Posted By Robert H. about 11 months, 3 weeks ago
There are many aspects to a soundtrack that can make it truly great, but one of the most important to any game is proper theming. Generally, this means that a song has to both fit its context within the game and adhere to the overall tone presented by the soundtrack, whether the song provides a tie-in or counterpoint to another. To me, the best instance of theming, and certainly the rarest, is when a game uses previously heard songs to show the relations between the different events the songs accompany. Despite being uncommon, there is one major series that adheres to this idea better than any other: Kingdom Hearts.
Although the remixes and leitmotifs present in the series are more easily seen and heard in the numerous sequels, the groundwork had to be laid down by the initial foray into the world of Kingdom Hearts. As such, there are many songs introduced in this initial effort that become the core of any number of future songs, depending on how they relate to the associated characters and situations. For example, both Kairi’s many themes and the soothing title theme “Dearly Beloved,” have been mixed into later themes as they tie into the character of Kairi and many of the more important battles of the series, respectively.
One of the most clearly impactful pieces is “Another Side,” a song used in the secret ending of Kingdom Hearts that hints at the next entry and is referenced musically for every theme associated with the villains of Kingdom Hearts II, Organization XIII. Everything from the haunting choir at the beginning to the more involved instrumentation at the end is used at one point or another in the series to great effect. However, considering that all those references are in the future, there is an even more central and immediately evident usage of theming that can be explored.
“Destati” is a song that technically appears as a bonus track, although a different version appears in the game itself during the Dive to the Heart segments. Although the song does not actually have a featured presence, it contends for being the basis of the most songs in the entire series. In the original entry alone, it influences the aforementioned Dive to the Heart version, both the standard and battle themes for the final level, and the final boss theme, “Guardando Nel Buio.” The song’s overarching presence at both the very beginning and very end of the game ties the entire adventure together neatly and, upon hearing the familiar tune, it’s difficult not to think of how everything is coming to a close.
Of course, even though the theming is probably the strongest part of the series soundtracks to me, that’s not to say the less-referenced themes aren’t just as good. It is a difficult task to create a cohesive soundtrack considering the many different Disney movies and original story sections that game has to fit itself to, but it is pulled off flawlessly. Alongside the heavier and more involved tunes, the different level themes fit their context to a tee and, on a personal note, I love how each level has its own battle theme manifesting as a faster variation of the individual level theme. Whether I consider the Arabian-influenced “A Day in Agrabah” becoming the energetic “Arabian Dream,” or the classic variation on “This is Halloween” transitioning into the battle-ready “Spooks of Halloween Town,” the songs are both impressive musically and tied into their levels masterfully.
Considering that the Kingdom Hearts series contains some of my favorite soundtracks in all of video gaming, it should be no surprise that I feel there are some songs that I would be remiss in not mentioning. The standard “Traverse Town” theme evokes a strong feeling of familiarity and I always felt as though the world was calmly welcoming me back from my adventures whenever I returned from a new world. The true battle theme for the world, “Hand in Hand,” is also a favorite for managing to inject such a cheery energy into the relatively calm standard theme. The third Gummi Ship theme also impresses for improving on the relatively cheery and simple original themes to stress the importance of traveling to the final areas of the game. Finally, although anything associated with Hollow Bastion is awesome, (level theme included) I absolutely adore the boss theme shown above, “Forze del Male,” for its wonderful use of organ and perfect context for the fight in which it plays.
Proper usage of previously-made themes is a hard thing to find extensive examples of in gaming, despite how good the results of such a design choice can be. Thankfully, the most well-known example of that design is also the best example in this case. While Kingdom Hearts already has an amazing soundtrack in its own right, the intelligent usage of musical theming elevates it to a level all its own. It should come as no surprise that the Kingdom Hearts series holds a position as one of my favorite soundtracks in all of gaming and I would more than recommend listening to the soundtrack when you have some time. Considering how closely the themes tie in with one another, talking about one game in the series is insufficient to describe why it works as well as it does. As such, be sure to stay tuned for my next Music Monday, where I’ll be getting to the sequels and showing how seeding this garden produced something beautiful.
Music Mondays is a weekly column by Austin Yorski and Robert Heck dedicated to discussing the most interesting audio experiences in electronic interactive media. Tune in every week for more original game soundtracks that you need to hear. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback.