Long before I took to tidying up my jumbled thoughts on video games to write them into existence, music was my bread and butter. All the work I’ve put in exploring the vast and deep oceans of fiction and nonfiction was preceded by years of self (mis)education on the fruits of songwriting, becoming so obsessed I considered dropping out of high school to make rap music. After all, that’s where it started; rap taught me book and street smarts that played a fundamental role in opening up my world. Soon enough, it wasn’t just my go-to rappers gracing the highest volumes of my iPod, but a plethora of other skilled and influential musicians as well. Before I knew it, I was actively jamming to the music of my favorite video games.
Video game soundtracks hit different. They are an elevation of the active moments in particular, which is where their strength and differentiation as a music form lie. As far as narratives go, video games have the capacity to nurture the “stories” created by the player, which are inevitably tied to a loose collection of moments strengthened and informed by many variables. Music, for one, helps create those stories. Those stories wouldn’t belong to us if not for Fever 105’s funk playlist matching the sounds of your freshly borrowed sports car tearing up the streets in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’s rendition of Miami. That’s what this top 5 is really all about. Five games with banger original soundtracks that made me feel like the author, crafting an experience only found in the realm of video games. Consider it a love letter. It is Valentine’s Day, after all.
Each pick contains two sections, a description of the game and soundtrack, as well as a handpicked moment in-game tied to my favorite track. If you want to avoid spoilers in any shape or form, steer clear from section two.
#5 – Bully (2006)
Look, Bully is great. It is one of my favorite games of all time. I absolutely loved this boarding school simulator, wreaking havoc with my man Jimmy Hopkins as I navigated jocks, preps, greasers and all the other hostile personalities of Bullworth Academy. It is a controversial game. It is problematic enough to warrant all of that criticism. But I chose to write about something my 8 year old self and I know for damn sure: this soundtrack slaps. With a collection of diverse songs tailored to the various groups of bullies and bullied, the music in this game proves to be perfect for the setting. It has much to offer, from heavy bass to funky guitar riffs that unleash a lot of Michael Jackson, to percussion-driven beats and Neptunes type synth lines. It may be a game about beating the bully, but to me, the dope beats surrounding it are what carry it from a fun premise to an unforgettable experience.
Favorite track: When I think back at Shawn Lee’s masterpiece, the track “Chase Police” comes to mind every single time. For each of the authorities in the game (the prefects, adults and the police), the soundtrack has chase songs in place for when you provoke them. A significant portion of the game is spent just on the premises of Bullworth Academy, so the police doesn’t enter the picture until the game opens up and allows you to explore the nearby town. That’s what “Chase Police” symbolizes for me; the freedom that results from this “opening up”, like a teenager starting to hang out around town with the homies. From the very first moment Jimmy got in trouble with the cops and I heard this song, I was hooked. It was fun. It was authentic. It was, like troublemaker Jimmy Hopkins, all I wanted to do.
#4 – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
The fifth game in a long-running franchise, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is the interactive epic fantasy that, in my experience, relies heavily on the player’s willingness to create their own adventure. That isn’t to say you’d suddenly have a Dungeons & Dragons session on your hands (though I sure as hell played like it), but the freedom you can enjoy in this game almost makes imagination essential. For a game that has all the epic-ness of the hero’s journey, filled with predetermined destinies for the dragonborn that you are, this game knows how to slow things down in favor of exploration and ambience. It is exactly that ambience that cemented Skyrim’s OST in my mind, removed from the (equally fantastic) explosive and action-packed themes. It makes exploring the northern province of Tamriel as magical as can be, violins and pianos curating your treks into the high mountains.
Favorite track: The list of ambient songs is long, and I could tirelessly hum along to them all, but “Secunda” takes the cake. The sheer act of exploring is heightened by this song’s piano notes, which eventually make room for a high-pitched harmonizing vocal track that is sure to make you freeze in place and take in the moment. It was only on my second playthrough of the game that I took the time to appreciate this track, as it went on to mold my love for ambient music in video games. It sets a tone, all the while remaining dynamic in a way that adjusts to your particular journey, until it becomes an indispensable part of your adventure. I stop every time I hear it.
