Or: How Indie Games Dominated the Eighth Generation’s Music Scene
When asked to discuss the best music and soundtracks of the eighth generation, a few games came to mind. Persona 5, all Final Fantasy games of the generation (particularly XIV), Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Super Mario Odyssey all had particularly notable soundtracks that would be appropriate to write about, but I couldn’t manage to perish the thought that all of my favourite soundtracks of the last few years had been indie games. As soon as I began to think about my personal favourites, my list of discussion topics was completely overwhelmed by indie games of the last generation.
Through a combination of various factors such as the overall rise in indie game popularity, as well as the obvious influence of the likes of Undertale on other indie composers, indie game soundtracks now have so much care and attention to detail present that their cult following bears no surprise. As a certified indie game fanatic, I will use this opportunity to show you my favourite music and soundtracks of the last generation (in no particular order).
Hypnospace Outlaw (2019)
As well as having some of the most interesting and well-designed music I may have seen in a game, Hypnospace Outlaw also holds the title of one of my favourite games – EVER. The game itself is so unique in its approach that its soundscape reflects this in the best ways possible. In Hypnospace Outlaw, you play as a virtual law enforcer for “Hypnospace”: an alternate Y2K era internet that allows its participants to surf the web via headsets while they sleep. You have to scour webpages for infringements to report, while slowly piecing together something much bigger than you.
As the game functions as a sort of Internet Explorer simulator, the majority of the music is… fake Y2K-era pop and rock music. Most pages you visit will have their own music – to reflect on the page’s owner/s. The constant switch between various songs as you surf the web is fitting and creates several interesting puzzles and plot points as well. If you like puzzles and Y2K internet aesthetic, I can’t recommend this game (and its incredibly detailed soundtrack) enough.
The Sexy Brutale (2017)
Lots of people have an opinion on the electro-swing genre, but there is no game more fitting for this music than The Sexy Brutale. In The Sexy Brutale, you play as a guest at a masked ball doomed to relive the same day at the titular casino mansion until you can save your fellow guests from demise. In a game such as this that revolves around a time-loop, the music is of great importance to ensure that nothing becomes too “samey”. As you progress through the mansion and piece together the lives of the guests, the atmosphere grows more and more sinister, as the music progresses from the upbeat electro-swing main theme and becomes slowly spookier and more melancholic. One thing that does remain constant in this game is just how groovy the music is, but it is constantly aware of its own tonal shifts and is able to reflect them perfectly for the best emotional experience for the audience. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t regularly listen to the title music just for fun. Again, if you like puzzle games, incredible artistic direction, unique gameplay, and awesome music, this is the game for you.
Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015)
It’s impossible to talk about indie game soundtracks without mentioning Crypt of the Necrodancer, a rogue-like rhythm game that is as fun as it is unforgiving. I consider myself to be a bit of a rhythm game connoisseur, but Crypt of the Necrodancer is unlike any other — if you haven’t played it by now, you are missing out. Unlike many of the other games on this list, the music is not relevant to the plot at all: all you have to do is move to the beat, learn the monsters’ movement patterns, and not die. Simple, right?
It’s a good thing the music in this game is so funky, because you’re going to be hearing it a lot. Prepare yourself to die over and over but have a great jam while doing it. If you enjoy Crypt of the Necrodancer and are a fan of the classic Legend of Zelda games, make sure to also check out Cadence of Hyrule — you won’t regret it.
Night in the Woods (2017)
Night in the Woods is a game that is very near and dear to a lot of people’s hearts, including mine. The game follows the story of Mae, a college dropout returning to her gloomy hometown and reuniting with her family and old friends. It focuses deeply on exploration, characters, and story; it honestly feels less like a video game to me and more like a life-changing experience, as cheesy as that might sound.
Night in the Woods’ soundtrack was composed by studio founder and designer Alec Holowka, who tragically passed away last year. Considering the game’s cult following, it is inspiring to see how Holowka’s design and composition touched the hearts of so many. I’m honestly having trouble trying to describe this game, all I can say is that it is and will remain one of my favourite games of all time for many reasons. If you like unique design, deep stories and characters, and Guitar Hero, give Night in the Woods a go.
