Composed for Play: 11 of the Greatest Video Game Soundtracks Ever Made

Everyone’s at it. Look, there’s iam8bit instantly selling out vinyl runs of lavishly packaged soundtracks to your favourite independent games. Over there, it’s Brave Wave Productions, a music label founded ‘to explore the links between video games, music and nostalgia’. Nobuo Uematsu just had the LSO doing ‘Still More Fighting’ at The Barbican Centre.

Video game music has tipped, it’s now so popular that it no longer needs video games to itself exist, see the scores of chiptune and synthwave artists on Bandcamp, see the Classic FM shows, see this 35 page list of artists who’ve sampled songs from the Super Mario series.

This is largely due to vast amounts of high quality music of every variety being produced in support of the world’s voracious appetite for games, and the composers of that music being pushed ever farther into the spotlight. A well implemented score can be as integral to a game as its control scheme, or protagonist; it can be used to break the fourth wall, or submerge us deep within the sensory experience of playing.

In this piece (and in part two, coming next week) we’ve chosen to highlight soundtracks that have made a lasting impact on how we look at music in games, owing to the inherent qualities of the scores themselves, or how the game deploys music in service of gameplay. We definitely left your favourites out, please enjoy.

TRANSISTOR

Supergiant Games’ ongoing collaboration with composer Darren Korb now spans four games, three prior to releasing everyone’s favourite hot boy summer ‘em up Hades; and while all are fantastic, Transistor is the most musically interesting of the set. In Transistor we play Red, a lounge singer who for reasons initially unclear, has lost her voice. The ingenious twist is that we do in fact hear Red many times throughout the game, as Red’s performances make up the game’s soundtrack. Voiced by Ashley Barrett (another frequent collaborator with the composer and studio), her composed, controlled takes wrap around Korb’s arrangements of skittering drum machines and classical instrumentation like mist, while the soundtrack becomes the narrative before your eyes. Furthermore, in one of the finest pieces of polish in games history, when we pause the game the OST fades into the background while Barrett contentedly hums a matching tune. [LJ]

Sunless Sea

It would have been easy for the composers of the Sunless Sea soundtrack, Maribeth Solomon and Brent Barkman, to go heavy on nautical motifs for the soundtrack. But instead, they created something every bit as distinctive and memorable as the game itself, crafting distinctive themes for the game’s major areas which compliment their character perfectly. Composing tracks that both complemented the superb writing of Failbetter Game’s world must have been no easy task, but they succeeded, making the soundtrack as important to the game’s atmosphere as its text and graphics are, with moments of light-hearted whimsy sitting alongside sounds of genuine horror that creep into your dreams at night. [SW]

Red Dead Redemption 2

The score for 2010’s Red Dead Redemption was a brilliant modern imitation of 1960s western soundtracks, in part mimicking Ennio Morricone’s work on the Dollars Trilogy. Musicians Woody Jackson and Bill Elm reportedly produced over fourteen hours of music when working on the game – thankfully, the official soundtrack release is just 75 minutes, albeit with another 48 for the Undead Nightmare expansion. Jackson also tackled the game’s follow-up (a prequel, despite the title) and created something just as enigmatic but perhaps more poignant, which is fitting for a game that is more consistently concerned with the story at hand than its predecessor, and arguably has more to do with the theme of redemption than the original game’s plot ever did. RDR2’s soundtrack is also comparatively dynamic, featuring collaborations with artists such as Colin Stetson (whose soundtrack credits include Hereditary, Color Out Of Space and the upcoming Texas Chainsaw Massacre film), Senyawa and Arca. In addition to the original score, the game also has an official soundtrack, featuring original recordings from the likes of Willie Nelson, Josh Homme and D’Angelo as well as several from songwriter and producer Daniel Lanois. [GP]

Skate

For many, the purpose of a video game is total sensory immersion. 2007’s Skate does this quite brilliantly. Few games so completely understand and respect the worlds that they are replicating. From the branded character clothing to the sunny, laid-back feel – the game (along with its two excellent sequels) hit skate culture bang on the head.

