Game soundtracks: Listening to them outside the game and how they impact the game itself
I was curious how many people on here enjoy listening to game soundtracks outside of the game. I personally love when a game has a great soundtrack as it really adds to the atmosphere and overall immersion in the game. I also like collecting physical copies of them as well.
If you do, which ones are your favorite? Personally I love Shin Megami Tensei, Final Fantasy, and Blazblue soundtracks the most.
Speaking of, the recently released The Songs of Supergiant Games: The 10th Anniversary Orchestral Collection is genuinely beautiful, and worth checking out if you haven't already. Also, I am super jealous you got to see them live!
I always heard Transistor was really good but I haven’t played it yet, sounds like you had a great time at that concert!
Yeah I understand, that happens to me sometimes as well.
In the 90s, back when it might take a day or two to download one whole song off of Napster via dial-up and terms like “burning” and “ripping” were new and noteworthy, I learned that I could put some game CDs in my PC disc drive and they actually had the soundtrack right on them, as CDDA files, ready for the taking. This was how I got the soundtracks for games like Moto Racer (Raphael Gesqua) and Intelligent Qube (Takayuki Hattori). These weren’t necessarily great soundtracks, but they were great to me because they were accessible in a way other game music hadn’t been up to that point. I controlled the files themselves!
Meanwhile, System Shock 2 (Eric Brosius) and The Last Express (Elia Cmiral) were showing me that game music could be substantial and meaningful — atmospheric and communicative — in a way that the blips and blops and more perfunctory compositions of games past hadn’t been.
But I’m a pophead through and through, and the defining soundtrack for the late 90s for me — another one I ripped right from the game CD — was the soundtrack from Sonic R. Composed by Richard Jacques and featuring singing from Theresa Jane Davis, it was an incredible set of vocal europop tracks that ran circles around the not-so-great racing game they accompanied. “Can You Feel the Sunshine?” has gotten some much deserved love (and laughs) in recent years, but the real standout is the closing credits cheesy 90s bop and deep cut “You’re My Number One”. This song is peak Sonic, and nothing will ever convince me otherwise.
At some point I was walking through a local mall, and I heard the siren song of the single catchiest track I’d ever heard in my life. It had a monster hook and an incredible beat, and I rounded the corner to see something that would forever change the way I approached music and gaming: a Dance Dance Revolution 3rd Mix machine. I didn’t know anything about it, but I was mesmerized by the people jumping around on it and the song itself blasting from its speakers. Far too shy to approach them, I instead memorized a song lyric so that I could Google it when I got home. “Dam da dee dam da de dam da dee da dee da de dam” didn’t turn up anything of substance, if you can imagine that, but I also held onto “now I am walking around on this side of the town” which turned up Joga’s “Dam Dariram” and immediately ignited an unironic love of eurobeat which has persisted to this day. You’d think I’d grow out of it, but cheesy catchiness is timeless.
I spent the next several years immersing myself in DDR, listening to every song on every soundtrack, driving to the mall as soon as it opened on Saturdays so I could play on the machine uninterrupted (and without the pressure of crowds), and practicing so that I could nail every syllable of the last verse in “Super Star” with ease1. I downloaded Dance With Intensity and later Stepmania and official song packs and bumper packs and Tournamixes, and then I even made my own step files. DDR represented a subset of music that was fun, loud, brash, catchy, and got to the point in 90 seconds or less (songs were short to keep quarters flowing into the arcade machines).
Alongside DDR came the Dreamcast. Jet Set Radio brought Hideki Naganuma into my life who helped me understand, understand the concept of love for video game soundtracks yes, I know that’s from Future, purists — just let me have this!. His funky fresh take on music felt like what DDR was doing, only with the artistry and originality turned up to 11. He is a musical visionary, and I wish more people emulated what he does.
I also lucked out by snagging a copy of Rez off of eBay that amazingly wasn’t a counterfeit. The songs in the game were good, but it was the way that they came alive in the gameplay that made them stand out. Luckily for me, I found someone who had recorded a soundtrack for the game using the in-game audio from their play through, so that fear could be the mind-killer it deserved to be. It says something that my choice Rez soundtrack was a recording of someone else playing the game. That’s how much I liked it! It was like a let’s play for music.
