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Health’s Max Payne 3 Soundtrack Should Be A Model For The Future

by Matt Helgeson on Jul 04, 2012 at 04:00 PM

The soundtrack to Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 is one of my favorite albums of the year. Composed and performed by the New York art rock band Health, it’s eerie synthesizers and highly processed drums stand in contrast to the clichéd music we hear in most big-budget action games.

I’ve been listening to it regularly since the game released, and it’s a continually rewarding listen. It was certainly a risk for Rockstar to hand the reins to a large portion of the audio of a triple-A game to some guys that look like this. Frankly, Health is a band that’s sold albums in the hundreds and thousands, not the millions. It’s not the type of partnership that’s a selling point for most of the gamers that will buy Max Payne 3. However, both listening to the soundtrack alone and while playing the game, it’s clear that the score is crucial to the game's artistic vision.

Max Payne 3 doesn’t reinvent the series so much as bring a new level of polish and cinematic vibe to the proceedings. I instantly fell in love with the colorful, lurid Brazilian setting. However, it’s the music that really makes it feel special – adding a dreamlike, unsettling atmosphere to both the cutscenes and action sequences.

Generally, today’s big-budget games rely on familiar compositional tropes: soaring orchestral strings underplayed with martial or tribal drumming. Here are a couple of examples, but if you pay games regularly you know what I’m talking about. Here are two examples, from Modern Warfare 3 and Halo Reach, respectively.

Contrast this with Health’s haunting “Panama” and “Tears” from Max Payne 3. Both songs have a modern feel, yet recall the classic ‘80s electronic work of such artists like Tangerine Dream (who did the classic soundtracks to the Tom Cruise vehicles Risky Business and Legend). It’s a clearly defined aesthetic, one down to Rockstar’s decision to allow a band to do the soundtrack. Health isn’t from the game or film industry, and the result is a soundtrack that’s a good deal rawer and adventurous that might have been delivered by someone more “professional.”

It was a risk that paid off. It’s my favorite game soundtrack in years, and one of the best Rockstar game soundtracks ever, which – considering the high bar they set with games like San Andreas, Bully, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire – is high praise. I hope other developers take a cue from Rockstar and reach out to other underground performers. I think the industry would be the better for it; gamers would benefit from a more diverse musical palette in the games we play.