Writer Mat Ombler and Laced community manager Tom Quillfeldt pick their favourite original and licensed video game soundtracks from the Teens.
By Mat Ombler and Thomas Quillfeldt
From 2010 to 2019, the Teens was an abundant decade for video games and game music — arguably transcendental rather than merely transitional. We’ve seen talented young composers rise to prominence, whilst many veterans have continued to dazzle with their mastery of the craft. There’s been all sorts of experimentation and genre-blending; and, not to be overlooked, music supervisors have outdone themselves in licensing killer tracks from megastar and minnow artists alike.
This is a personal, entirely subjective list by Mat (freelance writer) and Tom (Laced community manager and blog editor.) It is not a “Best of the decade” because this is not an independent media site; that, and we haven’t listened to every track of the thousands of game soundtracks released over the 2010s.
With one or two exceptions, these are all original scores and/or licensed soundtracks that play in the game — so no arranged albums or piano collections (much as we love them.) And, as arbitrary gods of this listicle, we’re going to cheat our pants off and group together multiple titles in special cases because we couldn’t bear to choose between them.
The list runs chronologically by year, alphabetically within a given year.
We’d love to hear what would be on your lists via Twitter.com/laced_records / Facebook / Instagram.com/lacedrecords. Please respect that nothing can be ‘missing’ from a personal list like this one — We haven’t ‘forgotten’ anything.
(Tom: There are some Laced Records-affiliated soundtracks included on the list: ones I already admired, grew to love through work, or that Mat nominated. We haven’t highlighted them as such, nor do we link to our products.)
Composer: Petri AlankoDeveloper Remedy channels Stephen King and The X-Files; while Finnish composer Petri Alanko nails the brooding aesthetic with clever synth and orchestral textures (earning a BAFTA nomination in the process.)
Composers: Geoff Knorr and Michael Curran; multiple artists (licensed tracks)A dizzying array of original and licensed music transports the player all over the globe, exposing them to classical and traditional pieces from almost every continent.
Tom highlight —
Fabula Nova Crystallis Final Fantasy core trilogy (2010-2013):
Final Fantasy XIII, XIII-2, and Lightning Returns
Composers: Masashi Hamauzu, Naoshi Mizuta, Mitsuto Suzuki, Yoshitaka Suzuki, and Hiroshi Kaneko (& Nobuo Uematsu's chocobo theme)
For anyone who wrote off Final Fantasy XIII, or the core Fabula Nova Crystallis trilogy, there are some essential music tracks that soar above the soppy piano cues that drew criticism as players suffered cutscene after cuscene in the first game.
Trilogy lead composer Masashi Hamauzu has a more angular approach to melody than series legend Nobuo Uematsu; and Hamauzu employs just as wide an instrumental palette covering light jazz, jazz-rock fusion, new age electronica, and huge orchestral and choral themes.
As brilliant as Hamauzu's work is, it's Mitsuto Suzuki's music for the sequels that especially blew me away. His best cues are delicate, mysterious, and hazy whilst also being as melodically rich as many Uematsu classic tunes. Definitely track down "Missing Link", "Temporal Rift", and "Parallel World" from XIII-2; and the jaw-drapping trio of "The Ark", "Nova Chrysalia", and "The Angel's Tears" from Lightning Returns.
Favourite track: "The Angel's Tears" by Mitsuto Suzuki from Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Composers: Marty O'Donnell and Michael SalvatoriBungie's last Halo game is also Marty O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori's last work on the series. Their score departs from the thematic material typically associated with the franchise in favour of a more sombre score.
Tom highlight —
NieR series (2010-2017):
NieR & NieR:Automata
Composers: Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, and Keigo Hoashi (as Studio Monaca); Emi Evans and J'Nique Nicole (lyrics); and Takafumi Nishimura
With the original NieR, and then solidified with Automata, lead composer Keiichi Okabe and company forged a new sound for the JRPG: full of drama and longing as you'd expect, but also sophisticated and deeply sorrowful.
Two particular aspects of these soundtracks hooked me: Okabe's command of simple, yearning melodies; and his creative collaboration with English singer Emi Evans, whose distinct vocals and linguistically impressionistic lyrics are an essential part of the whole package.
That said, I could not stop playing and replaying the Automata credits song "Weight of the World", especially J'Nique Nicole's English language version; although the multi-lingual version will also surely send shivers up the spine of anyone who's completed Route E.
Favourite track: "Weight of the World／English Version" by Keiichi Okabe and J'Nique Nicole from NieR:Automata
NieR – YouTube
NieR:Automata – YouTube
Red Dead Redemption series (2010-2018):
Red Dead Redemption & Red Dead Redemption 2
Composers: Bill Elm, Woody Jackson, and Daniel Lanois; multiple artists (original songs)Both games feature an evocative mixture of tasteful original score and pitch-perfect songs that create intensely memorable player moments. And no one's going to forget the ride to Mexico in Red Dead Redemption (set to José González's "Far away") in a while.
Super Mario Galaxy 2
Composers: Mahito Yokota, Ryo Nagamatsu, and Koji Kondo.Super Mario Galaxy 2's soundtrack has all the variety you'd expect from a game that sees you flit from one colourful planetoid to the next. Every new world boasts a wonderfully upbeat set of tracks, including some delightful arrangements of old Mario pieces not heard since Super Mario 64.
Composer: Darren Korb
Boasting electronic beats mixed with earthy guitars and bluesy songs, Bastion's soundtrack certainly pulled its weight in establishing the tone and texture of the game world — and it was Darren Korb's first, confident step towards establishing a signature Supergiant sound.
Dead Space 2
Composer: Jason Graves
Imagine: It's a beautiful sunny day. You lie back and don your big, comfy headphones and blissfully drift off whilst listening to Jason Graves' scrunging, scraping, spooky splurges of sound for Dead Space 2. You have to feel for the string section's instruments given the sheer violence with which they have to attack this music. Graves also uses off-kilter time signatures and erratic percussion to make this inventive score the audio equivalent of running across broken glass. Brilliantly horrible.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Composer: Jeremy SouleSkyrim's elegiac orchestral and choral score — interspersed with fireside lute ditties — remains a highlight of the decade. Players felt completely transported to a land of snow-capped mountains, dragons, and shopkeepers who don't object to having buckets put on their head.
