My Favorite Game Soundtracks

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.

OUTLAWS (1997)

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.


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)?

DUSK (2018)

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.

Minimalist Worldbuilding and the Old School FPS

I am planning on a lengthy double sized two-for-the-price-of-one book review post in the near future, but that will be awhile off as it requires finishing one book and reading another. Not to mention that I tend not to read books on similar topics back to back so there will likely be another read inserted between them to break it up. So, for now and barring an unexpected need to opine on something topical, have a short different entry to serve as a tide-over until that is ready.

Old School first person shooters (often now called Boomer Shooters despite the fact that they are mostly made by and for Gen Xers) are my second favorite type of game. Only turn based 4X strategy beats them. There was a time when they were my favorite (Phun Phact: I was once one of the top ranked Day of Defeat players). Once I went to college I entered a time when I thought I had out-grown the genre, but my continued playing of old games of this ilk meant that I really hadn’t so much as the newer releases weren’t appealing to me. I came to realize shooters themselves had gotten worse but my tastes had not changed. The rise of slow moving, limited weapon carrying, regenerating health and cover based shooters, where you spend all your time squatting and plinking away at distant targets down iron sights, had really fucked with the genre. Boring military-propaganda games and frat bro Haloesque tedium just did not replicate the fast, fun, and dynamic experience of the children of Doom. Until very recently, the Boomer Shooter was a dying genre. Thanks to the rise of small developers though and a retro trend unleashed by the 2016 new Doom, this period is over. But the Aughts and early 2010s were a dark age for the FPS (as well as most other cultural products). There are now many great modern ‘Boomer Shooters’, such as Amid Evil, Ion Fury, Dusk, and more. Games where constant movement with a giant arsenal of unique and powerful weapons is your only ticket to survival against hordes of monstrously designed enemies in bizarre and otherworldly settings.

The late 90s was a particular high point of these types of games. It was a time right after the mastery of the genre had been disseminated to more developers than just Id and 3D Realms, and right before the nightmare of the Tom Clancy’s Call of Medals games came to assimilate the genre as the domain for ‘Deadliest Warrior’ watching neckbeards. Within a less than two year span of time, Quake II, Unreal, and Half Life would all come out. One of the things all of these games had in common was a seamless and uninterrupted level progression-something almost totally new at that time. You moved forward constantly, only breaking immersion in the first person perspective for loading screens. It really made you feel like an explorer. Most importantly, rather than infodump and tell you a story, you played a story where you indirectly learned about the setting through inference. In Quake II you were separated from your squad on a hostile alien homeworld and had to sabotage as much of its industry as possible. In Half Life you were caught up in a failed experiment at a top secret lab and had to escape. And then there was Unreal, which showcased this mode of play better than any game before or since.

Unreal was the first all 3D game I thought looked really great. Unpopular-opinion-having-child-me was impressed by Quake being the first fully 3D shooter of course, and I loved (and still love) that game. But did Quake and its most immediate successors look better than, say, high detail 2.5D sprite games? Not really. Back then I insisted that Build Engine games like Duke 3D and Blood looked better than early fully 3D games. In the time of the fastest pace of innovation of game graphics in all of history (compare games from 1990 to those in 2000, then compare the same level of advance for literally any other decade to see my point) this really wasn’t a trendy take on my part, but it aged very well. These days more people see the artistry in games like Blood (my favorite shooter overall) than many other technically more advanced games of its era. But Unreal changed that.

Unreal knew what it was. Its game box eschewed the normal practices of designed decal and custom box art for just plastering its surface with real game screenshots. It had the best lighting and detail of any non-pre-rendered game up to that point. It was the first FPS I ever played with impressive outdoor environments. But, more importantly for the sake of this post, it did indirect storytelling the best. You get no briefing or introductory cinematic. You simply wake up in a crashed prison spaceship and have to make your way out into the alien planet. From there, the unique graphics and soundtrack do everything for you with no briefings or dialogue required. Despite this (and more effectively because of it) you soon learn that the planet’s native population has been conquered and enslaved by a star-faring alien race known as the Skaarj who force them to work in mines and treat them brutally. You learn that the natives are a medieval-tech people with a messianic religion that claims that a stranger from the stars with deliver them from bondage, though certain hints imply their present pacifistic cultural stance was not always the case. In what then becomes almost an unintentional commentary on third world exploitation, you eventually stumble upon yet another alien race which is hostile to the Skaarj but who also lands ships on the planet to exploit the natives. These guys, The Mercenaries, are my personal favorite as their use of many of the player’s weapons and equipment options play like actual multiplayer deathmatch but without the need to be yelled at by real life racist 12 year olds. This is punctuated by discoveries of other crashed human ships, implying this planet is a Bermuda Triangle of sorts for human vessels at least.

The game effectively engages in multi-leveled and detailed world building without spoken words. Something that continues as you seamlessly make your way uninterrupted through the planet.

Needless to say, while I enjoyed all three of the 97-98 era big FPS releases, this is my favorite of them. Its engine and soundtrack composer would go on to make my favorite immersive sim of all time, Deus Ex, in 2000. And while the Unreal engine would leave an enormous legacy in graphics (through its descendants to this day), I feel like it never gets the credit it deserves for being what shooters *should* have been when it came to world building and storytelling. As much as I like Half Life, the fact that the genre took its future cues from that game more than Unreal in terms of things like level design, tone, and whatnot was not good for the genre. Immersion became too tied in with scripting, and not enough with non-linear set-pieces that spoke for themselves. In this way Half Life is kind of the Nirvana (the band) of games. A great band on its own, but its overall influence on music was almost entirely in derivative clones that ruined the entire genre. Unreal was like Vast, made a splash once but got overlooked despite being a superior model to learn from in the future. In the constant infodumping and breaking up the flow of modern games, I think we can safely say Unreal was the better path offered. Sadly, it was the one that was more likely to be ignored.

I had it in my mind for about a month to write something like this. But I was forced into it today because earlier this week I started another re-play of Unreal. Then, just days ago, one of the rare gaming channels I follow released an updated review for the game too. The stars aligned a bit too much to put this off any longer so here we are. If you want a proper take on the game and how good it is, I recommend watching the review.

It is also not entirely random that this post came out not too long after a previous one mentioning Master of Orion. Its my hope in the not too distant future to do a full review of my favorite game of all time and how it relates to the regular themes of this blog. And no, I won’t tell you what game it is until the review is up.