Best Indie Video Game Music of 2017
infinityWaltz contributed substantially to the preparation of this article.
Music music music. From video games. With video games.
What’s so exciting about video game music is that its pairing with games leads to a variety of themes and styles that have decidedly different structure than traditional cinematic scores. That is not to say that video game music doesn’t share complex orchestral passages, deep sound design, multi-layered texture and heaps of nuance.
In choosing this year’s best original soundtracks, we considered how the music supported the game for which it was written, but more importantly what stood alone as an extraordinary product of that collaboration.
We do hope that this list might introduce you to some of the works that may otherwise be overlooked and that you listen to them as a whole. You will likely be inspired, entertained, carried away and even gobsmacked at all the musical twists and turns that game-motivated music can manifest.
So here are IGR’s:
Top 10 Best Indie Game Music Scores and Soundtracks of 2017
Music by Darren Korb
Much like the game’s familiar yet strange “dying earth” setting, Darren Korb’s work on the Pyre soundtrack takes a number of familiar genres and fits them together in a fresh way that evokes common tropes of fantasy and science fiction without seeming quite like anything that has come before.
Opening with “in the Flame,” a lovely Ladyhawke-era styled duet sung by Korb and Ashley Barrett, the album features over three dozens cues that evoke like on the open road as a star-faring soul-redeemer.
From baroque harpsichord pieces like “Life Sentence” to a capella ballads like “Mourning Song” to the Celtic folk prog rock of “Knights of the Sea” all the way into drum ‘n’ bass and heavy metal excursions like “Thrash Pack,” it’s a seemingly ill-fitting assemblage of disparate parts that manages to fall together into a solid whole – not unlike the game’s own unexpected blend of sports game and visual novel.
9. Loot Rascals
Music by Grandmaster Gareth
Playful, weird, esoteric. Legendary Pink Dots crossed with mu-Ziq, chiptunes and glitch. A rapidly moving kaleidoscope of plastic bucket-sounding synths, slide whistles, and kazoos to match the brightly color Superflat style of this card-based retro-themed space title, the score is an energetic frolicker with a style ultimately all its own. Eerie vocals meet with guiros and castanets while digital dobanis and xylophones tinkle out counter-melodies.
Songs range from “The Frightful Fissure of Unctuous Dread,” all jaunty beeps and subtle nods to 8-bit games, to the dark yet playful “Prismatic Horror” and even “Look at this Bunch of Rascals,” which evokes a Tin Soldier march being blown through a Nintendo game cartridge. Grandmaster Gareth reminds us that electronic music can be challenging – cutting edge, even – without losing its sense of inventiveness and fun. Absolutely refreshingly original.
Music by Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano
It was when I really turned this up that I was able to fully appreciate the craft and subtlety of what is a heart-opening, suggestively minimalist soundscape. Ben Lukas Boysen (a.k.a. Hecq) and Sebastian Plano’s soundtrack to David OReilly’s Zen Buddhist-flavored video game exploration of dependent origination feels like a solid wave of orchestral texture at first.
Repeated listening, however, reveals the care that went into the composition, the way each rosiny string patch or airy piano trill combines with the ethereal swirling voices surrounding it to create a cohesive and meditative whole. For fans of Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock.” Brilliantly subdued while fostering a constant spirit of bemused anticipation, this stands out as one of the year’s best soundtracks amidst a landscape of more bombastic offerings.
7. Rain World
Music by James Primate
To better capture Rain World’s post-apocalyptic landscape of industrial ruins and the strange mutant creatures scrabbling for survival among them, composer James Primate scrapped his usual chiptune approach to craft a soundtrack made out of literal junk percussion, utilizing everything from car parts to tin cans as sound sources.
The end result is something like a nature documentary scored by early industrial music pioneers like Z’ev or Test Dept., with clanking metallic rhythms combining with minimalist electronic tones that recall Karlheinz Stockhausen. It’s an unexpected approach for video game music and very evocative of the familiar yet alien world of the game itself.
6. The Sexy Brutale
Music by Matt Bonham, Tim Cotterell, Tom Puttick, Phil French
(Cavalier Game Studios, Tequila Works)
With startling dexterity, Bonham, Cotterell and Puttick flood the senses with an intoxicating blend of cabaret, noir, smoky jazz and cinematic orchestral score. A lurid, sexy thread wraps around its victims like a giant spider outside a bar that means it literally when it asks, “What’s yer poison?”
The baritone sax that comes in and out of this heady nightmare is a guide through its dark tunnels, like a montage in a Neil Jordan film. Every style, every moment, though, is slave to a clock, a ticking in some form, from a discretely carried pocket watch to a foreboding grandfather clock. If Bernard Herrmann smoked Gitanes, he might blow this tune after drinking half a bottle of Absinthe with Guy Lombardo.
5. Last Day of June
Music by Steven Wilson
At turns Catherine Wheel as performed by Radiohead, Teenage Fanclub slow dancing with David Gilmore, sometimes it sounds like Queen and Necrocock wrote a rock opera. Then you figure out that this is none other than audiophile-for-audiophiles prog rock savant Steven Wilson (a.k.a. Porcupine Tree), who has recreated songs from four of his different albums and tailored them specifically for this indie game.
