video game music 2020 Aerith Final Fantasy VII Remake weaponized nostalgia from Square Enix

One of the rare good things that 2020 will be remembered for is just how great and diverse a lineup of video games we got throughout the entirety of the year. From experiences that helped sunset our old consoles, to shiny new launch games, to indies that managed to break through and become genuine hits, the year has been filled with wonderful games of all different shapes and sizes. And one thing that the very best of these video games have in common is that they’re strengthened by phenomenal music that enhances both gameplay and emotion.

Beloved remakes, devastating sequels, indie champions — here are some of the best video game soundtracks of 2020.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

There’s a lot to be said about how well Final Fantasy VII Remake taps into those strong feelings of nostalgia so many of us have for the PS1 original, while simultaneously subverting our expectations and delivering something new and exciting. And no facet of the game exemplifies this quite as effectively as its music, which is nothing short of a time machine into our collective gaming pasts.

The score consists of familiar arrangements written by Nobuo Uematsu for the original Final Fantasy VII, as well as new music by Masashi Hamauzu and Mitsuto Suzuki. And it’s the way that the old music we’ve loved for decades morphs into something new and grand that really left a lasting impression on me. It’s like I remembered it from the first time, but grander and slightly different. Elements of the score feel chopped, altered, and rearranged. Maybe it’s the music that changed, or maybe it’s me. Regardless, the way iconic themes swell at the arrival of a beloved character — like hearing “Aerith’s Theme” when you first crash through the roof of her church — were among the most powerful moments I experienced all year.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The highest praise I can pay to Gareth Coker’s score for Ori and the Will of the Wisps is that the music is able to consistently strengthen the impossibly beautiful images and story beats that occur throughout the platformer. As one of the best looking 2D games ever released, having the music always exist in harmony with what we’re seeing and playing is a testament to just how integral Coker’s music is to Ori’s powerful success.

In an interview with The Escapist earlier this year, Coker attributes part of the soundtrack’s success to the fact that he’s a part of the process from the outset. Long before the game is available for public consumption, when it’s just a collection of concept art, storyboards, and ideas, Coker’s able to get to work and start crafting music that’s in harmony with the game’s mechanics, settings, and emotionally-resonant story beats. “I don’t want to tell people what to feel,” said Coker, “because people will experience different emotions when playing this game, but my hope is that people feel that the music helps them to take them to that place.” I think it’s safe to say that he’s succeeded in that.

The Last of Us Part II

Nearly every aspect of The Last of Us Part II is a remarkable achievement, with the music certainly being no exception. The soundtrack, by co-composers Gustavo Santaolalla and Mac Quayle, oscillates wonderfully between the peaceful emptiness of an abandoned Pacific Northwest retaken by nature, and the stark violence that both Ellie and Abby find themselves engaged in throughout their dual downward spirals of vengeance. While the score does a fantastic job of enhancing the strong emotions of loneliness, fear, and anger that accompany the emotional story, it also has a soft side that props up those moments of love and hope that manage to sprout up throughout a hopeless world.

The Last of Us Part II also understands the important role that music can play in the grieving process. Guitars appear throughout the game as a sort of totem — it’s literally the very first and very last image of the game. They act as solemn reminders of the things shared between Joel and Ellie, and the things that were left unsaid. The bonds that their love helped fuse together, and the wounds that their lies and anger and unwillingness to forgive kept torn apart. It’s because of this that no single lyric of a song featured in a game in 2020 resonated as fully as that of “If I were ever to lose you, I’d surely lose myself.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Hitting the Nintendo Switch just at the start of the pandemic, millions of us associate the colorful life simulator with the unsure days and weeks of a strange new world. While we had little say over what was happening around us, Animal Crossing gave us some modicum of control over our quaint little islands. And through every hour of the day, Kazumi Totaka’s music was there to accompany our joyful chores.

