Within the gaming community, there has always been an enormous focus on presentation in gaming. In the early days when we all loitered around the arcades, visuals weren’t exactly the primary focus on gamers. They wanted a reasonably visually appealing set of pixels that offered a satisfying gameplay loop and little else. However, as games have become more complex and the industry has grown exponentially, gamers have consistently been asking for more refined visuals, seamless world design, perfect lighting, and flawless character models.
For the most part, the many developers out there have done an astounding job. However, I think it’s about time we gave sound designers, composers, and musicians behind indie video game soundtracks some time in the spotlight. Without a killer soundtrack, a potential masterpiece would simply feel incomplete.
There are so many indie games out there that offer amazing soundtracks. A lot of which I tend to play in the background when I write to spur me on, which is indeed the case at the time of writing. These soundtracks help to portray the game’s core themes and tone, and serve as a backing track for the events of the game. These can be used to fill the silence, used to evoke certain emotions, they can be used to create ambient noise which adds tension, and that only really scratches the surface of the possibilities.
In short, a soundtrack is essential if you want to create a complete and fully realized video game, and the indie genre has offered its fair share of incredible soundtracks which would rival AAA studios with the funds to hire full orchestras and industry big wigs like Nobuo Uematsu or Jeremy Soule, to name a few.
Well, thanks to this laundry list of soundtracks out there in the Indie landscape, I thought it would be cool to run through some of the most incredible melodic assortments out there, and showcase why they take their respective games to new heights.
I aim to provide you with a potential playlist full of the most incredible indie gaming tracks out there, and with any luck, it might convince you to revisit these games with a pair of high-quality headphones! Without further ado, here is my guide to the Best Indie Game Soundtracks of all time.
Before we jump into the tunes and start bopping, I want to lay down a few ground rules so that this list is as fair and comprehensive as it possibly can be. So here are some rules to ensure a list that is made up of Indie bangers only:
- The games listed must be indie games. So no AAA titles, no AA titles, and no pseudo-indie titles with huge publishers behind them
- No indie games that have brought in a renowned AAA video game composer; that’s practically cheating
- Only games with full soundtracks will be included. No games with popular single tracks and little else
- No repeat composers
Okay, now that the music police have clocked off, it’s time to get into this list. Here are the best indie game soundtracks listed below!
#1 – The Outer Wilds
- Composer: Andrew Prahlow
- Top Track: Timber Hearth
- My top Track: Timber Hearth
We begin proceedings with what is hands-down one of the calmest, most serene, and inviting soundtracks within the world of gaming, and that is Andrew Prahlow’s Outer Wilds soundtrack. When tasked with creating a soundtrack that is supposed to accompany an exploration around an entire pocket galaxy, Andrew didn’t go with grandiose, interstellar-style orchestras, or a choirs harmonizing in the background.
Instead, he scaled things back and used lots of acoustic guitars and banjo-heavy tracks to create a feeling of wonder and exploration at the beginning of the adventure. This is most prevalent in tracks like Outer Wilds, 14.3 Billion Years, Travelers, and my favorite, Timber Hearth.
Then Andrew proceeds to offer atmospheric tracks like The Sun Station, Space, and End Times which marry together the emptiness, the endless possibilities, and the fascinating nature of space travel and discovery. However, this sense of wonder does give way to tracks that showcase the dangers of space and the perils that lie within this tiny universe. This is most prevalent in tracks like Castaways, and Dark Bramble.
Then lastly, you have those euphoric tracks that swell to a climax and create moments to treasure in-game like We Have Liftoff and Final Voyage. Overall, this soundtrack is a triumph, emotive, atmospheric, and there are even a few catchy riffs in there for good measure. So next time to start this one up, close your eyes for a second and just take in the audio. Just don’t stop for too long; you only have twenty-two minutes after all.
#2 – Journey
- Composer: Austin Wintory
- Top Track: Nascence
- My top Track: Apotheosis
Now, just to let you guys behind the curtain, I love Journey. I have a little traveler tattoo on my arm, I listen to this soundtrack regularly, and I love Austin Wintory’s work. However, my feelings aside, Journey’s soundtrack deserves its spot on this list on merit.
