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Video games are in a very weird place in 2016. Three years since release, home consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One have yet to achieve the need-filling ubiquity of the machines that came before them, and backbone triple-A titles like Titanfall 2, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, and Watch Dogs 2 are failing to recoup expenses. Much like the film industry, gaming’s middle class is disappearing faster than ever. Technology is becoming more and more consolidated, and the idea of owning a physical device to - specifically - play video games is only going to get more niche. In a world where not even Infinity Ward can hit their quota, I wouldn’t blame anyone in the industry for fearing the worst.
But in moments like this, it’s important to remember that creativity has a way of asserting itself, no matter what the sales figures say. From long-forgotten franchise reboots, to bedroom projects, to star-studded, thoroughly marketed sequels, I’ve had a lot of fun playing video games this year. The following 10 are worth your time for many reasons, but we’re featuring them here for their particularly memorable score. If you’re not a gamer and have a negative impression on the industry as a whole, I’d hope that these soundtracks might contextualize the hobby, and prove that there’s real people with commendable passions working behind the scenes.
Doom is still one of the most influential franchises in video game history, but it’s not a secret that we’ve left some of its more ostentatious impulses - chainsaw glory kills, B-rate man-dude power fantasy, metalcore - in the late ‘90s. But this reboot, which was released in the middle of the year with absolutely no hopeful prospects about its potential quality, is incredible. The soundtrack beefs up your usual Nine Inch Nails industrial thwomp to murderous levels, and suddenly circle-strafing feels crucial again. Somehow id Software categorically refused to update their cretinous teenaged inclinations, and delivered a product that’s awesome and exonerating in the best way.
It’s a real shame Brigador was released several decades too late to be packaged in an arcade machine. You play a destructive mech in a beautiful, fully destructive 2.5D environment, and are instructed to fire rockets and crush walls until every synapse in your brain is lit up in glee. The music, obviously, has an awesome vectorized warmth - the sort of quick-release electropop that used to egg generations onto higher scores and more desperate quarter pilfering from any adult in the room. If you liked Oneohtrix Point Never’s faded, VHS pastiche, you’ll love Brigador.
You could be forgiven if you forgot about Oxenfree. It made its way onto Xbox One and PC at the very beginning of the year, and as you’ll see later on in this list, 2016 wasn’t short for uneasy synthwave ennui supernatural paranoia. But still, with its nervy teens and gripping sci-fi conspiracy, Oxenfree is probably the closest video games had to a genuine Stranger Things moment. Composer scntfc’s candied, gleefully artificial loops fit perfectly on the ancient point-and-click gameplay. When it works it feels like you’re under the covers, armed with a flashlight, holding on to the mystery for dear life.
Firewatch was a lonely game about a sad man in the Wyoming wilderness, but (thankfully) packed enough quality writing to elevate it from some pathetic Knausgaard-adjace soul-searching dirge. The core relationship in the narrative is between your lost, childless divorcee, and an unseen woman on the radio working the next hundred acres over. Composer Chris Remo dusts their interactions with just the right amount of ambient, auburn-tinted folk - the kind of stuff you’d think Aphex Twin or Stars on the Lid might make if they ever set out to make a country record. A few stray guitar plucks splattered on a vacant measure, the occasional synth rumble keeping everything in place - it’s exactly what being a million miles from anything should sound.
Thumper was deemed a “rhythm violence” game by its creators Marc Flury and Brian Gibson. That might seem like an overambitious moment of genre coinage, but then you remember that Gibson logged considerable time in the Providence-based noise wreckers Lightning Bolt. It’s basically Frequency, except traumatizing. You control an amorphous blob in an abstract hellscape, keeping tabs on a tempo for high scores. But the music featured is this frightening, angry, noise-dance roar. It’s like if Skrillex had lead poisoning, or if the Haxan Cloak decided he wasn’t laying it on thick enough. The result is a great video game, but also one of the most impressive non-album music experiences ever.
If The Legend of Zelda was gutted and restuffed with gleaming, impeccably animated pixel art and a 21st century uber-polished sense of style, you’d have something similar to Hyper Light Drifter. It’s one of those tiny, obsessive projects that exists mostly for the vibes - every inch of code fussed over to Wes Anderson levels of detail. The music reflects a woozy, Boards of Canada-esque flicker of retrofuturism - the primitive 16-bit soundchips of the Super Nintendo contorted into modern shapes and trends. It might seem outdated as hell in a few years, but right now Hyper Light Drifter is a perfect distillation of everything hip about video games.
You haven’t lived until Yuka Kitamura and Motoi Sakuraba blast you with a relentless, brain-squeezing horror-gothic opera while you’re on your last legs in an abandoned chamber deep beneath the ruins of a decrepit city. The Souls games are all about intensity. There are no tutorials, no explanations, and no pause button. Death is everywhere. When the stakes are this high, the doom in the compositions become inescapable. Unlike the other games on this list, I don’t think I’d ever listen to the Dark Souls soundtrack for fun, but that’s because these assaults are intended to be confronted with the hopelessness of a dead god, and the seeping paranoia of whatever lies beyond the next door.
Back in 2001, Grand Theft Auto started the beautiful video game tradition of the licensed soundtrack. For years, plenty of open-world video games have been iterating on that concept, the most famous probably being Grand Theft Auto V with its custom playlist from real-life stars like Flying Lotus, but you have to give it up for Watch Dogs 2, which not only wrangled Hudson Mohawke into composing the official soundtrack, but also gives him his own in-universe radio station. It’s a perfect marketing strategy, and an obvious pairing given the Ritalin-popping scoundrels at the heart of the narrative.
The Banner Saga 2 looks like a Disney movie. Not in the Pirates of the Carribean sense, or even the Moana sense. It seriously looks like Snow White or Pinocchio. All the characters hand drawn by the three-man team at development company Stoic, and the fidelity is off the charts. It’s funny, because as much as The Banner Saga 2 evokes the golden age of children’s animation, it’s also a sober story of hulking horned vikings in a brutal, unfriendly world. If David Hand was mad at the world by the mid-’30s, maybe he’d make something like this. The music is mostly composed of soft, pallid horns borrowing heavily from frosty Northern Europe, but with a slight Tolkien touch to remind us the world isn’t our own.
In Furi you control a vengeful, futuristic samurai slicing through a league of overpowered bosses on you way to free a fallen planet (or something like that.) It’s essentially a love letter to the hyper-violent cyberpunk anime that the creators grew up on - and the soundtrack borrows from synthwave auteurs like The Toxic Avenger, Waveshaper, and Lorn to build the perfect twilight, tech-eroded, dystopias we all kinda wish we lived in.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from California currently living in (sigh) Brooklyn. He writes about music, politics, video games, pro wrestling, and whatever else interests him.