Video game music seems to get better year on year. What were once a collection of charming 2-bit earworms designed to drive you insane as you settled down to another 3-hour Tetris session are now some of the most sophisticated melodic offerings this side of a Brahms concerto.
In this list, I’ve compiled 10 of my favourite soundtracks, mainly drawn from franchises and series rather than standalone titles, and picked a few choice highlights. Most are complete, orchestral scores as opposed to standalone tracks, and I’ve included original compositions only, so Skrillex’s ‘Make it Bun Dem’ from Far Cry 3 isn’t included. Sorry.
Lots of great work misses out, but this is a personal selection rather than a definitive rundown. In no particular order then, here are 10 video game soundtracks which will enrich your soul, broaden your mind, and enable you to go to dinner parties and convince people that you’re interested in classical music.
1. Total War
Main Games – Rome, Three Kingdoms, Shogun II
Total War’s temporal and geographical variety has offered the heavyweight strategy franchise’s composers a wide range of textual palettes to play with, from the forceful, honour-laden tomes of Shogun II to the authentic medieval ambience of Medieval 2’s Middle-Ages Europe. It’s impossible to name every track from every game, but my soundtrack of choice has to be Rome: Total War, a childhood favourite and still an eternal series stalwart.
Rome’s music was calm, stately and occasionally ethereal, as demonstrated in familiar tracks such as ‘Divinitus’ and the loading menu screen’s ambient theme, with composer Jeff Van Dyck opting more often than not for a reflective and serene palette tempered by darker, more brooding undercurrents. That said, if you favour a haughty, imperial swell to set the tone for a big old strategy session, anything from Richard Beddow’s Three Kingdoms is hard to beat, especially the pulsating ‘Soaring Dragons’. Just listening to it makes me want to unify China. Again.
Main Games – Uncharted 3, Uncharted 4
‘Nate’s Theme’ is truly iconic in gaming circles, the auditory calling-card of a series which has defined itself as one of the great console-spanning AAA franchises of all time. Just as the games found new ways to thrill and astonish players across the quadrilogy, so too did the soundtrack match such an example with every new addition. The series has always boasted one of the deepest, richest and most varied musical accompaniments of recent times, and picking any favourites is always a tough business, but I’ve tried to reflect the musical diversity present across Nate’s adventures.
The Elder Scrolls has never been a series lacking in depth. Instalments are routinely gargantuan in scale, and need large, varied orchestral scores to match. It’s no easy feat to craft an ambient soundtrack which effectively accompanies hour upon hour of explorative gameplay without driving the player insane, but Jeremy Soule’s scores for Oblivion and Skyrim stand up today as some of the finest video game soundtracks around, pitch perfect in their sweeping breadth and subtle nuances.
Soule’s Skyrim accompaniment, for instance, takes you back to that place in an instant, a grand, stately work that never loses its sense of intimacy. Yet for all my eulogising of ambient scores and sweeping melodies, it’s ‘Dragonborn’ which has to sit as the series’ standout offering, purely for acting as the defining composition for the Elder Scrolls’ most popular and iconic work. Or, if you’re in a more mellow mood, get hold of the entire Skyrim soundtrack, play it from end to end, and you’ll be back chasing dragons and roaming Whiterun without even reaching for your platform of choice. Ah, happy times.
4. Age of Empires
Main Games – Age of Empires II, Age of Empires III
I was revisiting Age of Empires II for this list, and what struck me most is how incredibly odd and idiosyncratic the soundtrack actually is. Most games in the historical strategy category tend to play things relatively safe, opting for epic orchestral numbers and pulsing military paeans.
But theme song aside, Stephen Rippy’s accompanying music is utterly bizarre, often co-opting primitive, earthy instruments to perform strange, half-modern motifs influenced by everything from reggae, jazz or even low-fi hip-hop. Yet the game and its music have become intensely intertwined in the minds of its loyal fanbase, and hearing those iconic tracks immediately brings to mind happy memories of spawning villagers, gathering relics and converting trebuchets.
Age of Empires III, meanwhile, opted for a much more traditional score, with lots of clanging bells, terse snare drums and clamouring brass. It’s a complete departure from its predecessor, but helped the next instalment forge its own identity off the back of such a hugely popular release. I have a soft spot for ‘Ruinion’, but if you like one track, you’ll likely like them all.
