Soundtracks can help make or break any game, MMORPGs included. When I think of my favorite moments from any game I’ve ever played, music is a huge part of those memories. From the rousing iconic melody in The Elder Scrolls Online’s main theme to the electronica soundscapes of EVE Online, soundtracks can help set mood and tell a story. Over the history of MMORPGs, many games have sought to create iconic themes and sounds to stand the test of time. Here are 10 of our favorite soundtracks from MMOs past and present.
WildStar, while it wasn’t long for this world, lives on in the hearts of many of its most ardent supporters. The soundtrack is one area where those who wish for its return can reminisce on the world that was. The ethereal-turned triumphant log-in music is stuck in my mind forever, starting with a solitary French horn yet turning into a rousing brass section featuring trumpets, trombones and more. All the while the flamenco guitar sits in the foreground, rousing the player amidst the electronica flairs, playing well to its Wild West/Sci-fi feel. It sets the tone for what was a rather unique MMO.
Pearl Abyss’ Black Desert is hard to describe. It’s ethereal, almost eerie sounding in spots, with moving trombone pieces that help to pump one up during battle. Yet also features a choir adding to the “Medieval-lite” flair the developers were going for when composing the soundtrack. What we’re left with is a great mix of relaxing music to write or study to when we’re not in Black Desert, or rousing songs to push us towards victory in that next node war. It’s an odd mix of floaty guitar, penny whistle and French horn on one track to a Gothic choir surrounded by a cacophony of low brass sound the next. It definitely will keep you on your toes, however, every time you stop and pay attention to it while beating up on Red Nose that next time.
Guild Wars 1
Guild Wars is written by game composer Jeremy Soule, who has created some of the most iconic game soundtracks in history, especially his work on The Elder Scrolls series. That legacy is alive and well in Guild Wars. The opening motif of the “Overture” is simple, yet powerful: seven rising and falling notes on strings, accompanied shortly thereafter with a powerful French Horn section, Soule is setting the tone for what your ears can expect to hear in the countless hours spent running around Guild Wars’ world. It’s powerful, yet fragile. Exhilarating, though still restrained enough to not dominate the moment when the music swells in-game. It’s a mood that is heard throughout, consistently conveying the world around you through its audioscape in a way few other MMOs can.
If there was one game where the type of music fits the gameplay, EVE Online’s electronica-fueled ambiance is that game. It can be chill, framing your ears with subtle notes when simply mining space rocks, yet it can pick up when the action does around you. EVE’s music, which is rooted in almost an EDM quality at times, reminds one of the futuristic setting of New Eden. Gone are the French horns and classical instruments of the previous sountracks, in their place is a heavy reliance on synths. It sets a mood, though its soundtrack isn’t the only music EVE Online’s developers bring us: make sure you save some space in your library for their in-house band: Permaband. Remember: Killing is just a means of communication.
Look, I know Genshin Impact isn’t strictly an MMO, but the more my daughter plays it with her friends, the more and more I'm hearing the soundtrack. And it’s soundtrack is phenomenal. It’s opening notes on a traveling harp and humble flute set floaty and whimsical tone that gives way to more haunting titles later on (see “A Storm, A Spire and A Sanctum”). Each new addition to the game gets a new set of music, helping to tell the story of that new area. Inazuma’s theme plays into its Japanese influences perfectly, with Shakuhachi flute and koto leading the way. It’s a great way to spend an afternoon when you can’t log into Genshin yourself yet want to feel immersed in the world.
Star Wars: The Old Republic
Star Wars: The Old Republic draws upon the exciting and amazing music from the film franchise, sticking to the musical framework laid down by the legendary John Williams. And it helps convey that setting in a way no other game likely can. Music is so intrinsic in how we think of Star Wars that composer Mark Griskey should be commended on retaining the essence of what makes the movie music so great. SWTOR’s music, recorded at Skywalker Sound, reminds me intrinsically of a galaxy far, far away every time I hear it grace my speakers.
The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online’s music continues its series legacy quite well, capturing leitmotifs from the mainline single-player series and translating them well into the MMO. The opening theme of the iconic from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind find their way into each expansion soundtrack, instantly reminding players that while this might be a multiplayer game, it’s an Elder Scrolls one through and through.
The music team at ZeniMax keep this up by including call-backs to Elder Scrolls past in the music, while creating a whole new soundscape for ESO fans to enjoy as well. Songs like “Dawn gleams over Cyrodiil” hearken back to music from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, while places like Daggerfall are full of unique and original songs to enjoy while questing. ZeniMax Online has done a stellar job of embracing the series’ past while still ensuring that the MMO feels unique in every way – notably its music.
Final Fantasy XIV
Final Fantasy XIV has some of the best music in any video, full stop. It’s a game in a series that is a hallmark for gaming music excellence, so it’s not shocker that the MMO would follow that tradition. Each soundtrack for the various expansions tell a story, one which composer Masayoshi Soken has told perfectly each outing. The mixture of legendary Final Fantasy composer Nobuo Uematsu and Soken early on blends the old style that has made Final Fantasy’s scores stand the test of time with Soken’s vision for XIV so beautifully that it stands on its own as some of gaming’s best music, period.
I swear to God, too, Square Enix needs to release an EP of the Endwalker trailer music, I’m pretty sure I’ve listening to it about 10,000 times since its release.
The Lord of the Rings Online
Music and Middle-earth cannot be separated. The Ainulindale tells us that Middle-earth was literally created through song, the Music of the Ainur. Chance Thomas had huge pressure on him to create an iconic soundscape for Middle-earth in the wake of Howard Shore’s incredibly iconic work on the movie trilogy.
And man did Thomas knock it out of the park. I might be biased as LotRO is my personal favorite MMORPG, but the music of The Lord of the Rings Online is among the best an MMO has to offer. The whimsical flute letting you know you’re near the House of Tom Bombadil is often living rent free in my mind throughout the day, and the strong, yet harsh choir that make up the Dwarvish chanting in any of the music to do with Durin’s folk is fantastic. The Shire is equaled in its tranquil green fields by its fun, lyrical strings and flute music in the background. Yet LotRO’s music can be sad, forlorn, such as the initial opening of “The Song of the Dwarves” on the 10th Anniversary soundtrack. It’s a fantastic soundtrack encapsulating Middle-earth well indeed.
World of Warcraft
World of Warcraft’s main theme is one that will stand the test of time in the annals of MMO music. It’s a theme I would find myself whistling even before I stepped foot in Azeroth for the first time. Throughout its more than a decade history, World of Warcraft has seen some spectacular music grace its world, particularly its Wrath of the Lich King expansion.
The different music elements that go into telling the story of the Alliance and Horde help to set the tone for each side of the conflict, giving them unique soundscapes to listen to while questing. Warcraft games in the past also help to influence the music that has shaped the MMORPG over the years, as well as the setting. Mists of Pandaria’s Chinese influences come through in its instrumentation just as much as the visual impact Pandaria leaves on the player. The other-worldly vibes in the Shadowlands help to tell the story of each of the various zones and covenants. Blizzard’s MMORPG is a defining point in many ways for the genre, and its ability to create iconic and stellar music throughout the years is one of those features that help the game stand the test of time.