Posts tagged video game score
Posts tagged video game score
2011 was a fantastic year for video game soundtracks, with dozens of differing styles and approaches to game scoring. I am, of course, a total soundtrack aficionado, and as such, have compiled a list of my favorites of the year. The results are enormous, and I don’t expect anyone to read this entire thing. But please check out what catches your eyes (or ears, as I have embedded dozens of tracks into this post). And now, here are my favorite game soundtracks of 2011:
10. The Binding of Isaac (Danny Baranowsky)
This weird little indie game doesn’t really have a whole lot going for it in terms of gameplay. It’s not bad, it’s just simple. It’s a fairly straightforward Zelda dungeon tribute (albeit dungeons which are randomly generated) with combat being handled like as a four-way shooter in the vein of of Robotron. But the music for The Binding of Isaac single-handedly elevates this game an absolute gem of 2011. Danny Baranowsky, best known for his score for the masochistic 2D platformer Super Meat Boy, expertly blends modern drum machine loops, synthesizers, and dramatic orchestra with little remnants of chip tunes and the sensibility of video game scoring used in games in the SNES era. It’s an excellent combination of new and old - melodic and ambient as well - that has a sound all to its own.
The Binding of Isaac
The title track for the game is oddly childlike (what with that soft synthesizer melody) and yet the strings give it a sense of tragedy (the game is, after all, dealing with the theme of child abuse). It sets the stage for the game as an isolated journey into the dark recesses of the unknown, and it conveys the desire to explore those places, but it informs the listener that this isn’t the story of a little elf boy with a green cap. Rather, it’s the story of child torn from the safety of his own home by a mother whose religious fanaticism has her hunting for his blood.
This serves as the main dungeon theme in the game, and starts exactly as you’d expect it to: sounding mysterious and almost lonely. However, it quickly makes a sharp turn, becoming a darkly bombastic theme with haunting vocal chanting and heavy drums. It takes inspiration from classic choral music, and appropriately so, given the themes of religion (and the twisting of its principles) at the game’s core. It plays with asymmetric time signatures (it’s part 9/8, part 6/8, according to Baranowsky), and this unexpected song structure works to mirror the unexpectedness of the game itself (given that its environments are randomly generated).
God damn. This is a boss theme which could go toe-to-toe with any of the best from the Final Fantasy series. And that’s saying a whole hell of a lot. A lightning fast tempo caries the tension and conflict at the core of the song, as the entire thing threatens to come apart at the seams, what with that spastic synthesizer atop frantic clanging percussion. And then, at about 0:33, that finger blistering piano melody comes in for what seems like the blink of an eye, bringing the pace of the song to practically absurd levels, and then transitions straight back into the original melody. An incredible and complex composition that thematically summarizes the insanity of The Binding of Isaac while just sounding really, really awesome. It stands out to me as one of the strongest singular tracks from any video game score of 2011.
With “Repentant,” again we hear some of that inspiration from classic choir music. It goes between a fast paced, almost militaristic-sounding, drum loop supporting a set of piano melodies that are undeniably eerie, yet they contain a sense of purpose and momentum behind them. That then transitions into a great quiet moment of slower keyboard and drums, with some soft orchestra and choir in the hind layers.
9. Rayman: Origins (Christophe Héral and Billy Martin)
Christophe Héral’s music for Rayman: Origins is one of the most blissful soundtracks I’ve heard from a video game in recent years. It’s simply and undeniably joyful, with its prominent flutes, saxophones, kazoos, and, oh yes, even didgeridoos. Drawing influence from everything from mariachi music to big band jazz, the score keeps the listener one his/her toes and works in tandem with the game’s wonderfully vibrant world and meticulously animated 2D sprites to create its distinctly comedic personality. With each of the dramatic transitions in location that the game takes, the music goes through equally staggering transitions. In strict terms of variety, this would probably be the best soundtrack of the year.
The Lum King
This song plays in Rayman: Origins’ title screen, and if its funky, island-sounding opening doesn’t sell you, then then the cutesy, oh-so-very-wonderfully-silly gibberish chanting will surely do so. What’s great about this track (and the whole score for that matter) is that it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard. It just simply channels happiness. It embodies it. You can’t really argue with it. You just have to smile and press start.
Shooting Me Softly
This track is hilarious to me. It begins as one would think a theme for flight in a game or movie would, and that triumphant orchestra continues throughout. But then comes that ridiculous kazoo playing a melody which sounds…well, it’s a really funny combination. Plus the men chanting with the kazoo and shouting “Hey!” every so often. It’s just brilliant. And exactly what you need to score a bunch of characters riding atop giant mosquitoes and shooting enemies (the kazoo sounds like a mosquito buzzing, get it?).
