With all the explosions, action, and gorgeous graphics, it’s often easy to overlook one of a game’s most important aspects: its soundtrack. Adding emphasis and ambience, but also helping define the experience, soundtracks can make or break a game. In some cases though, they elevate games to a whole new level and even manage to stand on their own.

2016 saw some amazing games, but also some equally amazing soundtracks. From the emotional to the epic, here’s our run down of the best of the best.

Nominee – Stardew Valley

Alana Fearnall:

It’s almost impossible for a game to create a defined soundtrack that doesn’t take away from the experience the player has within the game.

ConcernedApe managed to do just that with Stardew Valley, creating an engaging soundtrack that would make it a crime to listen to other music while tending to your farm. With each season, different areas, and even times of the day having different sounds, you’ll rarely feel stuck in a loop with Stardew Valley’s music.

Although the soundtrack still adds so much to the game, it is incredible to enjoy it own its own, while doing another task. The ambience, and general feeling of visiting the country should persuade any gamer to pick up Stardew Valley.

Nominee – Dark Souls 3

Kim Phifer:

The music of Dark Souls 3 is meant to convey a great amount of emotion, and most of the time that emotion is terror. However, a lot of the soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful. The music in Firelink Shrine, one of the few safe places, leads you to believe that you can take your time, but also reminds you that it’s a dark, sad place.

The boss fight scores, on the other hand, are epic and building, quickly getting your heart racing. They tend to follow the speed and feel of the fights themselves. When fighting the Abyss Watchers, the music builds and swells with chanting as they close in on you, followed by quick violin that reminds you that it’s fast paced, and you aren’t safe unless you’re moving.

Dark Souls 3 is a beautiful game with music to match, and the scores are wonderful even when you aren’t being followed by a pack of dire wolves.

Nominee – Firewatch

Sean Timm:

For as beautiful as it is, it’s hard to argue against the fact that there isn’t really all that much to Firewatch. You live out the summer of a lonely watchman, walking through the forest and talking with your supervisor on the radio. As engaging as the dialogue is, there’s also a lot of the game where you are on your own, just walking. And that’s where the music comes in.

Subtle enough to play against the beautiful emptiness of the wilderness, but strong enough to provide a rousing backbone to your long treks through the cannons and along the trails, Firewatch’s soundtrack strikes the perfect balance. It adds to the sense of wonder and loneliness at the heart of the game, but never overrides it. A calming combination of acoustics, juxtaposed against just enough percussion and electrics to put a lingering unease at the base of your neck, it echoes the game itself in amazing fashion.

Much of the game’s beauty and scope comes in those long, speechless stretches. But the strength of the music is what lets that happen.

Nominee – Thumper

Christopher Graf:

The soundtrack to Thumper is a tremendous accomplishment, not only because it is entertaining to listen to, but because it is perfectly structured to go along with the gameplay. Each turn, skid, bumper, or boost that the player goes through during the game has its own sound to go along with it. Often, when getting stuck, the best solution is to actually listen to the musical patterns of the current track and it helps you stay on beat and get your timing for each move back in its place.

Playing through each level of Thumper gives you the rush of a racing game, while also making you feel like you are helping to create the music with each maneuver of your vehicle. It is that bond between music and game design that makes it so special

Winner – Hyper Light Drifter

Chris Parbery:

Few games have total synergy between their audio and visuals, but in Hyper Light Drifter the music is as much a part of the world as the visuals are. To say that Disasterpeace’s score mirrors the game’s world, or that it perfectly captures its feel, would be doing it a disservice. Rather, the score helps to make the world what it is. Just like the place you are exploring, the music is decayed, awe-inspiring, and somehow both ancient and futuristic at the same time.

Helping to establish the main themes of the game, the soundtrack seamlessly transitions from wistful to forlorn, and from calm to tense. And although Hyper Light Drifter is heavily inspired by classic adventure games from the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, its soundtrack is entirely unique. Disasterpeace’s score pays no mind to game music from that era, and the game is better because for it.

There won’t be any catchy songs stuck in your head when you’re done with the game, and you may not listen to the soundtrack on its own, but you won’t be able to think about the game without also thinking about the music, because they rely on one another to evoke their themes in a way that no other game has.

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