In the 2000s, back when Shoutcast was a household name for nerds and there were myriad arguments about whether streamripping was ethical, I found an online radio site called GamingFM that played nothing but video game soundtracks. It introduced me to so much, and in some ways I actually regret not ripping it, as I no longer have a record of what I listened to from there. One thing that has stuck with me through the years though was Silent Hill 4: The Room’s vocal tracks. Composed by Akira Yamaoka and sung by Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, they spanned between the rocky, yearning “Waiting for You” and the somber, haunting “Room of Angel”.
Katamari Damacy entered the scene at this time too and stole my heart with its uncompromisingly quirky and loveable nonsense music. I considered that soundtrack one of the greatest game OSTs of all time. Looking back, over a decade letter, I think that accolade still holds.
The late 2000s and early 2010s saw the debut of indie games with production value, with Braid as a game knocking everyone’s socks off and its soundtrack, by Jami Sieber, helping to elevate that. Danny Baranowsky’s work on Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac helped those games reach heights they wouldn’t have on their own, while Darren Korb’s work for Bastion rounded out a truly stunning audiovisual package. Jessica Curry’s Dear Esther joined the fray as well, carrying the game’s emotional weight on its emotive string work.
Even smaller games were getting great treatment. Terry Cavanagh put out VVVVVV and Super Hexagon, which Souleye and Chipzel each brought to life respectively through their incredible chiptunes. Lifeformed’s Dustforce soundtrack smoothed over difficult frustrating gameplay with calm, relaxing tranquility. 140 is an outright playable (and amazing) music EP by schmid.
The explosion of games during this time means that it has become outright impossible to trace a path through the noteworthy soundtracks. In decades past you might have been able to parse the best of what was on offer, but now there is simply so much great stuff out there that one person can’t appreciate it all. You can name nearly any successful title and it will likely have an amazing soundtrack to accompany it. If anything defines our present moment, it’s that we are absolutely spoiled with aural riches. I can turn on Lena Raine’s Celeste or Ben Prunty’s FTL or Disasterpeace’s Fez or Danny Baranowsky’s Crypt of the Necrodancer and find wonder and joy in each — and so many more.
Even outside of those, I feel like there is so much I haven’t talked about that I could. Jazz Jackrabbit; Nobuo Uematsu and the Final Fantasy games; Parappa the Rapper and UmJammer Lammy; the Metal Gear Solid series and its iconic themes; Halo; Guitar Hero and Rock Band and Beat Saber. And all of this says nothing of chiptunes and bitpop — videogames’s sister genres.
Everything I’ve listed here is something I’ve chosen to listen to outside of the games themselves because the music is compelling enough to exist on its own, but it’s also enriched by my associations of play. I have decades of accumulated loves, and seeing them all spread out on the table in front of me as I have in this post is actually making me choke up a little bit. My heart is swelling with feeling. I know that sounds silly to say about video game music, something that is widely regarded as a trivial part of a frivolous pasttime, but even that kind of thing can have its own indelible charm, as Katamari Damacy showed the world. With modern games being so numerous, so richly made, and so diverse, there is now so much to love when it comes to video game music — literally too much at this point.
What a great problem to have.
1. Since we’re talking “Super Star” and Hideki Naganuma in the same post, here’s a fun bit of trivia. Hideki Naganuma’s “Rock It On” prominently features a sample of someone saying “viva la revolución”. This same exact sample can be heard at the end of “Super Star” (around the 1:14 mark, you hear the “la revolución” portion).
This is such a beautiful post! I appreciate you taking the time to write all this and go into detail about the history of your favorite tracks. I’m fairly young (early 20s) so I wasn’t really aware of when CD ripping first started. It’s a shame that so many people don’t really seem to care about soundtracks, so it’s important that we show our appreciation of these amazing works of art.
Very insightful post, thank you!
I recognize the “la revolución” sections from another song, "professed intention and real intention" from the Serial Experiments Lain Cyberia mix. That sample really pops up all over the place
What are the odds?! I love that you were able to add on to my tiny trivia tidbit with even more!
Plus, that actually helped me turn up this page which shows the sample's origin, as well as other songs it's appeared in. Neat to see, but also kinda kills the fun of "finding it in the wild".
I enjoy hearing the Doom music in game but never really listened to it outside of it, not sure why cause I really like it. Undertale has some good tracks as well.
The DOOM 2016 soundtrack is my work music. It's such a wall of sound that it works well if you're the type of person who can't work with music usually because your brain gets distracted. It's also extremely high energy so it makes you feel go-go-go the entire time.