Composers: Andrew Hale, Simon Hale, Woody Jackson, and The Real Tuesday Weld; multiple artists (licensed tracks)In typical Rockstar fashion, the L.A. Noire music team assembled some fiersomely talented musicians to create a wonderful period-ish score; then licensed a number of killer tracks by the stars of the era. The results are spectacular, rich with foreboding and sleaze.
Minecraft (albums: Volume Alpha & Volume Beta; 2011-2013)
Composer: C418You may not recognise the artist name C418 but there's a good chance you've listened to his music. With over 176 million copies of the game now sold, Daniel Rosenfeld's ambient tracks are (probably) some of the most listened to pieces of music in the history of the world.
Ni no Kuni series (2011- 2018):
Wrath of the White Witch & Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom
Composer: Joe HisaishiLong-time Studio Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi switches to the world of video games with two solid, colourful, and satisfyingly melodramatic JRPG scores. His usual quality of execution is present and correct, along with some killer melodic hooks.
Composer: Mike MoraskyMike Morasky takes us to digital heaven and hell with a soundtrack full of sawing synth sounds, arpeggiators, woozy tempo changes, and more musical tricks. Hats off to Jonathan Coulton for following up the seminal "Still Alive" with another passive aggressive classic, "Want You Gone".
Composers: Christophe Héral and Billy MartinThe sound of Rayman Origins zips between zany and soothing; serious and side-splitting; speedy and sedentary. There's also some fabulously silly vocal work by Christophe Héral.
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP
Composer: Jim GuthrieGuthrie's music for Sword and Sworcery is a peculiar blend of prog rock and chiptune, with the result being a compelling and distinct sound for a video game score. More impressive is that this was Guthrie's first forray into the world of game composition after he received a postcard from the game's developers asking him to collaborate.
To The Moon
Composers: Kan Gao and Laura ShigiharaA cursory listen to the music of To The Moon might suggest that its creators have veered too close to saccharine sentimentality. Playing through this bittersweet yet heart-warming game reveals that even the simplest piano pieces are delicately woven into the heartbreaking story — and will leave you with a lump in your throat, if not actually shedding a tear.
Composer: Jessica CurryThis beautiful poem of a game inspired the derogatory term 'walking simulator'. Composer Jessica Curry, now also a major radio presenter and champion of video game music within the classical world, created an eerie score so restrained and evocative that it works perfectly within the game, as an album listen, and as a live concert suite.
Composer: DisasterpeaceRichard "Disasterpeace" Vreeland started composing for games in the mid-noughties, but it's fair to say that the success of indie hit FEZ — and his mesmeric chiptune-ish electronica score — significantly boosted his audience. It's a warm, mellow synth sound that envelopes players, drawing them into the mind-bending, perspective-shifting, secret-stuffed world of FEZ.
Hotline Miami series (2012-2015):
Hotline Miami & Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number
Composers: Multiple artists (licensed tracks)Both Hotline Miami games boast exceptional licensed soundtracks from supercool underground artists, featuring house, synthwave, instrumental hip-hop, rock, dub, and more. In many ways the music and art style of the series have travelled beyond the two core games, with the colours, the vibe, and the clothes (including THAT rooster mask) all becoming an indelible part of games culture in the Teens.
Composer: Austin WintoryA triumph of melody, orchestration, impressionistic immersion into the game world, and depth of feeling; and, some would argue, the finest original game score of the decade. A GRAMMY nomination for Wintory's breakthrough soundtrack made it seem like video game music was about to reach parity with film music in terms of mainstream recognition — alas, that uphill struggle continues.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
Composer: Grant KirkhopeEveryone's favourite VGM Yorkshireman explicitly channels John Williams in this sweeping yet subtle orchestral score.
Max Payne 3
Composers: Health (band)
L.A. noise-rock band HEALTH mix thumping percussion with slow, drugged-out guitar lines and grimey synth work. Fans warmly recall the airport terminal shoot-out to the song "Tears".
Tom highlight —
Composers: Jeff Tymoschuk; multiple artists (licensed tracks)
I found Sleeping Dogs to be refreshingly different to the well-worn Grand Theft Auto template, and it was especially fun to get a feel for a virtual city — Hong Kong in this case — not set in the USA. The game also introduced me to incredible tracks from indie labels including Warp, Ninja Tune, and Roadrunner Records. Racing through the rain-soaked streets to Rustie's "After Light" was especially thrilling; and there was plenty of varied music from the Far East that I might never otherwise have come across.
My favourite track "House of Lightning" is a summery remix of Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne, and Cong Su’s main theme to the film The Last Emperor.
Favourite track: Jay Price – "House of Lightning"
Thomas Was Alone
Composer: David HousdenAlong with lead developer/writer Mike Bithell and narrator Danny Wallace, David Housden managed to make the journey of some colourful squares and rectangles touch people's hearts — and earned him a BAFTA nomination just a year out of university.
The Unfinished Swan
Composer: Joel CorelitzThe Unfinished Swan emits sheer charm, serving as one of the titles which, alongside Journey, solidified PlayStation's arty indie cred in the early Teens. Joel Corelitz handled the soundtrack for the fairy tale ball-tosser with a light, melodic touch; using synth harpsichord, strings, and Renaissance/Classical era stylings to keep the player bouncing around the fantasy kingdom.
Virtue's Last Reward
Composer: Shinji HosoeThe Zero Escape series features unsettling, often aggressive and distracting techno/electronica. Given the slow pacing of this visual novel with tricky escape rooms, players grow to appreciate how much work Shinji Hosoe's music does to create and maintain the atmosphere.
