By the 2010s, video games as a medium were no longer seen as overpriced children’s toys. Big budget AAA titles were inviting players to witness and experience the impossible and a slew of classics were getting revamped, remastered or outright retold for new, younger audiences. Online gaming and streaming were helping shed light on some of the more indie darlings we would be talking about for the next decade, and also VR was finally looking to take shape as the next possible step for gaming.
In the world of video game music, more advancements in tech meant that AAA titles were more daring in their soundscape visions, indie titles were making amazing callbacks on a shoestring budget, and everything in-between was helping shape some of the decade’s most ambitious and well-loved games. Out of all the lists, this one was by far the hardest to choose from, but on a side note – who would have thought 2017 would be an absolute powerhouse year for video game soundtracks? The 2010s was a decade many people would like to forget, but let’s dive into those waters and see what we pull out.
As a reminder, this isn’t a definitive top 10, as we’re merely looking at how the world of video game soundtracks have evolved during the 2010s, offering some examples you may not have considered. Though some favourites have been unfairly left out in the cold, there’s a good feeling that we will be talking about some of those games another time, on another list.
Red Dead Redemption (2010)
At the beginning of the 2010s, Rockstar managed to clean up its bad-boy image. Though subsequent releases would still have some dissent from concerned parents and an overly concerned lawyer, reception towards the publisher was no longer met with the same level of hostility compared to the start of the 2000s. The Red Dead franchise was also given a huge overhaul. Though Red Dead Revolver received some favourable reviews, many saw it as a “one and done” entry to help fund Rockstar’s next big project.
Red Dead Redemption was met with some unease, due to the publisher leaving its comfort zone of GTA, but the worry was for nothing. Within weeks, Red Dead Redemption became the biggest selling game of 2010, shifting 5 million copies in its first 3 weeks and becoming Rockstar’s biggest selling IP outside the GTA bubble.
Its soundtrack was also a huge step outside the publisher’s comfort zone. It simply couldn’t be a GTA clone, though a horse with a radio would have been amusing. Red Dead’s music supervisor Ivan Pavlovich felt out of his depth composing such a large in scale soundtrack that needed to capture the essence of the Wild West and Sergio Leone movies. He hired the cult band Friends of Dean Martinez to help write the soundtrack and the results are still jaw-dropping 11 years after the game’s release.
Put simply, it captures the mood and the gritty settings of RDR well, adding layers of vocal harmonies, piano and string instruments to help give the player total immersion. The world of Red Dead is barren with many dangers lurking, so its soundtrack provides a lingering and often menacing backdrop to that world. It’s a perfect marriage of atmosphere and music and while RDR2 would progress that sound further, the original RDR proved to the gaming world that Rockstar were still heavyweight titans to contend with.
DmC – Devil May Cry (2013)
I understand that many people will read this entry, shudder and conjure a pox on my house and horses for merely mentioning Ninja Theory’s stab at revitalising a beloved hack and slash series. What Ninja Theory brought to the table was sound fighting mechanics, some memorable boss battles such as demonic news anchor Bob Barbas and an attempt at an origin story for Capcom’s favourite one-line comedic demon slayer. Its satire may have been a little too on the nose at times, but DmC didn’t deserve a fraction of the hate it got. Not in a million years.
We aren’t here today to defend DmC’s gameplay, despite the game being controversial, as the one element all Devil May Cry games have in common is their rigorous and brutal soundtracks. From the franchise’s inception, Devil May Cry has always offered some fantastic fusions of metal, electronic and drum & bass, and DmC is no exception. What Ninja Theory did, hiring two distinct bands in the form of Dutch Electronica trio Noisia and industrial metal titans Combichrist to head the soundtrack, would prove to be a smart move.
The music scholars among us may feel that that combination is a bizarre concoction that shouldn’t work, but in the realms of DmC, it does. Noisia brings DmC’s more serene soundscapes to the mix, used effectively during the brief respites between fights and exploration, though there are also a few heavier tones thrown in for the odd boss battle. Combichrist’s brutal industrial stylings lend to the game’s feverish fight scenes; one standout track that comes to mind is the hyper tribalist stylings of Gimme Deathrace. Both artists act as a yin and yang, offering a light and dark aesthetic to the soundtrack, which feeds into the game’s narrative themes and gameplay formula.