If you don’t believe me, maybe consult the game’s long list of audio accolades. Austin Wintory is also known for his excellent work on Banner Saga, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and The Pathless, but before that was his crowning achievement so far, Journey.
This soundtrack isn’t just a series of backing tracks; it’s a story, the story of life. This soundtrack conveys the curiosity of life’s beginning in Nascence, The Call. Then moves onto the fluttery, confusing yet exciting teenage years in Threshold.
Then comes the upbeat and exciting times of being an adult in the big bad world in The Road of Trials, followed by the stark reality check of Temptations and Descent. Then comes the redemption and the coming of age in tracks like The Crossing and Reclamation. Then coming of age gets more literal in tracks like Nadir, where we succumb to the elements.
Then finally, we have the euphoric tracks such as my top pick, Apotheosis and I Was Born for This, where we rise up to the heavens and begin the cycle all over again. Then these tracks are tied together with the five confluences, which serve as a moment of crossroads and the decisions we make in our lives.
It’s a very introspective experience just listening to these tracks in sequence, and when enjoyed while playing through the game itself, it’s genuinely one of the finest pieces of art ever crafted.
#3 – Hotline Miami
- Composer: Various Artists
- Top Track: Hydrogen
- My top Track: Miami
Now we have a soundtrack that wasn’t pulled together by a single composer, but instead curated and formed by some of the most talented electro-synth musicians out there. The mix of sounds and approaches to this 80’s synth-wave-inspired soundtrack are incredibly diverse, and that’s what makes this soundtrack so unique.
You have the killer beats that come from M.O.O.N., Who, for me, is the best artist in this line-up, hands down. Then you have the Zany, wavy sounds of Scattle backing him up, followed by more incredible retro-synthwave hits from Perturbator, who smashes it out of the park with the track Miami Disco.
Other highlights include the trippy, daydream-inducing tunes of Jasper Byrne, who produces my standout track creatively named Miami, and Elliot Berlin kicks in with their peculiar polka-synth tunes too. The only track I didn’t vibe with was Sun Araw’s Horse Steppin’, but I do accept that it’s meant to be unsettling by design.
All in all, this is an aggressive, fast-paced, beat-heavy soundtrack that perfectly blends with Hotline Miami’s high-octane killing sprees, and if you slip a few of these into a party playlist, I’m sure even the non-gamers in attendance will appreciate these tunes.
#4 – Celeste
- Composer: Lena Raine
- Top Track: Resurrections
- My top Track: First Steps
For those of you unaware, Celeste is one of the best modern platforming games ever crafted, marrying together the challenging, fast-paced gameplay of titles like Super Meat Boy, with a compelling story that raises awareness for the epidemic that is depression in our society.
If you peel back the layers, you realize that Celeste is more than just a simple platformer, and the soundtrack does a lot to cement that perspective. Lena Raine’s assortment of incredible tunes helps to convey the perfect tone and emotion depending on which stage of Madeline’s journey you are battling through.
Whether it’s the hope and optimism of my top track First Steps, the eerie and unsettling vibes being dished out in tracks like Spirit of Hospitality, or the high-octane push to the top of the mountain in Reach For The Summit, Lena does a great job keeping the player engaged and offering catchy piano-based and chiptune melodies throughout.
It’s another soundtrack that tells a story when played in sequence, and if accompanied by Madeline’s trials and tribulations when trying to scale Celeste Mountain, it serves as the perfect backing track for your successful climb.
#5 – Spiritfarer
- Composer: Max LL
- Top Track: What Will Leave You Behind
- My top Track: At Night
This one is perhaps one of the less talked about soundtracks on this list, and that’s probably due to the understated nature of Max LL’s approach. However, if you have played Spiritfarer and understand the tone, the themes, and the focus on bringing comfort to those coming to the end of their journey through life, you begin to understand just how perfect this assortment is.
