With Assassin’s Creed Valhalla: Dawn of Ragnarok and composer Stephanie Economou winning the inagural Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media, we’re re-running our November 2022 feature that looked back at old gaming compositions that could have won this award.
Among the new Grammy categories announced by the Recording Academy this year, two stood out as long overdue: Songwriter of the Year and Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media. As opposed to the existing categories for visual media such as film and television — where in the past, a few video-game scores have managed to win — the key distinction for this new gaming-exclusive category is interactive: at least two-thirds of musical tracks nominated need to be used in game, live-action play, or during the cinematics of a video game or any interactive media (for AR, VR, and portable devices). That’s right, the future gritty Angry Birds VR reboot could now win a Grammy. Of course, in typical Grammys fashion, this category announcement was met with praise, frustration, and questions: Does this new section honor a distinct style of music, or does it really just keep it from competing with its more “serious” peers across the Grammys field? Is the music of Final Fantasy good, or is it good … for a video game?
Many gamers and musicians would argue that a video-game Grammys category would have made sense as far back as 1987, when Nobuo Uematsu, often called the Beethoven of gaming music, composed his highly influential and still compelling 8-bit score for the first Final Fantasy game using Famicom’s limited hardware that could only sample up to three MIDI sounds at a time (the rough equivalent in movies would be, say, filming Inception on an iPhone). Three decades later, the multimillion-selling Final Fantasy franchise recorded its 15th mainline game score with a full orchestra at Abbey Road and featured new music by Florence + the Machine. Meanwhile, the years in between have been fruitful with some of the most beloved and recognizable sounds in popular culture: Tetris, Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Halo, Resident Evil, Elder Scrolls, and the Soulsborne series have all produced memorable sonics.
But what makes video-game music great in the first place? Even as most big-budget titles have evolved into more cinematic fare, scores must still fulfill some requirements: They have to reflect and flesh out a game’s atmosphere and tone, and they need to be able to loop for as long as a player interacts with the game. The best ones — the triumphant gallantry of Zelda, the frantic rush of Sonic, the dark elegance of Metroid — not only enhance the playing experience in real time but also stand on their own to capture what it feels like to play the game long after it’s over.
To celebrate the new category, we’ve decided to honor the last ten years of video-game-music selections with fake Grammys. To keep it simple, we’re focusing on a game’s initial North American release within a calendar year and choosing actual musical scores and original music, not just great licensed songs. (Sorry, GTA.) We’ll note the actual year the Grammys would have been awarded for the games that came out within the previous calendar year (i.e. the 2014 Grammys honoring the best scores of 2013). And remember, this is the Grammys, where “best” often means “biggest” or “most well-connected within the industry.”
1. The Last of Us
2. BioShock Infinite
3. Rayman Legends
4. Batman: Arkham Origins
5. Gone Home
WINNER: The Last of Us
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: The Last of Us
By 2013, the gaming industry was one year into its eighth console generation. During this change-of-the-hardware vanguard, the Grammys could have gone in two directions: reward bombastic and expensive-sounding soundtracks like Batman: Arkham Origins or BioShock Infinite. Or praise unexpected scores like the minimalist music of Gone Home. Gustavo Santaolalla’s very somber score for The Last of Us goes the former route; it doesn’t get more big-budget than hiring the Oscar-winning composer behind Babel and Brokeback Mountain. Though the game itself is now overwhelmingly praised (and will soon be adapted into its own HBO series), it’s easy to forget how unexpected its success felt back in 2013. Its haunting score played a huge role in that, perfectly reflecting the desperate post-Americana setting. This push and pull between familiar and groundbreaking — and the few games that accomplish both — will be a timeless Grammy theme that we’ll see again on this list.
1. Mario Kart 8
2. Shovel Knight
3. Monument Valley
4. Dark Souls II
5. Child of Light
WINNER: Mario Kart 8
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Monument Valley
Mario might be the U2 of the Grammys: an institutional figure who’s going to snag a nomination no matter what. But it’s not a bad pick; I challenge anyone to find a more joyful jam than Kart’s thrilling start-screen music, which feels like Frank Zappa riding a blue shell into The Eric Andre Show. It’s also more in line with the Grammys’ tendency to play it safe or go chaotic evil. Shovel Knight’s deserving score is likely too retro and familiar to stand out to voters, while Child of Light isn’t chaotic enough. And though Monument Valley’s music is stunning, it’s too ethereal to beat out everyone’s favorite plumber. Speaking of institutions, the Dark Souls games usually have gloriously grand scores that set the mood for their abstract worldbuilding. In this fictional retelling of Grammys past, Hidetaka Miyazaki would be an industry icon whose work will always get nominated. It’s just a shame then that Dark Souls II happens to be the least-beloved game in the series.
2. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
3. Ori and the Blind Forest
4. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
5. Halo 5: Guardians
WINNER: Ori and the Blind Forest
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Undertale
In hindsight, Toby Fox’s soundtrack for Undertale might be one of the most beloved scores on this list among actual gamers (like Uematsu’s earliest Final Fantasy music, Fox creates an entire universe with very little). Few soundtracks have inspired as many hours of internet breakdowns over its creative use of leitmotifs and chordioids. Unfortunately, it would likely be too off-kilter and ironic to win a Grammy. We’re then left with three big-budget franchises that all sound too alike. With The Witcher, Metal Gear Solid, and Halo splitting the votes, Ori and the Blind Forest and Gareth Coker’s wholesome Avatar-like naturalistic scope snag the golden gramophone.
1. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
2. Stardew Valley
3. Final Fantasy XV
WINNER: Final Fantasy XV
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Stardew Valley
2016 is a year that reminds us that the Grammys often feel like a glorified popularity contest. The Pirates of the Caribbean–like bombast of Uncharted 4, the classic heavy metal of the revived Doom, and the “Halo, but zoomer” orchestral vibes of Overwatch were massive before they came out, while Stardew Valley became a genuine hit in part due to its gentle and wholesome lo-fi score that reflected the gameplay. But among video-game music, Final Fantasy is too big to fail. Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack is quite good, for what it’s worth, and has a bit more sonic diversity than previous orchestra-heavy entries, thanks to its fun use of American blues and bossa nova. Also, for any Grammy voters on the fence: Hello, Florence + the Machine.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
2. Persona 5
4. Super Mario Odyssey
5. Hollow Knight
WINNER: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Everyone
The year the Nintendo Switch debuted might be the strongest year on this list; Breath of the Wild, Persona 5, and Cuphead are some of the best video-game scores of all time, and Mario and Hollow Knight are no slouches either. In fact, 2017 is so stacked that we didn’t have room for Nier: Automata, What Remains of Edith Finch, Horizon Zero Dawn, Destiny 2, or Monument Valley 2. At this point, it feels silly to give more praise to Breath of the Wild; earlier this year, IGN named it the greatest video game of all time. Yet BotW’s score is that good. Its sparse and naturalistic approach to composition — YouTuber GetMadz called it “horse pianos” — perfectly captures the jarring serenity of Link getting lost in a once-active civilization slowly being reclaimed by nature. This music is genuinely gorgeous. It’s the obvious choice.
1. God of War
2. Tetris Effect
4. Red Dead Redemption 2
5. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
WINNER: Red Dead Redemption 2
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Red Dead Redemption 2
What does Woody Jackson’s Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack have that no other soundtrack here does? D’Angelo. Sure, God of War and Celeste probably have more meaningful music within the context of their games, but it doesn’t matter; the Grammys won’t pass up an opportunity to have D’Angelo perform. Maybe he can bring out José González and Colin Stetson, too.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
2. Death Stranding
3. Kingdom Hearts III
4. Devil May Cry 5
5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses
WINNER: Kingdom Hearts III
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Kingdom Hearts III
Because nothing is more Grammy chaotic evil than awarding the most batshit Disney-owned property ever. Unfortunately, this is a weak year for other games that voters might be familiar with. (If you can find someone who isn’t a game critic and has played Death Stranding beyond its tutorial, Vulture will mail you $20.) Kingdom Hearts III’s take on the series’ classic theme “Dearly Beloved” is beautiful, Hikaru Utada’s “Face My Fears” is one of Skrillex’s most compelling tracks in years, and Yoko Shimomura’s top-line melody is more memorable than the rest of this year’s competition.
1. The Last of Us Part II
2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
3. Cyberpunk 2077
4. Kentucky Route Zero
5. Final Fantasy VII Remake
WINNER: Cyberpunk 2077
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Anything except Cyberpunk 2077
If the pandemic never happened, 2020 would still be an important year in gaming. This was the official kickoff to our current ninth console generation with the launch of the Xbox Series X and Series S and PlayStation 5. It was a big year for scores, too — so big that we couldn’t fit Hades, Psychonauts 2, It Takes Two, Ghost of Tsushima, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the PS5 Demon’s Souls remake, Doom Eternal, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. The soundtracks nominated here, though, are genuine classics. The Last of Us Part II builds upon familiar earthy sounds to new levels of dread and reward. Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ soothing score probably got you through lockdown. Final Fantasy, once again, is Final Fantasy. And Kentucky Route Zero is not only one of the best scores on this list but one of the best albums of the 2010s. So, of course, Cyberpunk 2077 would win. Because the Grammys will count on Keanu Reeves making an appearance to accept the award for the one aspect no one remembers from this overhyped pile of expensive garbage. Music’s biggest night!
1. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
3. Death’s Door
4. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart
5. NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139 …
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: Sable
If Bowser’s Fury was an entire game and not just a DLC, it would win. And as videogamedunky argued before, everything about Ratchet & Clank is a blast in the moment and forgettable one day later. The winner then goes to Sable, an indie game that benefits from being scored by Japanese Breakfast. What easily could have been minor background music turns out to be her strongest collection of ambient pop songs yet; in an interview with Slate around its release, Michelle Zauner said the game’s ending theme “Better the Mask” was her favorite track she had ever written. This time, Grammy voters won’t have to feel guilty about rooting for a familiar name who deserves the win.
1. Elden Ring
2. God of War Ragnarök
4. Horizon Forbidden West
5. Nobody Saves the World
WINNER: Elden Ring
WHO SHOULD HAVE WON: We’ll see!
2022 is still technically in progress, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see the multimillion-selling Elden Ring take home the win just for being so big. Also, its score feels like a million bucks; this is the kind of sweeping orchestral brooding that’s perfect for the Grammys and the Oscars. But the just-released God of War Ragnarök is no slouch either, as it deepens the previous game’s epic take on Norse mythology, while the AAA-tier Horizon Forbidden West could sneak a win for not being as overwhelmingly bleak as its competition (it’s this year’s The Rings of Power to Elden Ring’s House of the Dragon). We also can’t knock the ’90s Björk-like score for Nobody Saves the World by Jim Guthrie, the composer behind the much-beloved and innovative score for 2012’s Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP. Throwing in the ethereal Tunic as well as the fun dark horse that sounds like Uncut Gems’ more well-adjusted little brother. It’s anyone’s game.