This year, the soundtrack world reflected the videogame industry’s predilection for safe(r) bets, with almost half of our list consisting of sequels. But it also pointed at a more established, regularized field in which house names such as Olivier Deriviere, Joris de Man or Amos Roddy make an appearance once again, having featured in past *Press A* best-of lists. Nonetheless, we were surprised by a few contributions from newcomers and crossover artists who are still pushing the format forward, and who brought their unique trajectories to bear upon the styles of videogame music (VGM) we all know and love.
It also feels like we are finally leaving the 2010s behind: this is our very first list in which the ‘Retro’ category does not figure at all. Synthwave soundtracks peaked with Katana ZERO, and there have been no stand-outs since. To be honest, it is a welcome development, though we expect the genre to come back at some point ~ hopefully with an innovative, spearhead work of art.
As VGM has gotten more popular ~ evidenced by its recognition as a new category at the Grammys this year ~ budgets have also increased considerably. The predominance of the ‘Modern Composition’ category in this year’s list is indicative of this ~ studios are investing more in orchestras, grand arrangements and international collaborations between composers. A few weeks back, Deriviere detonated a polemic on Twitter around ‘real’ versus ‘electronic’ orchestral sounds. Such a conversation would not have happened the way it did even three or four years ago, when only the largest studios could invest in an orchestral soundtrack. Our only addition to the discussion would be that, indeed, there were more fully orchestral works this year than in the past few. We sincerely hope that regardless of this panorama, indies and small productions continue to flourish, because, for the most part, those tend to produce the truly newest works of art.
A final note: We’re extensive but we can’t possibly cover everything. We’d love to know which of the smaller soundtracks captivated you this year!
And now, by genre and in alphabetical order, we present the *Press A* best videogame soundtracks of 2022!
Amos Roddy ~ Citizen Sleeper
Roddy’s continuous collaboration with Jump Over the Age is giving us some of the best soundtracks we’ve listened to in the past few years. Citizen Sleeper, like In Other Waters before it, commits to a genre and delivers, meaning that this time around we’ve got an engaging electronic OST with some perfectly integrated ambient sections. It is possible to view the structure of the album as an interaction between something ‘hard’ and something ‘soft’, something beat-driven and something harmonically-guided, something concise and something diffuse. The ‘hard’ parts are mostly propulsive, dynamic, and even melodic, harnessing the expressive power of synths towards a sort of contemplative melancholy. The ‘soft’ ones are expansive but subtle, low-key awesome, in the sense that they evoke infinite openness, doubling as an infinite sense of something at a loss. The game’s themes, after all, touch upon the topic of living at the margins of a grand, uncaring machine, forever at an arm’s length of fulfillment. The soundtrack captures this feeling perfectly, utilizing the tropes of the ‘synth sci-fi OST’ to metamorphosize their optimism into a contented, yet resigned, feeling of everlasting longing. (David Murrieta Flores)
Cicada Sirens & 1000 Eyes ~ Signalis
By clearly taking a page from Akira Yamaoka’s Silent Hill soundtracks, these two artists blaze a trail of their own in which horror means much more than just disturbance. It means visceral feelings, brokenness, estrangement, and sadness. It means listening to the grinding industrial beat of “Incinerator” and letting your skin crawl with anxiety, to the noise-bound “Hamstrung” and letting your mind wander into unwanted places, to “Ritual (Nowhere)” and letting your heart sink. The best horror music allows for the melancholic undertones of inhuman violence, and Signalis nails it down beautifully. The fact that both artists do this in their own styles is a testament to their talent; instead of a traditional split, their tracks are integrated into a moving whole in which Cicada Sirens’ more electronic forms sometimes settle into harsh drones, and 1000 Eyes’ industrial approach sometimes flows into melodic interludes. The collaboration is pitch-perfect, making this OST one of the best entries in the horror genre we’ve heard in the past few years. (DMF)
Lifeformed & Janice Kwan ~ Tunic
