The Best Game Soundtracks of the Year
Welcome back to our list of the twenty best video game soundtracks from 2020. In part two of this list, we’re counting down the top ten. I’d suggest checking out Part One here if you haven’t already! These are the soundtracks that are the best of the best this year, so let’s make a start.
10. The Last of Us: Part II– Gustavo Santaolalla and Mac Quayle
No matter what your thoughts are on The Last of Us: Part II, there is no denying that once again Gustavo Santaolla- with the help of Mac Quayle who provided additional music this time around- manages to create yet another stunning video game soundtrack that represents the infected world of Naughty Dogs The Last of Us universe as well as the harrowing trials and tribulations of its characters.
The music for the second The Last of Us game has a lot of similarities to the first. String instruments- such as the banjo and the guitar- are the main attractions much as they were in the soundtrack for the first game. Santalolla is a genius when it comes to using solitary strings to convey a sense of loneliness (he did this with the first The Last of Us soundtrack but he is also brilliant at this with his film work such as with the Brokeback Mountain score) and this becomes even more apparent with the score for The Last of Us: Part II as the guitar itself plays a more central role within the game. Joel teaches Ellie to play the guitar over the years between the first and the second game and so when you take control of Ellie in Part II she will sometimes encounter random guitars in her travels, such as in a derelict music store. You can use the PlayStation controller to strum the guitar and even try and play out a few tunes as the buttons for certain chords are displayed on the screen. The music carefully intertwines itself with the gameplay but it also creates a narrative connection. Joel and Ellie have a bond that is strengthened by their love of the guitar and Joel’s role in teaching Ellie how to play is a pivotal and symbolic element of their relationship. The increased use of the guitar and the banjo within the soundtrack is a great way to emphasize this narrative construct whilst still perfectly representing the in-game world of infected monsters, troubled survivors, and a lost world.
Quayle is easily able to hold his own next to Santaolalla, as he takes on the more action-orientated musical themes. He obviously has a great knowledge of the first game and the underlying music- particularly from the action sequences. He manages to expand on the first game’s action themes and kick it up a notch. Ellie’s unwavering quest for vengeance by any means necessary is captured amazingly well by both Quayle and Santalolloa, providing themes that not only represent Ellie’s physical growth and maturation but also her anger, her pain, and her fear. I think the theme that captures this best is “The Cycle of Violence” by Quayle. The underlying drum beats, the ominous bass thuds, and the slowly escalating strings make for a piece of music that is eerie and panicked, encapsulating the violent nature of the characters in the game.
The Last of Us: Part II manages to do a lot with its soundtrack. Various tracks are able to convey many different emotions, whether it’s a sweet yet somber remembrance from a flashback scene or a violent scenario as Ellie fights not just for her survival, but for revenge. Perfectly capturing Ellie’s growth as a character, her relationship with Joel, and also her descent into hate and vengeance, Santaolla and Quayle create a score that is undoubtedly one of the best in gaming this year.
Top Track: “Beyond Desolation”
A heart wrenching closing theme to the game, “Beyond Desolation” isn’t so much about Ellie’s quest for vengeance. Instead, it represents the fallout from her actions and her choices. The game as a whole focuses on the issue of revenge and how it will ultimately leave you unsatisfied and without purpose. “Beyond Desolation” has hints of the well-known main theme of The Last of Us peppered throughout but it focuses more on a new, somber melody for Ellie. By including remnants of the theme from the first game, it painfully reminds us of the innocent Ellie from the first game who- despite her crass attitude- was a genuinely good person willing to sacrifice her life for the good of the world. The new theme that surrounds the one from the first game is mostly just the plucking of a lone banjo which is gradually joined by more strings and added percussion. It represents Ellie’s change into a merciless person who was fuelled by hate. It also demonstrates her position at the conclusion of the game: an empty person who is broken and alone. It is really depressing actually (I mean, it is called “Beyond Desolation” after all), but the fact that this two and a half minute piece of music is able to evoke such emotion as well as perfectly close the story and represent the protagonist’s journey makes it the highlight of The Last of Us: Part II soundtrack.
