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Zac Gorman's been doing video game-centric comics for Kotaku for the better part of a year now. He's riffed on everything from Dishonored's stealth to what makes people jealous in Journey. So, it's only fitting that he lets everybody know what his favorite playable experiences from the last twelve months were. It's an eclectic—and damn pretty—list.
Want to see more of Zac's work? Head over to his personal blog and game-themed site Magical Game Time. If you're feeling commercial, you can buy prints and shirts here. He'll be back on Kotaku with a new comic same time next month!
As a writer, it's my job to put things together, to construct a narrative out of disparate pieces. As human beings who try to make sense of the world, we all do that unconsciously: when everything is a story, the world makes sense.
The stories don't help sometimes. Hell, the stories go away sometimes. In their place comes a void, a puncture in our ability to reason and understand why things happen the way they do.
You might notice this phenomenon after a death, after a tragedy—they all seem kind of senseless when put under scrutiny, huh? The Columbines, the Virginia Techs, the Sandy Hooks.
So right now, I have only pieces. Memories of things I'm afraid to talk about—maybe the timing isn't right, or maybe it would make me sound unhinged.
They're recollections of things, sometimes games I know for certain go together somehow, amount to a small piece of some puzzle that's supposed to help me understand where violence and death fit in my life.
"No more Power Ranger games. No more video games, period," my mother lamented."They're not good for you."
The SNES and the accompanying Power Ranger game had been a Christmas present when I was about six. But one night I pulled a butter knife on my mother, demanding whatever it is a child demands at that age. Who knows? And just like that, the console went away as easily as it had appeared.
Thinking back, I couldn't have meant to hurt her. I couldn't have. That would be ridiculous. Games don't have that effect on people.
Well, if we want to be technical, that SNES was my first console. But if asked, if prompted to talk about my early gaming days, I don't mention it. It didn't exist.
My first console was the Gamecube. Wholesome little thing, adorable handle and everything. I wanted to be Mario. Mario defeats things, he doesn't kill them. It's good, clean fun.
I agonized over that Gamecube, in the way a kid that finally learns the value of money does. I spent over a year saving up for the console, saving up every last nickel I could.
With my family, violence is there even when it's not there—maybe at a party I make out the lyrics to a popular song that goes: "hit your woman with a club, put her in her place," booming overhead. I'll try to ignore it, only to notice the dancing—my sister, my cousin, my mother all in tune—and I'll need to excuse myself before I get angry.
Sometimes it's there as a historical record, something for everyone else to see. The women in my family tend to have a number of visible scars across their bodies, scars we never talk about.
Sometimes it'll be a threat—maybe you should settle down before I make you settle down sort of thing. Maybe it's noticing a belt starting to unbuckle from the corner of my eye.
Then the women stop the shenanigans. But sometimes this looming thing finally arrives, finally finds a release. One of the moments that refuses to leave my head is one that happened over a decade ago.
I am laying in bed with my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. This is what you do when my stepfather is drunk, you try to get out of the way. We try to avoid this situation as much as possible, my mother and I, by making sure we never stay too long at a social event and that he's not around alcohol much. But every so often, he'll pull a fast one and get drunk anyway.
When he's drunk, something snaps. Something goes wrong. The meekness and niceties fade away, and are replaced by anger, sometimes by rampage. Nothing in the house is safe.
From under the covers, I can see that he's playing my Gamecube. But he can't stop losing his matches in Mortal Kombat. That's the game he turns to when he feels agitated. His favorite parts are the fatalities, they go farther than other fighting games dare to.
As the night goes on, he's getting more and more visibly frustrated, until eventually he stands up. Then I notice he's not playing anymore.
He makes his way to the Gamecube, rips it off the TV, and sets it down on the table. I hear him fumble through his power tools, trying to pick out the best one for the job.
I know what he's about to do. I know what he's about to do but I can't move and I don't dare open my eyes. I just hope that he can't hear me crying.
He always apologizes after things like these the next day, always tries to make things right by repurchasing whatever he destroyed. But I never played the new Gamecube he bought. The new one wasn't mine and I felt sick looking at it.
A few years later I'd stop with all the wholesomeness and Nintendo, instead opting to purchase a 360. It's on this 360 that I learned how to play shooters—I started out with the ridiculous ones like Gears of War, but eventually moved my way to 'realistic' shooters like Battlefield.
I adored them. They tapped into something that I couldn't explain, couldn't name. What I did know was that I wanted to share this interest with my significant other, in the way you want to share everything with someone you love. But he wasn't having it.
"I fucking hate it when you play that thing," my then-boyfriend once growled.
"But it's so good! Look at how realistic it is."
