The Video Game Soundtracks of our Lives: Horror Games
It’s that time of year again where we break out our favourite sweaters we like to wear until March while the local village goth has an extra spring in their nu-rock boots. It’s Halloween, the time of year we purposely sacrifice having heart conditions to find a good scare. Whether we’re watching some horror classics, or breaking out the Lovecraft, we live for cheap scares and cheaper Halloween themed cocktails.
Of course, video games like to cash in on that market as well as they should, the horror genre, if done right, can deliver some of the more creative narratives in gaming and has every potential to scare us into switching our consoles off. From the darkened hallways of insane asylums to the lost cities filled with dark secrets, there’s no denying that gamers are spoilt for choice in where to find their spooky kicks. However, like with all things videogame, a good soundtrack is key to keep the anxiety levels high and the player gripping their controllers until the credits roll.
So lock all the doors, switch off the lights and get ready to hear plenty of orchestral scores as we delve into the murky swamps and give you ten spooky examples of horror game soundtracks, guaranteed to keep the hearts racing and the mind in a constant state of paranoia. If you haven’t read any of the Video Game Soundtracks of our Lives articles we did over the summer, bear in mind that isn’t a top 10. This is a history of the horror genre’s humble beginnings and how they have evolved with the times.
Honourable Mention: A Conversation with Death – The Dark Pictures Anthology
Listening to this song has become somewhat of a yearly tradition, and not just because I’m willing to review The Dark Pictures Anthology every time a new instalment comes out. Throughout the series of trope-tastic settings, one aspect I always look forward to is that barn-burner of an intro. For those who have never played any of Supermassive’s horror stories before, it is an intro of exuberant proportions.
The best description I can give is that it’s a modern TV intro akin to such shows as Tales from the Crypt or Mystery Science Theater 3000, which you don’t see all that often in the realm of video games. O’Death is also somewhat a tradition for Supermassive, who have used the folk song in one form or another since Until Dawn. While TDPA’s soundtracks sadly don’t have a lot to write home about, Supermassive can lay claim to being responsible for one of gaming’s more memorable openings in recent years and for that, it does deserve a passing mention.
7th Guest – George Sanger (1993)
Released in 1993 for PC, 7th Guest holds a place in the hearts of many a gamer, as for some, it was their introduction to horror games and for its time you can easily see why. 7th Guest puts you in the shoes of the ghostly ego of serial deviant Henry Stauf as you explore his haunted mansion, solving puzzles and encountering many a haunted spirit while you figure out the mansion’s darker mysteries.
Though the plot is simple by design, we hadn’t seen such carefully thought out narratives with suspense and intrigue by 1993, and the game’s mix of CG backdrops and FMV characters were also praised as the future of gaming (stop sniggering). Alongside Alone in the Dark, 7th Guest is seen as the nucleus of modern horror games, particularly Resident Evil with its mansion setting. Its soundtrack composed by George Sanger has also seen many remixes since the game’s humble beginnings — it took me several attempts to find the right one, because of all the lovingly fan-made reimaginings over the past 30 years.
Despite its MIDI restrictions, George Sanger builds 7th Guest’s soundtrack on a foundation of violins, bells and eerie choirs to tell its ghost tale, knowing when to mix the investigative nature of its jazz-like trombones and bold piano sounds during puzzle-solving, against the soundtrack’s use of glockenspiels and frail sounding violins during haunting cutscenes. 7th Guest’s soundtrack delivers an influential score that’s often duplicated but never replicated.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Michiru Yamane (1997)
We’re not breaking any new ground by saying that Castlevania has been influential to gaming as a whole. Even if you haven’t played a single game in the franchise, you’d likely still be able to hum the first level of its NES or SNES’s revamp unprompted. With Sony looking to take on rivals Nintendo and Sega with their newfangled console, the Playstation, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pushed the creative envelope both in terms of gameplay and soundtrack.
Taking Castlevania’s staple of traditional side-scrolling action, Konami gave the player the freedom to travel Dracula’s castle how they wanted to, making each playthrough a unique experience. Despite its horror setting, much of SotN’s gameplay is fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled action, meaning that composer Michiru Yamane needed to translate those conflicting styles. The result is a soundtrack that is rich with layers of traditional gothic horror mixed with some contemporary rock guitar work that highlights SotN’s action-filled setpieces.
