2016 was a great year for video games, and an even better year for video game music. It was also a diverse year, with a mix of Norse folk music, spy movie histrionics, ambient soundscapes and extremely heavy metal.
This piece originally appeared December 21, 2016.
As with past years (see: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) I’ve polled our staff to come up with a list of our favorite video game soundtracks from the year. They’re below, in alphabetical order. Most of these albums are available on various streaming services and popular stores like iTunes and Amazon, though when possible, I’ve included links to Bandcamp/direct store pages.
Crank up the volume and listen along.
The Banner Saga 2
Composer: Austin Wintory
The Banner Saga 2 had to capture a very specific tone: The cold, mournful air of a fractured world. To that end, composer Austin Wintory assembled a worthy successor to his soundtrack to the first game, featuring vocal work from well-regarded YouTubers Peter Hollens and Malukah along with the Icelandic band Árstíðir, heard above on “Our Steps, to the Night.” (Wintory’s ABZU score was also lovely, but we figured we’d just include one of his games on this list.) [Bandcamp]
Composers: Christopher Tin, Geoff Knorr
I have a soft spot for Civilization intro cinematics. They’ve got their particular aesthetic down to a science—the glory of man and progress, the slow move toward a better world—and they always make me smile. Geoff Knorr’s fine, ever-evolving score will keep you company as you play Civilization VI, and Christopher Tin’s “Sogno di Volare (The Dream of Flight)” makes for a perfect introduction to the main menu. I got unexpectedly emotional the first time I fired up this game, and may or may not have just left the menu music running through my headphones for an hour while I did other things.
Composer: Mick Gordon
I don’t really know how to talk about Mick Gordon’s DOOM soundtrack, mostly because it speaks for itself so forcefully and convincingly. It’s really good? It rocks harder than maybe any video game soundtrack I’ve ever heard? It’s a perfect accompaniment to the game, and sounds like what would happen if DoomGuy himself were somehow converted into music? All of those things, I guess. This soundtrack rules. [Composer’s site]
Final Fantasy XV
Composer: Yoko Shimomura
It wouldn’t be a Final Fantasy game if it didn’t have a fantastic soundtrack, and Yoko Shimomura’s work on Final Fantasy XV continues the tradition. Not only did Shimomura come up with some terrific battle music, she and the rest of the music team skillfully implemented a huge amount of layered, interactive background music. Walk into a shop and the score will grow subtly more complex; walk back outside and it’ll seamlessly thin back out. The music expands and contracts in harmony with your surroundings, almost like it’s breathing.
Composers: Niels Bye Nielsen, additional composing by Bjarke Nieman
No, the new Hitman score was not composed by beloved series composer Jesper Kyd. However, Niels Bye Nielsen’s grandiose, spy-movie-influenced score wound up redefining what I thought a Hitman game should sound like. The music is fine on its own, striking an enjoyable balance between Henry Mancini and Harold Faltermeyer. But it really comes to life as it’s implemented in the game. The score swells and tapers off to accompany your undercover exploits, imbuing every action with just the right degree of drama. Few video game moments this year were more satisfying than casually strolling toward a Hitman exit point as the “mission complete” music swells, secure in the knowledge that you are the baddest baldheaded mother out there.
Hyper Light Drifter
Disasterpiece has always managed to find an interesting mix of tones and moods within his usual blend of synths and retro sounds, and his Hyper Light Drifter soundtrack was no exception. The best tracks slowly pulse and build on themselves, faint echoes from a land you will never fully understand. [Bandcamp]
I Am Setsuna
Composer: Tomoki Miyoshi
I Am Setsuna is a back-to-basics JRPG that combines several familiar elements into a finished product more fresh than it first seems. Much of the game’s distinct identity comes from Tomoki Miyoshi’s musical score, a collection of piano compositions that expertly channel legendary composer Joe Hisaishi to establish the game’s mournful, elegiac tone. If a video game soundtrack is only going to feature a single primary instrument, piano is probably a pretty good one to go with.
