Truly memorable games appeal to our senses with more than just beautiful visuals and slick gameplay. They worm their way into our heads with soundtracks that mirror their visual aesthetic, from epic adventures to haunting landscapes to whimsical fancy. Merely hearing a few notes of certain soundtracks can instantly transport the nostalgic gamer to another world.
Here are a few soundtracks that almost every gamer should own (or at least listen to from time to time). Whether you buy them, stream them, or listen to them in-game, these are worth a listen whenever you want to escape the doldrums of everyday life.
Let's start with some of the standouts of the last year, shall we? Ni No Kuni has a beautiful and sweeping soundtrack from renowned composer Joe Hisaishi, who has collaborated with Studio Ghibli on many other brilliant projects including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro.
Bioshock Infinite's soundtrack is a brilliant mashup of classic and new music remixed in wonderfully anachronistic genres, particularly bluegrass, gospel, blues, and swing. Unfortunately, they've shamefully failed to release that version for sale, and you'll have to pilfer YouTube for it. The official soundtrack is also available only for those who purchased Collector's Editions of the game. Still, if you enjoyed the music from Bioshock Infinite, you might like the unofficial soundtracks.
The Last of Us received tons of fanfare this year and deservedly so. The music augments the post-apocalyptic feel with haunting acoustic strings, western-sounding riffs, and the occasional pulsing percussion.
Indie soundtracks are often surprisingly great, and this year's Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is among those. At times, epic, playful, and haunting, this soundtrack pairs quite beautifully with the game and is definitely worth a listen.
Speaking of awesome indie soundtracks, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery is practically built around its music from composer Jim Guthrie. From their own website: "We wanted to create a relaxed, musical experience that would encourage people to listen, be playful, explore and be surprised." It worked! The music is whimsical, ephemeral, and everything in between. When they encourage you to play with headphones on, they mean it.
Bastion is another of those captivating indie soundtracks. The only thing more epic than the music is the narration, some of which is even on the soundtrack. It's a brilliant mix of western, blues, and electronic music that, to me, is reminiscent of Cowboy Bebop (one of my all-time favorite anime soundtracks).
We'll close out the indie selections with Journey and its meditatively soothing music. It is probably my favorite music to write by: smooth strings, light percussion with bells, and the occasional stirring romp. The music is as contemplative and relaxing as the game itself.
Music from The Legend of Zelda (along with Mario) is the gaming world's equivalent of the most popular John Williams themes from movies. Almost everyone can recognize these classic themes. They may not be able to place the game, but they'll almost certainly have heard it before. Zelda's themes prompt a sense of epic adventure and lighthearted exploration at the same time. Sadly, it's difficult to get an official Zelda soundtrack without buying it imported (at a significant markup); your best bet outside of Japan is to buy a copy of Skyward Sword for the Wii (worth playing on its own merit) which also includes the 25th Anniversary Special Orchestra CD. The other option is to buy Video Games Live, a compilation of lots of great video game music (we'll cover it later).
Buy The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword from Amazon (includes the 25th anniversary special orchestra CD)
With World of Warcraft, it's hard to say whether it's the sheer weight of nostalgia or the merits of the soundtrack itself that draw me back. Whenever I hear the familiar strains of almost any theme from this soundtrack, I'm instantly transported to Azeroth. It has everything, stirringly epic orchestral movements, powerful choral suites, and haunting solos. Each expansion has its own soundtrack that echoes the expansion's themes - Wrath of the Lich King sounds wintry and haunting, while Mists of Pandaria has lighter overtones with a clear Asian influence.
Much like World of Warcraft, Skyrim's soundtrack is huge, epic, and feels cinematic in its scope. Most of the Elder Scrolls series has beautiful music, so if you like Skyrim be sure to check out the earlier soundtracks as well. And hopefully next year we'll have another good earworm from the full Elder Scrolls Online soundtrack.
Perhaps this is another of those nostalgic ones, but the Final Fantasy themes have always held a special place in my heart (as I imagine they do for most long-time RPG and FF players). This soundtrack is wonderfully diverse, ranging from the whimsical Chocobo themes and fast-paced fight themes to the percussively dark Mako Reactor theme that starts the game and the heartbreaking Aerith's theme that caps off the first act.
The Playstation 2 was the first system where game soundtracks weren't limited by bit-rate or disc size and first evoked a truly epic scope. Sure, early Nintendo games like Mario, Zelda, and Tetris are iconic, particularly given the constraints they were created within. But listen to the Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack and revel in how music can define the atmosphere of a game so beautifully.
I have a confession: I can't stand Halo. Oh, I've played hours upon hours of it (particularly the first game or two) in both the solo campaign and multiplayer modes. I understand why so many gamers caught on to it; even among my mostly non-gamer friends, this particular game ruled many a late night LAN party. It has plenty of merits, but it's just not for me. That said, the soundtrack is great: I love the combination of electric guitar, percussive throbbing, and deep choral echoes. It's unusual and iconic - I can't think of another game that has pulled it off since.
Another instant classic, the soundtrack from Red Dead Redemption is like the lovechild of a classic Western movie and a gritty 70s action movie. There are lots of great nods to classic Western music tropes: harmonicas, whistling, whips, trumpets, and maracas. If Ennio Morricone were to create a video game soundtrack, he would be hard-pressed to rival this one.
This Portal 2 soundtrack isn't exactly straight from the game, but it's still pretty fantastic and exactly what you'd expect if you enjoyed Portal 2. It's fast-paced, electronic, and exciting with funny and scary moments mixed in. Even if all you want to hear are the hilarious "Still Alive" and "Want You Gone" tracks (the end songs from both Portal 1 and 2, respectively), the rest of the collection is worth a listen as well.
Time for another confession: I love compilation soundtracks, especially when they're well-curated. All of the Grand Theft Auto games have great soundtracks for each radio station, but for me, the best stations were V-Rock and Emotion 98.3 Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, partly for the music and partly for the DJs. While they didn't have nearly as many radio stations as the latest GTA (17 radio stations! I'd have to play for weeks just to hear all the music on every station), what they had was perfect. I could cruise for hours in Vice City just listening to the radio. Of course, you're welcome to disagree - what station in which GTA is your favorite?
Buy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vol. 1 - V-Rock on Amazon
Buy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vol. 2 - Wave 103 on Amazon
Buy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vol. 3 - Emotion 98.3 on Amazon
Buy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vol. 4 - Flash FM on Amazon
Buy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vol. 5 - Wildstyle Pirate on Amazon
Buy Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Vol. 6 - Fever 105 on Amazon
Can't decide which soundtracks you love most? Chances are they've been covered by Video Games Live - a group that mashes symphony orchestras, rock bands, video game montages, and choral groups into one massively entertaining live performance. If you get a chance to see their show live, seize it. Even if you can't, the albums are great - they just kickstarted Level 3 a few months ago.
Did you miss the chance to kickstart Level 3? You can still kick in and get the early rewards on their site.
Still itching for great music? Here are a few artists worth checking out:
Who do you recommend?