As with Uematsu and Final Fantasy, Jeremy Soule and The Elder Scrolls, Marty O’Donnell is yet another figure whose reputation will be lastingly associated with a giant franchise in gaming history: Halo, one of the most successful series ever, and the title that announced the Xbox as a serious player on the global gaming stage. For its enormous popularity, distinctiveness and impact on the evolution of modern video game music, O’Donnell’s work on the Halo series alone is more or less enough to catapult him on to this list.
O’Donnell was living in Chicago in the 1980s, composing mostly for television, and writing advertising jingles for radio. But he became dissatisfied with what he saw as ‘commercial’ music, later recalling that he was hoping ‘to find some other medium that would be new and cutting-edge and sort of the Wild West’. Impressed by the complexity of the music for the 1993 puzzle game, Myst (the best-selling PC game ever until The Sims broke the record), O’Donnell made the acquaintance of its developer, Cyan, and later worked there as a sound designer for the 1997 sequel, Riven. It was then while working at Cyan that he discovered the game Marathon, and more fatefully asked its developer, Bungie, for a job. He was quickly offered one.
At Bungie he first produced music for 2001’s Oni but it was their other release of that year that made history. This was Halo: Combat Evolved. In that game and its sequels Halo 2 (2004) and Halo 3 (2007), O’Donnell would present and cultivate a sprawling and fantastical musical tapestry, combining electronically produced textures with symphonic constructions of mystique and majesty. But there was one signature sonic ingredient: Gregorian chant.
This quintessential sound famously gave the Halo soundtracks an ‘ancient’ quality, which O’Donnell, when working on the original, felt would imbue just the sense of timelessness that the game called for. This is why, even though the narratives are set six centuries in the future, the choral sound fits no less well in the Halo universe as it does in historical fantasy games - not least Soule’s own Elder Scrolls. The proliferation of chant in various games in the years since certainly has something to do with the success of O’Donnell’s music. The first game’s soundtrack album would sell an impressive 40,000 copies, and would also feature in the Classic FM Hall of Fame in 2015.
O’Donnell co-composed the music to Halo and the later Destiny titles (which are also phenomenal, award-winning scores) with Michael Salvatori, a regular partner since those early days in Chicago. Their creative partnership began when Salvatori offered O’Donnell use of his personal studio to produce the score for an independent film - the rest, as they say, is history. Plaudists for these achievements must also go to Salvatori, a tremendous composer in his own right.