A Slap-Happy Start
There are qualities of unexpectedness and beauty about this track that make it one of my favorites of the entire year. It opens with these ethnic drums that quickly set up the game’s opening jungle environment, then follow that up with beautiful mallet and chime melodies. Then, at about 1:20, you get - of all things - a 1,500 year old instrument from Australia popping up and stealing the show: a didgeridoo. Then the song shifts yet again, to a different (and more elaborate) melody. It’s simply an amazing composition, and it embodies everything I love about this game, from the beauty of the 2D art to the “anything goes” vibe it emanates.
Yet another fantastic “jungle” song. The didgeridoo is still here, albeit taking a backseat to the drums and twangy strings, and there’s a really playful driving melody at the track’s end. Just more good stuff.
Here we get some fantastic, big band jazz (of which I am a huge sucker for). It’s grand and over-the-top (like most of the game), and the fact that it sounds to me like something Henry Mancini might have composed (a la Breakfast at Tiffany’s) makes it all the more awesome. Also, listen for the cork popping sound at 0:26. Yep, it’s like I’m partying with Audrey Hepburn, and I love it.
Ooooh, more champagne. At least that’s how the song starts. Then there’s some really gorgeous flute playing atop a jazzy beat. Short and sweet, but still shows off Christophe Héral’s range as a composer.
Breaking the Ice
Okay, let’s take that big band jazz and blow it wide open. This is logical conclusion to this section of the game’s style of composition. Frantic jazz which unexpectedly takes a turn into something like mariachi music after the 0:50 mark or so. That goofy chanting returns and trumpets join in to give things a more southwestern sound.
An infectious mallet melody kicks this track off, which is then layered atop by another set of mallets and what sounds like someone drumming on the neck of a stringed instrument. I include this track, again, to demonstrate the incredible range of this score.
The Lum’s Dream
Who would have thought that you could take that Pig Latin-ish gibberish and make it sound beautiful? Here, Héral achieves just that, and amid some soft music, it is given a calming effect. Just like with the weird nonsense language he used in his soundtrack for Beyond Good and Evil, he is able to demonstrate the power and effect of vocals simply as a sound. Sometimes the value in singing is all in its tone and rhythm. You don’t actually have to say anything at all to garner an emotional response.
8. Shadows of the Damned (Akira Yamaoka)
The moody, atmospheric, and unique sounds of Japanese composer Akira Yamaoka have been dedicated to the misty and ethereal town of Silent Hill for over a decade now. And although his first soundtrack outside Konami is a very brief one, Yamaoka really offers a lot to the endearing madness of Suda51’s Shadows of the Damned. Though the tone of the game’s narrative is positively batshit insanity dipped in nonsense and sprinkled with comedic self-awareness, Yamaoka’s music is deathly serious. It lends a deeper atmosphere to the game’s macabre depiction of hell (what with its streams of blood, mounds of bones, and demonic corpses). There’s a sense of isolation and introspection within the score that works wonderfully for the game’s quieter moments. And the way Yamaoka’s score plays against Suda51’s eccentricities makes both stand out as stronger for it.
Last stop, windows up
Certainly the best loading screen theme of the year, this track is an excellent example of Yamaoka’s “ethnic” sound for this score. And the piano lying atop the drum layer brings that gorgeous mix of peaceful melancholy that he was so well known for in his Silent Hill music. The drums play up the foreign and absurd setting while the piano grounds the story in the Garcia’s sense of anguish at the loss of his girlfriend. Again, the music plays things straight in spite of the game itself.
This track shows Yamaoka treading familiar waters from his Silent Hill days, but proving that his mix of industrial and dark trance music is still really unique. He does wonders with just a drum machine and a synthesizer in this track.
Yamaoka also has a very great knack for taking dark and moody textures and applying them to otherwise funky song structures. Here’s an example of him doing what he does best: having you groove to something eerie.
Broken Bones, Broken Promises
One of the more beautiful tracks Yamaoka has done in quite some time. Really haunting stuff, and again we hear the more “ethnic” drums.
Dropped Off Between Stops
A companion piece to “Last stop, windows up,” this track serves as the load screen theme in the latter half of the game. There’s an eerie funkiness to this track, and the synthesizer gives it a feeling of being a kind of out-of-body experience, or something that ghosts would dance to, or…well, I can’t describe it too well…
7. L.A. Noire (Andrew Hale and Simon Hale)
A soundtrack like that of L.A. Noire is a rarity. In it, we get some beautifully composed big band jazz and small scale orchestra working hand-in-hand. The effect is gorgeous, and the sound perfectly captures the sound of Hollywood’s noir films from the 40s and 50s. What almost seems like a mistake is also part of what makes the score all the more brilliant. The big band jazz that the game features didn’t become prominent until the 1950s (specifically the later half) and yet the game takes place in 1947. So essentially, what the score is doing is literally treating the game’s story as though it was a noir film made in the late 1950s that takes place in the late 1940s. That’s certainly one way of conveying a game’s inspirational roots, eh?