9. Cyberpunk 2077– Marcin Przybyłowicz, P. T. Adamczyk and Paul Leonard-Morgan
The soundtrack for Cyberpunk 2077 is pretty simple in its delivery- although it does utilize various styles- but what it has it does well enough to fully draw you in to the futuristic fantasy and grimy backstreets of the Cyberpunk universe.
Cyberpunk 2077 has three composers and whilst they do have distinctive styles, they all manage to work together well to maintain a consistency that feels firmly rooted in the Cyberpunk world. The score tends to switch between a few different musical themes: futuristic and science fiction tones that are created with heavy, beating EDM and synths; softer synths that are slower but still ooze with that cyber sci-fi atmosphere and hugely fast-paced and pulse-racing electronica for action sequences. Each composer brings their own sense of identity to these different musical elements but they blend perfectly into the dystopian world in which the game is set. The feel of the soundtrack echoes that of the game itself: dark and moody with a hint of angst and a dash of rock and roll.
There has clearly been inspiration taken from films such as Blade Runner and the more recent Ex Machina. The atmosphere of a cyber world that is emulated well in the soundtracks for these films is also done well in Cyberpunk 2077, bringing in reflective elements but still able to maintain its own sound. Cyberpunk 2077 may not be revolutionary but it absolutely nails the feel of a futuristic, dystopian society which is more than enough to make it one of the best gaming soundtracks this year.
Top Track: “V”
Named for the protagonist and customizable player character of the game, “V” encompasses the universe of Cyberpunk 2077 to a tee with its gritty synths and hardcore electronica. The song escalates as it goes on, introducing a killer guitar riff and a beat that is crazily catchy. Epically electronic with a beat you’ll struggle to forget, “V” is not only a fitting theme for the protagonist but one for the world of Cyberpunk 2077 in general.
8. Spider-Man: Miles Morales– John Paesano
Just like he did with his soundtrack to Marvel’s Spider-Man in 2018, John Paesano once again captures the essence of the heroics of Spider-Man within his music but also creates a unique soundtrack that defines the character and their story. This time around, he focuses on Miles Morales rather than Peter Parker and the result is an amazingly sweeping orchestral score with some awesome hip hop and electronic inclusions and influences.
The influence from the Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse film is apparent in the themes related to Miles himself, with a hip hop element infused into the large orchestral pieces. The score gives this version of Miles his own personality with this amalgamation of genres. The bellowing brass, soaring strings, and even the piano themes spread here and there all represent the traditional superhero feel. It’s big, bombastic, and heroic, even adding elements of vocalizations from a choir in pieces like “Don’t Give Up” to truly highlight the epic nature of Spider-Man and his status as a superhero. As awesome and cinematic as these orchestral parts are, it is the fusion of hip hop that makes the soundtrack stand out and feel reflective of Miles as a character rather than just his superhero alter ego Spider-Man. The action segments of the game are all pretty standard in their delivery when it comes to the musical accompaniment but the amazing arrangements and huge orchestration have to be admired.
Paesano once again has created a soundtrack that could easily be on par with one of Spider-Man’s cinematic outings with his score for Spider-Man: Miles Morales. His themes perfectly match with musical themes that can be heard in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and even surpass some of them due to their memorability. Able to nail the huge action moments, the quieter segments, and also reflect Miles as a character as well as a hero, the Spider-Man: Miles Morales soundtrack is a score that soars to incredible heights.
Top Track: “Won’t Give Up”
Not to be confused with the opening track “Don’t Give Up”, “Won’t Give Up” feels more like Miles as a person rather than as a hero. His main musical theme is interwoven with a hip hop beat with an awesome bass line. The orchestra gets their time to shine within “Won’t Give Up” too, but in a subtler way than the rest of the soundtrack. As I said, there is certainly inspiration taken from Miles’s musical themes from Daniel Pemberton’s amazing Into the Spiderverse soundtrack but it feels more like a respectful homage than an unimaginative knockoff. Seamlessly blending huge orchestral themes with hip hop and R&B tones, “Won’t Give Up” is a theme that separates Miles Morales from Peter Parker, helping to build on his own character and feels more like an individual than simply another person to don the Spider-Man mantle.
7. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Jesper Kyd, Sarah Schachner and Einar Selvik
The Assassin’s Creed soundtracks are usually a superb arrangement of music that is able to capture the feel of the series as a whole whilst also embodying each different setting from the various titles. I’m happy to say that Assassins Creed Valhalla continues this tradition of fantastic music within the Ubisoft series thanks to the talents of the trio of composers who worked on the game’s music.
Jesper Kyd and Sarah Schachner are veterans when it comes to the Assassin’s Creed soundtracks (and video games in general), with Kyd having worked on the very first Assassins Creed game, Assassin’s Creed II (one of the best game soundtracks ever in my humble opinion), Brotherhood and Revelations as well as game franchises such as Borderlands and Hitman. Schachner worked on the music for Assassin’s Creed Unity and Origins as well as some of the recent titles in the Call of Duty series. She also contributed to what is my favourite Assassin’s Creed soundtrack so far: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. It is awesome to see a female video game composer making such an impact in the gaming music industry. Kyd and Schacher are joined by Einar Selvik- a Norwegian musician who has worked on the popular television series Vikings– who helps bring some traditional Norwegian heritage into the score.
The brilliance of the Valhalla soundtrack comes from the combination of traditional Nordic music with more contemporary themes that video games are associated with. This is a tough combination to execute without the finished product sounding like a cacophonic mixture of elements that don’t gel- which was probably made all the more difficult with two main composers and an additional musician jumping in here and there. However, Valhalla’s soundtrack flawlessly mingles these elements, from the combat-heavy synths to the use of traditional Norse instruments (such as lyres and animal hide drums). In an interview with Spin.com, Schachner and Kyd both discuss this blending of genres within the game, with Schachner stating “I play orchestral and ethnic string instruments, so blending those sounds with synths and modern production is a fundamental part of my creative process. Blurring the lines between period and modern, reality and fantasy, and getting to fully embrace that fusion is what I enjoy the most about Assassin’s Creed. While I love drawing inspiration from past eras and capturing the spirit of something historic, I try to turn it into something new rather than create a literal representation of the past.” This is as true for Valhalla as it is for the other Assassin’s Creed games, with this fusion of varying historical periods and traditional video game music styles. Kyd also discusses his methods for creating this synthesis of music styles, “The lead instruments are from the Viking era, or at least they feel like they belong in a Viking narrative. A rule of thumb I used, in the beginning, as if the instrument could theoretically have been invented in the Viking age — such as a metal drum — then I could use it, even if the actual instrument hadn’t been invented yet. I then expanded on this idea by adding more “foreign” instruments to the mix such as guitars and the Eurorack modular synth.” This ability to creatively express the Nordic tones in the game with both traditional and modern musical means is a testament to Kyd and Schacner’s skill as composers and their knowledge of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
Einar Selvik adds a traditional touch to the soundtrack with his vocals, with Kyd noting in an article with MusicTech.net that Selvik “brings an authentical lyrical feel to the project with his original folk songs. “ Bringing on a native musician from the country that the game is based- especially one who specializes in traditional folk music from Norway- certainly shows a desire from the music team to add as much authenticity as possible to the soundtrack. Authentically Norwegian but still contemporary and recognizable addition to the Assassin’s Creed series, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a stand out in gaming music this year.
