Video game soundtracks have come a long way since the 1990s. Chiptune beeps gave way to midi samples, which gave way to digital synths and beyond. From Trent Reznor’s soundtrack to the seminal Quake, to the haunting voices and strings of Marty O’Donnell’s Halo, we now have soundtracks that rival any album in the charts or movie score.
In this list, we’re going to highlight five perhaps lesser known game soundtracks that are well worth a listen, that not only serve to accentuate and enhance the game they come from, but that stand on their own as beautiful pieces of music. You won’t find any Zelda, Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy in this list, but we hope that you will find something new that tempts you. These are presented in no particular order as every one listed here has its merits.
FAR: Lone Sails
Equal parts whimsical, hopeful and melancholy, the soundtrack to this minimalist little adventure/exploration game fits perfectly in the game world, never overwhelming or distracting but blending and accentuating the somewhat sad atmosphere that permeates the world our character inhabits. With discordantly plucked strings and soft, sweet piano blending with harsh, industrial strains of metal on metal and threatening synths, composer Joel Schoch has brought us a simply gorgeous collection of music.
Stand-out tracks: “Colored Engine”, “Bridge”, “Not Alone” and “Drive It!” – https://farlonesails.bandcamp.com/releases
Bastion rose to prominence within the gaming scene a few years ago due to its conceit of having a narrator that would react to your actions in game, both chiding and encouraging in equal measure and helping move the story along. Bastion, again, is a strange little game where our character wakes up one morning to find that the world has ended (Tch. Typical!) and he must gather what survivors he can find in this last refuge, this bastion of their civilisation. The game is played in an isometric Diablo-esque format and features a gorgeous, hand-painted art style.
All this is bolstered by the soundtrack by Darren Korb who described it as “acoustic frontier trip hop” and that is certainly as good a description as any. Blending fast plucked guitars with electronic beats and strings, veering from Americana to something more Middle Eastern-inspired and back again, no other game sounds quite like Bastion.
Stand-out tracks: “A Proper Story”, “Twisted Streets”, “Build That Wall”, “Mother, I’m Here” and “Setting Sail, Coming Home” – https://supergiantgames.bandcamp.com/album/bastion-original-soundtrack
Legendary is not a great game, unlike the first two picks. A distinctly average first person shooter, it tells the story of a professional thief who has been sent to steal a MacGuffin from a museum. Said MacGuffin turns out to be the literal Pandora’s Box of legend which, when opened, unleashes all sorts of monsters and demons into the world including gryphons, minotaurs and giant golems. Unlike the more traditional scores of the first two soundtracks on this list, composers Jack Grillo and Ricardo Hernandez go in hard with the drums and harsh, heavily distorted guitar riffs. The game might be simply average, but the music certainly isn’t. Most of the soundtrack is hard, fast-paced metal, blended with snippets of dialogue from within the game. There is also some more lingering, haunting tracks backed by crunching, thick bass lines. There’s no other soundtrack quite like it, though it might bring up comparisons to the aforementioned Quake in places.
Stand-out tracks: “It’s Just Business”, “Is Anybody There”, “Minotaur” and “Bullets & Blood” – https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/grillohernandez
Firewatch is what some people refer to as a “walking simulator” in that the focus of the game is on the narrative of the story rather than on puzzles or combat. We follow the story of a man named Henry, working as a fire lookout in Shoshone Forest, his only contact in this quiet world another fire lookout called Delilah who we communicate with over the radio. This is a game primarily about isolation and loneliness and the soundtrack works to emphasise that.
We have strings and organs, with quite simple refrains, more of that Americana influence sneaking in here though it’s nowhere near as intricate and intense as the Bastion soundtrack but then this is a game where the focus is on the storyline and the quiet world around us. Anything more would have easily been overwhelming and intrusive but composer Chris Remo has brought us something not quite minimalist, something wistful and atmospheric, which blends seamlessly into the game and stands on its own at the same time.
Stand-out tracks: “Prologue”, “Canyon Sunset”, “Something’s Wrong” and “Ol’Shoshone” – https://camposantogames.bandcamp.com/album/firewatch-original-score
The Witcher 3 (and expansions)
The Witcher 3 is the story of Geralt of Rivia (who will be played by Henry Cavill in the Netflix Original adaptation), one of the last of the Witchers, monster hunters for hire, attempting to find his daughter Ciri while war and monsters ravage the land around him. The Witcher series as a whole are a superb set of games, but CD Projekt Red outdid themselves with this final instalment; and then they made it even better with the expansions “Heart of Stone” and “Blood and Wine”. Marcin Przybylowicz, Mikolai Stroinski and folk music group Percival are the team responsible for the music duties here. They have brought us a simply epic soundtrack that not only uses the traditional strings, drums and wind, but somewhat more esoteric instruments like a lute, gusle and a hurdy-gurdy.
Stand-out tracks: “City of Intrigues”, “Silver for Monsters”, “Hearts of Stone” and “The Beast of Beauclair” – https://open.spotify.com/user/cdprojektred/playlist/5Xi6QRe3OuaUBxEE9OiEJ2
Five game soundtracks down, so many more to go! Honourable mentions need to also go to The Banner Saga, Elite: Dangerous, the Myst series of games and Flower.