Gaming’s Most Powerful Musical Moments in the Last Twelve Months

Note: This article contains major plot spoilers for inFAMOUS Second Son, Gone Home, and The Last of Us.

Let’s face it: a great deal of today’s games are largely derivative. Current third-person shooters are inherently similar to past third-person shooters; JRPGs all use vaguely similar turn-based mechanics. Sure, we may see differences in plot, environment, and tiny details, but how often do we feel like something is truly different?

So what do developers do to stand out? There are countless answers to this question, as subtle tweaks can easily pull a gamer to the edge of his or her couch. For the sake of this article, I will look at one small tweak in particular: music. Over the past year, I have seen a number of scenes reign supreme in my memory for their spectacular music selection. A well-executed song choice not only increases immersion, but it allows players’ emotions to subtly shift. Each one of these songs affected the scene in one way or another; without music, these parts do not hold nearly as much power.

inFAMOUS Second Son – Climbing the DUP Tower:

“Speed of Light” by Brain

The perfect example of an ordinary moment becoming extraordinary through music, the DUP Tower climb is the highlight of inFAMOUS Second Son. After Augustine murders his brother, Delsin is rightfully overcome with rage.  Our favorite flannel-wearing graffiti artist eventually treks across Sucker Punch’s version of Seattle in hopes of bringing down Augustine through either exposure or brute force. Players platform up the giant concrete-covered glass skyscraper in order to reach the evil redhead responsible for inserting rocks into the bodies of the Akomish. While inFAMOUS Second Son‘s final section is largely predictable, no one could have predicted how one song could change the mood of the entire sequence.

While I found Delsin’s snarky, sarcastic tone to be entertaining, I never truly connected with him until I began scaling the DUP’s giant home base. “Speed of Light” uses a combination of gradually increasing intensity and piercing, fierce vocals to bring the emotional nature of the situation to light. Players wait for hours to fight Augustine, and this song does an outstanding job of letting them know that the game’s defining moment has arrived. The acute power of “Speed of Light”‘s vocals made me feel one with Delsin, as their growing force directly mirrors the main character’s rage. While I may forget about the ensuing particle-filled boss battle in due time, this scene will linger for years as the defining moment of Sucker Punch’s PS4 debut.

Below – Respawning:

Original composition for Below’s soundtrack by Jim Guthrie

Until I play something better, I will continue to bring up the following point: Below‘s PAX East demo was the single greatest thing I have played in 2014. I consider Capy’s upcoming adventure game to have the best demo of all time, and it is my most eagerly anticipated future title. Bold words, I know, but allow me to explain.

Below is the bizarre lovechild of ZeldaDark Souls, Spelunky, and Journey. Players take the role of a randomly generated wanderer who sets off to explore a mysterious, procedurally-generated island. With snappy, yet brutally punishing combat, death is inevitable in Below. Rather than sending players back to a designated checkpoint, the death of one wanderer brings upon the arrival of another. Because of time constraints, I wanted to see how this mechanic worked in action before leaving Capy’s booth. After allowing a pack of wild dogs to feast upon my tiny, green wanderer, I took the role of a tiny, blue wanderer in an entirely new environment…and then the music kicked in.

The song in the above trailer is exactly what I heard when my blue wanderer woke up next to his small campfire. It is nearly impossible to describe the emotions I was overcome with, as this song made me feel a tiny bit of everything. Below went from being an interesting experience largely filled with environmental sound effects to a game that felt like reaching the mountain in Journey over and over again. This deep, ambiguously emotional experience is what made Below‘s demo so incredible; my feelings were just as mysterious as the island my wanderer was exploring.

Granted, the finished product (currently sporting the equally mysterious “TBA” release date) could end up being nothing like its demo. However, for thirty minutes in April, Below used the power of music to bring me to a place few other games have ever dared to take me.

Gone Home – Ending/Credits:

“Complicated” by Heavens to Betsy

Oh, Gone Home, how can you be so incredible? My second-favorite 2013 release, Gone Home is perhaps the most beautiful game I have ever played.

Its ending is obviously its most iconic moment, as the conclusion manages to not only subvert the player’s most horrible expectations, but fill you up with incredible elation. Throughout the game, Katie, the player-character, finds journal entries scattered throughout the abandoned Greenbriar household detailing her sister’s struggles with her sexuality. After learning that Sam, the aforementioned sister, has been largely rejected by her parents for being attracted to women, it seems that Katie will stumble upon a horrifying tragedy. Though nothing frightening ever occurs, Gone Home does an excellent job creating the illusion that something terrifying is on the horizon. Finding the scene of Sam’s suicide seems like a logical ending to the game, but once again, Gone Home subverts the player’s expectations.

The credits begin to roll, with “Complicated” playing in the background, shortly after Katie learns that her sister ran away from home in order to be with Lonnie, the love of her life. During the credits, I listened to the song through Katie’s perspective, which made the final sequence even more powerful. The most lyrically dependent song on this list, “Complicated” drives home the deeply emotional ending of Gone Home. Corin Tucker’s intense vocals during the chorus illustrate that Katie, though upset that her sister is no longer present, is supporting of her sister’s choice. I pictured Katie shouting “Just go! Just go! Just go! Just go!” before feeling remorse for screaming at her sister (illustrated by the line “My pride isn’t worth it.”). To me, “Complicated” served as the epilogue to Gone Home‘s gorgeous main act.

“Complicated” can be interpreted a number of different ways, which takes Gone Home‘s ending from touching to breathtaking.

The Last of Us – The Giraffe Scene:

“Vanishing Grace” by Gustavo Santaolalla

Yeah, this scene. In my mind, the giraffe scene is the single most powerful moment in the history of video games. It is the moment that signified that storytelling can be just as, if not more, powerful in a game than it is in other forms of entertainment. The Last of Us uses this scene to qualify every second of the twelve to fifteen hours players spend exploring its horrifying, heinous world.

After arriving in Salt Lake City, Joel and a catatonic Ellie set out to find the Fireflies, who plan to attempt to use Ellie’s immunity to find an all-important cure to the Cordyceps Infection. After remaining largely silent during the initial Salt Lake City moments, due to David’s predatory confrontation with her in Colorado, Ellie runs ahead and joyfully shouts out to Joel. Upon catching up to her, Joel joins Ellie in petting a giraffe that had been poking its head into the side of the damaged building the two survivors were travelling through. Joel and Ellie then climb to the roof of the building, exchanging words that perfectly sum up the player’s journey through The Last of Us.

Joel: “So, is this everything you were hoping for?”

Ellie: “It’s got its ups and downs, but you can’t deny the view, though.”

Unlike the DUP Tower climb in inFAMOUS Second Son, the giraffe scene would still be a stunning, beautiful, iconic moment without music. However, the subtle composition by Gustavo Santaolalla brings this touching scene to an unheard of level. The peace of the giraffe scene is accentuated by the peace of the background music. Each note brings a sense of tranquility to the player, just as each moment of the giraffe encounter brings tranquility to Joel and Ellie. “Vanishing Grace” is the cherry on the top of the world’s most incredible ice cream sundae. Every second of this scene is layered with tear-jerking beauty from Ellie’s first gleeful exclamation to the moment the player chooses to walk away. The closest thing to perfection I have ever witnessed in a video game, the giraffe scene and the emotional background composition with forever live on in my heart and mind.