ACL 2017 ~ The Year’s Best Videogame Soundtracks

The tension between the cinematic and background aspects of videogame music has perhaps reached a high point in 2017, giving us soundtracks with grand ambitions of making every moment a unique one and thus coming to span up to six hours of continuous music. There was a massive growth spike in this current, with a higher number of lengthier OSTs than last year from both the independent studio scene and the corporative side. I believe this is indicative not only of higher production values but also of a new commitment on behalf of composers, delineating the awesome challenge of maintaining a player’s engagement through repetition and excitement. There’s an experimental quality to such an enterprise, addressed in varying manners that go from rigorously keeping the consistency of a style with a few self-subversions (Horizon: Zero Dawn) to shifting gears every album (Night in the Woods), to simply doing what videogames do best – variations on wonderfully distinct themes (Super Mario Odyssey). If modular, reiterative music was part of 2016’s more vanguard thing (No Man’s Sky, Astroneer), this year it’s all about the rearguard of funneling the unique into the repetitive not through innovative production processes and contextual adaptation but through sheer scope, through length.

This year also saw a much more varied assortment of soundtracking styles; if last year was all about the punchy electronics and drones as well as chamber orchestrations, this time around we’ve got large-scale orchestrations, experimental electronics, ambient, jazz, and even some folky post-rock thrown into the mix. That’s not to say synthwave is altogether passing in videogame music (it’s still going strong, in fact), but certainly the most interesting album to come from that field, as will be seen below, is far from the conventions previously settled by movies like Drive (2011) and games like Hotline Miami (2012), which this year gave us perfectly generic (yet enjoyable) OSTs like Desync.

With all that in mind, I have divided this year’s selection into two non-exclusive, interconnected categories: soundtracks with a (relatively) standard duration and those with a very long duration. I say they are non-exclusive and interconnected because there are a few of these that have ‘reduced’ or ‘extended’ versions that cross into the other category. Also, there are a few two-hour OSTs that I would not characterize as ‘very long’, but considering album length standards, many others probably would.

As always, the selection reflects upon these scores as albums that interestingly work as such, keeping in mind that videogame music is inherently subject to repetition and thus requires a different analytic mindset from film soundtracks. That means some pieces will inevitably sound out of place simply due to the uneven pace of most games, which can easily jump from calmness to violence within seconds. Also, I haven’t played most of these, so the criteria are not dependent on whether or not the soundtrack works in context.

In no particular order:

Manaka Kataoka ~ The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

When Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011) introduced live orchestral arrangements to the series for the very first time, longtime series composer Koji Kondo had stepped down as the lead musician of major Zelda releases in favor of new lead Hajime Wakai, to mixed audience responses. Manaka Kataoka had the truly monumental task of succeeding where Wakai had not, and she has more than proved herself up to it. In fact, Breath of the Wild quickly became one of my favorite videogame soundtracks ever, moving away from the shadow of Kondo’s Wagnerian scope and method by boldly introducing more contemporary compositional elements. Tracks like “Battle (Field)” and “Battle (Shrine)” exemplify an engagement with minimalist techniques, perhaps culminating with “Riding (Day)” and “Riding (Night)” as the development of tonal scales that melodically drive the pieces with a modernist sway never present in the more Romantically-minded soundtracks by Kondo. In this sense, the expanded version of the OST includes pieces like “Maze Forest Theme”, which wouldn’t be too out of place in a John Adams compilation. The titular theme might not be as hummable as Kondo’s classic (which, lest we forget, was made in the 8-bit era, with a different technological mindset), but it is richer, nuanced, and above all, firmly contemporary.

Reduced form available as a CD here.

