Lena Raine is a composer and producer based out of Seattle, WA, and Osaka, Japan. She is known for her work on games like Celeste, Guild Wars 2, and Hackmud, and last year released her own interactive novel, ESC, which she wrote, designed, and scored. In 2019, she released her debut, full-length album, titled Oneknowing. She's @kuraine on Twitter.
Link's Awakening is a game that holds a lot of significance for me. I loved the Zelda games when I was growing up, but I was so bad at them. I played Legend of Zelda and Adventure of Link over and over, never really getting too far. (To be fair, I was like 6-7 years old, but I'm still garbage at them). When Link to the Past came out, I didn't have an SNES or the ability to play the game. So when Link's Awakening released, I dove into it on my Game Boy and sunk completely into the world and its characters. It was one of the first games I ever beat, and probably the precursor to me getting super into RPGs, because this was one of the first games I'd played that made me feel like I wanted to live in its world. It was also the first time I felt deeply emotional upon beating it, seeing the effects of waking the windfish and what it meant for Link, Koholint Island, and all its inhabitants.
The remake, then, was a rush of nostalgia for me that I think a lot of people share. The updated look, the beautiful arrangements of its music, the significant usability upgrades, everything went into updating one of my favorite games ever to a classic experience that I got to relive. I'm so happy it exists, and that other kids out there can get to experience it for the first time.
The Jam: Tal Tal Heights (Heroic)
Fans love Tal Tal Heights, Nintendo loves Tal Tal Heights, arranger & orchestrator Ryo Nagamatsu clearly loves Tal Tal Heights as this ridiculously elaborate and beautiful arrangement shows. I could absolutely just stand in the mountains here and listen to this track for days.
It's 2019. Mental health is a big deal, with increased awareness and acceptability. Zachtronics' visual novel, led by Matthew Seiji Burns (who I collaborated with last year for Celeste's B-Sides), tackles those themes more directly than many things I've read or played through. While the story goes well beyond just therapy and into issues like corporations, big tech, AI development, and (unsurprising to me) modular synthesis, the story is grounded by its protagonists that lay out a richly layered series of interactions and humanity to dig through in all the various ways it depicts its characters. It's something I'm very glad I played through, and one of my favorite stories of the year.
The Jam: Nora's Track
I love in-world music presented in games, and music described in novels. In a visual novel, you get to do both, so it's an amazing set piece within Eliza where Matthew both describes the music he's written as Nora, as well as play the music itself in real-time as it dynamically unfolds with the description. An amazingly performed feat.
Kingdom Hearts is such a weird series, where I feel exactly as invested as I need to be every time a big entry in the series comes out, and then never invested enough afterwards to dig any deeper into the fandom. I love the characters as they exist in the games, and then beyond that point they disappear into a marketing ether that wants to sell giant keys, leather coats, and capital-D Disney.
Like a lot of kids born in the '80s and '90s, I grew up with Disney movies. I watched the Disney Afternoon shows, bought into the Disneyland hype, have a Disney Villains mug still in my cupboard from when I went with my family back in 1990-something. I don't like Disney the company these days. I refuse to buy into Disney+, and am very selective about which Disney or Star Wars or Marvel things I watch.
That said, the moment KH3's release date started to approach again, I was drawn into the childlike wonder that those games bring back for me. I went back through the entire series, I played through Birth By Sleep for the first time, watched summaries of everything else I hadn't experienced first-hand, even fully caught up on the mobile game's story. And then when I played through Kingdom Hearts III, I was all-in. The game feels so wonderful to control and, despite the obvious limitations in some of the worlds' development from such a prolonged production, I ended up totally loving the conclusion to a story I'd been invested in since the early 2000s.
And now, I'm reflecting back on it, I'm not sure how excited I am for the upcoming story DLC, can clearly see a lot of the storytelling faults. The whole thing feels like a weird fever dream I'm not sure existed. But in the moment, it was such a wonderful time.
