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The Nostalgia-Free Best Soundtracks in Gaming

AresProphetAresProphet Registered User regular
edited July 2013 in Games and Technology
Music in games, enough said.

Anyone who has played more than zero games remembers at least one soundtrack that sticks with them for reasons. I could get into those reasons, but I won't because in this thread I'd love to see posters expound upon why this or that particular game had such an amazing soundtrack.

Let's not focus too much on individual songs, shall we? There are always those poignant gaming moments that you'll never forget the music to because of the feels, even if the rest of the game's music washed over you like a tepid breeze.

And let us not dwell on the hyper-dramatic Hans-Zimmeresque (or actually Hans Zimmer) soundtracks that orchestrate every dramatic moment with the kind of arrangement that costs thousands of dollars to put in a room for a day (or a couple days to synthesize in ProTools or whatever).

Neither shall we focus on the glorious of past game composers whose artistic talent was only exceeded by their ability to coax beauty out of some of the crudest hardware to inhabit your living room.

Nor shall we hold up some truly excellent remixes and covers, for though they have their place in the heritage of game musicianship, we are here instead to celebrate the origins of these fine efforts.

We live in the era of the indie game and the AAA title, the freemium and pay-to-play model. We live in an age of tablets and phones and sometimes PCs and consoles. We should celebrate those soundtracks that have moved us personally in this new era of gaming. There is a ten year limit to submissions here, somewhat arbitrary, but sufficient I think to put feelings of nostalgia behind us.

We are here to present those soundtracks that have moved us in our adult lives, in some way, in a game that may or may not have lived up to the promise of its music. Let us share our favorites. Let us discuss why we enjoy them. Let us forge a most excellent thread.

I submit my humble three.


I couldn't even tell you if this multiplayer-only CounterStrike-inspired game set in a cyberpunk world is still up and running. I don't think that I played more than two hours of it myself. I remember exceedingly little about the gameplay other than I felt like I was no good at it, no matter what I did.

But its soundtrack by Ed Harrison gets frequent play in my WinAmp playlist years later. It is a harmonious mash-up of modern EDM styles with a heavily-Eastern bent, as suits both the time and place (NeoToyko being a futuristic... Tokyo). It presents a wide variety of tracks, some slow and atmospheric, building up the vision of those hyper-metropolis grounded in ancient Japanese culture; others frenetic and driving, emphasizing the brutal and short encounters between teams of warring security forces (I think?) It's fun to listen to, it's really fleshes out the setting, it's complex enough to listen to outside of a gaming context, and never fades into the background.

If I had complaints about it, it's that a multiplayer game gives exactly zero cues to the soundtrack and as such you often find the wrong music playing for the current gameplay moment. When it syncs up, it's unearthly. When it doesn't, it's more like watching a Let's Play with the music randomly thrown over it (except you're trying to be not what the music is). I would also critique it for having too many tracks with a slow build; one of my favorite musical maneuvers, such as here, it fails utterly in a gaming context. The climax never comes when it should, the build-up glosses over some of the most frantic moments.

But despite these two qualms I absolutely love the NeoTokyo soundtrack. A few samples, to demonstrate:


You'll see the issue of the slow build-up here, but this creates atmosphere like nothing else. If you took every element that makes the NeoTokyo OST unique together and put it all in one song, you get Footprint. One of my favorites from the OST. I like the slower tempo and the small moments of reprieve.

You can envision a match that plays according to the structure of this song... but none of them ever really do play out that way.

That's ok. I prefer the version of this game that goes on in my head when I hear this track.

Scrap I/O
You'll immediately notice what sounds to a novice's ear like Japanese percussion, Western piano, a rising sound of dread, and then all hell breaks loose.

Like Footprint, you can see a match going much like this song. It weaves in and out of short interludes and outbursts of sonic violence. But better than that is the voice synth tucked away in the mess, symbolizing that mannequin-like thing that's the objective of so many matches, and the samples that sound like distorted comms cutting in and out. It surprises and delights and rewards deeper listening.