Assassin's Creed IV:
Black Flag & Freedom Cry
Composers: Brian Tyler, Sarah Schachner, Omar Fadel, The Flight and Olivier DeriviereBlack Flag's sea shanties alone make it a standout game in terms of music. Also, within an original score full of character, the use of celtic melodies makes it sound like the string section is throwing a party.
Composers: Garry Schyman and James Bonney; multiple artists (arranged tracks)
Garry Schyman returned to co-compose the score for this second sequel to 2007's seminal BioShock. He and interactive music specialist James Bonney employed a string ensemble, piano, violent perscussion, and more to take players on an emotional ride: at times thrilling and scary; at others joyful and relaxing. The various renditions of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" are beautiful and rich with textual meaning; whilst the barbershop versions of 20th Century pop hits including the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" are a knock out.
Mat highlight —
Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon
Composers: Power Glove (Jarome and Joel Harmsworth)From its satirical jabs at the games industry to cyber dragons firing off lazer beams and memes, it's impossible to take much of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon seriously — of course, that's the point. Blood Dragon is tribute to the B-movies of the '80s, and Power Glove's synthwave soundtrack brings the game's biggest and best moments to life in much the same way that John Carpenter's music does for his own films.
Favourite track: "Blood Dragon Theme"
Grand Theft Auto V
Composers: The Alchemist, Oh No, Tangerine Dream, and Woody Jackson; Multiple artists (licensed tracks)The best-selling, most profitable entertainment product in history, Grand Theft Auto V is a giant game with a giant soundtrack. For the first time in a GTA game, Rockstar added an original score alongside the hundreds of licensed tracks by all sorts of artists: from Rick James to Willie Nelson; Queen to Toro Y Moi; Agent Orange to Machinedrum.
The Last of Us
Composers: Gustavo SantaolallaGuitarist and film composer Gustavo Santaolalla brought the requisite emotional weight to this multiple-Game of the Year award-winning title. The score features devastating cello solos, primal percussion, earthy electric guitar licks; and, above all, a masterful sense of restraint.
Risk of Rain series (2013-2019):
Risk of Rain & Risk of Rain 2
Composer: Chris ChristodoulouGreek composer Chris Christodoulou established himself as a firm fan favourite in the indie game scene with his electronica score for the breakout hit Risk of Rain. At the time of writing, he has released an unmastered album of music from the early access Risk of Rain 2, but it still features some soaring prog rock tracks — if nothing else, check out the near-12 minute opus "The Raindrop that Fell to the Sky".
RuneScape 3 (album: The Orchestral Collection; 2013-2017)
Composers: James Hannigan, Ian Taylor, xxxAround the time that developer Jagex was planning a relaunch of the long-running MMO, James Hannigan was brought on board to add new music, as well as arrange classic 'Scape tunes for the orchestra. The results are spectacular, and also re-emphasise the quality of writing that long-time RuneScape composer Ian Taylor had achieved despite the harsh limitations of general MIDI during the game's earlier years.
The Banner Saga trilogy (2014-2018)
Composer: Austin WintoryYou should absolutely play the games, but even just listening to the three Banner Saga soundtracks — a mixture of orchestral music and songs — will take you on a heck of journey; a Tolkein-scale epic stuffed with Viking legends, giant serpents, bittersweet victories, loss, and desperate survival. The Banner Saga 3 OST especially features some jaw-dropping cues.
Child of Light
Composer: Coeur de PirateChild of Light is the story of a Duke's daughter who dies after contracting a mysterious illness, only to reawaken in a mythical world. The game is essentially a playable poem: its dialogue is written in a ballad form rhyme scheme which is complemented immaculately by the emotional and sombre music of Coeur de Pirate. The soundtrack holds its own compared with some of the greatest RPG scores from yester-year, and is well worth checking out.
Destiny (album: Music of the Spheres)
Composer: Marty O'DonnellThe story finally emerged about the litigious breakdown of the relationship between long-time Halo composer Marty O'Donnell and developer Bungie as they all transitioned from one gigantic sci-fi franchise to another. The Music of the Spheres suite, a musical blueprint recorded more than a year before the first game came out, later made its way online via a leak, and is a masterpiece.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
Composers: David Wise and Kenji YamamotoTropical Freeze boasts one of the grooviest soundtracks to emerge from the Wii U's short lifespan. David Wise returned to compose his first Donkey Kong score since 2005's Donkey Kong Country 3 remake on Game Boy Advance. Tropical Freeze bears all the hallmarks of Wise's earlier work, and never fails to disappoint. Standout tracks include the delightful "Grassland Grove" and "Funky Waters"; and, of course, "Irate Eight" — a beautiful re-imagining of the legendary "Aquatic Ambience".
Composers: Multiple artists (licensed tracks)Hohokum is a fantastic example of a creative collaboration between an indie game developer and an indie record label. A wide selection of Ghostly International's contemporary electronica roster contributed songs to the colourful game, including Tycho, Shigeto, Matthew Dear, and Com Truise.
Mat highlight —
Mario Kart 8
Composers: Shiho Fujii, Atsuko Asahi, Ryo Nagamatsu, Yasuaki Iwata, and Kenta Nagata; multiple artists (new arrangements)
Mario Kart 8 boasts an exceptional tracklist, featuring a wicked good live band playing new and rearranged old tracks spanning a massive range of genres. The 'Mario Kart Band' expands and contracts its instrumentation to fit: from a basic rock trio to tin whistles, Moog synths, accordions, and more.
As ever, Nintendo puts in the work to reinvent classic music tracks in order to put fans in a nostalgic tailspin of delight, for instance with the fanfare of "Rainbow Road" (from Mario Kart 64) and the dueling guitar and sax solos of "Big Blue" (from F-Zero.)
Favourite track: "Big Blue"
Metal Gear Solid V (2014-2015):
Ground Zeroes & The Phantom Pain
Composers: Ludvig Forssell, Justin Bennet, Daniel James, Akihiro Honda, Rina Yugi, Moe Jono, and Steve Henifin; multiple artists (licensed tracks)The overall Metal Gear Solid V package has a bountiful soundtrack, consisting largely of Hollywood-tinged, dramatic synth score. Then there's the '80s pop songs, diegetically placed in the game world on collectible cassettes, which provide much musical enjoyment, allowing players to gleefully launch soldiers up in the air with blow-up decoys whilst a-ha's "Take On Me" blares. That, and the ability to pick your helicopter's entrance music, leading to millions of people recreating the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in Apocalypse Now.