This quiet, moody jazz, which plays at the stylish black and white title screen for L.A. Noire is absolutely gorgeous. The lonely trumpet takes the lead in a mournful melody that embodies the urban setting and brooding nature of film noir, which is them echoed by a saxophone. The quiet, jazzy drums and slow piano give a calming effect to the piece, in spite of how depressing it can sometimes sound. It’s hard to imagine a better noir track for this game’s title theme. Certainly one of my favorites of the entire year.
New Beginning, Pt. 3
There’s something about this track that I can’t quite place. Perhaps its the cyclical nature of the string melody at its opening, or the triumphant horns that play along with it, but I certainly love this track. There’s mystery to the track in its latter half that goes perfectly with the noir themes of the narrative. And the fact that it starts so optimistically reflects Cole Phelp’s idealistic worldview at the game’s onset.
Temptation, Pt. 2
Another gorgeous use of horns to drive home that sense of urban malaise and depression so central to the game’s depiction of 1940s Los Angeles. This track effortlessly transitions in and out of quiet, almost meditative moments, and sweeping jazz. It’s a great track for setting up location, but is certainly not deprived of a human element because of it.
Redemption, Pt. 2
There is, of course, the moody aspect of L.A. Noire, but then there are those moments when the ever tightening dramatic tension approaches the breaking point, and that’s exactly where this track comes in. This track uses a jazzy (albeit somewhat choppy) beat as a means to instill uneasiness in the listener, as the the strings play a dissonant and barely-there melody. By the time that brass comes in, there’s no questioning that time is running short. This track is an exercise in utilizing the often overlooked dramatic capabilities of jazz music fused with minimal orchestra. The tension here is palpable, which serves the game’s highest dramatic moments at the finale of a case very well.
6. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Jim Guthrie)
I’m not surprised to have an indie game this high on my list, as many indie games place a huge emphasis on their music as a means to distinguish themselves from the crowded gaming market. However, I admit, I am a bit surprised to find an iOS game this high on my list, as mobile games in general are oftentimes difficult to distinguish from throwaway Flash/browser game experiences. But there’s no denying it, Jim Guthrie has crafted a score for the snidely self-aware Sword and Sworcery that is rife with somber emotions and contains just the right amount of old-school synthesized sounds to compliment the unique pixel art which comprises the game’s visuals.
In spite of the track name, that’s not, of course, a flute you’re hearing in this song. Rather, this song is a series of synth loops, with one triumphant one played atop it, along with distorted guitar chords. When the drums finally join in, the song attains a odd feeling about it. Almost like its celebrating something holy, but laughing at it all the same.
Maybe it’s the drum machine, playing out everything in repetition as if by someone going through a seizure. Maybe it’s that bass groove, just a bit too funky for its own good. Or maybe it’s that keyboard melody, which just screams “old school fantasy game” at me. I’m not sure what, but this song sounds to me exactly like the personality of Sword of Sworcery. That is to say, it seems filled with snarkiness, to the point where I feel like it is comical. This song seems to be a parody to me. Maybe not, but even still, I like it a lot.
The Prettiest Weed
This is a fantastic track, with a strong driving beat and a lead synthesizer whose wailing melody halfway through the track reminds me of Vangelis in the best possible way. It lends to the game that sort of triumphant nature which seems sarcastic in its use, given that the game primarily consists of walking and tapping on objects to examine them.
The title track to Sword and Sworcery is a mashup of several instruments that seem as if they were all doing their own thing and accidentally fell into the same song. Some parts of it sound almost amelodic, others like the echo of an instrument more than the thing itself. What results, strangely enough, is a thing of beauty that soothes me one moment and saddens me the next. The percussion in this song sounds militaristic in nature (something akin to playing taps) and seems to be a call to adventure in that sense. But the instruments sound frail and defeated. The journey seems ominous, melancholic even.
Under A Tree
A joyfully over-the-top use of synthesizers to create a surreal soundscape featuring long, sustained notes and fluttering melodies that sound as silly as they do gorgeous. Just a great mixture of layers and moods here. Jim Guthrie knows how to create tracks that grab you and don’t let go.
The repetitive guitar loop that serves as the core of this song really grabs me. Without it, this track would sound incredibly depressing, what with the light drumming, long synth notes, and depressed piano notes that have such a large distance between each other. The guitar provides the track with purpose, and gives it a sense of hope. To me, this track conveys the idea of carrying on in spite of everything. Trudging onward and forward, and not looking back for too long.
The Ballad of Space Babies
Of all the excellent tracks that comprise Sword and Sworcery’s score, this may be, in spite of its goofy name, one of the most personal and remarkably beautiful. It’s a very slow build, but the little twinkles of synth and soft ambiance found in the track’s middle make it worth it. It’s not the most complicated track, but it serves as a very human moment among so many hyper-active and quick moving tracks that are a part of this soundtrack.
The Prettiest Remix
This track starts off just as the name implies: soft and pretty. However, even within its brief runtime (less than a minute) it attains quite a grandeur about itself. Certainly worth pointing out.