An ‘Electronic’ entry that could just as comfortably rest in ‘Ambient’, Tunic lulls listeners away to a dreamworld of intrigue and wonder. Unlike many of the sets on this list, which are designed to heighten emotional response to on-screen action, Lifeformed & Janice Kwan seek to alleviate the player of such baggage by dulling the impact of peril (of which the game contains much). Threats seem remote and consequence irrelevant. Heavy reverb drenches the instrumentation, dominated by multilayered synths, piano and wind instrumentation. Trip-hop beats occasionally provide firmer cushioning beneath the fuzzy textures (“Ooze Control”), and more-urgent percussion imbues the soundscape with a sense of direction or even urgency, particular in the boss music, but these are nothing like the intensity conjured up in Elden Ring, for example, and they quickly depart for the shores regardless, leaving us feeling safely cocooned once more. Or are we? That reverb prompts an abstract sense that the island we’re on is a gigantic interior, while arpeggios evoke celestial freedoms in fact far removed from the rigid geometry and logic of the game’s world. Nothing is as it seems, as testified by the track “What They Kept From Us”. Tunic wants us to forever remain in its dreamlike thrall ~ but are we captivated or captive? (Chris Redfearn-Murray)
Joel Schoch ~ FAR: Changing Tides
A sequel to small indie game FAR: Lone Sails was a surprise; that its soundtrack again merits a place in our best-of list much less so. Schoch revealed a wonderfully restrained and exacting compositional hand in 2018, and that remains in Changing Tides despite an increase in scope and likely resources. Again working with a setup perhaps best described as a folksy jazz chamber group, the composer uses cello, violin, flutes, various guitars and mallet instruments, and more ~ plus an array of techniques and styles ~ to convey the near-constant motion at the heart of the game. Individual lines tend toward the rudimentary while layers build and evolve into something ever-restless (listen to the sublime “Travel” or the last half of “Rough Sea”). This time, however, motion means not just mechanical movement but also travel, as we cross land masses and oceans as well as cultural and sovereign borders, and the set is all the richer for the diverse settings it conveys (“Totem” and “Sunken City” are great examples). And while the set carries ambient sensibilities in seeking to chronicle the journey itself rather than the hero’s feelings and reactions to it, the occasional, brief moments of emotional intensity ~ the stomach lurching to close “Seagate”, the swelling majesty of “Rise”, the mechanical tumult of “Cramping” ~ burst through with a rawness that surprises and delights. Schoch is very much a talent whose rise cannot be FAR. (CRM)
Joris de Man, Niels van der Leest, Julie Elven et al. ~ Horizon Forbidden West
There are soundtracks that try to have enough variation in a repetitive cycle so as to not be tiring, there are soundtracks that try to extend variation enough to simulate non-repetition, and then there’s Horizon Forbidden West. Sprawling across four discs/four hours of music, it’s an impressive proof of the talent of the artists involved – while tracks smoothly flow into each other, rarely do they blend. The main theme’s leit motif recurs across the entire work, often subtly as part of a quiet ambient section, but also sometimes integrated into more thrilling fantasy anthems. This gives the soundtrack a sort of operatic quality, a consistency of form that builds across the four discs even at their most adventurous; as in the first game’s OST, synths mark a forward-looking departure from the orchestral sections, but this time around they feel much more cohesive. Instead of feeling like gears have shifted, it feels like an organic transition between sounds and styles. It is still more of a traditional affair than a cyborg one, but that means that engagement starts with the power of its melodic themes, and is then kept interesting through precise interventions of a modernist kind. In essence, the OST is a whole journey on its own, making it worth listening even if you never even plan on playing the game itself. (DMF)
Olivier Deriviere ~ A Plague Tale: Requiem
It starts calmly ~ even buoyantly ~ but we know from experience that much worse is to come (and it’s called Requiem). This wonderful set follows a similar narrative curve to A Plague Tale: Innocence, which earned a spot in our best-of list for 2019, yet Deriviere has here produced something that not only improves on its predecessor in every department but is my personal favourite of the year. Where Innocence shocked with its uncompromising depiction of a plague-ridden medieval France, Requiem leaves more room for the humanity that endures throughout the savagery. Dual folk guitars strike up dialogue in “The Friendly Lucas”, undecorated bar a droning undercurrent; a complex choir arrangement segues into a bright sermon of hope in “The Dream”; aching cello and violin lines hold each other for comfort in the all-too-brief “Alone Together”. These snatches of intimacy hold our hands through the horror, the depiction of which has been forged into something just as blunt and visceral but musically richer, as squawling bagpipes provide perfect counterpoint to the thunderous cello and timpani that resound beneath, their shrill tone invoking personal cries of anguish or battle cries to confrontation. And then the humanity arises again in the set’s close, as the chamber choir dominates and, ultimately, imparts its touching song of farewell. Deriviere only grows more accomplished, and we can’t wait for his next output. (Check out the excellent Dying Light 2 as well, which just missed a spot this year!) (CRM)