#3 – Red Dead Redemption II (2018)
I’m a simple man. Give me a horse, a hat, and a gang of outlaws, and I’ll be all up in cowboy city. The story of Red Dead Redemption II takes a personal and intimate approach to the found family theme of the game, simulating the gang experience with tracks you’d expect from the western genre and far, far more. I’m not going to lie; this soundtrack hooked me in the very first hour of the game. The combination of instrumentals and original songs forges numerous rhapsodic and bombastic moments throughout the game, making it abundantly clear that it means musical business as it enlists electric and acoustic guitars, strings, hard-hitting drums and more for a diverse soundtrack with distinct sounds that communicate the heart of the age of outlaws.
Favorite track: This pick does not exist on the soundtrack itself. It lives exclusively within the game, and plays out with or without you. I remember pausing the game to record this moment, which warmed my heart so much, I could not help but feel like I was playing something special. “Cielito Lindo”, a Mexican classic, was used in this game as a campfire song with all of the gang present, shortly after retrieving one of the members’ kidnapped son from a nasty, powerful family. It happens as you return to camp. Everyone is in high spirits. Javier picks up his guitar and begins to sing. The gang listens closely, waiting patiently for the chorus (the only part they know), and proceeds to sing along clumsily as they all erupt in an awkward, off-beat musical performance. I sat down and listened. The fact that my character could have walked away at any point, or simply not been there, truly makes this a memorable interactive moment. Video games are the shit.
#2 – Assassin’s Creed II (2009)
When I finally got my eager hands on the PlayStation 3 in early 2010, the first game I played was Assassin’s Creed II. I hadn’t been so addicted to a video game in a while. Days went by of me ghosting friends who somehow thought the outside world was cooler than embodying Ezio Auditore in Renaissance Italy. I loved the game for many reasons: the implementation of history, the dual protagonist structure of the game, and the killer parkour. It was a story about rising above trauma, about living up to and continuing your family’s legacy, all the while doing what you think is right and making a difference in the world. The soundtrack embraces this, as it borrows from many different genres and flows smoothly from sounds of rock music (fitting the second, modern timeline of the game) to guitar-led tracks accompanied by violins and more electronic sounds, continuously floating within that important balance between history and modernity.
Favorite track: Anyone who loves this game understands the power and influence of the track “Ezio’s Family”. Before Ezio is thrust on his journey as an assassin following the death of most of his family, there are a handful of foreshadowing moments in which the player gets to spend time with them. One of the first times you hear “Ezio’s Family” is when you race his brother Federico across rooftops, and climb to the top of a tower. Not only does this smooth the player into the flow of the game’s main mechanic (parkour), but it also quickly establishes the relationship between Ezio and his family. What follows is a melody that has stuck with me forever, as I heard the two brothers exchange words that give me goosebumps to this damn day:
Federico: “It is a good life we lead, brother.”
Ezio: “The best. May it never change.”
Federico: “And may it never change us.”
#1 – The Last of Us (2013)
What can I say? It’s my favorite game for a reason. The Last of Us is a high-stakes post apocalyptic survival game, intimate and emotional, and boy does the soundtrack reflect that. Gustavo Santaolalla has single-handedly guided my attention closer to the interplay between a soundtrack and a video game, through songs of simple and melancholic guitar notes often led by his go-to instrument, the ronroco, adding heavier, near toneless notes that go above and beyond to install an extra layer of depravity. It’s a creative soundtrack, too; Santaolalla uses just about anything that helps build the level of tension needed, covering every aspect of the game from survival, to desperation, to hope, to love. It was the first game that made me aware that the experience would be worse without its music, and the game that even allows me to compile a list such as this. In conclusion: we have no choice but to stan.
Favorite track: I can’t pick a favorite. I will, but I can’t. See, to do this, I need to cheat a little. Because the song I’d pick doesn’t elevate a moment you have control over. It’s the opposite. There is no longer any control. The screen is black. White writing begins to adorn it. Left with the overwhelming feeling of “that’s it?”, you realize that there is nothing left to do but reflect on this phenomenal experience. That’s what “The Path (A New Beginning)” does. It also makes me cry every single time I see those credits roll. It’s the reason I picked it. Because, while I argued that video game soundtracks elevate the active moments, The Last of Us deserves this spot because it knew really fucking well how to do both. Sitting there, names flying in and out, I am always reminded of what a good soundtrack is, and what good soundtracks add to narrative.
I am reminded of why it all started with music.