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Top Ten Best Video Game Songs

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Posted September 6, 2012 by Lisa McInerney in Games
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One could write volumes about video game music. Since the art form’s beginning, music has been essential in conveying a game’s theme and tone – early video games had text-based dialogue and what we might generously call Crayola graphics, so having a rousing soundtrack was crucial. These themes stayed with us. They flow together in a nostalgic score we carry around as ringtones on our smartphones. Super Mario Bros. Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone. Tetris.

But this list isn’t about video game music. It’s more specific than that – it’s about video game songs. And the best of the best of these tracks are the songs which have come from the in-game world itself, songs that convey a protagonist’s struggle or a beautifully realised virtual landscape, songs that are properly bound up with a story you’re devoting 100 hours of your life to. Original, game-specific songs; no Fallout ‘40s glamour (though Fallout 3’s soundtrack has to be one of the best ever compiled) or GTA’s amazing radio stations here.

With that stipulation in mind, here are our nine Top Ten Video Game Songs. Do bear in mind that some of these are ending themes, so… you know. SPOILERS.

 

9. You’re Not Here - Akira Yamaoka – Silent Hill 3

Blue sky to forever, the green grass blows in the wind, dancing.
It would be a much better sight with you, with me.

Some fans theorise that ‘You’re Not Here’ refers to Silent Hill’s original protagonist, Harry Mason. Some say that it refers to the town itself. Both seem a stretch, but the eerie lyrics about painful yearning, coupled with the song’s sickly rock and harsh, looping melody perfectly evoke the fog-shrouded streets of Silent Hill and its desperate, cult-maddened occupants. So much so that they even used ‘You’re Not Here’ for the credits in the woeful movie adaptation.

The Uncanny Valley video is a little unnecessary – Silent Hill is frightening enough as it is.

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8. You Were There - Michiru Ōshima – Ico

The island bathes in the sun’s bright rays
Distant hills wear a shroud of grey
A lonely breeze whispers in the trees
Sole witness to history

The beautifully realised but criminally underplayed Ico, with its minimalist gameplay and detailed, stunning artwork, is an extraordinarily affecting experience. The player takes control of Ico, an ostracised boy who, alongside the ethereal princess Yorda, is fleeing for his life from a terrible fortress. The challenge comes in this burgeoning friendship; Yorda is unable to climb or jump any great distance, and Ico must guide and protect her in order to escape the castle. ‘You Were There’ perfectly captures this delicate partnership; a child soloist sings over layered, folkish melodies, just as our young, fragile protagonists make their way through a lush and haunting landscape.

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7. Snake Eater - Norihiko Hibino – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

What a fear in my heart
But you’re so supreme…
I’d give my life
Not for honor, but for you.

Gamers are divided over the Metal Gear Solid series, with one camp irritated that the games are essentially interactive movies, and the other thrilled that the games are essentially interactive movies. And what better way to get across to the world that your game is essentially an interactive movie than to have a song that the uninitiated would easily mistake for a lost Bond theme? It’s so cheesily, magnificently grandiose, it makes running around with a cardboard box on your head look positively noble.

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6. Katamari On The Rocks – Yū Miyake & Keita Takahashi– Katamari Damacy

Don’t worry, do your best!
Picnic kibun, feel so good!

Katamari Damacy introduces us to the King Of All Cosmos, who accidentally destroys the heavens whilst on a drunken bender. He orders his eency-weency son, the Prince, to visit earth with a magic ball – the Katamari – and roll up every object he can find so that his dad can recreate the night sky and everything in it. This bonkers premise is sustained by gameplay as instinctive as it is joyful, as the gamer pushes an ever-growing boulder around a quirky, lollipop-coloured world. ‘Katamari On The Rocks’, the theme song, is equally earnestly bonkers. In both Japanese and English, it’s a happy pep talk with a chorus as devastatingly addictive as the game itself.

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5. Far Away - José González – Red Dead Redemption

Cold wind blows into the skin.
Can’t believe the state you’re in.
It’s so far, so far away.
It’s so far, so far away.