One last submission for NeoTokyo

You've heard a lot of what goes on here in the tracks above, but put together this way it just does such an amazing job at creating this fictional NeoTokyo that it deserves its own mention. Driving glitchy drums overlay a lonely piano, which is as rich a musical allegory as you can get in a track this simple. This is how you do world-building in six minutes.


You can't say enough about Bastion's soundtrack. I won't even try to elaborate too much on individual songs. If you haven't heard this yet, buy it. I spent ten bucks on it, which is I think twice what I spent on the game, and it is worth twice that much.

What can I even say about it? I'll start with this: unlike NeoTokyo, whose music often clashes with the game being played at that particular moment, Bastion's soundtrack plays to the rhythm of the gameplay almost perfectly and without jarringly-obvious cues. It is energetic when you're fighting. It is haunting when you're exploring. It is sad when you're watching some heartbreak going on. It reflects perfectly the world in the shambles it's in as you go through it. What more could you ask for?

Well, for starters, you can ask that it be a fantastic work of music in its own right. It delivers. It contrasts eastern and western instrumentation, plays with rhythm and tempo, and is just all around excellent to listen to. Each character has his own sort of motif that you start to pick up on, because it's subtle. And leitmotifs abound throughout, sometimes obvious, sometimes so far apart you only notice them your fourth or fifth time through. It also manages to pack in two fairly dense literary allusions which fit very nicely with the broader themes of the game's setting, further the development of two characters, and could merit a much longer discussion. And that's just in two songs!

The musicianship is amazing, the writers know their American literary traditions, and the game would be a shadow of itself without the soundtrack. Utterly brilliant. One or two samples, posted for awesome but unannotated because what can you really say?

So what could I possibly follow up that with? What could be more perfect for a game soundtrack? What would really redefine your notions of what a soundtrack does for a game? There is only one game that will totally change the way you look at games forever:


"But wait," those of you who have played Antichamber say, "Antichamber has no music!" And with the exception of an unremarkable bit while credits roll, you are indeed correct.

A soundtrack needn't have music. It only needs to suit the game. It has its own raison d'etre, and that is to enhance the gaming experience.

The gaming experience of Antichamber is a stark, minimalist world defined by incoherent rules of space and perception-bending puzzles. Color is used scarcely, and solely to denote the presence of some puzzle that must be solved (even if you don't recognize it). The sounds of Antichamber do much the same.

This soundtrack is one of gentle breezes in claustrophobic corridors; croaking bullfrogs in cave-dark passages where the sounds of nature terrify rather than soothe; faint birdlike twittering, as from a distance, when you scare colored orbs into changing the reality around you unless you approach slowly, slowly; ominous whooshing as you plummet at terminal velocity down shafts, only to land at the bottom, unharmed, with an unceremonious plunk. Doors open and close, and sometimes you hear that noise and it's not really an important door but it makes you think it is.

The sounds of Antichamber, much like its visuals, are designed to both misdirect and offer clues at the same time. You just have to think differently about the sounds, and they make a weird sort of logical sense.

And though your journey is one of black and white with the occasional vicious interlude of color, the sounds ultimately soothe you. This is a maze, to be solved in your own order. It is a puzzle to be completed in your own time. Failure to succeed is not failure to progress, and when you have given up on a puzzle in frustration the sounds will be there for you, gently encouraging, when you decide to come back and try it again.

A soundtrack needn't be the sort of thing you can sell for ten bucks. Sometimes a soundtrack does its job effortlessly, and minimally, and enriches your gaming experience better than if it intruded overtly. Antichamber proves this admirably.

Submissions for great soundtracks from the last ten years? You are encouraged to elaborate on why you like it, as I've done above. If you don't feel like it post some favorites and let us bask in that which has made our lives as gamers that much richer.

AresProphet on


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