The Jam: Anti-Aqua
Yoko Shimomura has constantly been a source of beautiful music in the Kingdom Hearts series, and KH3 was no exception. What really got my heart breaking were the wordless vocals in Anti-Aqua, almost reminiscent of something from Dark Souls III. It's a gorgeous collection of motifs that all combine into something extremely beautiful.
I didn't beat Fire Emblem; it's an exceptionally long game that I ended up making even longer by being so meticulously precise and completionist about every single possible day. I did too many side battles, got way over-leveled, maxed out my relationships with every possible student before the time skip, returned every single lost item, and made so many amazing dishes. I did all the paralogues (again, before the time skip). I made a very specific decision in the Black Eagles storyline, which led to a number of events playing out in a way that I could believe would be very different in someone else's game. Unfortunately, those moments didn't resonate with me as much as the mundane day-to-day life I'd spent 70 hours becoming immersed in.
I know this is a weirdly negative bent to ostensibly my seventh favorite game of the year, but my ranking really has nothing to do with the actual storyline of FE3H, but the secret game behind the scenes and the side battles that felt even more consequential as a result. Because of how dynamic and varied the outcomes can be near the middle of the game, I unfortunately felt like those moments didn't have the same amount of budget given to them compared to the scenes that everyone was guaranteed to see. While not as drastic, it felt almost like the 2nd disc of Xenogears where we're given a synopsis complete with screenshot backdrops from scenes that were never fully animated. It wasn't ruined by the truncation, but it left a feeling of "what if" that could never be answered within the budget allotted.
But my time with Three Houses will be forever memorable thanks to the students that I trained and got to know and understand over the course of my 30-turned-70 hours of gameplay at Garreg Mach. They grew up, became badasses, sure of themselves and able to tackle the impossible world they were born into.
The Jams: God Shattering Star & Shambhala
All of the music in Fire Emblem Three Houses is good as hell, but I just mostly wanted to call attention to the fact that both of these tracks exist in the same game. I love it.
Ongeki didn't release this year, but having spent 5 out of 12 months in Japan this year meant that I was finally introduced to the world of Japanese arcades, their rhythm games, and the weird melange of genres that is Ongeki.
Approaching a cabinet, you'd be hard pressed to figure out what exactly the game is. There's a joystick in the middle of the play area, for one. What kind of rhythm game has a joystick?? Ongeki, of course. There's three buttons on each side of the joystick, though you'll only need one set of them until you approach the hardest track difficulty. And then there's also two large buttons, one on each side of the cabinet itself, weirdly positioned and obscure enough that I didn't know they were buttons until I was instructed to hit them.
In an age of touch screens and fairly imprecise controls, what Ongeki presents to playing a rhythm game is one of the most intimately tactile experiences I've had the chance to learn and master. As you flow across the simple button charts, you'll find yourself with one hand on the joystick, maneuvering your trio of characters (did I mention there's characters?) across the safe portions of the track, dodging bullets, hitting notes, collecting bells, and occasionally slamming against each wall. The resistance of the buttons, the analog motion of the stick, the arm dexterity as you slap and hold side buttons while gliding across the other buttons across to the stick, all combine to feel like you're playing some bizarre instrument that I've spent a whole paragraph explaining and could probably never fully convey without you experiencing it.
Did I mention there's cards? And characters? Each track is a battle against an enemy with HP, each note you press is an attack, there's elements like some mobile game, you roll gacha on characters that level up, have SR and SSR rarities, elemental strengths, affection? Passive skills? It's weird. It mostly doesn't matter. Just choose your strongest in the rock-paper-scissors of elements. But you can print out cards of each character, and spend an additional dollar to give it an extra holo border. (Pokémon including this analog in their latest makes a lot more sense if you've done this.) Printing a card powers up its character. Get a dupe? Print it again and you can raise its max level, remove card elements to customize how aesthetic you want your physical goods. Your user name is printed on each one, if you want.
IT'S SO MUCH. But most importantly, it's very fun, even without its quarter-sucking mechanics, and the songs featured are updated constantly, have exceptionally fun chart design, and keep me playing every trip to the arcade.
