A roundup of all the month’s best Indie Game soundtracks


Welcome, one and all, to the inaugural edition of High Scores. This is a new monthly feature, where I talk about my top three favourite indie game soundtracks released that month, and what made them so effective.

It’s been a great month for indie game soundtracks- I’ve had a really tough time picking just three to talk about. Armello, Circa Infinity and Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows all barely missed out on a place. Unfortunately, I can only pick three titles, and this month, I’ve given the Top Score award to Toby Fox, for the soundtrack to the wonderful new RPG, Undertale. Second Fiddle, (the award for the two runner-ups) goes to Chris Schlarb, for his experimental Dropsy music, and Ryan Patrick Buckley, for his soundtrack for the weird episodic horror title, Albino Lullaby- Chapter 1.


Top Score- Soundtrack of the Month

Undertale

Undertale

Developer: Toby Fox

Composer: Toby Fox

There’s a reason so many modern games still use retro music. A good 8-bit soundtrack can fill players with nostalgia, and when matched up with a very simple art style it can tug on the heartstrings of even the most stoic of players. Unfortunately, most of these games fail to realize what made early 8-bit soundtracks so good. At that time, composers were so restricted by hardware limitations, they had to rely on creating catchy melodic tunes- there was no way they could create “epic” soundscapes or lush textures.

Not content with just single-handedly developing Undertale, Toby Fox also composed all the music. In doing so, he’s manages to succeed with 8-bit where so many composers fail. His retro soundtrack doesn’t come across as lazy, or obvious. Instead of using repetitive bass lines and endless looping rhythms, it’s packed full of unforgettable tunes and fun, groovy beats.

This soundtrack really demonstrates the possibilities of chiptune music. There are tracks here that reflect a wide range of emotions, from melancholy ballads right through to triumphant battle themes. There’s even a piece that sounds like it was inspired by Jewish folk dances, not to mention the wonderful “Ghost Fight,” a fun electro swing track, which comes back in multiple forms throughout the soundtrack.

You’ve probably heard a lot of praise for Undertale; it’s been earning itself rave reviews, with some calling it “Game of the Year” material. It’s a great example of why having good music is so important to making a fantastic game. In my opinion, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see an RPG soundtrack that matches the legendary Chrono Trigger, but Undertale comes as close as any I’ve ever heard, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of scope- the full soundtrack includes 101 tracks. You can pick it up from Bandcamp for $9.99, and if you’re into chiptune music, I highly recommend you do so.

Standout Track- Ghost Fight

 

Combining chiptune synths with a swing groove that sounds like it came straight from the big band era- how could this not be awesome?


Second Fiddles- the Best of the Rest

Dropsy

dropsy

Developer: Tendershoot, A Jolly Corpse

Composer: Chris Schlarb

Heartwarming, cheerful, tragic- all of these are good words to describe Dropsy, a bewildering point and click adventure about a creepy clown who just wants to help people. The task of creating the soundtrack to fit a game that comprises of such a strange mesh of emotions fell to Chris Schlarb. No small task, but he’s absolutely nailed it, weaving a musical tapestry that manages to be drably depressing and optimistically hopeful all at the same time.

The soundtrack features a live band, using real instruments. You might think there would be a disconnect between the pixel art graphics of Dropsy, and the live performances of the music, but the two actually work together really well. The real world instruments really draw you into the emotion of the story, and make everything feel that much more real. Something about the raw performance of live instruments just makes the music that much more effective. The bluesy howl of the saxophone really makes it for me- it’s rough around the edges in a beautiful way.

This is a collection of pieces that really keeps changing things up. It opens with gentle electric piano, and smooth saxophone. It’s serene, beautiful- the kind of music I’d want to listen to in the evening, sat in an armchair with a tumbler of whisky, a warm fire crackling away in the background. And then, just as you’ve grown accustomed to the jazzy blues style, it hits you with a bunch of curveballs- trippy, space echo infused dub reggae, guitar led surf rock, and synth heavy electro tracks are present, and they really expand this soundtrack into a strange journey that you won’t quite know where you’re going with.

Fans of experimental music will absolutely love this. This is the kind of music that even people who generally turn their nose up at video game music would respect. You can get it on vinyl, or as a digital download, and it’s really worth considering. It’s a great listen. Good job Chris Schlarb- you’ve certainly earned yourself a warm damp hug from me.

(I’m well aware that last sentence may seem a little odd, but go with me on it- it’s a compliment, I promise.)

Standout Track: Kierkegaard’s Neon Lights

 

A super-chilled out, slow-blues number, featuring a gorgeous sax solo. Just pour yourself a drink, sit back and relax…


Albino Lullaby- Episode 1

albino lullaby

Developer: Ape Law

Composer: Ryan Patrick Buckley

With the release of SOMA this month, Albino Lullaby may well have flown under the radar of most horror fans, and that’s a real shame. It’s a curious title that’s bizarrely creepy, without relying on the same tired horror tropes that we see so often from horror games on Steam- mindless jump scares and limitless gore are nowhere in sight. Instead, it has the fantastically sinister “Grandchildren,” a bunch of weird, mutant thumbs that confuse me on so many levels. This game has a lot of weird elements, and because of that, it’s easy to miss the music. But if you take a moment to listen, you’ll notice that subtly underpinning the whole experience, there’s some great music from composer Ryan Patrick Buckley (best known for work on Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.)

The challenge with scoring a game like Albino Lullaby is matching the music to the zany content of the visuals in a way that doesn’t make the music intrude upon the scene, and here Buckley has found a perfect balance. It feels different, but it’s hard to place a finger on why. In spite of the fact that it uses so many of the usual elements of the style- dissonant melodies, unsettling timbres and tense percussive rhythms- it also doesn’t feel like a standard cliché horror soundtrack. The music manages to be unsettling without resorting to using loud noises to make the listener jump. Instead, it’s much more subtle and clever than that.

Lots of different musical styles are explored; from the limping orchestral dance piece, “The Halfway Waltz,” to the experimental electronics of “Cacophony,”- the soundtrack regularly changes the pace, to keep you guessing what’s coming next.

Albino Lullaby’s soundtrack is a weird and wonderful creature, much like the monsters that inhabit its world, and as this is only the first in an episodic series, hopefully there’ll be plenty more music coming our way- I can’t wait to hear it.

Standout Track- Cacophony

 

One Richard Burton monologue away from sounding like a track from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. And I’m perfectly OK with that.


Agree? Disagree? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

About High Scores

This is a monthly feature, where we celebrate the best new music, direct from the world of indie gaming. Each month, we’ll be looking at what we think are the three best new soundtracks, and discussing what makes them so damn good. No extra credit will be given to soundtracks that are attached to bigger games- small Steam releases will have just as much chance of being featured as bigger releases.

To be featured in High Scores, a game has to be a full release- Early Access titles won’t be considered. The soundtrack needs to be available to purchase or stream online in some form or other. Soundtracks also have to feature only original content. If we’re even slightly suspicious that a game might be using royalty free music, it won’t be featured.

I want to make sure I’m as fair as possible on composers for smaller indie developers. If you’ve got a suggestion for an obscure title that I may have missed, feel free to tweet me @PAldousMusic, and let me know.