At one point, I was incredibly behind in the world of video games. I had spent time away due to college life and budgetary reasons. But then, when my financial situation stabilized, I upgraded my laptop situation and with the help of many Steam Sales, I began to close the gap of time lost.
I finally played Doom 3 and Fallout 3 and the Arkham series and other big budget games I had missed out on during their releases. The older games I wanted to play were cheaper and that meant they were the games I was tackling first. No surprise.
It was a surprise, however, that I started trying out indie games. I had moved away from video games around 2006 and missed out on the rise of this world. If Braid was the unofficial beginning of this bright new era, then I was wearing sunglasses. I didn’t read articles about these games, I didn’t hear people talk about them. I was oblivious.
But Overclocked Remix changed that with one ReMix. They posted a track by contributor Dale North for the game To the Moon. It was a mix for a game that I had never heard about. The write-up for the song had a positive review for the game itself, especially the soundtrack. Combined with SNES-style graphics and a relatively cheap price, I was intrigued.
As a game, To the Moon was fine, more of an interactive movie than a game. But the story tore my heart in half, so it left an impression. And the music was as melancholy as the narrative, over-emotional and infectious. Too the Moon helped me realize that there was another world of games that I had missed. It wasn’t just the big titles like Bioshock or X-COM, but this new crop of indie projects.
Binding of Issac must have been the next game I tried. The Zelda-esque dungeon-crawling was something I immediately understood but the presentation was unlike anything I had played before. And I found the game’s soundtrack to be absolutely fascinating. It was dark, exciting, creepy and atmospheric. It felt like a carnival or haunted house, it has a sense of humor in it’s despair. It was also the first game I watched others stream, which means it opened a whole other world for me.
I found Faster Than Light soon after and fell head over heel. It’s a great game that feels like an action movie version on Oregon Trail, but, you know, in space. It’s difficult but incredibly satisfying. Even when you lose, you don’t feel like giving up. It’s endlessly entertaining and imaginative. I love it. And the soundtrack is killer.
I bought the soundtrack, actually. It’s on Bandcamp and I find it a great listen apart from the game. The battle music is thrilling but the tunes that play when you’re simply exploring are wonderful. They feel timeless, like the soundtrack has always been around. It creates the feeling of traveling through endless space and threatening nebulas perfectly.
Bastion also has a great soundtrack, which is good because the gameplay is, as best, fine. Actually, the whole presentation of the game is beautiful, with gorgeous graphics and a process of growing the world as you grow. But, still, it’s the music that I remember the most. It has a rustic soundtrack, filled with folksy guitar and lyrics that reminded me of the show Firefly. I can’t think of another game with music like Bastion.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is all about the music and it works because the tunes are great. You want to move on the beat of the current song, lest you die. It starts to become second nature because all the tracks are funky enough that you start nodding your head as you play. It feels like it could have existed back on the SNES, but I don’t think those games had the technology for the soundtrack. It music is a bit more intricate than what I remember from the early 90s. I might be wrong, because the soundtrack fits with the pixel art of the game so well.
I say all of this because it’s something I think modern video games have lost. I loved Bioshock but I couldn’t tell you if it had music or not. Nor can I hum anything from League of Legends, Arkham City or the new Fallout series. As games have become more cinematic, they’ve gone the route of having large, orchestral soundtracks that lack the memorable tunes of titles of old.
But indie games are smaller. They can’t afford orchestras. They get individuals who make smaller, more intimate music for the games. Because of the limitations, personality is more important than scope. They recall a time when video game music was memorable, when you would play certain levels just to hear the music. And now with Spotify and other streaming options, we can listen to that music whenever we’d like. The sound is quirkier, or maybe it wants to be more emotional, or has it more character. It’s not afraid to show it’s sensitive side or be silly. These days, it feels like, bigger games are less likely to experiment with their soundtracks. Or perhaps, because they’re longer, they’re afraid to play the same music over and over. A game like The Binding of Issac can repeat it’s creepy tunes on a more regular basis because you’re only on those levels for minutes at a time.
As someone whose iPod (yes, a classic, with the clickwheel and everything) is filled with video game remixes, I have a special place in my heart for the memorable side of video games. Music is one of the most important factors of those memories. Maybe the PS2/XBox/Gamecube era was the last time musical themes were an important factor for developers. Halo had a great soundtrack with an iconic theme, as did The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (so much so that it’s carried on through the rest of the series). But these days, it’s the indie games that are carrying on the tradition of catchy, interesting video game music. It’s their secret weapon.