You press a button, and the beat drops. Forward you fly, straight into the perilous unknown, beats pushing against your eardrums as you push back against the controller. Tempo and harmony swim together, and you lose yourself in the rhythm of play.
2012 has been a fine year for video game music. The finest in recent memory, I'd argue. We've seen soundtracks of every shape, size and tonal color, compositional collections complementing games that have incorporated harmony and discord in ingenious, exciting ways.
Granted, my affinity for this year's music is at least in part because it was the year I started running Kotaku Melodic, and so my awareness of all things musical and video gamey has been at an all-time high.
But as the list below demonstrates, this year was something special any way you look at it. It was a year in which game design and music composition moved ever closer, where composers and instrumentalists played vital roles in development teams, and where game-makers demonstrated a greater than ever understanding of the many things video games and music have in common.
Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the best video game music of 2012.
I was expecting to like Gravity Rush, but I wasn't expecting its soundtrack to cast quite the spell it did. Sweeping and old-fashioned, Kohei Tanaka's score conjured old Hollywood in a way that few games even attempt. It mixed Django-esque gypsy jazz with rambunctious orchestral arrangements to build a tone all its own. I chose this tune, "Gravity Days," because it so well captures the soundtrack's charm. Though it was hard not to pick, "Pleasure Quarter," which marked the moment when I truly fell for Gravity Rush. The color palate switches; neons dot the night sky, the violin kicks in, and Kat takes flight.
Even among this heady list, the Hotline Miami soundtrack stands apart. Assembled by a collection of artists, it channeled the 80s-tinged, neon-drenched funk of the game perfectly, and is entirely listenable on its own merits. This track, "Miami" by Jasper Byrne (whose soundtrack to his game Lone Survivor is also outstanding), perhaps best captures the energy of the game. But other tracks from M.O.O.N., Perturbator, Sun Araw all elevate Hotline Miami to a level of deep, almost filthy glamor.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
It's not an easy thing to make a turn-based game seem fraught and action-packed, but XCOM: Enemy Unknown managed it with energy to spare. Part of that is due to the game's brilliantly tense mission design, but some credit belongs to Michael McCann's brilliant score. McCann lent XCOM the same futuristic flair for the dramatic that he brought to last year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and his combat music gets me pumped like no other. Mix that with the eerie, keening sounds of a quiet ("too quiet") battlefield, and you've got one of the best strategy soundtracks in recent memory.
Few game soundtracks have ever charmed me like Botanicula's. When I first played the game, I described the it as weapons-grade joyfulness, and it hasn't lost an ounce of charm. And the soundtrack is a huge part of the game. Crafted by the Czech duo DVA (who make a surprise appearance in the game), the soundtrack relies on a combination of strange homemade instruments and human voices. DVA also created all of the sound effects in Botanicula, and the resulting soundscape blends sound design and music into a ramshackle jamboree of hums, whispers, grunts, bangs, clangs, and whistles.
I came to FTL a bit late. Though I'd been assured of its quality, I hadn't found time to play it until a few weeks ago. And Ben Prunty's cool, beautiful soundtrack grabbed me with a qucikness. The most remarkable thing about this track, "Civil," is how immediately iconic it becomes. Specifically, the chord progression at 1:38. The moment I first heard it, I thought "That right there is the core of this entire game." And so it is. The more I've played FTL, the more I've come to appreciate Prunty's range, but it always comes back to that moment in "Civil." His work invokes the best soundtracks of the past while conjuring something new, and it fits marvelously with the thoughtful, methodical pace of FTL.
Max Payne 3
I can only hope that Max Payne 3's soundtrack is the start of a trend. Rather than hiring a traditional film or game composer, Rockstar tapped the noise-rock band HEALTH to create the soundtrack for Max's return to glory. It would appear that after hiring the band, Rockstar got out of the way completely and let them do their thing. The result is one of the most uncompromising, exhilarating action game soundtracks I've ever heard. It's drenched in sweat, and at times feels like the music of Death Itself. It flattens the competition, a collection of compositions so distinctive that it enhances every moment of the game it accompanies.