However, what really makes Skate truly great is the choice of music that comprises its soundtrack. Whereas the much-loved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series relied on punk and thrash from the likes of Millencolin and Suicidal Tendencies, Skate understands the real diversity of this subculture. David Bowie, Children Of Bodom and Gangstarr flow comfortably into one another and in the process make a great case for the open-minded and eclectic merits of skate culture. [TM]

Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture

It’d be a crime to write a list on video game soundtracks and not include a Jessica Curry score. Curry’s gorgeous orchestral work on games like Dear Esther, So Let Us Melt and even the far creepier Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs is always pitch-perfect, complimenting the emotional beats of these games’ stories perfectly. But her score for Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture is arguably her most impactful, very much taking a front seat in driving home the poignant themes of a game all about an oddly pastoral kind of apocalypse. The game sees the player navigating through a ridiculously idyllic English village but features absolutely no people save for voices and ghostly apparitions that give hints of backstory. In a town devoid of any people, the sound design and music becomes vital, at once reflecting both the beauty of the setting and the quiet despondency of the game’s story. Each of the past village residents even has their own leitmotif which weaves its way into the game’s dynamic music, meaning a character’s theme will arise as you approach a location that’s meaningful to them. [GP]

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 is testament to the power of collaboration. The game itself was the work of three separate developers, and while Olivier Derivier is credited as the main composer of the soundtrack, he brought with him an army of sensibly selected contributors, pulling from the ranks of contemporary synthwave (Scattle), and 16 bit chiptune pioneers (Yuzo Koshiro, who composed the OSTs for the original Streets of Rage games). The soundtrack is enormous in its breadth and contains almost two hours of music, paying just enough service to the literal sounds of previous titles in the series while swerving into and out of techno, house, metal, and ambient, facilitated by the massive technological leaps made since the release of the last title in the series in 1994. The songs here will take you back to the sun bleached seaside arcades and sweaty Namco Wonderlands of decades gone, while still managing to sound entirely contemporary, emblematic of the tightrope the developers walked to respectfully modernise the series. [LJ]

Total War: Shogun 2

As the ancient Shinto proverb goes; you haven’t played Shogun 2 until you’ve seen Ran (1985).

Whilst there is a growing trend of games being marketed as being Kurosawa-esque, Total War: Shogun 2 did this ten years ago, without much in the way of fuss, and before it was even a particularly marketable label. But arguably, Shogun 2 is a pinnacle of gamic interpretations of the late, great director’s work. If you’ve ever enjoyed the latter Sengoku Jidai-tastic pieces of Kurosawa’s later work, you’ll find much to love in Shogun 2’s OST.

The bombastic arrangements contained within are a key part of S2’s effortless atmospherecraft. Be they accompanying a miraculous victory over a superior force, or a valiant holding action to stem the tide of the dishonour and suffering wrought by realm-divide, the effect is always to accentuate the grim triumph of battle. Shogun 2’s soundtrack is moreish, flawlessly spinning together a mixture of dynamic, pumping game music, and the ominous hums and epic crashes of Kurosawa’s ever-evocative OSTs. For a micro-genre like Total War, it can be easy to get tired of an OST after spending your 70th hour of that week off (christ it’s fucking Thursday already), but Shogun 2’s rousing battle soundtrack will keep you going through the bloodshed, heartache and triumph of it all.

Shogun 2 was very obviously designed by people who understood Kurosawa’s works. It’s very design, (especially the battles) evokes his name without once uttering it. Whilst the narrative webs of intrigue, deceit, and drama spun by Akira are largely absent from the game (until such time as your best general defects of course), the games makes up for this in sheer ambience, in no small way as a result of it’s thundering OST. [RL]

Journey

Almost a decade on since Thatgamecompany released their landmark title Journey, the exquisite, serene strings of Austin Wintory’s sweeping score still tug at the heartstrings the way they did back in 2012, calling to mind incandescent sunsets, flowing waterfalls of sand and the crumbling architecture of a ruined civilisation.

