6 of the Greatest Video Game Music Composers
Singing the praises of six of gaming's best musical architects and their crowning achievements.
Despite being about the furthest thing one can be from musically skilled, music plays a huge role in my consumption and enjoyment of media. Much like smell is the most powerful sense at evoking memories in real-world contexts, a familiar tune or nostalgic track is often what sends me back to a beloved game or film once again, not to mention how music fuels my creative endeavors. I can’t hear Audioslave’s Shadow on the Sun without wanting to immediately watch Michael Mann’s Collateral, in which the song appears during two of my favorite moments.
Names like Hans Zimmer and John Williams are legendary in the film business, while Bear McCreary and Sean Callery are two prominent TV composers I can name off the top of my head. When it comes to video games though, composers and audio personnel are frequently overlooked – seldom do I hear anyone speak about video game music outside of older themes like Super Mario Brother’s main theme, E1M1 from Doom, etc.
In this list, which is by no means exhaustive or definitive, I’m going to discuss in no particular order some of my favorite composers of our beloved interactive medium, and highlight one particular work from them that stands out to me; some of the harder choices may also have runners up. Technically there will be more than six people, but credit has to go where it’s due for collaborative efforts.
1. Martin o’donnell/Michael Salvatori
Known for: Halo (Bungie-developed games), Destiny
Meeting in college, O’Donnell and Salvatori are responsible and most well-known for the innovative music behind the Halo series. In an era when shooter soundtracks generally tended to be mostly computerized and synthesized, Halo was one of the first prominent titles to feature a full orchestra and choir. O’Donnell was not only the composer but also the audio director and voice acting coordinator for the series under Bungie, with Salvatori collaborating on the soundtrack with him while also running their other business on the side, TotalAudio. The pair would go on to compose the soundtrack for Bungie’s Destiny before O’Donnell was rather messily let go from the company in 2014.
Aside from the leap to orchestral scoring, the duo were also responsible for another then-innovative development that later became incredibly widespread; dynamic scoring, which saw the music responding to the events of the game to an extent, playing and ending different tracks as the mood changed, a fight ended or started, etc.
On top of this, while the core series returned to the same leitmotifs and basic scores (in a good, constructive way), the spin-off titles Halo: Reach and Halo 3: ODST both featured entirely new scores, both a bit darker to reflect the tones of those games while also experimenting with new sounds and instruments; this is most notable with ODSTs somber, noir-ish jazz influences. Even the core games often experimented with different sounds, most prominently with Halo 2’s inclusion of work by Steve Vai, Breaking Benjamin and Incubus.
My Favorite Track: As much as I’d like to put the legendary (heh) main theme here, or Steve Vai’s badass version of it “MJLONIR Mix,” the track I find myself coming back to again and again is a rather short but for me very emotional one – “In Amber Clad.” “You always bring me to such nice places,” as Cortana says.
The Runner Up: Alright fine, here’s the MJOLNIR Mix.
2. david bergeaud
Known For: Ratchet & Clank
Composing across all mediums, Bergeaud’s foray into video game music is linked almost exclusively to projects by Insomniac Games, chiefly their flagship Ratchet & Clank series. The French composer also scored the first in their Resistance first-person shooter series, as well as their 1996 FPS Disruptor in addition to a few non-Insomniac projects.
Despite not scoring Insomniac’s Spyro series (which were helmed by honorable mention Stewart Copeland, better known as the drummer for The Police), his works bear a slight similarity in that each level of the Ratchet & Clank games is given a catchy, distinctive and varied tune; many themes instantaneously put an image of that level in my head.
The series featured a wonderful array of tracks, from upbeat, diverse numbers that elicited a whacky or mischievous mood to thumping percussion and more militaristic and serious affairs that often dominated later levels or particularly combat-heavy planets. I’ve never heard Bergeaud’s name mentioned, even when people do discuss the games’ soundtrack, which is a shame given that Ratchet & Clank has some of the finest music I’ve heard in a game, period.
His absence from the reboot/movie tie-in was sorely felt, as that game’s music was perhaps the blandest and most generic I’ve heard in a long while.
My Favorite Track: With so many to choose from, this was next to impossible. In the end, I settled on the track that brought forward the strongest memories – in this case, “Maktar Nebula Boss Battle”, which calls back to 11 year-old me frantically flipping and dodging around missile locks and sweeping attacks in the second game’s arena boss fights.
The Runner Up: “Metropolis,” perhaps the most iconic track of the series, a perfect mix of dramatic, upbeat action and quirky sci-fi weirdness.
3. mick gordon
Known for: Doom (2016)
A relatively recent addition to the realm of video game composition in comparison to the others here, Australian musician and composer Mick Gordon cut his teeth as a sound designer for Pandemic’s Destroy All Humans 2 and for the past 10 years has worked on several successful titles before he exploded into popularity just last year with his award-winning soundtrack for the the 2016 installment of Doom.
Having previously worked on Wolfenstein: The New Order and its expansion The Old Blood for Bethesda (another great if understated soundtrack), as well the fighting game Killer Instinct, he had a some prominent projects under his belt already. When id released their latest Doom game, it was a relentless series of surprises, from the fluidity of its action and movement to the surprising depth of the lore, but, for me at least, Gordon’s killer head-banging soundtrack was the highlight, the cherry on top if not the linchpin of the experience – I cannot and do not want to imagine the game without it. When I took that elevator to Mars’ surface, Samuel Hayden growling platitudes in my ear as Gordon’s rendition of E1M1 rumbled to life, I knew I was in for something truly special.