Jason Schreier: I had some issues with Xenoblade Chronicles, the Monolith-developed RPG that came out back in April for Wii—yes, Wii!—but its soundtrack, composed by Yasunori Mitsuda, Yoko Shimomura, Manami Kiyota, and ACE+, is undeniably stellar. From peppy jazz beats to gentle guitar strums, Xenoblade's music is eclectic, sweeping, and catchy as all hell.
Mass Effect 3
The Mass Effect 3 soundtrack needed to achieve the impossible: Tie together one of the most heralded video game trilogies of the current generation (with one of the best series-wide soundtracks) and give us closure. And, somehow, composers Clint Mansell, Christopher Lennertz, Sam Hulick, Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco did just that.
It's fitting that a large number of musicians was required to tie Mass Effect room together: The series has seen a number of composers over its five-year run, voices that always managed to combine into a cohesive whole. Best of all, the Mass Effect 3 sound designers even managed to contribute, weaving the music from past games into the ambient sound of several scenes, knitting together a aural tapestry that transcended backing tracks. This piece, "An End Once and For All," was the only one I could choose as emblematic of the Mass Effect 3 soundtrack. It's the rare piece of video game music that sounds exactly as grandiose as its title claims, and it achieves that not with the synths for which the series became known, but with a solo piano, eventually augmented by an orchestra. We'll miss you, Commander.
Sound Shapes is an odd duck for this list, since it doesn't have a "proper" soundtrack per se; the game is its own soundtrack. But the game's levels, which essentially re-imagine sequencer nomenclature as level design, are laid out in a way that lines up with today's remix/mashup culture and allows players just enough control to put their own spin on things without undermining the compositional intent of the musicians. This track, "Cities" by Beck, is the most well-known from the game, but all of them—crafted by musicians like Jim Guthrie and Deadmau5, stand on their own. It's a soundtrack you have to play, and for that alone, it's worthy of mention. The fact that the music is great on its own merits only sweetens the deal.
Dyad is another game inextricably linked with its soundtrack. Part chaotic racer, part simulated drug trip (or, accompaniment to actual drug trip), David Kanaga's score dips and dives, accelerates and drops out, all in line with the motion on screen. By the end of the game, play and music have blended together into a kaleidoscopic, occasionally nightmarish, entirely unforgettable experience.
I found Polytron's Fez to be a pleasant surprise—the game had been hyped for so long that I wasn't sure what to expect. But when I finally played it, I found that the colorful, dreamily nostalgic game was both smaller and more specific than I'd been expecting. Rich "Disasterpeace" Vreeland's soundtrack was a big part of that, a lush and consonant blend of synths and plinky electronic drums that conjured wide spaces, bright skies, and was surprisingly naturalistic for a synthesized soundtrack. And that the audio tracks are laced with hidden symbols and secrets of their own is a bonus of the best sort.
Persona 4 Golden
Okay, yes, Persona 4 is really a game from 2008, and doesn't quite fall under the purview of this list. But 2012's PSVita "remix" Persona 4 Golden features several new tunes from series composer Shōji Meguro, and it's all so damned good that I felt like I couldn't leave it off. Persona 4's mix of complex jazz, triumphant pop, and weirdo ambient music feels more hip and present than most any game soundtrack. By the end of my first time through the game, I was entirely in love with the whole thing. Honestly, these songs are Inaba to me. This track, "Make History," is the new battle music for Golden, and alternates with the original theme to keep things fresh. I have fought hundreds of battles in P4, and this music feels as fresh now as it did the first time I heard it.
What more can be said about Austin Wintory's Journey score? I know I said up top that these are in no particular order. But. Wintory's achingly beautiful work sets a new standard for the emotional heights video game soundtracks can achieve. Journey wound up being a profound experience for me more times than once. Wintory's music is a large part of why.
