Top 10 Video Game Soundtracks of 2020

Image Credit: Florian Olivo

Now that the finish line of 2020 is in sight, we’re looking back over this endless year and pulling together some of the highlights from the music world. Here are 10 of the best game soundtracks that we’ve heard this year.

Great video game music is seamless. As you play, the soundtrack draws no attention to itself – sometimes you almost don’t notice it’s there at all, but it influences your emotional response to the gameplay. Then when the music swells in a cutscene it nudges the narrative along, letting you sit back and be swept along with the drama.

In 2020 gaming provided the escape we all needed. Who cared if we couldn’t go outside or see any other humans? A few examples follow of some of the most interesting game soundtracks of the past year.

Ghost of Tsushima

This action-adventure game mirrors the visuals and narratives of samurai films, and the soundtrack is no different, with composers Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi striving to authentically reflect the music of feudal Japan under Mongol invasion. Quieter moments featuring trembling, breathy pipes and the twanging of traditional Japanese biwa sit amongst dramatic swooping strings and booming drums. It’s a listening experience that immerses you completely in the open world.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2

That’s right, 90’s kids – he’s back. Combining the two greatest Tony Hawk games, the remastered release offers a throwback to 1999, a simpler time when ‘Mambo No.5’ dominated the singles chart and we were all scared of the Millennium Bug. Let muscle memory kick in and you’ll be 360ing all over the Hangar. The skater punk soundtrack is given a refresher, with original tracks like ‘Guerrilla Radio’ by Rage Against the Machine and ‘Cyclone’ by Dub Pistols returning alongside new songs including ‘bloody valentine’ by Machine Gun Kelly. The soundtrack was collated to represent ‘five decades of skating – from the 80’s all the way to the hits of today – from over a half dozen countries and genres’. A delicious hit of nostalgia.

The Last of Us Part II

Composer Gustavo Santaolalla, who also provided music for The Last of Us, scored to the story components rather than to the picture for this post-apocalyptic smash-hit game series, so rather than the characters telling the player what they’re feeling, the soundtrack speaks for them. Trembling banjo brings the feelings of wildness, cutting to electronic elements for horror effects with pounding percussion ramping up tension. Meanwhile in-game a guitar is used as thematic device, with various covers played by the characters. In one stand-out scene, protagonist Ellie plays a cover of A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’ for her girlfriend, Dina, cementing their bond. The emotion here is almost more important than the story.

Cyberpunk 2077

Full marks for ambition here. The OST is absolutely crammed with big names. Transmitted through fictional radio stations a la Watchdogs: Legion as you whizz around the dystopian megalopolis of Night City, all the artists have pseudonyms to prevent any real-world jarring. Run the Jewels are ‘Yankee and the Brave’ and Grimes, who appears in-game, is pop star Lizzy Wizzy. The score, meanwhile, is grittier than the smooth neon ‘80s feel of future worlds such as Blade Runner, with Marcin Przybyłowicz providing a soundtrack of heavy electronica and acid techno.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

With a darker feel than the first Ori adventure, but no less heartfelt, the music of this game alone will make you emotional. A huge, bold score by Gareth Coker accompanies the dashing and hopping of the little guy as he streaks through the game, encountering animal characters who each have their own theme. Epic choir and orchestra passages accompany soaring dramatic races through the sky and sit alongside Celtic folk elements with fiddles and whistles as the player bounces through the inky forest. A soundtrack as beautiful as the visuals.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Arriving into a world that needed escapism and comfort more than ever, it was lucky that the life-simulation game featured a matching gentle, mood-boosting soundtrack. Kazumi Totaka has composed for Nintendo since 1992 and was responsible for the Wii menu music. Bright, cheerful and uncomplicated electronic beats accompany players on their islands as they go about their daily business at the turnip market – able to live a stable life in one reality, at least. Press play, and go to your happy place.

Star Wars: Squadrons

The action in this fighter pilot game never lets up and neither does the soundtrack. Gordy Haab’s orchestral score harks back to the original Star Wars theme with a fresh new feel. It has a strong interactive element – depending on who you play as and with the outcome of each battle able to go to either the Imperial or Rebel side, the music switches depending on which side has the upper hand. The music was also recorded in lockdown, with the individual recordings of the 60-piece orchestra stitched together in isolation.

Ikenfell

There’s a dazzling array of different styles and genres throughout the soundtrack to the wizard-school RPG, all written by Steven Universe music duo pianist Aivi Tran and chip musician Steven ‘Surasshu’ Velema, with additional tracks by their friend Sabrielle Augustin. There’s plenty of nods to classic 8-bit soundtracks in the form of the buzz of synths, in keeping with the retro graphics. Sometimes there are sing-song piano lines. When there’s vocals, there might be close harmonies in a Disney musical fashion, or a frenetic hyper-pop feel, other times characters rap over electric guitar and an electro beat.

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time

Another nostalgia-hit as the legendary ‘90s character returns for a fourth platformer. To match the quirky, colourful game, the instruments were recorded live then mixed with electronic effects. There’s new locations and that means new musical themes. Composer Walter Mair revealed that industrial sounds were recorded in a quarry for the Wasteland levels, and prehistoric levels feature recordings of primitive instruments like bone flutes. And of course, those classic marimba runs are back too, scurrying around like Crash himself.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

The remade 1997 classic was named Best Score and Music at the Game Awards 2020. The composers Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Mitsuto Suzuki sought to blend nostalgia with a fresh new sound. Sampling some of the original songs, the soundtrack includes multiple genres including rock, and dance music. Where the story diverts from the original, so too does the music. And the soundtrack changes seamlessly as the player moves through different scenes with an interactive score as in Star Wars: Squadron.

There we have it – ten very different soundtracks from a very different year, in which the music and gaming worlds began to merge and collaborate in increasingly interesting ways. Virtual concert events drew big numbers and artists appeared in-game – just as Grimes popped up in Cyberpunk 2077, rapper Stormzy played a character in Watch Dogs: Legion. Travis Scott performing on Fortnite gained millions of views. Meanwhile kids gaming platform Roblox has huge plans for further virtual concerts following the massive success of the Lil Nas X virtual performance. And with the boost in audio richness with the release of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, video game music will only continue to expand in ambition.

I write about music for RouteNote, sharing fun stuff, news, and tips and tricks for musicians and producers. Also a saxophonist and hater of marmalade.

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