5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Jeremy Soule)
I’ll be the first to admit that this score took me by surprise. Oblivion had a score which had numerous high points, but overall it just seemed to lack a clear personality to give it cohesiveness (which is exactly what I feel Oblivion lacked as a game, in retrospect). Skyrim’s soundscapes, by contrast, are much more consistent and fitting, given the icy setting. I will admit that it isn’t this high on my list for being consistently amazing (as I find some of its tracks to be fairly boring), but the score remains well crafted throughout its massive three hour run, and when it hits the highs that I’m about to highlight, nothing else can touch it. This is video game orchestra at its finest.
A decade ago, composer Martin O’ Donnell created a title track for Halo: Combat Evolved that taught us that chanting space monks are pretty damn awesome. Today, we have composer Jeremy Soule doing the same, but now with a choir of 90+ Nordic barbarians shouting The Elder Scrolls’ dragon tongue in unison. And guess what? It sounds pretty damn awesome. This is actually the same classic Elder Scrolls theme song you’ve heard at the title screens for Morrowind and Oblivion; it’s just remixed into a new track. That shouldn’t come across as an insult to the creativity of this track, however. Quite the contrary. The fact that Soule has gotten so much out of the same theme after all these years is something to be marveled at. It’s the reason some people credit him as the closest person gaming has to a John Williams.
As great as those masculine, overpowering shouts from a choir of barbarians are, there’s still certainly room for a bit more traditional choir. This track begins with soft strings and a chant that sounds almost religious. The track celebrates the rising of the sun and dawn of the new day, and as it progresses, the song transitions between scoring the beauty of the sunrise to scoring (with brass and drumrolls) the vastness of Skyrim’s landscape as it is slowly illuminated.
Exciting and empowering as “Dragonborn” is as a title track, it scores the highest points of action in Skyrim, namely epic dragon slaying. But frankly, it is not these moments that I feel such a powerful love with The Elder Scrolls games for. It is those moments of exploration, discovery, and awe-inspiring (oftentimes peaceful) gazing at fantastical landscapes and vistas that give me such a powerful longing to play Skyrim again and again and again. While “Dragonborn” provides a cathartic rush of adrenaline that only true geeks can understand, “Far Horizons” gives rise to an overwhelming level in emotion in me that reminds me why I love exploring virtual worlds in video games. The distant horns that sound as though they are echoing down from one of Skyrim’s many snow-capped peaks, the soft chanting that sounds more like a dream than reality, and those beautiful violins all come together to create what I would call the theme to the land of Skyrim. It encapsulates everything I love about this game, and does so handily.
The Bannered Mare
The issue I take with orchestral scores is that even when they are played softly, they still sound too grand. They’re larger than life in a lot of regards. So, unfortunately, they don’t typically give you a sense of intimacy or quiet emotion. And so I feature this little, easy-to-miss track from Skyrim’s score. Here, we hear a couple of lutes playing together. In it, I hear the people and culture of Skyrim, and the first time I heard it, in one of Skyrim’s many sleazy pubs, I found myself enraptured and fully immersed in the world that Bethesda had crafted. This score needs moments like this, both for their individual effect and so that epic tracks like “Dragonborn” have something to play off of.
The Streets of Whiterun
One of the most beautiful tracks Jeremy Soule has ever composed, “The Streets of Whiterun” does something which, musically, is very difficult to achieve: it immediately provides me with an emotional connection to a specific place. I cared about the city of Whiterun while playing through Skyrim. I didn’t want to see it succumb to the fiery breath of dragons. I wanted its people to live their lives in peace. Part of that is due to some fantastic writing and art direction which gave the city a very strong personality, but mostly I cared for the city itself because it was the source of such moving music.
As the track title will tell you, there’s a sense of peace and accomplishment about this song. Its orchestra is grand and moments of it even sound as though they are morning some sort of loss. This is another one of the great overworld tracks of Skyrim, the kind that play just as you cross over another mountain and gaze down upon some new, fantastical domain.
Watch the Skies
Dragon battles. Jeremy Soule knows how to score em’.
Something akin to a slowed down “Dragonborn”. Again, a very masculine track that really sells the grandiosity and religious significance of Skyrim’s equivalent of the Norse Valhalla.
4. inFamous 2 (James Dooley, JD Mayer, Bryan “Brain” Mantia, Galactic)
The original Infamous soundtrack remains one of my favorite game soundtracks in recent years. The aural experimentation present within it was immediately compelling, and actually managed to lend to Empire City a unique personality, in spite of its bland art direction and ghettoized buildings painted drab and grey. Electronica guru Amon Tobin brought to the score a wild series of sounds that took the thin bit of intrigue of Infamous’ setting and crafted it into makeshift instruments. The score was comprised of everything from banging on trash can lids, to placing beads atop drum surfaces, to playing the neck of a cello like a percussive instrument. Sadly, Amon Tobin was not able to return for the score toInfamous 2. However, developer Sucker Punch had great replacements lined up for their sequel’s New Orleans inspired setting: Stanton Moore and Bryan “Brain” Mantia from the New Orleans band Galactic. The second game’s score might not throw caution to the wind quite as much as the original in terms of sound, however, there is no denying that the combination of deep south funk (brought to the score by Galactic) and superhero orchestra in the vein of Hans Zimmer (brought by JD Mayer, who also worked on the original Infamous’ score) creates something that sounds truly unique and utterly exciting.