Yamane was no stranger to Castlevania, having composed all of the original games. His harpsichords and sweeping orchestral strings gives SotN an identity of regality as you traipse Dracula’s castle grounds. This lulls the player into a false sense of security, setting the pace up perfectly when they encounter the many monsters sent to kill Alucard, as the musical pace changes to a more frenzied thrash metal style. Symphony of the Night is, at the time of writing, 24 years old, but it still resonates as a fantastic example of a video game telling a story through its soundtrack.
Parasite Eve – Yoko Shimomura (1998)
Parasite Eve is a title that’s starting to grow its cult audience in recent years, especially since Sheffield noisemongers Bring Me The Horizon released their 2020 single of the same name. A curious addition to Square Enix’s portfolio, Parasite Eve was seen by many as the JRPG titans throwing their hat into the ring of survival horror, while also keeping the hallmarks of their JRPGs. Parasite Eve reviewed very well, with a Metacritic score of 81.
For composer Yoko Shimomura, who has gone to carve out soundtracks for Square Enix’s most beloved franchises today, Parasite Eve’s soundtrack made her a reputable name. This is shocking when you consider she worked on Street Fighter 2 and Super Mario RPG, an impressive body of work in its own right. Though not a lot is said about the makings of this soundtrack, Shimomura herself has gone on record, to say that the process behind Parasite Eve’s soundtrack was tough.
Parasite Eve’s use of classical and operatic influences reflects on the game’s more chilling moments as you explore its surreal world, while the Eurodance influences help prepare you to do battle with many of the game’s monsters. This leaves you, the player, slightly unnerved as you go through the many creepy environments on offer.
Parasite Eve is firmly in the “where are they now” category, though a HD remake is ripe for the picking. It would be interesting to see what Yoko Shimomura would do with a revamped soundtrack, though maybe she could bring in Bring Me The Horizon? In their defence, ‘Ludens’ worked well for Death Stranding.
The second instalment of Capcom’s phenomenal undead saga is the standard-bearer for many a horror game. Resident Evil 2 proved to be so popular that the outpouring of love was the inspiration behind an excellent remake in 2019. From its humble mansion beginnings, Resident Evil 2 gave us Raccoon City, letting us play out the survival of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield as we desperately ran from the zombie hordes plaguing the city.
Resident Evil 2’s 1998 soundtrack had a huge role in making the game so beloved. Capcom comprised a small team led by Masami Ueda, to help figure out where the franchise can go in an audible direction. Shusaku Uchiyama had gone on to say in interviews that the challenge was to create a soundtrack that you’d hear in a big-budget blockbuster and blow the soundtrack to the first game out of the water.
What Uchiyama achieved with this soundtrack was capturing the essence of panic throughout the game. The first playable scene involving Leon bombards the player with the violent orchestral workings of the song ‘Racoon City’. From there on, the soundtrack doesn’t let up in invoking that panic, only allowing brief respite in the musical warmth of the game’s save rooms. ‘The Front Hall’ is forever burnt into my memory bank: The unnerving mix of a piano with bell samples make for the sensation that in the seemingly empty halls of the RCPD, you are not alone.
When talking about horror game soundtracks, the OG Resident Evil 2 will always be part of the conversation.
Silent Hill 2 – Akira Yamaoka (2001)
20 years on and Silent Hill 2 is still the quintessential horror pick for any gamer, whether it’s the seasoned horror veteran or fresh blood looking to dip their toes.
While Resident Evil continued down the path of the supernatural, Silent Hill’s big sell was in its grounded psychological horror. Though there were plenty of monsters to ruin your white jeans and run away from, your encounters, human or otherwise, contribute to the bigger picture of the town/
Its composer, Akira Yamaoka reflects on the making of Silent Hill 2 as a special time for him. Continuing his work from Silent Hill 1, Yamaoka recognised that there needed to be some musical changes, so he opted for a sound that was still dripping in ambiguity and unease, but had a sense of accessibility when you compare Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack to the heavy industrial leanings of its first soundtrack. That idea is noticeable, even from the game’s grunge-like melodies of ‘Theme of Laura’ that dominates the opening screen.