Red Dead Redemption whips every iconic aspect of the Western genre into one incredibly well-realised game world, right up to each distant horizon and down to each dusty boot. You play as John Marston, an ex-outlaw taken from his family by government agents who promise him a pardon if he kills the remaining members of his old gang. ‘Far Away’, by José González, is the song that plays when Marston first crosses the Mexican border on that desperate quest, and it captures perfectly the figure of the lone frontiersman, trying to find his way though the death rattle of the old West.

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4. Begin Again – Justin Bell, Chris Avellone and Mikey Dowling – Fallout: New Vegas (Dead Money)

Where can we go?
When will we find that we know
To let go…
Begin, begin again tonight.

Dead Money is an expansion to the vast and vicious world of Fallout: New Vegas, in which your Courier finds himself trapped in the terrifying husk of the Sierra Madre casino, surrounded by a literal ghost town under a crimson, toxic cloud. It’s here that you’ll learn the tragic story of Vera Keyes, the chanteuse for whose protection this fortress had been built. Blackmailed into betraying her lover and eaten away by guilt and pain, Vera takes her own life when the Sierra Madre goes into protective lockdown, just as it was designed. It is her voice that your Courier hears as the Siren’s call that brings him to the Sierra Madre. It is her voice that is the key to the vault. And it is her voice that sings the mournful, haunting ‘Begin Again’, the song that plays as your Courier stumbles his way through the crumbling casino, a song dark and as spine-chilling as the building itself.

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3. Eyes On Me - Nobuo Uematsu and Faye Wong – Final Fantasy VIII

My last night here for you
Same old songs, just once more.
My last night here with you?
Maybe yes, maybe no.

There are two love stories in Final Fantasy VIII: the first, between protagonist Squall and the free-spirited Rinoa; the second, between Laguna and Julia. It’s the latter that’s captured in ‘Eyes On Me’. Inspired by Laguna’s smitten visits to the hotel bar where she plays piano, Julia writes ‘Eyes On Me’ as a tribute to his belief in her. He goes off to war, and they never see each other again; she dies a few short years later. Instrumental versions of ‘Eyes On Me’ are heard at various stages in VIII, but the full version isn’t played until Squall and Rinoa talk about their memories of their parents towards the end of the game. Because it turns out that Rinoa is Julia’s daughter… and Squall is Laguna’s son. In-game, ‘Eyes On Me’ has genuine historical impact – it feels like a song that means something in the world in which the characters live, and its final outing, played as Laguna finally connects with his past, has an emotional kick that feels beautifully true to the story.

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2. Dragonborn – Jeremy Soule – Skyrim

But a day shall arise when the dark dragon’s lies
Will be silenced forever and then
Fair Skyrim will be free from foul Alduin’s maw!
Dragonborn be the savior of men!

If you’re going to rend dragons from the sky, if you’re going to fulfil an ancient prophesy, if you’re going to save the damn world, then you’re going to need a bloody epic song to fire you up. If ‘Dragonborn’ – its lyrics in an in-game ancient tongue, belted out by a 90-voice, proud choir of warrior bards – doesn’t get you going, then Alduin’s already won. ‘Dragonborn’ makes you feel like your Dovahkiin really is Skyrim’s fabled hero; it immerses you in the landscape and lore of Skyrim, and makes you feel like this is a world that’s been waiting for your arrival since time immemorial. ‘Dragonborn’, like all great anthems, is made up of fightin’ words sung triumphantly; unlike other great anthems, it’s only as old asThe Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. So why, then, does it sound like a tale for the ages?

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1. Still Alive – Jonathan Coulton and GLaDOS – Portal

I’m not even angry
I’m being so sincere right now
Even though you broke my heart and killed me.

In Portal, your character, Chell, is repeatedly imperilled, manipulated and lied to by GLaDOS, the gleefully wicked artificial intelligence who serves as the operating system for, and evil overlord of, the Enrichment Center for Aperture Laboratories. GLaDOS puts Chell through a system of increasingly deadly test chambers, herding her with the promise of cake on successful completion, whilst trying to kill her off in a manner that falls a great length short of ‘subtle’. In the end, Chell manages to escape and kill GLaDOS. Phew! But as the end credits roll, it becomes apparent that GLaDOS is… well, still alive. AI is immortal, stupid! Not only that, but she’s really acting the martyr, and she’s passive-aggressively eating all the cake.