Top Track: “Out of the North”
As much as I loved the main theme for the game as well as the rendition of “Ezio’s Family”- a staple in the series since its introduction in Assassins Creed II– “Out of the North” is such an astounding piece that I had to give it top track status. “Out of the North” is – as the title suggests- a piece of music that only plays whilst the player is still in Norway. Whilst you don’t get to listen to it once you venture into England, the piece is spectacular enough to create a lasting impact even when you leave Norway. With a distinct and traditional steady drumbeat running throughout as well as insanely beautiful vocals and string sections, the song feels like a theme for the Northern Lights in all their beauty and luminescence. Epic and wonderfully Scandinavian in style, “Out of the North” is a strong and gorgeous representation of Norwegian music whilst still maintaining the essence of the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
6. Hades– Darren Korb
Darren Korb is a hugely accomplished musician and composer, working on several video games in the past. Although he only has four video game soundtracks to his name (all in collaboration with indie games developer Supergiant Games), they are easily all incredible in their own way. His work on Transistor in 2014 and Pyre in 2017 is amazing but his 2011 score Bastion is easily one of my favourite game soundtracks of all time. Korb has done it again alongside Supergiant Games with his soundtrack for the critically acclaimed indie game Hades. Korb had a bit of help on a few tracks here and there with Hades, including Ashley Barrett who provides vocals on three tracks, Masahiro Aoki and Daisuke Kurosawa whose guitar playing guest stars on one track, and Austin Winory- who composed the astonishing Journey soundtrack- who arranged, conducted and produced on two tracks. Other than that, Korb did most of the work and it is incredible to think that (mostly) one person could be behind such stellar soundtracks. Not only that, but Korb also provides the voices for the character Zagreus for the game as well as additional voices here and there. All in a day’s work for Darren Korb it would seem.
Hades is an indie game with a captivating story that- as the title implies- is set in the underworld. Rather than focusing primarily on Hades himself, the plot revolves around Zagreus (yep, Korb’s character is actually the protagonist) who is the immortal son of Hades- lord of the underworld. The game is a roguelike role-playing game that follows Zagreus on his quest to escape the underworld, fighting lost souls on his way. Whilst a soundtrack made up of songs consistent with the doom and gloom of the underworld would be expected, Korb instead opts for a string-heavy soundtrack with a huge amount of energy and personality. The guitars are the stars of the show on the soundtrack here. They are utilized well from a technical perspective, coming to the fore more so when you get stuck into the battle. However, this only happens when you’re fighting the easier foes. Soundtrack World.com also noted the way that Korb changes up this dynamic when it comes to the more difficult bad guys, “when the really tough enemies are trying to get you, the acoustic guitars don’t cut it. Korb has found a wonderful solution for that problem by throwing the elegant percussion sounds and the acoustic guitars out of the window and replacing them with drums and distorted electric guitars to create a glorious metal version of the same piece. The wailing sound is still present to help the listener to identify the piece.” The way that Korb is able to subtly transform acoustic pieces into a rampant metal masterpiece is absolute genius and one of the reasons that the Hades soundtrack is so unique.
Much like the game itself, the soundtrack for Hades is a surprise gem that surpasses many of the big-name, triple-A video game soundtracks released this year (as can often be the case with indie games). Perfectly fusing acoustic strings with insanely good metal riffs and even a little synth-laden electronica at times, Korb not only brings a voice to protagonist Zagreus but he also brings life to the underworld with his incredible soundtrack.
Top Track- “Out of Tartarus”
A song used quite early in the game, “Out of Tartarus” plays when Zagreus is fighting his way out of Tartarus. In Greek mythology, Tartarus in a dungeon-like abyss full of torment and suffering where the wicked are tortured for an eternity. Probably not a place to take the kids, then. “Out of Tartarus” is an amazing track that depicts the lamentation of such a cursed place whilst still staying true to the rest of Korb’s score. The track starts off slow with acoustics mixed with a bit of synth electronica but it soon escalates into an epic rock metal piece as the enemies get more difficult. “Out of Tartarus” is a fantastic piece that demonstrates Korb’s skill at seamlessly transitioning from acoustic guitar themes to heavy metal without losing the essence of the musical theme itself. “Out of Tartarus” is an epic tune that highlights Korb’s talents whilst perfectly representing the score of the game as a whole.
5. Final Fantasy 7 Remake– Nobuo Uematasu, Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki
When it comes to video game music, the original Final Fantasy VII music from 1997 is renowned as one of the best soundtracks that gaming has to offer. The 2020 remake of Final Fantasy VII had some large scale arrangements of tracks from the original score as well as all new music. It was likely a daunting task to take on for the composers (although Nobuo Uematasu worked on the original score) but they nailed it with a soundtrack that reworks previous music excellently and offers all new music that fits right into the Final Fantasy VII world.