While I'll go through spurts of listening to full soundtracks, there are only a handful of songs that gained a lasting place on my playlists. Interestingly, most of them have vocals.
Persona 5, Kentucky Route Zero, Furi, and Celeste are four games that have at least one song each on my regularly listened to playlists. I also regularly listen to SuperGiant soundtracks, as others have posted. Nier: Automata is one of the only full soundtracks I listen to, mostly while working.
Specific songs -
I’m not the biggest fan of the newer Persona games (I used to be but that’s a whole other story) but I LOVE the soundtracks. Especially Heartbeat, Heartbreak, that’s one of my favorite game songs. Nier Automata is also one of my favorite games ever and I love the soundtrack, I sample bits from that game in my own music occasionally. I hear Celeste has a great soundtrack as well but I haven’t listened to it yet.
I feel the same way about Furi and Celeste - amazing soundtracks, not a huge fan of the actual games.
There've been times when I've really enjoyed a given soundtrack for a while. Transistor's OST was all I listened to for a few months there, as a similar thing with Cadence of Hyrule. Not all OST's are good listening divorced from their source material, though. Sometimes the music doesn't have the same oomph on its own. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse than the music that's good independently. Is the game itself part of the proper experience for the music, like a quiet room is the proper place for enjoying a string quartet or a hard-surfaced bar the right place for punk?
I agree that not all of them sound good on there own. A perfect example of that is Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey. The soundtrack is fantastic while your playing it, it really emphasizes the hopelessness of the situation your in. But by itself it kinda just sounds like generic orchestral music in my opinion. I still consider it to be a good soundtrack though since it does its job well at accompanying the game, it’s just not something I enjoy listening to.
I previously posted a few covers from some very old games that I played as a kid.
Game music can be pretty important, as you find out if you play with the sound off. But music from newer games don't stick with me that much. Some exceptions are Portal and World of Goo, and I guess those are pretty old now too.
Some of those covers are really good!
I think modern game soundtracks can be hit or miss, they’re usually really good or totally forgettable in my experience. I guess you can say the same thing for older ones though, but most of the stuff I listen to starts from the PS1 era and anything after that, so I don’t really listen to older stuff like SNES, N64, etc.
Definitely, though I usually listen to it only when I'm in the mood for something cinematic or VGM-y. Even then I often just stick to my favourites, which are pretty much all indie titles:
I’ve never been big on indie games and I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of good music because of that, so this year I’m planning on playing more of them. Hyper Light Drifter looks really cool so I’ll probably try that one first.
It took me a while to respond to this because I knew I'd need some time to sit down and actually write down everything I have to say about this subject. And even then, I'm going to try to keep things short.
I've been into video game music long before there was such a crowd around it. For the most part, video games were sources of music that you basically would not have access to otherwise. In the period between the mid 80s to the late 90s there was a practical renaissance going on. This was the period when Japanese developed games tended to be the most popular, and it rewarded us with some pretty amazing musicians with unique and interesting styles, many of whom are still big names to this day.
Video games have often been the driving force behind my enjoyment of genres that I would not have otherwise been able to understand and appreciate. The 90s in particular had a cornucopia of game releases with progressive rock soundtracks, and there is so much gold to be mined in those hills. And there are so many amazing musicians in that industry that have styles so good they practically define their own genre. Where else would you be able to find anything that sounds anywhere near as interesting as the soundtrack to Evergrace?
The video game industry has given birth to some of the world's most interesting and talented musicians. It's hard to believe that Yoko Shimomura - the lady giving us these epic orchestral soundtracks in Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy XV - started off with the loud and harsh tones of games like Street Fighter II. Masashi Hamauzu is a genius pianist who has developed a style that is so bold and unique that few have dared to imitate. And then there are people like Motoi Sakuraba that put out so many progressive rock soundtracks that he's got the "Seinfeld is unfunny" effect going about him - and he still pushes out some of the most incredible musical arrangements you will ever listen to. Even Yoko Kanno got her start in the video game industry before she decided to go independent.
I honestly think that more modern games - especially the ones with the biggest budgets - are really missing out because they don't seem to be as interested in having unique sounds. And so your average big budget game tends to have an orchestral soundtrack. Ironically it used to be a mark of quality, but now it's more likely that you're going to have a rather boring or mundane soundscape. Looking at Yoko Shimomura's music before and after she got regular access to an orchestra gives such a different listening experience that you could be forgiven if you thought that they were made by different people. Her new music isn't bad by any stretch of the word - it just has less character.
