A video game is made up of many parts — graphics, music, gameplay mechanics — all of which work together to deliver the full experience the player ends up having while playing the game. These elements combine in our brain while we’re staring at the screen and tapping buttons on the controller. It’s a complex process, but you don’t even realize what’s happening when you play a game. If all goes well, you get wrapped up in it.
In this article we’re going to focus on just one key aspect of video games: the music. Just like in movies, video game soundtracks help underscore the emotions players are meant to experience at various parts of the game. Not all video game music is created equal, and some games do more with it than others. The games on this list make full use of their soundtracks to elevate the gameplay experience to a whole new level.
1. Hotline Miami 2
If you have even a passing interest in electronic music, the sprawling collection of dark, pulsating, hypnotic tracks on this soundtrack will burrow right into your soul. There’s something unsettling about many of the tracks here, but that doesn’t make them any less intriguing. When the music of Hotline Miami 2 isn’t messing with your mind, many of the tracks have dance beats that will make you want to get up and pump your fist. Just try not to hit anyone.
But then again, if you’ve played the game or its predecessor, you know this tone fits perfectly with the style of the gameplay. You play as a ruthless psychopath who gets mysterious phone calls that give him locations where he’s to eliminate every living thing in the building. Enemies are always packing some kind of weaponry, and one shot is usually all you can take before having to start over. The level of difficulty is high, but the satisfaction you get from a perfect run is incredible, thanks in no small part to the heavy-hitting soundtrack.
In Bastion, you play as a kid who has to make his way through a monster-infested world after an event referred to as the Cataclysm. It’s an action role-playing game, so between levels you can spend time swapping weapons and customizing your character, but much of the fun comes from hacking and blasting your way through enemies to earn new weapons.
Despite how great the game is, nothing can overshadow its incredible soundtrack. All of the music was composed by Darren Korb, who sets acoustic and electronic elements against thumping beats in a fresh, catchy way. Korb reportedly recorded the whole thing in his closet. No shame in that if it produces this quality of music.
3. Mario Kart 8
Playing Mario Kart 8 is nothing short of an exhilarating experience. It’s one of the most colorful games on the market, with amazing level designs and tons of ways to tweak your karts and characters.
One thing that’s instantly noticeable when you boot up the game is its vivacious soundtrack, which fires on all cylinders from start to finish. These songs are packed full of joy and instrumentation, with popping horns, slapping bass, and shredding guitar. It’s bubbly and energetic enough to fit in with the hyper-stylized racing — no small feat.
4. The Last of Us
Most AAA games nowadays have soaring, cinematic scores recorded by orchestras. Not The Last of Us. Like the game it accompanies, this soundtrack is much more spare and intimate. It uses lots of acoustic instruments and gives them room to breathe, whether it’s an acoustic guitar, strings, or drums. The music was composed by Gustavo Santaolalla, whose work has appeared on film soundtracks like Babel and Brokeback Mountain. It works exceptionally well in The Last of Us, which follows two lonely souls as they make their way across a post-apocalyptic America.
In this bizarre yet adorable game, you control a long, thin flying serpent as you drift around a strangely beautiful environment made up of every color of the rainbow. There’s no time limit and very little challenge; it’s more about the experience of exploring a strange and beautiful world.
Playing Hohokum wouldn’t be half the experience it is without the irresistible electronic music that provides a shimmering backdrop for the action. The tracks in this game are mellow, sinuous, and unstoppable. Just listen to the one above, and then the rest, and then play the game.