The soundtrack in its entirety consists of 157 songs that are split up over seven discs, so, unfortunately- as with the other lengthier scores on this list- I haven’t been able to cover everything. However, what I have heard is enough to know that the soundtrack for the remake consists of excellent rearrangements that represent the jump from the ’90s to 2020 as well as brilliant new pieces that still feel like they could have been part of the original. What is interesting about the music this time around is that it is dynamic and reacts to what is going on in-game and the player’s actions. US Gamer.net interviewed composer Mitsuto Suzuki in regards to this dynamic nature and he explained how this was done, “the team used different tracks and arrangements, cross-fading them in and out during gameplay. While the music itself was the same, with the same melodies, tempos, and general composition, the team might need three tracks to shift between depending on what’s happening in the game.” This is a clever way to ramp up the soundtrack to a whole new level. With a musical score as well-known as Final Fantasy VII, it must have been tough to go about remaking the iconic music. Creating dynamic music that responds to in-game action is an excellent way to take the score to a whole new level.
The actual content of the soundtrack is pretty diverse, ranging from upbeat jazz to electronic synth tracks, soothing piano tunes, and even some soft and heavy rock themes. The remade versions of music from 1997 do tend to catch the ear more so than the new and original music, but that is not to disparage the new tunes. The iconic 1997 melodies are just so incredible that it’s hard to feel as much love for the new material. That’s probably the nostalgia talking but the remade version of classics like “Tifa’s Theme”, “Aerith’s Theme”, the general theme for the “JENOVA” boss, and of course the stunning “One-Winged Angel” give me literal goosebumps. They are absolutely stunning to hear with an updated, orchestral theme, almost as if this is the way they were meant to be heard way back in 1997. As I said, that is not to bash the new music but when you create such an iconic score- as Nobuo Uematsa certainly did with the 1997 original- it’s almost impossible to catch lightning in a bottle twice. However, there are some awesome new songs that do leave a lasting impression, such as “Hollow”, an angst-ridden rock song for Cloud that is absolutely perfect for the stoic, spiky-haired protagonist.
Despite the new music not being quite on the same level as the remakes from the original score, the soundtrack for the Final Fantasy VII remake is an amazing musical feat. I feel like I have been far too harsh on the score, to be honest, but it’s difficult not to compare it to the original- which is an absolute masterpiece of music. The remake has certainly earned its place as one of the best game soundtracks of 2020 with its glorious recreations of old themes as well as its creative and contemporary new themes.
Top Track: “Aerith’s Theme- Home Again”
“Aerith’s Theme” has always been an incredibly beautiful piece of music in its own right as well as in video games in general but the remade version is an absolutely stunning interpretation. Maintaining the key musical theme of Aerith’s song but elaborating on it, “Aerith’s Theme- Home Again” is a testament to the absolutely wonderful music that can stem from video games. Even in its original PlayStation One form, “Aerith’s Theme” always sounded like it was meant for an orchestra. It has been covered by orchestras beforehand many times over the last twenty-three years but to hear an official orchestral take actually from the game is something that fans of gaming soundtracks- and fans of the piece in general- can rejoice over. In-game, you can also hear hints of the theme when Cloud has various visions and glimpses of the future. Saying anything more than that is heading into spoiler territory (though in fairness I guess they are twenty-three-year-old spoilers but I still won’t go there). Even more beautiful than it was all those years ago, “Aerith’s Theme- Home Again” brings the theme to new, orchestral heights and maintains its status as one of the best, and most emotional, character themes in video games.
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons– Kazumi Totaka, Shinobu Nagata, Yasuaki Iwata, Yumi Takahashi , Sayako Doi and Masato Ohashi
As I said way back at the beginning of this list, 2020 has been a hard year for all of us. When it comes to a soundtrack that is sorely needed to combat the 2020 blues, Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes the crown. Cheerful, relaxing, and surprisingly versatile at times, this is a score that will be remembered for bringing some joy during the pandemic.