The game may have been controversial, but its musical tandem is a perfect stroke of soundtrack genius.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (2015)
By 2015, there was no denying that the indie market was on fire. Within the space of 5 short years, many amazing titles were making their way to the Steam store and with the advent of streaming hitting its stride also, these two elements brought gaming as a whole kicking and screaming into the future. There were so many games that got the attention of streamers, with 5 Nights At Freddy’s and Minecraft for example, but one game that stuck out in the early days of the indie boom was Hotline Miami.
If you’ve never played a Hotline Miami game in your life, think of it as a slick homage to the ultra-violent arcadey nonsense of PS1-era GTA, with a curious narrative mixing 1980s action and slasher movies, all garnished with a sickly neon colour setting. By today’s standards, the aggressively 80s aesthetic is a lake too many developers go to, but for its time, there wasn’t anything quite like Hotline Miami on the market.
Its soundtrack also boasted of retrowave goodness, which at the time was and still is a niche genre, but it won over music fans. DJs such as Carpenter Brut and Perurbator’s contributions to the soundtrack helped immerse the player into Hotline Miami’s vibrant but disturbing world. Offering self-destructive synth work and some booming drum loops, Hotline Miami 2 is a great soundtrack on its own. However, to understand the full experience, I’d highly recommend picking up the double pack, which is available on most platforms for pennies, and sink into the franchise’s filthy depths.
From its 1993 debut onwards, DOOM became a franchise of legendary proportions, as it should have been. It helped birth a new playstyle for generations to come within the FPS genre, and the idea of one man and his shotgun laying to waste the demons of hell was an alluring, yet simple concept that printed money for id Software. Its soundtrack, though very much a product of its time, still has some catchy hooks many gaming YouTubers used for their channels years after.
However, by 2016, DOOM needed an overhaul. Subsequent sequels fared ok in most review circles, but many fans felt that the franchise had lost its way. The messy production and eventual cancellation of DOOM 4 also garnered zero confidence in the franchise’s more devoted fans and people often wondered if we were ever going to have one more run with Doomguy ever again. Bethesda managed to win back said doubters, as DOOM 2016 was an orgy of blood, guts and BFGs that breathed new life into the once-influential franchise. Mick Gordon’s tireless work on the soundtrack was a large part of that success as well.
Gordon knew that the legacy of DOOM needed to match its 2016 revamp, using the base notes of the franchise’s distinctly familiar theme to carve out a heavy metal-inspired soundtrack. Gordon further explained that he wanted the music to not just be angry, but also claustrophobic, and he didn’t just want the player to simply fight the hell demons, but to immerse the player into the gore DOOM was known for. With its use of 9 string guitars and double kick drums to convey the game’s inconsolably angry adrenaline-fueled fight scenes, it’s hard to resist the urge of starting a 1 man moshpit in your gaming area. It’s a soundtrack purposely designed to keep the player sharp and focused in a game that demands sharp reflexes if you want to make it out alive.
Persona 5 (2016)
As proven in previous lists, there’s always at least one franchise that started life as a beloved cult classic before making the jump to the mainstream smoothly. Persona, come on down.
The first 4 titles of this exemplary JRPG series always gained more fans with every subsequent release, so much so that when Persona 5 was announced, excitement was through the roof. Whether you played the base version when it first came out or you’re currently playing its Royal edition, Persona 5 offers up some of the best mechanics the JRPG genre has to offer. It has a gorgeous presentation, some fantastic storytelling and, most importantly, one hell of a soundtrack.
The world of Persona 5 has a lot going on, as not only are you trying to navigate protagonist Joker through high school commitments and everyday teen things, but you’re also travelling to the demonic metaverse to vanquish the inner demons that plague Japan. Any composer would be challenged by such a grand vision, and Shoji Meguro, the man behind it all, has explained the soundtrack needed to be gorgeous as a response to Persona 5’s settings. Much like EarthBound in the 1990s, every scene needed an audible response to enhance its story.