Gordon’s already got another soundtrack on the way with Arkane’s Prey reboot, and early peeks at it show a very different but extremely welcome sound. There’s not much more I can say that the man himself hasn’t already; I highly encourage you to check out Noclip’s interview with Gordon, as well as their entire fascinating documentary on the game’s development, if you have the time.
My Favorite Track: Doom’s “BFG Division.” I tried to kid myself that the other tracks had a chance.
4. michael giacchino
Known for: Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty series
Known in the film and television realm for his work with the likes of JJ Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Brad Bird and Matt Reeves, Giacchino has made numerous ventures into the world of game scoring, showing a preference for shooters and war-themed games. He was there at the start of Medal of Honor, providing an even earlier example of a fully-orchestral soundtrack for a shooter than Marty O’Donnell’s work on Halo. This lent extra dramatic weight to EA and Steven Spielberg’s attempt to create a companion piece to the latter’s epic war film Saving Private Ryan in video-game form, and the game was all the better for it.
Giacchino stayed with the series for its run through World War II, scoring the sequel Medal of Honor: Underground as well as Allied Assault and Frontline, widely regarded as the two best entries in the entire franchise. He worked on several other EA properties as well, including the Lost World: Jurassic Park game and Criterion’s destructive shooter Black. He collaborated with fellow composer Chris Tilton on the latter, and did so on Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction as well.
Every game I’ve listed spent a great deal of time in the disc drives of my old consoles and PCs (Mercenaries still lives in my PS2 as of this writing), and Giacchino’s work on each stands out. Quite simply, the man knows how to make something grand and epic feel all the more so through his music.
My Favorite Track: “Manor House Rally,” from Medal of Honor Frontline. I hum this to myself while I’m at work to this very day. The backing to one of the best levels in the Medal of Honor franchise.
The Runner Up: The Mercenaries Theme. Hearing this as the main menu whirs to life never gets old.
5. Harry gregson-williams
Known for: Metal Gear Solid series (since Sons of Liberty)
Though not a prolific game composer, having only worked on Call of Duty 4 and Advanced Warfare outside of Metal Gear Solid, Gregson-Williams’ work on one of the most famous and beloved franchises in the industry is nonetheless hugely important.
Tappi Iwase originally created the series’ iconic theme for the first installment, working with Konami’s internal audio team on it and the rest of the soundtrack. Gregson-Williams took the lead beginning with the second installment, working alongside numerous others including Japanese composer Norihiko Hibino on the second and third games. Metal Gear Solid’s music is so much more than just the main theme, though, and this was especially obvious when Konami ceased usage of the beloved piece beginning with Metal Gear Solid 4 due to legal issues.
Despite this setback, Gregson-Williams and his cohorts continued to put out quality scores, as they always had. In fact, my favorite track is not related to the main theme in any way…
My Favorite Track: “Virtuous Mission” A memorable opening to my favorite game in the series, backed by this pulse-pounding, expertly-crafted piece that is paced wonderfully to get you amped for the adventure to come. “Spread your wings and fly!”
The Runner Up: Duh.
6. Keiki kobayashi and the NAMCO sound team
Known for: Ace Combat series, Tekken, Ridge Racer
Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies was the first and, for a while, only game I had for my PS2. I loved everything about it, and I played it so much that if you play me any song off of its soundtrack, I can tell exactly which level/part of the game it plays in within a couple seconds.
Keiki Kobayashi was not the lead composer on that title, and was actually fairly inexperienced at the time; series veterans Tetsukazu Nakanishi and Hiroshi Okubo were the leads on the fourth installment. Nonetheless, Kobayashi made a name for himself on that game, absolutely crushing the gig with the track for the final battle, “Megalith Agnus Dei,” still considered to be one of his best and certainly a series highlight.
Kobayashi subsequently became the sound and music lead for the series, which to this day remains my single favorite series of video game soundtracks, and indeed some of my favorite music in general.
The Namco Sound Team is of course responsible for the soundtracks for other Bandai Namco properties, but none of them even come close to holding a candle to Ace Combat. Each game in the series has its own core sound, though each is also internally varied; 04 retained some of the synthetic elements that the third game went all-in on, while 5 used an almost-exclusively orchestral and choral approach, sometimes bombastically so and to great effect. Ace Combat Zero is perhaps the most unique, with heavy Spanish influence and a propensity for the guitar, both acoustic and electric.
Little is known about Ace Combat 7 despite several trailers, but we do know that Kobayashi, now a freelancer, is returning once again – music to my ears.
My Favorite Track: This was by far the hardest choice to make for this article. Ultimately though, it’s going to be an unpopular choice if you’re a fan of the series, I’m sure. Safe Return isn’t the most memorable mission in Ace Combat 04, but there’s just something in the song that’s encouraging and hopeful as you clear the way for the damaged spy plane.
The Runner Up: Considered by many to be Kobayashi’s crowning achievement, this flamenco-infused masterpiece plays during the final duel of Ace Combat Zero, where you essentially do the super-sonic fighter aircraft equivalent of jousting with your nemesis. Fucking bonkers.
So there you have it, my six-ish favorite composers in the video game sphere. If you’ve got different picks for tracks or artists than me, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!