If you read our list on 90s video game soundtracks, we talked about how the first Silent Hill tried to translate the fear and isolation of the town. Silent Hill 2 continues that concept, but you’re also made aware of the slow mental deterioration of the main character James Sunderland, still using those industrial soundscapes to capture mental health as an audible soundscape. ‘Ashes & Ghost’, for example, starts with brooding tribal drum work but doesn’t allow those drums to oversaturate the slow and shallow breathing you hear in the background.
Silent Hill 2’s soundtrack is that perfect relationship of audio and visual storytelling in its purest form. To remove its soundtrack would be to remove the beating heart of the franchise.
Bioshock – Garry Schyman (2007)
By 2007, the horror genre was in a state of flux. Resident Evil was practically going into cover shooter territory with RE5 and Silent Hill was, well, a former shell of itself. What also wasn’t helping the horror genre’s situation was the lack of AAA publishers wanting to invest.
One such game that carried the flag of horror (among many other genres) proudly was a little FPS called Bioshock. Trading in the melodic pacing of survival horror and giving us more of an action-orientated experience, Bioshock proved that there was still an appetite for the macabre. Pitting the player in the lost underwater city of Rapture, you must uncover the gruesome truths of its downfall while also looking to hunt down its creator. Garry Schyman wanted Bioshock’s soundtrack to capture the idea of a city full of artists and free thinkers slowly descending into madness. Considering Bioshocks late 1940s trappings, it needed to be timely, using that early 20th-century big band sound that dominated the musical scene.
Stepping into that pod and seeing Rapture in all its glory and hearing the tightly tuned, often weepy violin play before you are brought down to reality with claustrophobic, creaking sound effects and blood-curdling orchestral screaming is something few have been able to forget. Tie in those aforementioned big band vibes and Bioshock’s soundtrack is given a unique identity that stands above the competition.
Dead Space – Jason Graves (2008)
Oh Dead Space, you were the franchise that could have been. As the gaming world holds a sense of cautious optimism for its remake, the original Dead Space proved to any AAA publisher listening that survival horror was alive and well.
For those who have never touched a Dead Space title, players take control of Isaac Clarke, an engineer trying to find his girlfriend aboard the Kellion. It doesn’t take long for the seemingly simple task of finding your love interest for all hell to break loose as the Kellion is infested with necromorphs and Isaac must find his way out, meeting many colourful characters on his journey.
Dead Space’s composer, the aptly named Jason Graves, wanted to focus on the pure, uncut 20th-century orchestra, with no electronic blueprints as you hear in so many games. His brief from EA was a simple one “create the scariest soundtrack ever”. With its sci-fi setting, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Dead Space’s soundtrack should have some electronic influences. However, you could also argue that using that safety blanket would have made the soundtrack less memorable. The original Alien movie, for example, has that same aura: A scary soundtrack, but with very little sci-fi electronica.
This was a bold move for Graves, but a move that worked. An excellent example would have to be ‘Severed Limbs Are Hazardous Waste’ a track that builds mournfully, with its creeping brass instruments and violins. It’s a song that makes you feel unnerved, yet safe — until a symphonious bomb explodes into the player’s ears creating a terrifying atmosphere as Isaac is fighting off the necromorphs.
As a soundtrack, Dead Space offers no letups, only brutality. If we can have that energy for the remake, then maybe we will be just fine.
Soma – Mikko Tarmia (2015)
With Silent Hill slowly eating itself alive and facing its own psychological horror with the cancellation of the Hideo Kojima led reboot of Silent Hills, a game needed to step up to try and claim the throne Silent Hill 2 held onto so dearly. New tech advancements meant that by 2015, many horror connoisseurs wanted to see what could be done. There were a few titles that were growing a devoted fan base, such as Outlast or Amnesia.
