Setting the Scene: Atmospheric Music & Narrative

Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls

What elevates a game from moderately entertaining to irresistibly addictive? The kind of game where you tell yourself you’ll put your controller down, but four hours later … Anyway. It’s partly the story structure. Graphics that aren’t too hard on the eyes is also a plus. But in my experience, the soundtrack is what hooks me, engaging me in the story in ways I couldn’t escape if I tried.

As in other forms of media like movies and television, video games are similarly shaped and, essentially, all but narrated by the music that accompanies it. I’d be willing to bet the much-lauded Skyhold cutscene in Dragon Age: Inquisition wouldn’t have had quite the same impact without the swell of strings and crashing drums to carry the theme itself. Music is an absolutely imperative component to the gaming experience, and without it, a game will almost certainly fall flat.

From the vast expanse of soundtracks across all genres, I’ve rounded up my top favorite atmospheric songs that exemplify the different variances in storytelling techniques. Let’s start with the more seasoned contenders and analyze what, exactly, these forms of music add to the narrative and overall gaming experience. If you can put the controller down once one of these songs starts up, there’s no hope for you. Unless you ordered a pizza, in which case, carry on.

Legend of Legaia

You’ll forgive me if I wax a little poetic on Legend of Legaia, which was my first RPG experience as a child. It accomplishes several techniques within the first eight seconds: You know you’re about to embark on an extraordinary journey, and you know it’s going to be laden with as many cultural nuances as there are enemies to defeat. The “World Map” theme is as classic RPG as they come, and yet there’s something distinctly unique about it. You’re readying yourself for what’s to come, but at the same time, you’re not obligated to be too serious about it.

It should also be noted that an easily remembered tune (such as the well-loved Legend of Zelda theme) adds to the narrative structure of the game just as well. You’re more likely to feel a deeper connection to the story itself when you instantly recognize the music. That recognition triggers a sense of ownership for the player taking the time to enter a new world, and for that, Legaia certainly succeeds.

Often, I’ll find myself humming a song I don’t remember the name of. Nine times out of ten, it’s from a game I haven’t touched in years. What other aspect of the narrative could possibly stand the test of time like that, enticing me to play something I haven’t so much as spared a thought to in so long?

Tomb Raider

In a style similar to most video game soundtracks from the ’90s, the theme from Tomb Raider opens with a distinct, repetitious tune. The intent is clear: You’re invited to explore and inhabit this world as an active member of it, not simply as a player. Remember the tune. It will act as your invitation to the narrative, after all.

Although the song is more lofty and hopeful in its delivery compared to the sweeping adventure Legaia promises, the fact that the vocals lead this piece—thereby informing the ebb and flow of the song itself—suggests exploration of a different kind. This is a story entrenched in human history, a colorful palette of cultures and traditions (of which aren’t always respected). You’ll delve into the recesses of old ruins, learning secrets long forgotten by time. Whether you’re the same person in the future after you emerge from the past is another story entirely.

When the accompaniment drops out, featuring the vocals at the forefront, this indicates purpose of a higher cause. The re-introduction of the initial theme then serves to reassure the player that the story hasn’t changed—yet the seed has already been planted. You’re in for a journey that will change you.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

As anyone who’s played Skyrim can attest, it’s nigh impossible to choose just one song from the laundry list of Jeremy Soule’s masterwork. Still, there’s something about the soft strings introduced at the opening of “Masser” that make me want to stop progressing in the story and simply bask. It swells with vocals at first, then levels out to create a smooth, haunting finish. The piece is unerringly peaceful while at the same time belying a sinister, warning tone that rolls in and recedes as naturally as the tide.

There’s a lot going on in “Masser,” much in the same way there’s a lot going on within the framework of Skyrim itself. More than halfway into the song, we’re treated with swelling vocals yet again, but this time, the register is higher, loftier. This allows for a note of hope amidst an otherwise murky tone sustained throughout, which perfectly represents the richness of the game’s story in all its complexities.

With an open-world game, much of the dramatic tension relies on the quality of its music. Skyrim offers an ambitious scope in terms of narrative and the sheer size of its sandbox, but all of that would be nothing without pieces like “Masser.” This song takes you on a journey just by listening to it, which is precisely the aim of a successful soundtrack.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

If you follow us on Twitter, you know we’re just a little too invested in the world of Dragon Age, both past and present. The series relies heavily on the successful presentation of its narrative, which means Trevor Morris had quite the task when he took this project on.

At the start of “The Lost Temple,” your attention is immediately focused on trying to catch an all but indiscernible melody line. This serves to parallel the intricate storytelling of the game itself; this is a world you’ll inhabit for quite some time, but that doesn’t mean the narrative is about to coddle you by any means. There’s no one to hold your hand through the exploration of the narrative woven into the fabric of the series, and as Inquisition serves as the third installment, this makes sense.

The halfway point treats us to a brief, lone string instrument, presumably representative of the playable character central to the story. It’s almost as if the accompaniment crowds around the melody line, sometimes overtaking and drowning it out by degrees. These represent the rich histories of your fellow companions, the gathering pilgrimage against the storm, and more than that, a cautionary tale of the one thing every gamer searches for: You will be overwhelmed, and you will love every minute of it. Good luck.


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