Journey's score has been widely celebrated, and is the first game soundtrack nominated for a Grammy award. Every accolade it gets is deserved, not simply because the music is good (it is), but because it's uniquely informed by ThatGameCompany's design, and as a result stands as Journey's beating heart. Noble cello themes and resonant alto flute melodies evoke the seemingly endless loneliness of the desert; our slack-jawed wonder at the sheer scope of this endless basin of life. Soundtracks like this come along once in a great while; we may not hear its equal any time soon. But that's okay. These compositions aren't going anywhere, and thanks to them, Journey will remain a classic for many years to come.
So there you have them: Kotaku's picks for the best video game music of 2012. Of course, we may have left off your favorite, so I hope you'll all share your favorite tunes from the year in the comments. (I thought we had a great collection in our reader's choice post last week.)
For now, let's just take a moment to plug in some headphones and reflect on a fantastic year in music.
The litter was calling me, like granulated pieces of my broken past.
But pooping on the floor was all I had left. They'd taken everything else from me, that night my world came crashing down. A knife in the dark, a cold table. My manhood, gone, along with the rest of the garbage.
Her scent is what brought me back. That hint of sex, and cheap perfume, that told me she was out to get laid, and wouldn't be back to feed me until morning.
Games take us to all manner of fantastical, unlikely places. But as good as video games have gotten at accurately recreating a space-marine shootout or a mountaintop dragon battle, there's one thing developers are still learning how to create: A dance club.
Many games try to create thriving urban environments for players to occupy, and there's nothing that says "thriving" and "urban" like a packed, sweaty dance club. Unfortunately, until very recently, games have been very, very bad at rendering realistic dance clubs.
This scene from Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines (a game which I love, I should say) best exemplifies the sort of awkward, embarrassing antics you'd see in early video game dance clubs. There just wasn't enough processing power to make the club as hazy, loud, or crowded-feeling as it needs to be to be convincing. I love dancing at The Asylum, but mostly because it's so endearingly goofy.
There's nothing sadder than an empty dance floor, though, as evidenced by this video from Star Wars: The Old Republic. It's like being at an unpopular kid's Bar Mitzvah.
I remember playing Mass Effect 2, when I first arrived at the Afterlife bar, I was incredibly impressed with how alive it felt. (Now, when I visit, I'm more aware of how empty it is.) Still, it's a pretty good scene, if only in how it builds up to the entrance to the club.
I liked the vibe of The Hive in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The audio may not have been quite right, but it conveyed an icy, cool energy that worked with the game. Don't know how I feel about the random chicks gyrating around the place, but hey, no video game club is perfect.
Rockstar have long understood how dance clubs feel, once again demonstrating their preternatural ability to be ahead of the curve on this sort of thing. Even with its now-primitive graphics, Vice City's Malibu Club is a pretty convincing club:
It paves the way, of course, for the much more convincing clubs in Grand Theft Auto IV and its expansion chapters:
The dance club scene in Max Payne 3 may represent the pinnacle of video games' representations of dance clubs so far:
Nice. The thrumming bass, the way that dialogue instantly gets cut out and muffled, the fact that you can't understand what the hell anyone is saying. There are some shortcuts—see through the smoke and mirrors of the lens filters and fog machines and you can tell that the dancefloor animations are somewhat repetitive and limited—but all the same, this club feels more authentic than any before it.
A huge part of creating a convincing digital dance club is the music and more specifically, the way the music sounds. It can't just be the regular background music that plays during the game—music in a club is thrumming, physical, oppressive. You can't hear anything over it, and as a result everyone is shouting. On top of the pounding bass, there's a high-frequency scream of reverberating voices. It's not an easy thing to get right, making it all the more remarkable when a game does.
I turn it over to you—what are some of your favorite video game clubs? Any classics that are worth mentioning?
That quote is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. Sure, its popularity is owed largely to being the first sentence in Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick. But that introduction is also memorable because you're learning about an important character from the very second you start reading.