In 2015, Swedish indie developers Frictional Games, the developers of the aforementioned Amnesia, threw their hat into the ring with Soma, an intriguing title that effectively mashes the futuristic settings of Dead Space, the deep blue vulnerability of Bioshock, and the puzzle-solving and mystery of Silent Hill. It’s an enthralling game that, if you haven’t yet, you must pick up and play.
A smart move on Frictional Games’ part was to bring in Mikko Tarmia for Soma’s soundscape. The veteran musical director, known for his work on the Amnesia franchise, has said that Soma gave him more freedom to explore other soundscapes when compared to Amnesia’s more limited budget.
Tarmia used Moog synthesisers, a woodwind controller as well as samples, to create the sounds of Soma. The result is a soundtrack that lingers in the background, making the player feel nervous throughout the game’s runtime. While horror soundtracks usually prefer to shock the player with high strung orchestras, Tarmia lets Soma’s ambience tell the story of the PATHOS-II and its mysteries. Soma still brings in the fear most horror gamers love, however, Miko Tarmia’s minimalist approach creates a soundtrack that is unique to the usual orchestral affair we’re used to.
The Evil Within 2 – Masatoshi Yanagi (2017)
I cannot begin to describe how much I yearn for an Evil Within 3. The first game, led by Resident Evil veteran Shinji Mikami, was able to bring back the lapsed fans who felt disenfranchised with the horror genre, especially after the microtransaction shenanigans EA pulled with Dead Space 3. The first Evil Within was a fairly linear title, but an important one that reminded gamers why survival horror, if well written, can leave a lasting impression.
With the second game, Mikami stepped back into a producing role, though director John Johanas did a good job at expanding the scope of the sequel, trading in its linear experience for a sandbox that was dying to be explored. Along with the change of directors, the composers were swapped also, with Masafumi Takada replacing Masatoshi Yanagi. The differences between the two soundtracks are noticeable, but there are some similarities.
Both games strike a good balance between ambiguity and perceptible panic. Much like The Evil Within’s linear narrative, Takada’s soundtrack builds up as the game progresses, offering a beastly crescendo when you reach the game’s ending. Much like Soma, Yanagi uses a more ambient sound, and although it allows for moments of alertness, it also teases the player. For example, the track ‘The Lost’ starts with a heavy breathing intro, the violins creep into the background, and just when you think the song will reach its apex, it stops. This disorientates the player, leaving them vulnerable to the game’s visual jump scares, as well as its audio scares.
Blasphemous – Carlos Viola (2019)
Blasphemous may not be your typical horror affair, but it does boast some truly goosebump-inducing imagery, especially when you consider its 16-bit limitations.
A Metroidvania that is heavily influenced by Dark Souls, The Game Kitchen did a wonderful job infusing gothic horror and its influences of La Leyenda Negra or the Spanish Black Legend, a time of European history that saw the propaganda against Catholicism and the Spanish during the 16th Century at an all-time high.
If you’ve never played Blasphemous, be prepared for a tough time, but you’ll be rewarded with an enthralling story and also a wonderful soundtrack. Unlike most of the soundtracks talked about on this list, composer Carlos Viola opts for a more contemporary approach, which addresses Blasphemous narrative of the forces of light and dark not being as they seem. Traversing the world of Cvstodia introduces the player to a soundtrack that keeps things as vague as possible. Ever-present violin sounds and tribal drums are in place for the game’s more intense moments, such as bosses, but The Game Kitchen’s Spanish roots also come into play with its choices of acoustic guitar work.
Two tracks in particular, ‘Ten Piedad’ & ‘Y Yo Fuego Te Daré’ showcase those two sides very well. ‘Ten Piedad’ starts with that traditional horror soundscape, the sound of bells and tribal drum work giving way to a creeping guitar that wouldn’t sound too out of place on the intro of an Arch Enemy album. Because of its flamenco guitar work, ‘Fuego Te Daré’ has a more upbeat and adventurous vibe, an element that is very rare in the horror genre. These two contrasting styles of music gives way for Blasphemous to be a unique soundtrack for the horror genre.
If the crushing difficulty puts you off, either listen to the soundtrack or even watch a let’s play video to see how these soundscapes work in Blasphemous’ favour. This really is a soundtrack you cannot miss.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.