 

David Kanaga ~ Oἶκoςpiel

Decidedly the most experimental of the entire list and possibly of most interest to ACL readers apart from Everything, the Oἶκoςpiel soundtrack, styled as an “opera about a German Shepherd named Pluto” that explores “the enchanted climates of planet Earth and the asteroid 433 Eros”, is a truly surrealist work, inasmuch as it cuts up sounds and musics into dream-like shapes of strange logic. Divided into four acts, Oἶκoςpiel transitions from vaporwave to modern composition to musique concrète to 8-bit deviations of classicality with an (intricately off-putting) ease usually reserved for plunderphonics. The predominant mode of operation is more in line with the critical experiments of vaporwave than anything else, reproducing sound clips in a way that is as alienating as it is warm, extracting from the ‘safe sounds’ of pop and classical music all the qualities of a violence that was previously out of listening range. I have not played the game, but with this music I can easily imagine Oἶκoςpiel being a surrealist critique of gaming as an artform.

 

 

Tobias Lilja ~ Little Nightmares

Electronic musician Tobias Lilja crafted something special with the Little Nightmares OST, an album with drone-filled dirges and tender moments of hope. It’s a horror game, but the tone is more Tim Burton (which is to say, musically, Danny Elfman) than John Carpenter, meaning that the guiding aesthetic for this album seems to be based on the grotesque and mysterious childhood experiences of dread, in which the regularity of the world becomes underpinned by an impending sense of menace, transforming the everyday into deeply existential threats. The high point of this grotesque is the sequence of “Six’s Theme Part I”, in which a relatively quiet, child-like voice hums a melancholic melody you’ll probably feel you’ve heard before, followed by “The Janitor Awaits”, an industrial drone bursting with violent energy. These tracks complement each other greatly, and concisely represent the effect of the uncanny that Lilja was probably looking for.

Available here.

 

Borislav Slavov ~ Divinity: Original Sin 2

Considering Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack marked a breaking point for fantasy-themed music, the pop-cultural approach of Borislav Slavov to this elves-and-dragons roleplaying game is, to put it simply, quite refreshing. Said approach consists of an eclecticism that is unconcerned by mixing predictable and poppy melodies with orchestral arrangements designed to inspire the romantic and popular idea of the medieval instead of the medieval itself. This faux-medievalism goes against every preoccupation with authenticity (which would probably irritate fellow composer Jeremy Soule, whose best videogame soundtracks part from a desire to reconstruct the medieval), and does so with such temerity it works. You’ll find incredibly catchy orchestral melodies that evoke bright adventures right next to boleros that wish to situate the listener in some sort of tavern; quiet neo-medievalist hymnals next to acoustic guitar riffs and more conventional fantasy-movie tropes of upward strings and heroic choirs; in short, it’s an OST that does everything for everyone, but instead of being an absolute mess, it’s an absolutely fun and entertaining listen. (Note: do skip the songs, however. Thankfully there’s only two of them.)

Available as an upgrade for the game here. (Otherwise available to stream via Spotify)

 

Jeff Russo ~ What Remains of Edith Finch

Quiet, mournful contemplation. This quality might not be a usual videogame association, but What Remains of Edith Finch, by Fargo and Legion composer Jeff Russo,  skillfully delivers a fully orchestrated, piano-driven meditation on memory and loss. Perhaps the greatest strength of this album is that even with its complete set of classical instrumentation it still sounds like a long ambient piece – the flow is uninterrupted, and even at its most dissonant (“Molly’s Hunger – Monster”) and its most strident (“Gus’ Kite”) it never breaks away from a unified feeling of sad remembrance. The restraint that makes this possible works also to deliver moments of intensity much more concisely, in the same way that the ‘sacred minimalists’ utilize silence to passionately affirm the moments of revelation. At first listen, this soundtrack might feel sparse, like there’s only a few instruments in it, but digging a bit deeper reveals a wealth of textures that is made more obvious in the second-half of the album, when arrangements become more melodic, better defined, as if the memories were being recast in object form. But then those objects age, they break down, and all that definition serves only the purpose of highlighting tragedy.

Unfortunately only available as an add-on to the game here, at least for now.

