Music makes up a large chunk of any game’s narrative and atmosphere. It often accentuates a given character’s emotional state or adds intensity to a particular event. Depending on the mastery of the composer, a game can tell a story based on its music alone. Which is why the importance of soundtracks in video games has drastically increased in recent times, especially for story-driven titles.
And while certain games can no doubt benefit from a lack of music, there’s no denying that sound design plays a large part in shaping a game’s narrative. Games like Devil May Cry 5 and The Witcher 3 would lose a lot of intensity without music. And can anyone even imagine one of the older Resident Evil titles without the relaxing save room theme? Or an early Silent hill title without Akira Yamaoka’s disturbingly grating guitar tunes? I could go on and on, but you already know what I’m getting at.
With that in mind, we compiled a list of 5 best soundtracks for your listening pleasure. These are modern soundtracks which justify the purchase of that expensive record player and building an expansive vinyl record collection. For this list, however, only soundtracks composed specifically for that particular game were considered. So, as awesome as they are to listen to – no Burnout Paradise or GTA V.
Celeste is one of those 2D indie titles which just refuses to leave your mind even after you’ve turned the console off. It tells the tale of a young girl named Madeline who’s determined to climb a mountain – Celeste. As it turns out, the mountain itself is partially a metaphor and there’s much more to the story than meets the eye. It’s about mental issues, the struggle of dealing with them and the relentless uphill battle of trying to overcome these issues. That mountain is largely a visual representation of those struggles. And if you’ve ever dealt with similar issues, including depression, then this game might just provide you with a weird sense of solace.
Much of the game’s appeal comes from its deep narrative, but also its colourful visuals and the brilliant soundtrack. To start off, Celeste does exactly what I talked about earlier: it tells a story through music. It mixes electronic sounds from the bygone era of Nintendo and Sega with the soothing sounds of a piano. It’s sad and often almost melancholic, but it fits Madeline’s struggle of ascending the seemingly insurmountable mountain of Celeste. Early on, “First Steps” gives the impression of a beginning and that there’s a long, arduous way ahead. Other tracks, like “Quiet and Falling”, emphasize the previously mentioned melancholy and the overall loneliness.
Rightfully so, its soundtrack was nominated for numerous awards and managed to win some, too. And if you’re new to Celeste, its deep message and music, then surely give Madeline’s story a try.
Unlike Celeste or other games on this list for that matter, Doom doesn’t feature an emotional story. From the very first entry in 1993, Doom has been about relentless action and brutally killing demons. In the most recent title, you once again take on the role of the invincible Doomguy. And once again your goal is to stop demons from invading a research facility on Mars. And that’s pretty much all you do – slaughter demons – and what genre of music better to accompany this than metal?
Ambient music is almost nonexistent and Doom heavily relies on powerful guitar riffs in its soundtrack. In my recent article on why you should be looking forward to Doom Eternal, I already touched upon the game’s soundtrack. But to reiterate, it does perfectly exemplify what Doom stands for as a franchise. And Australian composer Mick Gordon did an excellent job at retaining the spirit of the franchise while also making it sound fresh.
To achieve the unique sound of Doom, Gordon used a 9-string guitar, rarely employed when creating compositions of any kind. He also took advantage of the chainsaw sound from the original Doom in certain tracks. These elements added a unique and almost inhuman tone to the soundtracks. After all, these tracks must keep up with the relentless action of the game throughout its campaign. Every battle involves tearing off demon limbs, gouging their eyes out or just sawing their bodies in half. And that’s where tracks like “BFG Division” “Flesh and Metal” and “Rip and Tear” constantly take the auditory spotlight.
Final Fantasy X
One of my personal favourites. Final Fantasy X revolves around a Blitzball player Tidus and young summoner Yuna. Though we take control of Tidus, the story largely focuses on Yuna and her pilgrimage of defeating Sin. Considered as a punishment for humanity’s misuse of technology, Sin is a giant monstrosity which roams the lands of Spira and destroys its many settlements. Little do they know, Sin turns out to be Tidus’ late father. Final Fantasy X tells one of the more sombre stories in the series, one without a happy ending per se.
Once again involving the work of long-time composer Nobuo Uematsu, this soundtrack is a masterpiece. After playing the game, many songs will forever remain embedded in your mind. From the distinct and cheerful tunes of its towns and open plains to the intense battles against its many bosses. By this point, whenever hearing “To Zanarkand”, everyone pictures the same iconic scene with the party next to a bonfire. There’s also an unforgettable romantic scene between Tidus and Yuna accompanied by the cute “Suteki Da Ne”. And, I’m sorry Sephiroth, but Final Fantasy X features the best boss battle theme ever conceived: “Otherworld”.
Despite receiving predominantly favourable review scores, Final Fantasy X has somehow become an object of ridicule in the series. But regardless of its alleged shortcomings, it’s impossible to argue with the quality of the game’s soundtrack. So, if you haven’t already, do your ears a favour and have a listen… to his story. And the soundtrack, of course.
Nier: Automata somehow comes up on almost every list these days: best RPGs, most impressive boss battles, most attractive female androids. Just think of a list featuring modern games and Nier will likely be on it. But even among its many positive characteristics, the superiority of one stands out in particular – its soundtrack.
Whenever I think of Nier: Automata, the first thing that comes to my mind is its brilliant tracklist. This largely comes down to the fact that Nier uses a fictional language for many of its songs. And this language brings you, the player, into an otherworldly experience, which very few other games can offer. The closest comparison that I can think of is Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia, both in terms of the overall style and the use of a fictional language.
Depicting a dystopian future, Nier focuses on three androids and their battle against machines in the name of mankind. But despite this bleak setting, its soundtrack features a surprising amount of emotional depth. Every character in Nier, whether a protagonist or a boss, has a story to tell. And this comes across through every song. From the spirited “Bipolar Nightmare” to the sad, yet hopeful “Kaine” to the downright depressing “The Sound of the End”, every track in Nier is filled with some kind of symbolism.
Nier: Automata was nominated for many musical awards and won a generous amount. It’s definitely one of the more memorable and impactful soundtracks to come out in recent years.
Shenmue 1 & 2
Japan, November 1986. Teenager Ryo Hazuki witnesses the death of his father and sensei at the hands of a man named Lan Di. Ryo is still a beginner martial artist, but despite that, he determines to find the killer and avenge his father. His lengthy search for Lan Di takes him throughout his hometown, Yokosuka, all the way to distant Hong Kong in the sequel.
During his journey, Ryo interacts with other people, battles against local gangs and manages to visit the arcade in-between. Each scene and event is accompanied by a fitting musical composition. The music emphasizes the dramatic events, intensifies during battles and provides some cute tracks for the romantic segments. It brings you into the oriental world of Shenmue.
Naming any stand-out tracks would require me to name the whole list because it’s that good. But if you do want to gain an impression on the music of Shenmue, then start with its main theme – “Shenmue”. After that, listen to “Daily Agony”, “Tears of Separation” and “Departure on a New Journey”. These tracks tell a story in just ten minutes; they describe loss, sadness, determination and struggle.
Shenmue came out in 1999 when musical compositions in many games still consisted of “beeps” and “squeaks”. Having a full orchestral score in a video game was not common back then. And because of that, it still sounds as good as 20 years ago. While the soundtrack for Shenmue 2 is not as memorable, some tracks worth listening to include “Xiuying’s Theme” and “A Thousand White Building”.
Have you played any of the games listed? More importantly, do you own any of the related soundtracks in any form? Let us know in the comments below. And if you can think of other soundtracks which deserved to be on the list, feel free to share your thoughts as well.