What music will ring out during your next adventure? What soaring melodies, what elephantine beats, what shocked silence? With each new video game comes a new aural accompaniment, a new collection of custom-made compositions. And so we press the buttons, push the sticks, and lose ourselves once more in the rhythm of play.
2013 was a very good year for video game music. It was just about on par with 2012, though possessed of its own identity and perhaps lacking some of that year's variety. I may not have been regularly running Kotaku Melodic this year, but I still kept my eyes and ears open.
Below, find my ten picks for the best video game music of 2013. A couple of caveats: This list is intended for original scores and compositions, so unfortunately both GTA V couldn't lean on its outstanding playlist. Same goes for Assassin's Creed IV, which still really deserves a mention up top for those great sea shanties. (Except for you, "Do me Johnny Boker." You can go away.)
We couldn't include every game with great music, of course. I hope you'll weigh in with your own favorites in the comments below.
Everyone ready? Put your headphones on, turn up the music, and enjoy:
I may have had my share of grumbles about the game as a whole, but BioShock Infinite's soundtrack was never less than a thrill. What other game this year covered such a wide range, from spiritual hymns to Beach Boys a cappella to maddening, thrumming combat music? Composer Gary Schyman outdid his work on previous BioShock games, weaving together a series of disparate elements that musically united the many eras and faces of Columbia.
Composer Erik Suhrke's work on Vlambeer's smartphone sensation Ridiculous Fishing was as distinctive as the game's boxy art-style and charming, surprisingly rich world. Not only did the soundtrack provide a jaunty, surprisingly open-faced synth alternative to the muddier chiptunes that accompany many other smartphone games, Suhrke pulled off a slick trick by playing one track while the fisherman's hook descended, and then reversing the music for the return trip. My favorite track is probably "Arctic Floes," which was nice enough on the way down (listen above) became something else entirely on the return trip:
The music for the fantastic A Link Between Worlds was largely crafted by remixing and re-arranging compositions from its predecessor, A Link to the Past. But Ryo Nagamatsu's work on the new soundtrack goes far beyond mere tribute; he provided his own well of inspiration, spinning Koji Kondo's original themes off in fascinating new directions. Take the Lorule Overworld theme above, which I seriously cannot stop listening to... a remix of LTTP's dark world theme but with so much more chutzpah. Other highlights include the hiccuping Rovio's shop theme, the shimmering, goofy Mother Maiami theme and the discordant Swamp Palace theme. This is one 3DS game I never play without headphones.
It's not everyday that a composer like Studio Ghibli's Joe Hisaishi decides to score a video game, but we can be thankful he finally did. Sweeping pieces like the world-map music above greatly helped Ni No Kuni feel epic and special, the rare sort of massive, magical game that we so rarely get to play anymore. I didn't love everything about Hisaishi's score—notably the battle music—but the stuff I liked I really liked.
Many things about Fire Emblem: Awakening will stick with me, few more than the music. While its battle anthems were stirring—the "get ready to fight" music was some of the best around—but it was the more pastoral, laconic themes that really got to me. In particular the main accordion theme, first introduced in the track above and laced into the rest of Rei Kendoh's score, which reached its logical conclusion during that ending I loved so much. I generally dug the game's musical milieu, how it would weave loud and quiet tracks together as the battle-camera swooped in and out, musically conjuring a shifting, exciting battlefield drama.
I've always had a soft spot for Phoenix Wright music (once even going so far as to record my own instrumental take on Maya Fey's theme), and it was a thrill to hear some of the series' most iconic themes dialed up with better instrument samples and some killing drum performances. As much as I liked the new version of Phoenix's main "Objection" theme, a couple of other tracks were the ones that sealed the deal for me: Both Noriyuki Iwadare's "Core" (above) and "Synaptic Resonance," specifically. That bassline in Core kills me every time (listen on headphones). Synaptic Resonance matched with its accompanying gameplay sequences perfectly—the climactic moments when Athena, Apollo or Phoenix would retreat into their mind to flip the case on its head were some of my favorite bits in the game.
No other game this year sounded quite like Tearaway. Co-composed by Brian D'Oliveira and Kenneth Young, the Tearaway score brought an endearingly sloppy, rich palette of acoustic and folk instruments together with some exceptionally creative post-processing and audio effects to create an aural pastiche that was often mystical in a folk-y kind of way. It's jarring to hear out-of-tune instruments in a video game; we've become so accustomed to pitch-perfect digital performances that any hint of humanity is startling. I'd like to be startled like this more often. As if driven by the music around them, Tearaway's levels shuck and jive, blooming as strangely tuned instruments collide with one another in the most wonderful ways. What other game provided a track as strange and beautiful as "The Traveler?" Only Tearaway.
Device 6 was easily one of my favorite games of the year, in no small part thanks to the mysterious atmosphere its soundtrack conjured. Daniel Olsén's musical score was a big part of that, as was the game's superlative sound design. It was a largely text-based game, but as I'd read about the protagonist Anna walking from place to place, footsteps would accompany her, along with all manner of environmental sound effects.
My favorite musical moment in the game came when she happened upon a strange performance of Jonathan Eng's "Anna," a song he wrote for the game that wound up stuck in my head for ages afterward. What was so excellent about that scene was how the song would keep playing as you read backward and forward in the text, and as Anna "moved" toward and away from the theater, the recording would grow more and more muted and distant, eventually only faintly sounding through the walls of the building. It was also fun to watch the audio roll next to the text, which clinically outlined the lyrics, song form and audio signal in a way just creepy enough to remind you: This isn't an ordinary musical performance, and something is wrong here.
Kazumi Totaka's soundtrack for Animal Crossing: New Leaf served a different function from the majority of soundtracks on this list. It wasn't meant to rouse us to battle or accompany a tear-jerking cinematic moment—it was simply meant to hang out with us, a comforting, sparse presence filling in the gaps as we went about the business of life in our towns. A different tune plays each hour, allowing the various compositions (like the 7PM composition above) to conjure in players a different mindset. Outside of YouTube, I've never listened to that tune when it wasn't actually 7PM outside, which has created an odd, specific sort of bond between me and the music. In addition to the lovely background stuff, New Leaf featured a number of terrific collectible compositions from in-game composer K.K. Slider, and the well-arranged household could reveal many musical secrets.
I don't know what I have left to say about Gustavo Santolalla's work on The Last of Us - it was a distinctly personal, often deeply affecting score. The soundtrack was effective not only because Santolalla wrote such beautiful music, but because it was implemented so effectively in the game itself. For all the beautiful plucked melodies and evocative orchestral flourishes, The Last of Us was just as comfortable summoning dread and darkness, letting the space between drones and drum beats linger, letting you sweat in silence, girding yourself for whatever trial was next. The Last of Us soundtrack was easily one of my favorite of all time.
So there we have it. Of course, music is one of the most subjective things around—no two people's favorite tunes are exactly the same. I'm sure that most of you had your own favorite video game music this year, and I'm sure this list is missing plenty of great tracks. I hope you'll take the time in the comments below to share your own favorite video game music of the year (with embeded music!), either in list form or with individual tracks.
2013 was a particularly fine-sounding year for games; here's hoping 2014 matches it.