Warning: There may be themes from the same franchise, but from different games. As I’ll state below, this isn’t a comment on any given series’ quality or value, so I’ll continue assuming you can accept that.
Video games have a knack for inspiring emotion in all of us, but sometimes they need an edge – something to really add to the personal value. Sometimes it takes music to create a mood or sense of atmosphere that no combination of acting, scripting and choreography could totally accomplish on their own.
For me, these 10 themes accomplish such a task, while also managing to be incredibly enjoyable in their own right. This is not strictly a comment on the quality of the games which these pieces of music belong to, nor is this is a statement of what the best themes in history are; this is simply my way of stating what my favourites are, in as respectable and intelligent a manner as possible.
So let’s rock this list!
10. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – Nate’s Theme
Why: It appealed to my sense of adventure
With a good set of instrumentals, and a beat that mimics the roller coaster-like experience of the game, Nate’s Theme is an adventure theme through-and-through. It has a catchy, eccentric tune that cannot be forgotten, and it knows how to build up the tension of the moment with quieter intervals.
But once the music shifts gears, it’s light-hearted action for everyone. The combination of horns and drums by composer Greg Edmonson is clever in its design, and it sincerely works.
9. Metal Gear Solid – The Best is Yet to Come
Why: It fits the game’s somber tone
When you’re making a game with as deep a message (or twelve) as Metal Gear Solid, you need a tune that emphasizes the importance of every significant story beat. The Best is Yet to Come is that tune.
Featuring Irish-sung vocals by Aoife Ni Fhearraigh, this moving song is brought to life with an extensive 15-person orchestra that give the singer’s voice added poignancy. It all comes together as a theme that, whether in the heat of battle or in the credits, makes it clear that this game has something it wants to say.
8. Final Fantasy XIII – Main Theme
Why: It’s sad and sweet
Few songs manage to be joyfully poignant or tragically entertaining as the opening theme from Final Fantasy XIII. When a game’s theme makes you reconsider how you reviewed the game, that’s a testament to its strength.
But how does it earn that strength? With the use of long, drawn-out notes on keyboard and string instruments by a talented orchestra, emphasizing the beauty of the music as well as making the audience feel both regret at calling the experience “shallow” and joy in seeing such energy put to good use.
7. Mass Effect 3 – Mordin
Why: It brought me close to tears
While A Future for the Krogan may be the more notable theme for its sad echoes and its expressive tone, this short but powerful piece follows the final journey of its namesake with great nuance. This theme lives for making grown adults blubber.
Be it with the initial percussion beats that seem foreboding, or the grand instrumental section, this song perfectly leads into an anthem for one last, great stand. Then, as the theme reaches its end, a bittersweet section of horns leads us out.
6. Infamous 2 – Fade Away
Why: It captured the sadness of the finale
Damn… when you have an ending either potentially bittersweet or just plain bitter as that of Infamous 2, there needs to be a physically embodiment of the associated sadness and regret. Fade Away fits the bill quite well.
Similar to A Future for the Krogan, it utilizes a singer’s echoing to symbolize loss and despair. However, it has a clear set of lyrics which delve into the nature of the story and a slow piano beat early on to hammer in the somber tone before turning to harder rock.
5. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – Loyalists
Why: It gives a sense of relief and finality
This one is short and used several times in the campaign, but it’s still affective in its structure. Loyalists gives the impression that the player has done good work, and can now rest easy.
Starting with a bit of a haunting drum beat, it then turns to a heavenly set of string instrumentals and occasional drum beats to complement Call of Duty 4‘s ending well.
4. Portal – Stay Alive
Why: Its odd, yet appealing quirks
I don’t know if it’s necessarily the deadpan humour present throughout, the well-placed Half-Life references, or the brilliantly robotic delivery by Ellen McLain, but Still Alive is a general crowdpleaser.
Technically, there’s not much to it besides a few instrumentals here and there and McLain’s performance, but that works to conductor Jonathan Coulton’s advantage. It’s a song that emphasizes GLaDOS’ acceptance of her death and Portal‘s events as being for the best, and it thrives to this day.
3. Splinter Cell: Conviction – Conviction (Main Theme)
Why: It goes between heartfelt and tense easily
Admittedly, the song can feel a little too close to other action-thriller themes, and perhaps it should have gone lower. However, Conviction remains close to my heart because it drew me in with how much emotional depth it added to the story, then hooked me with the promise of heart-pounding action.
The combination of drums and strings to create such a somber tone works so well, particularly when it’s used in the game’s final hour.
2. Metal Gear Solid 4 – Father and Son
Why: It’s emotionally bittersweet
This one absolutely demands to be on this list. As a fan of the Metal Gear franchise, experiencing the ending to Metal Gear Solid 4 was a powerful moment for me. That flood of emotion largely sprang from the strength of the theme, Father and Son.
Referencing the pair of Big Boss and Solid Snake, this tune begins with a woodwind instrument setting the tension to rise with a slow piano tune, which transitions into harder drums. The entire ensemble, playing as a sort of orchestral anthem, gives the impression that we are indeed observing the end of an era.
1. Mass Effect 2 – Suicide Mission
Why: It captures the ending’s combination of tension and adventure
To me, nothing can compare. This theme rises in action-heavy beats twice, and fully deserve such increases in tempo. Suicide Mission encapsulates the core nature of Mass Effect 2: the idea that this could spell doom for the crew of the Normandy.
Drawing from both classic orchestral tracks and old-school science-fiction themes, Suicide Mission features a wide range of instruments and sounds – some synthesized, some organic, but all fitting into the series’ idea of diverse cultural influence. The tune starts off with basic rising percussion beats, which quickly transition into more intense drum beats and horns.
Even in the moments where it is calm, Suicide Mission bucks the trend by keeping the tension building with repetitive, though never frustrating, beats. As it reaches its climax, we get the feeling that it matches the narrow conclusion to Shepard’s grand adventure: tense, exciting and completely enthralling.
Feel free to chime in below. What themes do you agree with? What themes do you think deserved to be on here?