Get Bertrand (JD Mayer)
To kick things off and set the stage for the rest of the soundtrack, this early piece takes a nice, easy-to-dive-into bassline that sounds right out of New Orleans and merges it with tension-filled orchestra. As the score for a superhero story, this track establishes the unique choice in setting, and adds some excellent. The best part? Listen to where the orchestral strings start mimicking the funk music. Great stuff.
7th Ward (Galactic)
This track strikes a very strange tone. It starts with shrill, distorted strings and some heavy echoes of drums, then takes a sharp turn and drops (at about 0:25) into an unexpected groove. The orchestra comes back in, adding tension to the hand drums and trumpets and such, and giving a dark edge to what is otherwise a strangely danceable song. The best part comes in at 1:33, when the layers fall out to give way to that simple drum, being played by hand. It then builds back up in tension and shrillness, until, at 2:23, the orchestral sounds break out into a wicked groove and we get some electric guitar chords out of nowhere. It’s a song that keeps my interest and keeps me on my toes throughout.
Swamp Blockade (Brain)
I’m guessing this is what the theme song to an evil bayou sounds like. The first half minute serves to set up a physical space, with squeaking door sounds and echoed strings under some modification leading the way to the dirty beak that picks up the track. There’s some surprising complexity to the layering in this song (which largely works as a soundscape for the game’s opening swamp levels), all of which build up to a nice little funk at around 1:46. There’s even something that sounds like a didgeridoo that comes in in the final half of the song (and played in a much more sinister manner than the slap-happy Rayman: Origins score). I’m not entirely sure how a lot of these sounds were achieved really, which is perfect, given how this track is the first the player hears upon arriving in New Marais. The departure from the previous game’s setting is scored with ominous and alien sounds. This is an excellent example of the brilliant and constantly surprising instrumentation on this soundtrack.
The Freaks Are Everywhere (Galactic)
An exercise in tension building, this track is composed of numerous drumrolls, dissonant moments of string instruments playing notes which descend straight down the scale, and a crisp, dark synthesizer melody. Works wonders for the large scale battle involving dozens of Freaks in the game.
Rescue Wolfe (Brain)
The bassline that starts this track is just so damn dirty. This serves to aid in building tension in a similar way that “The Freaks Are Everywhere” does, albeit with more focus on the orchestra and a larger sense of scale. And that sense of scale plays wonderfully off of the minimalist bassline that the track occasionally drops back out to. Again, the layering in this score is expertly done.
Meet Nix (Galactic)
This track alone makes me glad Nix is the character she is in Infamous 2. Yes, I continue to use the adjective “dirty” to describe some of the sounds on this score, however, up until now that was mostly meant to speak to the level of urban grit and chaos present in the game’s setting and how the music was communicating that sense via sound. With this track, there’s definitely some of that. But when I call this track dirty, I mean it’s damn sexy. It’s creepy at its onset, it sounds a bit disturbed (just like Nix herself), but that smoky saxophone is red hot with some New Orleans spice. This track is great at setting up Nix’s sexualized, borderline psychopathic character. And I love it.
Pushing and Shoving (JD Mayer)
Ah, and here we come to my favorite track of the score. JD Mayer really outdid himself with this little gem. This track is almost entirely composed of various string instruments, all building on top of one another, and continually moving from one sonic concept to another. This track really captures the lightning pace of the action and movement in Infamous 2 (if you’ll excuse the pun) and elevates it to a whole other level. Once it gets going, there’s no stopping it. The best part and what solidifies it as one of my favorite tracks of 2011 is that sudden moment at 1:27 where all but two of the layers drop off. Perfect.
Unfinished Business (JD Mayer)
Now here’s JD Mayer with some funk infusion. Lots of his signature descending strings and bite-size chunks of dissonance all layered atop one another. Another great track which demonstrates how this score effortlessly provides heavy drama on top of deep south bass and drums.
La Roux (Galactic)
The craziest, most unsettling sounds of the score come from this track. It brings back memories of the best stuff Amon Tobin offered to the original Infamous’ score, before everything hits an infectious beat at 0:48 that completely sells me on it. There’s a lot going on in this track. Try to keep up.
