When you mention creepy soundtracks, people tend to think of movies. I understand why this happens--because a good soundtrack can make an average movie terrifying--but it's hardly the only place where a spooky bit of music can set the mood and freak out an audience. Gaming is still in its infancy as an artform (and we'll save the "are games art?" debate for another day...), but music in horror games is as vital to the overall experience as it is in horror films. Unfortunately, it rarely gets any kind of recognition from the masses.
With that idea in mind, I had the brilliant idea to come up with a list of the creepiest music from horror videogames. Like most of my ideas, it sounded really great when it occurred to me. How hard can it be to come up with ten or so scary tracks? I thought to myself. Like all projects I undertake, this one turned out to be way more work than I expected. There's a lot of horror game music out there, and I've spent the last week or so going through it track by track trying to find the best of the best. This is the fruit of my labor...
Jump past the break for the list.
I've learned a few things doing this piece. First, while there's no shortage of great horror music in games, some really good stuff turns up in titles where you wouldn't expect it. Who'd have guessed Paper Mario or a recent Sonic game would have really scary music in them? Not me, that's who. Trust me, they do. I also learned there's lots of game music that isn't necessarily music--it's simply ambient noise that's kind of disturbing. I tried to avoid that sort of thing for this list.
Finally, this is by no means meant to be an all-inclusive definitive list. I started out with over 85 tracks and had to narrow it down to the 13 you see below. Tough choices had to be made. Some of them will not be popular (I can already hear the complaints about the lack of a track from the Fatal Frame series...), but that's the fun of doing this kind of article--the debate that comes in the aftermath is always more interesting than the writing or choosing in the first place. So, without further ado, thirteen of my favorite creepy videogame music tracks.
'Pandora's Box' featured in Resident Evil: Code Veronica (Sega Dreamcast, 2000)
Resident Evil isn't the first horror game to come along, but it is the biggest. With a multitude of titles that span numerous platforms, it's 800 lb gorilla of horror games. It's difficult to pick just one track from all of the RE titles (so hard I've chosen two--you'll find another later in the list), but "Pandora's Box' from Resident Evil: Code Veronica has always been one of my favorites. The piano, the gothic bell, it's all very spooky in a traditional sense. Horror game music is all about setting a mood, and this piece certainly succeeds at that.
'Duskwood' featured in World of Warcraft (PC, 2004)
Generally speaking, I find most of World of Warcraft's music forgettable (and I spent more than enough time with the game to know...), but the track that plays in the Duskwood zone is one of the compositions I always remember. Duskwood is a low level quest hub on the Alliance side, and if you're into horror, it's a fun place to be. Players battle spiders, werewolves, the undead, and even a gigantic Abomination known simply as Stitches. The music sets the tone for the area (along with the visuals--Duskwood is perpetually dark and gloomy) and I used to spend a lot of time fishing here when I was a high level warlock just so I could enjoy the music and bask in the atmosphere.
'Dr. Steinman' featured in Bioshock (multi-platform, 2008)
Technically speaking, Bioshock isn't a horror game. It's a first-person shooter that explores themes from the works of Ayn Rand. Despite this, it's still one of the most unsettling games I've ever played. Rapture (the underwater city players explore) is in ruins--filled with shadows, monsters, and scariest of all, Big Daddies. This piece of music plays when gamers meet up with Dr. Steinman, one of the madmen still alive in Rapture. The strings always remind me of Friday the 13th for some reason...
'Serenity' featured in Resident Evil 4 (multi-platform, 2005)
Interestingly enough, this second piece of Resident Evil music is what plays when you visit the merchant--one of the few moments in the entire experience when you're relatively safe. While it may not be the same type of music you hear when you run into the Rasputin-esque Bitores Mendez (or the psycho guys with the chainsaws), I find its mournful quality more unsettling than the rest of the game's score.
'Haunted Admin Office' featured in Doom 3 (multi-platform, 2004)
I played Doom 3 back when it first came out in 2004--in the dark, with headphones on. I'm generally jaded when it comes to getting unsettled by things, but that first trip through the game was intense. The title's overall soundtrack is relatively hit and miss, but I loved this piece the first time I heard it. The noise is freaky enough, then the organ kicks in and it becomes unforgettable.
'Ruins' featured in King's Field: The Ancient City (PlayStation 2, 2002)
Many will argue that King's Field: The Ancient City isn't a horror game. They're right on some levels--it's a first person dungeon crawler RPG, but it has a lot of horror elements to it. While exploring a massive ruined city hidden in a gigantic underground cavern, players fight all sorts of skeletons and other supernatural beasts. The piece of music I've chosen for the list isn't as creepy as some of the others, but if you've ever played the game and can recall the dark, deserted city you're exploring while it plays, the freak out factor grows almost exponentially.