"... realistic. Right."
"Yes—like, listen to the way I play. Listen! I'm giving out orders and moving like I'm a squad. It's all very—"
"What, fun? You think this is fun?"
"I just can't stand the sound of bullets. I can't stand all the shooting. I don't understand how you like that shit."
Sure, we were in conflict with some of the countries in the games, and sure, maybe with games like Medal of Honor, there was the possibility we were playing as the type of groups highlighted in Wikileaks for committing war crimes, but I still thought he was being completely absurd. A well-rounded human being should be able to understand when something is just entertainment. Jesus christ, come on!
Thinking back on it now, it seems stupid to imply that someone being sensitive about this stuff is in the wrong—like the only way to live is with cynical fortitude. Rationality dictates these things are obviously divorced, our entertainment and our reality, so can we stop talking about it already?
Like we shouldn't be phased by something that's supposed to be uncomfortable. Even now, I keep going back to it: was there something wrong with him or was there something wrong with me?
It stuck with me, that conversation. It got under my skin. After we had it, I noticed how games were often hours and hours and hours of killing endless mobs of men that often looked exactly the same. Why does every room and level have a bunch of shit to kill no matter what it is I'm playing? And why can't I just turn my brain off like I used to; what's wrong? Why can't I just aim and shoot?
Games became exasperating for a long time after that.
The girl in indie platformer They Bleed Pixels starts off looking so innocent. Just a precious little kid, you know? All it took to change that was one book; one evil, corrupting book and suddenly she's transformed into this terrifying creature with claws for hands.
Much of the game focuses on what you can do with those claws. You juggle your enemies with them, you throw them into spikes and gears and chain combos where you lacerate them into pieces.
You do this because if you don't, then the game is much harder. Every kill, every combo fills a meter that lets you put down a checkpoint. The game is basically the Dark Souls of platformers, and my being awful at video games, I need those checkpoints. I don't want my inevitable death to catapult me back to the start of the game. I need to be creative in how I kill for my benefit.
It's ugly. Stylized and therefore detached, but ugly if you really think about it. And it feels so, so good to play.
I hate how often this is true no matter what I'm playing. And now we've got the situation of having games become self-aware about it, kind of going 'you like this, don't you, you sick bastard'—there is Hotline Miami, Bulletstorm, a few others.
I feel like these games implicitely ask me if I like it, and I can't help but answer "yes, yes I do." At the same time... I don't know if this is me absolving myself of responsibility, but I like the way Andrew Vanden Bossche puts it:
Game: "You pulled the trigger. You are holding the gun."
You: "You gave me the gun. You ordered me to pull the trigger."
I've shot a gun before. I must have been 10, maybe 12. I was in El Salvador.
"We can shoot these cans," my uncle offered. "Or, we can aim for the lizards crawling about the jungle."
Cans seemed boring to me versus a living creature. The humane thing seemed boring to me. What?
But the moment that revisits me about that trip to El Salvador isn't learning how to shoot a gun. It's a different memory.
My family is largely composed of farmers who own horses, chickens, cattle—that sort of thing. In those years, we'd visit El Salvador often as a group, which meant that we needed enough food to feed dozens of people.
We needed to kill one of our cows to do that. We all know where the meat comes from, but you know how the saying goes, right? Don't want to actually see how the hamburger is made?
I can't remember what I felt when I watched my grandfather pick up his machete and bring it down hard on the cow's neck. What I do remember is the horror of seeing the meat pile up—there was a lot of it, sure, but... sometimes, some parts of the cow will pulsate well after the cow is dead, even if it's completely detached from the skeleton.
Like the thing is giving one last reminder that it was alive once, damnit. Don't you dare forget it.
I kill people nearly every day via controller, but I don't actually know death. Not really. I'm 22. I've never known anyone who has died—personally, I mean. I'm afraid there's a critical gap in my experience because of this, or that when it finally does happen, I'll react worse to it than one is ‘supposed' to. Whatever that means.
I live in a crystalline place right now. Death mostly exists on a pixellated plane. You don't have to deal with a dead body here, they often simply disappear into a level. Poof.
But I have nightmares about death sometimes. I have nightmares of what would happen if so and so who is important to me died, if I wake up one day and finally, finally, it happened—someone is gone.
Just like that, gone.
I'm not sure if I feel uneasy or excited to talk about why I love multiplayer games. Maybe both. I could frame this love any which way I wanted, I could make this sound less 'bad,' but this is how I articulate what I like about them: there are people on the other end.
People who don't want to
lose die. People who are trying their best, out of competitiveness, to survive. Playing against an AI, you can tell—there's no will to live, not really. The movement is too precise, too measured, acting out scripts of logic of what to do under pressure.