3. Bastion (Darren Korb)
Part wild west, part Middle East. Part hard rock, and part beat-focused electronica. The score for Bastion is comprised of numerous elements of the familiar, yet crafts with them a musical subgenre (as well as a fictional culture) that is completely alien. So much of what made this indie isometric RPG such a memorable experience was the astoundingly unique music which accompanied its gorgeous 2D art and strong storytelling. Darren Korb has made a staggering debut onto the stage of the video game industry, and is certain to be the kind of composer the industry keeps its collective eyes on for years to come. He’s not just composing great music. He’s composing music I’ve never heard the likes of before. Bastion has its own, distinctive sound because of him, and it’s an immensely impressive one.
In Case of Trouble
This is Bastion’s acoustic guitar-driven title track, and also serves as the theme song for the Bastion itself in the game. That guitar has a warmth and intimacy about it (you can still hear the fingers sliding over its neck), and even when the orchestral strings and cracking drum machine beats come in over it the track stays grounded in a hopefulness and humanity that serves as the core of what the Bastion represents for the survivors of Caelondia.
Bynn the Breaker
Here’s where Bastion really shows the true nature of its score. The instrumentation here is crazy: there is a harp, and oud (a Middle Eastern string instrument), electric guitar, some heavy, plunky sounding drum machines, and some deep, bass-y synth. There’s not really a genre here that fits. There’s not really an obvious mood either. But there is a rich sense of culture and a perpetual driving force that marches unyielding forward, much as the game pushes the player on at an unquestionable pace.
And speaking of pace, the track on this score with highest pace and intensity, in my opinion, has to be “Terminal March.” The way the Middle Eastern strings drive what sounds like an industrial drumbeat is fully genius. This track accompanies some of the most intense battle sequences in the game, and as frantic and chaotic as Bastion’s combat can become, this track manages to keep up. And that dichotomy between the drum machine and strings sets this really interesting atmosphere that the world of the game shares; Caelondia doesn’t really have a clear time period. It’s technological progress as a society is very ambiguous, and the instrumentation of tracks like this only further that level of intrigue.
Faith of Jevel
“Faith of Jevel” is gorgeous. Its blend of mysterious guitar melody, piano, and heavy beats give off the vibe of mystery that Bastion lives off of. The game’s narrative is continually dishing out information bit by precious bit, and as the player collects these little fragments of story, a much grander story emerges from the ashes of what was Caelondia. This track provides that sense of mystery and intrigue that the game wants the player to feel, and the driving beat encourages players to continue onward to discover the answers.
Spike in a Rail
The word that I want to use to describe this track is “neo-western.” The pairing of electric guitars with something that sounds like a saloon theme works wonders, giving this track just a bit of dirty edge.
“Brusher Patrol” utilizes electric guitar better than any other track in the score. It’s heavy, but still has bits of that western twang. The little bits of bass synth and “jungle” sounds give the track texture. It’s a fantastic combat track, and has some seriously badass guitar.
The Bottom Feeders
My favorite beat-driven track from the score. Some pretty wild instrumentation on here and an incredible use of drum machines. Hand drums and some sort of horn that I can’t place really sold me on this track as one of the best of the score.
Setting Sail, Coming Home
Ah, and finally we arrive at Bastion’s amazing end credits theme, which is my favorite ending song to a game this year, by far. It’s got those heavy beats and acoustic guitar that make up Bastion’s sound, and then it combines the vocals of two prior songs on the score (that I chose not to feature). This track is simply beautiful, and perfectly suits the bittersweet ending to the game, whichever of the two the player choses.
2. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Michael McCann)
At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I have to say I could have told you that the soundtrack for Deus Ex: Human Revolution was going to be magnificent as soon as I saw Michael McCann’s name attached to it. Though this marks only his sophomore effort in video game scoring, his debut with the soundtrack to Splinter Cell: Double Agent (a game which is, frankly, quite mediocre, music aside) made such a strong impression on me that I will now closely follow anything he lays his hands on. What makes this score as a whole fantastic is that McCann understands the pieces that make up his music so incredibly well. He understands the atmospheric potential of synthesizers (and how some can sound energetic, some worn and beaten, and some even menacing). He understands the grandiosity and raw emotion that choirs can bring to a piece. He understands the sense of action and purpose that rock guitar and drums can offer. He understands all this, and he knows when to use what, how to mix and match the various pieces, and above all, how to use every part of his compositions such that they are essential to the effect of each piece.
This is the title track which sets up the world of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and it couldn’t really do a better job of it. We are immediately given the vocal chanting (which is heard throughout the score) and it grounds us in the fiction. As the synthesizers and swelling orchestra come in, the vocals continue to play off of them, perhaps mirroring the conflict between technology’s rapid progression (represented by the triumphant violins and mechanical sound of the synth) and those in favor of human purity (represented by the vocals). Maybe the track should be interpreted as a theme for the inevitable. Maybe those vocals are morning the loss of humanity as the instrumentation is celebrating its very progress.