Through the use of interesting instruments like the Sitar to offer raspy notes to accompany the more traditional piano and strings, or tracks that utilize a blend of high-pitched and low-pitched woodwind to offer a curious and mysterious vibe. Max LL keeps things feeling light and breezy, while still regularly reminding the player that this is indeed a game where the main subject matter is death.
If I had to describe this soundtrack to someone, I would say that it’s like something pulled straight out of a Studio Ghibli film, and that’s very much in keeping with the overall tone of the game. It’s a soothing soundtrack with tonnes of tracks that you can imagine waking up and doing a big, satisfying stretch to. Max LL does a terrific job making light of death while giving it the respect it deserves, and that’s what Spiritfarer is all about.
#6 – Hollow Knight
- Composer: Christopher Larkin
- Top Track: City of Tears
- My top Track: Reflection
Now moving on from a comforting soundtrack to one that seems to ooze gloom and dread in pretty much every track, but in the best way possible. Christopher Larkin’s Hollow Knight soundtrack is one that helps convey the hopelessness and sadness of the people of Hallowsnest. However, the soundtrack does a great job of also conveying the hope that lies within these people too. Not to mention the grandeur and the brilliance of the setting within this game.
This is perhaps best showcased in City of Tears. The soundtrack ebbs and flows excellently, offering solemn tracks like Dirtmouth, Soul Sanctum, and my top track, Reflection. Yet still offering upbeat, intense tracks that serve as the backing track for brutal boss battles. Tracks like Mantis Lords, Hornet, and Dream Battle do this excellently.
Through the blend of tranquil strings like harps, a series of chiming instruments, and traditional violin and piano, Larkin manages to craft somber, atmospheric, and emotive tunes that tell a story of a forgotten city and the supernaturally plagued residents within.
The harsh and unforgiving nature of Hollow Knight’s gameplay certainly makes it a compelling game to play, but it’s the setting, the crisp visuals, and the powerful auditory selection that make this one a world-beater.
#7 – Furi
- Composer: Various Artists
- Top Track: Make This Right
- My top Track: My Only Chance
Much like the Hotline Miami soundtrack, Furi offers an aggressive electro selection to accompany its fast-paced, high-octane, exclusively boss battle gameplay format, and it seems that when you go with this approach, you can’t just have one guy on the job; you need a whole bunch.
In this line-up, you have Carpenter Brut, who is known for his unique brand of relentlessly aggressive range of beats, swelling reverb, and synth piano melodies. Then you have Waveshaper, which offers a much more laid-back approach with more wavy, low-tempo synth tracks that remain intense, without being quite as in your face.
Then you have The Toxic Avenger, who brings another fresh approach to the soundtrack with a series of tracks that rely on consistent beats, with perfectly timed injections of high-pitched notes to keep things interesting. It kind of sounds like gunfire in a nightclub at times, which, while not cool in reality, is really cool in this soundtrack.
However, the star of the show for me is the artist named Danger, who offers a series of tracks with a unique blend of swelling long notes, pulsing beats, and heavy distortion to provide a series of killer tracks throughout, with 6.24 being my pick of the bunch from him. Overall, another electro-synth assortment with no off-ramps, perfect for when you have to chain fight bosses, right?
#8 – Undertale
- Composer: Toby Fox
- Top Track: MEGALOVANIA
- My top Track: Shop
When it comes to the Undertale soundtrack, the story of its development is almost more impressive than the body of work, and that’s saying something as this soundtrack is one of the best chiptune assortments ever made. Toby Fox, a self-taught musician, not only created this entire list of one-hundred and one unique tracks all on his own. He also created every other aspect of this game single-handedly.
It’s basically the story of Bob’s Game if Robert Pelloni was in any way talented. But enough rambling, let’s talk about these tunes. The Undertale soundtrack offers a wide variety of themes, all created in a chiptune style which does an incredible job of conveying the motives of the characters, the actions on screen, and the emotions that Toby wants the player to feel.