Monument Valley series (2014-2017):
Monument Valley, Forgotten Shores, & Monument Valley 2
Composers: Obfusc, Stafford Bawler, Grigori, and Todd BakerAs well as being slick puzzlers, the Monument Valley games are beautiful works of visual and audio design, with the music as carefully thought-through as the delightful colour palettes. Tracks are consistently gentle and ethereal, with the the sequel's music by Todd Baker generally featuring a few more acoustic instruments alongside the ambient electronica vibes.
Mat highlight —
Composers: Multiple artists (licensed tracks)
If you've ever staved off the boredom of IT lessons by logging onto sites like Newgrounds when the teacher wasn't looking and played weird Java games, N++ would feel familiar. The game is painfully difficult, mitigated by its brilliant electronic soundtrack. The tracklist is made up of a stonking selection of deep house and stripped back hip-hop tunes from independent artists such as Dabp, Conek4, and C Y G N.
It may be frustrating at times, but playing N++ is a great way to discover music from artists you've probably never heard of. Who knew that Platforming and deep house went hand-in-hand?
Favourite track: Conek4 – "Memories Gone"
OlliOlli series (2014-2015):
OlliOlli & OlliOlli 2
Composers: Multiple artists (licensed)OlliOlli proved that we didn't need to wait for next Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or skate to get our fix. And, just like those classic series, the quality the soundtracks for Roll 7's side-scrolling skaters is dazzling — similarly serving as a jukebox of music you might not be familiar with, but grow to love. There are plenty of chilled beats from artists such as Itel Tek, Submerse, Troy Gunner, and Tobacco. Interestingly, the developers were thinking of metal and alt rock rather than electronic music, but ditched the plan as they found that heavier music exacerbated the frustrations of bailing for the 15th time in a few minutes.
Shovel Knight series (albums: OST, Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment, & King of Cards; 2014-2019)
Composers: Jake Kaufman, Manami Matsumae, Arcubalis, and Dale North.The quality of Shovel Knight's soundtrack was a wonderful surprise on initial release: Jake Kaufman created chiptune that was fast, frantic, and full of character, thanks in part to him having a decade's experience writing music for Game Boy titles. Yacht Club Games also secured a few tracks from Mega Man and Capcom legend Manami Matsumae to bolster the game's retro cred. Many of Shovel Knight's melodies are unforgettable (including fan favourite "Strike the Earth"), and the overall series has blessed the world with some fabulous platformer VGM.
The Talos Principle
Composer: Damjan MravunacTo say that a head-scratching puzzle game suffused with philosophical ponderings is 'meditative' would be a gross understatement — a more literal title might have been 'THINK, HUMAN'. Croteam composer Damjan Mravunac created a warm bath of an ambient soundtrack, with plenty of subtle melodies and sound effect hooks to keep the player/listener emotionally engaged and concentrated on the puzzle at hand.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Composers: Multiple artists (licensed tracks)
You'll laugh, you'll cry, and probably cry a bit more thanks to this wonderful compilation soundtrack of tasteful, moving music that elevated this point and click WW1 adventure.
Crypt of the Necrodancer series (2015-2019):
Crypt of the Necrodancer & Cadence of Hyrule
Composer: Danny BaranowskyIn the best way Danny Baranowsky is as 'video gamey' a video game composer as there is having been involved early on with the OverClocked ReMix community, and impressing with his music for indie hits Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac. His pumping four-to-the-floor tracks are utterly essential to the experience of Crypt of the Necrodancer; but no one saw what was coming next... Having remixed an Ocarina of Time track back in 2004, Danny B must have felt pretty chuffed to be working on an official Zelda game with Cadence of Hyrule all those years later — and he absolutely delivered, producing killer takes on nostalgic classics.
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Composer: Jessica CurryEven if the game's development was troubled by publisher relations and health problems (as Jessica Curry has written about publicly), the music for The Chinese Room's third outing is an enchanting work of contemporary classical music. The melodies and musical palette enjoy an emotional synergy with the story of a desperate Shropshire community facing the end of the world. If nothing else, listen to "Clouds and Starlight" on nice headphones with your eyes closed (and have a hanky ready.)
Tom highlight —
Final Fantasy Brave Exvius (albums: OST & Volume 2)
Composers: Noriyasu Agematsu, Junpei Fujita, Hitoshi Fujima, and Ryota Tomaru; Nobuo Uematsu (Prelude)
Final Fantasy games on mobile devices — indeed, many long-standing gaming franchises — have been a mixed bag of experiences. So it was a surprise to me to hear from people whose music taste I trust that there was an outstanding Final Fantasy soundtrack that was passing many people by: that for Brave Exvius.
And HOLY WOW — what a soundtrack! For anyone who has enjoyed the essential Octopath Traveller or Xenoblade Chronicles 2 scores in the last few years, this is a must. The music does hue close to the traditional orchestral JRPG formula (at least on volume 1 of the OST), but the melodic work is second to none — and that's coming from a dyed-in-the-wool Nobuo Uematsu fan.
Favourite track: "Force and Furious (Dwarven Forge)" by Noriyasu Agematsu
Volume 2: YouTube
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Life is Strange & Before The Storm (2015-2017)
Composers: Jonathan Morali (Syd Matters), Daughter; multiple artists (licensed tracks)
Life is Strange stands as a brilliant example of how to license music for a video game. Every song featured serves a purpose within the emotional context of the game's characters and plot: from Mogwai's appropriately titled "Kids Will Be Skeletons" to Foals' "Spanish Sahara", both of which accompany some of the story's pivotal moments. Listen carefully to the lyrics of the licensed songs and it's easy to imagine them as the inner monologue of the game's protagonist Max Caulfield. Also, the licensed soundtrack fits neatly around the indie folk guitar pieces composed by Jonathan Morali, which carry a similar vibe to the band he fronts, Syd Matters.
