How do you create a memorable playlist for the emotional speedride so often offered in action-adventure games? This genre is the one that leans heavier on the side of “cinematic,” because it is a bit more focused than RPGs and more story driven than FPS games. (“Story in a game is like story in a porn movie: It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important,” Doom Lead Programmer’s John Carmack.)
This cinematic quality respects the vital nature of an evocative soundtrack that brings to life the characters, setting, and the emotion of a moment. With any luck, composers also crystallize a unique sound that is inseparable from the game’s experience, carrying the memory of it far past the playtime and into YouTube searches while you’re studying, working, or choring about whatever den you call your own.
Mosey about the list below to check out my top picks for the 10 best original action/adventure game soundtracks.
10. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
The first Naughty Dog action-adventure title on this list is a non-stop dash through the desert. Cinematic storytelling with thrilling brawls in bazaars, adrenaline-spiking plane dismemberment, and wrathful sea storms is deftly scored by composer Greg Edmonson.
“The Rub’ Al Khali” is a great example of the Arabian Nights feel that permeates from this soundtrack, a thematic pillar for the piece. Still, Edmonson isn’t afraid to chop up his symphonic cuts, as proven by the bellydeep basslines and breakbeat drums on “Reckless: Powerplay.”
Creeping apprehension of dungeon crawls sends chills up the spine during “Arachnophobia,” while “Pursuit” raises the stakes to life and death heights. Even still, tracks like “Something Better” pare down the orchestra to a simple classical guitar to drive home the serenity of a moment.
As a complete work, U3 has a soundtrack that is up to par with the Avengers-level stakes this game provides.
9. Silent Hill 2
Ok simmer down folks, I know that Silent Hill 2 is technically a survival horror game but I just couldn’t pass over Akira Yamaoka’s turbulent soundtrack, especially when the gameplay is composed of so many adventure game elements. Go listen to “Angel’s Thanatos” and tell me you aren’t immediately spurred into wanting to get into some action.
The music of Silent Hill 2 pierces the eardrums uncannily, because so often the games’ anti-hero James Sunderland walks in silence, or to the frightening sounds of monstrous gurgles and panic-inducing static. Tensions are set to panic-attack during “Ashes and Ghost,” which is of course played while you walk through a (mostly) deserted hospital.
Still, for a horror game the feelings expressed musically are fairly diverse. The nursery piano of “Promise (Reprise)” is sweetly sentimental, “The Reverse Will” has a groovy kickdrum to bob your head to, and “True” combines elements from both to create a sad but undeniably cool track.
8. God of War
Composer Bear McCreary sunk his teeth into this soundtrack, forging a massive musical experience that is befitting the new direction of the series. No longer is Kratos the human embodiment of untethered rage eternal. In the 2018 God of War, Kratos is a father, a mourning husband, and an aging relic in an unfamiliar Norse-inspired world.
The soundtrack weaves around these complexities, pumping out melancholic melodies to twist the aorta with a completely reimagined musical relationship between Kratos and this ruthless reality to raise his son in. Still, McCreary pays homage to the roots of the GoW series by retaining the bloodburning elements of previous titles: Bewitching choirs, bone splintering drum bashing, and berserker brass arrangements.
7. Grim Fandango
So far, this list has seen a couple grand orchestral scores with mighty victorious crescendos. Interludes of emotive strings begging serious reflection on behalf of the protagonist and player.
You know what this list hasn’t seen enough of? Straight up jazz, baby.
The 1998 Mardi Gras/film noir hit Grim Fandango is a standout here for multiple reasons. First, it is the only point and click adventure game to make the list. The second is Grim Fandango’s soundtrack, composed and arranged by Peter McConnell, is so far away from any other entry on this list.
Track after track of swinging drum snaps, wah-wah trumpets growls, bass line strolls and brief breaks of bebop and mariachi. Smooooooth, like the easy voice of Manny Calavera.It’s good to know the afterlife has such good musical taste.
6. Kingdom Hearts 2 (Final Mix)
Full disclosure, I’m one of those die-hard Kingdom Hearts fans that the internet gleefully loves to dump on. Erratic KH timeline criticisms aside, the one hill I will gladly die on for the series is the breathtaking soundtrack work by Yoko Shimomura.
A caveat: A decent portion of this album is original reworks of music from Disney movies such as Pirates of the Carribean, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Winnie the Pooh. On top of that, there is a perilous rendition of Final Fantasy VII’s “One Winged Angel,” that does the original immense justice. Due to these remixes, I have knocked KH2 a few spots back on the list as it does get into some grey area of soundtrack originality.
Even without these, KH2 delivers the goods. You’ve got hell-raising battle music in the form of “The 13th Struggle,” “Tension Rising” and “A Fight to the Death.” There’s evocative compositions such as “Dearly Beloved,” “Destiny Islands,” and “Roxas.” There’s even unexpected dips into rock n’ roll in the Gummi Ship battle anthem “Hazardous Highway.”