Take tracks like Once Upon a Time, Uwa!! So Temperate and Fallen Down, that draw the player in and showcase the mystery of this new world you have fallen into. Then you have more silly tracks like Unnecessary Tension, Ghost Fight, Nyeh Heh heh! and Dating Start! that provide comic relief, which is not something that’s easy to convey through a game’s soundtrack. However, Toby manages it, and then gives them ridiculous names such as Can You Really Call This a Hotel, I Didn’t Receive a Mint on My Pillow, or Anything, for example, which showcases that Toby doesn’t take himself too seriously if nothing else.
Then how can we not talk about MEGALOVANIA, the boss battle theme with Sans that has become a globally recognized tune, and a bit of a meme in its own right with loads of creators remixing the song in, let’s say, rather interesting ways. Overall, Undertale’s soundtrack is varied, simple yet complex, humorous, self-aware, and most importantly, it’s full of bops from start to end.
#9 – Florence
- Composer: Kevin Penkin
- Top Track: Music
- My top Track: Wake Up, Moving On
Here’s one for those in the know, as while Florence is a great narrative-driven game, it perhaps falls into the ‘Hidden Gem’ indie category. Kevin Penkin puts together a soundtrack that couples together with Florence’s touching, sad yet beautiful story to offer a backing track that will hit you right in the feels.
I would go out on a limb and say that this soundtrack is perhaps the most traditional and conventional of all those listed here. I mean, if you through this soundtrack into an art-house film, it would be fit for purpose. However, it’s rare that you see an indie video game take that approach and avoid turning to chiptune, or lesser-used instruments to stand out.
Penkin’s soundtrack offers a no-thrills approach with an assortment of strings and piano that help tell the story of this modern woman’s life-changing event that happens beyond the realms of their phone’s screen and social media. This bold move to offer a pure and true soundtrack with no gimmicks is why this list of tracks stands out.
In a sea of generic piano concertos and squealing violins, Florence’s soundtrack shines brightest, with tracks like Music, Memories, and my top pick, Wake Up, Moving On, being the standouts here. This game is only forty minutes long, and you can even play it on your phone, so what are you waiting for?
#10 – Stardew Valley
- Composer: Concerned Ape (Eric Barone)
- Top Track: Stardew Valley Overture
- My top Track: Summer (Trocicala)
Let’s be realistic; as a Stardew super-fan, this was always going to pop up eventually. The Stardew Valley soundtrack is something that lives within me always and has made appearances in plenty of my core memories. This soundtrack even had a place in my wedding as Matthew Bridgam’s take on Spring (It’s a Big World Outside) played as my beautiful wife walked down the aisle.
In short, this is one of my most treasured soundtracks, but I know I’m not the only one. Eric Barone does an excellent job of crafting a handful of tunes for each season that capture the themes and feelings of each time of year. He creates a series of tracks for each key location that gives the player an impression of what to expect.
Whether it’s the sleepy twang of the Pelican Town track, the zany and otherworldly feel of the Calico Desert, or the ominous and often silent tracks that play in the mines, what I’m getting at here is that every key moment within this game has a suitable backing track that often creates a sense of comfort, keeps things upbeat and jovial, or oozes a sense of wonder, urging players to explore.
If you want to know how good this soundtrack is, then listen in close. I have considered on a handful of separate occasions buying the official vinyl for this soundtrack, and I don’t even own a record player. So hopefully, that was the endorsement you needed to jump into this seminal indie game.
#11 – The Artful Escape
- Composer: Jonny Galvatron & Josh Abrahams
- Top Track: The Banks of The River are Lined With Gold
- My top Track: Folk Sci-fi Bedroom
Okay, so let me make this clear. I do not like The Artful Escape, not one bit. I made that much clear in my review on this very site. However, what I can’t take away from this interactive space opera is that it looked great, and it sounded even better. That is to be expected of a game that aims to be a rock opera, but you still need to provide the goods, and this composing duo does just that.
It’s exactly what you would expect in places where rock operas are concerned. There are plenty of crazy guitar riffs and solos, and long notes that no doubt would accompany piercing beams of light if this was a stage show.
