Sound is incredibly important in video games, both for conveying information and influencing the player’s mood. Video game history is packed with memorable tunes, from Tetris‘ rearrangement of Russian folk song “Korobeiniki,” to the iconic Super Mario Bros. theme, to Untitled Goose Game‘s innovative use of Debussy’s “Préludes.” Yet while instrumental tracks are by far the most common, some of the best video game songs also include vocals.
Early video games didn’t have the technology to include music with lyrics, limiting 8-bit games to compositions of chiptune beeps and trills. But an impressive catalogue of vocal video game songs has formed since then, many of which are more than capable of standing on their own.
Here are some of the best video game songs that feature vocals, listed in chronological order. Beware: There will be spoilers ahead.
1. ‘Snake Eater’ from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
If your video game’s opening cinematic is going to be inspired by James Bond films, it needs to include a dramatic theme song. 2004 stealth action game Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater does not disappoint. Written by Norihiko Hibino and crooned by Cynthia Harrell, the bombastic “Snake Eater” wouldn’t be out of place in any Bond film, which feels thematically appropriate considering the game is about a super spy.
“Snake Eater” is also played during a lengthy scene in which the player climbs a very tall ladder. Steadily climbing a ridiculously tall ladder for two minutes doesn’t sound like a fun video game moment, but the song made it one of the celebrated game’s most memorable sequences.
2. ‘Baba Yetu’ from Sid Meier’s Civilization IV
One of the best parts of Civilization IV is the sound of “Baba Yetu” playing over the menu screen, which is saying a lot. The turn-based strategy game was universally lauded upon its release in 2005, and still holds up today even after the release of subsequent games in the series.
Composed by Christopher Tin and originally performed by the Soweto Gospel Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, “Baba Yetu” was the first video game song ever nominated for a Grammy, winning Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) at the 2011 awards. Its Swahili lyrics are a translation of the Lord’s Prayer, and the song has since been performed by numerous choirs around the globe.
3. ‘Still Alive’ from Portal
“Still Alive” is an obvious inclusion on this list. The game song that launched a thousand memes, Portal‘s credits track encapsulated the puzzle platformer’s deadpan humour and brought the game to a satisfying conclusion in a unique way that has since inspired many others.
Composed by Jonathan Coulton and sung by Ellen McLain, “Still Alive” is written from the point of view of GLaDOS, the murderous, science-obsessed artificial intelligence that the player is trying to escape. The song was so well received that Coulton later followed it up with Portal 2‘s end credits song “Want You Gone,” which was also performed by McLain, the voice of GLaDOS.
4. ‘Setting Sail, Coming Home’ from Bastion
Supergiant Games’ hack-and-slash title Bastion gained significant attention upon its 2011 release for its distinctive narrator and visual style. But it also seized players through composer Darren Korb’s brilliant soundtrack, including the uplifting end theme “Setting Sail, Coming Home.”
Sung by Korb and Ashley Lynn Barrett, “Setting Sail, Coming Home” is a mashup of two previous songs in the game: “Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme)” and “Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme).” The game is set in the wake of a catastrophic event that literally breaks the world apart, Zulf and Zia being two survivors that represent opposing paths the player can take in response to the disaster. Not only is the combination of their themes musically satisfying, it also evokes a feeling of moving on — though exactly what that means depends on your decisions.
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5. ‘Everything’s Alright’ from To the Moon
Part of what makes a good video game song is what’s happening when the player first hears it. Written and performed by Laura Shigihara, “Everything’s Alright” appears during To the Moon‘s devastating climax to deliver an emotional gut punch to the player — one that reduced many to tears. It’s a far cry from Shigihara’s bright Plants vs. Zombies‘ ditty “Zombie on Your Lawn.”
To the Moon follows two technicians who alter dying people’s memories, allowing them to pass on without regrets. Tasked with making their client believe he’s been to the moon, they eventually discover the only way to do this is to erase all memory of his beloved wife. This leads to a painful montage in which his history is rewritten without her, set to Shigihara’s sweet yet melancholy vocals. To the Moon looks at the question of whether it’s better to have loved and lost or never loved at all, and answers, “Why not both?”
6. ‘Paper Boats’ from Transistor
It’s impossible to choose just one song from Supergiant Games’ beautifully scored indie offerings, especially with Transistor‘s soundtrack in the mix. This turn-based action game leans even more heavily on song than its predecessor, following famous singer Red as she tracks down a powerful cabal after they try to kill her. As such, Transistor is heavily complimented by Darren Korb’s compositions, with Ashley Lynn Barrett lending her vocals to Red for songs such as “We All Become” and “In Circles.”
While all Transistor‘s songs are great, one of the most memorable is left for the bittersweet pre-credits ending montage. “Paper Boats” is an intimate love song from Red to her unnamed partner, who she was physically separated from throughout the game. Korb’s vocals also appear on the track, underscoring the lovers’ eventual reunion.
7. ‘Life Will Change’ from Persona 5
From its slick user interface to its sharp character design, Persona 5 is pure style — and its catchy acid jazz-inspired soundtrack is no exception. The Japanese role-playing game immediately commands attention with its striking opening animation set to “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There,” one of the 110 songs on Persona 5‘s official soundtrack. But while the first song players hear is undoubtedly an earworm, it was the invigorating “Life Will Change” that took top spot in publisher Atlas’ popularity poll.
Like the opening song, “Life Will Change” was composed by Shoji Meguro, with lyrics by Benjamin Franklin and vocals by Lyn Inaizumi. The game follows a group of rebellious vigilante teenagers who supernaturally enter immoral adults’ psyches in order to confront their evil desires, and this energising tune kicks in just before Persona 5‘s boss battles. “Life Will Change” is a great boost of energy that hypes players up for these difficult fights, while also making them feel incredibly cool.
8. ‘Your Reality’ from Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club looks like a cute dating sim that lets you join a high school club and woo one of its members. In reality, it’s a terrifying meta psychological horror filled with disturbing themes, made all the more intense by deceptively innocent trappings such as its sweet ending song “Your Reality.”
Written by Dan Salvato and sung by Jillian Ashcraft, “Your Reality” is performed by club president Monika for the player at the end of Doki Doki Literature Club — a last ditch effort to convey her affection for them, as well as a goodbye. Though it sounds like a bright, straightforward love song, and could be enjoyed as such, the lyrics take on extra meaning in the context of the game. It’s a highly unconventional villain song, providing a glimpse at the mindset driving her terrible actions.
There are many other great video game songs with lyrics as well. “POP/STARS” by K/DA was produced to promote League of Legends, though it never actually plays during the popular multiplayer online battle arena game. And while the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” definitely wasn’t written for Bioshock Infinite, its rendition by barbershop quartet A Mighty Wind is certainly worth a listen.