Contributors from the video game music community highlight some especially memorable moments from smaller-scale games.
By Thomas Quillfeldt and contributors,
I know, I know — what even is an 'indie’ game these days? In this case it’s shorthand: for this article, ‘indie’ means ‘hand-crafted by a smallish team/solo developer working with limited resources.’
In one case — Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons — I'm happy to stretch the label to accommodate a fantastic music moment in a smallish game. Brothers's developer Starbreeze had made ‘AAA’ games, and the game was published by 505 Games. Does that make it double-A? Triple-I? Maybe so.
Ideally, the next decade will see more nuanced nomenclature adopted so we can better talk about all types of games without inadvertently denigrating them. Does anyone still use the term ‘downloadable game’, for instance?
The impetus this piece was simple: in general, the so-called ‘indie’ sector radiates creativity and experimentation, not least when it comes to musical choices. Certain indie games can feel more personal and intimate than bigger budget titles thanks to stories and characters that can seem more human and truthful. Music often plays a vital role in defining the emotional contours of an experience.
There are some intriguing differences between the titles discussed. There are games where a lone developer is also the composer, able to zero in on a specific emotion and capture it in music with no dilution of authorship. Elsewhere, hired composers were given licence to follow their aesthetic instincts, and/or they were invited to bring their creativity to the game’s wider development. In one case, a decades-old licensed track complements an emotional bombshell of an ending but you would have sworn it had been specifically written for that moment.
***MAJOR SPOILER WARNING FOR GONE HOME, HOLLOW KNIGHT, BROTHERS AND OUTER WILDS***
Picked by Jayson Napolitano, Scarlet Moon Productions
Moment: After achieving the hard-won true ending, Frisk is free to wander the entire game world and speak with all its inhabitants to get their take on the events that have transpired.
Track: “Reunited” by Toby Fox
UNDERTALE is a beautiful game that has touched a lot of people with its core themes of love and determination. After obtaining the true ending, you're treated to an incredibly moving piece of music that touches on sombre, celebratory and reflective moods, while you're given the opportunity to re-explore the entire game world and interact with all of the characters who all have something new to say based on the events of the ending.
It’s a clever way to allow players to relive their time in the underground and recall all that they've accomplished. I couldn't help but revisit every nook and cranny to see what everyone had to say. It’s a special ending, and the music, a piece less than five minutes long, never grows old — it’s as moving on the tenth loop as the first because of how emotionally varied it is. Excellent work by Toby Fox: an incredible game, an amazing soundtrack, and an ending I'll never forget!
GONE HOME (2013)
Picked by Anthony John Agnello, writer and editor
Moment: Katie discovers that her sister Sam has hit the road to find her first love Lonnie, undeterred by those trying to keep them apart. A desperate anthem blasts as the credits roll.
Track: “Complicated” by Heavens to Betsy
We have become inured to the narrative shorthand of pairing pop with images. No one alive remembers a time when film or video weren't augmented by music. The result is that we tend not to interrogate scenes or moments whose emotion is driven almost entirely by its soundtrack. Weak characters, stilted plotting, awkward direction; a song can elevate all of them, and if you notice a tune doing that heavy lifting it can feel cheap and distracting. The most powerful marriage of music and imagery comes when the song is a crystal reflection of the themes, world, and/or character it's enhancing. Text books on video game (and general) narrative writing/design should use the end of Gone Home as an essential example of how to soundtrack a pivotal moment.
Heavens to Betsy's "Complicated" so perfectly embodies and enhances The Fullbright Company's story of sexual awakening, young love, and familial tension that you'd think it was written specifically for the game — even though it was released almost 20 years prior. Corin Tucker wails "I don't care if you go/I'll watch you walk away/I'll die if you go." It is every second of Gone Home's story rendered in discordant melody; and it’s every second of heartbreak you've ever personally experienced at the same time. This moment is the ultimate culmination of story, art and play all exploding in a moment of fuzzed-out indie rock bliss.
THE LONG RETURN (2019)
Picked by Kate Remington, podcaster (Music Respawn) and Music Director/on air host at WSHU Public Radio in Fairfield, CT
Moment: Having been on an emotional rollercoaster through the first two stages, the cub emerges onto the verdant Greenhorn Mountain, buoyed by a cheery music cue.
Track: “The Adventurer (Zone 3)” by Dale North
The story of The Long Return, created by indie developer Max Nielsen, could have come from the mind of Walt Disney. A young, orphaned lion cub, grieving for his mother, retraces the steps of the last journey they made together. Nielsen chose a simple, direct art style and delicate watercolor palette to tell this emotional story.
