Above: Header illustration by Gavin Spence
Welcome to the Waypoint High School Class of 2016 Yearbook. We're giving out senior superlatives to our favorite games, digging into the year's biggest stories via extracurriculars, and following our favorite characters through their adventures together in fanfic. See you in 2017!
At the start of 2016 I wrote a "heck it's January I need some #content" piece looking at five cool video game soundtracks that you can enjoy regardless of whether or not you've played the game they're attached to.
Brilliantly, people seemed to like it. Several readers shared their own favorite gaming soundtracks with me as a result (thanks!). And because sharing good things is just lovely at any time of year, but especially at the end of a particular harsh one, I thought I'd follow that article up with another, focusing on some of this year's best game music.
January's piece was partially sparked by playing through Oxenfree (listen on Spotify)—Night Schools' creepy point-and-clicker featured some genuinely chilling music from scntfc, aka Seattle's Andrew Rohrmann. I've played the album several times across 2016, and certain parts of it still hit me today with a discomforting queasiness: squeals and drones drift in and out of focus atop crisp folktronica beats of no little beauty, while woozy chimes stagger about in a fog of radio static.
Above: Virginia's music trailer
Similarly striking, albeit with a more orchestral slant, is the music of Variable State's divisively cinematic Virginia (not on Spotify, sorry), composed by Brit Lyndon Holland and played by the City of Prague Philharmonic.
While critically divisive, I personally enjoyed Virginia, accepting its sleeve-worn influences—Twin Peaks, The X-Files—both in terms of its storyline and musical cues, evocative as they are of Angelo Badalamenti's score for Dale Cooper's misadventures of the early 1990s. Listen to the track "Roadhouse" and you'll hear precisely what I'm saying. And the David Lynch connection goes deeper, still: the Prague Philharmonic also performed the scores for the director's Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway movies.
Sticking to strings, Austin Wintory's score for Abzû (listen on Spotify) is every second as enchanting and ethereal as his music for Journey. Which is to say: it's familiar, for anyone who played through thatgamecompany's wonderful wordless storybook, but far from a straight repetition of the swells and calms that earned that work a Grammy Award nomination. It exquisitely complements the stress-free play of Giant Squid's first game, a stylized diving simulator with arcade-like simplicity and no game-over situations. Much like Journey, playing through Abzû has the feeling of an album coming to life before your eyes, the visuals and sounds perfectly symbiotic.
Related, on Waypoint: Make sure to check out the rest of today's senior superlatives. Including most likely to be caught
Beautiful too, but more subdued, is Alkis Livathinos's music for the color-matching platform-puzzler Hue (listen on Spotify). Fiddlesticks' game has rather gone under the radar in 2016 (it's right up there with my favorite indie releases), but its music—featuring a wealth of introspective solo piano pieces—is captivating from first exposure. It's evocative of those arresting-yet-delicate passages from the Valiant Hearts soundtrack.
Above: Hyper Light Drifter's release trailer (showcasing some of Disasterpeace's music)
Another 2016 soundtrack from the mad-for-sadness section is Disasterpeace's Hyper Light Drifter (listen on Spotify), which while possessing flourishes of action-backing bombast, is for the longest time a yearning, aching listen. Its synths hold back tears as its sizzles-in-the-rain sweeps and fizzy, flickering beats forever fail to break out of a morose funk. Sounds like a downer, but there's such beauty here, amid the convincing conveyance of a decayed pixel world, that Hyper Light's score has been a work-time regular for me across the year.
As has 65daysofstatic's score for Hello Games' No Man's Sky (listen on Spotify). I wrote a pretty hefty feature on this soundtrack back in early 2015, when we still thought NMS would be out that calendar year, so I'll save the words here. (Well, two features, actually.) In short: it's 65days being 65days, as great as ever, but in space. Urgent, meditative, pensive, propulsive—pretty perfect for the game in question, really.
Even more evocative of movement—rapid, incessant, unstoppable progress—is Brian Gibson's Thumper score (listen on Spotify). Drool's expressway-through-Hell rhythm-violence game is a sensory assault, simple of premise—press buttons in time with on-screen prompts—but devilishly tricky to perfect. And Gibson's music relentlessly slashes at your skull while the silver beetle before you ricochets its way to triumph or, more likely, destruction.
While the output of his cult band Lightning Bolt frequently bludgeons like a blunt instrument, in solo mode here, Gibson takes a razor-sharp tact, with drums and bass frequencies used as weapons. It reminds me of when I first heard LA foursome HEALTH. That band is all rhythm, all the time; and Thumper, aptly for its name perhaps, massacres any mellifluous melodies with percussion that pounds like jackhammers at the temples.
Above: Mick Gordon, "Rip & Tear", from the 'DOOM' OST
A more traditionally "metal" listen, Mick Gordon's DOOM (listen on Spotify) score won itself "Best Music" at the 2016 Game Awards. It wouldn't have been my choice: for all of its raw power, I find it a little one-note. But there's no doubting its expertly calculated savagery, industrial guitar riffs rippling through tracks titled "Rip & Tear" and "Flesh & Metal" with all the (purposely absent) subtlety of the game itself.
I love a good guitar howl—you'll often catch me sporting shirts for bands from The Blood Brothers to Botch via The Twilight Sad and Deafheaven—but for the most part, my preferred listen-at-home (or while working, as has often been the case) gaming soundtracks have predominantly been electronic affairs.
Above: Hudson Mohawke, "Play N Go", from 'DedSec' ('Watch Dogs 2' OST)
Ubisoft's Watch Dogs 2 took a whole bunch of players by surprise on account of being roughly eighteen times better than its depressing predecessor. And one of its brightest elements was its bubbling, bewitching original score, titled DedSec in album form (listen on Spotify), written by Scottish musician Hudson Mohawke.
HudMo being great is nothing new—I used to play his "Overnight" in DJ sets years ago (still a banger)—but he's since worked with Kanye West and A$AP Rocky, so Ubisoft's signing him to produce their score represents Quite The Big Deal. DedSec is terrific, a HudMo LP "proper" in all but background, dizzy drops and zesty snares circling the crackling, cantankerous electronica that he's established his reputation on.
Above: Lorn, "Set Me Free", from the 'Furi' OST
And finally, while I never quite clicked with the game itself, the music of The Game Bakers' boss-rushing Furi (listen on Spotify) might be my absolute favorite soundtrack of 2016. The small French studio pulled in a raft of celebrated electronic artists, from Lorn to Carpenter Brut via The Toxic Avenger, to create a collection that feels like a contemporary video game parallel to Super Discount, if your memory stretches back that far: terrific artists with outstanding cuts, compiled in the same excellent place. Yes, please, we'll have some of that—and seconds, too, if possible.
Related, on Waypoint: Why 'Furi' Is the First Essential PlayStation Plus Game Since 'Rocket League'
Brimming with adrenalized drama, Furi's soundtrack rolls from Lorn's microbeats of "Set Me Free", itchy with mischief, to The Toxic Avenger's "My Only Chance"—which could be Daft Punk's contribution to the last dancefloor at the end of the world—without simply breaking a sweat, but wringing itself into a husk. It has nothing more to give come the titanic crescendo of Danger's "19.07", which immediately, unexpectedly, breaks to a fast-fading dial tone. Game over, man. Reach for repeat.
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