Earlier this year, Max Payne 3 did the same trick, letting players know about Max's nihilistic wit and gallows humor before they ever fired a bullet or did a slo-mo dodge. If you never played a Max Payne game before, you still knew for the most part what kind of game you were getting in terms of mechanics. But the journey was about who you were playing as, which wasn't neccessarily something you could learn about just from shooting dudes.
I was reading an issue of Mark Waid's excellent run of Marvel Comics' Daredevil when I stopped to think about how great first-person narration is as a storytelling tool. One that games should use more of.
Look, let's acknowledge that games unfurl their experiences in different ways than books or other media. Games can deliver story through interaction rather than scripting. But, the ones that want to tell tales have a great under-used tool in voiceover narration. Most video games struggle with telling you about their characters. They stop the thing you've shown up to do—solve tricky puzzles, shoot lots of alien invaders, explore vast landscapes—to roll out a cutscene where you finally get to see emotions play out on the front of a character's face. That's usually where you get to hear about what's motivating a hero or a party member. And these moments usually bring the play of a game to a dead stop. No wonder people skip through them.
That's why the narration of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Bastion (which, granted, isn't first-person) works so wonderfully. You can still be bounding around a crumbling castle or hacking away at a random enemy while getting fed information about the protagonist and the world. Even Metroid: Other M—controversial as its version of Samus Aran was for some people—let you into that character's head in a way by virtue of narration that previous games hadn't. In fact, I've found that narration heightens the action with a personality-driven filter. I cared more about getting Max past a wave of enemies than, say, Master Chief because I'd had his voice and his pain ringing through my head before the shots rang out.
First-person narration gets used a lot in detective fiction and its very existence imparts a subliminal knowledge that the lead character makes it through okay. You're hearing the tale told after the smoke clears. Where that might rob some of the tension from the proceedings in a book or movie, you're the one that has to navigate to resolution in a video game. That character's voice becomes a catalyst for closure.
So, more narration, please. After all, if I'm going to spend 10, 20, 100 hours with a character, I better feel like I know him or her.
Taking a page from LA Noire's case notes, Rockstar's Max Payne 3 will on August 28 be adding something called "Noir Mode", which is a tidy term for "playing the game in black & white".
It fits with the game's noir overtones, I guess, but given so much of Max Payne 3 is spent in the ridiculously over-saturated Rio, it seems almost a crime to rob your eyes of the city's lush colour palette.
For Neo, moving faster than bullets was a matter of realizing the Matrix's rules could be bent. For most of our video game heroes, bullet time is a popular mechanic that has appeared on titles like Max Payne, Red Dead Redemption, Vanquish and more.
It's not possible to slow down time and perform amazing feats—not yet, anyway. Still, most of us have probably experienced that feeling of time slowing down. We know it as the result of a severe adrenaline rush. It's the closest we have to approaching bullet time in real life, and arguably what bullet time is based on. And there's a reason it happens.
Our adrenaline starts pumping when we're in danger, or when we're scared. What follows is that more information is committed to memory by the brain (the amygdala to be specific) in an effort to help us keep safe. This memory overload makes our recollections seem richer and denser than they actually were.
It's an illusion that tricks your brain into thinking that the more memory it has of an event, the longer it took to pan out. Time slows down for you, only it doesn't in reality.
When we get older, time seems to fly. This is based on a similar phenomenon to the one drawn above. We store more memories from childhood because every experience is fresh, and there's more information to soak up. Experiences we have when we're older are at risk of being lost in the fray, because we've racked up so many similar-looking ones already. This is why childhood seems to take forever and adulthood seems to zip by.
Giving us false memories, deceiving us into thinking time moves slower (or faster!) than it actually does: the brain is pretty crazy amazing, eh?
I've seen it far too many times. A video game character leaps from the top of a staircase, flying through the air, guns blazing. One enemy drops to the ground, then two, then three! Behind him, a grenade explodes, laying waste to the spot where he was just standing.
