Pixel Sounds: 11 Essential Video Game Soundtracks

by John Rogers, Jeremy Miller & Ruth Coppens

 
Still: Kentucky Route Zero (2017: Annapurna Interactive)

Video games are perhaps the most intrinsically multidisciplinary of the artistic media. When immersed in playing, it’s easy to forget the amount of work and talent that goes into crafting each game’s interactivity, visual design, foley art, motion-captured physical performance, voice acting, and – of course – music.


Much like video game development itself, the production of soundtracks can vary in scope from home-recorded solo projects, right through to grand productions played by world-renowned orchestras. As you’ll see in the list below, much of the more experimental work is to be found on the independently produced side of things, but there are also some AAA productions included in our list. One thing is certain – video game composition is a thriving biome of music that shouldn’t be overlooked.

 

Hyper Light Drifter | Bandcamp | Spotify


This pixel art action-adventure is lovingly crafted in all respects, from the expressive sprites to the crackling campfires, colourful wastelands, and mesmerising mountaintops. Award-winning composer Disasterpeace’s soundtrack is absolutely key in creating the emotional core of the game.


Fans of Fez will recognise his signature sound, in which distinctive synths are bitcrushed like they’ve journeyed through a dial-up modem before arriving in the game. These pieces are interspersed with quietly mournful piano and guitar melodies, with brighter moments arriving like pixelated sunlight through a forest canopy. One to remember. JR

 

Related: Hidden gems: seven great games you might have missed

 

Final Fantasy | Apple Music


Music from several Final Fantasy games – more specifically those composed by Nobuo Uematsu – are songs that deserve a frequent relisten. Over the years, these soundtracks have presented a wide array of emotion and intensity in a variety of musical genres. There have even been touring shows of orchestral performances of these soundtracks, such as “Distant Worlds: The Music of Final Fantasy”. At these events, local orchestras perform the music during multimedia presentations, sometimes accompanied by Nobuo-san himself. The orchestral renditions are a mainstay of the series, but the MIDI and chiptune originals are very much worth a listen. JM

 

Sayonara Wild Hearts | Spotify


This neon dream of Nordic design describes itself as an interactive pop album, and justifiably so. Composed by Jonathan Olsén, Daniel Eng and vocalist Linnea Olsson, it’s a sugar-rush of dreamy dance-pop that’ll summon the endorphins as you navigate the barrage of high-speed on-screen action. From the magical reworking of ‘Claire De Lune’ that welcomes you into the game to the anthemic, emotional finale of ‘Wild Hearts Never Die’, this is an unprecedented pairing of contemporary Scandi-pop and thrilling gameplay. JR

 

The Unfinished Swan | YouTube


Somewhere between electronic composition and symphonic scope lies Joel Corelitz’s wondrous and surprising soundtrack for The Unfinished Swan. There are grand, chiming melodies, like the lutes and lyres of a fairytale monarch’s court, with eddies of strings swirling around them; washes of electronic sound add softness and ambience. The eponymous opener is intriguing, and it’s built upon throughout the game, as fresh environments and new mechanics are each welcomed with surprising new sounds. JR

 

Hollow Knight | Bandcamp | Spotify


This fascinating Metroidvania was an indie smash-hit. It’s an engrossing journey into the depths of a devastated insect kingdom called The Hallownest, and as you creep ever deeper into its dark and dangerous confines, Christopher Larkin’s striking orchestral soundtrack accompanies you into the darkness. It’s that certain kind of adaptive video game music in which every track has several phases, from, say, a quiet cello line to a propulsive, symphonic crescendo, based on the on-screen action. It’s a masterclass – this is how it’s done. JR

 

Mutazione | Bandcamp | Spotify


Mutazione is a wonderful narrative adventure game that drips with atmosphere. Set on a steamy tropical island overrun by extranatural plants and populated by a diverse community of friendly mutants, the sounds of the game are drenched with summer sun heat. With a mixture of languid surf sounds, lazy psych jams, lo-fi garage rock, atmospheric guitar sketches, and late-night dream-pop, it’s an indie fan’s dream. JR

