If you scan through the genres available for listening on Spotify, you might notice something: there are whole playlists dedicated to video game soundtracks. Scan through YouTube, and it won’t be long ‘til you find an enormous variety of compilations of video game soundtracks. Many keep to a single mood, genre, console, or developer.
These playlists aren’t compiled just for nostalgia’s sake, or as a niche hobby. Video game soundtracks, much like movie scores, are a popular genre of music. Its rules are looser than those of other genres, in many ways—in some respects, it could be seen as a meta-genre, which attaches to extant styles of music. However, they share common elements. Perhaps the most notable are a trend towards instrumentation and very intentional efforts to capture very specific moods.
Yet, it doesn’t seem to garner the same “high level” of respect that, say, film scoring does. Dozens of awards are dedicated to the composition of film music, while there are about ~10 for video games. Many of them have only been established recently. Listening to the music from The Legend of Zelda or Hollow Knight, or playing through Doom (2016) and Dark Souls III just makes the injustice of this arrangement not only even more glaring but also quite upsetting. The need for game composers to create something immersive that matches a particular scene while enhancing the interactivity of the game makes for a unique challenge. That challenge has arguably yielded some of the strongest compositions in the last 20 years.
The wider public, at least, agrees. Various composers, from the music team at Arc System Works to Nintendo, hold concerts with large audiences at the biggest venues in cities all over the world. Many of these performances feature rearrangements, twists, and remixes, highlighting the versatility of game music.
Flexibility, emotional intensity, and strong composition that lends itself well to remixing—these are the legacies of video game music. Developers, today, have taken that idea and run with it, creating incredible soundtracks that, in all honesty, make the purchase of the game worth it.
We’d like to share a list of some video games with soundtracks that are worth paying particular attention to for one reason or another. If you’re a music lover, then do yourself a favor and listen to their soundtracks on Spotify or, better, play the game and visualize the songs in this context.
Hades…and any other game by Supergiant
Composer: Darren Korb
This may be our fourth article mentioning Supergiant Game’s magnum opus, Hades. Darren Korb has done incredible work in every one of their games he’s composed for. Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre all capture distinctive moods and worlds, yet each is incredible.
Hades has this intense, bass-heavy metal influence that seems to come from the underworld itself. The calmer tracks can soften your heart, while the combat music makes you feel the adrenaline rush from the fights. The longer tracks, like God of the Dead, are a huge part of why those boss fights are so amazing.
The Last of Us, and The Last of Us Part II
Composer: Gustavo Santaolalla
The music for this series is a great example of how thematic influences of the music can enhance those in the game. The Last of Us is not a high-octane series. It’s a deep work of character analysis exploring trauma and loss, with a world that’s been stripped of everything. In a way, both games are about what happens when trauma rips away your layers and leaves you feeling alone, struggling to survive and retain who you are.
Accordingly, the soundtrack is rarely loud or obtrusive. Its best songs are soft, melancholic guitar tracks that are as massive a tearjerker as the games themselves. It’s minimalism in game music form.
Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal
Composer: Mick Gordon
If you hopped a train from whatever station The Last of Us’s soundtrack could be found at and went all the way to the other end, you’d find the soundtracks for Doom (2016) and Doom Eternal. Heavy, industrial, and metal to their very core, they’re exactlywhat you’d think of if you pictured yourself as the literal mythological apocalypse feared by demons. It comes as no surprise that one of the tracks in Eternal is called “The Only Thing They Fear is You.”
This is a soundtrack that you’ll listen to during a fight, grin, and simply say, “Well, this is fucking awesome.”
Composer: Christopher Larkin
Another game we tend to mention quite often is Hollow Knight. It’s one of the best Metroidvanias, 2D games, and just straight-up games to come out in the last decade. Christopher Larkin’s soundtrack is arguably a massive part of that success. One of his greatest skills is flexibility. Whether you’re traveling through the lush Greenpath, fighting a circus monster, or watching the tragedy that is the final(ish) boss, he seems to have a tool in his belt for every situation.
What’s more impressive is Larkin’s use of “themes”—recurrent progressions and movements in a song that appear in related songs, connecting them. You find them running all throughout the game, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, and sometimes as the first clue you get that two characters are connected.
Blazblue: Central Fiction
Composer: Daisuke Ishiwatari and Galneryus
The soundtrack to the Blazblue series is what happens when classical meets metal and asks: “How can we make every fight feel like the climax of the story?” This question is probably appropriate, as Blazblue is a precise, fast-paced fighting game that feels like the best fights from your favorite anime. Some of Ishiwatari’s compositions are even specific to certain fighter match-ups and absolutely match the tone of their relationship.
Dark Souls III
Composer: Yuka Kitamura and Motoi Sakuraba
Capturing the “dark fantasy” aesthetic perfectly, the soundtrack to Dark Souls III is mostly boss fights. The absence of music in other areas makes those songs stand out all the more. Somehow, despite the fact that most bosses have been reduced to monsters by the time you find them, each song matches the character’s backstory. The soundtrack to Aldritch (a corrupted wizard) is dark and eerie, while the giant Yhorm is backed by a song that is big and showy but tragic enough to match a man who was once good enough to make a friend swear to end him if he turned.
Composer: Lena Raine
The soundtrack to Celeste is equal parts emotional and calming, which is good, as the platformer, itself, is challenging and often stressful. The calm music balances this, allowing you to continue plowing through without needing to lay down and count to ten.