Unlike so many of the other selections on this list, many of which cultimate with the fates of their characters or respective worlds, Animal Crossing’s gameplay is relatively calm and mundane, and its music perfectly reflects that. I think The Washington Post put it best when it described the music as an “unlikely lullaby for a nervous world.” I love how the music morphs throughout each hour of the day while maintaining its core structure — it’s worth paying a nighttime visit to your island just to hear the chill beats that hit from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Of course, no discussion of Animal Crossing’s music is complete without mentioning everyone’s favorite wandering canine troubadour, K.K. Slider. Having him finally visit my island after spending hours and hours building up the place to earn a three star rating felt like a major accomplishment. Despite my weekly playtime waning over the past few months, I still find myself popping in on the occasional Saturday evening to attend his show. After all, if he’s going to the trouble of playing, it seems only fair that I come to listen.

The Pathless

It’s fitting that a game about creation, old gods, and an island that seems to exist as a singular point in the universe has a soundtrack drawing inspiration from styles across the world. Helmed by Austin Wintory, whose score for Journey remains one of the my favorite in video game history, The Pathless implements what he calls a “global jam band,” fusing the musical traditions of Tuva, Scandinavia, China, Eastern Europe, Mongolia, Appalachia, Western Africa, and hints of the Middle East. The result is one of the most moving and inspirational soundtracks of 2020.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of The Pathless’ score is also its most subtle. The music changes and reacts based on your actions in the world. The energy speeds up as you gain momentum and glide across the vast expanses, becomes more dangerous and aggressive while in combat, and seems to quiet down as you take in the breathtaking views from massive heights. In a way, it feels like there’s an orchestra in your living room, reacting and adapting to your every decision.

Persona 5 Royal

For me, few games are as inextricably linked to their soundtracks as Persona 5, and 2020’s Royal rerelease only reaffirmed that. There’s a propulsive energy to the sounds that Shoji Meguro and his crew of talented artists created for every facet of the game. Despite hearing the battle theme hundreds, if not thousands of times throughout the 125 hour adventure, I somehow never grew tired of it. It gels perfectly with the sleek character animation, stylish menu layout, and bombastic combat effects, all working in unison to create one of the very best battle systems in JRPG history.

Every single track in Persona 5 is effortlessly cool. From the moody vibes of exploring Tokyo by myself on rainy nights, to the free-flowing jazz that accompanies your trek down the various layers of Mementos, to the impossible energy of “Rivers in the Desert” that plays at the culmination of one of the game’s excellent Palaces, Persona 5 Royal’s soundtrack is deep enough to find the right track for any of the game’s countless situations, no matter how fantastical or mundane.

Spiritfarer

While a lot of the games on this list were being hyped up for years before their eventual release, Spiritfarer was one of the most sudden and wonderful surprises of 2020. The latest game from Thunder Lotus had a surprise launch following its appearance on a Nintendo Indie World broadcast in August, releasing on most platforms and Xbox Game Pass. It quickly became one of my favorite games of the year for a whole mess of reasons, one of which being Max LL’s wonderfully ethereal and dreamlike score.

So much of Spiritfarer is spent sailing across the world from one island to another, engaging in any number of the peaceful tasks that help you slowly build out your vessel and strengthen your bond with your crew. As such, having the beautiful score there to accompany you on your long voyages across the sea is crucial to the game’s success, especially in how it adapts to the tasks at hand. Catching lightning bolts in the midst of a thunderstorm, chasing bugs, and stumbling across the strange floating salesman all come with their own beautiful and fitting music. But the most powerful moments come whenever you visit the Everdoor alongside one of your companions to share one final moment together before they cross the threshold into whatever lies beyond. And of course, Max LL’s wonderful music is there to accompany you every step of the way.

Sackboy: A Big Adventure

Of all the wild and unexpected things to come from 2020, having a PS5 launch game feature Britney Spears’ 2003 opus “Toxic” as a centerpiece to one of its best stages might’ve been the one thing that absolutely nobody had on their bingo cards. But sure enough, Sackboy: A Big Adventure’s kitchen-sink approach to everything — including its strange and wonderful soundtrack — brought forth a constant barrage of familiar classics, yet somehow managed to have them all gel into one cohesive package.