 

Tee Lopes ~ Sonic Mania

This soundtrack by Portuguese composer Tee Lopes is different, due, apparently, to a reconstruction of an old game within a new one. Thus, Sonic Mania contains a bunch of remastered and reworked tracks from arguably two of the best of the long series’ soundtracks, Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992), which were composed by Japanese musician Masato Nakamura. Nakamura brought a melodic pop sensibility to the 16-bit electronics of the time as well as that very Japanese knack for Latin jazz and funky rhythms that set his work completely apart from other OSTs. It was so successful his style would be mildly imitated later on by classicist Koji Kondo himself in soundtracks like Super Mario All-Stars (1993), in which the Mario theme has a marimba texture. In any case, Tee Lopes picks up right where Nakamura left, benefited by a new technological horizon in which electronic sounds can be much more subtly defined; by accelerating the pace, adding depth and new instruments to the tracks, and unambiguously exploiting all those (borderline kitsch) jazzy and funky beats with unrestrained joy, Sonic Mania becomes a rollercoaster soundtrack of unstoppable, happy energy. If the Sonic games felt fast way back when, well, prepare for the grindcore-fast version, all action and no time to think, bodily-driven and with the clearest sound you’ve yet experienced in a game from the 1990s meteor-crashing straight into your 2017 screen.

Available in vinyl here.

 

Various Artists ~ Ruiner

Ruiner features music by artists such as Sidewalks and Skeletons, Zamilska, Memotone, and others, stepping further from the synthwave soundtracks that have been associated to hyperviolence ever since Hotline Miami and into the realm of noisy industrial techno and the instability of what was once known as witch house. The game’s cyberpunk setting and its violent tone place it right in the next evolutionary step of those associations, the grinding EDM of its forebears a happy trance in comparison to its sludgy, oppressing beats and the electronic hisses and drones that signal an absence of the human. If past synthwave soundtracks (like last year’s Mother Russia Bleeds) compelled an almost psychedelic suggestion of sadism, Ruiner is a full-on embrace of it, clear-minded, focused, a mechanical fury whose sole end is not to annihilate but to provoke decay. The work by all the artists involved is stellar, and to me, this album is a parting point as much as Hotline Miami was in 2012. If you’re doing ultra-modernist violence and videogames, this is the new soundtrack to match.

Available as an extra for the game here (otherwise available for streaming in Spotify).

 

James & Lydia Primate ~ Rain World

Speaking of synthwave, Rain World could arguably be considered an entirely left-field entry into the category, utilizing EDM beats not so much to drive the body into action but to underline emotions articulated by the rest of the sounds. Thus, beats are often low in the mix, and they’re used as one more part of an ambient electronics that doesn’t really want you to get all worked up, it wants you to stop and consider your surroundings (a bit, in a sense, like trip-hop). In other words, it’s a contemplative OST that smartly subdues and utilizes its more synthwave elements for quiet, solitary thoughts, full of echoes and delay. Except for Sonic Mania and Super Mario Odyssey, this is the most conventionally ‘videogamey’ soundtrack of the list, working electronic sounds in experimental ways to suit relatively different situations, disdaining the drama of the cinematic in favor of the construction of an aural environment that is, in this case, downbeat and lonely, as if exploring something that was once your home but is no longer truly yours.

 

 

Daughter ~ Music From Before the Storm

The presence of an indie folk band in this list might be surprising, but Daughter took an integral approach to soundtracking that lets singer Elena Tonra’s voice do a lot of instrumental work, and the three songs that are part of the album merge perfectly into the bright flow of it all. The game is a narrative about a small-town teenager and her relationships, set in a slightly modified version of our world, in which one of her friends gets the power to manipulate time later on. The music, which mostly sounds like folk and post-rock, reflects a wide array of emotional conflicts whose passion forms a dramatic point of departure for pretty and interestingly dissonant instrumental flourishes. To me, it goes back to the adolescent roots of our post-rock, all those Explosions in the Sky-ish moments of unbridled sentiments taking over the whole world, leaving nothing untouched. Tracks like “Hope”, with its quick build-up and its decentering of the voice into one more element of harmony, summarize quite well the heart with which the music grows, all fury, all happiness, all melancholy, all desires.

Available here.