The main theme from both selections is superb, but check out ‘Shamburger’ from AOE 2 as the archetypal Rippy track, and enjoy it bouncing around in your subconscious for the next 25 years.
5. Assassin’s Creed
Main Games – AC 2, Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed is a frighteningly massive behemoth nowadays, so choosing every great work from the last 15 or so years of instalments is a little impractical. That said, I’ve whittled it down to a few stand-out tracks from such a gargantuan catalogue to serve as an introductory effort.
These are just a few choice highlights from a truly massive musical selection. It might be a little overwhelming at times, but what’s great about such a diverse series has been its willingness to experiment with new sounds, styles and textures to reflect each intstalment’s respective cultural and historical influences.
6. Far Cry
Main Games – Far Cry 3, Far Cry 5
Far Cry 3 is a complete trip from start to finish, an incredible experience that still holds up as one of Ubisoft’s best releases. Dumping players into an exotic, psychedelic fight for survival in a tropical island jungle, the third mainline game needed a soundtrack which reflected not only protagonist Jason’s alienation and confusion in his new environment, but also his emotional turmoil at being forced to sink deeper into a state of primitive warrior aggression.
The Legend of Zelda franchise has been defined by its music. Almost every game has etched itself into the annals of gaming history, and the soundtracks are no different, so popular in their own right that composer Koji Kondo’s music even had its own concert tour entitled ‘Symphony of the Goddesses’ comprising of a four-movement symphony from four key Zelda titles.
There are dozens and dozens of tracks to pick from, so any special selection really does become almost completely arbitrary. That said, I’ve gone for ‘Gerudo Valley’ from Ocarina of Time, which feels like a Spanish love song made in Japan and played on a 2-bit Nintendo DS, and ‘Song of Storms’, also from Ocarina, because it’s an iconic, impish piece which makes me smile. On the inside, obviously.
Main Games – Civilisation 5, Civilisation 6
What’s so rewarding about Civilisation is its variety and authenticity, delving into the motifs and genres of a broad spectrum of musical traditions to reflect each instalment’s increasingly wide range of faction rosters. It’s all great stuff, often based on or influenced by established national songs and standards, such as Russia’s theme in Civ V, which takes motifs from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, or Civ VI’s rendition of Spanish standard ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’, amongst others. How many games can say that they’ve studied traditional Nahua music to create an authentic Aztec sound?
All this said, it’s still the series’ trademark theme ‘Sogno di Volare’ which has indelibly left Civilisation’s cultural stamp on the musical world, a rousing, immediately recognisable anthem which has helped bring video game music to the mainstream and has even popped up on Classic FM from time to time in the UK. Take that, Hans Zimmer.
9. God of War
Main Game – God of War
The God of War soundtrack oozes with Kratos’ raw power . The original trilogy’s score was epic in every sense, crammed full of massive orchestral numbers and anxiety-inducing warbles that made ‘Carmina Burana’ seem like a meditation aid. By the time God of War came out for the PS4, the soundtrack had changed to reflect the series’ new mature outlook, moodier and more brooding, the powerful wailing replaced by throaty, guttural roars which spoke of a tethered power waiting to be unleashed. If the new soundtrack could grow facial hair, it would definitely have a great big beard.
Both styles have their place, but the maturity and depth of the latter feels more rounded and accessible, and its clear Nordic influences mean it fits beautifully within the icy mythology of the game itself. There’s still beauty to be found among the pounding of the drums and manly musical chest beating, such as in the melancholic ‘Memories of Mother’ and the reflective ‘Echoes of an Old Life’. That said, if you just want something on in the background as you tear the wings from the backs of Valkyries, the eponymous title track is your best bet. You nasty bastard.
10. Red Dead Redemption 2
This might be the only entry on this list taken from a single game rather than a series, but Red Dead Redemption 2 needs no assistance when it comes to churning out great music.
In a game built on three-dimensional characterisation and evocative storytelling, it was only fitting that RD2 had a soundtrack which reflected its significant emotional and narrative depth. What’s so impressive about the score is that it hits all the right notes at all of the right times, mutating and shifting to fit the mood of a scene or environment perfectly. Other soundtracks might happily fall into a generic pattern, but RD2 retained a signature Western style all while moving across moods and even genres.
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