Prequel Before The Storm also features a fitting soundtrack largely composed by British indie folksters Daughter.
Favourite track: Daughter – "Burn it Down"
Ori and the Blind Forest
Composer: Gareth CokerGareth Coker's award-winning score for the achingly beautiful Metroidvania Ori and the Blind Forest is spiritually uplifting, with sweeping orchestral arrangements, ethereal voices, and delicate melodies.
Mat highlight —
Composers: Satoshi Igarashi, Tetsuya Shibata, Jun Okubo, Vince DiCola and Kenny Meriedeth
Video games don't have a great track record when it comes to 🤘metal🤘, but the soundtrack for Transformers: Devastation is a winner. I've spent over a decade playing in metalcore bands, making me partial to the odd breakdown — and this has plenty of them. I'd hazard the guess that the music team listened to Animals As Leaders, Periphery, and/or Meshuggah as inspiration, but, that said, there's a focus on groove here rather than overly complicated rhythmic passages or convoluted time signatures.
The production values are all the more impressive when you consider the hilarity of hearing dual guitar solos and a choir battling it out over the top of a breakdown that belongs in a 'Heaviest Metal Breakdowns Of All Time' playlist. If you like your metal groovy and with plenty of double bass drum, do yourself a favour and check this out.
Favourite track: "Devastator"
Composer: Toby FoxThat a (mostly) lone developer could create a game as beloved as Undertale is one thing; that they could also create a lengthy soundtrack that delights players and has provided regular inspiration for the game music cover/remix community is quite another. Toby Fox's music soothes, thrills, and tickles players' ribs, riffing on our nostalgia for simpler pixel art/chiptune times.
The Witcher 3 and DLC (2015-2016):
Wild Hunt, Hearts of Stone, & Blood and Wine
Composers: Marcin Przybyłowicz, Mikolai Stroinski, Percival, Adam Skorupa, and Paweł BłaszczakIt feels like the music of The Witcher 3 is, like every other element of the game, carefully considered in terms of authenticity in relation to the books. Each in-game region is inspired by real world influences, including European folk traditions, especially Polish. The music reflects this, featuring the playing and instrumental expertise of Polish folk band Percival; those musical textures were then harnessed by lead composer/music director Marcin Przybyłowicz to create a more modern action score that still feels authentic to the fantastical, fictional world of The Witcher.
Tom highlight —
Composer: Austin Wintory
Austin Wintory has been working non-stop over the last 10 years, not seeming to slow down even a little after his music for Journey went supernova. Amid some wonderful soundtracks for wildly different types of games, Wintory once again teamed up with Matt Nava and others that worked on Journey to create a subaquatic spiritual successor.
While some wrote ABZÛ off as a mere clone, many could see that the artistry and musical craftsmanship on display was just as rich — indeed, richer and more subtle in some ways — as thatgamecompany's 2012 hit. There's a mystical fluidity (boom-tish) to the score thanks to Wintory's layers of lavish orchestral and choral harmony. It's all lubricated by sublime synths and luxurious music mixing.
Favourite track: "To Know, Water"
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
Composers: Michael McCann, Sascha Dikiciyan, Ed Harrison (0edit), and Misha MansoorThe gritty neo-industrial sounds of Mankind Divided coalesce into an epic synth album in its own right. One of the stand-out tracks from the game is the end credits theme by Misha Mansoor, guitarist for metal band Periphery.
Mat highlight —
Composer: Mick Gordon
There are moments in DOOM when the soundtrack sounds like something from Nine Inch Nails or Slipknot's album IOWA — which is weird since Mick Gordon stated that he didn't specifically seek out metal as a reference point during the composition process.
In between the pummelling sounds of eight- and nine-string guitar breakdown, — as well as the extensive range of synths and software that Gordon used — the DOOM soundtrack is an ingenious combination of industrial electronic sounds and outrageously heavy metal riffs and drums. Anyone who has spent five minutes with DOOM has a pretty good idea of what hell (probably) sounds like: bloody fantastic.
The soundtrack has some satanic secrets too, such as Gordon running an image of '666' through an audio program that generates sounds through visuals.
Favourite track: "BFG Division"
Final Fantasy XV and DLC (2016-2019)
Composers: Yoko Shimomura, Yoshitaka Suzuki, Tetsuya Shibata, Yoshino Aoki, Nobuo Uematsu, Keiichi Okabe, Naoshi Mizuta, Yasunori Mitsuda, Tadayoshi Makino, Tsutomu Narita, Tomomichi Takeoka, Tai Tomisawa, and John GrahamWith veteran composer Yoko Shimomura taking the lead, an army of musical talent (including JRPG legends Uematsu, Okabe, and Mitsuda) worked on the overall Final Fantasy XV property. There are plenty of stand-out tracks across all of the separate OSTs, but Shimomura set the tone with the impossibly epic orchestral-choral track "APOCALYPSIS NOCTIS". Well worth listening to is Florence + the Machine's accompanying EP, featuring a great cover of "Stand By Me" and the powerful "Too Much Is Never Enough".
Composers: Danger, Carpenter Brut, Waveshaper, Lorn, The Toxic Avenger, Scattle, and Kn1ghtFollowing in the footsteps of Hotline Miami's licensing of cool electronica, the Furi developers went a step further and commissioned original tracks from a hyper-cool pool of artists most obviously associated with the synthwave genre. Particularly special are Danger's huge tracks, which skip from trap to synthwave to what might be best described as 'cinematic house.'
Hyper Light Drifter
Composer: DisasterpeaceDisasterpeace knocked it out of the park, the next park, and the park after that with his odyssey of a soundtrack for the magisterial, mystical Hyper Light Drifter. The OST album itself could comfortably be recommended to any fan of electronic music whether they knew anything about games or not. Classy, moody, and full of delicious subtleties and textures.
