Music is the unconscious of a film, and so it is with gaming. It is best utilized to support but not overtly indicate, to lend dimension, mystery, curiosity, urgency, without ever being so on-the-nose as to remove the enigma – or worse – become oppressively repetitive. Game music is a wonderful cabinet of curiosities to find hidden gems or realize themes that have been living with you longer than you may have realized.
We love writing the annual roundup of our favorite scores of the year, and in no way do we consider this definite or comprehensive. We could literally sit and listen to original game music, morning to midnight, and never cover it all. We hope, though, that you will be inspired to find what you encounter below and give it some space in your day, and we are fairly certain you will be rewarded in so doing.
Indie-Game-Freak also contributed substantially to this article.
Here are IGR’s
Top Ten Indie Game Soundtracks or Scores of 2020
by Seth Parker
The offbeat premise of Bugsnax is an island where the snacks themselves are anthropomorphized, so when you bite into that juicy donut, it presumably has veins. Anyway, that wacky setting creates context for a wacky score that at times sounds like a Walkman melting its contents in the sun as it struggles to play a cassette with half-dead batteries. Which is a good thing. Much of the fare is a cross between chiptune and Blue’s Clues, with a little Zappa thrown in for good measure.
Pairs with: Barney the Dinosaur on whip-its, Pixy Stix
Not suited for: sleep, miso soup
9. Paradise Killer
by Barry “Epoch” Topping
Unlike the game’s visual approach, Barry “Epoch” Topping’s score for Paradise Killer is NOT, in fact, Synthwave. This is not a modern sonic embodiment of an imaginary 1980s when everyone sported a Flock of Seagulls haircut. Rather, this is the early ’80s as they actually sounded: pumping disco funk, slickly produced by the standards of the time (which means a very light touch on the bass end), laced with tinkly keyboards and synthesized horn sections, and adorned with exorbitantly decadent saxophone solos.
Pairs with: mountains of cocaine
Not suited for: earth tones
8. Fall Guys
by Jukio Kallio & Daniel Hagström
Slap bass, glitch, chiptune and drum ‘n’ bass rhythms collide joyfully in the score to Fall Guys, a game that’s all about joyful collision. Funky, cheerful and more than a little hyperactive, this is Finnish composer Jukio Kallio (who also scored such games as Nuclear Throne and Minit) restating that old adage, “Dance like nobody is watching,” as video game music.
Pairs with: inflatable sumo suits
Not suited for: Zen gardens
7. Risk of Rain 2
by Chris Christodoulou
Mellow psychedelia seems at first to be an odd choice for a game as frantic as Risk of Rain 2, but it makes sense if you think about it. Incorporating hints of Hawkwind, Pink Floyd and tripped-out synthesizers, Chris Christodolou’s score fits the game’s alien planet vibe, while the comparatively calm pacing provides a nice counterpoint to the manic 3D running-and-gunning of actually playing it.
Pairs with: Wayne Barlowe illustrations, vintage sunglasses
Not suited for: squares, cubicles
by Harry Critchley
It would be so easy to call Cloudpunk‘s score another Blade Runner derivative, and in some small way that may be fair, but it stands on its own as a compelling electronic ambient work, with numinous undertones peppered with cyber effervescence. Give it a shot, you will be transported as quickly as a stolen hova.
“What impresses me about this is how much it doesn’t, in fact, sound like the Blade Runner soundtrack. Despite sharing certain inspirations and calling upon similar feelings, composer Harry Critchley in no way apes the iconic Vangelis score, instead combining elements of contemporary ambient, electronic and trance.” ~ InfinityWaltz
Pairs with: black light, slow-mo
Not suited for: bar mitzvahs, quinceañeras
by aivi & surasshu
Aivi & surasshu, best known for their work as composers for Cartoon Network favorite Stephen Universe, bring a similar style to their first video game soundtrack: tense in places, mournful in others, it’s nonetheless suffused with a feeling of hopefulness.
Combining a chiptune approach with real piano gives their Ikenfell score a sense of empathy while also paying homage to the JRPGs that inspired the game, and vocal themes for each of the main characters – ranging from hip-hop to indie rock to “Disney princess” ballad – help bring the characters to life.
Pairs with: ice cream sandwiches, inspirational street art
Not suited for: cynics
by Darrin Korb
For Hades, he puts a Mediterranean spin on his signature mix of styles, bringing out the game’s themes of Greek myth by incorporating a bouzouki and hammered dulcimer to a mixture of folk drones and metal riffs. Regular Korb collaborator Ashley Barrett’s soaring vocal work adds a touch of heaven to the otherwise hellish intensity.
