Congratulations, everyone. We made it into a new decade filled with endless possibilities. The last ten years of gaming have given us great strides in new experiences. Everything from innovative gameplay to upgraded hardware has majorly evolved the way we play games. Before we look ahead to what the future of gaming has in store, let’s take a moment to appreciate one major component of gaming that helps elevate the experience to new immersive heights — their soundtracks. A game’s soundtrack helps tie narrative themes and gameplay together to create the whole experience. We even associate titles with specific tracks because of how uniquely crafted its music can be. Music helps put the finishing touches on emotional moments or frenzied gameplay. More importantly, a game’s music stays imprinted upon us long after we’ve finished playing it. We’ve had some amazing games produced in the last decade that have also given us amazing music. With one major track picked out from each year of the last decade, this Checking the Score remembers the major music tracks that have stayed with us over the years.
Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) – Heaven’s Devils
Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty started the decade with an emotionally-charged soundtrack. Not only was it a major installment in the franchise since Broodmother, but it gave the RTS genre an unexpectedly heartfelt, emotional story. Starcraft II’s cinematics featured bold orchestral pieces that worked with each of the game’s factions. From creepy synth zerg melodies to the terran space-cowboy themes, Wings of Liberty pays homage to previous installments’ music to bridge the generations for a memorable sound. It’s difficult to pick from an entire soundtrack, but the Heaven’s Devils theme encapsulates the Starcraft feel to me. It’s always had that western flair as we attempt to wrangle swarms and carve out a living on hostile land from the start. The rest of the soundtrack is beautifully composed to elevate emotional moments in cinematics and raise the bar for RTS.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) – Dragonborn
There is only one track I can think of to represent 2011: “Dragonborn.” Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a pillar in the gaming world. It’s been remastered in every possible way to cement itself as a permanent part of video game culture. I’ve met people who have put hundreds upon hundreds of hours into Skyrim. Yet who could resist the “Dragonborn” theme? That track itself is Skyrim. This is one of those examples where a track helps define a game by truly representing its content. It was used in the game’s trailer and continues to be a great track today. It’s epic chorus along with blaring horns and hardcore percussion created the theme for adventure. It’s optimistic melody helped solidify the epic tale of the Dovahkiin. It wouldn’t be a surprise if this track is revisited in future installments.
Journey (2012) – The Call
A title doesn’t necessarily need to have tons of action or detailed story for it to have a defining sound. Journey released in 2012 and showed us that its sound lasted long beyond its gameplay. Composer Austin Wintory created a sound that gave life to the title’s simple mechanics. Journey is beautifully made and very direct: you’re a nameless wanderer journeying to a destination in the mountains. It’s not an action heavy game and relies on its traversal and exploration to forward the story. Combined with a hauntingly-emotional orchestrated soundtrack, the whole title becomes a work of art rather than just a game. This title’s soundtrack, specifically “The Call,” introduced me to the idea of games as a form of art (recently released Gris has added to this discussion). This whole soundtrack also taught me that one can enjoy games in many different ways and contexts outside of playing them.
Grand Theft Auto V (2013) – Welcome to Los Santos
Grand Theft Auto V has one of the best intro songs of the last decade. It’s a supported claim since producer and artist Oh No helped create the funky sound behind one of gaming’s most celebrated titles. “Welcome to Los Santos” is another one of those tracks that helps define a game’s theme. It gives us that jazzy noir melodies with its brass while adding contemporary synths. The whole soundtrack is full of ambient synth music to give a vice theme. It’s vastly different from the mainly orchestral routes a lot of games may typically take and utilizes major artists to create an original score with hip-hop and funk. Because this body of work was the first original score created for a GTA title, it also helps raise the bar for the franchise overall. Check out the Vol. 1 playlist if you’re ever looking for a fresh take on game soundtracks.