Theophany & I Dewa Putu Berata ~ Kena: Bridge of Spirits
A game set in a fictional mesh of East Asian and Pacific cultural referents would hardly work without a soundtrack rooted in a similar wide set of musical traditions. Thankfully, Theophany approached I Dewa Putu Berata and other Balinese ensembles and composers (like Emiko Susilo and Gamelan Çudamani) to carry out this endeavor justly, resulting in one of the most striking soundtracks of the year. Kena aptly fuses the cinematic orchestral bombast of an animated adventure OST (sweeping melodies, engaging leit motifs, etc.) with the bombast of gamelan orchestras (sweeping percussions, engaging harmonies, etc.) to great effect, showcasing a pretty unique compositional style that loses absolutely nothing of the essences of both systems in its alchemical procedure. Every track is relatively unpredictable, in the sense that if you’re at all familiarized with Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks music and/or gamelan ensembles, everything that is immediately recognizable as a musical platitude mutates into something new as both types of composition meld together. This is quite the feat for any OST, keeping listeners at the edge of our seats without recourse to the game as such, brimming with surprises and beautiful cross-references between orchestral styles. It is, to put it bluntly, a triumph. (DMF)
Tsukasa Saitoh, Shoi Miyazawa, Tai Tomisawa et al. ~ Elden Ring
From the opening track’s eruption ~ brass resounding and a touch behind thunderous timpani, as though mimicking the hero’s laboured swing of a greatsword ~ Elden Ring establishes itself as a formidable score of astonishing breadth and intensity. That it accomplishes this in the open-world soundtrack form, with all the repetition and yet diversity that necessitates, renders it all the more an achievement. Like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an inspiration for this game’s designers, many tracks especially for its ‘field’ areas tend towards the ambient ~ vaporous string motifs barely held in place by threadbare wind textures or eerie choral drones. Unsettling passages with guttural or buzzing incursions hint at monstrous forms lurking just beyond sight, while more lyrical spaces impart a forlorn majesty ~ best exemplified by the sweeping cello lines in “Leyndell, Royal Capital”. Then we leave the calm in its myriad guises for the tumult of the set’s second half, which wisely groups the game’s boss music. Here angry cello, resounding timpani and choral grandeur dominate, although a few Celtic interludes and violin-led ballads occasion moments of respite as well as awe (“Regal Ancestor Spirit” and “Rennala”, respectively). Elden Ring’s score is in deep conversation with the the game’s wonderfully drawn environments and beguiling, inscrutable characters, imbuing it with equal parts beauty and grotesquery. (CRM)
Yoko Shimomura, Grant Kirkhope, Gareth Coker ~ Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope
With the first Mario + Rabbids scored by Grant Kirkhope, a veteran heavyweight of the industry, it’s a sign of the industry’s greater ~ almost indulgent ~ investment in VGM these days that Ubisoft tripled the number of composers for the sequel Sparks of Hope. Yoko Shimomura is best-known for her work on Kingdom Hearts but also scored Live A Live, an obscure Japan-only RPG until it received a global remake-release coincidentally this year. More recently on the scene, Gareth Coker has nonetheless received widespread acclaim for his work on Ori. The individual strengths of each composer create a soundtrack bolder in scope yet still cohesive in style and production (all three recorded in the same Japan-based studios). Compared to its whimsical predecessor, Sparks of Hope is more urgently bombastic (even when titled “Fuzzy and Fleeting”), more overtly menacing (listen to the two-part “Root of Corruption”) and more surprisingly varied, as we take several abrupt turns in the last fifth of this 52-track set toward piano-led ambience (“Desolate Beauty”) and retro-techno (“Dancing in the Sand”). There’s still levity and characterful passages throughout (as is Kirkhope’s forte), but Mario + Rabbids is now ~ perhaps to everyone’s surprise ~ a serious proposition. (CRM)
