The competition for orchestral score of the year keeps heating up inside my brain.  This has been a banner year for game scores, and I can’t wait to hear what’s coming next.  The bar is as high as it’s ever been.

Say what you want about the game, but the music for Beyond: Two Souls is exquisite.  It is, by far, the most delicately written video game score by Lorne Balfe, a bubbly, Scottish composer from the Hans Zimmer camp.

One of the most effective tools in scoring is something called “restraint”.  Balfe found it and capitalized on it in this music.

“Jodie’s Suite” opens sparsely, with a gentle, vulnerable female voice.  The way the piece unfolds in the opening moments mirrors the growth of Jodie through the game – by the time the singer begins the melody again, her voice is much stronger now, and the strings join her.  Later, she triumphantly sings the melody up an octave.

I love how Balfe toys with the (get ready for music theory geek time) 7th scale degree – implying at the beginning a flat-7, but later, dipping to the major-7.  Messing with the 7th degree is more complicated than that, because we hear that note as a part of a larger whole; it’s a part of a progression, so it acts in different ways at different times. However, since Balfe alters it chromatically, it stands out.

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Listen: Jodie’s Suite

More gorgeous writing from Balfe in “Dawkin’s Suite”.  Cello is pretty much the best instrument ever, it’s a fact backed up by absolutely no research.  This melody is proof of why the cello is so great.  How do you score hope? Music covers the gamut of emotion, no doubt.  I think ‘hope’ is something difficult to pinpoint.  This music makes me feel hopeful.

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Listen: Dawkin’s Suite

“Aiden’s Theme”, on the other hand, makes me curious.  It’s scary, but not terrifying.  Again, Balfe is mirroring the plot here.  Aiden is scary because he doesn’t make sense.  He’s linked to Jodie, who can be a kind soul.  I appreciate that Balfe didn’t overdo the fear factor with Aiden’s music.

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Listen: Aiden’s Theme

When I interviewed composer Normand Corbeil about his music for Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, I asked him about the piano.  He said, “David (Cage) loves the piano.”  When I spoke with Balfe about using piano in Beyond, he said, “David loves the piano.”

Balfe delivers a simple, fine-spun piano piece in “Childhood Memories”.  The cello sneaks in, perhaps a reminder that Dawkins is a part of her childhood, or perhaps because Balfe felt like it.  Good choice either way.

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Listen: Childhood Memories

“Jodie’s Story” is touching, if only because Balfe combines the Jodie theme with the theme from “My Imaginary Friend”.  It happens about halfway into the track.

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Listen: Jodie’s Story

David Cage allows his composers to write.  If you’ve not played a Quantic Dream game, there are long stretches where the player isn’t required to do much.  Could be why some people dislike the games.  The cinematics and dialog that absorb a lot of time in Beyond are supported well by Balfe’s score, and add meaning and insight to the story.

On the other hand, a score like Garry Schyman’s BioShock: Infinite was sparse; a lot of the tracks are really short, but holy s**t that music is amazing.

Truly, this has been a terrific year for game scores.  A couple months to go… do you have a favorite score from this year?

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Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.