I have had a good 2022 overall, though the final month seems adamant on sliding into a wet shart of a fizzle. Rather than dwell on that, however, I thought it would be fun to do another one of these off topic fun posts. The title says it all.
As a person obsessed with music and soundscape (I practically can’t write or draw without it) it should come as no surprise that I pay a lot of attention to the soundtracks on games. As early as the eerie primordial primitively rendered doom metal-ish riffs of the original Doom games I started compiling internally what games had the best soundtracks. There are quite a few I like. So that we aren’t here all night, however, I decided to keep the list narrowed down to five. This proved impossible so it is going to be six games and an honorable mention (game mod) for seven entries total. That is as short as I can keep it. Opposite of my DND edition rankings, however, the lower down the list you go the higher I rank the soundtrack. But being only seven of so many games I have played since the mid 90s, all of these are top. And Cultic isn’t on the list yet only because only half of it has yet to come out.
QUAKE II (1997)
People too young to remember when you had to walk to school through British musket fire while Joe Lieberman tried to ban kid’s access to violent video games are probably unaware how the pre-fast-internet days handled game soundtracks. You popped that CD out of your hard drive and into your (separate) CD player. You skipped the first track (game data) and then suddenly had CD access to the soundtrack music via the buttons on the player. This is what you had to do to listen to soundtracks outside the game back then. Anyway, there was one game who all us 90s preteens agreed was above and beyond the pack and that was Sonic Mayhem’s Quake II. For many, myself included, this would be our introduction to industrial metal. It was certainly the first game soundtrack I was aware of that stood out to me as super memorable in its own right. Well that and another game that came out the same year…
By the way, as of this week Quake II is 25 years old. Happy birthday old friend.
In addition to having the best reloading mechanic to ever exist in a shooter (which to my knowledge has never been copied) Outlaws had one hell of a soundtrack. Probably my favorite spaghetti western composition outside of an Ennio Morricone film. It was also my first exposure to that sound since I wouldn’t really get into westerns as a film genre until I was in college. Weird guitars, human grunts, and southwestern instruments combine to really knock this one out of the park. Do yourself a favor and look up the cutscenes of this game and how perfectly that Lucasarts pixel animation merges with this sound.
THE BARD’S TALE 4 (2018)
I’m currently playing this game for the first time now, and haven’t even beaten it yet. The series is older than I am but this is the most modern entry which I am exploring because of my obsession with returning the ‘Blobber‘ genre to modern gaming. But here it is on my list of top soundtracks already. Traditional music from Scotland in a game? With Gaelic lyrics? Yes please! Can a goofy high fantasy game make me nostalgic for the years I lived in Edinburgh and went on a weekly basis to hear live music at the historic White Hart Inn? Apparently, it can. For a game so intent on not taking itself very seriously it has a soundtrack of striking beauty.
SYSTEM SHOCK 2 (1999)
SHODAN is the greatest villain in gaming history. A schizophrenic AI with a god complex whose voice work was always an impeccably disturbing soundscape in its own right. So it is only natural that a soundtrack that fits matching wits with her sounds like you did a lot of mind altering substances and got lost in Cyberdog while it was hosting a rave like event (this is in fact something that happened to me one time). System Shock 2 was a horror immersive sim set on sabotaged space ship and many reviewers at the time of its release complained about its weirdly insane sounding techno soundtrack. But I think its just perfect for dystopic science fiction settings. Hence why I still listen to it when writing action scenes in science fiction stories to this day.
WASTELAND 3 (2020)
Tied with Humankind, Disco Elysium, and Prodeus for my favorite game so far of the 2020s, Wasteland 3, like Bards Tale 4, is another InExile resurrection of an old franchise with one hell of a lyrics-included soundtrack. The entire soundtrack is enormous and filled with great atmospheric tracks. But the stand outs are these remakes of actual preexisting gospel and 80s pop songs done in the style of a post-apocalyptic world that never heard them in their original form and is reinterpreting them anew. This is my new favorite version of Battle Hymn of the Republic and this is the definitive version of Down to the River to Pray. This is the literal soundtrack of post-America America. And what better soundscape to have while mowing down Reagan worshipping cultists (as you can do in this very game)?
Every single soundtrack Andrew Hulshult touches is a wonderful rush to my blackened Boomer Shooter loving soul. And of all the ones he has worked on, this is his best. It manages to both sound like a late 90s Id shooter and a modern folk-horror infused atmospheric experiment at the same time. If there was one and only one game soundtrack I could claim reigned supreme, it would be this one.
Honorable Mention: ASHES 2063 (2018)
This game is a full release worth of content, but its technically a mod. Hence why I’m specifying it as an honorable mention. Ashes 2063 and its sequel Ashes Afterglow are tied with Brutal Doom for the best Doom mod out there. Truly amazing stuff that stands out in a very crowded field. The soundtrack is no exception. It sounds like an 80s B-apocalypse movie soundtrack just as it should. Many of the tracks have specific original Doom and Doom II cues in them that the observant will pick up on as well. The track ‘To Ashes’ and ‘Edge of Humanity’, my favorites on this album, remind me of some of the excellent work done for Final Doom like ‘Hells Bells‘ and ‘Metal‘ which I feel never got the recognition they deserved. Ashes 2063 is like that style come back and improved upon with synthwave.