Videogame music has its classics, and they’re usually easy to pinpoint as they trickle out every few months, and previously, every few years—but now, we can hardly keep up. To help sift through all the (lovely) noise, we put together a collection of our favorite soundtracks of the year. If you don’t see your favorite here, share it with us in the comments and let us know why it stands out.
If you like the music, be sure to let the artist know—maybe buy a few records on vinyl, invite some friends over, sip some fancy wine and let a track like “Yellow Furry Mushroom Tune” take you where it will.
Thumper’s music isn’t comforting, it’s not easy to bob your head to, it doesn’t have delicious hooks that’ll pop up in your mind hours later for easy listening. It’s music designed to suffocate and overwhelm, composed around the violent, rhythmic game design, not as separate thematic entity. Completely intertwined with how Thumper plays and feels, it’s easily one of the best soundtracks this side of the fourth dimension. —James
No Man's Sky
Say what you will about how No Man’s Sky plays, but from a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s a vast, gorgeous collection of sci-fi paperback book covers. 65daysofstatic’s soundtrack works as a musical stand-in for the wonder one feels ripping through the pages. It’s not a huge departure from their usual sound—distorted guitars, swinging dynamics, crisp percussion, and eerie electronics samples—but it’s all a perfect fit, like they were composing a soundtrack for space exploration this entire time. —James
Above the jovial plucking of strings, another set sways in and out of a sad, mysterious melody. It feels like there’s a history to Strato, one that betrays the colorful pixel art and buoyant floating fantasy setting. Owlboy is spilling over with gorgeous, playful, and energetic musical motifs for every character and setting that would make classic Disney movies turn their head and stare. —James
‘Thirst’, appropriately enough, reminds of walking around after a few too many drinks. Like the rest of the soundtrack, it places a twangy bass front and center, and it walks around each sparse song, in and out of corners, scurrying across darkened dirt roads, all the while barely keeping itself together. It might be short, but Pittman’s score is a potent dose of whimsy and danger, one that can sustain as much supernatural sleuthing as you’re capable of. —James
As lovely a venture as Abzû is, without Austin Wintory’s reverberating, mysterious, and invigorating score, its best moments would fall entirely flat. The psychedelic underwater visuals and music split the work of directing the player, emotionally and physically, through Abzû’s inspirational aquatic set pieces. You’ll never look at a shark without humming its motif again. Unless it’s about to eat you. Stay safe out there. —James
A Shell in the Pit
A good selection of the best game music of the last few years has all come from A Shell in the Pit, serving up lovely soundtracks for the likes of Duelyst, Rogue Legacy, Parkitect, and more. Okhlos’ tunes are another notch in the belt, an intense, fluid combination of modern chiptune headbangers and classic instrumentation. It’s the rare soundtrack that makes me want to sit around all day to play games and dance until I pass out. —James
Carpenter Brut, Danger, The Toxic Avenger, Lorn, Scattle, Waveshaper, Kn1ght
Featuring host of talented electronic artists, Furi’s soundtrack sounds like John Carpenter reimagined for the dancefloor. It’s an energetic and indulgent synthesizer parade that stays glassy and mysterious through every Roxbury headbob. —James
Doom’s music is beaming with the same charm and energy as its brutal combat, both a tongue-in-cheek yet tasteful overexertion. The guitar has enough feedback to keep a family full for months and the double bass drum pedals might register as an earthquake in certain regions. This is some greasy, chewy metal with industrial influences. The main title incorporates the 1993 theme from Doom’s E1M1, while “Flesh and Metal” pulls riffs from Chris Vrenna’s Doom 3 theme. Listen to “BFG Division.” Turn it up loud enough to get grounded. —James
The best of the year, for me. Captivating and unpredictable, one moment Tomáš Dvořák’s music fills the room like a dramatic film score, then pivots to being grounded, Bohemian, and playful. These songs match and elevate the spirit of Samorost 3, but they stand alone surprisingly well. “This is the first time that an album has inspired me to play a video game,” a Bandcamp review admits. Start with “Prenatal Hunters.” —Evan
Hyper Light Drifter
Disasterpeace (Fez, It Follows) uses lo-fi digital audio to evoke history, mood, and place with surprising effect. Imagine unearthing a centuries old chiptune soundtrack, the analog decay turning otherwise clean digital frequencies into tired, weather worn instrumentation. Like the whole of Hyper Light Drifter, the music feels like an artifact from a distant future’s past. —James
SCNTFC’s Oxenfree OST is a dense collection of electronic music with a dark edge, like it’s being played through an analog boombox that’s been dropped a few times too many. Smooth synthetic tones give way to warbled distortion that, no matter how bright the melody, feel aged and mysterious. Boards of Canada definitely come to mind. Start with “Cold Comfort.” —James
Dark Souls 3
(OST included with game purchase)
It takes 10 seconds to understand what kind of place Firelink Shrine is, all thanks to its theme. Before you talk to anyone or explore its space, the strings tell a sad story, wavering in and out of silence while the soft, somber vocals of a lone woman leave a quiet trace of hope. It’s an interpretive characterization of the world and its inhabitants rarely executed in games with such precision. —James
The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human
Aquatic Adventure’s soundtrack layers chiptune minimalism with some atmospheric underwater distortion to give each song a clear identity with a strong melody or theme. I can hear a tune and immediately recall the location or boss fight it’s tied to. Start near the surface with “Seaweed Forest” before diving deep into “The Heart of the City.” —James
The Banner Saga 2
With The Banner Saga 2, Austin Wintory (Journey, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate) scores his first sequel. His pieces swell and climax, but don’t give way to a massive orchestral crescendo. Instead, they stay sparse, even as bright brass instrumentation takes the lead, backing instruments fall out. The world is breaking apart, it’s cold, everyone is dying, and all the pride and hope in the world can hardly make a dent. —James
Makeup and Vanity Set
Synthesizers operated by ski mask-wearing cyberpunks. It’s terrific to see the talent of Makeup and Vanity Set lended to this independent game, and their sound is a perfect fit. The second track, “There Is No Law Here,” says it all. If you really enjoyed the movie Drive, get in here. —Evan
Soothing and mellow acoustic guitar is the perfect match for building rickety, collapsing bridges. When you send busloads of tiny passengers plunging into a river amidst splintering wood and steel beams, you'll barely even care because the music is just so damn relaxing. You can buy the Poly Bridge soundtrack as DLC on Steam (it also comes with the Deluxe Edition of the game, which just left early access in July). The composer even invites you to learn to play songs from the soundtrack yourself. —Chris L
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James is stuck in an endless loop, playing the Dark Souls games on repeat until Elden Ring and Silksong set him free. He's a truffle pig for indie horror and weird FPS games too, seeking out games that actively hurt to play. Otherwise he's wandering Austin, identifying mushrooms and doodling grackles.
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