2023, the most musical year in video game history

2023, the most musical year in video game history
Images via Tango Gameworks, Summerfall Studios, Larian Studios, Remedy Entertainment, Strange Scaffold

Written by 

Dave McAdam

Last updated 

26th Dec 2023 14:30

Music has been a core part of video games for over 40 years- since games first managed to turn bleeps and bloops into recognisable melodies and beats. It's hard to imagine what gaming would look like today without the iconic Mario theme. Without that little ditty, the importance of music to the medium of video games likely would not be what it is now, or certainly not as quickly established.

Regardless of whether you spent your formative years with Link, Sonic, Ryu and Ken, Crash, Cloud, or Solid Snake; while you played, those tunes were etching an imprint in your auditory cortex that would last a lifetime.

This is why I can remember every note of the Green Hill Zone theme from thirty years ago, but songs I wrote and performed less than a decade ago are lost to time (not a major loss, but still). My point is that video game music is incredibly important. We all have songs and themes from our favourite games that have stuck with us for years.

There have been many games that have also explored the relationship between gameplay and music, some of my favourites being Metal Gear Rising and Devil May Cry 5, action games where the music reacts to the player's movements, ramping up in intensity as the fights progress or the style meter goes up.

These games show how the fun of gaming can be amplified by playing to the music, which is no surprise given the litany of rhythm games that have been released over the years.

Whether it be dancing games, the more literal interpretations of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, or more abstract rhythm titles like Thumper or Sayonara Wild Hearts, clearly, we love it when games embrace music.

NOTE: This article contains story spoilers for games like Alan Wake 2 and Baldur's Gate 3 - so proceed at your own caution.

Feel the rhythm

Chai leaping into the air in Hi Fi Rush
Click to enlarge

This all brings us to 2023, which I would argue is the most musical year in the history of video games. One of the first major events of this year was the Xbox & Bethesda Dev Direct, which revealed and shadow-dropped Hi-Fi Rush on us. Coming entirely out of left field, it's a game from Tango Gameworks, a side project and labour of love from folks within the horror-centric developer.

The hook of Hi-Fi Rush is that it's an action game deeply intertwined with its musical side, rewarding players for attacking on the beat. This is just the latest in a growing trend of games from across the genre spectrum that use music this way, like last year's Metal: Hellsinger.

Both games allow players to use rhythm to become stronger, rewarding good time rather than punishing you for losing it. You know that famous bit from Whiplash where J.K. Simmons throws things at Miles Teller for going off-tempo? This is the opposite of that.

Both Metal: Hellsinger and Hi-Fi Rush were lauded for their excellent implementation of rhythm, proving that players love it when you make music a core part of the gaming experience. One game took that idea in a totally different direction but went even further with it. What if, instead of music aiding gameplay, what if music was gameplay?

Adrift

Grace singing on stage in Stray Gods
Click to enlarge

Enter then Stray Gods: The Roleplaying Musical, and the most literal interpretation of the title of this article. Yes indeed, this is a musical in video game form, a tale steeped in Greek mythology that pits burgeoning musician Grace against a pantheon of the divine in musical battles straight off of Broadway.

This is a musical through and through. Characters interact and settle their differences through song, and as it's a video game, you get to control the direction your songs take. Veteran video game voice actors like Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, and Ashley Johnson get to stretch their vocal chords and perform the singing parts of their characters.

For gamers who love musicals, this is a dream come true. That dream came true twice in fact, as we cannot talk about video games and musicals ever again without bringing up Raphael in Baldur's Gate 3. Players who were brave enough to enter the House of Hope and face off against the demon Raphael found more than a difficult boss fight waiting for them.

Doomed, detected & caught

an artistic depiction of Raphael in Baldur's Gate 3
Click to enlarge
Image via Larian Studios

Baldur's Gate 3 has an exceptional score - the audio accompaniment to the best game of this year is suitably excellent as well. The combination of orchestral bombast and moody choir singing is the perfect soundscape for the game. The music swells and fills the room whenever you face off against the toughest foes the Forgotten Realms can throw at you.

Things change when you are face-to-face with Raphael, ready to fight to the death. As the battle begins, a new musical theme begins. Unlike all the others, this one starts with a solo vocal melody, then repeated by an organ. As the music reaches a crescendo it changes suddenly, and before you know it, Raphael himself is singing your doom to you.

What follows is the most wonderfully silly song where Raphael sings menacingly about how you have been caught, mocking you in proper musical fashion. It verges on pantomime levels of villainy and would handily cross that line if it weren't so excellently orchestrated and performed.

