GOTY 2018: Best Music
This year we've brought back our category awards to recognize achievements in specific areas of game development. There are 10 awards in all, with two new ones being awarded every day this week. Keep checking back for more winners!
Best Music: Lena Raine, Celeste
Matt Makes Games | January 25th, 2018 | Windows, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Runners-up: Christopher Larkin, Hollow Knight | Noboru Mutoh, Tetris Effect
Everyone's different, but for me, I don't think there's a more powerful medium of expression than music. I've learned to appreciate all kinds of media of expression, but nothing's able to shift my mood and establish a sense of time, place, and presence like music.
When it comes to establishing a strong, consistent tone in a game, then, many of the most successful games feature soundtracks that glue the whole thing together. They employ recognizable motifs at key moments, or they shift instrumentation and mood in tandem with story beats, or—as Tetsuya Mizuguchi's games like Rez popularized—they empower the player to participate in making or embellishing upon the music simply by playing the game.
This year's Best Music category was stacked with outstanding examples of composition that perfectly paired with the tone and themes of their games, from the soaring superhero swells of Spider-Man to...whatever it is that Donut County did, which I can't find the words for, but it's an incredible soundtrack that I've listened to dozens of times. But in debating the relative merits of each, we landed on three games that we feel elevated music in games in distinct ways.
I can't think of a more deserving winner than Lena Raine and her soundtrack for Celeste, a game about overcoming seemingly impossible challenges from without and within. Every step of the way, through every challenge and major story beat, Raine's music is there to establish mood, set the pace of play, and—crucially in a challenging platformer—be endlessly enjoyable to listen to as it loops again, and again, and again.
I'd also be totally remiss if I didn't mention the game's phenomenal B-sides—each a variation from another game music composer on a song from Raine's soundtrack. These B-sides play on the optional, more-difficult remixes of the game's main levels, which are also called B-sides (and yes, there are C-sides, and they're ridiculously challenging and satisfying). These remixes explore entire genres and moods that the core game didn't, and they're each exceptionally good. I want to recognize 2 Mello's "Mirror Temple - Mirror Magic Mix", which brings a jazzy groove to a previously somber portion of the game. The B- and C-side challenges on these levels were some of the toughest I overcame, but the uptempo mix was exactly the motivation I needed to keep going.
Raine's soundtrack makes clever use of distinct instrumentation, most notably a wide range of synthesizers and soft, melodic piano and guitar. The music weaves in and out of recognizable leitmotifs as protagonist Madeline's friendship with Theo develops further (noted by an easy, light acoustic guitar track), submerging us in moody piano and muted bass as Madeline explores Oshiro's hotel, or jolting us with aggressive synths when Madeline is under siege by an anxiety attack. Celeste is a game about learning to love yourself—all of yourself—and the music is a crucial vehicle for delivering Madeline's story of self-acceptance and ultimate triumph.
Our runners-up also represent, to my ear, some of the best music that's ever been put to a game. Christopher Larkin's sweeping, orchestral Hollow Knight soundtrack is crucial to establishing the feeling of exploring a desolate, fallen kingdom, from its lonely wastelands to its overgrown gardens. Larkin's compositions are varied, mature, and perfectly paired to the beats of the story.
One thing that deserves highlighting: Hollow Knight has dozens of bosses to conquer, and each one features a unique composition from Larkin that really hammers home what makes each boss distinct. It's a massive, rich, and varied body of work, and it's been on constant rotation for me while I've been working throughout 2018.
And the Mizuguchi-produced Tetris Effect feels like the ultimate realization of his seminal 2004 rhythm-puzzle game, Lumines. The soundtrack ranges far and wide, from danceable beats to soothing trance to a song that's entirely composed of the noises of heavy car traffic. Crucially, each "stage" pairs a song that adapts to the player's progress with sound effects that respond to each unique action a player takes, like spinning pieces, dropping them into place, and clearing any number of lines.
In 2004, Lumines was a revelation for me — as I grew to master the game, I found it could transport me into a deep, effortless meditative flow state, where minutes and even hours would pass by without my noticing. With Tetris Effect, the barriers are even further removed — especially in VR. At its best, Tetris Effect is a healing experience, and that's entirely thanks to its music and how it's employed. — Nick Cummings