While video games are primarily played for their entertainment value, a good original soundtrack (OST) is every bit as vital to a top-notch gaming experience as solid gameplay or visually stunning graphics. Video game sounds have come a long way from the 8-bit bleeps and bloops of classic arcade games, to modern electronic and orchestral music.
Much of today’s video game music has the same breadth and complexity associated with major motion picture scores. Like movie soundtracks, game music plays a key role in setting the mood and supporting the action onscreen, making our connection to the game’s world that much deeper.
Although video game soundtracks are specifically designed to enhance your virtual gaming experience, the music can also make your real life work more fun as it creates positive vibes when played in the background, especially if it’s from one of your favorite games. In fact, the best video game compositions are worth listening to on their own even if you’re not familiar with the game.
Some people recommend playing through the game before listening to the soundtrack, since the soundtrack is so deeply connected to the game’s story. But there have been times when I’ve actually become more interested in playing a game after listening to samples from its soundtrack. Moreover, a great soundtrack will help a game stand the test of time, living on well after the game becomes unplayable.
That being said, the soundtracks for Half-Life 2 and Portal are amazing, but they’re just not conducive to using as background music outside of the game. (Well, except for Jonathan Coulton’s tongue-in-cheek acoustic numbers from Portal, which are on my song playlist.) In general, open world exploration games usually have the best ambient music, so they are a great choice of music to listen to while you work or study.
There are tons of amazing game soundtracks out there, from major triple-A games to smaller indie titles. The soundtracks on this list each have their own charm in regards to their musical style. We’ve listed them in no particular order, and how you would personally rank them will depend on which genre of music you prefer; but all should convince you that their music scores could qualify as artistic masterpieces.
Here are some of the best game soundtracks of all time — or, at least, our personal favorites as judged by Tab, Super Searcher, and Xbolt. We encourage you to listen to something new and see if you can simply enjoy the music. 🙂
Touhou Project – Japanese indie game developer ZUN single-handedly does all the programming, graphics, and music for the Touhou series. It can be difficult for non-Japanese speakers to understand the gameplay at first. However, the music itself transcends language barriers. Touhou is a shooter game in which you have to dodge an unending barrage of colored bullets, so expect the music to be fast-paced! Each of the 17 games so far has its own unique style, with a Shinto aesthetic. Many people say their favorite is the sweeping adventure music in Subterranean Animism; I also like the upbeat energetic songs in Mountain of Faith. -XB
Bastion – Bastion was created by a team of seven people working out of a house in San Jose, California. As such, Bastion still stands as one of the most impressive indie games ever released, with one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard in a game. What’s even more amazing is that all of the sounds, narration, and music were entirely recorded in a CLOSET! Bastion’s fantastic soundtrack was produced by songwriter and composer Darren Korb. With the retro-future game being inspired by popular western themes, Bastion‘s acoustic music reflects that as well. Korb described the musical style as being a kind of “acoustic frontier trip-hop.” The folksy soundtrack also has hints of spaghetti westerns, bluegrass, Middle-Eastern and Indian tunes, as well as some electronic elements and vocals. In 2011, Bastion won an award for Best Original Score in a game, and “Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme)” won the Best Song in a Game award. <<<The Bastion Original Soundtrack and MP3s are available at Amazon. -TAB
Mirror’s Edge – Mirrors Edge is a masterpiece for its amazing gameplay, art style, architecture, visual perspective, characters, and music. The awesome soundtrack by Swedish composer Solar Fields is not only integral to the gaming experience, it’s fun to listen to outside the game. The ambient music changes effortlessly from serene to energetic, never missing a beat. I play the one-hour version all the time. The dynamic music helps keep you energized, and can double as epic workout music. I like the way the pace changes, with fast parts and slow parts, so it gives you a varied workout. Plus the music is enjoyable anytime. It will make you feel alive and exhilarated. -TAB
Life is Strange – I listened to the Life is Strange soundtrack over and over again after playing the game. The original score by Jonathan Morali features nostalgic folk instrumentals, mellow tones, and emotional ballads with additional songs from Syd Matters, Sparklehorse, Local Natives, Message to Bears, Mogwai, and other indie artists. This “best of” compilation is great background music for relaxing, studying, or working quietly on a project. -TAB
Trine 2 – The Trine and Trine 2 soundtracks were made by award-winning Finnish game composer Ari Pulkkinen. His Angry Birds theme is perhaps his most famous work, but his music for the high-fantasy world of Trine is much more adventurous and immersive. The original Trine soundtrack is good, but Trine 2 is even better, with over an hour of original music keeping it fresh. It’s more varied in style with both playful and epic melodies, live orchestral instruments, and even singing. Every musical piece is like a chapter from a story book, each one telling their own tales of heroes and legends. -SS
Stardew Valley – Stardew Valley is a pretty nice upbeat soundtrack with a variety of catchy tunes and background sounds (birds, etc.). Listening to this while studying or doing chores is a pleasant way to spend the day and will make you feel happy. -SS
Starbound – It’s amazing how some of the best soundtracks ever made come from indie games. Starbound’s orchestral OST contains all of the tracks written and produced by Curtis Schweitzer for over six-and-a-half hours of play time! Not to mention, every single song is incredibly atmospheric and melodic. In the game, it immerses you in space and other planets. Outside of the game, it’s just really relaxing and beautiful. -SS