Because there's no dialog, the soundtrack by Dale North does the emotional heavy lifting without becoming overbearing or directing the player to feel a specific way. On its own, the music is soaring and beautiful. When I talked with Dale for the Music Respawn podcast, he told me that this was one of the most artistically satisfying soundtracks he's had the privilege of working on. The developer gave him total freedom to write music that would support the story, and left the decisions for orchestration and mood entirely up to the composer.
Up to this point in the game, our young cub has already been through a mixture of emotions, including grief and playful memories. As they emerge onto Greenhorn Mountain, there’s a sense of them becoming braver and more powerful. North's music is a perfect fit for the way the landscape of the game world opens up, and how the cub anticipates the adventures to come, fully confident in his ability to overcome them. It was an especially emotional moment for me after the desolation of the earlier levels.
TO THE MOON (2011)
Picked by Ryan Hamann, podcaster (Cane and Rinse; Sound of Play)
Moment: Sigmund employees enter Johnny’s house and stop to check the sheet music on the piano, mistaking the opening bars of the piece as a sign of his deterioration. Later (actually earlier), Johnny plays the piece to River in a romantic scene.
Track: “For River - Piano (Johnny's Version)” by Kan R. Gao
When To the Moon begins, the player characters enter the house of a man they (and you) know little about. He's rich, presumably, and he's contacted Sigmund Corp. to perform some kind of unnatural end-of-life ritual. If you explore, you will come across eccentric details that might make you wonder about his mental state — codified in much the same way that the belongings of characters in horror films are. There's something unnerving about the thought of entering his mind.
One of the things you can look at is a piece of sheet music at the piano, seemingly repeating the same two notes over and over in an eerie fashion. What you don't realise at this early stage is that it’s simply the first few measures of a piece the dying old man had written for his wife; that this two-note pattern (actually four notes over the phrase) is the introductory melody of what is revealed to be a beautifully poignant song.
The more that you learn about Johnny and River, the more meaningful this reserved intro melody becomes; there’s a tension in it that is released in the piece’s more sweeping main section. Who are we to judge Johnny’s state of mind from just two notes? After all, we only join the complicated tale of their relationship during the epilogue.
HOLLOW KNIGHT (2017)
Picked by Frederik Lauridsen AKA Blip Blop Wax
Moment: The Knight stands before the Mantis Lords, draws his nail, and is caged in to face one combatant, then two simultaneously as things ramp up.
Track: "Mantis Lords" by Christopher Larkin
The atmosphere of the Mantis Village in Hollow Knight’s Hallownest is especially distinct from other areas of the game, as the mantes are the only race unaffected by infection — it is therefore only fitting that this boss fight should be soundtracked in a distinct way too. Otherwise mellow ambience is replaced by a moment of silence punctuated by the Knight dramatically drawing his nail sword. At the exact moment the Lords rise in response, a string chamber ensemble and harpsichord play an assertive chord before going into a hectic, Renaissance/early Classical era-ish piece.
The start of the fight isn’t that intense, even though you’re trapped in a cage with spike pits. At first, only one of the three Lords descends to fight you, effectively showing you the range of moves and the steady rhythm you’ll need to adopt to succeed in the encounter. The real challenge comes when the remaining two Lords enter the fray, coming at you with double the attacks to dodge.
The music fits the moment to perfection: a swift and graceful fight requiring quick reactions to best the rulers of a race that actively hates outsiders. Win the fight though, and the Lords bow in deference, their subjects acquiescing to your presence in the village ever after.
Picked by Emily McMillan, Materia Collective
Hollow Knight is a game about loss. It also follows the storytelling approach found in the Metroid-Demon’s Souls lineage, with minimal dialogue and text, instead relying on a combination of environmental design, thoughtful animation, and atmospheric music.
"Sealed Vessel", which plays during the ‘bad ending’ final boss battle with the Hollow Knight themselves, has two distinct sections for different phases of the fight. As the battle progresses, the music doesn't get more frenetic or complex, instrumentally — and it doesn’t really do anything else you'd expect from the latter stages of a climactic video game battle. In the second phase, the whole encounter takes on a more tragic quality, as the boss begins helping the player by viciously stabbing themselves, giving more openings for attack or healing. In order to increase the emotional intensity, the music’s pace decreases dramatically. We shift to a simpler, more noble musical pattern that steadily climbs in pitch and volume. The shift that happens in the emotional tenor of the battle is reflected perfectly by the music.
BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS (2013)
Picked by VGM Wax
Moment: Naiee finds his brother Naia dead from spider stabwounds. He digs a grave, at which point the game severes the player from the specially devised dual character control scheme as Naiee drags Naia to his final resting place.
Track: “Naia” by Gustaf Grefberg
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons fuses gameplay mechanics, controls and storytelling in a way I’d never experienced back in 2013, and its impact still resonates with me today. The puzzle-platformer’s key mechanic is to have a solo player control two characters simultaneously; something which was challenging to process mentally, but enjoyable nonetheless. The lack of discernible dialogue (beyond characters calling out names), the environments, and — most importantly — the music immerse players in the wonderful, fantastical story.
In the final act of this epic storybook-style adventure there is a horrific and sobering story beat: the older of the two brothers is ensnared and ultimately killed by a she-spider, leaving the younger brother alone in completing their quest. Singer Emma Sunbring’s voice pierces the moment using the vocal style of kulning — an ancient Swedish herding call. It’s a powerful moment that tugs at the heartstrings, but it also fundamentally changes how the rest of the game plays, as well as the emotional experience players are having. For me, it pushed the envelope in terms of interactive storytelling and the emotional gravitas that games can summon. It’s also without a doubt one of the most impactful games I’ve played.
Picked by Jeremy Lamont, podcaster, Video Game Grooves, GameBytes Show
Moment: The shift from airy freedom and exploration to puzzle-solving Go! time with monolithic flying monstrosities.
Tracks: “Flight Amongst the Clouds” and “The Mystery of the Titans” by Ian Livingstone
There's something unforgettable about those moments of agency and control in video games; ideally, they're punctuated with the right music to provide the fullest emotional and sensory experience. Oure isn't a complicated game, and it doesn’t offer that many different core gameplay experiences. It does, however, do an excellent job in making them enjoyable thanks to the technical excellence of developer Heavy Spectrum and Ian Livingstone’s musical score.
The life circumstances of us as players can affect our emotional receptivity — this was definitely the case for me with Oure. Typically, a story about how a video game intersected with someone’s significant life experience revolves around childhood or young adulthood. For me, my experience with this game came in middle age, after the end of my 13-year marriage. My Dad graciously came to visit me for a week to keep me company, and we played the newly-released Oure together from beginning to end. Passing the game controller back and forth, we soared through the clouds, free of care, soaking in the beauty of diffused skyborne sunlight. When the game’s big events occured, we were ready to deal with the dark, hulking monstrosities that needed tackling.
The game mechanics gave us agency. The music gave us encouragement. Together, we were ready for anything.
OUTER WILDS (2019)
Picked by Thomas Quillfeldt
Moment: Gripped with tension to see the finale, you grab the warp core, high-tail it to Dark Bramble, avoid the anglerfish, get to the Nomai vessel, and travel to the Eye of the Universe. Phew.
Track: “Final Voyage” by Andrew Prahlow
It’s going to take a little while to parse just how significant Outer Wilds turns out to be in terms of narrative design; pure sci-fi storytelling; world- (or, rather, solar system-) building; time, space, and physics mechanics; and ceding agency to players. Like many others, I found it to be an extraordinary overall achievement; and, like (groans, rolls eyes, sighs knowingly) Dark Souls, it’s an immediate recommend that doesn’t necessarily make a good first impression, to its detriment.
Andrew Prahlow’s overall soundtrack is a wonder, mixing electronic horror, Eno ambience, folksy campfire twangling, and epic post-rock. As players clock up several hours in the game, and the 22-minute loops stack up, they develop a Pavlovian response to the ‘end-of-loop’ music cue (“End Times”), informing them that they’re about to be obliterated by a supernova — again.
But, when you’ve gained enough knowledge to access the Ash Twin Project and grasp the warp core (that you may or may not yet know you need to reach the end of the game), a special version of the ‘end-of-loop’ piece plays as you head back to your ship. If you’re paying attention, and you’re lucky enough not to have the experience derailed for whatever reason, there’s a chance it will send shivers down your spine as you realise the significance of retrieving the warp core: that this could be the final loop if only you carry out a careful sequence of actions to reach the Eye of the Universe and the end of a video game masterpiece.
TQ: I’ve also come across some other arresting music moments in indie games — here are some honourable mentions that you might be interested to watch (spoilers for most):
Thank you to all our contributors. I bet you lovely readers have indie music moments that you’d add to this list — hit us up: Facebook page (article post is here) on Twitter (tweet) or on Instagram (post).