I could go on, this soundtrack has so many iconic themes and so few misses within a 2 hour long composition, that it easily breaks into this list.
5. Red Dead Redemption
John Marston is a man of few words and aggressive action. Fortunately, this American outlaw turned Federal agent has the Spaghetti-western influenced, cowboy cinematic music of the RDR soundtrack to tell his story for him.
This soundtrack by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson, (whose names even sound like they could be RDR characters) is the music of solo horseback riding across the Southwestern US desert, or fighting bandits atop a speeding steam powered train. This is the music of shootin’ whiskey, bustin’ broncs, brawlin’ in saloons. Of waking up to black coffee and hand rolled cigarettes, and dying by the gun.
Perhaps the most visceral effects of this album are created by the clever implementation of a variety of instruments. Campfire harmonicas, rattlesnake maracas, tribal shouts, dusty brass, tombstone bell tolls; many more Western tropes here all done impeccably. These are combined with a wealth of emotive pieces, sometimes led by tension-building strings or heroic electric guitar riffs and thumping drum breakbeats. Plus, the original songs by Jose Gonzalez and Jamie Lidell were perfectly incorporated into RDR, almost like an in-game music video.
4. The Last of Us
In a post-apocalyptic world with the optimism of a burning orphanage, or perhaps a mass funeral, The Last of Us delivers one of the most emotionally shell-shocking gaming experiences in recent memory.
This is aided entirely by desolate, overgrown environments, morally compromised characters, and a gutpunchingly poignant original soundtrack. Gustavo Santaolalla’s masterpiece was nominated for numerous awards the year the game dropped; praise often directed at the understated nature of the composition. Quiet, simple instrumentation with buzzy distortion creates aching echoes of the pain and despondency of the world Joel and Ellie traverse. It’s hard to say if the music slices into the heart of the player because of the events onscreen, or if the situations onscreen are rendered hopelessly oppressive because of the score. Either way, the whole experience is soul-crushing and I love every minute of it.
3. Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus is an experience that really blurs the lines between video games, cinema, and art. This is a game that eschews narrative breadcrumbs and dialogue, fully embracing storytelling through sound and setting.
The music here reflects the Beowulf-level clashes between the silent protagonist Wander and the 16 titanic Colossi, ferocious and epic. Colosseum level sound that then eases into soul-rending string arrangements and twinkling pianos as Wander dashes across the Forbidden Land with his only friend, the indefatigable horse Agro.
This is indisputably Kow Otani’s most famous video game composition, hard hitting and achingly serene.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Legend of Zelda is a longstanding series that remains true to a few consistencies. You always play as the vocally-challenged swordsman Link, the Kingdom of Hyrule is related in some way to the plot, and strong soundtracks keep the energy alive and running throughout the adventure. Shoutout to the genius level virtuoso compositions of Koji Kondo
Ocarina of Time was not my first Zelda game, but it was the one that felt packed with the most unforgettable tunes to accompany the beautiful settings and dramatic encounters of the game. Plus, the sheer variety of music styles keeps the exploration consistently rewarding. There’s exotic flamenco in “Gerudo Valley,” honky tonk ballads in “Lon Lon Ranch,” comical caveman jams in “Goron City,” mellow Carribean grooves in “Zora’s Domain,” and the classic ¾ barcarolle “Song of Storms.” The soundtrack also remixes many compositions from earlier titles in the series to incredible effect.
Plus, what other game soundtrack is strong enough to warrant remixes featuring Jay-Z, Clipse, Busta Rhymes, Aesop Rock, and more?
1. Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight in so many ways resembles a soul stirring opera performance, a sort of bug-infested “Ring of the Nibelung.” There is a staunch hero battling wicked monsters, an imaginative stage to immerse the viewer in the underground world, and above all else, a divine symphonic masterpiece to drive the story forward.
Composer Christopher Larkin was charged with bringing memorable character to the often-solemn lands of Hallownest, while also spiking players adrenaline during the many ferocious battles of the game. With a small troupe of instrumentation, Larkin was able to breathe glorious life into every moment of this game, a life of roaring triumph and mysterious intrigue. While there are tweaked leitmotifs tying many of these tracks together, each track sports its own colors of emotion without ever becoming anything less than utterly engrossing.
From start to finish, this album is a phenomenal accompaniment to a masterful gaming experience. Plus, with the recent drop of some of the music off Hollow Knight: Silksong, I couldn’t be more stoked for what tunes are in store for the sequel.
One of my favorite parts about writing these articles is being able to put into words the all-consuming love I have for the soul-enriching quality of strong gaming soundtracks, but not only that, I also reach out to friends for their favorites. This leads to this beautiful connection, bonding over a shared passion for this artful component of video games.
If at the end of all this, you check out just one of these tracks and find a winner, well, we’ve connected as well! Not bad for the typically contentious nature of a ranking article.