I played more games in 2012 than any other year of my life. It was a weird—but thoroughly wonderful—year, and one that upset a lot of my expectations. Games I'd assumed would be amazing fell short of the mark, while others came out of nowhere to become fast favorites.
This being a time well-suited for retrospection, I thought it'd be a good idea to write down my ten eleven favorite games of the year. (I tried to keep it to ten, I really did.)
Here they are, in no particular order.
Thirty Flights of Loving
Usually when people talk about Blendo's Thirty Flights of Loving, they talk about its brevity. What's most striking about this game's brief run-time isn't just that it's short, it's how much it manages to do in such a short time. By cleverly using hints, allusion, tropes and subverted clichés, Thirty Flights packs more drama and intrigue into 15 minutes than many games manage in 15 hours. It was one of the most memorable things I played all year, and something I'll be recommending to friends for years to come. (PC only)
Max Payne 3
For some reason, I feel this underlying sense of disappointment whenever people talk about Max Payne 3. And yet all these months later, I still find myself playing it, and I have to say: This game was baller. It wasn't just that it had better graphics than anything else that came out this year (on PC, anyway). It wasn't just the ridiculously good soundtrack. It was the way it played, the overwhelming sense of kinetic, chaotic danger. A sequence set in a cubicle-filled office was the most brutal and exhilarating action sequence I played all year. It has its share of problems, sure: Some difficulty-spikes made me want to throw my TV out a window, and at times it felt like more of a movie than a game. Considering how gritty and self-serious it all was, it sure could be ridiculous. But even if it lacked the charm of past Max Payne games, Max Payne 3 more than made up for it with satisfying, stylish, bloody-minded action. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
The Walking Dead
For a time, somewhere immediately after I completed the devastating, masterful third episode of Telltale's The Walking Dead, I was convinced it was the best thing I played all year. After completing the game and taking some time to really look it over, I have to say that there were enough technical niggles, rough edges, bugs and reported save-game errors that I came away a bit frustrated with it. All the same, seeing a mainstream game this well-written, a game that treats its characters with this level of care, felt like a watershed occurrence. Sure, there have been other great adventure games in the past, but never one that felt so confidently of-the-moment. With every accolade, game critics and players are making a statement: We want good stories in our games, thank you very much. May The Walking Dead pave the way for countless more games like it. (Xbox, PS3, PC, iOS)
Violent, crazed, self-aware and painfully cool, Hotline Miami was one of the most maddening, involving games I played this fall. The soundtrack was so good it hurt. The story was as disgusting and uncomfortable as anything I've ever played. The action was peerless. I can't remember where I first saw this, but Hotline Miami is best described as a series of rehearsals before a final performance—again and again you die, until you choreograph your own perfect ballet of death. By the time you leave each blood-soaked floor, you'll be intimately familiar with every nook and cranny. An exacting, meticulous, brilliantly brutal game. (PC only, coming soon to Mac)
I didn't know what to expect going in to Gravity Rush. I'd heard good things, liked what little I'd seen of in trailers, but really had no deeper notion of it. It didn't take me long to fall for it, and when I fell, I fell hard. Appropriate, since this superhero game isn't about flying; it's about falling. And it's a superhero game in the best sense: It showed me a world that was as mysterious as it was fantastical, loaded with unanswered questions and improbable vistas, and let me explore it as an instantly likable character. Best of all, the gravity-manipulation controls actually took me a while to get used to; they felt genuinely, at times startlingly new. The game had its problems—notably, the combat was frustrating and several sections from the halfway point onward could be a real slog—but when it was firing on all cylinders, Gravity Rush was a dizzy joy. (PS Vita)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Every year, it seems there's one game that hits me right in my gaming sweet-spot. Last year it was Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this year it was XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I fell entirely under this game's spell, regularly finding myself up at 3 or 4 in the morning, heading out on one more mission before finally going to bed. Here's a story: the early PC press build of the game caused a strange error with my save game, and I lost about ten hours of progress. I had to start over fresh, but I found myself doing so without a complaint. And I wasn't even reviewing the game! I relished the opportunity to play the opening acts again, to use what I'd learned and get everything right. I anticipate I'll be playing it well into the future. It doesn't just belong in my top ten eleven—XCOM: Enemy Unknown was one of my two or three favorite games of the year. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