110 songs were composed, fusing nearly every genre that music has to offer. We’re talking rock, pop and a bit of hip hop, but more glaringly obvious was the upbeat jazz with a funk backdrop that doesn’t so much get the blood pumping as it gets the toes tapping and the body moving. Using jazz singer Lyn Inaizumi, every song is bursting with upbeat energy and every fight is worth it just to hear ‘Last Surprise’ as it’s an absolute earworm that’ll keep you humming for hours after. If you don’t want to sink 80-120 hours into this meaty JRPG, its soundtrack is also available on most music streaming services. You’ll never see it coming.
From its inception, Cuphead was always going to draw the attention of many gamers. An indie title made by a family of brothers, the Moldenhauer family, with an art style akin to old Fleischer and Disney cartoons, no one had seen anything like Cuphead, especially in the indie circuit. Everything from its presentation down to the extreme difficulty was carefully designed and as a result, Cuphead became the talk of the town very quickly. Its release didn’t disappoint, and while it was originally a PC and Xbox One exclusive, Cuphead would go on to be ported to the Nintendo Switch and PS4, cultivating an adoring fan base along the way.
As discussed, Cuphead is a love letter to the cartoons of old and with very little dialogue, a story had to be told audibly that also needed to reflect the style. This was the first of many challenges for composer Kristofer Maddigan, with his second challenge being writing what would be his first-ever soundtrack. In subsequent interviews, Maddigan has been honest that he felt out of depth creating the soundtrack, but the Moldenhauers convinced him that he was the right man for the job. The only instruction he was given was “big band vibe”.
The result was a 3-hour journey of jazz, swing and barbershop that has all the big band vibes you could ever want. Its soundtrack is often dominated by almost panicky, frantic piano presumably composed that way to keep the player on their feet, but is rounded off with a bouncy light hub world music to soothe the player after probably spending the last 3 hours trying to tackle Rumour Honeybee. Cuphead deceives you with its cute appearance until you actually play it and your blood pressure rises, so the only honesty you will find in Cuphead lies with its dynamic and wonderful soundtrack.
Nier: Automata (2017)
The soundtrack that inspired this 3-decade journey into video game soundtracks. Nier: Automata will hold a very special place in my heart for being there for me during a very emotional time. It’s a game that some may think is full of the usual anime sci-fi hijinks when you see the cover art of three armed robots looking longingly into the distance. However, that description is an insult to this one of a kind Platinum title that does everything to subvert the player’s expectations.
A carefully put together tale of identity, the illusion of freedom and what it is to love, Nier Automata won’t pull any punches when it comes to its surreal telling of its narrative, requiring the player to run through the game a minimum of 3 times to understand the big picture. It’s a sequel, but it’s immediately relevant, set thousands of years in the future from the previous game. Keiichi Okabi, who wonderfully composed Nier’s first outing on the PS3 and Xbox 360, had his work cut out for him, as Nier: Automata is such a departure from its predecessor that it would throw the most respected of composers off course.
Looking back at his work for Nier: Automata, Okabi felt that the game needed to be more dynamic, as he wanted the songs to express the emotions of main protagonists 2B and 9S. That element in itself is a unique approach to the soundtrack, as most video game soundtracks are usually a response to its locations, but hardly the emotions of the characters that inhabit the world you’re visiting.
When we hear the booming soundscapes of ‘Wretched Weaponry’, we’re hearing calculated plans of the YoRHa plotting its war against the machines. Whereas the electronic, but childlike vocal harmony of ‘Pascal’ has you listen to the peaceful resolution of the titular tribe leader. Nier: Automata is a game with many talents, but its soundtrack is what makes this game stand out as one of the many JRPG gems the last generation gave us. Come for the bizarre presentation, stay for the beautiful soundtrack.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (2017)
Xenoblade Chronicles is a franchise that can be summed up as “Marmite”. You’ll find those who love the franchise to death, or people that aren’t so hot on it. For my money, I can understand why it’s a franchise that is admired, however, between its auto fight mechanics and questionable story choices, it was not my cup of tea. However, that does not mean its soundtrack should be disqualified as Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does boast an epic and memorable soundtrack.
