dvořák's music and pushes it to the very forefront of the game and utilizes music to push the game forward. The crowning achievement of Machinarium though is just how perfectly the OST matches the beautiful backdrops and aesthetic.
Josh Mancell - Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter
I'll admit my heresy. I've never been a huge fan of Crash or Jak. I enjoyed them, sure, but I never really loved them. Part of that was probably a result of me playing them at a time when I was completely incompetent at platformers, so I just was terrible at them. But one thing that stuck with me, and one thing that assuredly stuck with almost anyone who played the games were the amazing earworms that Josh Mancell cooked up for the game. Even without having played the games much, all it takes is a few notes of Boulders to know what's coming next, which speaks to the remarkably memorable and excellent composition by Mancell.
Joris De Man - Killzone 2, Velocity 2x, N+
Killzone 2 has an odd claim to fame, which is that the OST for the game was recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios. A weird factoid, but one that gives a little insight into what a special composer Joris De Man is. Whether composing something a little more orchestral like Killzone 2, or completely changing gears for the more arcadey N+ and Velocity 2x, Joris can do just about anything. Whether something upbeat and peppy like Frontier, or heart-breaking like Killzone's And Ever We Fight On, Joris has you covered.
Matt Uelmen - Diablo, Torchlight 2
Consider this. In Diablo, Matt Uelmen crafted such an iconic theme that when Blizzard wanted to announce Diablo III at Blizzcon '08, all they has to do was have a guitarist play the first bit of that theme, and instantly the whole room knew what was coming. The opening guitar chords to Tristam are indeed now iconic, and the choice of an acoustic guitar was quite a bold one, but Uelmen manages to work every inch out of the guitar, conveying a brilliant suggestion danger lurking in the shadows. The rest of the soundtrack is equally creative and memorable though, as is his later work on Torchlight II, another OST that is multilayered, full of suggestions rather than definite statements. Working in fantasy settings, it can be easy to get trapped in the tried and true or in the cliche, but Uelmen never rests in a comfort zone.
Austin Wintory - Monaco, The Banner Saga, flOw, Journey
Austin has a pretty special claim to fame having produced the first full game soundtrack to be nominated to a Grammy (Journey). Among a tracklist of masterpieces, Apotheosis remains the highlight. Orchestral music is used to varying effects and to varying degrees of success, but Austin manages to use it in a remarkable grand way. What's even more special is that among this grandly orchestrated music, the music never comes across as self-important or too grand. There's actually something particularly transcendent about Apotheosis (right around the three minute mark) that feels almost wholly unique in gaming music. Really, transcendent isn't a word that most would think to associate with gaming music. Memorable? Yes. Uplifting? Maybe. Transcendent? Well, that's something special.