At their most influential, video games conjure worlds that capture our collective imaginations. We are inspired by the stories of distant and not-so-distant futures they tell. We live in a time when once seemingly fantastical utopias and dystopias increasingly appear as possible horizons.
The following five games offer remarkable narratives in their versions of dystopian settings. Yet, their soundtracks elevate them from really good games to all-time classics. These games have distinct settings, some more realistic and others more implausible. Some of these worlds might be preferable to our current moment. PopMatters looks to their sonic canvas because every dystopia, no matter how bleak, deserves a good soundtrack.
Ape Escape (Sony Computer Entertainment, 1999)
Picture this, if you will: adorable monkeys are loose all over the world. They are causing havoc in inventive and annoying ways. You are tasked with catching them by utilizing futuristic gadgets. Easier said than done.
Welcome to Ape Escape. While the apes are running amuck (maybe the least serious of all the games listed here), the soundtrack by legendary composer, electronic musician and DJ Soichi Terada (who also performs under the name Omokada) blasts through your speakers. The in-game music is dynamic, changing to match what is happening on screen. The upbeat melodies can instantaneously morph from a relaxed ambiance to pounding rhythms.
For its time, Ape Escape boasted a forward-looking experimental soundtrack. Terada took full advantage of the PlayStation’s compact disc format to deliver a whimsical yet futuristic sound. Look no further than “Frosty Retreat (inside)” with its chimes and bells to hear how progressive and playful Terada was with his compositions. “Snowy Mammoth”, a favorite track of mine, begins serenely and quickly develops a hypnotic beat. As you capture the monkeys in a net, you are rewarded with a revolutionary work of Japanese electronic music.
Fun fact: all monkeys in the future wear shorts. The quest to capture our hairy relatives is perilous, and the grooves that accompany the hunt are intoxicating. It’s not the worst future scenario if you ask me.
Metroid Prime (2002, Nintendo)
Once heralded as the “Citizen Kane of video games”, Metroid Prime remains among the best video games two decades since its release. The recent Nintendo Switch remaster is the ideal way to experience intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran’s desolate adventure on the planet Talon IV. The game’s soundtrack by Nintendo in-house composer Kenji Yamamoto and assisted by sound engineer Kouichi Kyuma, is a masterclass of sound design and atmosphere.
Talon IV’s narrow hallways and hazardous environments come alive through rich sound textures. The music is peak sci-fi futurism, mixing electronic instruments, computer-programmed sounds, and live orchestrations to notable effect. The compositions are intricate and foreboding. Take, for example, “Phendrana Drifts – Main Theme”, a contemplative piece whose delicate notes accentuate the open nature of the planet’s icy tundra.
Yamato’s and Kyuma’s score is the ideal company when stranded on a dangerous planet. Metroid Prime might be a future for the loners.
Nier Automata (2017, Square Enix)
A surprise hit when it was released, Nier Automata follows the story of androids sent by humans to purge the earth of violent robots that have claimed it. Weird, hilarious, convoluted, and engaging sum up game director and scenario writer Yoko Taro’s twisted vision of a future where robots just want to live like humans. They even want to have babies of their own!
Though fantastical in its sci-fi approach, Nier Automata is nevertheless a convincing dystopia courtesy of Taro’s tale of machines developing consciousness – think Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) but with more existential philosophical musings.
Though the game’s basic premise is now conventional by sci-fi standards, its soundtrack is anything but. The music adds a strange dimension to an already uncanny experience. Composer Keiichi Okabe and members of his music production studio, Monaca, created a grandiose score to match Taro’s ambitions. Nier Automata has it all: concert pianos, choirs, ambient new age sounds, and vocalist singing in a made-up language (called “Chaos language” created by singer Emi Evans). Songs like “The Sound of the End” and “Dark Colossus (Kaiju)” throw the kitchen sink at the listener—both Taro and Okabe aim to paralyze the player with the sheer audacity of the game’s visuals and sound.
The music pulls off an interesting balancing act, matching the game’s fast-paced action and somber and introspective moments. As a result, the eeriness of trekking through decayed cities overrun with fauna and flora never gets old. Without its music, Nier Automata would be a middling experience; with it the game becomes surreal. A future for the database cyborgs who dream of sheep.
Space Invaders Extreme (2008, Taito)
Some Space Invaders games lie at the intersection between outer space and the divine. However, only one seems to be made by intergalactic deities: Space Invaders Extreme. I won’t mince words here; Space Invaders Extreme is interactive art. It’s a neon canvas painted with numbers, pixels, and music – the game is “sourcery” (a portmanteau of source and sorcery coined by scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun).
When Tomohiro Nishikado’s and Taito’s Space Invaders first released in 1978, it really was an invasion. It popularized and helped familiarize video games for millions of people like no game before. You know the drill: alien invaders threaten, and you must pilot a spaceship to stop them as they descend wave after wave. Taito for the game’s 30th anniversary released Space Invaders Extreme (stylized SPACƎ INVADERS EXTRƎME) a reimagining of the original game as an audio-visual sensory experience.
Sixteen years later, the game’s modern sensibilities endured. The updated visual style is married with pulsing electronic music that the player can add beat flourishes every time they fire a shot at the invaders. Excitement mounts with every blast fired. And oh, the funky tunes! The music, courtesy of Taito’s official sound team Zuntata, is video game music you would dance to at the club. All the tracks stand out regardless of what version you play.
Expect a rush. Space Invaders Extreme is the future we would be lucky to have.
Umurangi Generation (2020, OrigameDigital and Playism)
Umurangi Generation, a game about photography as an act of resistance in a dying society, exudes cool. Umurangi is the Teo Reo Māori word for “red sky”. The game takes place in a “shitty future” where a Māori photographer takes pictures of a city under occupation. The human world is heading towards collapse. The music composed by ThorHighHeels will keep you fighting the good fight with a mix of hip-hop, jungle, and drum and bass. It’s a moody mood.
Umurangi Generation‘s penchant for irony and satire has good company with the early 2000s LA beat tape music created by ThorHighHeels. Think early Flying Lotus and Nosaj Thing. Tracks like “peaceful protests very nice and orderly” add a foreboding sense of dread to the game’s world, while “Haven”, with its synth sounds, feels as cool as the gameplay.
Umurangi Generation is truly one of the best-sounding dystopias. Alas, its story is increasingly becoming a reality for humans on this planet.