Transistor (2014) – Coasting
Where Journey was a game that introduced me to the idea of games as art, Transistor is the masterpiece that helped solidify that concept. The title delivers gorgeous visuals and a heartbreaking story in a cyberpunk world. We follow protagonist Red as she attempts to undo the Illuminati workings in Cloudbank City. What ties everything together are the title’s musical tracks that helps create necessary themes for the game. Out of all the tracks from Transistor, the rest area’s theme “Coasting” is the one that sticks with me the most. It’s vastly different from the majority of emotional tracks we find in the score. Without major spoilers, Transistor isn’t a happy game. We can feel it from the music, but “Coasting” wipes all that away with upbeat, Bossa Nova inspired melodies. It’s a track to distract us from impending doom. While this piece defines the game for me, the entire OST does the game justice and deserves attention.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015) – Silver for Monsters
Long before “Toss a Coin to your Witcher” came along, Geralt of Rivia’s background music was orchestral and exotic. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt created a unique sound for the series that was needed to give it more identity. Assassin of Kings did have an epic score, but it wasn’t memorable (it was a lot of orchestra that sounded generic). I cannot think of Witcher without hearing “Silver for Monsters.” It’s the game’s main battle theme and helps set the tone for gameplay. What really makes Witcher 3’s soundtrack stand out is its commitment to the vocal styling found throughout. The juxtaposition of ululation (a vocal styling typically found in the Middle-East and South Asia) and Medieval aesthetic help create a unique feel for this fantasy world. They’re two elements that are just different enough to work well together. If you’re looking for more Witcher goodness beyond video media, read the books with this music on in the background.
Persona 5 (2016)- Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There
Music is so important to a game’s identity. Some titles have acknowledged this and made a commitment to signature music. The Persona series is one such franchise that gives as much attention to detail to its music as it does to its gameplay. When Persona 5 launched, it continued the commitment to the series’ bright, funky sound. The entire soundtrack is a gorgeous jazz album that sets the tone for the game, but the opening theme hits the hardest. The bassist deserves all of our accolades for that amazing opening. The whole soundtrack has a signature sound Persona is known for while staying unique to a new installment.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (2017) – Elysium of the Blue Sky
There are some games that know exactly how to utilize music in emotional ways to create the biggest impact on players. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 was such an emotional roller coaster and much of that is due to its score. The track “Elysium of the Blue Sky” was used during key cinematic moments and truly represents the game’s identity. None of the scenes would have been as emotionally devastating without the thoughtful musical composition. The entire soundtrack is created to represent the story’s twists and turns. The melancholy melody of this track was so important for the game’s musical identity that we can hear it throughout the entire score. If you ever need music to cry to, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will take you on that feels trip.
NieR: Automata (2018) – A Beautiful Song
Topping the charts of emotional music is NieR: Automata’s entire soundtrack. It’s another title that doesn’t have a lot of happiness. We play as combat androids looking to take back the Earth in a deadly war. Beautifully composed melodies, orchestral pieces and choral accompaniments all come together to create a unique identity. The soundtrack has a variety of tempos and melodies to compliment story components and gameplay. “A Beautiful Song” stands out the most because of the way it represents a tragic story-line and boss fight. It’s a fight where, depending on what run you’re on, calls our alignment into question. Who truly are the villains in this story? The music during this fight is tragic and plays with our emotions. The entire soundtrack is perfectly composed and has a permanent spot on my favorites list.
Pokemon Sword and Shield (2019) – Elite Theme
Wrapping up the picks of the decade are Pokemon Sword and Shield’s entire soundtrack — every song. I devoted a previous Checking the Score to praising the new generation’s composition for taking inspiration from the past. Every track felt like an homage to previous generations of Pokemon music. We’ve had twenty years already of Pokemon music, so that’s no easy feat. A track that imprinted on me the most was the Elite Leader battle theme. After fighting our way through the challenger ranks, we face off against the gym leaders for a last time. It uses familiar melodies from across the entire score to compose one song. It’s a unified track that gave those final battles even more significance as “boss battles.” The composition of the whole soundtrack takes inspiration from itself to help launch a new generation of a beloved franchise.
The significance of music to compliment gameplay has increased within the past decade. Music is no longer background noise, but a way to connect thematic elements together for a unique experience. A game’s music can make or break its immersive qualities to connect with players in new ways. The tracks listed here are not exhaustive, but they’ve been chosen because they represent their games so well beyond the gameplay experience. These game soundtracks are devoted to telling stories and enhancing play. When we think of certain games, we can also think of the music they’ve given us. A game is so much more now beyond the console its played on. The last ten years of game music helped define major titles we continue to love today–let’s see where the next decade takes us.