Mirror's Edge Catalyst
Composer: Solar FieldsSwedish electronic artist Magnus Bigerrson, also known as Solar Fields, returns to the Mirror's Edge universe with more distinctive, taut, and expertly crafted electronic music.
Mat highlight —
No Man's Sky (album: Music for an Infinite Universe)
Composers: 65daysofstatic (band)
How does one go about creating music for a space exploration game with an effectively infinite number of worlds? Enlist some experimental post-rockers from Sheffield of course! So, Developer Hello Games turned to 65daysofstatic to create an album that world in turn be pulled apart and threaded into the unprecedentedly ambitious universe of No Man's Sky.
In a game where you're never quite sure of what you're going to stumble across next, it's only fitting that the soundtrack would similarly surprise and impress. There are moments of tranquility: drawn out guitar tremolos decorated with piano melodies dancing across the octaves. And moments of intensity: muddy noise, where guitar chords clash with string passages in conflicting keys. There are WTF moments, where multiple instrumental sections merge to create a cacophony rarely heard in a video game.
65daysofstatic's music, as parsed by audio director Andy Weir, comes together as one of the most innovative game soundtracks I've heard; and it's also a shining achievement in the band's already impressive catalogue of albums to boot.
Favourite track: "Heliosphere"
Composers: Shoji Meguro, Toshiki Konishi, Ryota Kozuka, Atsushi Kitajoh, and Kenichi TsuchiyaThe Persona series has become the beacon of style in video gaming, with people saying more positive things about its snazzy menus than they do about the art and design of most games. The JRPG features another humungous soundtrack, chock full of funk and rock songs, and other brilliant cues — all of it oozing style.
Composers: Hudson Mohawke; multiple artists (licensed tracks)GRAMMY-nominated Hudson Mohawke combined elements of trap, hip-hop, and other electronic styles to create a contemporary original soundtrack that pops. Watch_Dogs 2 being a GTA-style city-roamer, there are the requisite radio stations brimming with brilliant licensed tracks from a wide variety of artists and genres.
Composer: Kristopher MaddiganWhat sets Cuphead apart from other platformers/2D shooters by small teams is the uncompromising approach to audio and visual quality, with the latter involving the painstaking recreation of the Fleischer Studios animation style. Not to be outdone, composer Kristopher Maddigan created original, authentic pieces of ragtime and big band jazz, all performed by flesh and blood musicians to an impeccable standard.
Composers: Ben Lukas Boysen and Sebastian PlanoBen Lukas Boysen and Sebastian Plano produced a set of sometimes serene, sometimes unsettling ambient soundscapes for the mind-expanding experience where you play as... well, everything.
Composer: Olivier DeriviereOlivier Deriviere may be working on the cutting edge of interactive music in games, but that's not to say he lacks in the pure musicality department. Get Even and its accompanying orchestral soundtrack are dramatic rollercoaster rides, with "Consequences", "For Her", and "Broken Promises" being stand out tracks on the OST album.
Hollow Knight (albums: OST and Gods & Nightmares; 2017-2018)
Compose: Christopher LarkinSoulsborne games and metroidvanias invite players ever deeper into their worlds, with the best titles slowly revealing their majesty. Hollow Knight (a fusion of those fused genres) might just be one of the very best (and biggest!), and Christopher Larkin's subtly mysterious cues — as well as his big, brash boss fight bangers — get better and better the longer you spend exploring Hallownest.
Horizon Zero Dawn
Composers: Joris de Man, The Flight (Alexis Smith & Joe Henson), Niels van der Leest, and Jonathan WilliamsMultiple composers provided different flavours of music for Guerrilla's huge post-post-apocalyptic action game. Joris de Man and composition duo The Flight handling the majority of the traditional score, fusing electronic elements with more earnest, intimate percussion, vocals, and solo instruments. Jonathan Williams contributed an acapella hymnal of sorts, and 'diegetic composer' and percussionist Niels van der Leest also oversaw the recording of tribal drumming.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild
Composers: Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, Hajime Wakai, and moreGiven that Breath of the Wild is a story about a (mostly) ruined world — one where the player creates their own drama within the game's playful systems — it follows that the score would hue towards the minimalist. After all, the most freedom Link has ever had to traverse Hyrule didn't need the grandiose orchestral treatment to tell players how to feel. There are supremely low key, almost experimental piano cues, as well as tastefully done temple and battle themes — and, in time-honoured Nintendo fashion, familiar tunes, re-interpreted.
Composers: Mick Gordon, Matt Piersall, Ben Crossbones, and Raphael ColantonioAgain, Mick Gordon proves he has a knack for producing twisted and distorted noises. But, despite the haunting nature of Bethesda's survival horror reboot Prey, his soundtrack has some beautiful tracks hidden away. The upbeat synthwave title track sets an optimistic tone for the opening sequence. Sandwiched between various horrors later on, the lovely "Alex" ably demonstrates another side of Gordon's guitar talents, and wouldn't sound out of place on a post-rock album.
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Composer: David Garcia Diaz
I've lately been using my young children as an excuse to revisit many of the family-friendly Studio Ghibli films (My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, etc.) That Hayao Miyazaki sense of sweeping adventure mixed with innocence is intoxicating, and it's something that David Garcia Diaz captured with his stunning orchestral music for the narrative- and puzzle-driven RiME.
In many ways though, the soundtrack has more in common with the wonderful music for the Ghibli co-produced film The Red Turtle — soaring, airy, and heartbreaking.
Favourite track: "The Island"
Composers: Tee Lopes, Naofumi Hataya, and Jun SenoueAs with the wider Sonic Mania package, Tee Lopes takes what was old and beloved and remixes, embellishes, and extends beyond. With impeccable attention to detail, Lopes creates a gleefully hyperactive fusion of electronica and rock.
Super Mario Odyssey
Composers: Naoto Kubo, Shiho Fujii and Koji KondoAll of the music in Super Mario Odyssey is performed by a live band featuring some pretty out-there instrumentation, such as the Luncheon Kingdom's pots and pans, and the Bowser's Kingdom's Taiko drums. As with the best Nintendo soundtracks, players are treated to melodies and musical palettes that feel like they belong exclusively to video games — where else would you get big band brass playing over the top of traditional Japanese woodwind instruments?
