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2016 in Gaming: the Best Scores

“The Best Scores” is a series by Wolfman in which he explores the music of the gaming world, year by year, while highlighting thirteen tracks from thirteen games he feels have the strongest or most innovative soundtracks.

Compared to last year’s array of incredible scores, 2016’s game music was not quite as exciting. It wasn’t bad or anything; there were still quite a few superb and interesting scores from a variety of games. Punch Club got to do its own spin on Eighties synths a year after Hotline Miami 2, and Severed’s eclectic music drew from all kinds of musical traditions. While the Darkest Dungeon soundtrack played the Lovecraftian angle very well, Pony Island’s music explored a more deranged take on unknowable horror. And This Is the Police’s score boasted a grand collection of classic American standards like “This Train” and “Sweet Ginger Green.”

There were also many great uses of quieter, more ambient music. Inside used its audio for intensely creepy ends, while Firewatch added a pretty country twang for its eerie woods adventure. Disasterpeace’s Hyper Light Drifter score confidently expressed the attitude of the game’s beautiful, unknowable world. Oxenfree‘s story weaved incredible, often diegetic harmonies into a plot partially about our relationship with sound. The Last Guardian closed out the “Ico Trilogy” with contemplative aplomb. And like Breath of the Wild one year later, I Am Setsuna had a lovely, contemplative piano score. But for the most part, it didn’t hit the highs of other years. It may have just been an offshoot of the year itself being less interesting; Dark Souls III, for instance, was a very good game with fitting music, but both felt less “needed” after the more wild, distinct Bloodborne shook up the Souls series. No Man’s Sky’s soundtrack felt like it needed just a little bit of something, though I suppose that’s in keeping with the game as a whole. And some releases were mediocre but with a couple standout pieces, like Street Fighter V’s excellent M. Bison theme or some of the nicer tracks from Star Fox Zero.

However, to say there were no standouts in game music would be entirely false; the best of the year was still excellent, eclectic, and unique. If there was one thing that united many of them, it was about creating an atmosphere, as well as going past “gamey” musical traditions to explore different real-world genres in (or just taking those genres directly, in the case of This is the Police). So here are the thirteen scores I found to be the best of 2016:

The Flame and the Flood, “The Flame and the Flood” (February 24)

The dark, scary American survivalism at the heart of The Flame and the Flood needed music that pushed that as far as it could go. It’s one reason the Kickstarter getting folk and punk musician Chuck Ragan as its composer was a huge boon, as his score gives the game such a power and authenticity. The music is damn fine on its own, but songs like “River and Dale,” “Landsick,” and “Long Water” capture an atmosphere of affable yet contemplative American angst that you never really see explored in games. It’s rare to find country and especially folk in their scores beyond a few token tracks; to have a whole game use it so well is wonderful.

Stardew Valley, “Summer (Tropicala)” (February 26)

I want to regale you with a short anecdote about my time with Stardew Valley. I had just gotten through spring, slowly and steadily understanding the mechanics of farming, crop rotation, rain, gift giving, and mining. And suddenly, I realized the next day would be a new season. I excitedly went to sleep, only to be woken up by this incredible, beautiful piece (it may have actually been “Nature’s Crescendo,” another summer theme, but I’m pretty sure it was this one). “Tropicala” is more overtly energetic than the more quiet, soft tracks in Stardew, but like the rest of the score, from its themes for winter and spring to the music of its saloon and ersatz Halloween, it captures so well the experience of enjoying nature, and changes in the air that are exciting and welcoming. Like the rest of the game, the music was put together by Eric Barone as an ambitious solo project, and it all comes together for a wonderfully tight, singular experience.

Hitman, “Showstopper” (March 11)

One of the main parts of Hitman has always been a social fantasy, one in which the sociopathic, nondescript Agent 47 can find himself fitting within any social scenario that hides a sleazy, villainous target of his murderous prowess. He’s an assassin with a style and grace that’s largely untapped in the video game market. After the failure of Hitman: Absolution to explore any of this in favor of loud gunfights, the first season of the rebooted Hitman had to work overtime to get back into that mindset, and good music was part of it. The score by Niels Bye Nielsen gets at a lot of what made Jesper Kyd’s work on the original Hitman so great. It’s theatrical (if not as intense and operatic as the original) and dark, but with a bit of playfulness. Those are the two tones at the center of Hitman: the nasty, stylish game about killing the most powerful and evil people on Earth, and the goofy, silly game about killing the most powerful and evil people on Earth.

