Here are some of our favourite game cues that send the spirit soaring as they take inspiration from the rich orchestral instrumentation of the Classical and Romantic eras.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Orchestral music is in rude health in the world of video game soundtracks, with more and more composers around the globe creating exceptional scores.
The power of the orchestra lies in its tremendous dynamic and emotional range. A composer walking in the footsteps of Romantic predecessors such as Beethoven, Wagner and Rachmaninoff can make the listener feel like they're carried along by a gale of mystery and emotion.
This playlist doesn't make a distinction between live recorded ensembles and sampled instruments, although of course flesh-and-blood musicians always add something special. What matters most is the unmistakable sonic palette of the orchestra and associated instruments (e.g. harp, piano) and ensembles (e.g. choir.)
Also, there are some mindful omissions from the main list for variety's sake — we have so much love for composers such as Kirkhope, Kondo, Wintory, Uematsu, O'Donnell and Mitsuda, and where possible they're included in the longer streaming playlists linked below.
Listen along on these platforms: Spotify | Apple Music | YouTube
"Lullaby Over the Lake" by David Garcia Diaz
Arise: A Simple Story (2020)
Spanish composer David García Díaz (currently Audio Director at Ninja Theory) creates music and sound worlds that can swing effortlessly from huge to intimate. While Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is a different kettle of fish, his scores for RiME and Arise: A Simple Story are verdantly tuneful and melodramatic.
"Lullaby Over the Lake" is a short piano-led cue from Arise that is arrestingly beautiful from the very first note.
"The Waters Above" by Vincent Diamante
Sky: Children of the Light (2019)
The music in thatgamecompany titles is always of primary importance to the aesthetic tone. Austin Wintory's score for Journey rightly gets a lot of attention, but other soundtracks in the TGC catalogue are well worth listening to.
Vincent Diamante, the composer behind 2009's Flower, returns to collaborate once again with Jenova Chen and co. Diamante's airy, angular harmony is reminiscent of the Studio Ghibli 'blue sky' vibes conjured by composer Joe Hisaishi.
"Coming of the Light" by James Hannigan
RuneScape 3 (2013)
RuneScape is a remarkable game for several reasons: because of its longevity (20 years and counting); because of the Guiness World Record-winning quantities of score music; and also because it's actually two distinct games. Old School RuneScape maintains the General MIDI sound that takes its players back to mid-noughties; while RuneScape 3 enjoys a varied soundtrack of live-recorded and digitally produced music.
Long-time games composer James Hannigan harnessed a grand orchestral and choral sound for RuneScape 3, with some sessions taking place at Abbey Road Studios featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra and Pinewood Singers.
"A New Beginning for Oure" by Ian Livingstone
Oure is a non-violent exploration and puzzle game set among the clouds. As with ABZÛ, RiME and several others, Oure follows in the wake of thatgamecompany's 2012 smash hit Journey, which saw players revelling in an emotive, minimalist vibe enhanced by an ethereal orchestral score.
British Ivor Novello Award-winning composer Ian Livingstone has a long credits list that spans all manner of franchises including racing and real-time strategy games, licensed platformers and more. What he brought to Oure — and is shared with the composers on this list — is a talent for soul-stirring, hummable melodies.
"Kindred Spirits" by M.R. Miller
As well as the influence of Studio Ghibli/Joe Hisaishi, there's also plenty to be said for the influence of Disney's early '90s golden period (running from The Little Mermaid to The Lion King) in orchestral video game music. Composers like Bruce Broughton, Alan Menken and Hans Zimmer wove intensely melodic scores around the stand-out musical numbers. One might also cite Pixar's big hitters.
Composer-technologist M.R. Miller created a very special score for the haunting 2D puzzle-platformer that channels all the soaring sentimentality of the classic Disney and Ghibli animations. Miller's productions sound so effortless and fluid — something which he's also brought to other games through his arrangement and orchestration work for composers including Austin Wintory.
"Finale" by Alistair Kerley
Beyond a Steel Sky (2020)
Beyond a Steel Sky is the long-awaited point-and-click follow-up to cyberpunk classic Beneath a Steel Sky. The sequel's look was crafted by art director Dave Gibbons, the legendary comic book artist behind Watchmen.
Young British composer Alistair Kerley drew from the sci-fi greats to hone the game's sound (in particular the three J's of John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, and James Horner.) Beyond a Steel Sky's recording sessions also benefitted from conductor Nicholas Dodd’s experiences having orchestrated and conducted the scores for movies including Stargate and Independence Day.