If you haven't heard it, I promise you that Raphael's Final Act is not only one of the best pieces of music in all of gaming, but also a moment of sheer artistry and love for the material that completely transcends what is already one of the greatest games of all time.

Herald of Darkness

Sam Lake, Alan Wake and Mr Door dancing in Alan Wake 2
Click to enlarge

2023 was not finished with the surprise musical twists, however, as Alan Wake 2 was still to come. We all expected some strangeness from the long-awaited horror sequel, and there is a strong musical influence in the first game, but I don't think any of us were quite prepared for Herald of Darkness.

For the uninitiated, part of Alan Wake 2 has Alan in a nightmare reality where he goes through loops of appearing on the same talk show again and again. In one of these loops, things take a bit of a turn when the host, Mr. Door, announces that they are going to take a slightly different approach to discussing Alan's life and work.

What follows is a full-on rock opera performance (courtesy of Remedy's favourite band, Poets of the Fall/the Old Gods of Asgard), which tells the tale of Alan Wake, complete with a dance number, costumes and props. It takes a special kind of survival horror game to have a musical interlude and not ruin the pace or tone, but that is exactly the kind of game Alan Wake 2 is.

Herald of Darkness shouldn't work, but it absolutely does. The performances of the band and the actors, both the vocals and the choreography, are performed with total sincerity and elevate the moment to something wonderful.

If you chat with anyone who has played Alan Wake 2, a thoroughly excellent Twin Peaks-inspired survival horror game, you can be guaranteed that the musical performance will be one of the key things they took away from it.

Kill the world

James in a dark doorway in El Paso, Elsewhere
Click to enlarge

Straying from the big budgets, there was one game this year that I knew I needed to play before the year was up. 2023 has been a bumper year for releases, both for video games and, unfortunately, the talented people who make them. It's been hard to find time for everything, but that one game I needed to find time for was El Paso, Elsewhere.

Coming from the same mind as Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator and An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, a new Strange Scaffold game is always something to keep on your radar. I knew El Paso, Elsewhere was a stylistic homage to Max Payne with a twisted splash of Constantine thrown in.

What I didn't know is that the game features a fully original, dark, visceral and grimy, absolutely massive hip-hop album written and recorded by the developers. It is more than a score or a soundtrack, the music is as intrinsic to the game as the album The Wall was to the film of the same name. The music comes together with the gameplay to create an experience like being inside a Death Grips album, which is the best sentence I've ever written.

El Paso, Elsewhere isn't a rhythm game, it doesn't use music as a mechanic and it certainly isn't a musical, but it is a perfect example of why music has always been so important to games. Without the soundtrack, it would still be a great game, but that music elevates the overall experience to an entirely new level.

Personally, I'd rate the game as one of the best of the year, hands down, but I don't think it would rate quite as highly without the music.

Champion of Light

Alan Wake dancing during the Herald of Darkness musical section
Click to enlarge

Let me put it to you this way: if books are a one-dimensional medium, film and TV are two-dimensional, and video games have three dimensions. This is a clunky metaphor but I promise I'm going somewhere with it.

Movies can use both the image on the screen and the sounds you hear to tell the story, to immerse you in another world. Video games can do these things as well, with the added dimension of gameplay. Graphical quality has climbed to ridiculous heights in the AAA space, and there is no shortage of mechanically excellent games out there.

All the while, music is often just there. While most big-budget games have music that is well-crafted and technically brilliant, it feels like a rarity when games do something interesting with this third pillar of the medium. The big difference between music and graphics or gameplay is that, quite frankly, music is much simpler to do.

It takes a lot of money to make a top-tier looker in today's gaming market, and with so many games out there, it can be difficult to create a game that stands out with its mechanics.

Music, as it has always been, can be anything as long as it is made with passion and creativity, and in 2023 we saw some of the best examples of that ethos applied to the music in our video games. I just hope the hits keep coming.

Dave is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon, after several years of freelancing across the industry. He covers a wide range of games, with particular focus on shooters like Destiny 2, RPGs like Baldur's Gate 3 and Cyberpunk 2077, and fighting games like Street Fighter 6 and Tekken 8.

Trending
Bellwright gets a release date, merging simulation & strategy in an ambitious way
As the Wii U and 3DS shut down online services, we've lost some modern classics forever
I played the Divinity Original Sin board game in a London basement
Marvel 1943: Rise of Hydra needs to avoid Insomniac's Spider-Man's biggest flaw
Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes preview - Heir apparent