On the other hand, smaller games - indie games especially - are where you'll find more interesting modern soundtracks. And this time around, it's western musicians making all the waves. There is a completely new generation inspired by the best of the last generation who are creating new and interesting compositions with their own voices. Toby Fox's sound work on Undertale is going to end up inspiring the next generation of composers, and there are other successful musicians like HyperDuck SoundWorks, Chibi-Tech, and Megan McDuffee.
Honestly, though, I think the best thing about video game music is when the musicians make arranged albums. Here's some that you should try to track down to listen at least once.
Creid - AKA Xenogears Creid, AKA the best celtic album of all time
near death experience, SHADOW HEARTS arrange tracks - a somewhat experimental styled remix of music from a number of composers, from the first two Shadow Hearts games.
To Far Away Times - An arrangement album with music from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. Be warned; if you have played either of these games in your childhood, this album will make you cry like a fountain.
Any Motoi Sakuraba arranged album. There's a number of them, and I can't really recommend any of them in particular over another because it really is a matter of taste. There's quite a few to chose from: Valkyre Profile, Beyond the Beyond, Shining Force III, Shining the Holy Ark, Star Ocean, etc.
Shining Wisdom - This is a particular flavor of music that is way different from anything else on this list and is just plain fun just to experience. It's a kind of upbeat progressive rock with a heavy sampler sound that uses a lot of Korg M1 sounds. It's been specially arranged so that each track kind of flows into the next one, so it's worth putting everything down and just listening. And as a bonus it has an introduction that is so extra that it should be a mark against it but it's so earnest that it makes it awesome instead.
I appreciate the thought you put into this! I agree with your comment about big budget games, I think those often have very mediocre, uninspired music. I actually had no idea that Yoko Shimomura composed the Street Fighter 2 soundtrack, her work for the Kingdom Hearts games is some of my favorite music ever. As a musician, I find myself more influenced by game composers than any other artists, and as a listener I've discovered so many genres that I would never have heard of if it wasn't for games.
Jón Hallur's EVE Online OST is pretty immortal for me.
This song slapped back in the mid 00s and I still have it in my work playlist.
Cool to see someone else who digs that. The one from Eve that did it for me (played 10 years ago) was "On The Outskirts". EVE had this way of making you feel small, it was amazing.
There are so many amazing game soundtracks. I think they are underrated.
Skyrim is one of my all time favorite games and the soundtrack definitely contributed to that. The immersion in that game is unreal.
A few of my favorites.....
Anything from the Mass Effect games but when I need a quick, motivational pick me up, The Fleets Arrive is a go to for me.
Pretty much the entirety of the World of Warcraft soundtracks are good. A lot of it is just great, easy listening type stuff, but the cinematic themes from each expansions trailer are also great.
Skyrim is great. No surprise here
The Dragon Age games have some amazing themes as well.
I'm a noob when it comes to paying attention to game soundtracks, but I thought the music of these games were pretty good:
I think most of these are positive, so here's a negative example. I try my absolute best to never hear RPG battle music where I don't have to, because it's so easy to get sick of it and I don't want to be sick of it while I'm playing. Like I think all of the Wild Pokemon battle music is good, but I get mental nausea every time I hear them now. Especially the first few seconds.
Same for Last Surprise from P5. Thank god for the DLC costumes so I can change up the music. Hearing the first few seconds 1000x from a great song makes it a bad experience.
Oftentimes when I'm in a grindy area I'll just mute the game and listen to podcasts or my own music so I don't get sick of the battle music for when I need to be listening for the "plot experience".
I feel the exact same way about the entire Persona 5 soundtrack, but especially Last Surprise. I honestly think overdone memes are the main reason why I hardly ever listen to that song anymore, you just hear it so much that its just annoying now, which is a shame cause it's a great song. But I think the P5 soundtrack suffers from too much repetition, which is probably why it's my least favorite Persona soundtrack.
I also put on my own music when grinding. No matter how good a soundtrack is, hearing the same battle theme over and over for hours gets tiring.
I love all the Halo soundtracks. I like to throw them on while I'm working mostly. It breaks the monotony and makes my work feel epic.