Enter the Gungeon, “Enter the Gun” (April 5)

Okay, this is more for this main theme itself than Doseone’s (still very good) score, but c’mon. “Enter the Gun” is a fun, energetic beginning to the frenetic, dungeon crawling bullet hell that is Enter the Gungeon. It’s got charm and the kind of attitude that, like the game itself, is both silly and relentlessly intense. I mean, nothing I can really say about this can tell you anything more about it than the fact that it’s a bassy, synth-powered song that repeats the lyric “enter the gun,” and that it’s the main theme song for a game called Enter the Gungeon. It is more clear and certain about what it is than any other piece of music on this list, which says a lot, considering…

DOOM, “Rip and Tear” (May 13)

DOOM 2016 makes no bones about its desire to recreate the experience of the original 1993 DOOM, and Mick Gordon’s score underlines that at every moment. It’s a modern translation of the light metal from classic DOOM, working to actively outdo it in sheer intensity. It’s deeper and darker, to the point where at times it sounds more like a mid-2000s horror-action game than a campy shooter. Some individual tracks – “BFG Division,” for instance – go on a fair bit longer than most game music, a trick that subtly pushes players into hanging on to the piece for longer before it loops back to the beginning. It, and other elements to the music, work to keep players as on edge as they are excited by audio work that actually earns the reductive term “pulse pounding,” and that makes it possibly the most appropriate score in 2016.

Overwatch, “Overture” (May 24)

More than the myriad of licensed adaptations, The Wonderful 101, or Viewtiful Joe, Overwatch is slated to be gaming’s premiere superhero saga, a bombastic adventure in a world of eccentric heroes and villains. This unabashedly cinema-inspired opening theme sets the stage for not only the friendly, positive cooperative shooter, but the larger media franchise Blizzard wants to make of it. It’s uplifting from the get-go, an early sign of how this will diverge from most of its first-person counterparts through a strong and consistent positivity. And longtime Blizzard collaborator Neal Acree’s drawing from a long canon superhero films – from modern Marvel productions to John Williams’ classic Superman: the Movie score – helps place it into a specific cultural canon that video games have tapped many times, but rarely quite this way.

Abzû, “Delphinus Delphis” (August 2)

Games like Abzû, an exploration of a gorgeous underwater land, are stories of space and sensation; they’re less about direct exploration than the joy, fear, confusion, and wonderment that exploration engenders. Because of that, the game’s score by Austin Wintory (who had previously worked with the same people on Journey and Flow) has to be ambient and quiet, but also able to jump into being fast at a moment’s notice. To create energy for the game’s more energetic parts, Abzû subtly replaces the slower music with pieces that are dynamic in speed, tone, and instrumentation – notice how the string sections pop up in its faster moments. The variety of instruments, sections, and directions of each piece work to make music that’s truly immersive, making you almost feel like you’re floating in the game’s world. Being used for the sequences in which you rush through schools of fish and titanic caverns, “Delphinus Delphis” is faster paced than much of the pieces, but no less well designed in pushing that immersiveness.

Persona 5, “Life Will Change” (September 15)

Persona 5 craves style. Its Tokyo is steeped in deranged artists, the latest fashion trends, and a gilded sheen hiding an undercurrent of abuse, cruelty, and trauma. “Life Will Change,” composed by longtime Persona and Shin Megami Tensei musician Shoji Meguro, written by Benjamin Franklin, and sung by Lyn Inaizumi, is a pop song fit for the game’s fictionalized Shibuya District. It’s used for later dungeons and final areas (with earlier parts featuring an instrumental version), a fitting and great theme for the game’s climax. Persona is filled with great lyrical tracks: its opening “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There”, battle music “Last Surprise,” and boss fight theme “Rivers in the Desert” all could’ve taken this place. But I chose “Life” because of both its place in the plot and how well it works as both piece of game music and pop song.