The vocals also serve another purpose, however, in that they set up the scale of the conflict in Deus Ex. Vocal chanting almost always implies scale, and this title track asserts that this grapple with technological advancement and moral authorities is truly a global conflict. Perhaps even, as the song title suggests, one which is divine in nature and was never meant for humanity to ever deal with. The melody even reflects the story of Icarus himself, as the three ascending notes are followed up by a fourth, lower one (foreshadowing ever-rising toward the sun and the eventual downfall from doing so). Just listen to the violins. This is one of my favorite tracks of the year, without a doubt.
Detroit City Ambient (Part 1)
In its own right, this is a fairly simple atmospheric track used to score the streets of Detroit in the game. However, it is noteworthy for its use of low synthesizer to set-dress the grittiness of Detroit’s streets while the more prominent synthesizer melody scores the futuristic progress visible above its ground level. Also, not just in this track, but throughout almost the whole score, you can note that the synthesizers used all have a sort of “retro” sound to them. Part of this is just in keeping with the old school cyberpunk aesthetic that the game uses (black trench coats and shades, at all times), but it is also a way of mirroring the state of the world. In the original Deus Ex, augmentations were done on the nano-level, and they functioned surreptitiously under the skin of their hosts. Human Revolution’s augmentations (being over two decades the younger) appear as much more haphazard and inelegant in design. Robotic arms seem simply soldered onto nerve and bone. In this way, the retro synth, which sometimes sounds distorted and broken at various places in the score, reflects the game’s time period as a prequel.
After the Crash
What starts as two minutes of Asian sci-fi atmosphere - in the vein of the other Hengsha music in the game - is suddenly transformed into one of the most organic-sounding, ass kicking rock breakdowns in the entire score. This song is Michael McCann’s best qualities divided right down the middle. Half the track sets a scene, and the later half injects a syringe full of adrenalin directly into it. Be patient with listening to this one. You will be rewarded.
There’s a calm before every proper storm, and for this track that would be the first 1 minute and 17 seconds of it. “Everybody Lies” starts off with dark atmosphere which sounds absolutely haunting, as if something irreplaceable has been lost or some horrible revelation has been made. Then, in a sudden and spine-chilling moment, that powerful synthesizer chord crashes down, as if thunder from the heavens. It’s almost scary (if you listen to the track loud enough), and it shows a whole side of the synthesizer as an instrument which is not explored nearly often enough (in music, not just in scores). Shortly after these thunderclaps of crunchy synth comes a masterful display of layering different keyboards atop each other along with some fast and heavy drums. Like “After the Crash” in structure (though not in instrumentation), this is a track filled with both set-dressing and powerful momentum. It’s probably the most complex and dense track in the score, and as such, it stands out as my favorite.
There are a lot of ambient tracks tied to specific settings in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but I point out this one specifically for its placement. This track is heard in the game’s various LIMB Clinics, which are places where the denizens of the game’s fictional world go to receive new augmentations to their bodies. Many of those people hold up “transhumanism” to be the way to future progress and possibilities, yet the score seems to suggest otherwise. These medical centers don’t sound like like they purveyors of evolution according to the music. Suddenly those white lab coats and sterile labs with robotic surgical arms don’t seem quite so reassuring. I love the ambiguity in the moral conflict in Human Revolution, and how this track is used in the game only deepens that sense of uncertainty.
Another high octane boss theme. Not much else to say. Just enjoy.
1. Portal 2 (Mike Morasky)
I’ve always appreciated the scores in past Valve games, be it Half-Life 2’s dark and brooding technological ambiance or Team Fortress 2’s slapstick bombast. But there’s something about Mike Morasky’s score for Portal 2 that really sets it apart as not only the best soundtrack to any of Valve’s games, but also as the best score of 2011. Morasky doesn’t just cherry pick around the themes of Portal 2 that are easiest to create music for, he actually manages to find experimental ways of dealing with its complex tonal balance between dark humor, isolation, and mind bending puzzle gameplay. The score manages to reflect the world with its aural textures as well. The sterilized (and occasionally breaking apart) rooms of Aperture - with their harsh, fluorescent lighting - are given a sense of inducing insanity by the odd sound sources and off-kilter melodies of buzzing synthesizers which dig deep into the brain. Portal 2’s massive, 3 hour long score tops my list for its vast array of moods, unique textures, complex arrangements, and its significance to the themes present in the game itself. There are scores this year that may be a bit more appealing to listen to, but Portal 2’s is thought-provoking and masterful. Mike Morasky truly outdid himself, and deserves every commendation for this score that he gets.
The Courtesy Call
“The Courtesy Call” is the first track players hear in Portal 2, and it certainly sets up the tonal balance the game attempts to strike. It starts with ominous echoes of an alarm sound, followed by slow, brooding strings, which all set up the vastness of Aperture Science and how isolated the player is within it. As the hibernation chamber the player finds themselves in begins to crumble around them, the music picks up, adding high speed, almost amelodic syth, as well as dramatic brass to the orchestra. That sense of vastness and isolation are expanded upon as the track adds distant vocals and builds to a crescendo of booming brass. By the track’s finale, it launches into a frantic synthesizer loop, accompanied by static noise and disjointed drum machine beats. Here, and as the score progresses throughout the game, these synthetic sounds - oftentimes broken and hyperactive in nature - represent the clockwork of absurd science experiments and ironic tone present in the many sterilized chambers of Aperture Science.
