It is that time of year again! 2013 was an interesting year. Video games themselves benefited from a greater critical discourse, indie titles gained even more saliency with the gaming public, and new consoles released. It was also an interesting year for video game soundtracks.
The pool of talent was deepened and widen in 2013, as more and more indie developers sought composers and musicians to provide a certain kind of sound to their title. On the other end of the spectrum, AAA games brought in more composers who traditionally write music for film or television and occasionally do the one-off video game OST.
One thing cannot be denied. The variety and range of earcandy we were treated to in 2013 was astounding. So much great music, so little time to have listened to it, let alone play the games in which it appeared.
I have spent the better part of the last two months going through the process I do at the end of every year, and am now proud to present the Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks of 2013.
Roguelikes became an increasingly popular genre in 2013. Titles like Rogue Legacy put players through the ringer time and time again with an interesting take on the genre. Tettix and A Shell in the Pit’s music to the game proves to be exceptional in its own right. It is at once recognizable as music that fits the “old-school-style-with-a-modern-twist” aesthetic most roguelikes have.
It would have been incredibly easy for the music to be too well-blended into the game’s overall aesthetic, just another piece of the puzzle that helped Rogue Legacy prove its credentials as the real-deal roguelike. But, its greatest strength is how distinctive it is. Tettix and A Shell in the Pit created a soundtrack with a specific sound not heard in most roguelikes. Yes, it is music that helps make Rogue Legacy the game that it is; but, it lends style and attitude to the game that otherwise would have been absent.
Skulls of the Shogun is a turn-based strategy game with a very distinctive art style and setting. You play as undead samurai generals vying for control of a fictionalized underworld. It’s as crazy as it sounds.
The music is as unique as the art style. Sam Bird collaborated with electronica group Makyo to create a soundtrack that fits the game’s quirky, vibrant, and ethereal style very well. It is music that rests at the intersection of tradition and modernity, east and west, and experimental and conventional instrumentation.
It is extraordinarily original in its presentation and subject matter, combining traditional Japanese instruments with the forceful and aggressive beats and rhythms of modern-day synthesizers and manipulators. It’s an intelligently composed soundtrack to a game that is all about the distinctive nature of its presentation and art style.
Company of Heroes 2 turned out to be a game that was, for many, marred and convoluted by microtransactions and what some saw as the pay-to-win nature of the multiplayer. Say what you want about the design of the game, but Cris Velasco’s score to Company of Heroes 2 is nothing short of exhilarating.
I’ll be the first to admit that the score to the game isn’t very subtle and lacks the compositional finesse that is found in other titles on this list,but writing it off as trumpet-screaming, timpani-banging nonsense is doing the score a disservice. Velasco displays an aptitude for thematic material.
The melodies he produces are evocative and contain the distinctly Soviet flair the game demands of its score. There are also unexpectedly tender moments in which the melodic theme is presented as a variation, thrown passionately back and forth between cello and violin.
Cris Velasco’s name has long appeared on video game soundtracks next to a bevy of collaborating artists. Company of Heroes 2 marks an important step in the establishment of a compositional voice for Mr. Velasco. If this is level of quality what we can expect from him going forward, I absolutely cannot wait to see what his next solo venture turns out.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. I’m a sucker for some good jazz. I’m also someone who has played the piano for 15 years. Gunpoint just happens to contain some good jazz (although not entirely in the traditional sense) and some great piano passages.
Given those considerations: it was pretty much a shoo-in for this list. The stylistic approaches taken by the soundtrack’s three composers is evident as the music presents a consistently fantastic jazz-noir cross faux-spy theme throughout. A trap set clings out a rhythm, a xylophone pops in with a melody, the sublime sound of a muted trumpet exquisitely decorating the melodic theme, all combining to give the music a languid, yet urgent pace.
The use of electronic instrumentation to round out some of the harmonies is perfect for the game’s focus on hacking various electronic systems. Yes, the soundtrack to Gunpoint is a style-driven affair, but the manner in which that style manages to speak to the subject matter is what is most impressive about this fantastic soundtrack.