However, there is a surprising amount of variety here, with folksy songs like The Banks of The River are Lined With Gold. Sleepy tunes like my favorite, Sci-fi Bedroom, and a handful of funk-inspired tracks like Hyperion Welcome and The Lilypad Drunk Funk.
Listen, I am in no way recommending that you play this game, but if you are going to, if you enjoy this one purely as a spectacle and regularly close your eyes to drink in the instrumental assortment on offer, you might just get something out of this game, if you can even call it a game.
Let’s stick with interactive space opera, shall we?
#12 – Cuphead
- Composer: Kristofer Maddigan
- Top Track: Floral Fury
- My top Track: Die House
Then to wrap things up, we take a trip back in time to the 1920s, where Vaudeville music was in its heyday, as cuphead’s modern take on retro animation uses an equally retro musical assortment to do the visuals justice. The mix of high tempo, soulful and eccentric tunes is incredibly powerful and helps set the scene perfectly.
When the jazz-inspired tunes kick in with the brass band, it makes you feel like you are at one of Gatsby’s parties, and you should be swinging your limbs around with careless abandon. Then when things dial down and get a little bit more low-key, it makes you feel like you are in a dank, smoke-filled Jazz club with an old-fashioned in hand, hiding away from those pesky cops still trying to enforce prohibition.
Tracks like Clip Joint Calamity make you want to hop right out of your comfy gaming chair and do the Charleston, whereas other tracks like Botanic Panic and Funfair Fever feel like they have been lifted straight out of an old Steamboat Willie short.
Overall, Maddigan does a stand-up job making this soundtrack a time capsule made for modern-day gamers. It’s a trip to the past we never knew we needed, and if you haven’t witnessed the whimsy of this soundtrack with the infuriatingly hard levels within Cuphead, I implore you to give it a bash.
Honestly, I could have gone on forever when it comes to indie soundtracks that I would love to serve as the backing track to my own life. However, there are only so many hours in a day, so how about I leave you with the best of the rest below, and you can let me know if you feel these soundtracks should have squeezed into the top fifteen. Here are my honorable mentions:
- Cave Story
- Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
- Hyper Light Drifter
- Loop Hero
- Baba is You
- Sayonara Wild Hearts
- Kena: Bridge of Spirits
- Disco Elysium
- Katana Zero
- Chicory: A Colorful Tale
Question: What is Chiptune Music?
Answer: To put it simply, it is pre-recorded sounds created by a computer that was primarily used during the 80s and 90s when producing video games as this would save storage space which would be primarily used for essential files needed to run the game. While music still played a role back then, without the files that made the game what it was, the game wouldn’t have been able to exist, so musical scores tended to be simple by design. However, even with these limitations, a lot of chiptune soundtracks sound incredible, and even today, we see plenty of developers embrace this method of sound design.
Question: Who is the Most Prolific Indie Game Composer?
Answer: It’s hard to say, as their respective portfolios are all pretty impressive, but if I go out on a limb, I would probably give the accolade to Darren Korb (and Ashley Barrett), who have been responsible for most of the music present in Supermassive produced games like Hades, Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre. My reasoning here is that time and time again, they smash it out of the park with back-to-back projects, so they would probably be the most prolific and reliable artists in the field.
Question: Who Had the Best Indie Soundtrack In 2021?
Answer: If we go by the nominees at The Game Awards 2021, then the only indie included in the ‘Best Music and Score’ category was The Artful Escape. So I suppose it would have to be that one. Just for those wondering, the other nominees were Nier: Replicant, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Deathloop, and Cyberpunk 2077, and Nier: Replicant took home the award.
A Treat for the Ears!
As you can see (and hear) from the list of soundtracks above, the indie scene is rife with incredible composers, talented musicians, and their work does so much to make your favorite indies that much more special. I know that, personally speaking, I could have lost interest in a few of these games and missed out on a fantastic experience had the soundtracks above not been as incredibly well put together.
I hope that this list has highlighted just how important a soundtrack can be, even in a low-budget indie game, and I hope I have inspired you to boot up some of these modern classics. As always, thank you for reading Indie Game Culture.
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