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Despite their high quality and genre-crossing sounds, it took until last month’s Grammy Award ceremony for any kind of video game music to be recognized for an award: a six year old song from Civilization IV. Now the Grammys are doing some trimming and 30 categories from their previously long list of 109 categories are going away. This means four new categories have been created to consolidate what has gone, each of which consider “Video Game Music” as a genre, and will be eligible for nomination.
Although it's not exactly giving game soundtracks a category of their own, such as “Best Original Score from a Video Game,” it's a start. This got me thinking, if Grammys were retroactively awarded, what game soundtracks would get the nod? Let’s start by going back 5 years ago to 2006, the first full year for the Xbox 360 in North America.
2006: It was an RPG fan’s year, with solid releases such as Mother 3, Xenosaga Episode III, and Final Fantasy XII, all with great soundtracks. However the one that topped them all was The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. While "Morrowind" was released on the original Xbox, "Oblivion" was truly the first Elder Scrolls entry that made console fans fall in love with the series. Jeremy Soule’s orchestral soundtrack certainly helped fuel the attraction. While at times epic, especially during the theme song Reign of the Septims, there are also many low-key pieces that are almost calming.
2007: Not only was this a great year for playing games, some of the greatest aural experiences in the world of games were released in 2007. There was the epic score of God of War II, the concept of hip-hop battle music in Persona 3, the ambient sounds of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, the almost tribal-like beats from Halo 3, the return of Nobuo Uematsu’s simplicity in Blue Dragon, the adventurous score of Uncharted, the exotic and modern fusion of Assassin’s Creed, and the mysterious BioShock. Only one could trump these all, and it was Mass Effect. Mostly written by Jack Wall and Sam Hulick, the music for Mass Effect really set the tone for the high-tech universe that was created for this series. As a fan of the Edmonton-based band Faunts, the surprisingly appropriate inclusion of their song M4, Part II during the end credits is a plus.
2008: Capcom had two solid entries this year, and neither came on a disc. Mega Man 9 was a return to the 8-bit days, with the chiptune music that the series is known for. Although Bionic Commando Rearmed is mainly filled with remixes from the original game, that’s certainly nothing bad, as the original had a great soundtrack for the time as well. If the year’s winner was chosen by quantity, Konami would have 2008 wrapped-up, starting with two Silent Hill titles, "Origins" and "Homecoming," both with great Akira Yamaoka soundtracks. Also, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia with music by Michiru Yamane, who composed what some consider the greatest soundtrack of all time for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While personally I would have went with one of Capcom’s simpler scores, I think the Academy would have to side with Metal Gear Solid 4, featuring the return of Harry Gregson-Williams, someone who has already been nominated for a Grammy, and Nobuko Toda. Like previous Metal Gear titles, it’s a nice blend of more complex pieces that score the infamously long cut-scenes to the dynamic ambient-techno style songs during the action.
2009: While games like Street Fighter IV and Torchlight had soundtracks that made us think of their predecessors, Halo 3: ODST had a more noir feel to its music rather than the heavy percussion of its previous titles. Shadow Complex and Batman: Arkham Asylum also made solid efforts, but the best music from the year was in Assassin’s Creed II. Written by the composer of the original’s soundtrack, Jesper Kyd, the style is a blend of old world music with a modern tone, appropriate considering the game’s plot. Being a title with dynamic music, the tones range from atmospheric to urgent.
2010: This year was just as complex as 2007. From the simple chiptune-heavy soundtracks like Mega Man 10, VVVVVV, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game, to complex scores like Civilization V, Alan Wake and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. There were soundtracks that harkened back to their predecessors, such as Mass Effect 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Tron: Evolution took the Daft Punk score from its big brother motion picture soundtrack, while Donkey Kong Country Returns brought new life to its already classic songs. Bayonetta and Super Meat Boy both brought soundtracks that were as varied and crazy as the games they came with. Again I’m slightly torn, as I loved the Super Meat Boy soundtrack, and the chiptune sounds of VVVVVV and Scott Pilgrim, but Heavy Rain has the kind of music that feels ripped out of a film, and that’s what makes the ears of the Academy perk up. Although it was hard to decide, Heavy Rain has an incredibly solid soundtrack that conveys more emotion than any music, let alone game music, has ever made me feel and is well deserving of the award.
Video game soundtracks have such a wide variety of styles that it would be nice to one day see multiple categories specifically just for games. But for now here’s to hoping that we’re just one more step closer to seeing that first "games-only" category so that this quality music and these talented composers can get the mainstream recognition they deserve.