It is often said that a musical score provides that subconscious of a piece. Rather than be on the nose, it goads, suggests or whispers what the deeper truth of a moment is about. Whether it is doing so by virtue of ironic gesture, or the callback to a different era, or a myriad other methods, music offers another layer of communication that is felt before it is understood.
With that framework, we present to you some of 2016’s most outstanding works in game scoring. We hope you enjoy, and please post any you feel we missed in the comments section below.
10. VA-11 HALL-A – Second Round
Music by Garoad
Garoad’s soundtrack to this “cyberpunk bartending game” is such bombastic neo-’80s glitz, it slides across the varnished bar like a Yamaha DX7 synth traveled to the land of Vaporwave, cocaine and Don Johnson and made it back safely, but not without being covered in a slick layer of cold sweat.
The game’s take on Space Age MIDI lounge music is deliberate cheese that perfectly matches VA-11 HALL-A‘s pop culture reference-laden and anime-inspired take on cyberpunk.
Music by SCNTFC
(Night School Studio)
From the makers of soundtracks for Late Night Work Club, Mr. Robot: Exfiltrati0n, Side Stories, Galak-Z and Rogue Legacy, the searing, crawling, sometimes disturbing and somnolent score to Oxenfree is a quiet masterpiece of digital esoterica and anachronism.
Hints of trip-hop and ’90s/early ’00s downtempo electronic music incorporate subtly weirder elements, like watery bent piano tones and 1930s recordings recovered from over-baked Mellotron tapes, evoking a subtle strangeness as well as a bittersweet sense of nostalgia that mirrors the game’s characters – high school kids on the cusp of becoming adults – as well as its mind-bending supernatural elements.
8. The Deadly Tower of Monsters
Music by Patricio Meneses
Patricio Meneses provides the perfect accompaniment to Dick Starspeed and Scarlet Nova’s B-movie adventures climbing the The Deadly Tower of Monsters. Bombastic orchestral stabs and nervously jabbing piano chords ratchet up the tension as our heroes face everything from dinosaurs to giant apes to nuclear ants.
At times, the soundtrack feels almost too good for its intentionally low budget subject matter, with certain pieces recalling John Williams and his soundtrack for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but then a theremin will join the party and bring things right back to the world of midnight movie magic.
Music composed by Aakaash Rao, Brenden Frank, Selcuk Bor. Featuring performance from Deryn Cullen, Sandro Friedrich, Zefora Alderman, Lucian Nagy
(Blue Isle Studios)
The soundtrack to environmental exploration and action game Valley is – in a word, gorgeous. Combining lush synthesized compositions with live flute, vocal performances and charismatic cello solos, it’s reminiscent of James Horner at his best, emotionally evocative and lush without descending into saccharine.
Marimbas and col legnos combine with mandolins, fiddles bone shakers and contemporary rhythms to form an alluring portal into Valley’s unique fantasy world.
Music by Lyndon Holland
Surreal detective game Virginia is a dialogue-free storytelling experience, making its soundtrack all the more important.
Written by Lyndon Holland and performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, the game’s soundtrack was recorded at Smecky Studio, a legendary locale also used to record scores for Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive – appropriate enough given Virginia’s David Lynchian/Angelo Badalementi overtones.
Music by Jonathan Geer
Jonathan Geer has scored for many mainstream television shows as well as games. For Owlboy, he shows off a lot of colors via a true orchestra. Though the sound palette is fairly traditional and beautiful recorded live orchestral score, it evokes a true sense of wonder and adventure.
From fantasy-inspired pastoral pieces to more jazz-influenced wanderings, to Berlioz-level aggression, Geer’s score is a cornucopia of classical tools applied to far more modern purposes – without ever losing track of an overall sense of unity.
4. Wheels of Aurelia
Music by Gipsy Studio, Nicolò Sala
What’s a road trip without driving music? Nicolò Sala’s original compositions for driving and conversation simulator Wheels of Aurelia are near-perfect reproductions of pop and rock music from the game’s historic setting in late ‘70s Italy that also evoke the legendary Frank Zappa in their lead guitar work and arrangements.
Similarly, the opening theme for the game – a raucous, saxophone-laced rock ‘n’ roll song written and performed by Gipsy Studio – is as memorable and evocative as the game’s characters.
3. Samorost 3
Music by Tomáš Dvořák
Tomáš Dvořák’s unique clarinet and electronic loop pedal style always feels much grander in sound. Full of quirk and whimsy, its nice to have a such a refreshing departure from the norm and adds such an integral part to Amanita Design’s game worlds – whether it is Machinarium or the Samorost series.
For Samorost 3, Dvořák combines synths, pianos, chimes and woodwinds into a multi-layered psychedelia that feels at once earthy and otherworldly.
Music by Austin Wintory
Austin Wintory’s classically inspired score perfectly matches ABZU’s tranquil exploration of underwater depths and Atlantean mysticism. From existential isolation to galactic euphoria, the analog orchestral score spans the gamut.
Driven by soft strings and woodwinds and augmented by choral singing and an otherworldly ensemble of harps, the music is as meditative as the game experience itself.
1. Hyper Light Drifter
Music by Disasterpiece
People should make more games and movies just for the off-chance that it gives Disasterpiece another reason to compose its score. Here is the thing about Disasterpiece’s work on Hyper Light Drifter: it feels like chiptune has been in the world for so long that analog – embodied by bits of guitar and jazz muffled by the dusty static of age – has grown back over it like a canopy. It feels like chiptune can never be quite shiny again – it is now tarnished, maybe spit and polished, but it has iterated, worn down a little, entropy has soaked into its silicon fabric.
This is a mature video game scoring work. It transcends its genre without leaving it behind, but rather elevates the form altogether much like the aesthetic and the story from the game for which it was written.
Megamagic: Wizards of the Neon Age
Music by Mitch Murder
A tribute to the ’80s cheese in action RPG form, Megamagic: Wizards of the Neon Age is served perfectly by Mitch Murder’s keyboard-heavy soundtrack. You may just find yourself busting out your leg-warmers, headband and bazooka as you dive headfirst into a pile of straight-to-VHS titles from the San Fernando Valley.
Jouncing keyboard melodies, deliberately flattened electronic drumbeats and bouncing synthetic bass lines serve as the audio equivalent of a Patrick Nagel painting. Totally radical!
Music by Chris Remo
Chris Remo puts sparse piano and electric guitar to perfect use, giving Firewatch a strong sense of place in keeping with the game’s setting in the wilderness of Wyoming.
Things get even more interesting with its dissonant, almost Charles Ives-esque layering, presumably where the narrative shifts from the external to the internal. Remo has become known for this kind of subtlety.
Music by Brian Gibson
Aside from being one half of dev team Drool, Brian Gibson is also one half of noise-rock duo Lightning Bolt. His soundtrack for “rhythm violence” game Thumper perhaps represents this year’s most seamless connection of “score” with “game.”
That relentless plodding drumbeat! Those sirens! Those layers of fuzzed out synth! Incorporating classic EBM and techno elements alongside more contemporary production notes, this soundtrack is a perfectly tense accompaniment to the game’s darkly psychedelic sci-fi visuals.
Of course there are always more fantastic titles to consider. Some personal faves from the writing team includes Pony Island (soundtrack by Jonah Senzel), Brigador (Makeup and Vanity Set), Nightgate (Semidome) and Inside (Martin Stig Andersen). Do your ears a favor and stimulate them with some of the amazing music being commissioned for indie games – a delicious break from more standard radio shovelware.
Thanks again for hanging with IGR!