Composer: Jon Everist
Yearning, pensive strings; '80s-ish cinematic synths and percussion; ghostly voices. Jon Everist uses these textures and more to create an overall air of anxiety and tension, albeit suffused with luscious melodies.
Composer: Lena Raine
As with indie darlings Shovel Knight and Undertale before it, Lena Raine's score for Celeste has been warmly embraced by the game music community. Led by piano and synths, the emotive tracks sit in that 'chiptune-ish' musical realm without ever submitting to nostalgia — this music is something new, and the way it ebbs and flows with the challenging platformer's action and dramatic moments is superb.
Composers: DVA (band)Machinarium developer Amanita Design simply loves to imbue its games with visual gags, adorably strange animation, and, depending on the game, bizarre and hilarious music — often with strange human noises. The Chuchel soundtrack is sonically bonkers, earning extra points for pun-tastic OST track names.
Composers: Daniel Koestner and Ben EspositoDonut County's colourful, wonky electronic music matches the game's goofy-yet-knowing tone perfectly. A mixture of light instrumental hip-hop and trip-hop with plinky guitar/ukulele lines make it a great background listen as a standalone album.
Composers: Inon Zur; multiple artists (licensed tracks)Inon Zur has been underscoring the Wasteland since 2001's Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel. Many would identify to the Fallout 3 and 4 main themes as his most notable work, but there is so much richness to be found in his ambient cues throughout the series — especially his work for online prequel Fallout 76 (although it too has a killer main theme.) As we've come to expect, the game also features sizeable radio playlists, where early 20th Century pop and jazz (as well as a healthy amount of classical music) is juxtaposed with the burned-out aesthetics of a post-apocalyptic world.
Far Cry 5 (albums: Far Cry 5 Presents: When the World Falls; Into the Flames; We Will Rise Again)
Composers: Dan Romer, Hammock (Marc Byrd & Andrew Thompson), and the The Hope County Choir; multiple artists (licensed tracks)Dan Romer leaned into gospel music and hymns to complement the story of a doomsdat cult in Far Cry 5. Of particular note is the stunning remix album (still part of the in-game soundtrack) by ambient/post-rock band Hammock, which drowns Romer's music in reverb to create arresting alternative versions.
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Composer: Kevin Penkin
Australian composer Kevin Penkin's work on the lovely little mobile game Florence is winsome. Possibly benefiting from collaborating with legend Nobuo Uematsu on a few projects, Penkin knows how to build a melody, and also how to keep things light and flowing. The chamber music of Florence is a crucial part of how players experience the game's central romance, winning extra points with me for highlighting the two greatest instruments in the universe, the piano and the cello.
I'd love to hear more game OSTs from Penkin, but he seems to have been claimed by the world of anime following his hugely successful Made In Abyss soundtrack. If you were curious about those Uematsu collabs, try and track down the music for Jūzaengi: Engetsu Sangokuden (十三支演義~偃月三国伝~), Norn9, and Defender’s Quest II: Mists of Ruin.
Favourite track: "Wake up, Moving On"
God of War
Composer: Bear McCrearyYou won't necessarily be surprised by the low choral and brass voices, thudding percussion, and general Tolkein-esque epicness of parts of Bear McCreary's God of War score; nor the occasions where an elfin female voice sits on top of a swelling orchestra like a boat riding giant ocean waves. That's not to say that the OST doesn't contain its own special majesty. The quality of orchestration and performance is impeccable, and the music gives immense weight and depth to the Game of the Year-winning title.
Into The Breach
Composer: Ben PruntyWith FTL: Faster Than Light, Ben Prunty established his signature sound within the indie games space — intense, anxious electronica. When it came to Subset Games' follow-up game, head-scratching strategy title Into The Breach, Prunty adapted his style to include more acoustic instrumentation without sacrificing the intensity. In the best way, this score will both keep you on the edge of your seat, while also being totally focused on the task at hand.
Composer: Yasunori NishikiYasunori Nishiki sought to capture the melodic magic of '90s Sqaresoft JRPG classics (channeling Messrs Uematsu and Mitsuda) with Octopath Traveller. Instead of going for a nostalgic chiptune sound in the way that the game's art style pays homage to pixel art, he recorded impeccable live performances to create a folk and orchestral score that nonetheless sounds traditional for the genre. One of the absolute highlights of the decade.
Composers: Junichi Nakatsuru, Yoshihito Yano, Syuri Misaki, Yu Sugimoto, Rio Hamamoto, and Yukihiro JindoIt feels like the music across the SOULCALIBUR series hasn't garnered the attention it deserves (as with many long-running fighting series); and SOULCALIBUR VI boast some of the best tracks so far. Series veteran composers Junichi Nakatsuru and Yoshihito Yano lead the music team to deliver a suitably melodramatic, hyperactive orchestral-synth soundtrack that will give your ears a pleasant pummelling.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
Composers: Every composer in existenceAs well as featuring a gargantuam line-up of licensed characters, Smash Ultimate serves as a giant jukebox of video game music from beloved Nintendo series and beyond. One Wiki places the track count at 956... and there might be more still to come!
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Composers: Hydelic and Noboru Mutoh
Tetris Effect is a masterclass in interactive audio design, composed by electronica producer Noboru Mutoh and the mysterious trio Hydelic (the latter being responsible for the Area X music for Rez Infinite.) The BAFTA-nominated Tetris Effect score covers everything from EDM to contemporary jazz, and features vocal contributions from a number of up-and-coming western artists including Kate Brady.
It's easy to lose yourself in the musical experience of the game and become entranced. Every stage has a distinct sound, whether it's driving electro-jazz, pop dancefloor-fillers, or ambient soundscapes.
