Whether it’s part of an epic boss battle, a touching cutscene or accompanying the end credits, a well chosen song can help to create some of the most entrancing and unforgettable moments in video games. Perhaps what makes these moments so special is indeed their ephemeral nature – usually taking place deep into a campaign, a great musical section may well only be experienced once, after which the fleeting moment endures only as a fond memory.
But for those who want to keep a memento of these moments well after that experience, the wonder of modern media has you covered. Whether it’s through Spotify, YouTube or whatever your preferred service may be, we can now create a personal playlist of our most cherished songs from gaming to warm our hearts when we need it most.
Before we take a look at our picks of the most essential video game songs, we need to set out a few rules to explain what does and doesn’t qualify for this list:
- The song must have actually featured in a game, therefore we’ll be excluding music about or based on games (e.g. music by The Protomen) or songs created for an OST that didn’t actually feature in the game (e.g. some Florence and the Machine tracks from the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack).
- When we say ‘song’ we mean music and lyrics, so as much as we’d love to rave about (as well as to) Megalovania, it won’t be making the list.
- We’re going to adhere to the ol’ one entry per franchise rule here because otherwise a series such as Life is Strange alone could take up half the list.
With that out of the way, let’s crack on:
‘Take Control’ from Control (2019)
The fuel for one of the most exhilarating set pieces in recent memory, Old Gods of Asgard‘s head-banger is perfect for any metalhead or anyone craving flashbacks of Jesse Faden’s merciless tear through Control‘s Ashtray Maze.
At around eight minutes in length, this song is a commitment, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned from experience, it’s that when you start a mosh pit 30 seconds into a song, you will be thrown off the bus. So if anything, you’ll need a lengthy song for the long walk ahead.
‘Still Alive’ from Portal (2007)
If there’s one things missing from pop music these days, it’s passive aggressive death threats from a murderous robot. Well, Portal‘s end credit song is just the song to fill that gap in the market. After hours of mind-warping puzzles and an intense final confrontation, this sweetly menacing ditty was the ideal way to bring Portal to a close and leave players with a smile on their face.
While we may only have a few years before Alexa and Siri go rogue and begin forcing humans to perform a series of portal-based tests with the promise of cake at the end, we at least have GLaDOS’ sultry serenade to prepare us for that day.
‘Kat’s Song’ from Contrast (2013)
You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of this song, or even this game. A fairly short puzzle/platformer with a unique film noir art style, Contrast is easy to overlook but beautifully presented – a fact that’s made obvious as soon as you reach the game’s title screen. The title music is a song of loss and longing performed by Laura Ellis, known simply as Kat’s Song, that perfectly sets the mood for the adventure to come.
The song evokes thoughts of a small French cabaret club with a talented but tragic singer, making it perfect for people who often find themselves smoking a cigarette while moodily contemplating existence in black and white… Which again, will get you thrown off that bus. Can’t you read the ‘No Smoking’ signs?
‘Live and Learn’ from Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
Public opinion hasn’t been too kind to Sonic since his foray into the world of 3D gaming. However, Sonic Adventure 2 is one of the few exceptions to this trend, still securing a foothold in the hearts of many long-time fans. This is in no small part due to its excellent choice of music, especially in the game’s opening level and final confrontation. While Escape from the City is a belter, it’s the classic rock inspired final battle them Live and Learn by Crush 40 that makes our list.
Between the heart-pounding opening and anthemic chorus, this song is the reason that we (and many others) had to replay that final battle countless times. No really, it’s the song and not because we sucked at the game. No, really! Ah, shut up – next entry:
‘Burn it Down’ from Life is Strange: Before the Storm (2017)
It wasn’t easy picking just one song from the Life is Strange series for this list, and while the haunting Obstacles by Syd Matters and Breton‘s indielectro beast Get Well Soon almost took the slot, it’s Daughter‘s ode to teen rage Burn it Down that edges out. Written specifically for this game, this song perfectly reflects the anger and frustration felt by Chloe Price in a world seemingly turned against her and the desperate need to fight back in any way she can.
Please note that this song’s title is a metaphor and is not intended to inspire a generation of arsonists. Looking at you, Seth Rollins. Yeah, we know you’re reading this.
‘Wolven Storm’ from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2015)
Even if you don’t recognise the title, chances are, if you’ve played far enough into The Witcher 3‘s story, you know exactly what song this is. As soon as you hear the opening notes, the atmosphere of that tavern bleeds into the real world. The rest of the world stops and there is only Priscilla, her lute and a touching ballad about a white wolf and his beloved sorceress.
Priscilla’s performance was cut short due to a ruckus surrounding hero Geralt, but if we know song structure as well as we think, we can safely assume that Priscilla was just about to break into the 23 minute freestyle rap section… so it’s probably best the song ended when it did.
‘We All Become’ from Transistor (2014)
There’s no one quite like Darren Korb when it comes to blending stylish visuals and music to create a truly unique atmosphere and the best example of this is in Supergiant Games‘ cult darling Transistor. With an impassioned vocal performance by Ashley Barrett, We All Become resonates as one of the most memorable aspects of the game and a necessity for any game inspired playlist.
Transistor actually features a sort of jukebox that allows players to listen to the soundtrack while the protagonist plays with a dog and knocks around a beach ball, which if you try in real life, will get you thrown off… You know what? I’m sick of these oppressive bus drivers. It’s time we started our own bus service where people can enjoy video game music any way they want without judgement. We’ll call the service ‘The Last of Bus’ and the buses will always be delayed by three months. Yeah, we’ll go out of business within weeks, but for those few weeks we’ll be free!
‘Rivers in the Desert’ from Persona 5 (2017)
As with Life is Strange, we were spoiled for choice when it came to choosing an entry from this game. While Whims of Fate and Last Surprise take honourable mentions here, we had to go with Rivers in the Desert. A pumping, mind-consuming track evocative of 80’s pop-rock anthems, this song is used during battles with some of the game’s bigger bosses and perfectly fits the game’s stylish presentation, bringing additional flair and grandeur to proceedings.
The only downside of adding this song to your playlist is that it might give you the itch to re-play Persona 5 and take up another 80 hours of your life. Music that takes up 80 hours – it’s very much the Rush concert of video games.
‘Simple and Clean’ from Kingdom Hearts (2002)
The song that launched a million tears – what else could we have chosen for the number one spot? A song so perfectly used that it made singer Utada Hikaru (and Simple and Clean itself in one guise or another) a staple in pretty much every entry in the Kingdom Hearts series that followed.
This song is so beautiful that listening to it too much can strain you emotionally and make you sore. Though not as much as playing Kingdom Hearts – that’ll make you Sora.
Do you agree with our picks? Or have we missed out some of your favourites? Let us know what you think by starting a discussion below.