‘Still Alive’ is quite probably the most charming, hilarious and stupidly catchy song a gamer could wish to hear, and its sweet, simple melody and singalong magic is a combination most commercial pop songs can’t match. Laden with in-jokes and clever as fuck; Reader, if you listen to any song on this list, make it ‘Still Alive’. It is wonderful.

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They were good video game songs, weren’t they? Now, just because by knowing Hell you can appreciate the heavens, here’s the absolute worst.

 

0. My Hands – Leona Lewis – Final Fantasy XIII

I put on my makeup talking to the mirror
Ready for a new day without you

The Final Fantasy series is known for having amazing soundtracks, including orchestral grandeur, heart-racing battle themes, J-pop sugar rushes… And then for the closing FMV of Final Fantasy XIII, SquareEnix took that reputation, set fire to it, pissed on its ashes and smeared the ashes right into your ears. Instead of taking the usual route of commissioning a beautiful piece of music to convey the emotion at the end of XIII – and Jesus, was it emotional – they took a song off a Leona Lewis album. Utterly inexplicably. And so while you’re there, exhausted from a gruelling final battle, crying onto your joypad with an epic denouement about friendship and strength and courage playing out in front of you, you hear someone who won the X Factor singing in the background about putting on her make up. Her. Make. Up. XIII’s ending was about a beautiful sacrifice made by two incredible female characters, and some bint is in the background singing about some dude she likes and putting on her fucking make up. FUCK WHOEVER PUT THIS SONG IN FINAL FANTASY XIII.

It has to be noted here that they didn’t do this for the Japanese release. SquareEnix just hates Europeans.

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About the Author

Lisa McInerney

Lisa’s soul is so damn sensitive, she has to invent and occupy parallel universes just to spread herself evenly. This is also known as being a frustrated novelist.

  • Abban

    You need to check out Bastion and Sword and Sworcery!

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      Aye, but which songs?

  • http://twitter.com/notRuairi Rú Hickson

    ARGGGGG, there’s just too much good music in video games out there. Genki Rockets – Star Line, the entire soundtrack to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, The National – Exile Vilify… what’s more, video games have the ability to make songs that you previously hated *work*. See Avril Lavigne – Girlfriend in Burnout: Paradise, or Bon Jovi – Wanted: Dead Or Alive in GTAIV: The Lost & Damned as good reference points.

    But yeah, that Jose Gonzalez tune in RDR really hit the mark with what they were trying to achieve at that point in the game. Also, aren’t you concerned the hordes of FF fans are currently hunting you down for not mentioning One Winged Angel?

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      But again! You’re also mentioning songs that are added to game soundtracks, rather than original, game-specific songs. ALSO, we’re talking songs with lyrics only. Not themes. Sure if you were including game themes, you could easily expand this into a Top 100 and still piss people off.

  • Colm

    As any player of Saints Row: The Third will tell you, Kanye West’s “Power” is the most effectively used proper-song song in any game in yeeeears. Jumping from a helicopter and parachuting into a penthouse party, clearing out the bastids who think they own the place… good night, sir.

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      But it’s not game-specific. Dammit, Colm!

  • http://twitter.com/nuckpang Stephen R.

    So glad to see Still Alive get the praise it deserves. When it comes to in-game music that wasn’t written specifically for the game, I think Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas do an incredibly good job of packing in a great collection of curiously atmospheric tunes. Never thought I’d turn into a Marty Robbins fan until I found myself sniping mutants while listening to him play Big Iron. Wonderful games!

    • http://www.lisamcinerney.com Lisa McInerney

      “And he’s here to do some business with the big iron on his hip…” Phwoar!

      I adore both Fallout 3 and New Vegas – their soundtracks are amazing, and it’s always fun to see a load of teenagers on LastFM leaving <3 messages on The Ink Spots page.

      Still Alive is such a magnificent oddity. Makes me smile every time I hear it.

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