It's my pleasure to share with you my top five video game scores of 2012. It wasn't easy, but these things usually aren't. I surprised myself by finding that games developed in independent studios took up three of the five spots.
Tune in to The Current Presents this Sunday, January 6 at 9 p.m. to hear more about these scores. Interviews with each composer can be heard on Top Score, a podcast from Classical MPR you can find on iTunes and on Classical MPR's site.
Mass Effect 3 (BioWare / Electronic Arts)
A game like BioWare's Mass Effect 3 is pretty long. It's a commitment Mass Effect fans are all too eager to make, spending dozens of hours completing the story. Big games like this often have more than one composer. In ME 3's case, there are at least five. The Mass Effect aural experience simulates the Blade Runner aural soundscape (courtesy of Vangelis) quite deliberately, so expect lots of synths everywhere. I chose three tracks from Mass Effect 3; Sascha Dikiciyan and Cris Velasco's "The Scientists", Sam Hulick's "An End Once and For All" and Christopher Lennertz's "A Future for the Krogan". Each composer in the Mass Effect universe has the tricky job of blending in with that very universe, and I think the ME 3 soundtrack is a brilliant example of how composers can retain an identity in such circumstances.
Dear Esther (thechineseroom)
What to say about Dear Esther? The game challenged just as many gamers and their opinions on gaming as did another indie game that made my list. You'll hear composer Jessica Curry explain the beginnings of the game, and how the creative team wanted to turn gaming on its head. Jessica used a string quartet, voice, piano and electronics to create an incredibly linear score for Dear Esther. That linear quality makes it a decisively enjoyable listen both in and out of the game. For Dear Esther, we'll hear "Dear Esther", "Golden Ratio" and "This Godforsaken Aerial".
Papo & Yo (Minority / Sony Computer Entertainment)
The founder of Minority Media, Vander Caballero, grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father. So he made a video game about it. Often, when I mention that fact to people, they look almost disgusted, until they hear more about it. Here's the important thing: Papo & Yo was an emotional ride with an absolutely amazing soundtrack. Composer Brian D'Oliveira performs almost every instrument heard on the album, heavily influenced by his Venezuelan roots. From Papo & Yo, "Lost Hope", "A Slow Realization" and "Liberation (La Muerte de Papo)". Name an instrument from South America or Africa and it's quite possibly on this record.
Journey (thatgamecompany / Sony Computer Entertainment)
Why give instructions to someone if we already know what to do? When Journey came out in March and gamers like me downloaded it from the PlayStation Store and started to play, we just knew what to do. Innovative designer Jenova Chen created an experience in gaming that threw out all expectations. There are virtually no instructions as to where to go, what to climb, what to explore - you just... well... you go on a journey. And as players travel through the game, with or without an anonymous online traveling companion, players just figure it out. My friend, Sam, who excels at Super Mario Bros. but can't figure which end is up on a PlayStation controller, completed the entire game in front of my eyes with no assistance from me. Games for non-gamers that gamers also love! w00t! Composer Austin Wintory had an unusually long time to work on the score (3 years), but it paid off. Journey's Original Soundtrack (OST) earns a place in history as the very first video game OST to get a Grammy nomination, and I do adore Austin's score. Tracks included are "Nascence", "Road of Trials" and "I Was Born for This". Heavily orchestral but with a smart blend of electronics.
Darksiders II (Vigil Games / THQ)
Favorite OST of the year. Hands down. I love, love, LOVE this soundtrack. Jesper Kyd (YES-per kid) is delightfully genius at mixing organic sounds, like stringed instruments or voice, with any number of vintage synthesizers he keeps around his studio (like the CS-80, Prophet 10 or Mono/Poly Korg). Developer Vigil Games pretty much wanted Jesper to write what Jesper wanted to write. I should send them a thank you card. Tracks include "The Maker's Theme", "Into Eternity" and "Crystal Spire".
Honorable Mentions for Best Video Game Scores of 2012
Call of Duty: Black Ops II (Treyarch / Activision) - composer Jack Wall. Hear "Flying Squirrels" and "Rare Earth Elements".
The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow / Sony Computer Entertainment) - composer Joel Corelitz wrote a lovely, neoclassical score for this indie hit. Listen to any of it.
Skylanders: Giants (Toys for Bob / Activision) - composer Lorne Balfe might conjure images of Assassin's Creed III, another score he wrote this year, but there's something special about the sonic environment of Skylanders: Giants. Hear "Glacier Gully" and "Cutthroat Carnival".