The Soundtracks That Build a World

Listening to 'Dishonored' and hearing how its music helps form the foundation for its themes.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Hi, I’d like to talk to you about a small game you may have heard of called Undertale.


I think I mention Hyper Light Drifter at least every other post on this website but whatever I’ma do it again, because I clicked with that game more than any in recent memory. Maybe even more than BotW? Maybe.

Before I committed to buying the game, I would listen to this track from the first trailer (and the opening cinematic) a lot. It’s called Vignette: Panacea (already setting out some of the themes, of sickness and of moments of illumination), and it’s a lovely mix of crunchy Disasterpeace synths and a haunting piano melody (that’s even a little bit bitcrushed it sounds like?).

The world of Hyper Light Drifter is beautiful, almost peaceful in places, but still decaying, and there’s a dark core running through the remains of civilisation, eating it out from the inside. The soundtrack captures this perfectly.


Kentucky Route Zero, Fez (another Disasterpeace masterpiece), Sword and Sworcery


My favorite world-building soundtrack came from Shardlight, from WadjetEye last year. The soundtrack features this one particular guitar or bass sound (it’s some plucked string instrument) with a sort of leitmotif in every scene, but it’s minimally used, and a lot of the rest of the game is either background silence or ambiance, so I almost didn’t notice the music until I had completely finished the game. Whenever I think about it now, the music, which matches the setting, atmosphere, and story in tone, cannot be divorced from my memories of the game. It just slipped in there somehow and completely defined my experience in Shardlight.

From memory, I probably couldn’t sing you any of the themes from this soundtrack, but they all exist in the back of my mind whenever I think of it.

Okay fellas, let me tell you about a little game called “Marc Ecko’s Getting Up”. An absolute mess of a game centered around graffiti culture and sticking it to the man in the grizzly fictive metropolis og New Radius (basically new york). The story is incredibly silly and features some downright cringy voice acting from pretty much everyone involved. But the soundtrack? Oh man, what a soundtrack. Slathered in old school boom bap beats drawing heavily from the playbook of everyone from Wu-Tang clan, Biggie Smalls, Mobb Deep and sprinkling with oppressive trap beats, it encapsulates EVERYTHING the game wants to invoke in terms of atmosphere. Sporting some of the greatest MC’s of all time in Rakum, Pharoahe Monch, Del Tha Funky Homosapien and Talib Kweli among others, it hits the mark in a way that I quite frankly think is astounding and utterly without peer when it comes to games drawing on hip-hop culture.

In short, the game is okay, the story is kinda bad, but the soundtrack is absolutely unfuckwithable.

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Since Undertale and Hyper Light Drifter have already been rightfully acknowledged, let me introduce you to the supremely underrated Pokémon Mystery Dungeon crossover/spin-off series and its incredible soundtracks.

Specifically this game—Explorers of Time—was the first game OST I ever listened to outside the game itself. The individual dungeon themes do an incredible job of building atmosphere and providing a backdrop for your exploration, while the cutscene tracks, musical stings, and recurrent motifs are absolutely essential to how emotional these games that. Narrative is a weak thread in main series Pokémon games but the PMD series actually has some really emotional and memorable stories about companionship, loneliness, and coming-of-age in endangered or dying worlds. And their soundtracks carry a lot of that emotion with reprises and leitmotifs in much the same way that Undertale’s does. Actually, my first thought upon hearing Undertale’s music and seeing what it did with musical storytelling was, “wow, this feels a lot like PMD.”

On another note, I have to bring up Shovel Knight as well, which is second-to-none in the modern-retro-chiptune department.

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Nier and Nier Automata’s OSTs are essential to the games’ experiences. They wouldn’t be the same without Okabe’s beautiful motifs and amazing compositions. The fake language that Emi Evans invented for the series give the world building so much flavor and individuality that makes it feel distinctly “Nier.” I have nothing but good things to say about. I can’t even post a favorite track, it’s so hard to choose!

Lol I’m lying it’s this one:


Gotta majorly agree with this. Probably the best video game soundtrack I’ve ever heard. The game and its physical and emotional worlds wouldn’t be what it is without such a masterful score.

On a more low-key level, the new Hollow Knight harnesses its soundtrack like a finely tuned Ghibli film. I don’t think it works as well as HLD’s does as a standalone work, but within the game it’s pretty damn remarkable. Every time I think of an area like Fungal Wastes and Forgotten Crossroads, I immediately think of their theme music.


(by NightMargin)

LISA: The Painful:

(by Widdly2Diddly)

Hellblade, Senua’s Sacrifice:

(by Andy LaPlegua of Combichrist)

Beyond these games, the soundtracks from Abzu, Bastion, Battleblock Theater, Stardew Valley, Transistor, Earthbound, Secret of Mana, Legend of Mana, Super Mario, Chrono Trigger (and Cross), etc. I listen to more VGM that non-VGM because of the strong ties to particular moments and to each game as a whole.


Holy shit someone else remembers this game.

Semi-related, and I’ve mentioned this before, but Madworld also has a fantastic soundtrack which is tailor made to the game’s setting.


It stands together with Def Jam Fight For NY as the two gaming pillars that supported my mid-teens white boy rap face.

Def Jam is the faaaaaaaaar superior game, for the record.

Along that same line, Anarchy Reigns has an amazing OST that totally fits the setting the same way Madworld does!

For me, games utilizing good soundtracks leave lasting impressions. Play lavender town or Dearly Beloved and I’m reliving those worlds. My Spotify soundtracks playlist features some Life is Strange, Pokemon, and Dragon Age: Origins. It’s epicly eclectic. But one of my favorite jams is the music box from Fable 2. The melody is uncannily nostalgic. Love this post, sending good vibes.

God, I hadn’t heard this song since beating the game back when it came out and I just got goose bumps… So many memories.

Seconding Sword & Sworcery. If not for the music in that game I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it honestly. And I enjoyed it A LOT.

I’m really sorry to hear that Daniel Licht has passed away. I didn’t follow their work closely, but cancer is an awful way to go and my thoughts are with their family.

Redirecting to Rob’s question, while I haven’t played the original NieR, I think @eightbitsamurai’s pull is a good one, as well as something that applies very strongly to NieR: Automata. Constructing an original language is a great way to give a game a unique-feeling soundtrack.

Another game that, in my view, is hand-in-glove bound with its soundtrack is Persona 5. While I don’t feel that it’s a universally strong soundtrack, some of the songs work really well to embellish what’s in the game and make you feel like you’re in a bustling city. Both the standard day and night themes for moving about do a lot of work for me in communicating the feel of the game (whether being hidden in the mass or solipsistic suffering).


The base game of Dragon’s Dogma certainly has the perfect music to kill god to, but I think the real standout is the Dark Arisen DLC island, Bitterblack Isle. Sometimes mournful, sometimes oppressive, the music really sells the story of a failed hero, lost to despair and raging against the universe. This soundtrack is genuinely one of my favourite pieces of storytelling in any game. My definite favourite track is the final boss theme, which tells the story of the man he was while you fight the beast that remains of him:

It’s not quite the same as some of the other games being brought up here because it’s a licensed soundtrack, but one I think about a lot is Rebel Galaxy.

It’s a great example of a type of music I wouldn’t usually be into at all, but this game uses it so effectively that I’m in love it. Giant space capital ships slugging it out with broadsides while tracks like this are playing is just sublime. As soon as you hit the main menu, you know the game’s tone 100%.


For me, the biggest is probably Xenoblade Chronicles X.

Uh, yeah, uh, yeah, uh uh uh

Lol nah but really, the rest of the music outside the city is fantastic, in particular the battle music. There’s some seriously epic stuff in there. Even the weird gross sounding track just fits - it all matches with the world and it’s inhabitants so well.

Stardew Valley also does a fantastic job of providing seasonal tracks that fit perfectly with its rotating months.

@Jeverage hell yes, Rebel Galaxy just hits all the right notes in lifting that game! I never would listen to that outside of the game, but there, it’s perfect.