Composers Kazumi Totaka and Shinobu Nagata have been the figureheads behind the Animal Crossing music since the first game way back in 2001. As with all of the Animal Crossing games, the music isn’t designed to stand out. Instead, it is made to blend seamlessly into the Animal Crossing world and the day-to-day mundanities that the player engages with. Dazed Digital.com sums it up perfectly in their deep dive into the music of Animal Crossing, describing the tunes as there to “enhance the inconsequential beat of every day”. The music is cutesy and kitsch in its delivery but also highly relaxing and diverse. The main theme of the game- a trumpet-led little diddy with some relaxing percussion- flows throughout the body of the score as a whole but it often diverts off into pieces that are heavier on the strings, the piano, or even the xylophone. This variety keeps the score feeling fresh and keeps the tracks from sounding the same but it all feels connected and- as I said- doesn’t stand out too much. It is ambient and soothing. People in charge of elevator music should be taking notes as New Horizons nails it.
An interesting element of the music is its dynamic nature, with musical themes that change hourly and reflect the time of the day that you are playing. This is a staple of the Animal Crossing franchise and it works even more so in New Horizons. Each hour has a slightly different style of music that maintains elements of that recognizable Animal Crossing theme throughout. “9 AM” has a jaunty string-laden tune with a hint of cute synth sounds to represent the peak time of day whilst “3 PM” has a jazzy feel to it with the deep plucking of a cello running throughout alongside ukulele chords and some breezy brass thrown in. Smooth jazz becomes a staple as it gets later into the night and the early hours of the morning. I have to say that I love “3 AM” because it’s a bit of an eclectic mix of genres thrown together. Pretty much what you would expect from someone who is up at 3 AM playing Animal Crossing. The peaceful and simple piano tune of “5 AM” is surprisingly beautiful too, reflecting the nature of a new day as the sun rises. This is such a clever way to go about creating a score for a game such as this one and each and every hour is perfect in its reflection of the time it represents.
The musical themes of Animal Crossing: New Horizons elevate the charming world of adorable anthropomorphic creatures and perfectly blends with the soothing surroundings. The composers for the game have thoroughly succeeded in creating a score that helps the player escape from the harsh realities of the coronavirus pandemic. If only for a little while.
Top Track: “7AM”
I am not- nor will I ever be- a morning person but the “7 AM” track kind of makes me want to be. The main theme for Animal Crossing is obviously iconic but I wanted to give one of the hourly themes the top track spot due to their creativity and spot-on reflections of the hours of the day. 7 AM is such a cute and jolly tune with a sweet marching band-style drum beat running throughout as well as a lovely guitar theme, some appealing synths and a bit of piano. It feels like the perfect definition of that time of day when our alarms go off and we have to prepare for a new day. Rousing, yet not aggressively so. Although for me, it will never be a calming time of day (did I mention how much I detest mornings?), “7 AM” is a great example of the way that Animal Crossing: New Horizons seamlessly integrates different music styles into every hour of the day.
3. Ghost of Tsushima– Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi
Beautifully atmospheric and amazing in its combination of both western and Japanese instruments, Ghost of Tsushima is a musical masterpiece that feels like listening to a cinematic experience.
Set in feudal Japan, Ghost of Tsushima is about a lone samurai warrior called Jin Sakai fighting again the Mongol Invasion of Tsushima Island. The score wonderfully reflects the themes and setting of the game, taking influence from other media- such as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films- but also immersing itself firmly in Japanese history and heritage. Ilan Eshkeri- who co-composed the score with Shigeru Umebayashi- was not fully versed in Japanese musical styles so he ensured that he did his research whilst working on the game. In an interview with Games Industry, Eshkeri discusses how he went about this research, “I spent time learning about Japanese scales and the way the instruments worked. I spent a lot of time with the musicians, learning how the instruments played, how to write them, their books. And then I also found music from the island of Tsushima — folk music, monk music — and I took all these things and reimagined them.” This attention to detail and the depth in which Eshkeri immersed himself shines through in the soundtrack, as classical Japanese instruments are clearly in play throughout such as the biwa- a short-necked lute- and the well-known Shakuhachi- an ancient Japanese bamboo flute that provides that traditional, peaceful flute sound that can also be heard prevalently in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. These Japanese instruments are intertwined with western instruments- in this case, a full symphony orchestra- to create a soundtrack that is undeniably steeped in Japanese culture but still able to merge cultures and create a huge, epic, and emotional soundtrack.