Rock, Pop & Eclectic
Cosmo D ~ Betrayal At Club Low
If there’s one soundtrack in this list that fits the bill for “eclectic”, it’s Betrayal At Club Low. Like the game itself, this music evokes the feeling of collage without being one, mixing beats and styles seamlessly. Its structures are reminiscent of prog and jazz, expertly shape-shifting into distinct forms from one moment to another; those forms, however, are all sourced from electronic music, opening a way between house and techno. It feels like a step forward from the also excellent Tales From Offpeak City, if only because the surreal qualities that characterize the artist’s work are here put in the service of depth, instead of width. Where Tales was forever moving forward in place like a minimalist piece, Betrayal grows like a fractal, every little detail a branching path that draws it into the constellation of polyphonic practices, each line autonomously interacting with the others. It’s hard not to think of the work of artists and bands like Jaga Jazzist, making thoroughly complex pieces that nonetheless feel quite accessible, building a solid bridge between avant-garde spirit and the desire for you to, simply put, have fun. (DMF)
Gewgawly I & Thou ~ Norco
Imagine an orchestra made of recycled tin and low-fi electronics slow-burning – not paving – the path towards a grave, expansive swirl of doom metal. Thou’s work has always dealt with our becoming-ruins, with the rot of a battered social body driving us to existential anguish; Gewgawly I’s synths feel untimely, as if emerging from the rubble of 90s futurism, a wondrous sound whose roots in loss do not provoke nostalgia, because it is clear that “better times” did not exist. These artists’ works complement each other in interesting manners, a dialogue sustained through muddled growls, dissonant guitars, crisp electronics and ambient diffusion. Where Thou’s section is short, comprehensive, heavy, and imposing, Gewgawly I’s is much longer, somewhat scattered, even disjointed, but to good effect, proving to be two sides of the same gothic coin in which this music works as accompaniment to a time of monsters that never came to an end. On one side, the inner landscape, all rage and sweeping despair, and on the other, an outer world of fragments and relics of a world simultaneously ancient and contemporary, not entirely of the present but neither of the past. Blast this at full volume, and be swept away into the rubble. (DMF)
Toru Minegishi, Shiho Fujii, Ryo Nagamatsu et al ~ Splatoon 3
Can VGM have lore? For one of the industry’s most innovative developers, Nintendo can be frustratingly tethered to tradition in VGM terms – both in style and digital availability. Musical deviants in its barn (think F-Zero’s power metal or 1080’s techno) were notable and ear-catching. Sealife-themed shooter Splatoon is the latest in this short anarchic line and, now in its third iteration, there are no surprises but mere consolidation of one of the most inventive, well-conceived and superbly executed alternative soundtracks around today. And our category name says it all: Splatoon 3 has different in-game ‘acts’ formed of different real-life personnel, each with a bio, artwork and genre. While headlined by energetic rock, there’s also glitchy electronica, dance, hip-hop and the grimiest kind of industrial folk, all suited to different modes and locales of the game. But the funk-infused rockers Wet Floor, with an outlandish slap bassist, and the frantic fusion of Ink Theory complete with hammered ivories are the stand-out acts, displaying exuberance and exemplary musicianship in their tightly crafted tracks from every digital pore. Now, given all the love and attention Nintendo has commendably poured into this, you’d think they let you ‘officially’ listen to it wouldn’t you? (CRM)
No official listening link available. Thanks, Nintendo.
Aethek & Lustmord ~ Scorn (Ambient)
Dark ambient and drone are not exactly common VGM references, which is why Scorn is opening a path towards better, more stylistically diverse horror OSTs. Leaving it in the hands of two masters like Aethek/Billain and Lustmord is precisely the kind of beach-head the genre needs in this medium, and is thus a lesson in how to do these styles justice. (DMF)
Inon Zur ~ Syberia: The World Before (Modern Composition)
Syberia is a traditionally cinematic album of modern composition, meaning excellent arrangements, grandiloquent themes, and enthralling melodies. Put your hedaphones on, sit back, and let yourself be carried into a musical fantasy world. (DMF)
Nick Roder ~ Roadwarden (Ambient)
It’s possible to call Roadwarden a folk-ambient album: it quietly builds a melancholic soundscape of rural perils and ominous storms through modest means. There is as much wonder as there is despair in this music, and it never grows stale. (DMF)