Surreal stages, events, or gameplay that somehow just don't fit have always been present, and even expected. Their crazy graphics, weird aesthetics and ideas make sure that we have absolutely no idea what's going on. But they have their charm, they are funny, or they're simply part of the experience—and so we love them.
When it comes to deciding what game gets my attention and why, I am absolutely ruthless. I don't care how much better it's going to get, I don't care that it's actually an amazing game and I just have to give it a chance. No. If you mess up in the first hour of a game, I'm done.
I call these missteps 'deal breakers,' in reference to when there is something you can't overlook in dating—something that outweighs all other redeeming qualities.
Deal breakers don't have to happen in the first hour, of course—most of them do for me because once you've already invested hours into a game you might feel obligated to finish what you started. There's almost this expectation, right? That you can't talk about a game unless you've played it from start to finish, even if we're not talking about a review or anything.
This expectation/guilt is what drove me to finish Max Payne 3, even though I think I outright dropped the controller when Max said that even he has no freaking clue what's going on in the game anymore.
Early on though, there's no remorse. It's quick and painless to drop a game.
Recently I tried picking up Planetside 2. I liked MAG; I'm excited by the idea of large-scale warfare. I figured that Planetside 2 would be a good idea to try out, since it's an MMOFPS that promises "epic, massive combat" in battles that might last "days or weeks." Alright, cool. That sounds like a great premise! Count me in!
So I boot up the game, I pick my faction, and I'm dropped into a match. I see players all around me, they're running someplace else. I look at my map. I don't know where to go or what to do, really.
Early on, there's no remorse. It's quick and painless to drop a game.
But I figure the best thing to do is to just follow other folks—I mean, this is a shooter, right? How complicated can the objective be? I'm probably supposed to go somewhere, capture a point or something like that. Simple stuff. All else fails, I know that left click shoots.
I play for twenty minutes, following people, going off on my own, scaling buildings to get a better view of what's happening. I die a few times. At best I understand there's an area where I'm supposed to be, but I have no idea what to DO there. So I stopped playing.
Could've looked it up. Could have asked people. ...Could play a game that just gets it right instead of rewarding shoddy introductory levels where nothing is explained. I'm not even sorry; again, no remorse—there are games that get it right and those are the ones I'm going to spend time with.
Then we have games that treat me like an absolute idiot and overexplain everything—the tutorial never effing ends. I hate those too, and have been known to stop playing a game if it becomes too grating. But at least these set ups make it so that I actually know what the heck is going on!
Planetside 2's approach, where little is explained, CAN work. The most sophisticated introduction to a game is the one where nothing is explicitly said, and instead everything is communicated through design alone. In this, Super Mario Bros is famous: there's a goomba coming, and you only have a few seconds to figure out how to jump. In jumping, you're likely to find out about mushrooms—the breakdown of that level and its design genius is a fascinating read.
Worse than both the under-explained and the over-explained start to a game is the boring start to a game. A game that starts too slow, takes too much of its time, assumes that you will be into it merely because it exists.
These games probably won't grip you with an in medias res start, which is kind of like a running start in the middle of the action, as in Uncharted 2. They won't even give you an interesting premise to go off from, as in The Walking Dead's opening scene where you're in the back of a cop car. No. You will suffer through the boring and you will like it.
Unfortunately, as much as I adore Persona 4, I wouldn't blame anyone for dropping it because of its 4-hour throat-clearing. The game doesn't give you enough in the start to truly appreciate the sleepy town of Inaba, and if it weren't for the strength of Persona 3, I'd likely not have put up with Persona 4—which reveals that yes, deal breakers have some wiggle room.
Video games are pretty eager to blame players for killing when designers are the ones that turn on slow motion every time I score a head shot.
I think it would be pretty cool to have a game about how cruel oppressive systems survive by pushing their problems onto individuals.
If 2013 continues this trend, there's gonna be a lot of unfinished video games in my library.
But ultimately, the reason that so many of my deal breakers happen at the start of the game is that it's the most important segment of the game. It sets the mood, the tone, the pacing—everything, really. If my introduction to something goes awry, what is to say the rest of the game is redeeming? I shouldn't have to stick around to find out.
Do you have any game deal breakers—stuff that makes you drop a controller and go, nuh uh, this ain't happening? Share below!
This video from The Creators Project shows the band talking about the process of scoring the game, focusing on the stadium level (maybe my favorite music in the game) and that climactic late-game moment when the vocals kick in.
They've also shared some of the musical "stems" they used over at the Creators Project blog. You can listen to those below, and check out the various ways the band would layer sounds to make the music more or less intense. If you've played that stadium level as many times as I have, this stuff will be very familiar. HEALTH's John Famiglietti points out that numbers 2 and 4 are dominant stems, so they won't mix.
Nifty. Makes me want to go crack wise and dodge some sniper-fire.
I can't tell you how many hours I've lost in Max Payne 3 doing exactly what YouTube user birgirpall is doing here. Poor Max. There he was, brooding and going on about not saving the girl and what is my butt doing? Trying to do 'trick shots' with his body. Can I clear this gap? Can he fit through here? What happens if I bullet time off this ledge? Oh my god, why is fire a one hit kill?
Whoops, I got stuck in this place I wasn't supposed to go. Let's see where else I'm not supposed to go! Dead, dead, dead. Geeze Max, you're no fun.
But sometimes it wasn't even a choice. There were some parts where I knew I had to move forward, but I couldn't find the way up. And apparently Max dearest can't jump or climb a freaking step, so I ended up dramatically lunging over the smallest of inclines.
It's stair climbing, Max Payne style. You wouldn't get it because you don't know how screwed up the world is.
Nothing nearly as bizarre as how birgirpall manages to make Max go flying after colliding with a scared partyer though. Woah.
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.