Ubisoft has done a lot of good for the Rayman franchise. Ever since the release of Rayman Origins the series has been undergoing an evolution of sorts. They have a more distinctive art style, tighter controls, and a greater offering of things to keep you occupied for hours on end.
Perhaps, though, the starkest contrast between Rayman as we know it today and Rayman as we knew it decades ago is how much more personality the games of the last few years have. Central to that sense of personality has been the creation of the games’ exceptional soundtracks.
Christophe Héral and Billy Martin’s work on the soundtrack to 2013’s Rayman Legends represented the franchise at its musical best (note: Christophe wrote the bulk of the music for the game). The variety in the music mirrors the variety in the worlds of Rayman Legends.
There is music for the medieval world, for the jungle world, and even music that riffs on popular James Bond themes to accompany the world that takes its inspiration from various Bond films. Héral and Martin have created a soundtrack that is alive in every sense of the word. You can feel its enthusiasm and eagerness, humming along and tapping your foot as the melodies become familiar to you.
Re-orchestrated tunes of popular music like “Black Betty” and “Eye of the Tiger” prove to be unexpected, but brilliant additions to a soundtrack already brimming with vitality and personality. Of all the soundtracks on the list, Rayman Legends is a particular pleasure to listen to. It will have you smiling ear-to-ear.
Joe Hisaishi has been writing music since 1981 and has scored films, video games, and anime. In Japan he is a national treasure, understandably so.
The score to Ni No Kuni displays Hisaishi’s talents for lush harmonies and breathtaking melodic themes. The often majestic quality of Hisaishi’s music fits the aesthetic of Ni Nu Kuni perfectly. Perhaps the biggest challenge Hisaishi faced in the course of scoring the music to the game was how best to represent the innocence and sincerity of the game’s main character, a child. While the music itself is certainly not immature, it does speak to the sense of wonderment, adventure, and innocence that contextualizes a child’s fascination with fantasy worlds.
Hisaishi’s composition is deft, technically immaculate and musically dignified. A sense of the grandiose permeates nearly bar and measure of the score to Ni Nu Kuni, perhaps Hisaishi’s most nuanced masterpiece to date.
Chris’s music to indie roguelike Risk of Rain is the soundtrack on this list that most surprised me this year. I went in thinking I had heard it all before, in this, 2013, the year of the growing popularity of roguelikes. It is a difficult genre to write for not because it lacks any particularity about its aesthetic—roguelikes have more style than they know what to do with—but, because the sound of roguelikes is, in many ways, a known quantity.
Most players expect a certain sound when they sit down with a game from the genre, and, by and large, that sound is delivered time and time again. So, the challenge lies in how best to create something distinct, yet not unrecognizably outside the jurisdiction, if you will, of the genre.
It is in this particular regard that the soundtrack to Risk of Rain succeeds. The singularity of its musical vision is impressive. It is one of the most comprehensive and cohesive bodies of music on this list. It is, however, a very exacting album. Because a big part of the gameplay of Risk of Rain is about how well things scale within the game, the music had to contain the same frenetic and desperate quality one feels when sitting down for a session with the game. Musical themes buzz and hum in and out of consciousness, cocooned in the foreboding, almost insectoid-sounding harmonies of the soundtrack’s various synths and manipulators, constantly pulling the listener’s attention away from one thing and toward another. It is a demanding listening experience, but, in every regard, is rewarding.
The first time I heard Chris Tilton’s music I was playing a game called Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. It was a dumb game, in the best ways possible. What wasn’t dumb was Tilton’s music to the game, fully orchestrated and brooding with the kinds of maddening brass fanfares and troubled string trills one would expect from a military-style third-person shooter set in North Korea. Then he scored the music to Black. Again putting on display his unique talent for blending what most listeners would call harmony and rhythm.
His score to SimCity is probably the only excellent thing about a game that was largely panned by reviewers and to this day leaves a sour taste in most everyone’s mouth. It is effervescent; boiling over with a sense of majesty, there is almost something noble about it. More than any of his other video game scores, Tilton makes particular—and effective—use of the woodwinds in his music to SimCity.