The Jam: Mare Maris by M2U
While it originally debuted in the game maimai, the chart for Mare Maris in Ongeki is extremely fun & doable at my skill level on Master, and a total jam to listen through outside the game too.
I was prepared to not like Death Stranding. I've always enjoyed the concepts of Kojima games, as I've explained a lot over the past few months since this game ramped up its marketing for release. However, what I don't generally enjoy doing is stealth, or shooting things, which the Metal Gear series has always made its central concepts. What do I love to do in games? Interact with weird systems. Navigate spaces. Plot out routes to go from Point A to Point B. Engage with odd player-synchronous worlds. Investigate madcap science fiction concepts.
Lucky for me, that's basically what Death Stranding is. In a world where so many people are getting games fashioned specifically for them--the shooting fans, the western open-world RPG fans--it feels really good to be surprised by a game that seems specifically targeted at my favorite kind of bullshit.
I can't say much else about the story and premises, since it's all pretty fresh and I don't want this to be a big exposé on spoilers. There's some massively distasteful shit. It's a Kojima game. There's stuff I can't ignore. But the core of Death Stranding, the game? It's exactly the kind of weird stuff I love to play, and will probably keep going back into its world to check in and spam Likes on some helpful ladders.
The Jam: Don't Be So Serious by Low Roar
The opening moments of Death Stranding, set to this song, absolutely set the tone in a way that I think couldn't have happened without it as a licensed track. I'm always wary of licensed music in games, but when it's placed thoughtfully and without much attachment for nostalgia or playing into trends, it can work out tremendously.
Everyone has a first Pokémon story, probably. Mine goes like this: I was a freshman in high school when Pokémon Red & Blue released in September of 1998. Like, literally just started high school. I didn't know anyone, it was my first public school experience in 4 years after my parents whisked me away to a weird private school that probably did me more harm than good. I had a Tamagotchi that I took care of during gym period, and during lunch I played Pokémon (Blue). I was immediately branded that nerdy kid, and would never recover until later in the year when I donned black hoodies and filed my nails into points and was branded that weird goth kid instead. Anyway, there was a fellow nerdy kid that felt like we'd get along, because he also played Pokémon. So we hid out in the school library's back shelves during lunch, ate sandwiches, and broke out the link cable to battle and trade. I didn't really like him that much, he was loud and opinionated and had the attitude of someone that probably would've called people "cuck" on Twitter, but we played Pokémon together, and that became a pretty formative experience for me and the series. In a lot of ways, he was my Rival, as the series always tries to establish in each game.
Twenty-one years later, here I am again, except now Pokémon has changed. Not much, but just enough. I'm playing with my fiancee in her apartment that we share in Osaka. The rival in-game has self-esteem issues, impostor syndrome from his older brother who happens to be the Champion. There's another rival who is a pretty sweet girl with an intimidating aura and a flock of unfortunate fans that beat other people's Pokémon up if they look at her funny. She probably also wore hoodies and filed her nails into points when she was younger. She'll eventually grow up and develop a love of the color yellow, soften her wardrobe a bit and get some comfy sweaters, but still break out the leather jackets and skirts when she's feeling gothy.
But the most important difference is that, when you press + to connect to the internet, the world is full of people like you in its large, open Wild Area. There's people from all different countries and languages, different genders and ages, who say hi to you in their native language before giving you a pack of noodles to cook into curry when you want to give it a shot. You can team up with those strangers to fight and capture huge Pokémon, or randomly exchange cards. You don't know them, but you know they exist, everywhere. You're not just a loner in a high school where there's one kid out of hundreds who you have to find a common bond with because he plays Pokémon like you. He's not the only choice, and you're not the only one out there.
The Jams: Bede Battle & Slumbering Weald
Honestly there are SO MANY complete jams & bangers & other words for great tracks in Pokémon Sword & Shield. I couldn't just narrow it down to one, for the two reasons these tracks display: There's a ton of amazing battle tracks, of which this is definitely my favorite. But there's also just some extremely solid area BGM. In the first 10 minutes of the game, they throw Slumbering Weald at you and the string sections, the wolf howls as instruments, the electric piano, everything combines into such an amazing palette that sets you up perfectly for how eclectic and creative the entire soundtrack is.
