The 2018 Game Soundtrack of the Year

It's the end of the year, which means it's award season here at GameCrate. 2018 was another strong year for game soundtracks, with even tiny indie titles serving up tracklists that are perfect for playing in the background while you work all day (which is how I judge all music these days).

Taking a brief look back, 2017 might eventually go down in this particular corner of gaming history as one of the all-time great years for gaming music. Last year's soundtrack award winner, Nidhogg 2, is still something I listen to regularly, and if you haven't given it a spin yet then you have a great 44 minutes and 29 seconds in your future. And runners-up like Cuphead, Nier: Automata, and Splatoon 2 combined to showcase the enormous variety of music we have to enjoy in modern games.

We'll have to wait and see how history judges the game music of 2018, but here are our picks for the year's outstanding soundtracks.

Honorable Mentions

Beat Saber's soundtrack isn't very expansive for a music-focused game (unofficial fan additions notwithstanding), but it offers an exhilarating virtual reality experience that puts players inside of some great electronic songs. Swinging your arms to the beats feels like pure joy, and delivers a combination of movement and music that feels more natural and pure than anything we ever got from the Guitar Hero franchise.

At this point we're all used to indie games delivering fantastic soundtracks along with their gameplay, and so it's no surprise that was the case for our indie game of the year, Celeste. The game employs soaring chiptune sounds that perfectly match both the surface-level look and feel of the game and the under-the-surface emotional themes it explores.

In the world of AAA games, Red Dead Redemption 2 poured the same massive amount of labor and attention into its soundtrack as it did to all other aspects of the game. There's a tremendous amount of original music in the game, most fitting the classic cinematic Western style. Composer Woody Jackson uses violins, guitars, banjos, and other genre-appropriate instruments to craft a score that rivals that of any cowboy film, and the game even features an original D’Angelo song for extra credit.

But those are just the honorable mentions. It's time to talk about the real contenders for the best game soundtrack of 2018.

Runner-up: Donut County

One of 2018's chillest games also has a suitably chill soundtrack. Donut County is a simple but seriously funny indie in the Katamari mold in which the player guides holes of gradually increasing size around, dropping objects, animals, and buildings into a subterranean void. It isn't a game you play when you're looking for a challenge, and its mellow soundtrack is a perfect complement for the gentle experience the game offers.

The Donut County soundtrack is made up of layered beats, strings, and electronic sounds, and the songs progress in complexity and depth as you make your way from one portion of each stage to the next. And if you've ever enjoyed a "low-fi / chill / music to study to" sort of playlist, then do yourself a favor and listen to Raccoon House Music a few hundred times in a row.

Runner-up: Lethal League Blaze

A fighting game in which you don't actually hit your opponent? It sounds strange, but that's the basic idea behind Lethal League Blaze, a game we described as "high speed death Pong" and which features 2018's funkiest video game beats

The game's Steam page even highlights the music as one of its selling points, boasting about a "Breakbeat, Hip-Hop and House soundtrack featuring the likes of Hideki
Naganuma, Frank Klepacki, Pixelord, Bignic and of course Klaus Veen." Of course you don't need to know who any of those people are to enjoy the music - you just need to turn up the bass and listen to Killla Swing.

Runner-up: Octopath Traveler

Like so many elements of Octopath Traveler, the music in the game brings retro RPG elements into the modern era. Composer Yasunori Nishiki has shared some fascinating insights into his creative process, making it clear that the the music was intentionally modeled on classic 16-bit RPG scores. But Ocotopath Traveler's music comes from an orchestra rather than electronic beeps and boops, imbuing every tune with the power of live instruments.

Classic 16-bit RPG soundtracks were often trying to replicate real instruments and orchestral sounds with the limited power and range provided by their audio chips, and with Octopath Traveler we see that formula inverted, with live instruments purposely echoing the motifs and signatures of early 90s game music. It's just one more way Octopath Traveler blends retro and modern design elements, and it's also a powerful orchestral score in its own right.

Winner: Tetris Effect

Tetris Effect is a game that could just as easily be a concert. Seriously, just dress a talented Tetris player up like an EDM DJ, slap a weird metal helmet on him, hook the game up to a club's sound system, and project the game's visuals on a big screen. Add fog machines and lasers as needed, and you have yourself a great show. 

Tetris Effect is an audiovisual art project with a game of Tetris at its core, but it's the way the gameplay interplays with the game's score that makes this our winner this year. Just watch how a typical stage unfolds - really sit and watch it for a minute or two, and take it all in.

Listen to the satisfying little sounds the pieces and line clears make, and hear how they blend in with the music as the stage progresses. Feel the pace pick up and the audio atmosphere expand around you. Realize that someone took a little puzzle game that's been around for more than 30 years and made it into a transcendent, borderline psychedelic experience.

And then think about playing it in VR.

Congratulations to Tetris Effect, winner of GameCrate's 2018 Game Soundtrack of the Year Award!

Check out our full 2018 award list for more.