A person will be creative. They will fumble. Your interaction with them will be messy and haphazard in a very human way. And best of all, I can practically taste the tension, the fear that comes when someone is closing down on you, about to kill you in a game. I imagine their heart racing madly, because that's what happens to me when under pressure. It's exhilarating to think about.
Managing to overcome an aggressor in a situation like that to me is like saying, "no, I want to live. I want to live. You're not taking this from me."
Ultimately, you might have a good kill/death ratio at the end of a match. But what does it mean if all your lives were laughably short? The one that kills and lives the most, that person is the one that gets to gloat at the end.
There is a reason I don't talk about this much.
Image Credit: Shutterstock
In a fit of frustration over Hotline Miami and the way gamers discuss violent games, I ended up talking to game critic/provocateur Cara Ellison. She adores Hotline Miami, you see.
Originally I meant to consult her about a different article, but our conversation was much more interesting than what I wrote. So we're publishing our correspondence instead, which touches on the bullshit surrounding the discussion of violent games (which has gotten even more complicated lately), whether or not we confuse loving winning to loving digital murder, and more.
From: Patricia Hernandez
To: Cara Ellison
Cara, something I read last month is haunting me. I keep returning to it. There's an article on Midnight Resistance where Liz Ryerson dissects hyper-violent Hotline Miami and its reception. In it, Ryerson asks "how can you rhapsodize at great lengths about the joy of violence in a videogame without sounding like a complete psychopath?"
The article is compelling—she doesn't suggest that violence shouldn't be in games, but she does urge us to take a look at why it's there and how it affects as as folk who probably aren't about to go commit murder. And for once, this discussion isn't being anchored by the suggestion that games will corrupt us forever... just, that we do an awful job at examining what the violence does or mean, even though we'll go at great lengths at describing how enjoyable it is.
I think it's worrisome that we don't talk about this stuff. We're so sure that the value in the mechanics of these games is self-evident enough that they don't warrant examining—really examining. Like, beyond the idea that it feels good to kill someone. That part is the easy, obvious part.
I can't stop thinking about Ryerson's question though—can we, do we sing praises of the joy of violence without sounding psychopathic? I decided to check out reviews of Hotline Miami and found that by nature of having to explain how the game works—which involves playing as a killer-for-hire— sounding unhinged is an inevitability. The more a reviewer likes the game, the more true this is. What's up with that?
There was one review that pinpointed the game as a ‘murder simulator,' but stressed that playing the game doesn't make you a bad person. Insecurity?
What's curious about this is that many people pose that there's little time to think while playing, but that in-between missions, or after you shut the game off, that changed. But by the time reflection finally came, well... who knows?
Maybe Hotline Miami doesn't have to make a statement, that's fine. But we can. I want to hear about what the reality of what we're doing is and what it means in the wider societal context in which it exists, or what it might say about us, and not simply a mechanical breakdown. I come to you, as resident Hotline Miami lover.
I find myself frustrated when I read much of the discussion around the game, because there are no statements, no conclusions. How valuable is an unanswered question? When we don't make statements about what the game makes us consider, how, in effect, is it different from a game that doesn't make us think at all?
This is an interesting question, moreso as it is something that I have never found myself worrying about. I actually think that the more stylised you make the violence the further you separate yourself from the game's imagery, and the less important violent actions or themes are. The more abstract you get, the less you are attached to the actual idea of what is happening. Hotline Miami's violence is almost a post-process realisation that you are murdering people. The characters are not people you identify with—they are abstracted, little top-down dudes. Hotline Miami is extremely stylised, and does its utmost not to be hyperrealistic.
Hotline Miami is a beat, a rhythm, a process, a series of tiny challenges to overcome. It is only after the control is taken away from you by the game, and you throw up, then the realisation really connects with you that you are controlling a guy whose job it is to kill people, and the pleasure that you are getting from the crunch of a baseball bat is that of an assassination.
Hotline Miami's job is to present a a room full of guards to you and have you puzzle out how to solve the problem of them. You get a sense of achievement from offing those guys one by one like you would being Mario bopping Goombas on the head in quick succession—and after, you think, woah. The game is trying to tell me that I am not just a puzzle-solver here—I am a murderer. The cutscenes emphasise it—"Why are you doing this?" The cutscenes make you think about what you have done in a way that pushes me to feel like I am in the mind of a killer, when really I feel like it is a strategic puzzler at heart?
Why is Hotline Miami framing me for murder after the fact?
