Game soundtracks used to be whatever the developer could squeeze into the remaining system memory once they had gotten the game running. But now, our ever more powerful modern consoles mean that games can do whatever they want for their musical backing.
While I enjoy a strong videogame score as much as anyone, I do worry that this has made it too easy for games to simply copy films. It used to be a real skill to squeeze ten hours of music into a few bytes of memory that resulted in unique and creative solutions.
You could tell if someone was playing a C64, Master System or Game Boy game just by the synthetic sounds it was emitting. As much as visuals or gameplay, it was a distinctive element of the experience. Maybe we should think twice about discarding it.
Some games do better than others of course, and use their soundtrack not to just tick orchestral boxes, but to intelligently interweave new and rare audio through their experience. Cat Spencer has recently written about the Alan Wake soundtrack in these terms. Her review of the Boxed Set soundtrack has plenty of praise for the intelligently unusual music that adds another dimension to the game:
Alan Wake has a soundtrack that mixes alt-rock, psychedelia and pulp-twang with Petri Alanko's haunting orchestral landscapes. Although more noticeably uneven when out of the game, the mix manages to create a pleasurable and less earnest listen.
The soundtrack is available in the Alan Wake Limited Edition box set. Not only nicely packaged in a faux book box, it also comes with a real novel, the game itself and plenty of other goodies. The soundtrack is on a CD and as such will play on any CD player. My mp3 player seemed to struggle to bring up names for each track, so I had to add them manually.
Alanko has created a musical grammar for Alan Wake that reminded me of those sad unfolding 90's dramas. The solitary piano and shivering violins avoid becoming too stereotyped though, as does the brooding development of darker tones.
A Winter's Dream sets us up for forthcoming disasters and sets out Alanko's stall - a sweeping epic backdrop to play against. Although never becoming choral, these recreate similar emotions to Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings orchestration.
Welcome to Bright Falls is most iconic offering here, and reoccurs most often in the game - as well as plenty of trailers over the last few years. The strings take a lead throughout but are book-ended by piano and woodwind that combine to create moments shrouded in real emotions.
The Clicker is the shortest of the tracks and seems to be more functional than fully formed. Here, the album gives away its videogaming remit. Tom the Driver then dials things down as we move from the sweeping movements of the big screen to something much more like TV. And it all works well to signpost the album's change of gear towards a more modern varied crescendo.