Despite the fact that many folks have been playing Minecraft since the fall of 2010, I'm counting it as a 2011 game. After all, 2011 was the year that it saw a full retail release, and it was also the year that I finally sat down and really played it.
It was also the year I fell in love with its gorgeous soundtrack.
It's something of an all-consuming game, Minecraft. More than most games I play, it's one that I fire up with the intention of a quick session and before I know it, it's three in the morning and I'm blearily building stairs up to my glass fortress of solitude, wondering where the last four hours went. In fact, before writing this I booted the game up on my laptop and wound up playing for a half-hour. I have a deadline here, Minecraft!
Minecraft doesn't use its soundtrack in a traditional manner, but then, it's not really a traditional game. Composed by a German electronic musician named Daniel Rosenfeld who goes by the handle "C418," it is a dynamically triggered series of motifs that signal the rise of the sun, or the fall of night, the proximity of dangerous monsters, or simply the game's desire to... play you some music.
Because of the ritualistic, routine-inspiring nature of Minecraft, lots of people I know listen to other things while playing it. They treat crafting-time as a time to get caught up on podcasts, or listen to new music. Not me. I listen to the soundtrack and only the soundtrack, often with headphones. The sound effects themselves are a sort of music—as I explained back in my column about "The Rhythm of Play", the The dig-dig-dig-dicrunch! dig-dig-dig-dicrunch! of Minecraft mining has a hypnotic, musical rhythm to it.
But I also love it whenever one of C418's tracks sneaks up on me. Here are three favorites:
This is one of the most melodic tracks on what is an otherwise largely ambient soundtrack; rather than an atmospheric vamp, "Subwoofer Lullaby" makes its way through a clearly defined chord progression with a neat melody on top. It's something of a Vangelis-like groove, and it breaks halfway through into wide-open ambient pads that conjure nothing so much as the the sun rising over Minecraft's stretching, cubical vistas.
By the time the trademark muted piano makes its way in, morning has most likely arrived, and it's time for another day of harvesting, building, and stockpiling.
(Side note: While C418's synths sound generally closer to the sine-wave variety (though I am not a synth aficionado), I enjoy the idea of using square-waves to make music for a game as right-angle obsessed as Minecraft. Maybe in Minecraft: Volume Beta we can get some crunchy square-wave synths?)
Another "rising sun" song, this tune rivals Grieg's "Morning" from Peer Gynt in terms of "songs that I want to wake up to." In fact: Does anyone out there play this on their alarm clock every morning? I think I'm going to start doing that.
(As I drift off, however, I will only ever listen to "Goodnight Until Tomorrow" from Final Fantasy VII.)
The piano sound C418 uses is this muted, slightly out-of-tune thing that and I can't quite tell if it's sampled or not. Regardless, its sound conjures Minecraft for me as surely as the "Pop!" of a gathered cube or the groan of a zombie. No matter how many creepers have blown up my creations, "Wet Hands" reminds me that everything will be okay. My world will always be here, and I can always build again.
This one pretty much had to be on here, and not just because it's called "Minecraft." I'm fairly sure this was the first musical track I heard in the game, and I love how it creeps up on you. Nearly silent, then almost imperceptible, growing in volume until you realize, "Hey, there is music playing."
The night is over, and a new day is beginning. And so enter the string pads, a pulsing two-chord progression building, layering, rising with the day. You're hard at work, of course—this is a game about work, about the pleasure of using your hands—but as the song grows in volume and density, you feel obligated to climb to the top of your latest superstructure and take in the sun as it pulls free of the horizon.
A new day has begun. Aah, Minecraft.
You can order the Minecraft: Volume Alpha soundtrack from C418's Bandcamp Page, and I highly recommend that you do so. It makes for remarkably soothing music for just about anything you could be doing, from studying to napping to building a to-scale replica of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
"The Best Game Music of 2011" is a multi-part series highlighting the best video game soundtracks of the year.