Eshkeri and Umebayashi come together to create a video game score that is brimming with Japanese history and culture but their different heritages themselves- with Eshkeri being English and Umebayashi Japanese- is sure to have helped them achieve a perfect amalgamation of eastern and western musical styles. Ghost of Tsushima’s soundtrack is not only an achievement for video game music, it is a creative and cultural success as it merges east and west and yet still perfectly represents feudal Japan with its heavy war drum beats, crashing percussion, and gentle woodwinds . This is the sort of music I would expect from a big-budget film. In fact, it is significantly better than most film scores I have heard as of late. Beautiful, sombre, haunting, and imposing, Ghost of Tsushima is an incredible soundtrack that combines history with the contemporary and Japanese stylings with western arrangements.
Top Track- “Jin Sakai”
This has got to be the best character theme from gaming in 2020. The epic drum beat that resonates throughout this theme for protagonist Jin Sakai is incredibly endearing but also makes you want to ride into battle with its epic sound. As well as the prominent drum beat, Jin’s theme incorporates both western orchestrations as well as classical Japanese instruments, which- as I said- is one of the soundtrack’s biggest strengths. The piece has a heroic nature that compels you to dive deeper into Jin’s story. “Jin Sakai” is an amazing theme full of wonderful orchestration and Japanese influences that is sure to be remembered as one of the most memorable themes for a character in a video game.
2. Ori and The Will of the Wisps– Gareth Coker
This was a tough one to put at number two. In fact, this soundtrack had my number one spot for a long time. It was only just beaten out by my number one pick. Ori and The Will of the Wisps continues with its record of amazing music that was established in the first game Ori and the Blind Forest.
The whimsical world of Ori is once again captured excellently by Gareth Coker, who draws on real world emotions to bring that authenticity into his work. When talking to Escapist Magazine about his musical process and his feelings on the importance of emotion within music, “Living through a range of meaningful, impactful experiences is a valuable reference. It gives you some measure of insight as to whether a sound, a melody, or an instrument is effective at evoking something you’ve already been through. I think composers write better music when they’ve gotten out of their academic state and out of being in books.” There is a definite sense of emotion in the music for Ori and the Will of the Wisps, emitting feelings of fear with tracks such as boss battle theme “Mora the Spider”- with its shrill strings and creeping brass– and “Ku’s First Flight”- with gorgeous vocals and soft woodwinds that develop into a dramatic orchestration to first depict the wonder of flight for Ku and Ori, followed by the fear of being separated by the storm. Coker is able to convey so many different emotions throughout the soundtrack that you’re sure to feel something whilst listening.
As with Ori and the Blind Forest, I feel like Ori and the Will of the Wisps could easily pass for a soundtrack of a grand animated feature. Coker is able to provoke deep emotion and transport the player to a magical, otherworldly place simply within a few bars of music. Ethereal and incredibly arranged, Ori and The Will of the Wisps is a soundtrack with heart and soul and a testament to Coker’s skills as a composer.
Top Track: “Main Theme”
I have gone with the main theme again as the top track here and it is for good reason. The “Main Theme” has the same tune as the original main theme from Ori and The Blind Forest but with a more calming and refined sound. The vocalizations are absolutely gorgeous and when the soft and serene orchestration kicks in, it is hard not to experience a wave of emotion. The beauty and ethereal nature of the main theme have stuck with me for a long time since I first listened to it back in March. This theme perfectly pulls you into another world, sounding fantastical and full of magic due to the perfect arrangement of instruments combined with the angelic vocals. This one is not only my favourite song from the Ori and The Will of the Wisps soundtrack but also my favourite main theme from a video game this year. Someone, please get Gareth Coker to score a Disney or Pixar movie.
