Halo: Reach

As a musician who likes to play and talk about video games, I spend a lot of time thinking about music in games. A soundtrack can make or break a game, so I wanted to give some shoutouts to five games that I think did it best. These picks are all my own opinion, of course, but I’m still supporting those opinions by explaining the elements that really make these soundtracks work for me.



Fez, on top of having an amazing soundtrack, is also just a wonderful game.

In so many ways, the soundtrack matches the basic design concepts behind Fez. This is a game that blends the old with the new — it’s a 2D game in which you can flip the world around in a 3D space. The soundtrack captures this by having a sort of grainy, chiptune-ish feel mixed in with all sorts of other sounds, including more modern synth sounds, 808s, and ambiance. The lo-fi, distorted elements also play into the glitchy aspects of the gameplay, like the the game crash that’s part of the story or the glitch room.

I want to highlight what might be my favorite moment in Fez, which goes with the track “Sync.” I’ve shared a video below, which you can check out if you don’t mind me spoiling one of the game’s hidden areas.

You might wander into this area and be completely caught by surprise. It feels like the best sort of reward for exploration — it’s more rewarding than finding all the cubes in the game. Here, your curiosity leads you to a completely novel experience. You’re taken to a musical level that evolves as you navigate it. The pink platforms are synced to the music, and the music follows you as you progress. It’s an unforgettable experience.

This soundtrack has range, too. There are serene moments. There are scary moments. There are exciting moments. At times, there may be no music at all, just the sounds of the world around you. And it all still fits together, feeling like a great blend within the context the game.



If someone brings up Hades in any context, I am tempted to talk their ears off about it. If you are interested in an analysis of the game as a whole, check out Mandi’s Hades article from last year. Here, I just want to cover the soundtrack.

Of course, you can’t talk about the Hades soundtrack without talking about the song “Good Riddance.” First, please check out my friend Joey’s banjo cover of the song. Joey also wrote a bit about it on Half-Glass Gaming as well, in case you want to know more about his thoughts on the song. He mentions the wonderful moment when you have this peaceful song come in out of nowhere between fighting enemies through the Greek underworld.

I’d add the observation that this song emphasizes the themes of death and the afterlife, which Hades is all about. Also, we need to talk about the three versions of this song. I found a YouTube comment that explains it well:

So there’s some music theory being applied here in a brilliant way – there’s a concept called relative keys being used to evoke the different moods for Orpheus and Euridyce.  The progression is in D minor, but Eurydices melody resolves to its relative major of F major, with the major melody over minor progression evoking a peaceful mood.  By contrast, Orpheus is singing Eurydice’s melody with most notes shifted down two notes in the D minor/F major scale, putting the melody in D minor (same as the chords).  This pure Aeolian minor sound is somber and lonely, in contrast to Eurydices peaceful rendition.  This puts the two melodies two scale tones apart, which is the most common interval for creating choral harmonies.  That leads to the grand conclusion that when the two are sung on top of each other, you get something greater and more beautiful than the sum of it’s parts.  I’m amazed at how well Supergiant was able to tell the entire story of these two more through just this song than any of the dialogue, it’s fantastic songwriting.

Orenda Music on YouTube

This user got the key wrong, but the theory still stands. 

But that’s just “Good Riddance.” There’s so much more great music beyond that. There’s also “Lament of Orpheus,” which is just chilling.

And there’s “Hymn to Zagreus,” which Orpheus will sing after a side story in which you prank Orpheus by telling him a bunch of lies.

I haven’t even delved into most of the instrumental soundtrack yet. There’s just so much here, like how the music will ramp up and have more layers (such as a guitar and a synth lead) while you’re fighting enemies, but when you’re alone in a room, the music drops to base elements like just some muted drum beats or a single bass line. Or how there are several remixes of songs throughout different periods of the game (like how there’s a battle version of shopkeeper Charon’s theme.)

Like Fez, Hades‘ soundtrack is a blend of the old and the new, though Supergiant’s approach is completely different. In Hades, the blend of the old and the new is more like using a lyre along with synth leads. Or bouzouki and electric guitar.

There’s plenty to gush about, and I’m sure there’s a lot I didn’t cover, but these are some of my favorite things about the Hades soundtrack.

Halo: Reach 

Halo: Reach

A lot of people will probably question my choice of Halo: Reach over Halo 3. And in some ways, I can relate to that sentiment. “One Final Effort” is the ultimate version of maybe one of the most recognizable songs in modern gaming.

For me, trying to pick a favorite Halo soundtrack is like picking a favorite child. Every one (by Martin O’Donnell, at least) is amazing for what it is. And ultimately, the decision comes down to nostalgia. Halo 3 was my first Halo game, really, and I have a lot of great memories of playing that when it was active. Even so, I spent way more time playing Halo: Reach. So, naturally, the menu music alone has emotional resonance.

But I’m still going to back up my emotionally swayed opinion with evidence. Call it confirmation bias if you will; I just call it making an informed decision.

Let’s start by dissecting the Overture (the menu music I shared above). We have the classic vocal chorus over symphony instrumentation. We have the main “bada ba pada” theme that comes back throughout. There’s the simple string B section that pays homage to the main chant that we Halo fans all know and love, while mixing it into the two-chord variations that appear throughout the game.