Virginia, “Sojouner’s Truth” (September 22)

Far more than most games, Virginia is wholeheartedly cinematic. It’s the latest nonlinear, dreamlike drama to draw extensively from Twin Peaks, along with The X-Files and thrillers about Internal Affairs or missing small town teens. But what makes it work is how much it commits to the premise that outside errant scraps of writing, there’s no dialogue – it’s not just an interactive movie, but a silent one. Its story, then, comes from actions: poking at things, unraveling the jigsaw puzzle of a plot with visual cues, and slowly befriending your mysterious FBI partner solely through her animations. It’s ambitious, and co-writer Lyndon Holland’s score, performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, rises to support it. It’s operatic and tragic when it needs to be, ambient and spooky when it needs to be, and romantic and soft when it needs to be. “Sojourner’s Truth” – named for both the roadside bar in which it plays and the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist – is the point where the Peaks sensibility is strongest through music so deeply reminiscent of the series’ Angelo Badalamenti score, but it never feels derivative. It’s just stirring, funny, and sad.

Paper Mario: Color Splash, “The Juggler” (October 7)

While Color Splash is not a great game – it’s got a number of the same problems that plagued its predecessor Sticker Star – it is so adept at expressing mood, with Prism Island awash in a light retro aesthetic. This comes across especially with its music, which bounces from genre to genre with an ear to golden oldies. One of the best examples comes in Mossrock Theatre near the end, when you get besieged by a team of Hammer Bros. with their own piano theme. Initially with the fun, crackling overlay of an old phonograph, this clearer version pops up near the end, as you battle the Bros. again in Lemmy’s Emerald Circus. Other tunes work on this level, taking classic musical genres – the disco leitmotif for the mirror ball, Sombrero Guy’s mariachi theme, the instruction manual’s ragtime remix of the main theme – and it gives Color Splash a rich texture. But it isn’t just fun; it almost seems to chart a path for the sub-series. Paper Mario has been struggling for a while, and this quirky retro route feels like a fitting and great direction.

Owlboy, “Tropos by Day” (November 1)

A decade-long passion project, Owlboy is both incredibly ambitious – it features some of the best sprite animation on the market – and shamelessly, unabashedly derivative of both The Legend of Zelda and older fantasy adventure stories, particularly those of the 1980s. Themes like “Tropos by Day” call back to a perceived quieter, kinder generation of sagas, stuff like Willow and Ladyhawke, and its music is more overtly heroic in that fashion. The grand crescendos and varied instruments give it, and by extension the game, a more epic vision and scope. For all of the nostalgia in the games industry, Owlboy feels, if not unique, at least rare in its area of focus.

Pokémon Sun & Moon, “Hau’oli City (Day)” (November 18)

I have such a love for the music of Pokémon; while its battle themes range from wonderful to somewhat less so, it has always been effective at creating music about a place, which make its picturesque locales memorable. This is probably due to Junichi Masuda, both the series’ longtime composer and one of its most senior producers. You can see it in the intense theme welcoming you to Alola (which I had initially chosen to highlight), to the creepy piece for Po Town, to the theme for Malie City, whose lovely Japanese influence is justified through subtle world-building. But I like the early theme for the first major city, Hau’oli. It’s a great example of the collaborative nature of the project, composed by Minako Adachi while featuring Takahiro Morimoto and Kanoko Matsukawa. It also brings back the much loved feature of different mixes that play during the day or night, which hadn’t been heard since Platinum in 2008. And most of all, akin to the rest of Sun & Moon in miniature, it’s inspired by traditional Hawaiian musical styles. For all that Pokémon tries to present itself as this magical new world, it has always been deeply indebted to and in love with the history, man-made and natural, of our own. The commitment to exploring that history is a big part of why Sun & Moon and their music feel so special, distinct, and energetic.

Final Fantasy XV, “A Quick Pit Stop” (November 29)

One of the neat things about Final Fantasy is how each iteration can turn on a dime, taking on entirely unique locations, time periods, cultures, and tones. Even still, the American road trip inspiration at the heart of the series’ fifteenth mainline installment had to surprise, if just a bit. Yoko Shimomura’s score isn’t as wildly far afield of the series as you might expect from that, considering how many pieces of hers in the game calls back to the series’ roots in high and modern fantasy, and even in just how varied the series’ variations of the Chocobo theme have been over thirty years. But it’s still just a bit surprising to get early rock ‘n’ roll (with just a hint of R&B and rockabilly) in a grandiose epic about a prince cast out of and trying to reclaim his birthright. It’s a sign of not just why Shimomura is so respected a composer, but also of how for all the recurring issues of the series – many of which XV suffers – why and how it can still delight and surprise.

(Previous entries in this series)