The most recent decade of video game music is one defined by contradictions and idiosyncrasies, where game developers, empowered by the latest technology and emboldened by the progress made in the decades before, have categorically refused to compromise on their own vision of what a game soundtrack ought to look like. The result is a collection of soundtracks that are contemporaneous, yet completely different in their styles and content. This also reflects the diversity in the games themselves, as the advent of steam, and the unprecedented success of games like Minecraft, made space in the industry for a flurry of independent games. In this article, the final installment in our four-part series, we discuss the best video game soundtracks from the last eight years and observe the incredible variety of video game music that the 2010s brought to the industry.
Although previous Elder Scrolls games are known for their great soundtracks, composer Jeremy Soule takes Skyrim to unprecedented level of orchestration and complexity. The Skyrim original soundtrack has 53 original scores, all fully orchestrated and masterfully composed, totaling almost four hours in length, leaving the listener with an incredible sense of grandeur and enormity that mirrors such qualities within the game itself. Indeed, the scope of the music is so vast that Soule and his team are able to accomplish a pairing of gameplay and soundtrack similar to what you would experience watching a movie or a stage performance set to music; instead of merely complimenting or reflecting the style and motifs of the game, the music itself helps construct the narrative, signaling how to feel at various points in the game that would otherwise be ambiguous. The soundtrack for Skyrim, then, is purposeful in guiding listeners through a coherent experience of the game instead of finding itself attached as an afterthought.
Hotline Miami is undeniably one of the most eccentric games ever published; bombastic in everything from its content to its colors, this ultraviolent 80s throwback is unforgettable for a myriad of good reasons. One of the most memorable portions of Hotline Miami, however, is the eclectic soundtrack from multiple artists that accompanies the outlandish gameplay. This soundtrack is comprised mostly of synthwave, a genre that attempts to recapture the heavily synthesized sounds of 1980s movies and, of course, video game soundtracks. In a jarring, circular process, Hotline Miami’s soundtrack mimics the sounds that the composers of 80s games, like Outrun or Sonic, thought sounded futuristic at the time. This retro-futurism elicits a complex emotional response from the listener, who is both hypnotized by the repetitive drums and gated reverb and energized by the adrenaline and nostalgia. The music is thick and artificial, and it not only compliments the disturbing and engaging gameplay, but also serves as an incredible work of music in and of itself.
As discussed in our previous article, Minecraft is a game that exudes a powerful emptiness and sense of isolation that has a profound impact on how the player feels engaging with the game, and the soundtrack that accompanies this gameplay perfectly captures this difficult emotional state. Composed by Daniel Rosenfeld, also known as C418, the scores on the Minecraft soundtrack rely heavily on minimalism, usually only utilizing one or two instruments at a time, and putting a significant emphasis on individual notes. This accomplishes the same loneliness the player experiences, and portrays a literal isolation of sound where a single instrument or noise will be allowed to linger for an extended period of time. The highly synthesized chimes and strings that lack a strong bassline additionally give the music a ghostly, haunting feel that, although ambient and melodic, can be profoundly terrifying when the player tries to fully comprehend his or her situation in the game. Although the composer admits that much of the music design was limited by the sound capabilities of the game itself, his creativity and precision within such a confined space is impressive, and the soundtrack for Minecraft that he created is so simple, yet so psychologically complex, that it almost defies description.
The above examples barely scratch the surface of the robust world of video game music from the 2010s, but the games discussed do still offer a glimpse into the incredible diversity of styles and functions for video game music of the decade. Further, these games truly represent some of the best soundtracks among their contemporaries, and provide excellent closure to a 38 year long consideration of the evolution of video game music. From Tetris to Skyrim, video game music has evolved and matured with the years that passed, and leaves us with only our imaginations to consider what may lie ahead for an art form that has already shown a boundless capacity for innovation and change.