Its soundtrack also has a fairly interesting history, as its composer, Yasunori Mitsuda, brought along Japanese duo ACE to help with the exploration music while he focused on the battle music. The result was a 121 piece soundtrack that utilised the fantasy steampunk settings of Alrest well, using its contemporary classical music and electronic influences to its strengths. Some of the music was composed so well that Mitsuda had admitted on his Twitter that some parts of the soundtrack made him cry.
The soundtrack’s true masterstroke comes in quite early, with its night and day setups. Put simply, the soundtrack has an audio response to whatever the time of day is. Wandering around Alrest during the day can bring out more adventurous musical pieces, the use of strings and brass instruments sets the player up to feel part of the adventure, whereas its night settings have more of a sleepy almost lullaby feel, with its use of wood instruments and acoustic guitars. Though you’re listening to the same song, its effective rearrangements make for two distinct iterations, making the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 soundtrack one of the more lavish JRPG soundtracks that’ll stick in people’s heads long after they finished playing the game.
God of War (2018)
Throughout the PS2 and PS3 era, there wasn’t a franchise quite like God of War. A trilogy of games about a pissed off demi-god with extreme daddy issues, critics and gamers alike praised God Of War for not only its story, but its refreshing take on the hack and slash genre too. The trilogy’s soundtrack was also epic, bringing in choirs and orchestras to convey Kratos’ adventure as he ravages every Greek god and mythical creature to help bring down Zeus.
For years after the game’s third release, many gamers knew that Kratos would come back, but there was always a question of “how”. Sony then revealed that we would be playing a more deeply scarred and troubled version of Kratos, as he comes to grips with his past while taking on a son of his own in a Norse setting. The game came out to a huge reception and at the time of writing the gaming world is anticipating its sequel, tentatively titled God of War Ragnarok. For composer Bear McCreary, the changes in the surroundings of the game along with the characters’ collective psyches allowed him to conjure a raw folk sound.
McCreary brought in a wide range of Nordic instruments to compose what could be best described as a counter-cultural response to its original trilogy. Though both soundtracks have songs that are epic in their own right, McCreary’s use of Icelandic vocals and orchestral sweeps allowed for moments where we can audibly identify Kratos’ vulnerabilities and flaws. It’s a soundtrack that goes beyond the boundaries to help the player immerse themselves in the game’s Norse trappings, making God of War a fantastic yet rare soundtrack that not only communicated the game’s visual settings, but also had a hand in developing the growth of a character.
Pistol Whip (2019)
It would feel wrong to not touch on the world of VR on this list. VR is slowly but surely coming away from its misconceived notions of being a gimmick, much like the PS Move or Microsoft Kinect. Oculus, Google and Sony are throwing some serious money behind it and with games such as Half-Life: Alyx and Boneworks garnering much needed praise and attention, it’s a safe bet to say that VR isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
When most people talk about good VR games, Pistol Whip is usually involved in the conversation and it’s easy to see why. For those that have never played it, think of Pistol Whip as a mix of arcade rhythm action at its best, with some John Wick bullet hell action thrown in to make an interesting take on both the on-rails FPS shooter and the rhythm genre. Each level is simple in design: shoot in time of the music and dodge the bullets. It does take some getting used to, but Pistol Whip proves to be addictive once you master the basics.
The soundtrack compliments Pistol Whip’s hyperactive presentation, its use of violent colours and neon laying the foundation for its soundtrack to do the same, offering violent sounding blasters to get you in that shooty bang bang mood. Like every good rhythm game, you need a good soundtrack, especially when you’ll be listening to the same songs ad infinitum trying to beat some of the game’s more aggressive levels. For this, Cloudhead Games used EDM DJs such as HVDES and Black Tiger Sex Machine to compose a diverse electronica soundtrack that will no doubt leave the player on their toes and keep those songs firmly in their heads.
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