Despite what you may have been led to believe, there’s more to gaming in 2018 than Fortnite.
Although the success of Epic’s freemium battle royale game and the closure of beloved indie developer Telltale Games this year proves a tectonic shift is well underway for the wider industry, 2018 was still a stellar year for games, whether we were playing the PS4 masterpiece God of War or Rez creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s brain-melting Tetris Effect.
It was also another fantastic year for video game soundtracks. FACT has picked 10 of the year’s best, from the grimy, industrial synth backdrop to experimental first-person horror title Paratropic, to the blissed-out accompaniment for retro platformer Celeste and the big budget Old West sounds of Red Dead Redemption 2.
(Matt Makes Games)
Celeste captured the hearts and minds of both the speedrunners and the stragglers this year, thanks, in no small part, to Lena Raine’s gorgeous electro-acoustic score. A thrilling, grueling ascent up the game’s titular mountain is rewarded with glistening flip screen vistas, colored by solitary piano movements, icy ambience and vertigo-inducing synth arpeggios. Lead protagonist Madeline’s quest to reach the summit – and conquer her depression and anxiety – is soundtracked by a depth of tones and timbres, from sprightly chiptune to explosive rock drums. Raine finds a way to flit between moods with an adroitness that would impress any master of the game’s dash-jump mechanic. TA
Gorogoa is a gorgeous puzzle game of fiendish complexity. Players can not only rearrange its labyrinthine comic-book panels but move deeper within them, producing a disorientation not dissimilar to Inception’s descending dream levels. Thankfully Joel Corelitz’s soundtrack is a meditative leveler, gently aiding events with a series of feather-light, albeit pleasingly tactile ambient and drone compositions. The scrape of metal on stone and chime of resonant bells sit just above the bed of synths and electronic gurgles to produce an aural accompaniment as perfectly composed as the game itself. LG
(JW, Kitty, Jukio, and Dom)
Minit’s hook is devilishly simple: death comes every 60 seconds. While the game might look like another 8-bit era Zelda throwback, its concept renders the genre in a new, anxiety-inducing light. Furious, bite-sized play-throughs ensue, soundtracked by Jukio Kallio’s rattling, retro-indebted score. But alongside suitably epic accompaniments to its factory-busting plot and (direct) action, Kallio introduces softer, seemingly anachronistic elements amongst its square and triangle waves. Plaintive acoustic guitar surfaces on ‘Resort Island’ while the environmental sounds of lapping waves, blowing winds, and cawing seagulls breathe life into the monochrome minimalism of Minit’s world. Such earnest, intimate details make the game and its OST stand out. LG
Octopath Traveler nods to old-school JRPGs in the best way, with a gratifying turn-based battle system, a party full of potential main protagonists and gorgeously presented natural environments. For composer Yasunori Nishiki, this called for a soundtrack that would update and build upon the classic JRPG sounds of yore. The game’s battle music plunges orchestral strings into urgent drums and teetering bass as tradition compels. Area themes are loaded with all the woodwind you could possibly want, and Nishiki brings out a choir for dramatic boss battles. But whatever instrument Nishiki is composing for, it’s his knack for spellbinding melodies that makes Octopath Traveler‘s stories so memorable. TA
Chris I Brown
Paratopic is a murky, shitty looking game. Resplendent with PS One-era pixelated polygons, the first-person horror tells a looping, opaque story of cross-border smuggling, video tapes and, well, birdwatching. The narrative bobs and weaves with head-spinning jump-cuts, the color palette is rich with queasy greens, and the action exudes a generous physicality (show me a more satisfying pistol reload, I dare you). Chris I Brown matches Paratopic’s visual and narrative dread with lurching, industrial compositions full of smudgy beats and corroding ’80s synths, cannily matching the game’s one moment of sunlight with this ambient beauty. It all adds up to make Paratopic one of the most thrilling, experimental titles in years. LG
Red Dead Redemption 2
Alongside returning Rockstar regular Woody Jackson, Red Dead Redemption 2’s 192-composition soundtrack boasts an astounding ensemble of contributors, including Colin Stetson and Arca. Hell, there’s even a new D’Angelo song in there, which is hardly fair for the competition. But it’s the moments at which the gunslinging Western cues its tunes that allow the OST to shine: the rumble and grunge of time spent on the run, bluegrass motifs that chirp like birds in more peaceful moments, and tales of Americana to recall during those lengthy horseback rides through open country. D’Angelo’s rallying ‘Unshaken’ kicks in at a perfect juncture of introspective vulnerability, cementing the game’s flair for the cinematic. TA
The Red Strings Club
The Red Strings Club evokes cyberpunk point-and-click classics like Beneath a Steel Sky and Blade Runner, exploring the concept of free will and our reliance on technology through its android and hacker protagonists. It’s a familiar concept elevated by a clever game mechanics and excellent dialogue, and the score, by Spanish musician fingerspit, plays with convention in its own way. The smoldering soundtrack flirts with jazz piano, post-rock guitar and contemporary synthwave sounds across its 90 minutes, teasing out the game’s noirish intrigue with a broad palette that goes far beyond the obvious reference points of Vangelis and Cliff Martinez. SW
(Monstars Inc./ Resonair)
Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s work has always oscillated between thrilling futurism and cheesy new age. If 2001’s Rez felt like the former, then Tetris Effect gently tips the balance towards the latter. Euphoria finds expression in every element of the Japanese designer’s latest title, from the cooing dolphins and dazzling fireworks decorating the screen, to the musical blocks that produce sound as they’re rotated. Noboru Mutoh’s soundtrack races through a variety of styles including Villalobos-esque needling techno and piano-led jazz that could have come from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s fingertips. The major key melodies of trance are frequently deployed, helping cement Tetris Effect as 2018’s most endorphin-filled experience. LG
We Happy Few
Nicolas Marquis/The Make Believes
Nicolas Marquis’ score stirs up paranoia in We Happy Few, but it’s a fictional band that truly brings the game’s dystopian world to life. Soundtracking an alternate version of ‘60s England, The Make Believes pastiche bands like The Beatles and The Kinks in a setting that draws from 1984, Brave New World and Bioshock. Each song is a love letter to Joy, a drug forced upon the population to control and shield them from the trauma of a recent calamity. There’s an eerie uncanniness to hearing psych-rock uppers blaring out of the radio whose lyrics casually reel off the drug’s fatal withdrawal symptoms: “Rolling heads and falling teeth, when I’m not with you.” TA
Yoku’s Island Express
In Yoku’s Island Express, a dung beetle-turned-postmaster must save his island home from destruction by an ancient deity. It’s a cute, Metroidvania-style game with a twist: most of the exploration is done via pinball flippers. This addictive, adorable debut from Swedish studio Villa Gorilla borrows heavily from ’90s platformers like Rayman, Donkey Kong Country and Banjo-Kazooie (with a bit of Sonic Spinball thrown in for good measure), and Jesse Harlin’s soundtrack riffs playfully on the era too. If Rare composers David Wise and Grant Kirkhope had teamed up to make a fourth world lounge album in their heyday, it might have sounded something like Harlin’s delightfully oddball score. SW
Keep up with all of FACT’s Best of 2018 coverage here.