1. Genshin Impact– Yu-Peng Chen
So, we’ve finally arrived at number one. It truly feels like it’s been a long road. Before I get into this one, I just want to say that my top three choices were incredibly painful to rank. I switched and changed the order around so many times because they all are capable of taking the number one spot. With that being said, let me explain why I went with Genshin Impact as the best video game soundtrack of 2020.
Genshin Impact is a fantasy role-playing game with an open world but it is also free to play and available on mobile devices as well as PC, PS4, PS5, and Nintendo Switch. The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, composed by Yu-Peng Chen of the musical team HOYO-MiX. I was blown away whilst listening to the multiple soundtracks for the game. You’d be forgiven if you mistook it for a soundtrack from an anime film or triple-A game rather than a free to play game available on mobile. The fact that an incredible soundtrack such as this was able to be created for a free to play title- as well as the high quality and beautifully diverse themes- make it the absolute best soundtrack from video games in 2020.
There are currently three albums for Genshin Impact available (with more planned for the future): The Wind and The Star Traveler– made up of 15 tracks-, City of Winds and Idylls– with 63 tracks and Jade Moon Upon a Sea of Clouds– with 69 songs. Each album has a range of themes for various areas within the game that make recurring appearances with different styles, as would be expected with a role-playing game. For example, there are multiple versions of the main theme for Genshin Impact including “Twilight Serenity”- a soothing night time version of the theme which feels like a music box song-, “Beckoning”- a beautiful yet somewhat haunting vocalization of the theme-, “Reminiscence”- a relaxing harp rendition and “Remembrance”, a somber piano take on the theme. They are all clearly the same song but the variation in composition, instruments, and styles make them feel fresh and unique in each version. Chen’s musical themes bring the world of Genshin Impact to life with ease. In an article by ABC Classical Music, his work is described as “captur(ing) the breadth of emotions in the story…with an expansive orchestral soundscape.” Chen’s work breathes life into the narrative, characters, and settings of the world. This is emphasized by his collaboration with both the Shangai Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, who provided the instrumentals to Chen’s work
What I love about the Genshin Impact soundtrack- and what I think gave it that bit of an edge over the other entries in this list- is that it didn’t need to be this in-depth. There didn’t have to be more than a hundred individual tracks with more on the way. As a free to play game, people don’t usually expect that level of commitment to music. However, developer’s miHoYo and Yu-Peng Chen- along with HOYO-MiX- clearly didn’t want to treat this project any differently than you would any other game, film, or television series. In fact, they go above and beyond to create a soundtrack that revitalizes a game where the music may not have received that kind of attention had anyone else taken the reigns. Genshin Impact is an example of what can be done when you have enough passion for a project, no matter what kind of game it is.
Top Track: “Liyue”
With three albums worth of music to choose from, I struggled with this. There are some great and endearing battle themes and of course, the main theme is fantastic too. However, it is the track “Liyue” that truly captures the way that Yu-Peng Chen successfully brings a different personality and style to each region within the game. “Liyue” plays when you enter the town of the same name. Liyue is based in China and the theme reflects this perfectly with various Chinese instruments recognizable in the music such as the mandolin and Chinese flutes (I believe the one being used here is the Dizi but I’m not one hundred percent sure.) The song begins with these simple instruments but eventually escalates to a full orchestral accompaniment whilst still maintaining the Chinese motifs. “Liyue” is a great example of Chen’s creative composition of themes for areas all through the game as well as a great song in its own right. Cheerful and vibrant with the essence of Chinese culture flowing within, “Liyue” is only one of the many brilliant tracks from Genshin Impact.
There you have it! Those were the twenty best soundtracks that video games had to offer this year. I tried to be as objective as possible in my choices and consider arrangement, composition, and diversity amongst other elements but mostly, I wanted to highlight the best music to come out of a terrible year. These soundtracks may not all be hugely positive or joyful but they are a testament to the talented composers out there who didn’t know that their work would be associated with a global pandemic (due to being released in 2020). Here’s hoping that 2021 not only brings us more awesome game music, but also a better year in general. Thank you so much for reading!