And then there’s “Lone Wolf,” the first song you hear when you start the campaign.

I learned this one on piano!

Some of this is pretty much the same as the Overture, but I wanted to mention that the variations on the basic two-chord melody that starts here and comes in through the game is stunning. Starting with a few notes, this chord progression evolves through the game, creating epic variations, somber variations, and more cool and ponderous variations on that basic two-chord structure. I’m not going to embed every variation here, as some of these songs are like 20 minutes long. So, I guess you’ll have to take my word for it or play the game for yourself.

Even though each of the franchise’s soundtracks is good for what it is, I think that Reach has the most range. As Master Chief, you’re killing literal armadas of invading aliens and destroying weapons of mass destruction. Naturally, a grand composition fits this. In Halo 3: ODST, you’re solving the mystery of what happened to your team alone at night. A quiet, minimalist jazzy soundtrack is perfect for the Mombasa Streets level when you’re playing alone as Rookie. But Reach is ultimately a tragedy. Your epic moments are blended with dark, noisy chaos and somber sendoffs. We have stealth music, upbeat music, epic music, and a lot of understated moments as well. It all rounds itself out.

Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

aper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door

Now we’re swirling further down the nostalgia drain, and I’m throwing in my favorite game of all time, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. If I were attempting to make a more objective list, I think The Origami King actually has the best Paper Mario soundtrack. I mean, the Autumn Mountain theme is stunning. And the singalong sections are adorable.

But this is not an objective list. Again, The Thousand Year Door is my favorite game ever. And it’s my favorite more because of my own personal memories and experiences playing it than because it’s objectively good. That being said, it is still very good, and you should play it.

Anyways, there is one specific scene that makes me cry, and I’ll share it below (though note that there are heavy spoilers in this video).

I bring this scene up specifically because it’s another great example of the music fitting the game perfectly. The song is childish and naïve, but also joyous and triumphant. It’s sentimental in the way that the whole game is, and it happens in a moment of support from everyone you’ve met.

And there’s just so much. I’ve talked about variety and range, but this game is on another level. We have “Rogueport Sewers.”

We have “Boggly Woods.”

We have the theme for the Doopliss fight.

And of course, there’s the main theme.

And these are just a small sample of the variations on these themes that highlight each chapter. The soundtrack adds another level to the world-building and overall tone of each area. Every chapter of the game is basically its own contained story, though they do fit together to create a larger narrative picture. But you may be a detective in one chapter and a pirate in another. The soundtrack fits every adventure the game is willing to give us, yet the whole manages to have its own distinct and consistent sound.

The childish quirkiness is maybe somewhat irritating to some, but I applaud it for being so distinctive. I mean, what other soundtrack uses twangs, squeaks, and chirps the way Paper Mario does? None. And it’s cute and fun, but at times ambient, or spooky, or sad.

Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V - Radio

I almost went for SSX 3 over Grand Theft Auto V. I really did.

Don’t get me wrong, SSX 3 also has a great soundtrack. It’s basically like a really good early 2000’s DJ set that adjusts to sync with the gameplay, such as muting some frequencies while you’re doing tricks in the air. Also DJ Atomica is great, and getting updates on the mountain conditions and the story from him as you go is part of what made it such a standout snowboarding game.

But the quality of the radio system in Grand Theft Auto V is undeniable. While plenty of other games feature an in-game radio system, such as the Fallout and Far Cry games, as well as the aforementioned SSX franchise, GTAV has my favorite one. This is a game in which you can get into a car and just flip on the radio, and all the songs are jams. Loading up GTAV and driving around aimlessly to listen to its music is actually a kind of calming experience.

In fact, I wish the radio in real life could be this high-quality. Every station has a definitive sound or genre, but each one has something good on it. A lot of these are artists I listen to already, but there are also a whole bunch that I’ve discovered simply because they were in this game.

The country station is even primarily classic country. The radio DJs are all extra and kind of jerks in the way that people are in GTA, but the genre stereotypes do work. Radio Mirror Park is my favorite, and the hipster DJ on that station is also pretty funny.

Another station that needs to be mentioned: FlyLo. Do you like Flying Lotus? Well, he has a whole station. The station isn’t all his music, but he is on a lot of tracks on there, and he interjects with his own DJ commentary.

Another thing: while not all of the tracks were specifically made for the game, there are a lot that were, and by some major artists as well. Twin Shadow has a few songs for GTA. “The Setup” by Favored Nations is a straight banger.

“Garbage” by Tyler, the Creator, is very fitting for Grand Theft Auto‘s gameplay and the sort of world that Los Santos is.

On the subject, having music made specifically for the game further establishes the world as a parody or adjacent reality to the real world.

Also, I do love that every car you use or steal has a preset station based on the car or the character. The main characters have favorite channels, but then even a random speedy motorcyclist is listening to EDM, whereas truckers generally listen to country music. This excruciating level of detail is what makes GTA (and all of Rockstar’s games) feel so full and vibrant, even if relies on stereotypes to do so.


I know there are some pretty major soundtracks missing from this list, but these were the ones that had the biggest impact on me. These are pretty different from each other in a lot of ways, but all of these soundtracks work to expand the game worlds they accompany. And that’s exactly what a good video-game soundtrack should do.

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