There’s a lot of games with fantastic original soundtracks out there. Whether it’s an aspirational indie adventure or a big budget blockbuster, there’s a hardworking composer trying to enhance the visuals and the gameplay on screen with music and sounds.
Sometimes that’s creating a sweeping orchestral score, digging into the vaults to unearth period instruments to evoke a particular era, or it could be some obscenely catchy chiptunes. In 2019, our top three were less about music that you’d add into a Spotify or Apple Music playlist and more about music that becomes utterly integral to what the game is and how it’s experienced.
Pitched as a playable pop album, Sayonara Wild Hearts wouldn’t exist without the twenty or so songs that form the foundation of this dreamy score-chasing odyssey. This isn’t a rhythm action game in the same vein as a Guitar Hero, Thumper, or even Necrodancer, but there’s a symbiotic relationship between Daniel Olsén’s synth-pop soundtrack, Sayonara’s evocative visuals, and the actual level designs themselves.
It’s a remarkable feat when you look back at the past work of both its composer and team of developers who have collaborated on games including Device 6 and Year Walk. Wild Hearts follows a similar thread, weaving together set pieces and specific moods with how players are actually interacting with the game.
After blitzing that first playthrough, then going back to solve every Zodiac Riddle, the soundtrack has cemented itself as one of our all-time favourites and tickled into our regular music listening habits. When you find yourself slotting Sayonara into the same playlists as CHVRCHES, HAIM, and Carly Rae Jepsen, you know you’ve got yourself a winner.
– Jim H
Death Stranding – Runner Up
Death Stranding’s original score by Ludvig Forssell perfectly captures the expansive loneliness of trekking through a wasteland. Interspersed with thumping drums and chanting choirs when battle commences, it uses both classic orchestration and electronic synths, mixing rumbling sawline bass notes with soaring strings, but it is the use of existing songs that take the score to the next level.
Other games have incorporated licensed music before, but they’ve generally been used more as background music, a rock track to play while you are racing or a dance hit in a menu.Kojima has used the songs in a more cinematic way; you have to be in a certain place, travelling in a certain direction for the song to play. A perfect example of this is when, after a thrilling battle, you crest a mountain and in the distance your destination is revealed. Low Roar kicks in as the relief of completing the mission washes over you and you stumble down the slope toward safety.
Ape Out – Runner Up
An ultra violent ape escape by way of Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s experiements in synaesthesia, Ape Out’s fantastic backing music is reminiscent of the improvisational percussion soundtrack of 2014 film Birdman.
Matt Boch’s soundtrack gives you a more defined rhythm, the tempo pushing you forward on your rampaging breakout from captivity, but it also reacts to you. It most obviously happens when you fling the armed guards at walls, a cymbal crash accompanying the point at which they turn into a gruesomely stylised splatter of blood, but it’s more than that. An AI system actually watches your play, ramping up the intensity and complexity as you face more enemies and wreak even more havoc. The mood and style changes as you move from chapter to chapter, drawing upon thousands of drum sounds and exploring different styles of jazz as it goes.
Honourable Mentions (in alphabetical order)
- Cadence of Hyrule
- Outer Wilds
To catch up on the Game of the Year awards we’ve handed out so far, here’s a handy list:
Soundtracks and musical preference are such a personal thing, so what have been some of your favourites of the year? Let us know in the comments below.