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The best video game soundtracks of 2014

A great soundtrack is a funny thing; is it better that it sit in the background and enhance the visuals, or should it be a great piece of art in its own right?

The ones I think have stood out from this year fill both roles. Combined with the experience they were made to enhance, they’re amazing, lifting the gameplay to intensely physical or emotional heights. But they stand on their own two feet as well, all making simply great pieces of music.

In choosing some stellar examples, I’ve tried to be eclectic, but it is mostly electronic music. It’s all great though, so grab some headphones or pump the speakers and enjoy.

Transistor

Transistor is a game about a jazz singer named Red who’s had her voice forcefully taken, and so partners with the titular Transistor, a sword that killed her partner and absorbed his consciousness, to take it back from those who stole it. That sounds pretty mental, but the way that story is told is beautiful. Set in a neon near-future, Transistor is a masterpiece in storytelling, dropping you into the action and explaining the backstory as the moving tale unfolds. It’s made by the team that made Bastion in 2011, which also features a great soundtrack composed by Darren Korb.

Music is central to Transistor and its plot, though not necessarily in terms of gameplay. Its centrality is more narratively important, as it is tied to Red’s past, although this is reflected in some elements of gameplay. There is a ‘Hum’ button that stops the action as Red hums the melody to the music. The combat has a feature called Turn() that sees the player freeze time and plan their attack. When you hit the Turn() button, the world freezes and becomes digitalized, as does the music, a filter dunking the soundtrack under water, and wrenching it back out as you unfreeze the world and enact your attack on The Process, the once life-enhancing computer program turned rogue.

Korb described the genre he was going for as “Old World electronic post-rock”, and really, that fits quite well. There’s a mix of guitar, organ, accordion and harp that sits obtusely with the breakbeats and scratchy synths that Korb uses to portray the gritty future. “We All Become” is the standout from the soundtrack, showcasing the smooth instrumentation, opening with bobbing synth and harp and building to a buzzsaw synth arpeggio and a breakneck beat. Its rise and fall in energy perfectly emulates the balance of the often frenetic battles of the game, and the quieter more introspective moments. The whole thing is brought together by Ashley Barrett’s vocal take; a soaring effort that proves Korb is a damn good producer. This music is a genius blend of sounds that perfectly fits its source material; a sci-fi story about a jazz singer in a city corrupted by technology gone rogue.

Far Cry 4

Cliff Martinez was once a Red Hot Chilli Pepper, but has spent most of his life as a film composer, crafting scores mostly dark or psychological in some way. Recently he’s collaborated with Nicolas Winding Refn on both Drive and Only God Forgives, and with Skrillex on the soundtrack for Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. The sparse, dark electronica from those two scores is evident in Martinez’s OST for Far Cry 4, the latest triple-A title from Ubisoft.

FC4 is set in the fictional Himalayan nation of Kyrat, and Martinez has brought his bleak ambient sounds to meet the eastern instrumentation and melodies of that part of the world. Take “Into The Fire”, music that often bubbles up during fire fights. It begins with the rhythms that Martinez is known for employing, here frantic to reflect the action. Then he drops in a sample of a Tibetan Laha that anchors the music with the physical setting. As the song continues we are brought back to Martinez’s trademark damaged synth sounds, but then underneath, and reminiscent of the synths, is the guttural drone of a throat singing monk. This sound is used throughout the game and it’s soundtrack to tie the game to the real world and to symbolise the ancient, mystic, and traditionally religious people that reside in the fantastical setting. The way Martinez blends the torn-at-the-edges synth with the traditional sounds we immediately associate with Tibet and the Himalayas grounds the soundtrack in the game, and the game in the real world.

Without those elements, the soundtrack would be a loose accompaniment to the action, and the game would float in the nether of the digital world. Instead Martinez has given meaning to the actions you perform in the game, linking them to the real world through recognisable sounds and music. His electronica does what it does in Drive, Only God Forgives, and Spring Breakers, it symbolises the tearing of the protagonists’ sense of morality and reality, the normalizing of extreme violence, and the millennial youth that is damaged this way. Without Martinez’s OST, Far Cry 4 would be another shoot-by-numbers clone; with it, it’s an astounding interactive experience.

Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U

The first Super Smash Bros. was released in 1999, and still stands as a love letter to all things Nintendo. The game featured eight characters (with an additional four unlockable ones), all hailing from the big N’s greatest franchises. Nowhere else could Mario, Link, Donkey Kong and Pikachu beat each other silly for two minutes. There have been another four games in the series since, each one increasing the character roster and the fun to be had, but the latest instalment, Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and Wii U, simply explodes with content. There are 51 characters from Nintendo’s history, stages that recall locations from various franchises, and then there’s the music.

The soundtrack for the Wii U version has hundreds of songs, some original soundtracks, others remixed versions of older tracks, and then those older tracks in their original format. This updating and blending of Nintendo’s musical history is what makes this soundtrack so special.

There’s this remixed Super Mario Medley, a remix of a trainer battle from Pokemon, and an updated version of the great oddball music from Earthbound. It’s not that the soundtrack necessarily does anything special, there’s no symbolism and no genius reference points, other than those in the original games. It’s more that this game and these remixes celebrate the source material. While the themes of a game like Earthbound are completely non-existent in a game like Super Smash Bros., the music and its ability to recall moments and experiences from the source game still makes the nostalgia trip satisfying.

Where the 2D sprite of Ness is brought into high-definition 3D, the music that once accompanied his journey is similarly polished to meet the 21st Century. Same goes for Punch Out’s Little Mac, and Duck Hunt’s laughing dog. Characters that were buried in the flat, pixelated days of Nintendo’s heritage and brought into the modern world by Smash Bros., and it stands to reason that the music should be updated too.

Especially with games, the music that accompanies the interactive experiences is often a powerful tool, heightening emotional impact or reflecting the tension of a frenetic sequence. What Smash Bros. does is remind us of those experiences and those moments while creating new ones. It’s about the reminiscing of the past for the enhancement of the present.

Hohokum

Hohokum is an art-video game designed by Honeyslug in collaboration with artist Richard Hogg, with the express purpose of being a playground to get lost in. Art-video game is a problematic title, but that’s for another article on another website.

Hohokum is a game of simple exploration and experimentation, with no score, time limit, objectives, or health bar. You explore 17 worlds as a serpentine, kite-like “Long Mover”. Your interactions with the world often link to the soundtrack with new layers of music being added as you move past and illuminate lamps, as is the case in one of the worlds. The soundtrack is composed by various artists and producers from the Ghostly International label, and thus features contributions from Tycho, Com Truise, Shigeto, and Matthew Dear, amongst others.

The Ghostly website describes it as “a fully realized exhibition of contemporary electronic sounds”, and really, I couldn’t put it better myself.

There’s this gorgeous piece from Tycho, a song that perfectly reflects the delicate world it’s tied to in the game. The whole soundtrack can be streamed here, and really, if you’re a fan of electronica, you should have a listen.

The game works as a sort of interactive art installation, but the accompanying music really ties it to the contemporary world of not only electronic music, but also video game soundtracks. With developers becoming more conscious of the power of music to enhance the emotional impact of their interactive experiences, and seeking new and experimental creators of music, video game soundtracks are getting better and better every year. There was the soundtrack to Fez in 2012, the aforementioned Bastion in 2011, and then the radio stations from the GTA series, with GTA V featuring a station curated by Flying Lotus and featuring original, unreleased music of his and others.

But what Hohokum and its soundtrack do is marry the gameplay, visuals, and music in a way that leaves you wondering which came first. The soft, flat colours of the worlds of the game perfectly reflect (or are reflected by) the unobtrusive music. There’s none of the tearing synth from FC4, this synth is round and careful, like the avatar you control. Com Truise’s track “Declination” bubbles and pops with the same level of sweetness as the art design. Like any good interactive experience, all of Hohokum’s elements work together to draw you in, and leave you knowing you’ve experienced something. But, with something like Hohokum, just what that is isn’t quite clear.

2014 was a great year for video game soundtracks. Then there’s this. The video is good for a laugh, and the song itself isn’t too bad. But it’s not where video game soundtracks are at. I think the four I’ve chosen are, hope you agree.

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