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Video Game Music: Horizon Forbidden West & Uncharted

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Creative commons license sourced from Trusted Reviews. Property of Guerrilla Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment.

After publishing my last blog, a friend asked me if I would consider writing something about video game music. It's something I have been interested in for a while, but have never had the chance to score for a video game myself. The topic seemed so massive that I decided to narrow the field by looking into some recent releases in the gaming world and immediately thought of Horizon, and Uncharted. Torn between which one I should write about, here is something about both.

I first played Horizon Zero Dawn in 2021, a fair bit later than most, but found the experience really immersive. From world-building, to the story, and a soundtrack that held it all together, Guerrilla did a great job. I couldn't help but get excited about what the studio might do next in their newly released sequel, Horizon Forbidden West. For a story involving a futuristic Earth, primitive tribes, and deadly machines, the feeling of exploring it all through the eyes of an orphaned Aloy is surprisingly emotional.

"At any given point, essentially, you can go from this emotion, and transition through a transition piece, into another emotion." - Oleksa Lozowchuk.

The music in Forbidden West wasn't done by just one composer, but an entire team of them; there's Oleksa Lozowchuk, Joris de Man, The Flight, Niels van der Leest, and more. Each contributes a different set of skills and specialisations that combine to make up the unique soundscape that Horizon is so recognisable for. As hinted at in the quote above, the team approached the project from the perspective of the main character's emotions. Specific pieces were crafted for feelings of hope, love, grief, fear, and adventure, just to name a few. A series of 'transition pieces' were also crafted as a way of switching between emotions seamlessly. This means that whatever Aloy is experiencing on-screen is also represented sonically through programmed triggers. As the player, you can enter a battle to trigger the action music, and then run far enough away that the music gradually subsides into a more idle/relaxed score.

Perhaps the most iconic of Horizon's sounds is the voice of Julie Elven who sings the main theme. It's expressive, foreign, and absolutely beautiful to listen to. Other notable instruments include a wide range of tribal drums & percussion, a contrabass flute, and the occasional digitalised synth to match the game's signature juxtaposition of the natural world and machine. If you're not familiar with Horizon, the soundtrack is definitely worth a listen. I've linked it below for your convenience.

Listen to the soundtrack to Horizon Forbidden West here

Creative commons license sourced from Collider. Property of Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The Uncharted franchise now exists in the realms of both video games and film. Such a crossover isn't the first of its kind and I expect many more iterations of the trend to occur in coming years. This is not a film review, so don't worry about any spoilers for the new blockbuster. I only want to draw a comparison between the soundtrack to the much loved video game series and the score of the film.

Having only played the most recent of the four Uncharted games myself, I don't claim to be an expert in all things Nathan Drake. But I have had a good listen to the works of all three composers across the series. Greg Edmonson scored the first 3 games. His composition of Nate's Theme captures the essence of adventure well with a soaring brass melody and ethnic drum lines. Looking back now, the sound of the first game (released 2007) is slightly aged; although I'm sure this only contributes to a sense of nostalgia for long-time fans listening back. For their fourth and final game, Naughty Dog studios made a change by hiring Henry Jackman as the composer. Jackman's preferences and writing style are notably different from the previous three entries. Firstly, the sound is modernised through the use of atmospheric pads, sound design and just generally better quality production. He reuses the main theme in "A Thief's End", but it feels slightly more mature and more serious than before. Low strings provide the support for the melody, now played on what sounds like a cello, as opposed to the French horns and trumpets heard in Edmonson's themes.

What may surprise you if you go and see the recent Uncharted film in cinemas, is that Nate's Theme doesn't appear at all. Nor do Edmonson or Jackman make a return as composers. Instead, the score is one completely different, with all new themes written by Ramin Djawadi. Why the studio decided to go the way of a complete overhaul, I don't know. Maybe they thought the music from the games wouldn't translate well to the big screen. Unfortunately it does have a big impact on the viewer's sense of authenticity that what they are watching is the Uncharted that they have come to know and love. I personally loved Jackman's take on the Uncharted score. However, the sound of the feature film sounds a lot more akin to the sound of Edmonson in the first three games. It's a full orchestral Hollywood sound that is pleasant on the ears, but lacks character or diversity. Nothing about it stands out at me. Perhaps in time and with subsequent movies fans will begin to view Djawadi's music as the new Uncharted score, but right now it doesn't feel like it.

Listen to Edmonson's 2007 theme here

Listen to "A Thief's End" by Jackman here

Listen to the Uncharted movie title track here

- Jordan Stevenson

No copyright infringement is intended.

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