Speaking of sounding unhinged: framing you for murder, huh? Heh. That's curious—because, as you said, the game makes sure to remind you you're a murderer with the cutscenes, but it also it tries to distract you from that idea with its stylization. In addition to that, it detaches you from the situation when it suggests that you're not in complete control of your actions—that you're being controlled by a shadow organization.
I feel conflicted. Much of the discussion about the game lauds the fact that it asks us whether or not we enjoy hurting people. THAT is psychotic: so what we're saying is, most games don't make us think? ....we have to be prompted to think? That idea doesn't reflect very well on us. That's funny, considering how easily we get mad when the media/non-gamers look at these violent games, and how easily we can say that they're not looking closely enough.
I'm not even sure that Hotline Miami is so different from just about any other violent game—if we stopped to actually think what's going on. It's not necessary to have hazy, vague cutscenes between levels of a game asking you if you enjoy killing to dare to wonder on your own. The fact that we've needed to be asked, to me, is alarming.
Granted, it occurs to me that most games work hard to make sure we're distracted from what we do. I mean, they have to, right? It would be horrifying if we felt the weight of every single murder in the games we play.
But now that you brought up how Hotline Miami goes back and forth on reminding you and distracting you about being a murderer, I feel that much more conflicted! What is the game trying to do? I can't tell if it's a purposeful tension or the sign of a muddled game. My cynicism gravitates me toward the latter.
If the game is framing us for murder, why do you think that most people endlessly praise how good digital murder feels? Are they actually talking about something else they enjoyed with the game without realizing it? Assuming we're actually being framed, the game sure tricked everyone into thinking that they're guilty.
I don't think Hotline Miami is a good game because it is violent—it is pure mechanics working to give a chemical response in my brain that is the rush I get when I feel achievement. I find it difficult to connect my knifing a guy in Hotline Miami to the idea of doing it in real life—there is an interface that is giving me feedback that creates that abstract feeling of winning when some pixels collide.
I tell myself I have completed a task with my hands, and my brain gives me a biscuit (or a cookie, as it is there in the States). There is an obvious progression to reward in the framework of this virtual painting, whereas most well adjusted adults know that there is no excuse for violence in the framework of real world society and there is certainly no reward for it. The opposite—there is serious punishment and great societal distress. Knowledge of the rules is important wherever you are.
The cutscenes in Hotline Miami are interesting, because they are actually there to remind you that the game is about horrible murder lest you forget that it is about horrible murder. Why?
Because it's based on the film Drive and stylised violence can be made to look cool. But really, the process of winning or the mechanics that underlie that game are nothing to do with violence. You could have a totally abstract set of squares and triangles bumping into each other, exploding, sort of like a slappers-only Geometry Wars, and the same satisfaction would pop out. Am I making excuses? I hope not. I am just trying to analyse my own brain's processes.
I think when people talk about the glory of the violence in Hotline Miami, they are confusing it with the joy of winning and projecting the frame back onto the game. It's interesting to note that I personally also confused the feeling of winning with what the game wanted me to feel was the glory of murder—when actually it is the same feeling you get when jumping on a Goomba (which I guess is still murder but wouldn't traditionally be thought of as that).
Lots of people in Hotline Miami reviews have done that. I actually dance more around the issues of violence completely in my preview here because I don't think I saw enough of the cutscenes to press the 'violence' frame on me. I wrote more about the rhythm and music back then.
In our Rock Paper Shotgun Verdict the violent style seems much more praised, as I'd played it for a long time by then. Note the contrast—and we still have very little to say about what it actually says about violence because the game's mechanics are primarily our fascination.
Note also how we all get het up and excited and confuse the rewarding mechanics for a judgement on our penchant for violence. At one point I say I love the 'purity of the knife', which is to say, that I like how the knife mechanic functions in the game, and then say that I am worried it makes me look psychotic. This is what the frame of the game narrative wants me to think.
Then later I get so excited talking about the game that I ask for camomile tea. The remaining part of the euphoria of this game is in the 80s neon art and the exceptional soundtrack. It is easy to confuse all of these for a fetish for violence, because the game constantly asks you to actively confuse your pleasure of the game for the pleasure of murder, and then a cutscene points to you and says 'THAT IS FUCKED UP'. And you don't disagree. Or...
We come back round to this: if I am worrying that it is making me look psychotic, that is a good thing right? But if I am not, perhaps I need to worry about my attitude to violence. Is that what we are saying? Are games then, just what we personally read into them? Aren't they just a mirror of ourselves? If you are a violent person, would you look at this game as a come on or a dampener? I don't know. I played GTA from age 12 and I have never been tempted to be violent towards anyone.