 

Signs of the Sojourner | Bandcamp | Spotify


This striking game is set in a near-future climate-stricken wasteland, but it’s very far from the post-apocalyptic cliché we’ve become accustomed to. The denizens of the desert spend their time farming, foraging, hustling, making art, and clinging on to the precarious remnants of civilisation. As you traverse the colourful landscape, you’re serenaded by the wonderful music of Skewsound and Steve Pardo. The melancholy finger-picked strings, lively uptempo market-town rhythms, and muted woodwinds provide a lingering desert ambiance that’s mournful, joyful, and wondrous. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, and prescient game that’s brought to life by the music. JR

 

Kingdom Hearts | Apple Music


The Kingdom Hearts series is packed with recognisable and iconic tracks by Yoko Shimomura. They evoke a sense of nostalgia while still feeling fresh. Each character has their own theme, which ties a welcome sense of emotion to each song. A highlight is Roxas, who has a reworked version of ‘The Other Promise’ during his boss battle. It’s a sombre track that makes you feel for the character, in stark contrast to the optimistic, adventurous theme of Sora, our main character.


Aside from the character themes, there are also some amazing battle tracks that make you feel like you can take on the world. Memorable ones include ‘The 13th Struggle’, which you’ll encounter a lot. But the staple of Kingdom Hearts’ battle music is ‘Destati’, the very first boss fight song in the original game, which will always be synonymous with the epic music of Kingdom Hearts.


It’s impossible to talk about the music of Kingdom Hearts without mentioning ‘Dearly Beloved’. When you boot up a Kingdom Hearts game, it’s the menu song that greets you. Each game has a different iteration of this song, and each version is somehow better than the last. It’s a song that makes me feel like I’m coming home. RC

 

Kentucky Route Zero | Bandcamp | Spotify


As much a multidisciplinary artwork as a video game, Kentucky Route Zero excels in all departments, including the soundtrack. The blissful electronic washes by Ben Babbitt are accentuated by occasional folk interludes by The Bedquilt Ramblers, who appear in silhouette at pivotal moments in the game. There are also several in-game concerts, the most memorable of which is a performance by Junebug & Johnny – two android musicians who perform a jaw-dropping number entitled “Too Late To Love You”, in which the player can choose the lyrics. JR

 

FAR: Lone Sails | Bandcamp | Spotify


Joel Schoch’s score for the unusual vehicle-based trundle-simulator FAR: Lone Sails is a thing of rare beauty. As the player propels a hulking vessel over a shattered landscape, the music brings the experience to life, with plucked strings, stirring cello, and flurries of plucked notes combining into a soundtrack that’s simultaneously propulsive and contemplative. Lingering somewhere between experimental instrumental folk and contemporary composition, it’s a vibrant, atmospheric cycle of music that summons goosebumps, whether in the game or on the stereo. JR

 

The Pathless | Bandcamp | Spotify


Austin Wintory’s score for this 2020 indie game is a real one-off. Based around the idea of “the familar new”, Wintory sought to create a score both symphonic in scope and ear-catchingly unusual by bringing together rarely-heard instruments from outside the orchestral canon. This involved researching folk music traditions, and finding a diverse range of performers and players, from a Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Kailesh, to the nyckelharpa, viola da gamba, oud, and bass kazoo. The results are quite astonishing whether experienced in the game or listened to alone, and so much music was produced that a sister album, ‘The Pathless: Meditations’, was released alongside the game’s OST. You can also catch various documentaries of the soundtrack’s production at Wintory’s YouTube channel. JR

 

JR = John Rogers | RAR Gaming Editor & Gaming In The Wild podcast host | Twitter

JM = Jeremy Miller | Games critic & collector | Twitter

RC = Ruth Coppens | Games critic & Game For Thought podcast host | Twitter