Final Fantasy XIV is an enormous game, and every year it's one of those games that I find myself gushing about, but unable to recommend to anyone without a full page of disclaimers. In isolation, then, let me say that Shadowbringers is an amazing expansion with great story. It's also an MMORPG. In between ridiculous reveals and intense boss fights, you'll have to do some fairly mediocre side quests, probably grind a bit, and delve into stories that aren't nearly as interesting as the main thrust of things. But when things are good, they're exceptionally good in a way that is so specifically "Final Fantasy" in its tone and delivery that I'm honestly not bothered that a traditional release hasn't happened in years.
More importantly, the story of Shadowbringers is a very current-day and political one. It perhaps resolves a bit too optimistically to be perfectly reflective of the world we live in, but the analogs of capitalism, greed, and power are ones that resonate very strongly for me in 2019. It's hard to give much more of an anecdote without stepping into direct examples, but the story goes places I wasn't expecting it to go, involved one of the most interesting villain depictions outside of film or novels, and continued to convince me to play even more of this hundreds and hundreds of hours-long tale.
The Jam: The Dancing Plague (Titania's Theme)
I know, most people would probably choose the Shadowbringers main theme, but this track is just such an incredible jam with electric piano where most renditions of something like this would probably go extremely Elfman orchestral. Fa la la la la la~
2. Outer Wilds
Outer Wilds is a co-op game, at least in how Erica and I tackled it. In fact, I think it may have been an even more engaging experience because we played it side-by-side. The world is an entire solar system's worth of lore, history, puzzles, and anecdotes from both the precursor race and its current explorers. Every time we discovered a new piece of the story, the implications of some research or another, our thoughts were out loud and spawned conversations and "what ifs" that led to each new experiment and exploration. The way that the world works, its internal logic, everything went into making something that feels so special and unlike nearly anything I can remember playing.
Sometimes I would be working on music while Erica played, and she'd discover something new. I'd immediately come down to the sofa and pore over the new knowledge like some actual archaeological discovery. Other times, I'd play navigator when the game became too frightening to continue. She'd hand over the ship's controls to me, and I'd do my best to subtly boost ahead into the terrifying depths of the infinitely-recursive Dark Bramble. The intensity ramped up so significantly that, when we finally pieced together the totality of the worlds' mysteries, we both sat back as the penultimate piece of music began to play, and proceeded in silence until every last bit of the game's finale and epilogue was finished.
I'll never be able to experience that again, and it was worth every moment.
The Jam: Final Voyage
I will cry every time I hear this music. That's all.
If you know me, you'll know that the games made by Kotaro Uchikoshi are my exact kind of bullshit. The Zero Escape series, starting with 999 thru Zero Time Dilemma, drew me in so completely with their weirdly specific thought experiments, number logic, enigma-within-enigma plot lines and characters. It's a weird thing to say, but Uchikoshi is one of the only writers these days that I trust to deal in plot-twist-centric stories. So much about that concept has been done to death, unfortunately, in a post-Shyamalan world where films and novels constantly try to out-do each other through how weird their twists can be, to the point that spoiling the twist means spoiling the entire enjoyment of the experience.
In Zero Escape, and Somnium Files after it, the story is so carefully doled-out that the twist isn't the only impactful part, and actually knowing where things are going doesn't spoil the journey it takes to get there. More importantly, the dream logic the game operates within means that consciousness and surrealism are par for the course, and the meandering story answers the question of "what actually happened" with, "why not everything" before narrowing it down to the exact course of events that it takes to its inevitable conclusion. It's an amazing journey, with thoughtful and well-rounded characters, rad music, and plenty of bad puns and jokes if you want to click around every possible object in the environment before moving on.
The Jams: PSYNCIN' IN THE MOUNTaiN & PSYNCIN' IN THE SUSTaiN
Without spoiling anything, these are two of my favorite & most emotional BGM tracks from the game. Keisuke Ito really did an amazing job on such a varied soundtrack, and it's one of my favorites of the year.