Aha, here we come to the big hangup when it comes to this conversation: personal responsibility. I suspect we as a community shy away from this discussion because the assumption is that we're trying to crucify each other or feel guilty about what we do—that the apex of this conversation is "should I feel bad or not" or "does this make me a potential murderer or not."
While I don't discount the value of figuring that stuff out, it's too easy to hand wave. People go "well I'm not a bad person, so as much as I might pause, I'm not going to change my opinion that these things I enjoy reflect poorly on me/say something awful about me."
There are other ways of discussing what violence means or says in a game. I put forward Liz Ryerson's own conclusions with Hotline Miami:
"Games like HLM cut to the core what of what a pretty big chunk of life in the modern world is about. People feel that they have no control over their own lives. They want to be able to exercise that control somehow, somewhere. They want some sort of release—otherwise they feel like they'll just explode. videogames have come to fit the desire for release like a glove. Games have done this so well, in fact, that they've created a significant culture of people who use playing games for the sole purpose of feeling in control over the rest of the world."
They're puzzles, as you said, which we solve. This reading makes sense to me.
As other examples, I think of how Merritt Kopas has written that the way games can lie to us about what violence is, because they only focus on the physical kind—not the structural kind of violence (sexism, racism, etc) that we cannot always perceive on a granular level.
I think of Cameron Kunzelman discussing how XCOM's usage of torture reveals that many of us have normalized the behavior, rationalized torture in our heads before the game even starts—so when the engineer spouts his lines about us losing our humanity and the way many reviewers took this to mean the game was critiquing something, it falls flat.
"I knew immediately that I was going to have to torture aliens and genetically modify my soldiers in order to play that game. The possibility for cooperation was always-already closed off, though I can't articulate why. I just knew. There is no question. The ethical question, then, is a beautiful failure. Why have the debate in game? Why pretend like there is some kind of grey area that the player is having to navigate? Is is supposed to make me ask questions?"
These are the types of discussion about violence that I want to see—screw whether or not games might make us bad people. We're too close to that discussion to really be able to say something critical, we repeat the same platitudes over and over, and I don't think we'll ever really 'solve' that issue. We never move on from it though, if we talk about violence at all.
I'm curious, though: if what we're doing doesn't matter because it's simply the frame, then why do games like Dyad—absolutely, positively not 'violent' in the traditional sense—package their games under the same language? Rowan Kaiser notes that the terms for what we do in the game are really combative: we lance things, we hook things, and so on. The game looks like you're on drugs for christsakes.
It seems to me the packaging is either important, or somehow along the way we've forgotten how to think about things outside of that framework.
I think you hit the button when you said that it is the packaging.
Our culture is obsessed with looking at games, this interactive medium, as if it were the interactive part that corrupts us, when in fact it is in a long line of media that we have worried over. When novels first appeared, they were a corrupting influence—women's brains would overheat, they said—and anyway, newspapers and journals were the only thing worth reading. And then it was movies, rock and roll music. A short time ago, rap music was the thing that was going to kill me.
Games do not exist in a vacuum. The biggest problem, as the end of Hotline Miami attests, is our predilection for, or perhaps our lack of concern over, violent media. Of any kind. Violence is so prolific in our entertainment these days that it's becoming an important question: why are we seeing so much of it? And why, such as when the Rockstar Hot Coffee debacle happened, are we more outraged by being shown an act of love in a game, than we are by someone being shot in a game—an act of hate?
We are just seeking cathartic shelter from it, a way of dulling its poison by working through it in Hotline Miami.
You can make the symptoms go away—remove violent games from supermarkets, take away rap music and gangster films. Burn copies of Puzo's The Godfather on a pyre. You can do all of those things—I mean—if it really is those that are at fault. For a violence free society—sure—burn the fucking lot. I never want to see it again if it created this mess.
But as long as there is fear, resentment, neglect and a weapon on the table, people will hurt other people. Either we take away the fear, resentment and neglect in society, or we take away the weapon.
Games are a distraction. From the horrible real world, and from where the actual discussion lies.
Video games aren't the only things to be criticized as agents of corruption you're right, they just happen to be the flavor of the era. And yes, this conversation is much larger than video games, and should be pursued in that larger stage as well. We just happen to be game journalists!
Even so, I hope that in the future we don't need a game blatantly prompting us to think, or a tragedy doing the same. Well, no. You've probably noticed how many people have posted similar sentiments recently, about the necessity to reflect.
As I said earlier, there is no use in an unanswered question ("what does the violence mean/reflect?") I hope we actually voice what it is we're thinking about.
You know, everyone keeps telling me games are a distraction. It feels important, almost, to convince each other that they are distractions. But when I'm playing, ah, I don't feel distracted at all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.