Bullets whizz through the air, metal-jacketed death buzzing past like so many hornets. By the time he hits the ground, everyone in the room is dead. He stands up, dusts himself off, and without a word... just keeps on truckin'.
Dude. Not even a word about the fucking amazing stunt you just pulled off?
Sometimes I want to grab video game characters and shake them.
Video game characters rarely seem like they're having a good time. They never seem overly impressed by the incredible odds they're overcoming, the amazing battles they're singlehandedly winning, the ridiculously difficult acrobatics they perform so regularly.
Max Payne, Marcus Fenix, Lara Croft, Rico Rodriguez, the GTA heroes… they rarely if ever seem all that stoked about the incredible moves they execute on a regular, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. Would it kill them to seem at least a little bit impressed by their own badassery?
The scene I described up top was more or less a scene from Max Payne 3, a game in which constant, insane action sequences are always followed by Max brooding to himself about how much of a fuckup he is.
A friend and I were having a laugh the other day over a scene that happens near the middle of the game. Max is sneaking up on some goons in a parking garage, at which point his voice-over sarcastically mocks his "trademark grace" as he knocks over a barrel and gets noticed. Immediately after doing that, he proceeds to do the most hilariously graceful and amazing thing I've ever seen, shooting a valve, grabbing a chain that then HAPPENS to start pulling him up to the ceiling because he shot the random valve, and then mowing down like eight dudes in slow-mo on two separate levels of the garage before landing... and going about his grumpy, hungover day.
If he had ended that sequence with the voiceover, "Okay, maybe I'm not so graceless," I would have been on the floor laughing. Instead, it was just gritty business as usual.
I'm not asking for a constant string of meta-commentary or anything. But would it kill video game characters to just occasionally mention how completely rad the thing they just did was? One of the most fun things in a video game, particularly a cinematic action game, is that sense of "Oh holy eff, I just DID THAT." And yet the characters never share that with us, they grimace and frown, they smell the fart and go on with their lives.
When a character in a game does respond to what just happened, it feels disproportionately refreshing, like a sip of water in a desert. At the end of the amazing collapsing building segment of Uncharted 2, Nathan Drake laughs and says, "We were almost in that!" More recently, in Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, there's an early scene when an insanely powerful airdrop wipes out a horde of advancing soldiers, and the soldier I was controlling wryly muttered, "Well… that worked."
The fact that I laughed at that (pretty dumb) line indicates how much I want someone to acknowledge what's happening on screen. Why don't more games do this kind of thing? Is it simply that the events of a game are so outlandish that writers fear that acknowledging their awesomeness would serve to make them seem silly? I don't think it would. These kinds of video games are supposed to be awesome. It's okay to have some fun with it.
Look, I know. "Cool Guys Don't Look at Explosions." In movies, on TV - this kind of stuff happens all the time. A cool badass character does something badass, and by definition he has to act all cool about it. It's what we expect of our cool badasses!
But there are moments, great moments, when that cool veneer cracks—think Neo saying "Woah" or "I know Kung Fu" in The Matrix. In the (fantastic) Disney film Tangled, there is a hysterical scene in which the character Flynn winds up in a sword-fight with Maximus, who is... a horse.
"You should know that this is the strangest thing I've ever done!" Flynn enthusiastically shouts as he parries the attacks of a sword-wielding horse. Ha! That gag and the lines from The Matrix are so great because for a few brief moments, we the audience are let in on the joke. The writers take a moment to tell us that it's okay to be super jazzed about all the awesome stuff happening on screen. I'd love to see more games do that.
I mean, if I single-handedly wiped out an entire platoon of alien soldiers, then hopped onto the side of one of their tanks, fought my way to the cockpit and piloted the thing off a cliff before leaping in slow-mo to safety at the last possible second, I think I'd do what any rational, red-blooded human would do: Look around frantically and shout, "TELL me someone saw that shit!"
Then I'd probably call my mom.
"Mom, you will not believe what I just did. Okay wait, let me back up. There's something you should know about me: Turns out, I AM AWESOME."