What Are the Best Video Game Soundtracks?
In its early days, video game music was so limited by technology that, to many players, it might have all sounded pretty similar. Often referred to as “chiptune,” the 8-bit music for these games used computer chips to create monophonic music that, due to data size limitations, were very spare and often programmed on a loop.
Decades later, video game music has become a genre as deep and wide as film music, and is in fact on the vanguard when it comes to innovating compositions for new and interactive media. This also means that there is an explosion of demand for game audio and soundtrack composers—a need that Berklee is meeting with its game and interactive media (GAIMS) program. The new major gives students the full suite of technical skills they will need for any level in the game audio and scoring world, and it provides opportunities to enter the industry with practical experience.
It may be easy to hear a stark difference between the digital simplicity of the original 8-bit score from 1986's The Legend of Zelda and the orchestral complexity of the franchise’s music beginning with 1998’s Ocarina of Time, but music from both games (and every other Zelda title) has become so beloved that it has been performed live around the world by full orchestras to packed audiences.
We asked faculty from the new major to weigh in on compositions that changed the game, and in many cases, transcended their limitations in their pursuit of art. Below, you can see lists from Gina Zdanowicz (Just Cause 3, BioShock 2), Eric Hamel (A Matter of Murder, Austen Translation), and Duncan Watt (League of Legends, Arena of Valor) and hear them reflect on what makes sets these compositions apart. “Writing beautiful music is only part of the equation,” Hamel says. “This is the core difference between games and linear media like film. Interactives demand that the music be integrated into the experience in a meaningful way that responds to audience agency.”
Mega Man (Capcom, 1987)
Composer: Manami Matsumae
"Many game soundtracks are essential to the industry's history, and my top two soundtracks often change. As I reflect on influential soundtracks, I have early memories of playing Mega Man on NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). There are many reasons to love the Mega Man series. Still, Manami Matsumae's soundtrack is iconic. She was a role model that gave me the confidence to pursue a career in game sound. She was hired by Capcom for MM1 [the first Mega Man] right out of university and had to learn to program her music into the game systems. The charm of the MM series soundtracks is that the quick tempo, hard-rock-esque music provides a real sense of atmosphere. The Dr. Wily stage themes are some of the most iconic music in 8-bit game history."
Celeste (Extremely OK Games, 2018)
Composer: Lena Raine
"The other influential soundtrack that comes to mind is Lena Raine's OST [original soundtrack] for Celeste. The game's theme takes on the battle of anxiety and depression. In game, the dynamic soundtrack wonderfully mirrors themes in the game and the player's mindset. Outside of the game, the soundtrack was created to stand on its own and tell a story. The score is a perfect blend of delicate felt piano melodies and ambient pads topped with lead synths that are dynamically introduced as the player dashes and jumps their way up the mountain of insecurities. The theme for the player character Madeline is played out by those soft piano melodies, and as the character spirals, harsher synths come in to mask that gentle narrative. As Madeline recovers, the synths are stripped away to reveal the felt piano theme, leaving players to reflect as they return from the spiral."
Street Fighter II (Capcom, 1991)
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
"The music in Street Fighter II by Yoko Shimomura is not only exciting and energizing music. It works in such a way that it engages with the player on a deeper level. If a player’s health drops below a certain threshold, the tempo of the music increases in sync with the decreasing life bar. This is immensely effective not only in dynamically scoring the events unfolding on the screen, but Shimomura uses it also as a warning, encouraging the player to complete the round before they’re defeated."
God of War (Santa Monica Studio, 2005)
Composers: Ron Fish, Gerard Marino, Winifred Phillips, Mike Reagan, Cris Velasco, Winnie Waldron
"Winifred Phillips’s work in God of War is thrilling, beautifully orchestrated, and epic in scope. But the music is also built directly into the puzzles of the game. For example, when traversing the Desert of Lost Souls the player needs to listen carefully to hear the song of the Sirens. Physically following the music through the game world leads the player to the next landmark. In this instance, the music is acting as a map to guide the player through an endless wasteland."
Get Even (The Farm 51, 2017)
Composer: Olivier Deriviere
"Get Even is a psychological thriller, and the music is an important tool in creating a horrific, visceral experience. By using MIDI and connecting musical elements to sound sources in the virtual world, Deriviere allows the player to perform the music in real time—on occasion, syncing the music to the player character’s heartbeat. This level of integration is what makes game music so exciting to experience and develop."
Final Fantasy IX (SquareSoft, 2000)
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Before Watt considered scoring for video games, he worked on films, though he admits to not being much of a film buff. Watt says that his wife noticed this and encouraged him to consider expanding his composition work.
"[My wife] said, ‘You should become a video game composer.’ And I said yeah, but video games were all beep-beep, boop-boop, and she looks at the game that I'm playing and says, ‘That doesn't sound like beep-beep, boop-boop to me.’ And [that game] was Final Fantasy IX, and that was the first game that made the idea of modern composing in an interactive medium like video games a reality for someone like me. The score by Uematsu-san is incredible. It's wide ranging, it sounds just as good coming out of MIDI as it does the full-resolution orchestra parts, and it changed everything about what I wanted to compose going forward."
Ōkami (Clover Studio, 2006)
Composers: Akari Groves, Rei Kondo, Masami Ueda, Hiroshi Yamaguchi
"It's very difficult to pick a favorite score, but if I have to, it’s probably Ōkami. Ōkami to me is one of the greatest examples of interactive composing/scoring for a game. There are four different composers on the soundtrack, but it sounds like one. Their use of a well-defined set of instruments shared across each of their composing styles creates a throughline to the whole soundtrack, which fits so perfectly to the visual image—which is a striking visual image in the first place. It transcends the typical Japanese approach towards early video games—most early video games were sourced in Japan originally, and so there's a Japanese style. I guess put it this way: it appears to be a prototypical Japanese RPG (role playing game), but the score transcends that limited genre and makes it into just a beautiful piece of art."
Journey (Thatgamecompany/Santa Monica Studios, 2012)
Composer: Austin Wintory
Austin Wintory’s score for Journey helped usher in the modern era of the dynamic, interactive music score being the norm in major video game properties, rather than the outlier. The score for Journey is evocative, emotional—it blurs the line between sound design and music score. The use of a few simple instruments—cello, a few wind instruments—to personify the player’s experience from the beginning to the end of the game is closely matched to what most players would have experienced playing the game anyway. It makes the game feel like you're the only person that's ever played it. The interactivity of the score follows precisely the player’s emotional connection to what happens on the screen. Journey is a somewhat abstract, wordless, language-less, visual masterpiece. It takes the player on a human experience ride rather than a narrative story. As a result, the player can play it however they like, and the score is forced to adapt. I think that Austin Wintory’s solution is one of the most notable achievements of the last 20 years.