Favourite track: "Dolphin Surf"
Composer: Olivier DeriviereOlivier Deriviere has done some stunning soundtrack work over the last few years, and any additional OST of 11-11: Memories Retold (2018), A Plague Tale: Innocence (2019), and GreedFall (2019) could or should have been on this list. But Vampyr is stuffed with ingenious and evocative writing, as ambient electonic music is fused with vocal and instrumental solos. Understated, mysterious, and frequently black as the night.
WipEout Omega Collection
Composers: Multiple artists (licensed tracks)The original WipEout is responsible for introducing thousands of impressionable teenagers to the dirty sounds of club music from the likes of Orbital and The Prodigy. The latest WipEout release features an line-up of electronic artists with energetic mixes from Swedish House Mafia, The Chemical Bros, Emika, and DC Breaks.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Composers: Yasunori Mitsuda, ACE (TOMOri Kudo, CHiCO), Kenji Hiramatsu, and Manami Kiyota
Anyone keeping tabs on Chrono and Xeno series lead composer Yasunori Mitsuda will know that he didn't rest on his laurels after 1995's Chrono Trigger, but carried on consistently producing wonderful music whilst freely hopping between genres. With Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Mitsuda and team (comprising several seriously talented composers) have produced one of the very best JRPG soundtracks of the decade. The enormous OST shifts gears between orchestral rock, spine-tingling a capella choral works, beautiful instrumental duets, and more.
Between this and Octopath Traveller, fans of traditional JRPG soundtracks had a mountain of music to fall in love with in 2018 alone.
Blood and Truth
Composers: Jim Fowler, Joe Thwaites, Zdot, Jme, Eyez, Kamakaze, and Ocean WisdomPlayStation in-house composers Jim Fowler and Joe Thwaites teamed up with grime producer Zdot and some sick MCs to create a truly British blockbuster soundtrack. Expect lots of bombastic James Bond-ish brass and bass beats.
Composers: Jesper Kyd, Michael McCann, Finishing Move Inc., Raison Varner, Julian Peterson, and Mike JonesA supergroup line-up of composers with credits including Assassin's Creed, Hitman, Deux Ex, Crackdown and more mix and match all manner of genres — from dirty blues to EDM — to bring the game’s colourful worlds and characters to life.
Composers: Ludvig Forssell, Joel Corelitz, and Low Roar; multiple artists (original songs)What Kojima did next... was to assemble a remarkable line-up of cutting edge music acts to contribute mellow original songs to his big budget delivery simulator. With the score, Ludwig Forssell and co pick up from where he left off with Metal Gear Solid V's massive, cinematic electronic synth sound; but there's also panoramic beauty to be found in some of the softer cues. A pleasingly coherent OST in terms of mood.
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Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Composers: Takeru Kanazaki, Hiroki Morishita, and Rei Kondoh
To think: Nintendo was ready to put Fire Emblem to bed but for the surprise success of 2002's Awakening among Western players. What was a niche concern for strategy die-hards is now a well-known series, necessitating a more mainstream approach to the music.
There are some music moments in Three Houses that probably belong in a 'top anime intros of all time' round-up, thanks to some satisfyingly cheesy J-pop tracks; but there are other pieces in the JRPG orchestral mould that do a fantastic job of adding to the drama. Main menu theme “The Crest of Flames” is a beautifully bleak variation of the series' iconic theme.
Favourite track: "The Crest of Flames"
Composer: Laurence ChapmanLaurence Chapman's classy music for the archaeological science fiction adventure game Heaven's Vault is a soothing delight. Stunning piano and string arrangements and performances are the bedrock of a score that has a sheen of high quality to it from start to finish.
Luigi's Mansion 3
Composers: Chad York and Darren RadtkeLuigi's once again having a bit of a 'mare, and this time he's has to work his way through a haunted hotel. From pirates to pharaohs to Film Noire detectives, each floor of the hotel has its own whacky theme, giving the composers the opportunity to deliver surprise after musical surprise as players ascend.
Composer: Andrew PrahlowLone composer Andrew Prahlow blends spooky and soaring synth-led underscore with intimate, homespun folk. With diegetic music being one of the things that knits the story together — and even serves as a game mechanic — Prahlow grasps the opportunity to win players' hearts with simple, memorable melodies; before he delivers a universally wonderful finale.
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Sayonara Wild Hearts
Composers: Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng, and Linnea Olsson; Claude Debussy (original composer of classical tracks)
Games-as-pop albums are rare things, but not new — some might remember Björk's 'multimedia exploration' Biophilia app back in 2011. But the execution here is gobsmacking: Sayonara Wild Hearts is a sensory assault of neon colours and synth pop, and a celebration of femininity and queerness in the process. Simogo, the developer responsible for the stylish yet creepy titles Year Walk and Device 6, took an aesthetic left turn and it absolutely pays off.
Regular Simogo composer Daniel Olsen finds a different gear, creating lush, warm, and often propulsive electro-pop that isn't just essential to enjoyment of the game — it is 90% of the experience.
Favourite track: "Begin Again"
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
Composer: Yuka Kitamura
With Sekiro, FromSoftware eschewed a pure fantasy setting in favour of the developer's homeland Japan. Composer Yuka Kitamura felt she had to not stray too far from Japanese musical influences, using traditional drums to evoke the conflicts of the Sengoku period (c. 1467 – c. 1600) and flute, amongst more modern instrumentation. With Sekiro's music, Kitamura is to-ing and fro-ing between the chaos and destruction of war, and the beauty of Japan and its culture.
Games we didn't play enough, or recognise that the audio and/or music are remarkable...
- 11-11: Memories Retold
- Anno 1800
- Ape Out
- Axiom Verge
- Batman: Arkham City
- Bayonetta 2
- Beat Saber
- Binding of Isaac
- Bravely Default
- Broken Age
- Device 6
- Enter The Gungeon
- Fantasia: Music Evolved
- FTL: Faster Than Light
- Heavy Rain
- I Am Setsuna
- INSIDE / Limbo (Playdead & Martin Stig Anderson)
- Katana ZERO
- The Last Guardian
- The Last Story
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game
- The Sea Will Claim Everything
- Stardew Valley
- Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
- World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria