The Grammy Awards, which annually recognizes the year’s best in music, has finally added a dedicated category for Best Video Game Score. This comes just after 8-Bit Big Band won an award for Best Arrangement with their version of “Meta Knight’s Revenge” from Kirby Super Star. The award is a long time coming, but given just how much video game music the Grammy’s have missed out on recognizing, we figured we could do what the Recording Academy won’t and hand out these belated awards for the past ten years.
Here are ten games that should’ve taken home the Best Video Game Score award in their respective years.
Thatgamecompany’s Journey is an excellent showcase for how musical themes are part of storytelling. In the above interview with Polygon, composer Austin Wintory talks about the iteration required to arrive at Journey’s final song, “Apotheosis.” It contains the same melody present in multiple songs heard throughout the game and is a masterclass in composition alongside game design. The song ebbs and flows in-line with what the player is doing in Journey’s final moments, all coalescing in a minimalist, isolated cello performance of the game’s primary theme by Tina Guo.
It’s a stunning, orchestral… journey, and would have been well deserving of recognition had the Grammys caught up to that ten years ago. It’ll just have to settle for being the first ever video game soundtrack to have gotten a Grammy nomination.
2013: The Last of Us
Gustavo Santaolalla’s ambient, folky score is what underscores so many of The Last of Us‘ most effective moments. It invokes visions of the game’s dilapidated world, its overgrown cities, and the connections made between Joel and Ellie along the way. The somber piano in songs like “The Way it Was” — which plays while the two walk through the remains of a quarantine zone — or the gentle, distorted guitar riff of “Home” convey both the weary end of a journey and the underpinning angst of distrust.
The Last of Us‘ score is a series of quiet undertones elevating the emotions of the moment. While there’s a conversation to be had about the merits of the upcoming remake, the score is one of the things I’m eager to see recontextualized in the PlayStation 5’s new coat of paint.
2014: Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze
Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze is one of the most underrated and underappreciated games of its time, and David Wise’s score is both a fun throwback to earlier DKC games (with remixes of beloved songs like “Aquatic Ambience”) and a delightful accompaniment to its frenetic action. It’s a notoriously difficult game (especially before the Nintendo Switch version introduced Funky Mode), but the music offers ambience and chill moments when appropriate, as well as plenty of energy when the game requires you to be on your feet the most. Like the rest of the game, it is colorful, vibrant, and endlessly re-playable.
There just isn’t any other real choice for this year, is there? Despite everything, it’s still Toby Fox’s score. It’s hard to ever forget “His Theme” once you hear it, but there are tracks that tug on your heartstrings almost just as much — battle themes included. It’s difficult to imbue emotion into battle themes, where the goal is to fill the player with adrenaline to overcome the fight ahead.
But Undertale never exists on just one plane. It revels in making you cry as you dodge an enormous laser of rainbow light or laugh as you avoid getting hit by the tears of a socially anxious ghost. It makes you feel more than one emotion at all times, sometimes even unsatisfied unless it makes you feel like you’re experiencing all of them at once. Its soundtrack is an embodiment of this determination to constantly surprise and delight through a plethora of genres.
There is no better soundtrack to kill the minions of Hell to than DOOM’s. This headbanging battle anthem was created by Australian composer Mick Gordon, who masterfully captured everything that encapsulates DOOM’s aggressive tone and relentless gameplay into a single score. A mix of synth and heavy metal, this soundtrack is utterly thunderous in its delivery. From the overwhelming power of “At Doom’s Gate” to the foreboding crescendo of “Incantation,” Gordon doesn’t use his music to bludgeon players over the head but rather to punctuate the high-octane action sequences.
Of course, we aren’t alone in praising DOOM’s soundtrack, as it has won myriad accolades from The Game Awards, D.I.C.E. Awards, and SXSW Gaming. So unless the Grammys wants to be ripped and torn asunder, it should probably just give DOOM an award already.
