It’s been a big year for video games and a banner year for soundtracks. FACT’s crew of avid gamers, Scott Wilson, Al Horner, John Twells, Miles Bowe and Lewis Gordon, round up the best of the bunch.
Arguably the biggest development in gaming this year has been the democratization of virtual reality technology. Now, those of you who’ve been gaming since before the internet was “a thing” should know that VR has long been promised and never really been delivered. Remember the Nintendo’s Virtual Boy? Exactly. But with the Oculus Rift, the Gear VR and Sony’s extremely popular headset for the PlayStation 4, we’ve suddenly hit a point where the dream of VR is quickly becoming a (ahem) reality.
Interestingly however, as the mainstream has been caught up with navigating a new era and nurturing their flagship franchises’ umpteenth installments, the most innovative developments in video game music have been on the indie circuit. That’s not to say this year’s AAA titles have been lacking – Uncharted 4, Dishonored 2, Final Fantasy XV and plenty of others had terrific soundtracks – but they weren’t quite as gripping or as innovative as those that were appearing just beneath the surface.
We’ve rounded up 10 of the best video game soundtracks of the year, from Mick Gordon’s crunchy (and rollicking good fun) DOOM score to Disasterpeace’s stunning blend of old and new on Hyper Light Drifter.
It makes sense that id Software tapped composer Mick Gordon to produce the soundtrack to their eagerly-awaited DOOM sequel. Gordon did a cracking job on the score for last year’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, a reboot of another of id’s beloved games, and he approaches DOOM with similarly breathless excitement.
It’s not subtle or measured by any means, and that works in the game’s favor. You don’t exactly need James Blake whining you to sleep while you’re trying to obliterate a cyberdemon with a BFG9000 – you need raucous post-White Zombie tech metal with some synth-y ambience thrown in for color. Pass the Mountain Dew, lads, it’s gonna be a long night. JT
9. Stardew Valley
The brilliant Stardew Valley is a welcome escape for fans of the gentle simplicity of beloved RPGs Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, and Eric Barone provides an apt musical accompaniment.
Bringing to mind the quieter moments of Chrono Trigger, Barone offers us two hours of sparkling atmospheres that match the transcendental beauty players tap into while taking over the old family farm. Stardew offers a much-needed chance to slow down, but it’s Barone’s music that reminds us of the rewards in doing so. MB
Set inside a living computer network in 2398, Nightgate’s mesmeric, shifting environment is a combination of Tron’s virtual world and the sleek augmented reality user interfaces of the near future. However, much of Semidome’s incredible soundtrack taps into the same ‘80s synth nostalgia as Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s Stranger Things score, using simple arpeggio loops and ambient moments to mirror the stark, lonely expanse you’re trying to escape.
Nightgate is basically just an update on the steady hand buzzer games you’d find at a funfair, but the score pulses and breathes in a way that has you convinced you really are exploring the vast insides of a sinister artificial intelligence. SW
PS4 exclusive Bound is a rare gem of a game – set within the mind of a woman revisiting her childhood memories, you play a dancer pirouetting her way through a vivid, beautifully rendered hinterland. Part of its dreamy magic is surely down to Kiev artist Heinali, real name Oleg Shupdeiko, whose blend of gentle piano motifs and pulsing, arpeggiating synths mirror immaculately the game’s sense of intrigue, nostalgia and wonder. There was no other game quite like Bound in 2016 – and no other soundtrack like it, either. AH
Chris Remo’s score for Firewatch is very much like the game itself: brief, understated, and emotionally devastating. As you play through its opening moments and the protagonist’s gut-wrenching reason for fleeing to the wilderness to become a forest fire lookout is revealed, Remo’s simple piano theme oscillates between the same joy and grief laid out on screen.
It’s one of the year’s heaviest games, but also one that’s funny and quietly optimistic: as your character slowly rebuilds himself amid the backdrop of an oncoming inferno and a bizarre conspiracy, Remo captures the lighter, more hopeful moments as well. More than anything though, it just invites you to stop and take in the view once in a while. SW
Did you really expect a game made by a member of notorious power duo Lightning Bolt to be anything less than a punishing hell ride? Thumper casts you in the role of a metallic scarab beetle – the hardiest, most durable of creatures – and there’s clear intent in the choice as the game submits you to increasingly severe button prompts in line with its ratcheting, industrial soundtrack.
Brian Gibson’s score is all build up and no drop – an uneasy, mechanical creation. Its dense layers of metallic clang and grinding, buzz-saw synths compound the claustrophobia wrought from the tunnel you’re hurtling down. And while Thumper might be a frightening, violent experience at times, most of all it is exhilarating, the endorphin pay off of completion greater than any other title this year. LG
4. No Man’s Sky
How do you soundtrack infinity? That was the challenge for Sheffield post-rockers 65daysofstatic, tasked with scoring the highly anticipated No Man’s Sky – an envelope-pushing space exploration that auto-generated a literally limitless array of planets full of strange colors, creatures and vistas.
The actual game may have struggled to quite live up to the hype its long gestation struck up for developers Hello Games, but its music doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. 65dos’s mix of huge, abrasive electronics and airy ambience is suitably otherworldly and sublime, adding to the intensity and awe of endless exploration of the game’s far-flung galaxies. Cinematic and energetic, this score goes boldly went where video game OSTs haven’t been before. AH
Martin Stig Andersen
Hirokazu Tanaka once described his Metroid soundtrack as an attempt to make players unable to distinguish between environmental sound and musical score. Rarely is that used to more devastating effect than with Inside, a game that makes you unable to breath even outside of its claustrophobic underwater sections.
Composers Martin Stig Andersen and Søs Gunver Ryberg don’t create atmospheres so much as industrial miasmas designed to poison any optimism during players’ hellish descent into a shadowy, possibly government-funded, lab. Yet, as Inside’s story masterfully reveals itself, they provide moments of uneasy beauty – shards of light that make us climb deeper into the darkness.
If you want a game or soundtrack to make you feel good about, well, anything, move on, but for those willing to take the plunge you will never find anything like it. Just remember to breathe. MB
2. Kentucky Route Zero: Act IV
An Odyssean trip through the heart of America, Kentucky Route Zero is one of the few games to engage with the economic and political issues that led to the rise of Trump. Debt and marginalization lie at the thematic core of the game, and Ben Babbitt’s measured soundtrack perfectly captures the strangeness and tragedy of the experience.
With Act IV, Babbitt hones in on the pedal steel guitar, treating, stretching and layering the notes on a bed of soft pads. They expand and contract in mourning, simultaneously grounding the game in the country tradition while pointing to somewhere unnervingly alien.
At the end of the game, Babbitt sings over a gently strummed guitar, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” It feels all too real in 2016. LG
1. Hyper Light Drifter
With his score for Hyper Light Drifer, Vreeland has crafted a soundtrack that matches and furthers the game’s ambitious vision, marrying its passages of intense action and wistful awe. His now trademark decaying synths, blown-out sub frequencies and plaintive melodies allow Hyper Light Drifter to reach a state of almost total audio-visual synergy, an experience forever seared into the eyes and mind of anyone that plays it.
While the game takes its cues from classic 8-bit adventure games like The Legend of Zelda, no single component ever reverts into dewy eyed romanticism or pastiche of its reference material. Vreeland’s soundtrack throbs and contorts as you catch your breath amidst tense combat, or navigate the environments that drip, peel and crumble with the fallout of the game’s central disaster, exquisitely rendered in grimy psychedelia. It’s a singular, awe-inspiring experience. LG