Just today, I put forth the argument for why this game should be Kotaku's overall game of the year. I also reviewed it back when it came out. I don't have much more to add, so I'll just say that it's a beautiful, remarkably assured game that does what it does so well it's easy to forget just how difficult it must have been to make. It's ThatGameComany's masterpiece. (PS3 only)
Far Cry 3
I showed up to Far Cry 3 with a lot of baggage: See, Far Cry 2 is one of my favorite games of all time, and everything I'd seen of Far Cry 3 made me think it would be a less serious, less focused, move video-gamey take on its predecessor. And it was that. It was also awesome. At some point, maybe around the eight- or nine-hour mark, I realized that I didn't want to stop playing. I wanted to keep going, and going, growing my abilities, learning the island, exploring, conquering, and hang-gliding. Sure, the story fell apart for me a bit after the halfway point. And yeah, my adventures wound up making the islands far too safe, devoid of enemies to fight. But as a feat of game design and technical artistry, Far Cry 3 deserves recognition. (For more, see my full review.) It's not just that it does so many things so well—it's that it does them well in the service of being a really fun video game. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
No other game this year made me smile as widely or as often as Botanicula. The Michel Gondry-esque art, the wonderful physical comedy, the amazing, handcrafted music and sound effects, and fantastical story won me over completely. So many games concern themselves with mastery and competition; far too few concern themselves with joy. Botanicula was easily the most joyful game of 2012. (PC, Mac)
Sleeping Dogs was one of the very best surprises of 2012, a fine open-world game that proved how oftentimes, GTA-style games can be even more fun without guns. It didn't quite have Rockstar's lavish production values, but United Front's take on the city of Hong Kong sparkled at every turn, and the PC version in particular looked lovely. It conveyed such a remarkable sense of place, perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that you had to drive on the left side of the road. The story was strong too, a surprisingly mature tale that borrowed heavily from Hong Kong cinema. Anyone familiar with undercover cop-stories likely saw every twist and turn coming, but I still enjoyed it all, thanks largely to the top-rate performances. Sleeping Dogs felt like a game that knew its own boundaries: It didn't come with any shoehorned-in multiplayer, and it didn't become overstuffed or fall apart in the third act. It was good all the way to the end, and even beyond: I'm still playing the DLC. Here's hoping Sleeping Dogs merits a sequel. Sleeping Dogs 2: Waking Dogs? I'd play it. (Xbox, PS3, PC)
Persona 4 Golden
And now we come to the end, where I'd put the number one game, if these were in order. And while they're not in order, still, Persona 4 Golden kind of deserves to be mentioned last. XCOM may have hit me square in the game-nerve, but I fell even more profoundly into Persona 4 Golden. I ache for this game, you guys. Earlier this year, I had played 60-odd hours of Persona 3, and every time I'd tell someone how much I dug that game, they'd say, "Wait until you play Persona 4." They were right.
Jason and I have already gone into great detail about why we love Persona 4, and if I couldn't capture my feelings in that many thousands of words, I probably should just give up. The town of Inaba and its residents have left an indelible mark on me; I'll never forget this game. (PS Vita, original game is also on PS2)
And that's that. Oh, hmm. There were a few games I didn't get to list here, so honorable mentions go to FTL, Mark of the Ninja, Dyad, Torchlight II, Dishonored, Papo & Yo, Super Hexagon and Sound Shapes.
2012 was a great, often surprising year for games. Here's hoping 2013 is even better.
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.
Hopefully by now, you've played Amanita Design's marvelous point-and-click adventure/exploration/music-time story-thing Botanicula. But I'm entirely open to the idea that you have not—and so is Amanita, who have now made the first section of the game playable for free through their website.
Don't take it from me! Head on over to Amanita's site and play the game for free. And bear in mind that there's much more to the full game than the bit in the demo; all sorts of hidden joys and fun digressions. You'll see. Go play.
We're living in something of a golden age of chiptune music. The last five or so years have seen a popularity explosion for the classic electronic sounds that most gamers associate with the games of their youths.
The bleeps, bloops, and grinds of chiptune music have evolved from a technical necessity to an aesthetic choice. Musicians like Jim Guthrie and Anamanaguchi have spent recent years repurposing vintage digital sounds to create beautiful, human-sounding work.
While the contemporary video game soundscape is a wonderland of lovely synthetic sounds, it's easy to forget that the human side of audio—human beings recorded with microphones—can feel vital, beautiful and timeless.