I think we all saw this one coming. Everything about Cuphead is worthy of praise, but its music is particularly notable to me. Much like Hypnospace Outlaw and The Sexy Brutale, the music is written to reflect Studio MDHR’s chosen historical context and aesthetic. In this case, the game has an obvious focus on 1930s cartoon aesthetics in both art and music; it is just as wonderful to listen to as it is to look at.
Cuphead is known for its often-extreme difficulty and its boss battles, so its boss music is of particular note. It creates the perfect level of anxiety needed for the levels but in a gorgeous jazz-fusion style. Cuphead has the sort of soundtrack that you can play for your family without them realising it’s video game music. As a certified music geek, it is so impressive to me how the composer managed to perfectly imitate the 1930s era jazz, big band, and ragtime styles to fit so well into the game. If you like games with unique art styles, awesome music, or just want something you can play with a friend, this is the game for you.
It is a testament to Maddy Thorson and their team at Extremely OK Games (formerly Matt Makes Games) that they were able to make a platforming game so emotional, and the music plays a huge part in that. In Celeste, you play as Madeline, climbing to the top of Celeste Mountain while struggling with her own doubts and inner demons. The game is often challenging and has the potential to be stressful, but the music allows the player to fall into a trance that enhances its sheer beauty. I strongly recommend Celeste’s soundtrack if you ever need some background music to study to, although if you’re as susceptible to emotional music as I am, you might find yourself crying at some point.
If you haven’t played Celeste yet and you’re still not convinced, go check out the reviews, and then go listen to the soundtrack. If you’re still not convinced after that, you’re a lost cause.
Hollow Knight (2017)
Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania-style side-scrolling action game where you play as the titular knight fighting their way through the Hallownest. I’d like to give a better explanation of the plot, but I honestly don’t understand it all too well myself. That doesn’t matter in the slightest, though, because Hollow Knight’s story isn’t even close to being its main draw; that honour goes to its gameplay and its atmosphere.
Hollow Knight is one of the most visually stunning two-dimensional action games I’ve seen, and its soundtrack is the perfect complement to the design. It focuses on string instruments and the harp in particular, which completely sucks you into the atmosphere. Even if you’re not a fan of Metroidvania-style games, I implore you to play Hollow Knight just so that you can experience the music.
Stardew Valley (2016)
Stardew Valley is definitely the most light-hearted game on this list, and its soundtrack is a great reflection of the simple joy this game brings. Similar to the Animal Crossing franchise, Stardew Valley’s music changes with the seasons, but it’s always relaxing and enjoyable, just like the game itself. If you haven’t given Stardew Valley a go yet, I — and much of the Doublejump team — couldn’t recommend it enough: life sims and RPGs aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, but Stardew Valley really does offer something for everyone. Its soundtrack is another one that I always find myself listening to just for enjoyment; it brings that same feeling of calm and happiness no matter where you’re listening to it.
Whether you enjoy the simple things, like farming and befriending your fellow townspeople, or you like to fight monsters and hunt for treasure, it’s well and truly worth giving Stardew Valley a go — especially after the monstrous update released onto the PC version in December and slated for consoles “later this month or early next month”.
Last but not least, it would be impossible to talk about indie game soundtracks without mentioning Undertale: the one that changed indie games forever. It feels absurd to think that Undertale was only released five years ago, considering how much it has changed since then: from being represented in Super Smash Brothers Ultimate to the live symphonic orchestra concert this year, it’s gone from being a little game that gained a cult following to becoming a world-wide phenomenon. I probably don’t have to explain Undertale’s plot, because you’d have to be mad to not have played it yet. On the off chance that you’re reading this and you haven’t played it yet, though… Stop reading right now and go play it.
This is another that will always remain on my favourite games list, both for the music and everything else about it, as countless others will agree. If you never got the chance to watch the fifth anniversary concert, I can’t recommend it enough — hearing a full orchestra play the soundtrack from Toby Fox’s little cult indie game is so special, and really puts into perspective how special this game is to lots of other people around the world as well to make such a thing possible. I felt it fitting to finish with Undertale, as you really have to save the best for last.
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