When I started buying game soundtracks — wait, let me get my cane. Back in my day, we had to import game soundtracks from Japan, if they were even sold at all, and they often cost $40 a piece. And we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow. My first two game soundtracks were for Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill. Nowadays, things are way, way easier, even without resorting to BitTorrent. With nothing more than an account for a streaming music service, you have tens, probably hundreds of game soundtracks at your fingertips, including some of the best soundtracks from the past decade.
Here are five of my favorites, available on Spotify in the United States (availability may vary in other markets).
Composer: Darren Korb
Bastion‘s score is described by its composer, Darren Korb, as “Acoustic Frontier Trip-Hop.” The world of Bastion is post-apocalyptic technically, but it feels less like the result of zombies or a nuke and more like the result of The Neverending Story‘s monster, The Nothing. The floating chunks of land, reassembling as you walk over them, the weird monsters, and the soundtrack itself have a weird, dreamlike feeling to them.
Vocal tracks in games often end up sounding corny and do little more than show us that either the composer is inexperienced or the producers of the game pushed them into creating something they weren’t proud of. Bastion‘s vocal tracks, though, end up being a highlight. They pull in the dreamy feeling of the other tracks, but add haunting, sad lyrics.
One of the last tracks, “Setting Sail, Coming Home” seems to pull in everything the game’s been building up to, from strings and heavy percussion to dueling vocal tracks from the male and female vocalists on earlier tracks. The lyrics also do something rare – the both fit the game’s story directly while not being cringeworthy when taken out of context. How far we’ve come since the days of Lunar: The Silver Star‘s midi-driven rock ballad.
Max Payne 3
Max Payne 3 is, for the most part, set in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It’s a huge, hot city that makes New York City look small by comparison, with seas of favelas surrounding a center of massive skyscrapers.
The music of Max Payne 3 amplifies those feelings. Some of the tracks are slow and almost lethargic, with the heat radiating from the screen, while others thunder forward.
There are a couple great music moments in the game, too, that made their way to the soundtrack (something that doesn’t always happen when licensing is an issue). The pounding vocal track “Tears” that acts as a backdrop for the big shootout in the airport toward the end of the game made for one of its coolest moments. The only track not by Health, “9 Circulos,” is a rap track by Brazilian emcee Emicida and accompanies Max on his first trip out into Sao Paolo without the benefit of being a rich family’s bodyguard.
I’ve been a fan of the Max Payne series since the beginning, but this game was the first where something other than Max’s mournful cello theme really mattered, and Rockstar’s unique choice ended up paying off.
The Last of Us
Composer: Gustavo Santaolalla
Some music is good background music. I don’t think The Last of Us is good background music. When paired with the game it was composed for, or with a good pair of headphones and some genuine concentration, though, it works beautifully.
The Last of Us is an alternately sad and tense game. Quiet, contemplative moments are often followed directly by loud, brutal violence.
Composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who has worked as composer on dozens of movie and tv soundtracks, uses strings and percussion to create these two moods. An amplified guitar or a South American stringed instrument called the ronroco lead the way through quieter segments, often backed by discordant strings, while huge drums drive louder tracks.
I mentioned how this score doesn’t work well as background noise. When it’s paired with the game, Santaolalla’s composition underscores each of the story beats perfectly, driving scenes home. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t cry when I played the game, and I think the music was probably a big part of that.
As background music, it just makes whatever you’re doing sound sad. Saddest cheeseburger ever, saddest Reddit browsing, et cetera. Listening to it on its own, though, helps the different parts of each track stand out, each instrument getting time to shine. Some of the music on this list works better in wider application, but The Last of Us deserves to given some special attention.
Red Dead Redemption
Composers: Bill Elm & Woody Jackson
Red Dead Redemption might be my favorite video game soundtrack ever, with one exception. If Silent Hill 2 were still available, it’d be a tough match-up. If we’re talking about what’s on Spotify, though, the answer is an easy one.
Inspired by the westerns from the 60s, especially those from Sergio Leone, the music is a combination of instruments that feel period-appropriate like trumpets, jaw harps, and cellos, but combined with other more esoteric items that are harder to pick out.
The soundtrack opens with “Born Unto Trouble,” a combination of quiet piano, sad strings, and a lonely whistle that convey John Marston’s situation immediately, which is followed by “The Shootist,” a track that feels like it was pulled directly from Ennio Morricone’s score for A Fistful of Dollars.
My favorite track, though, is “Triggernometry,” which brings in psychedelic electric guitars and a driving bassline and accents them with shouting trumpets. The game uses many of these tracks dynamically along with what’s going on in the game, with Triggernometry ramping up with gunfights, while pieces of quieter tracks accompany more peaceful moments like nighttime hunting.
Red Dead Redemption is also host to one of my all-time favorite moments in video game music – when Marston crosses the border into Mexico (or the game’s equivalent), José Gonzáles’ “Far Away” comes on, a lonely track that matches perfectly with Marston’s need to push forward even as it takes him further from the family he’s trying to get back.
I played Red Dead Redemption when it came out in 2010, and five years later the soundtrack is still something I listen to almost weekly.
Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory
Composer: Amon Tobin
Amon Tobin’s soundtrack for Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, released on Spotify simply as Chaos Theory is like nothing else out there. Splinter Cell games can degenerate from stealth to full volume gun battles in a matter of seconds, and Tobin captured that perfectly.
Bits of electronic drum beats mix with a wild variety of sound sources that probably aren’t instruments – it sounds like there are samples of insects, a pin dropping, glass clinking. This almost shouldn’t be music. But Tobin takes what should be utter chaos and makes something out of it that fits the smooth rumble of stealth, like that bass riff from the James Bond theme, kind of, and the frantic feeling of a plan going wrong. It’s chill and paranoid, but it all feels cohesive.
My only wish is that Tobin would lend his talents to another game score – a Watch Dogs or Deus Ex game feels like a perfect place for his work.