Journey – Composer Austin Wintory spent three years creating the masterfully paced and beautifully atmospheric soundtrack for Journey, and this dedication paid off in that was the first and only one to be nominated for a Grammy Award. Wintory made cellist Tina Guo the center of the soundtrack and said in an interview that the game is “like a big cello concerto where you are the soloist and all the rest of the instruments represent the world around you.” I’ve never played Journey, but memories of the game is not required to enjoy the wonderful musical journey! -TAB
The Curse of Monkey Island – Michael Land’s score needed to reflect the game’s absurd humor, and on Monkey Island’s third installment, Land turned in his finest work to date. The Curse of Monkey Island allowed him to expand his already-beloved set of themes into lavish, widescreen masterpieces, and they never sounded better. The steel-drum-laced rendition of the title theme could make even the hardest-faced cynic break into a smile. This is my favorite Monkey Island game and soundrack! -SS
Fallout New Vegas – Fallout is well known for its gritty black humor juxtaposed with overtly happy swing tunes. My favorite is New Vegas, with tracks like “Big Iron on your hip” and the sinister double meaning of “Ain’t that a kick in the head.” The late-night cross-country western blues radio songs satirically compare the courier traipsing across the nuclear wasteland, to cowboys and lone wanderers. The funniest thing was playing them on a car ride with Grampa and hearing him say “I remember this song!” -SS
Cuphead – This game copies the old-school style cartoons from the golden age of American animation (circa 1920s-1930s). Cuphead‘s developers also filled their soundtrack with jazz and big band tracks from a bygone era. The lively music will transport you back in time to a dance hall or carnival. Even without ever having seen the game, the music is just plain fun to hear and will bring a smile to your face. -TAB
Final Fantasy – Everyone has their own favorite Final Fantasy soundtrack, but if one deserves a place on a list of best soundtracks, it’s Final Fantasy 8. Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu was clearly aiming for something cinematic. Seriously, pick any song out of the 74 different tunes in the soundtrack, and you’ll find your mind instantly swept away on a grand sci-fi fantasy adventure. Every song is a masterwork, a mix of prog-rock, classical music, and Uematsu’s signature style combining to create something not just unique within Final Fantasy, but within video games as a whole. -TAB
Elder Scrolls – You could pick any of the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim) for this list, as it’s impossible to go wrong with a Jeremy Soule soundtrack. Morrowind captures the feeling of quiet solemnity, Oblivion embraces pomp, and Skyrim bravado. In fact, Skyrim‘s main theme was recorded with a 30-man choir giving a sense of epicness and grandeur, making it sound like a big-budget Hollywood fantasy film. However, for peaceful atmospheric orchestral music, I’d have to go with Morrowind. -SS
The Legend of Zelda – When one thinks of great soundtracks, it’s easy to go straight to Zelda’s Ocarina of Time with its clear, defined melodies. As implied in the game’s title, music also played a central role in the plot. The player could learn new songs on the ocarina, which would affect the world around him or teleport him somewhere. When you were playing the ocarina in-game, you became part of the game, immersed in composer Koji Kondo’s glorious harmonies. The soundtrack of the beautifully reinvented version, Breath of the Wild, is much more diverse but equally aesthetically pleasing – subtle pianos, moody clarinets, uplifting horns, melancholy strings, and even some accordion for good measure. The music shapes the beautiful landscapes and challenging puzzles, creating both emotional and epic moments, making it a true journey of sound. -TAB
Halo 3 – There is something truly great about Halo 3’s soundtrack that goes perfectly with this magical galaxy-defining epic. Sometimes it’s as subtle as a piano, flute and some strings; other times it’s a full orchestra and choir. Not to mention the main theme song! Stirring voices sway back and forth as the string section warms up and wraps around the central melody. Then the drums hit. It’s a classic battle between the angelic and the archaic, the dark and the light. Building upon the famous Gregorian chant-laden theme we all know by heart from the original, Halo 3 refined and expanded on Halo, while also providing some of the best backing music to Master Chief’s adventures. -TAB
Age of Empires – Everyone has their favorite Age of Empires edition that they grew up with. The definitive edition soundtrack keeps the melody of the originals, but makes them sound smoother and adds some harmonies that really give a nostalgic feel. -SS
SimCity – SimCity is considered one of the greatest game franchises ever made, and every single version came with an awesome soundtrack. The jazzy original was incredibly unique and instantly recognizable. The SimCity 2013 reboot has beautifully majestic orchestral music that reminds you of a peaceful thriving city. SimCity 4 has perhaps the best songs overall with a mixed variety of music ranging from Bohemian to Electronic to Symphonic that made you feel like your city had culture. -XB
Minecraft – This game features a wide variety of beautiful ambient music that can serve as soothing nostalgic background music for peaceful relaxation or quiet contemplation. Composed by the German musician and sound engineer known as C418, many fans call it the greatest game soundtrack of all time. Speaking of music in games, the Minecraft Music Mod adds a whole host of playable instruments to your Minecraft world, from guitars and drums to trumpets and saxophones. -SS
The thing that makes a game soundtrack truly great is that you can easily listen to it outside of the game and have it hold it’s own against traditional albums – but it’s also wonderful to have it resonate and bring back memories of moments in the game. We obviously haven’t played every video game out there, so we’ve probably missed some good music as well. What are your favorite video game soundtracks?