Wintory worked alongside the game’s development team for a full three years, composing new music that the team would use whilst creating a new area. Wintory would then play through that new area and revisit the music, adjusting as he went. The final score is an elegant mix of orchestral strings and Eastern wind instruments with some powerful repeated motifs used throughout. The composer has spoken of coming up with one of the game’s main themes on the way to his car after his first meeting with the team, even calling himself so he could sing the piece to his voicemail, but other parts of the score took multiple rewrites, with the game’s ending in particular causing an issue.

The score’s biggest triumph is that it manages to accompany all the big moments in an impactful way whilst still being interactive by reacting to the player’s actions instead of simply playing on a loop. This was taken to the extreme when it was performed live, with an ensemble of musicians (conducted by Wintory) reacting to the actions on screen as players played the game in real-time. [GP]

Final Fantasy V

You can include almost any Final Fantasy game on this list and have it be justified, but if we’re picking just one then it’s Final Fantasy V, based on the track ‘Clash on the Big Bridge’, which is surely the single greatest track in any Final Fantasy game. A carefully controlled whirlwind of complementary melodies and rhythms that switch emphasis and lead without ever dropping the beat, it’s the kind of track that really pushes the envelope on what could be achieved on a humble SNES cartridge. That versions of it have appeared in FFXII, XIII (and sequels), XIV, and XV, as well as various spin-off games, speaks to its well deserved place within Final Fantasy fandom. That Nobuo Uematsu threw so much into a 90 second track without it becoming overwhelming shows just how superlative a composer he is. [SW]

Spiritfarer

You’ve replaced Charon as the ferryman of the dead, helping the spirits of the deceased to prepare for the beyond before leading them to the afterlife. You’re taking a beloved friend to the Everdoor, slowly rowing through a river of red flanked by white trees. Maybe they’re ready to pass on, maybe they’re scared, maybe they’re not really aware of what’s happening. Either way, the poignant piano chimes begin to slow, then they pause, and then you hear your companion’s last words, and take one last paddle up to the gateway. They say goodbye, give you a hug, and then float into the air and fade away forever, and just at that moment the rich sorrowful strings spring into life. If Max LL’s phenomenal score for Thunder Lotus Games’ wonderful game about caring for spirits before guiding them to the afterlife doesn’t make you cry at least once, you might need to check whether you actually do have a heart or not. The music frequently reflects the surprisingly charming and chipper nature of this game about death, but isn’t afraid of getting truly heartbreaking when the situation demands it. [GP]

THE Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time & Majora’s Mask

Sound has played a role in every single Legend of Zelda game over the series’ 35 year history, and in this regard the N64 era titles stand out like a crown jewel. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask may have two of the most loved soundtracks in gaming history courtesy of Koji Kondo, but it’s the way the two games integrate music into gameplay that truly set these adventures apart from the rest in the franchise.

Music and time are the foundation of both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, with the iconic ocarina being integral to game progress. In the former, the instrument is key to opening certain areas, dungeons and temples, also facilitating fast travel. Majora’s Mask takes this approach one step further, using music to both control time and heal others. These facets of gameplay in conjunction with Kondo’s superb compositional skills create an aura of shadowed beauty in both games, and unprecedented temporal control for the series.

Take for instance the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time, after withdrawing the Master Sword and experiencing the time skip for the first time. The Forest Temple’s eerie sonic theme echoes through the dimly lit, vine covered rooms conveying intrigue and a creeping sense of death. In Majora’s Mask, the Stone Tower Temple examines a time travellers acceptance of grief by forcing us to repeatedly play the ‘Elegy of Emptiness’ to recreate statues of the former lives Link has inhabited.

In the grand scheme of video game history they’re breathtaking soundtracks, driven by the simplicity of an aerophone and the pen of a brilliant composer. [GT]

Part two of this list is up now, click here to read.

Words: Luke Jackson [LJ], Stuart Wain [SW], George Parr [GP], Tom Morgan [TM], Rich Lowe [RL], Garrett Tanner [GT]

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