I think we can all agree that establishing a strong sense of place is one of the main functions of a video game’s soundtrack. There are countless composers that achieve this goal, and there are thousands of examples I could give to illustrate how vital environmentally-grounded music is to world-building, but I will start with just one example. One of my favorite examples. Metroid Prime!
This legendary title follows Samus as she traverses the planet Tallon IV and its many memorable regions, all accompanied by seamlessly matched music from composer Kenji Yamamoto.
Although it’s not the starting point, the game truly hits its stride when our protagonist lands on a mysterious planet. Exiting her ship, Samus walks out into the calming, yet vaguely ominous realm of Tallon IV. Dark grey skies, rain drops streaking down her visor, and overgrown ruins greet Samus as she begins to explore this seemingly abandoned world.
The Tallon IV Overworld Theme weaves itself into this strange new world, putting you squarely into the unknown, the alien, where wonder and horror are equally likely to be encountered. Starting with slow synths and steady chanting, this theme evokes an air of mystery right away.
As the track continues, the music begins to swell into an almost triumphant refrain with trumpeting fanfare that hints at the once-great civilization that dominated this forgotten place.
However, as Samus continues to explore the history of the long-gone Chozo the situation takes an interesting turn. What initially looked like an abandoned world actually hides the high-tech operations of the space pirates using Tallon IV as a research base. This change can be best felt as you enter the narrow, lava-flooded Magmoor Caverns. The underground cavern’s scorching, brutal environment is hammered home by its monotonous, percussion-heavy theme.
This steady, subtle beat does an incredible job of conjuring up imagery of toil. You can feel the oppressive drive toward industry, the inescapable drudgery, as the caverns close in all around you. But just as you might begin to wonder if you’ll ever escape this little slice of hell on earth, the map takes an abrupt turn and spits you out into the polar opposite of Magmoor Caverns, the pristine Phendrana Drifts.
Even if you couldn’t see it, you would still know what the Phendrana Drifts are, where you are, simply by hearing the track.
The looping rise and fall of the bass line meeting up with a bevvy of crystalline tones screams “ice” long before you see it. You can practically feel the cold on your skin as the beat begins to pick up pace and an angelic chorus envelops you just like the soft, drifting snow storm whipping around you does.
Phendrana Drifts’ theme is my personal favorite, but the soundtrack of Metroid Prime as a whole does an equally incredible job of showcasing how music in games can ground you in a specific place and make you really feel it deep in your bones. Some games fall short of achieving this same effect and others occasionally exceed it, but all should at least aspire to to lay down a foundation as strong as Metroid Prime’s.