Music. It’s one of the most universal forms of expression that exists. As a former student of music theory and composition I tend to pay special attention to the music in a video game, and I’ll bet that I’m not the only one. 2012 was a strange year for gamers. We got a lot of unfinished games, were treated to some truly revelatory bits of news, and Kinect games still didn’t work. Although, I suppose that last bit isn’t really all that strange, is it? The music we were treated to this year was far from mediocre. In fact, the last couple of years have been great years for music in games, and 2012 continued the trend of offering up some epic, awe-inspiring, and genuinely moving soundtracks. Here are my picks for the Top Ten Video Game Soundtracks of 2012.
You wouldn’t necessarily notice the music of Torchlight II. It is rather unassuming, but that’s just because its overriding concern is with the creation of ambiance and atmosphere. It’s one of the more difficult soundtracks on this list to pin down because so much of the actual music has a subdued sentimentality that somehow manages to be cerebral in nature. You feel cold when listening to this soundtrack; an uncomfortable distance exists between you and it. And that, well, that’s just brilliant. It plays host to one of the best opening themes of any game to come out this year, a dark, brooding, almost satanic sounding, whirlwind of strings. The rest of the soundtrack is made up of pieces that use synthesized echo-like reverberations punctuated by the occasional guitar or string instrument. It all sounds very much like dungeon crawling should.
Vincent Diamante, Michiru Yamane, Brenton Kossak, Blaine McGurty
Fighting game soundtracks usually don’t fair too well on lists like this one. But this year there was a wealth of good music to choose from in the fighting genre. Tekken Tag Tournament 2 had some great electronic/techno infused tracks, and Soul Calibur V came really close to making this list. At the end of the day, though, the music in those games isn’t as special as what we are given with the soundtrack to Skullgirls. Here we have a modern fighting game soundtrack that takes much of its influence from SNES fighting game soundtracks of the early 1990s. Now, imagine all of that electronic ear-candy combined with jazz influences and you’ve got Skullgirls. It’s one of the most unique soundtracks of 2012. It plays to everything we love about Street Fighter II’s soundtrack while managing to inject a large amount of its own personality into the musical formula. It’s quite simply a pleasure to listen to.
At first, I was reluctant to include Halo 4 on this list. In fact, it didn’t even make it the first couple pass throughs I made of the preliminary list of nominees. I wasn’t sure that it could stand on its own outside of the context of it being the soundtrack to a Halo game. Fact of the matter is that Halo 4—along with Halo 3 ODST—offers some of the most unique and accessible music from the franchise. The soundtrack itself is laced with electronic poison. It’s an almost industrial-sounding techno at times. But, for every bombastic explosion of synthesizers there is a tender and more intimate moment of genuineness. Beautifully tragic strings and piano melodies sneak themselves into all the action, leading to some truly touching stuff. If you haven’t already, you should be listening to Neil Davidge’s soundtrack to one of the best games of 2012.
Far Cry 3
The soundtrack to Far Cry 3 isn’t afraid to get its hands dirty. This is going to sound weird—and I swear I mean this as a compliment—but the whole thing sounds like drugs. Drugs play a role in Far Cry 3, and the music brings to life perfectly the seedy and insidious environments that often surround them. Far Cry 3’s soundtrack is violent, it’s harsh on the ears, and it is completely unapologetic about both. It makes you want to stop listening to it, yet it demands your attention. At times, the soundtrack takes inspiration from some of the pop and rock music of recent years, but even then it retains a specific identity. Everything is coated in a layer of electronics, synthesized sounds pounding away relentlessly in the baseline, driving themselves deeper and deeper into madness. It’s mesmerizing in the most grotesque ways possible, and I love every moment of it.
Ultimately, choosing to put Ben Prunty’s FTL on this list meant that I couldn’t include the excellent soundtrack to Fez. That fact alone should tell you something about how special the soundtrack to FTL is. Completely electronic, the soundtrack fits perfectly into the space setting of the actual game. Certainly, an electronic space-inspired soundtrack isn’t something we haven’t heard before; but, Ben Prunty begs to differ. And, boy, am I ever glad he does. The soundtrack to FTL is, in many ways, minimalist—a good choice for a soundtrack to a game set in space. It is, by far, the most charming soundtrack I’ve listened to in 2012. The melodies are simple, but their simplicity belies only the complex forces at work in determining how FTL fits into a musical space. You see, FTL is one of the many little-games-that-could of 2012, and its soundtrack is associated with that connotation. But, there is absolutely nothing small or unassuming about FTL’s soundtrack. The musical space it occupies is very big, arguably bigger than the game itself. It’s awe-inspiring, contemplative, and gentle and it has more than earned its place on this list.