A very quiet ambient track that’s twinkling notes echo out in such a way as to set the tone of Portal 2’s early stages, which are full of vacated, dilapidated test chambers devoid of life or sometimes even proper functionality. It isn’t exactly ominous. Rather, it is lonely and empty.
Ghost of Rattman
More simple ambiance, this track adds in some haunting vocals and distorted synth to create an eerie texture over which we are given the rantings of a madman. It deepens the atmosphere of the Aperture Science, and it shows off the great range in this score.
The Friendly Faith Plate
This entire track is made up of various syth tones - some of which barely sound like they came from usable machines - layered atop one another. As it progresses, the melody has various effects thrown over it and is tinkered with as if it were being remixed in real time by a DJ. The song sounds like it was composed of machines with a life of their own (much as how the turrets and other pieces of robotic equipment inside Aperture behave) and its harsh buzzing and distorted bass reflect the brute force nature of the “faith plate” itself, which is really just a glorified catapult.
I Saw A Deer Today
Where do I even start with this song? I guess I should begin by admitting that I have absolutely no idea where half the sounds that comprise this track came from. “I Saw A Deer Today” begins immediately with a sound that has proved endlessly fascinating to me ever since I first heard it. Perhaps, and very likely, it is more than one sound, but even still, the twangy, echoed noise that this track begins with this demands attention. Whether this is some ultra-distorted string instrument or sudden bursts of air being blown down a PVC pipe, I have no earthly idea. As the track progresses, a cacophony of disjointed drum machines, screeching syth tones, and odd textural samples all mix together in one of the most experimental and unique sounding video game songs I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Were Aperture Science itself to manufacture sonic creations, this is likely the kind of thing they would produce. It’s weird, harsh, complex, intriguing, and overall one of my favorite songs from a game score of 2011.
I Made It All Up
After “The Friendly Faith Plate” and “I Saw A Deer Today,” one would think that Mike Morasky’s score is comprised of only wild experimentation that is deprived of any real emotion or feeling. “I Made it All Up” is the wonderful antithesis of that, and shows off the unexpected range that this score has. This track is made up of distant echoes of bleeping sythesizers (some amelodic in nature, and others which sustain driving bass) that work together to create a soothing effect on the listener. Once those steady strings come in at 1:21, the track attains a sort of floaty, ethereal tone that sets it apart from just about everything else in the score. It’s a fairly minimalist track (especially when compared to other works on the score), but I’m certainly glad it exists. It reminds me a bit of the musical style of John Hopkins.
You Will Be Perfect
Synth melodies driven at a blistering pace are what define this track, which serves as a theme song for the game’s co-op mode and was featured in its trailer. The Portal 2 score contains quite a few tracks like this, actually. What I love about all of them (and this one in particular) is how they manage to convey the overexcited attitude the game takes toward doing “science” experiments as well as the shenanigans that result from placing two portal gun armed players in a room together. And I particularly like the idea of scoring a game as methodically paced and tightly controlled as Portal 2 with such an fast and chaotic track.
Halls of Science 4
Quite a minimalist track with only light layering. However, the results are surprisingly effective.
Don’t Do It
This track starts of heavy and dramatic and slowly works its way up until it arrives at a synth melody which continues to rise in tempo. There’s some great riffing on established themes here, as well as some perfect blending of mild orchestra and synthesizer loops to build the tension up, up, up all the way until it threatens to explode.
Really dark and deep ambiance accompanied by sad vocals sung by GLaDOS in her potato form. The voice sounds distant and less comical than it does in her normal speech. There’s legitimate pain behind this track, which either makes its use all the more funny, or actually lends the game a poignant moment, depending on how you view the character of GLaDOS.
Reconstructing More Science
This track was used in Portal 2’s first trailer, and along with the aforementioned songs “The Courtesy Call” and “You Will Be Perfect,” it sets the tone for the game fantastically.
The Part Where He Kills You
Starts off sounding like it is scoring a wide open room and then turns sharply into ominous orchestra and buzzing synth. That synth brilliantly mimics that of “The Courtesy Call,” during the part when Wheatly takes control of the hibernation chamber to free you. However, here that synth is slower and more menacing. Now Wheatly again has control, but this time his ignorance is more threatening than adorable. And once the track fully ramps up, there is some great use of drum machine on synthesizer action.
Want You Gone
It’s not as good or as clever as “Still Alive” from the original Portal, but hey, how many games have a cool end credits song anyway?
A totally slapstick song which plays over the credits to Portal 2’s co-op campaign. I won’t spoil anything, but if you’ve seen the end of that campaign, you’ll recognize the dark irony in using this song at that moment.