"Genshin Impact Main Theme " by Yu-Peng Chen
Genshin Impact (2020)
Free-to-play sensation Genshin Impact was a smash hit in 2020. It's easy to guess what inspired the developers in terms of fantasy anime and gaming touchpoints, but the presentation and gameplay was of an incredibly high quality all the same.
Composer Yu-peng Chen crossed over from Chinese film and TV music production to video games when he joined Genshin Impact developer miHoYo. He was inspired by classical and Chinese folk music, and produced a beautifully airy and delicate score.
"Kait's Theme" by Ramin Djawadi
Gears 5 (2019)
With Gears 5, Eternals, Game of Thrones and Iron Man composer Ramin Djawadi deftly blended a heavyweight Hollywood sound with impassioned melodies, bringing to life Kait Diaz’s journey across icy wastes and dusty deserts.
In true Gears style, the soundtrack features a varied mixture of orchestral textures, huge-sounding percussion, and atmospheric electronic sounds.
"Finding the Pattern" by Jessica Curry
Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (2015)
Since it released Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, developer The Chinese Room has been on a rollercoaster journey including a hiatus and acquisition. The poignant Shropshire-based mystery blended a fascinatingly realistic English setting with a compelling sci-fi radio play.
Few scores haunt the memory like Jessica Curry's. Choir, solo voices, piano and harp sit atop delicate harmonic beds as she plucks players' heartstrings to devastating effect. Nothing since has quite resonated like this mournful masterpiece.
"I Can Do Anything" by David Housden
Lost Words: Beyond the Page (2021)
Lost Words: Beyond the Page is an atmospheric narrative adventure written by Rhianna Pratchett — quite literally a narrative platformer that alternates between the pages of a young girl's diary and a fantasy story.
For Housden, writing great melodies for soundtracks is the same as writing great pop hooks, as his musical background was built on playing in bands rather than training classically. You wouldn't know that Lost Words was his first live orchestral project, as the execution is simply wonderful.
"Ori, Embracing the Light" by Gareth Coker
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (2020)
Moon Studios pulls no punches when it comes to emotional puppeteering of players in its Ori titles. The games' big moments are soundtracked by big themes courtesy of the Maestro Chief, composer Gareth Coker.
And Coker has also been in the background helping other composers with orchestration, including David Housden on the aforementioned Lost Words.
"Flight" by Yoshitaka Azuma
Panzer Dragoon (1995)
The benefit of mid-90s rail shooters like Star Fox and Panzer Dragoon is that, perhaps more so than top-down shoot-em-ups, their 3D polygonal worlds helped create the sensation of soaring through the air.
The late composer for media Yoshitaka Azuma knew how to kindle that feeling of careening through the skies, even if the SEGA Saturn's graphical capabilites were on the gritty side.
"The Summit" by Bear McCreary
God of War (2018)
There's not much left to be said about what is, for many, the ultimate series reboot. The recontextualisation of Kratos, and the game's touching story built entirely around a father-son bond, meant that any incoming composer would have faced a daunting task creating the soundtrack.
Bear McCreary has forged a mighty credits list across mediums. If there's a thread that ties the majority of projects together, it's that they focus on human drama taking place in fantastical scenarios and worlds — with a side order of lightness and humour. With God of War, McCreary was able to complement characters' humanity, amplify the epic stakes of the story, and tread the line between deep, deific weightiness and jaunty familiy roadtrip.
"Dearly Beloved" by Yoko Shimimura
Kingdom Hearts III (2019)
If there is a canon of enduring video game music pieces, then Dearly Beloved would be one of the first tracks among it. It perfectly encapsulate that sense of earnest, young adult yearning (set against a fiery sunset) that JRPGs have returned to again and again.
Shimomura tends to be a piano-first composer, fond of glittering Chopin and Rachmaninoff-like runs — and these are always perfectly complemented by a lush orchestral arrangement.
"Tomb Raider: The Angel Of Darkness (Main Theme)" by Peter Connelly, Martin Iveson & Nathan McCree
Angel of Darkness (2003)
The sixth Tomb Raider game lives on in infamy although, as one might expect in this time of interconnected fandom, there is a hardcore fan base committed to preserve and celebrate even the most unloved titles in a game series.
The score, recorded by the illustrious London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, was one of the few highlights of the whole project. When it was recorded in 2002, orchestral game soundtracks were still in their infancy (for some, 1998's Heart of Darkness was the first such score.) It's lovely to see the LSO still involved with video game music having, at the time of writing, just performed the Skyrim 10th Anniversary concert.