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7 artists who killed it on video game soundtracks

September 11, 2016

Video games have become works of art, and their soundtracks have followed suit.

Nowadays, artists have be more mindful than ever of possible additional revenue streams… that is, if they want to make music full-time and still be able to afford a steady supply of Chipotle‘Big Bite’ Spicy Burrito Crunchiladas®, (phew, just made rent, and all it cost me was my dignity). One of the more recent ways artists can make money is by licensing their music (or even their likeness) for use in Tipper Gore’s favourite medium: video games. No longer limited to 8-bit bleeps and bloops (though, those can often be great), making music for games serves artist both creatively and financially.

Some musicians, though, go above and beyond the call of a quick royalty cheque when a game studio wants to use their music. Whether it’s producing a whole soundtrack or just using a single song in an amazingly effective way, here are 7 musicians who took their shot at video game music and emerged with a high score.

HEALTH – Max Payne 3 (2012)

LA noise-rockers HEALTH’s abrasive jams might not have seemed like a natural fit to soundtrack neo-noir mascot Max Payne’s third outing, but their raw synths and storming percussion ended up complementing Max’s bloody swathe of vengeance much more effectively than some lame, trope-y jazz horns. The track “Tears” was nominated for Best Song in a Video Game at the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards… not exactly the most relevant or meaningful award around, but hey, still better than a Grammy.

José González – Red Dead Redemption (2010)

Entering Mexico on horseback as outlaw John Marston midway through Rockstar’s 2010 open-world cowboy game Red Dead Redemption, players were treated to a melancholy scene of windswept mesas, soundtracked by Swedish singer-songwriter José González’s evocative “Far Away.” The scene was called out by critics and players alike as one of the most effective uses of music in a video game to date…only marred by the fact that the song would immediately stop if you got off your horse because you caught a glimpse of the mythical cougar-man or something. Props are also due to Los Angeles indie rockers Ashtar Command, who contributed the game’s haunting closing theme, “Dead Man’s Gun”.

Nine Inch Nails – Quake (1996)

“We tried to make the most sinister, depressive, scary, frightening kind of thing… It’s been fun,” Doom megafan Trent Reznor told UK gaming mag Maximum in 1995 about creating the score for iD Software’s ground-breaking first-person shooter Quake. Reznor’s soundtrack was largely responsible for the game’s oppressive, ominous atmosphere, and remains a steadfast example of a game soundtrack heavily contributing to a game’s overall effectiveness. The iD developers were so taken with Reznor’s work, they placed the NIN logo on the game’s nailgun ammo boxes.

Solar Fields – Mirror’s Edge (2008)

Magnus Birgersson, aka Swedish electronic artist Solar Fields, knocked it out of the parkour with his productions for the first-person action game Mirror’s Edge. Though the game didn’t sell spectacularly well after its release in 2008, the sleek high-tech ambient soundscapes certainly weren’t to blame (it probably had more to do with the game’s lame looking, Erin Esurance-style cutscenes). However, fans of epic ambiance and proggy trance arpeggios can rejoice: Solar Fields also scored the sequel, Mirror’s Edge 2: Catalyst.

Jan Hammer – Police Quest 3: Kindred (1991)

Synth wizard Jan Hammer delivered a multitude of 80’s sunset-tinted timbres for the third iteration of Sierra’s classic adventure game series. It should be an enforced law that every police-based piece of entertainment has a score from the guy who gave Miami Vice its sonic identity.

COIL – Gitaroo Man (2004)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iThvfax4w8o

No, not that Coil, sadly, as awesome as that would have been. Japanese two-man electronic project COIL created a genre-hopping bevy of tracks for Gitaroo Man, each themed after a different one of the game’s villains. From a pounding electronic track for an evil robot to an impossibly difficult xylophone jam for a trio of evil skeletons, COIL launched Gitaroo Man into the top-tier of games about a boy and his robot dog defeating monsters with an intergalactic guitar.

Power Glove – Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (2013)

Possibly the only Australian music duo named after a failed Nintendo peripheral, Power Glove crafted a knowingly over-the-top, Jan Hammer-worshipping soundtrack for 80’s-action parody/lovefest Blood Dragon, a DLC expansion for Far Cry 3. Game production axiom #606: When you can’t get the Hammer, show Love for the Glove.

65daysofstatic – No Man’s Sky (upcoming 2016)

Though open-world space exploration game No Man’s Sky released to a less-than-stellar reception, its impressively cosmic musical score lives up to the hype. Sheffield instrumental post-rockers 65daysofstatic meticulously assembled a library of melodies, textures and loops that the game uses, on the fly, to generate a soundtrack to discovering strange new worlds or being attacked by an alien creature. “An awful lot of generative music is ambient, soundscapey stuff, we wanted to write music that didn’t sound like that,” 65daysofstatic member Paul Wolinski told The Guardian. They succeeded, even if starfaring gamers were left disappointed by the game itself.

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