Sackboy’s soundtrack pays tribute to the wonderful work that came before it in the LittleBigPlanet series, while also expanding in every direction imaginable. Each stage seems to bring something new and fresh to the table, and the music zigs and zags in the same way. There’s the wonderfully-adventurous original score, which morphs in tone as you journey to each new themed world. The unexpected-but-fitting covers of everything from Madonna’s “Material Girl” to “Fly Me to the Moon”. And then the handful of stages whose platforming challenges are built specifically around songs by David Bowie and the aforementioned Britney Spears that make you feel like you’ve been dropped into an interactive music video.

Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero has had one of my favorite soundtracks to one of my favorite games for the past decade, ever since I first played Act I in early 2013. Cut to 2020, and the full game is finally complete, with its soundtrack still being one of the most haunting, evocative, and perfect scores to accompany any game in history.

I’ve never been able to come up with the words that describe Kentucky Route Zero better than Laura Hudson did for Wired earlier this year, writing, “Imagine for a moment that the next Great American Novel was created in the 21st century as a point-and-click adventure game, woven out of Southern Gothic fiction, magical realism, and a techno-mystical understanding of hyperreality. Imagine it is a tragic ghost story about the American Dream where the ghost is the American Dream; the tragedy is that it keeps haunting America because it doesn’t know it’s dead.” Honestly, that’s probably my favorite bit of writing about video games in all of 2020.

If Kentucky Route Zero is a dream, then its music by Ben Babbitt is the ephemeral residue once you’ve woken up, distilling all of the impossible magic of the experience into sounds and emotions.

Ghost of Tsushima

Everything about Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima feels cinematic. There’s the obvious inspiration and homage of the iconic samurai films of Akira Kurasawa. The classic three act structure to not only Jin’s story, but also the story of those around him. And the meticulously beautiful framing that occurs throughout countless battles, side quests, and quiet discoveries. So it’s fitting that all of this is accompanied and strengthened by a score by dual composers Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi that is equally grand in its cinematic nature.

There are so many moments throughout Tsushima where I found myself alone on the island, alongside only the beauty of the game’s score. It follows Jin and grows with him as he embraces the true moniker of the ghost. What’s more, the music doesn’t just help flesh out Jin, but also everybody else around him. From the regal orchestra backing Lord Shimura, to the melancholy strings of Lady Masako, to the trembling percussion of Khotun Khan, every living creature in Sucker Punch’s world is strengthened thanks to the tremendous score.

Hades

A straight line of natural growth and progression can be drawn from the tone, story, and gameplay of Supergiant’s games over the past decade. From Bastion, to Transistor, to Pyre, and now Hades, the developer’s mission statement seems pretty clear — meld every single facet of both the art and design of a game into a single cohesive unit. And nowhere is that more clear than in Hades and its excellent soundtrack by Supergiant’s musical stalwart Darren Korb, with vocals by the wonderful Ashley Barrett.

The music in Hades has a chill, almost rambling quality while you’re slashing through mobs early on in an area. It helps you get into a rhythm as you’re clearing out chambers and growing your arsenal of boons and powers. But the music quickly gains mass, pulling in electric guitar and industrial drums. The pace quickens and the edges sharpen as you make your way to the tougher rooms in one of the circles of Hell, ultimately culminating in a frenetic parade as you go face-to-face with one of Hades’ excellent bosses. And on the off chance that you manage to defeat one of the nasty adversaries, you’re greeted with a momentary calm, and a chance for you to catch your breath.

The music does an excellent job of transforming during the other non-combat moments of Hades as well. Ashley Barrett’s cutting vocals on “Good Riddance” provides a Supergiant staple — a song that exists diegetically in the world of the game when you stumble upon the character Eurydice. But eventually, we all circle back around to hearing the opening twang of “Final Expense”, which plays whenever you die and return back home. And each time, it feels like you’re being greeted by an old friend.

Marty Sliva
Marty Sliva has been writing about video games, popular culture, and the 1995 film Babe professionally for the past decade. You can follow him on Twitter @McBiggitty.

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