The musical tone of the score is what is most impressive, at once arresting you with its sense of awe; but, there manages to be something consistently unsettling about it. Dark and agitated strings growl out rhythms, contrasted by the hopeful and bright decorative notes of a clarinet and the stately, noble sound of French horns. It so perfectly mirrors the idea of a city, constantly pushing forward only to find itself on the brink, a sort of Sisyphean task of megalomaniacal proportions. So intensely aware of its own scope, the music to SimCity proves to be some of 2013’s most memorable. It’s Tilton’s best work to date and I can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store for this talented composer.
How does one compose music for a text-based iOS game? Daniel Olsén clearly had a few notions about how to do so. Then again, maybe he didn’t; if that is indeed the case, his musical genius knows no bounds.
The soundtrack to Swedish developer Simogo’s Device 6 is part 60’s spy noir, part musical experimentation, and 100 percent awesome. There is something decidedly restrained about the music to Device 6. It’s not trying to make a statement, it’s trying to sell a story. It is hard to tell whether it is the words that breathe life into the text that is the game’s foundation, or if it is the text that dictates the manner of the music’s existence.
Any way you cut it, the musical space that Olsén’s soundtrack occupies is very constrained. It operates within the dictates of pages, sentences, and singular words. Most of the other soundtracks on this list are trying to sell only a portion of the game to you; the portion that relies on aesthetic to build the world in which you play, to make it more believable. They are an additive element of design. The soundtrack to Device 6 is different.
The text and music are the only set of world-building tools used to convince the player of the relative believability of the game’s “world”. As much as Mr. Olsén is a composer and musician, for his part in the creation of Device 6, he is also a designer of sorts. The electronic beeps and boops, the odd and alien nature of spectral distortion heard in many of the tracks are at once unsettling.
Then, almost as if from nowhere, the jazz-noir styling of 60’s spy novels and films invade your ears. The twang of a guitar, celestial hum of a standing organ, and knock-knock of xylophone (possibly marimba) occupy the space between the soundtrack’s otherwise electronic-focused harmonies and rhythms. I hope Daniel and Simogo continue their partnership. If past collaboration is any indication, we have much, much more to look forward to from this rising star of the indie scene.
It is rare that a video game score comes along that is groundbreaking, truly groundbreaking.
Remember Me is a game about memory, its distortion, its process of recovery, and the remixing and alteration of moments in time. It anchors the experience entirely. Olivier went through a process never before attempted by someone composing music for a game, at least, not quite the process Olivier chose for the game’s music. Yes, electronic beats provide forward momentum for much of the score, but where the manipulation of synthesizers or the boom of a full orchestra once were is now placed something entirely heretofore unheard. The music’s melodies and harmonies are played by a full orchestra. There is nothing particularly notable about that.
It is what happened after the music was recorded that is special. Olivier sat down and digitally manipulated the recordings of the live orchestra. The result is one that is thought-provoking. Time and time again melodies, harmonies, and rhythms are stopped dead in their tracks, fumbling over themselves again and again, stuttering as if searching for the right note.
The only thing I can think of that even begins to describe what it sounds like is when CDs would skip in the portable CD-players of the 90’s, and even that doesn’t do it justice. It is quite simply unlike anything I have ever heard in video game music up to this point. The results are astonishingly beautiful, epic, and emotive.
This digital manipulation is not only notable for how it may change the process of editing and mixing video game music, but also for how true it stays to the artistic prerogative and subject material of the game. In Remember Me a future is depicted in which memories are able to be digitized, thereby allowing them to be altered, scrambled, erased, stolen, and distorted.
At the very core of this is the notion that one is taking something organic and applying to it inorganic or wholly unnatural processes. The artificial nature of man’s great experiment in Remember Me is borne out in the music as well, in which the organic sound of the orchestra is manipulated and distorted by machines built for that very purpose. It is this very authenticity that permeates every layer—and believe me, there are many, many layers—of the music to Remember Me. It is genuine in every regard, and that is the highest compliment I can pay to any piece of music.
Please note that all of the music included on the list can be purchased on iTunes or the composer’s Bandcamp page.