2020 was tough. There were nights we wondered where and how this year would end. Just when things seemed like they couldn’t get worse, they did time and again. On every level, it was difficult just to get through the day. One of the things that helped us through was music. Specifically, video game music. Music therapy is real. Sometimes, it was listening to a vocal rendition of Schala’s theme from Chrono Trigger, thinking about the way we wished we could go back and change time. Other nights, the upbeat tracks from Castlevania; Dawn of Sorrow and the vocal remixes from Final Fantasy Pray brought calm and serenity. Here’s some of the tracks that we were especially grateful for.
This year brought a lot of uncertainty for me (Narelle), as it has so many others. As the months rolled on, each day almost indistinguishable from the next, I wondered how life could be altered. Some of the big concerns were staying safe and healthy, along with job security — and let’s be real, I’m carrying these worries into 2021 as well.
I played video games and turned to my backlog, which isn’t new, to destress. When I wasn’t wrapped up in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I played little else. Of the handful of games I managed to complete, Sabotage Studio’s 2018 game, The Messenger, was one of the best. The humour, which included the fourth wall breaking kind, was just so good. For a couple hours at a time, the platforming challenges kept my mind focused and diverted from being weighed down by heavy life concerns. The story of a bleak future was a future I knew I could alter, even as the real world events of 2020 became ever darker and even more oppressive.
I also loved composer Rainbowdragoneyes’ soundtracks for The Messenger and its DLC, Picnic Panic. The clever use of the 8-bit and 16-bit styles and tunes to represent the past and future time-travelling storyline is amazing, and the soundtracks have been in heavy rotation for me since. This track, “Convocation of the Curse,” is one of my favourites. It’s over 8 minutes long and fantastic, particularly when things wind up to go into overdrive at the 6 minute mark. It never fails to pull me back into memories of playing the game: one of the bright spots in an otherwise stressful year.
What hasn’t been said about Supergiant Games’ latest game, Hades? The roguelike dungeon crawler, featuring family drama of the Greek gods, is one of the best games released in 2020. I (Narelle) played dozens of hours trying to claw my way out from hell. It was another great time sink and distraction during the actual realities of an unrelenting year.
If you’re familiar with the studio’s games, you’ll know Darren Korb, a brilliant composer and musician whose work on Bastion, Transistor, Pyre, and Hades are some of my favourite compositions in the world of video game music. With good reason! Each of the aforementioned games’ soundtracks are thrilling and diverse with heavy rock infused tracks to thoughtful, powerful ballads and so much more you could ever imagine fitting in the space between.
Darren Korb’s music (and I’d be remiss to not mention frequent collaborator Ashley Barrett, whose vocal work on many of the songs in Supergiant Games’ discography is beautifully haunting) tells specific stories that help shape the worlds and characters’ personalities in the games. Can’t you just hear the brooding in this track, “Last Words,” that plays whenever Thanatos, Death incarnate, makes an appearance in Hades? It’s eerie and a perfect fit for the character.
Last Window: The Secret of Cape West
Even though it consists of only two games, Hotel Dusk and Last Window have become one of my favourite series in gaming. Noirish storytelling with beautiful animation and complex characters, it’s hard to put down once the story begins. But if there’s something that really ties the cases together, it’s the haunting music by Satoshi Okubo. The jazz tracks encapsulate the mood and the characters, dripping with failed hopes and bittersweet sorrow. The beats have a way of wrapping their way around my mind. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights in 2020. I type in “Last Window OST” on my phone, let it play while I fade into dreams of places I’ve never been, but wish I had.
My dreams this year have been full of melodrama. I’ve dreamed a lot about the end of the world and even had a nightmare where I (Peter) was in my own novel and Nazi biomechs came to destroy my university that left me absolutely horrified. One of the saddest night excursions I had was talking with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years and realising, at least in my dream, that it might be the last time I see him in person. I felt so damn wistful that after all these years this was it. This last coffee or meal (can’t remember which) would be it and the worst part was, I was late and I was afraid I was going to miss it! Subconscious fears of everything that was going on had taken over my dreams. I found the Song of Healing from The Legendo of Zelda: Majora’s Mask to be incredibly soothing. If I had a rough day or something was really bothering me, I listened to the song. Memories from the tragedies the characters suffered in the game came to me. Despite the massive moon about to destroy their lives, they struggled with their personal disappointments and crushed aspirations. Whether it’s Anju and Kafei’s ill-fated love, or Pamela and her father who was cursed by the Gibdos, they do their best to cope. Link tries to bring healing through his ocarina, but every three days, life resets and the suffering repeats. The sense of futility and inevitably, which Link battles against, is a part of his nobility and a reminder to keep up the daily fight.
OK, so this one isn’t exactly music from a video game but it is video game related, and I (Narelle) played the song on repeat to help ease the mind. The track, called “PAC-MAN,” by the animated, virtual band Gorillaz which features rapper ScHoolboy Q, is part of the band’s latest music endeavour, Song Machine Season One. The visuals of the music video, which features Pac-Man being played on an arcade cabinet, are spectacular. The blips and familiar Pac-Man sound effects in the song are a fun addition to this hypnotic track along with musician Damon Albarn’s melancholic vocals as Gorillaz’s lead singer 2D.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
When most people think of Grand Theft Auto, they mention the ultra violence, the massive open world, and the crime sprees. I think about the music. Decades ago, a good friend gifted me the soundtrack for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and I could not stop listening to it. It is a widely varied mix of music, from the pop tunes on Flash FM, to the Emotions of Fernando Martinez playing Died In Your Arms by Cutting Crew (which takes on new meaning on the streets of Vice City). I don’t long for the past, but this year gave me a new appreciation for it. This audio time warp to the 80s, complete with absurdly satirical commercials and radio show personalities schmoozing their way into our lives, became a pleasant reprieve from 2020.