Gravity Rush is the most eclectic soundtrack on this list as far as the variety in the kinds or types of music you will encounter when listening to it. Classically inspired pieces that sound like a Gershwin orchestration? Check. Electric guitar, JRPG pieces? Check. Soft, inviting piano solos? Check. But none of it sounds like it doesn’t belong, and that’s what is so impressive. All of the music is very mature about the way it presents itself to you. None of it comes off as sounding like a mishmash of genres or subgenres, and considering the variety I spoke of earlier, that’s quite the accomplishment. Even more impressive is that, despite the variety, there is a distinct musical voice that Tanaka lends that tie all of the pieces together. The man clearly knows what he is doing and I stand in admiration of his musical range.
Dust: An Elysian Tail
If I were to show you still images of gameplay from Dust: An Elysian Tail, you would probably get the impression that the game was something of a child’s plaything. You, of course, would be absolutely, unequivocally, wrong. I’m not going to go into the story behind the development of the game itself, but if you haven’t already you should definitely do some research. It’s an inspiring story. Dust: An Elysian Tail is anything but a child’s plaything. It deals with such complex themes as genocide and mental illness becomes an important part of the story along the way. You’ll believe me when I say, then, that the soundtrack is equally as surprising in its emotional depth. It’s a powerful soundtrack in every sense of the word. Some tracks contain march-like beats that herald the coming of war, others are large and sweeping in scope, and yet others aspire to and achieve a level of majesty that few other soundtracks can lay claim to. If the guys at Hyperduck Soundworks keep this up, they will become some of the most sought-after composers in the video game industry.
Guild Wars 2
Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Skyrim, and every Guild Wars game ever made… oh, and both Supreme Commander games, and a few other lesser-known yet equally as amazeballs scores… all of them, every single one of them composed by the infallible Jeremy Soule. As far as I’m concerned, Mr. Soule long ago established his place among the Gods in the Pantheon of Video Game Composers, but for any who still doubt him and his talent Guild Wars 2 stands as an excellent example of his musical prowess. More than any other composer on this list, his command and understanding of the instruments he composes for is astounding and something of a rarity among those who compose music for video games today. The score to Guild Wars 2 itself is a journey no less equal with the scores of other epic fantasy of our time. It more than rivals the audio production and sound editing you find in films of today. Brass fanfares, bouncy pizzicato strings, tavern music, and pieces that so intuitively capture the beauty of the landscapes in the actual game, all combine to make for one of the most exhilarating listening experiences of 2012.
Austin Wintory has been showered with praise for his emotive soundtrack to Journey, and for good reason. Listening to this soundtrack isn’t so much something you do as it is an experience. More than any other soundtrack of 2012, it has an ability to elicit a strong emotional response from listeners. It will make you cry. It made me cry, and I have warm hands-cold heart going on over here. It immediately wraps itself around you, and believe me when I say that there is an ironic sense of security in the music, ironic because of the music’s vulnerability, because of the very real sense of vulnerability you feel when you listen to it. You open up to it, and in some ways, it gets to know you… it’s there, and then it’s gone. If you haven’t, you need to listen to this. It’s the most powerful listening experience you are likely to have in a very long time.
The Unfinished Swan
With the soundtrack to The Unfinished Swan, Joel Corelitz has created something that transcends the definition of video game music. This isn’t video game music, certainly not in the traditional sense. This is a living, breathing piece of art. A combination of electronic beeps and boops and a string quartet, the soundtrack to The Unfinished Swan presents itself as an immediately interesting prospect musically. It sounds simply sublime, everything about it is right. The emotional range of the score is impressive, as is its musical range. Happiness, sadness, awe, guilt, hope, all of these emotions are present. It is a soundtrack to life and the infinite, never-ending process of discovery that we go through every day. But, the most impressive thing about this music is that it occupies the spaces in-between. It finds and fills the emotional gaps that exist in our lives, all the while being unabashedly positive about the prospect of tomorrow, about that continued process of discovery I mentioned earlier. It’s everything that is beautiful about life and I couldn’t imagine anything else occupying this No. 1 spot. My hat is off to Joel Corelitz, and I thank him for sharing this absolutely inspiring and beautiful experience with all of us.
Article by Jon Hamlin--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Jon Hamlin is a freelance game journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He plays too much Mass Effect 3 multiplayer and enjoys a good glass of wine. Occasionally, he can be found commanding his legion of doom on Xbox Live as GeniusPantsPhD. Follow him on Twitter @WordsmithJon, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Articles by Jon.