2017: Persona 5
It’s no surprise that Persona 5 would end up on this list. You definitely saw it coming. The JRPG wasn’t hiding beneath a mask. The Grammys should’ve woken up, gotten up, gotten out there, and recognized Shoji Meguro’s soulful, jazzy take on a score. Persona 5’s gotten a fair amount of new tracks over the years through its spin-offs and Royal, but there’s still something about the first time you initiate a fight and hear the strings in “Last Surprise” come in and Lyn’s spectacular vocals soar over the chorus.
The theatrics of Persona 5’s stylish presentation are captured in every song, whether that be in the bustling drive of “Life Will Change” as you head into the depths of the Metaverse to steal a villain’s heart, or in the rainy, dreary nostalgia of walking through Tokyo as “Beneath the Mask” lingers over the city. Persona 5’s soundtrack is sublime and deserves a Grammy, goddammit.
Florence isn’t as grand as most games on this list, but its small story has the same emotional highs and lows of any RPG or action game. Kevin Penkin’s music is intrinsic to Florence; in tandem with mechanics and art, it tells a story that isn’t spoken in words.
It accompanies the mundane of grocery shopping, the joys of discussing your hopes and dreams with a lover, and the frustrations and anguish of when those hopes and dreams come crashing down. But in songs like the concluding “Wake Up, Moving On,” it embodies the game’s story of finding yourself in the wreckage left behind and realizing that what you find there can be just as beautiful as what once stood. Florence’s score helps it stand tall against games a hundred times its size.
2019: Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers
Final Fantasy XIV’s soundtrack deserves a nomination every time an expansion is released, but Masayoshi Soken and his team have particularly knocked it out of the park with Shadowbringers and Endwalker. It’s impossible not to consider Shadowbringers as one of the greatest JRPG soundtracks in existence, especially since it played a great deal in how the Shadowbringers expansion elevated FFXIV to be the biggest MMORPG right now.
The list of standouts is endless — the main theme; the ethereal vocal masterpiece that is “Tomorrow and Tomorrow”; the bombastic “To The Edge”; the heartbreaking ticking clock present throughout the entirety of “Neath Dark Waters,” a song that never fails to make me cry. There are so many more. Though the soundtrack — through the heavy and consistent presence of rock — embodies the darkness that the Warrior of Light must embrace to save the people of Norvrandt, it is incredibly diverse. That diversity serves to not only introduce you to a beautiful world worth saving, but also capture the range of emotions this expansion takes you on.
2020: Paradise Killer
When I tell you that “Paradise (Stay Forever)” by Epoch and vocalist Fiona Lynch hits harder than Paradise Killer’s mystery, it’s because Kaizen Game Works’ open-world murder mystery has a banging soundtrack. Even as I type this, I’m listening to “Lady Blue” and just grooving in my office chair.
Its brilliant blend of pop, jazz, and funk encapsulates the game’s pop art aesthetic, and even if I didn’t love the game’s open-world structure, I’d stay in that world to hear more of this soundtrack. Epoch and Lynch were gracious enough to bless us with a full album of B-sides earlier this year, which is a must-listen for the vocal version of “To The Heart” alone but is equally full of nonstop bops. Paradise Killer deserves a Grammy for Best Game Score.
2021: Boyfriend Dungeon
I can’t believe the biggest conversations around Kitfox Games’ dating sim/dungeon crawler hybrid was about content warnings, when we should’ve been talking about Boyfriend Dungeon’s soundtrack. Marskye and Madeleine McQueen created the perfect pop album that brings the game’s city of Verona Beach to life.
From the danceable banger of an opener in “Diamonds” to the melodic reflection of “Waves,” Boyfriend Dungeon’s soundtrack is nothing but bops filled with lyrical metaphors that weave love and weapon-wielding together, intertwining the romance and combat into its musical framework. Thankfully, we’re getting even more music from the duo with the game’s upcoming “Secret Weapons” DLC, so I’m ready to put that shit on repeat for another year.
This list was made with help from Fanbyte’s Natalie Flores, Collin MacGregor, and Danielle Riendeau.