 

Andy LaPlegua and David García Díaz ~ Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade is basically a dark ambient soundtrack formed of multiple layers of drones. There are moments when LaPlegua’s voice intervenes with chants that are supposed to give a Nordic vibe off, and they contribute moments of sharp activity to an otherwise solemn soundscape. Every sound seems to be electronically filtered and in most cases delayed, losing the listener in a sea of echoes and undefined sources, as if there was nothing to hold on to. In this sense, the ambient basis of exploring a piece through different attention levels is distinctly done away with: focus your attention on the leading sounds at the very back of the mix and you’re liable to lose them constantly because they’re seemingly always about to disappear. Focus on the emerging details and you’re in danger of breaking immersion altogether, since all the voice clips and short drones merge into each other and stop so suddenly you’re thrown straight into the background once again. Everything about this music suggests the loss of attention as the centerpiece of this ambient endeavor, the impossibility to keep focus at all times, and it works very, very well.

Unfortunately still not available for sale or stream.

 

The following section is the Best of the Very Long Duration Soundtracks, spreading from three to six hours of music. Still in no particular order:

Naoto Kubo, Shiho Fujii, Koji Kondo ~ Super Mario Odyssey

Naoto Kubo was the lead composer for Odyssey, with collaborations from Shiho Fujii and none other than Koji Kondo. The full OST runs at almost five hours, and although it’s got an enormous variety of tracks, there’s quite a few that are doubled in 8-bit form. It’s a cool experiment, insofar as you can listen to what those limited chips and beeps were supposed to represent, but that in the end were actually more valuable for their own kind of sound. Kubo departs from both Kondo’s classical sensibility and the kitschy lounge mixes of 2013’s Super Mario 3D World without discarding them altogether, resulting in a naïve style that prioritizes thematic constructions over any sort of coherence. Thus, there’s adventure-movie classics like “Fossil Falls” in the same breath as bossanova lullabies like “Bubblaine” and deviations into Big Band Jazz in tracks like “New Donk City: Daytime”. There’s more than a few blunders considering how tight Kondo ran the iconic Nintendo music ship until a few years back, but Odyssey has a really good share of Mario hits.

Not yet available for sale, but keep on the lookout for it in stores like Amazon, which have carried past Mario OSTs.

 

Alec Holowka ~ Night in the Woods

What kind of music would you expect from a cartoon animal youth game about the effects of the absent heart of capitalism in a small post-industrial town in the United States? Great music, that’s for sure. Composer Alec Holowka divided Night in the Woods into three volumes, which together run at about six hours and a bit, roughly the themes of which are day (At the End of Everything), night (Hold onto Anything), and a game within the game called Demontower. There’s no unifying style, but the instrumentation is relatively simple, dominated by electronics and bass. Holowka has an excellent ear for straightforward, short melodies, peppering all albums with sweet little sequences in tracks you might not expect them to be in. At the End of Everything is slow-going, like wasting time with your friends some weekday afternoon, with highlights like the “Possum Springs”, the town’s theme, led by a bright xylophone melody that captures a feeling of playfulness and dynamism that in Hold onto Anything becomes introspective. Hold sounds much more personal in scope, but nonetheless has more abrasive tracks than the first volume. Finally Demontower is quite different, beginning with the fact that it’s made to sound as if it was coming from a computer within the game; what it reminded me the most of was the old DOOM soundtrack (1993), at least in terms of its bass-filled electronics, but instead of emphasizing heavy metal aggression it turns to melancholic chiptune melodies to drive the music forward. Predictably, this is the most consistent of the three volumes in terms of style, so for those not wanting to immediately dig through the other two volumes for stuff to like, maybe this is the place to start.

 

 

Joris de Man, The Flight, et al ~ Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon: Zero Dawn clocks in at four hours, and it’s probably the most conventional soundtrack in this list, utilizing its orchestration in predictable but pleasurable manners. A lot of it is dedicated to a sort of soundscaping, inscribing emotional associations within extensive harmonic development through interventions of a melodically dramatic nature. In other words, it’s got a thing for long, slowly involving backgrounds that are often positively interrupted by orchestral melodies akin to the fantasy-themed music I talked about earlier, indebted to Howard Shore’s neo-Romantic sense of the heroic and the tragic. The game’s setting is post-apocalyptic and apparently full of enemy robots, becoming reflected in the music by means of electronics, mostly in the form of drones (“Battle Begins – Part 4 – Secrets of the Earth”) and noisy manipulations that sharply contrast with the calm orchestral soundscapes. There’s also a few surprising entries, like Jonathan Williams’ “Song to the Sun”, which features a chorus singing in Gregorian style, a medievalist composition with Romantic undertones that proves to be a really interesting mixture of sound types. If you’re seeking for something a bit more “epic”, Horizon: Zero Dawn is for you.