From saccharin pop harmonies to contemplative acoustic guitar arpeggios carrying us through an amniotic cloud of orchestral beds…to the meandering plinks and plucks of percussion and plectrums, the soundtrack can move from a sweet glow to an imposing cacophonous roar without every losing its central tone.
The results are breathtaking, and if Last Day of June were nothing more than a catalyst for this endeavor, it has more than done its service in the pantheon of music history. But it is also a touching indie with an attractive aesthetic stolen from the pages of Pixar’s Up.
Music by WeiFan Chang
Oppressive and heavy and haunting and even sentimental in places, Taiwanese composer WeiFan Chang’s score to Detention creates and enhances the game’s ever-encroaching sense of danger and isolation.
Chang combines post-rock and ambient elements with found-sound samples and Chinese classical instruments. The songs often feel like they were less composed than somehow stumbled across in abandoned rooms, though more structured pieces like “Unanswered Prayer” with its bleating horn introduction fading into melancholy guitar arpeggios or “Cycle of Samsara” with its bittersweet, reverb-soaked piano motif recall David Sylvian’s work with Can’s Holger Czukay. Pieces like the rumbling, dissonant industrial soundscape of “Wangchuan River,” on the other hand, are simply – perfectly – terrifying.
3. Tooth and Tail
Music by Austin Wintory
We’ve loved Austin Wintory’s cinematic scores, from the haunting choral arrangements in The Banner Saga to the meditative harp ensemble of ABZU. Though at first we were surprised to hear this rollicking burst of eastern European folk and jazz motifs, it started to soon connect the dots as cues shifted from Peter and the Wolf and Oompah to dulcimer and balalaika.
Something like a team-up of Tom Waits and Gogol Bordello, Wintory’s score for Tooth and Tail is a bombastic blast of marching band rhythms, wildly flailing fiddles and mad mazurkas. Delicate string flourishes between raucous bursts of folk dance rhythms and careening melodies to meet the way the game carefully builds and releases tension as vermin meet upon the battlefield. We’d love to see the Broadway version of this (featuring real rodents, please).
2. So Let Us Melt
Music by Jessica Curry
(The Chinese Room)
It is easy to get stuck in our own silos, but fortunately, due to our work covering VR via our sister site OGR, we were exposed to Jessica Curry’s sublime work for Google Daydream experience So Let Us Melt. For this brief experience from The Chinese Room – developers behind Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture – composer Jessica Curry wrote and recorded an hour’s worth of original serious choral music awash in ambient textures and mystery summoning John Rutter and Howard Shore.
“Counting the Atmospheres” is a positively celestial work of light and darkness, as it transitions back and forth between minor and major melodies, and then “The Leaving” trades the string arpeggios for Laurie Anderson-style slow attack synth plucks and harp glissandos. The body of work ends with the full a capella choir arrangement of the titular track “So Let Us Melt” – doing precisely that – cascading vocals over top of one another, diminishing, returning…to silence.
Music by Kristofer Maddigan
Cuphead‘s three-hour musical tour through the mesmerizing and highly lauded animated video game of the same name, is a masterwork in arrangement and style – weaving ragtime (“Inkwell Isle One”), swing and big band (“Inkwell Hell”), barbershop quartet (“Don’t Deal with the Devil”), bebop (“Victory Tune”) and Latin jazz (“Floral Fury”), orchestral waltzes, Klezmer, drumline and marching band into a dizzying tower of boundless frantic energy.
Like the game itself, however, it is precision rather than bravado that underscores this effort. These musicians are pinnacle performers, whether taking us on a country stroll rippling with piccolos and swooning brass and woodwind sections or the colorful tones of a well-used upright warming up the cabaret even while the sawdust is getting swept into the corners.
Cuphead lands not only the musical eras and composers from which it draws inspiration – be it Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington or Carl Stalling’s musical pun style of madcap melodies – but matches the timbre and filtered quality of these without overdoing it. Again, everything about this production – the game design, the artwork, the score – are certainly reverential but not parody. This is a terrific new collection of recordings to own under any circumstance.
Music by Stöj Snak
(Bedtime Digital Games)
Stoj Snak, a.k.a. Danish avant punk and “screamer/songwriter” Niels Hojgaard Sorensen, brings an unexpected but appropriate whimsy to a game set within a representation of the mind that resembles a Surrealist picture book. The score responds dynamically to player action – horns swell and strings strum as players near instruments that grow out of the environment like wildflowers – and each boss fight is accompanied by a campy but amusing musical theater number.
Music by CureLabel
French-Canadian folk-rock band CureLabel provides the soundtrack to this supernatural mystery set in frozen rural Quebec in the 1970s. Slow creeping ambient and nervously bowed fiddles build a sense of danger – both from the subzero weather conditions and the enigmatic presence that haunts them – while acoustic guitar motifs, banjo-picking and podorythmie create an indelible sense of place.
Indie games continue to be a fertile breeding ground for talented musicians and composers, so once you’ve filled your ears with the list above, we encourage you to track down some other under-appreciated gems from 2017, like Mikhail Schvachko’s Russian folk-infused score to The Mooseman, Ari Pulkkinen’s Juno Reactor-inspired trance for the Nex Machina soundtrack, or David Kanaga’s glitch compositions in Oikospiel.
And be sure to let us know what indie game music got stuck in your head this year in the comments.