Composer: Martin Stig Andersen
Inside is the rare game where the musical score is inextricable from the overall soundscape. (The Portal games are similar in this regard.) It makes sense that the game’s composer and sound designer are the same person: a maniac named Martin Stig Andersen, who passed some of the game’s audio through a human skull in order to get the tones he wanted. It’s difficult to demonstrate just how effective Inside’s music is to people who haven’t played it, but the “Soundwave” sequence in the video above captures one of my favorite musical moments. Andersen’s music tends to creep up on you, like the hum of a fluorescent light that gradually reveals hidden harmonic layers. If you didn’t play this game while wearing headphones, you missed out.
The Last Guardian
Composer: Takeshi Furukawa
Takeshi Furukawa’s score for The Last Guardian wasn’t quite what I was expecting. More than anything else it channels mid-90s Thomas Newman, evoking a luminous sense of lost majesty and, at the fringes, danger. The full soundtrack contains more good pieces than I could hope to share here, but the very first one does a good job of setting the tone. When the strings come in at 0:45, you can almost see the rolling fields outside Shawshank State Penitentiary.
Composers: Derek Duke, Neal Acree, Sam Cardon, Cris Velasco
So much modern superhero music is intentionally flavorless, designed to keep out of the way while the heroes are talking. How lucky for us that Blizzard put together a team of composers—including studio stalwarts Derek Duke and Neal Acree—to write some actual heroic anthems for the heroes of Overwatch. Their main theme will probably be stuck in my head for the rest of my life (go get it, french horns!), but special recognition should also go to the “Play of the Game” theme. I could put that music behind literally any random video currently on my phone and it’d be hilarious. [Blizzard]
Rose of Winter
Composer: Toby Fox
I was fully charmed by this straightforward and earnest visual novel, which I played a little while back on my colleague Gita Jackson’s recommendation. Much of my charmed-ness was due to the disarming musical score, which I shouldn’t have been surprised to find was composed by Undertale maestro Toby Fox. Rose of Winter’s music provides a perfect platform for following along with the stories of Rosemary, Crow, and the rest.
Amanita games always have special soundtracks, but even judged by that standard, Floex (AKA Tomáš Dvořák)’s score for Samorost 3 stands on its own. It’s a brilliant, idiosyncratic collection of tones and notions, continually shifting in and out of focus. It also features an inordinate amount of clarinet in the lead voice—certainly one of the straightest paths to my heart. (Next game to feature lush saxophone quartet arrangements wins Kotaku’s GOTY 2017.) Not only is Floex’s music good on its own, many of the game’s puzzles revolve around music and incorporate the score in clever ways. [Bandcamp]
Composer: Eric Barone
Stardew Valley is yet another game made by a single person who wrote, designed and programmed the game in addition to composing a really good soundtrack. My favorite track will always be “Summer,” if only for the ways it twists and shifts from beginning to end. So many peppy ideas in a three-and-a-half-minute chunk of music. [Soundcloud]
Composer: Brian Gibson
It’s difficult to grasp the effect of Thumper’s music simply by listening to it—you gotta play this one. Though a synthesis of fine-tuned controls, consistent feedback and aggressive visual design, this self-proclaimed “rhythm violence” game puts you inside its soundtrack to an occasionally distressing degree. Gibson’s beats charge forward like a demon train, but I’m struck by how shifting and stuttering they can also be. Each level’s time signature broadly corresponds with its level number, but the grooves themselves often defy quantifiable meter, tripping over their own downbeats to impart a feeling of gaping impact. I’ve never played—or heard—anything quite like it. [Bandcamp]
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
VA-11 Hall-A goes for a specific tone that you might not guess from the “Waifu Bartending” descriptor. It’s arch and gently self-mocking, fully aware of its own tendencies toward absurdity. Garoad’s kicky soundtrack perfectly complements this half-serious cyber-tone, with spaced out synths and shimmery techno tracks tailor made for a lost night of drinking and sharing your deepest secrets. [Bandcamp]
Watch Dogs 2
Composer: Hudson Mohawke
It wasn’t until I sat down and listened to Hudson Mohawke’s Watch Dogs 2 soundtrack on its own that I realized just how good it is. What could’ve been another dubsteppy, maximum effort video game soundtrack is instead a fleet, undulating mixture of oddball sounds and styles. Jeering choirs, mournful handclaps and soulful piano leads mix with a tinfoil tornado of crackles, crunches and bleeps. A distinct and unusually artful soundtrack. [Bleep Store]
And there you have ‘em: our picks for the best video game soundtracks of 2016. Share your own picks in the comments below.