'Dracula Battle' featured in Super Castlevania IV (Super Nintendo, 1991)
I'll never forget being in college back in 1991 (yes, I'm that old...) and seeing Super Castlevania IV for the first time at a special event Nintendo had organized to get college kids interested in the SNES. I knew at that moment that I'd pony up any amount of cash required to play the game. What sold me on the title (and the SNES in general) wasn't only the graphical improvement, but the quality of the sound. Music on the SNES sounded about a billion times better than it did on the original Nintendo. This piece, the 'Dracula Battle' music, was the first thing I ever heard come out of a Super Nintendo. It would have been a "holy crap!" moment under general circumstances, but the fact it was a badass horror theme was icing on the cake. I'll always get nostalgic for my misspent young adulthood whenever I hear this composition.
'The Day of Night' featured in Silent Hill 2 (multi-platform, 2001)
Every list of spooky game music needs an entry from Konami's Silent Hill--one of the creepiest game franchises out there. The problem in choosing for me was that there were a lot of potential tracks that could have gone on the list. So, after much hemming and hawing, I finally decided to go with 'The Day of Night'. This is a moody and atmospheric entry from Silent Hill 2--the game that I still think is the highpoint of the entire series. It may not make you terrified to sit in the dark alone, but I find it unsettling enough for inclusion.
'Town of Tristram' featured in Diablo (PC 1996)
I'm not sure what the general consensus on the Diablo 'Town of Tristram' theme is when it comes to being scary, but it's always been one of my favorite pieces of game music (regardless of genre) and has managed to creep me out on numerous occasions. It's not that the track itself is particularly scary (while it has some ominous sections, it plays in town, where players are completely safe). That being said, it's the last thing you hear before heading back into the hellish abyss underneath Tristram--a labyrinth filled with hellish minions led by Diablo himself. If nothing else, this theme illustrates the synergy between a game's music, visuals, and story as far as creating a mood goes.
'Abandoned Pit' featured in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PlayStation, 1997)
The struggle to choose a track from Silent Hill was tough, but it paled in comparison to trying to choose one from Symphony of the Night (both games were made by Konami, too--coincidence? I think not...). In the end, I went with 'Abandoned Pit', not because it's my favorite, but because I think it's the most "traditional" horror track in the game. I considered going with 'Marble Gallery' or 'Requiem for the Gods' (two tracks I like more), but neither was quite as effective as this one. 'Abandoned Pit' is a simple piece of music--almost like a beat loop in hip hop--but it's effectively scary. Oh, and for the record, my favorite track from Symphony of the Night isn't horror-like at all, it's the jazzy 'Crystal Teardrops'.
'Witch Theme' featured in Left 4 Dead (2008, multi-platform)
I'm embarrassed to admit that I've not played very much of Left 4 Dead. It's not an intentional slight--the game came out at a time when I was about to move cross-country so I didn't have a lot of time to play it, then one thing led to another (as often happens in life) and here we are, just a few days away from
'Jack 2' featured in Shadowman (multi-platform, 1999)
Acclaim's Shadowman didn't get the recognition it deserved from gamers when it debuted on the Dreamcast back in 1999. This Tomb Raider-esque horror title was genuinely scary, gory, had a cool story, was (mostly) fun to play, and had a great soundtrack. The piece I've selected here is used in your encounter with Jack the Ripper. If you listen closely, you may notice that it's simply Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' played backwards--but the effect is disturbing. I think it's because the music sounds familiar, but somehow off. I got stuck on this boss fight for awhile, and despite hearing the track over and over as I tried and failed to progress, it never lost its scare factor.
And finally, we arrive at the end of the list...
'Twinkle Twinkle' featured in Dead Space (multi-platform, 2008)
Dead Space had no shortage of frightening tracks in it, but this one stands out above all others. It's basically just 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' over some ambient noise, but it's damn scary. Who'd have guessed a child's nursery rhyme could inspire such a feeling of unease? The piece is a perfect accompaniment to the game, which charges players with investigating a spaceship that's been overrun with terrifying multi-limbed monsters who want nothing more than to make you one of them. At any rate, it remains one of the freakiest pieces of horror videogame music I've heard.
And there you have it, thirteen of my favorite pieces of music featured in horror videogames. I'm sure I've missed some great tracks, so please feel free to discuss, debate, and add to the list in the comment section.