Pairs with: retsina, smoky tavernas
Not suited for: direct sunlight
3. The Red Lantern
by Hrishikesh Hirway
Hrishikesh Hirway does so much with so little here! Sparse piano melodies, the occasional acoustic guitar strum and slow, reverb-soaked percussion are more than enough, though, to create a sense of contemplative melancholy perfect for accompanying the dreamy sled dog journey of The Red Lantern.
Sometimes as chilly and awe-inspiring as an arctic sunrise, sometimes as comforting as a warm blanket, this score is thoughtful, bittersweet and absolutely heartfelt.
Pairs with: long johns, hot chocolate, Milk-Bones
Not suited for: tropical beach getaways, Jersey Shore nightclubs
2. The Pathless
by Austin Wintory
The Pathless score begins with “None Have Returned,” what feels like a small chamber orchestra but immediately disrupts expectation with a Tuvan throat-singer who intermittently croaks and utters phrases in guttural tones, pulling you through his portal. Sparse deep percussion and whining strings envelop us in anticipation of the story that is to come, an invitation to adventure. This singer is in fact, part of The Alash Ensemble, a Tuvan trio that forms a foundational element of the entire work.
Seasoned composer Austin Wintory, who has moved from indie games to what seems to be a recurring contract with Ubisoft, knows how to combine perfect orchestral timbral blends that draw on those flutes, piccolos, tin whistles and the like to create emotional effects that would make James Horner proud.
On “A Shroud over the World,” we are firmly rooted in Jerry Goldsmith territory, a lurching ominous work. Fourth track “From the Antlers” is a delicately nuanced ambient journey filled with interesting and gently realized amuse-oreilles, particularly toward the end, where it becomes a blurry mush of esoteric tendrils, like smoke curling from a ceremonial bowl. These quieter moments are the most beautifully realized, and despite its varied and uncommon instrumental elements, it feels cohesive.
It is hard to ever deny an Austin Wintory score its due. They are all of the highest caliber, sweeping orchestral works rife with sounds from instruments found in all corners of the globe and fused back together to sound as if they were made that way. The plucked, chimed, bowed timbres and tones of xiao, bansuris, sitars, lutes and more will invariably whisk you off on an adventure through fascinating auditory landscapes with mystic legacies…just like the game.
Pairs with: travel and adventure, Sagittarian meet-ups
Not suited for: chocolate malt shake-drinking contests, cook-outs
by Hidden Orchestra
We have always been fans of the music in Amanita games and had the rare opportunity to see their frequent collaborators DVA live at IndieCade in Culver City years ago, so it is interesting to learn that their latest game features a new musical collaborator who is also game music freshman.
For Creaks, which is itself a departure from their usual fare, they enlisted the help of Joe Acheson (a.k.a. Hidden Orchestra) to create the soundtrack, who takes over for the aforementioned DVA and his collaborating partner Tomáš Dvořák (Floex).
Acheson considers the score for Creaks his outfit Hidden Orchestra’s fourth proper album. What he and collaborators Jack McNeill (clarinet, bass clarinet); Rebecca Knight (cello); Tim Lane and Jamie Graham (drums); Poppy Ackroyd (violin); Yvo Ackroyd Acheson (shakers); Ali Tocher (bells, zither-box percussion); Su-a Lee (cello); Phil Cardwell (trumpet); and the aforementioned Tomáš Dvořák (clarinet) deliver is a complex, rich journey through polyrhythms, moods, timbres and tempos, oftentimes whimsical, other times brooding and somber.
One of the best effects of game soundtracks is how they are inspired by a source unlike any other: alien or fantastical worlds that often last as long as the player chooses to remain in those spaces. Such scores need to be seamless, evocative but never overly intrusive; they straddle the subconscious and serve as a tether that indicates the level of peace or danger that the player should feel.
Ultrafast drum ‘n’ bass beats, plucking acoustic instruments and electro arps, winding wind instruments, droning pianos create space and movement all at once. “Tangle,” with its zithers, bassoons and brushed drums will easily appeal to any Dead Can Dance fans, but it would be hard not to extend that promise to anyone with a pulse and connection to the planet. It is all earthy and cosmic at once.
“Learning Spy” summons John Adams’ “Shaker Loops,” possibly backed by Tony Levin, with its hypnotic swirling ascending runs, like a musical Moebius strip. We then move on to “Armoured,” whose felt piano tines evoke Ryuichi Sakamoto via Nils Frahm at their most contemplative. The arrangements are so carefully handled and the mixes so well-balanced.
This score is outstanding as a whole, as a game accompaniment, and as a reminder that anything is possible, for we are rewarded when we dare cross over the lines of expectation.
Pairs with: Siggi Baldursson, macroscopic insect photography
Not suited for: line dancing, Wheat Thins