Anyone who played SimCity 2000 remembers the bizarre, charming music. I bet you also remember that "zzt" sound effect that played every time you planted a new power line. It was the weirdest sound effect, even at the time, because it's clearly just a dude saying "zzt" in to a microphone. "zzt." "zzt." "zzt." That hilarious monotone, until you forgot about it and it became part of the game's unique sound.
"Music in the game works like lego(s)."
I asked SimCity creator Will Wright about that sound, and he told me that in fact, it's his voice.
"I remember that well," he told me in an email. "That was actually just a recording of me making the sound with my voice. I recall that it was intended to be temporary but later we tried some other sounds and everyone liked how funny the first one was, so I kept it in."
I love that story, at least in part because I've seen that very thing happen so many times—what was intended to be a temporary track winds up making it to the final version because it captured something special and unrepeatable. That one sound effect ties Wright to the game in a personal, almost physical way. Every time you lay down a power line, you hear Will.
I admire and welcome that type of real, human sound in video games. The clapping of hands, the cheering of voices; the air moving around live instruments, the human's breath hitting a microphone pop-filter.
It seems fitting that Fez and Botanicula came out so close to one another. Rich Vreeland's Fez soundtrack is a lovely digital creation, a synthesis of synth tones that creates a warm, dream-like atmosphere.
The soundtrack to Amanita Design's wonderful Botanicula, while equally lovely, almost stands as a perfect inverse of Vreeland's Fez soundtrack. That's because the music and all of Botanicula's sound effects were created by real instruments and human voices. Two specific humans, actually.
The soundtrack was recorded by the Czech band DVA. In slavic languages, DVA means "Two," which reflects the band's personell: Bára Kratochvílová plays saxophone, clarinet, and is lead singer, while Jan Kratochvil plays guitar and controls loops. The soundtrack, which you can listen to here, doesn't really sound like any video game soundtrack before it. It's lovely. Listen to the embedded music below and ask yourself: Does this sound like the soundtrack to any video game I've ever played?
In addition to a good amount of vocal work, "We used one czech banjo (it sounds like banjo, looks like banjo, but the system and numbers of strings is the same as guitar), saxophone, guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet, melodica, lot of pots from the kitchen, toy piano, and one old a little bit out of tune piano" to record the game's soundtrack, Kratochvílová and Kratochvil told me in an email.
90% of the sound effects in the game were recorded by DVA themselves (a whole bunch are created entirely with their voices), and 9.9% are bird and nature sounds recorded up in the mountains near Prague where they work. (They didn't elaborate on what the remaining 0.1% of the sounds are.) The process sounded simple enough: Botanicula animator and designer Jaroslav Plachy would send them the animations from the game, and they'd record the audio over them and and send them back.
"Music in the game works like lego(s)," Bára and Jan wrote. "You have motherboard – for example in the 2nd level, pure sounds of nature. In some situations after a click, you start to play bigger "lego cube" - music, and after the next click you've started to build something like a "Lego sound tower."
That's not particularly different than the sound design of any other video game, but for that one crucial thing—most of these sounds are human voices layering on top of one another.
Amanita's Jakub Dvorsky echoed Jan and Bará's laid-back post-mortem. "There was no [explicit] decision to make the sound effects human-generated," he told me in an email, "and we didn't tell the musicians how they should create all the sounds and music. They had complete freedom and we were absolutely happy with what they created. Sometimes it's better to let things take its natural course."
As I speak with more and more video game sound designers, I keep noticing that the most interesting sound effects are the ones that they've concocted in the most personal ways. So many games use complex digital processes to build massive, cinematic, or retro-sounding game soundtracks.
Hearing DVA's work on Botanicula was a sharp, almost bracing breath of fresh air. I immediately thought of Will Wright's "Zzt," which remains one of SimCity's most iconic sound effects nearly 20 years after SimCity 2000 came out.
I hope to hear more game soundtracks embrace the human, living side of audio. The worlds that game designers create are limited only by imagination. So too are their soundtracks. Technology makes all sorts of fantastic sound design possible, but let's not forget that the human voice is capable of a great many wonders all on its own.
Welcome to "Backhanded Box Quotes," a collection of super pissed-off user reviews from people just like you! Whoa, whoa, don't take that personal.
This week's scan of proportionate reactions to entertainment products includes condemnation for something almost universally acclaimed and a scalding appraisal of a football video game from EA Sports that is not named Madden.