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 work more fun as it creates positive vibes when played in the background, especially if it’s from one of your favorite games. Moreover, the best video game compositions are worth listening to on their own even if you’re not familiar with the game.
That being said, the soundtracks for Half-Life 2 and Portal are amazing, but they’re not conducive to using as background music outside of the game. (Although Jonathan Coulton’s tongue-in-cheek acoustic number “Still Alive” is on my 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.
Some people recommend playing through the game before listening to the soundtrack, since the soundtrack is deeply connected to the game’s story. But 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.
There are tons of amazing game soundtracks out there, from major, triple-AAA games to smaller indie titles. The soundtracks on this list each have their own charm in regards to their musical style. 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. We encourage you to listen to something new and see if you can simply enjoy the music. 🙂
Touhou Project – Because this indie video game series is all in Japanese, it can be difficult for non-Japanese speakers to understand their gameplay at first. However, the music itself transcends language barriers. Each of the 17 games (so far) has its own style and all of them are excellent. Many people say their favorite is the sweeping adventure music in Subterranean Animism; however I also like the energetic upbeat songs in Mountain of Faith.
Bastion – Bastion was created by a team of seven people working out of a house in San Jose. As such, Bastion still stands as one of the more 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 soundtrack reflects that as well. He describes 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.
Mirror’s Edge – The awesome Mirrors Edge soundtrack by Swedish composer Solar Fields is not only integral to the gaming experience, it’s fun to listen to outside of the game. The ambient music changes effortlessly from serene to energetic, never missing a beat. The dynamic music helps to keep you energized, and can double as epic workout music. I play the one-hour version all the time now when I’m on my bike. 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.
Life is Strange – I listened to the Life is Strange soundtrack over and over again after playing the game. This awesome soundtrack features nostalgic folk instrumentals, mellow tones, and emotional ballads. The original score is by Jonathan Morali with additional songs from Syd Matters, Sparklehorse, Local Natives, Message to Bears, Mogwai, and other indie artists. Great background music for chilling, studying, or working quietly on a project.
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. It’s more varied in style with both playful and epic melodies, live orchestral instruments, and even singing. Every score of the soundtrack is like a chapter from a story book, each one telling their own tales of marvels and legends, with over an hour of original music keeping it fresh.
Stardew Valley – Stardew Valley is a pretty nice soundtrack with a variety of catchy tunes. Listening to this while studying or doing chores is a pleasant way to spend the day and will make you feel happy.
Starbound – It’s amazing how some of the best soundtracks ever made come from indie games. The Starbound 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.
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 incredible musical journey!
The Curse of Monkey Island – Michael Land’s score needed to reflect the game’s absurdist humor, and on Monkey Island’s third installment, Land turned in his finest work to date. The Curse of Monkey Island allowed Land 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. Play this music at your next pirate-themed birthday party!
Fallout New Vegas – Fallout is well known for its gritty black humor juxtaposed with overtly happy swing tunes. Our 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 satirically compares the courier traipsing across the nuclear wasteland, to cowboys and lone wanderers. The funniest thing was playing the soundtrack on a car ride and Grampa saying “I remember this song!”
Cuphead – This game copies the old school style of cartoons from the golden age of American animation (circa 1920s-1930s). The developers also filled their soundtrack with jazz and big band tracks from a bygone era. This lively soundtrack will transport you back in time to an old dance hall or carnival. Even without seeing the game in action, the music is just plain fun to hear and will bring a smile to your face.
Final Fantasy – Everyone’s got their own favorite Final Fantasy soundtrack, but if there’s one that deserves a place on a list of best soundtracks, it’s Final Fantasy 8. The Japanese composer, Nobuo Uematsu, was clearly shooting 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.
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 this game sound like a big-budget Hollywood fantasy film. However, for peaceful atmospheric orchestral music, I’d have to go with Morrowind.
The Legend of Zelda – When one thinks of The Legend of Zelda music, it’s easy to go straight to The Legend of Zelda: 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 main character 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. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the soundtrack of this beautifully reinvented version 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 unmatched by most games today. That being said, it commands your attention more than other background music, making it hard to ignore.
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! Angelic 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. Sure, it might not be the famous Gregorian chant-laden theme we all know by heart from the original, but Halo 3 was the game that refined and expanded on Halo, while also providing some of the best backing music to Master Chief’s adventures.
Age of Empires – Everyone has their favorite Age of Empires edition that they grew up with, while 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.
SimCity – SimCity is considered one of the greatest video game franchises ever made, and every single version that came out had an awesome soundtrack. 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. But the jazzy soundtrack for the original PC classic was incredibly unique, experimental, and instantly recognizable.
Minecraft – This game features a wide variety of beautiful ambient music that can serve as soothing nostalgic background music for peaceful chilling 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.
The thing that makes a game soundtrack truly great is that you can easily listen to it outside the game and have it hold it’s own against traditional albums – but also to have it resonate and bring back memories of moments in the game is truly a thing of wonder. 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? Tell us in the comments!