Available here (otherwise available for streaming in services like Spotify).

 

Kristofer Maddigan ~ Cuphead

This is probably the most unique videogame soundtrack I’ve heard in the past few years. Cuphead is a game meant to evoke classic 1920s animation, and part of the contextual work the studio did was to ask Canadian composer Kristofer Maddigan to create suitable accompaniment, the result being a fantastic recreation of Dixieland jazz and ragtime played at breakneck speeds. Running at nearly three hours, there’s an amazing variety of imagination in display, intermingling the classic with the novel seamlessly: “Floral Fury”, for example, brings samba rhythms and chimes into the Big Band ensemble, making samba-jazz sound like a product of the 1920s and not of the historical circumstances of the 1950s. In this sense, the OST flows from ragtime to bebop to Dixieland from one moment to the other without hesitation, creating a (definitely) danceable sense of energetic, frantic unity. Even if you’re not a jazz fan, I can assure you this will at least make you smile and have a really good time.

 

 

Ben Lukas Boysen & Sebastian Plano ~ Everything

If you had to listen to only one of the soundtracks in this list, I’d recommend Everything. Not only is it beautifully expansive and deep, it’s a perfect fit for ambient and modern composition lovers equally. It is also perhaps the best I’ve heard at resolving the contradiction at the heart of the videogame soundtrack (repetition and uniqueness) by means of both length and structure, an electronic labor of layers upon layers that nonetheless feature singular melodic moments. The tracks are complex enough to be interesting on their own, but they’re also simple enough to be able to mix and match them all together, so that a three-hour OST in reality becomes a modular sequence with potentially thousands of combinations that will work well regardless of their original order. This is, to say the least, an achievement that reflects not only the success of the game’s holistic approach but also its underlying philosophy: Everything is endless, not because it is an absolutist One but because, like all beings on our planet, it is a diffuse, interconnected Many. This solution might not be as avant-garde as, say, the process-based modulations of Machinefabriek’s Astroneer, but it manages to be as complete and just as experimentally-minded in its sweep of clashing electronic ambient tones and strings; the unique paths taken by the latter fade into the abstract, more distant presence of the first, and just when you begin to think you’ve got an idea of where things are going, the ambient tones acquire primacy, the strings slowly mutating at the background into something else. This is Everything’s greatness – the unique and the repetitive reveal their inherent interdependence, their difference not a principle of separation but of connectivity.

 

Honorable Mention

Cosmo D ~ The Norwood Suite

It’s evident that videogames have a penchant for the surreal, but nowhere is it clearer than in the fearlessly experimental productions of artists such as Cosmo D. The soundtrack for the game, while much more traditional than could be expected, does play around with unnerving sound juxtapositions, inasmuch as the overall EDM format is constantly subverted by soft drones, electronic noises, and the irregular presence of strings, piano, vocals, and more. I’ve put it apart as an honorable mention because while the music works perfectly as an album, the beats are quite predictable and its surreal qualities do not take the compositions far enough for ACL standards. In any case, tracks like “Lobby Reflections”, which bring all of its elements into play (a stable beat, string section clips, short piano riffs, modulated voices, ambient drones and interesting off-beat percussion) show the great potential of The Norwood Suite as an experimental venture, and while I wish it had been further explored, this is still fun (even danceable), engaging, and more importantly, interesting music that is way better than all those generic orchestral arrangements and cheesy chamber suites that still dominate the field.

 

David Murrieta

 

3 comments

  1. This list is one of the many, many reasons I absolutely adore this site 🙂

  2. RJ Miller

    Pyre should obviously be on this list.

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