By Thomas Quillfeldt
99% of music from games is created to sit in the background—one aspect of the ‘video’ bit of ‘video games’. As a result, there’s a lot of laid-back game music that is perfect for sending you off to la la land.
There’s also a whole world of musicians creating arrangements of their favourite tracks across official and fan releases. A lot of this music is upbeat chiptune or hard rocking metal covers; on the other hand, a large percentage of it is pretty mellow—often in a Celtic style or solo piano—and aims to soothe like an aural hot chocolate and warm duvet.
A good sleepy track needs to be melodic (but not too catchy), consistent (no volume spikes or long pauses), not have any potentially grating instruments and be comforting (rather than spookily atmospheric).
Trust me, I’ve pillow-tested these tracks and can 100% guarantee they’ll snzzzzzzzzzzz…………….
“Over the Sorrow” by Koichi Sugiyama – Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
Legendary Japanese composer Koichi Sugiyama—the certified oldest video game composer in the world and first to record with a live orchestra—has been pumping out music for the Dragon Quest series since 1985 and is still going, with Dragon Quest XI slated for 2017. If a snobby classical music fan listened to his work, they’d probably accuse it of being too ‘lightweight’ and ‘pops’. But his orchestral work is also as comforting as a hug from someone in a woolly jumper.
Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, originally released in 2004, is the biggest selling title in the West that the series has seen, in part thanks to a brilliantly funny and well-done voice localisation and a lush orchestral version of the soundtrack—this stunner was performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.
“Sounds from Shattered Seashells” by OBFUSC – Monument Valley
Monument Valley was a smash hit on mobile, in part due to its pastel colour palette and serene soundscapes. Following the trend that has seen contemporary electronica seep into smaller, artier game titles, here we have an Aphex Twin-esque, ambient track—grab a bourbon from the hotel mini-bar and stare out over the nighttime city lights from your 20th floor window...
“Daydreaming Again (Words Drowned by Fireworks)” by Pot Hocket – Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream
There is now a reliable pipeline of fan-organised collaborative albums based on the music of particular games; normally nostalgic favourites from series including Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. The OverClocked ReMix community was a trailblazer, releasing the free Final Fantasy VII: Voices of the Lifestream nearly 10 years ago.
This gentle guitar ditty is so soporific, it will seep out of your speakers, fluff your pillow, give you a foot massage and read you a story.
“Yonah (Piano Version)” perf. Keigo Hoashi – NieR (comp. Keiichi Okabe)2010’s NieR was an odd release which received mixed reviews for a maxed-bag of gameplay styles—upcoming sequel, NieR: Automata, is scheduled for release in 2017. One thing everyone agreed upon was that NieR’s soundtrack was arrestingly beautiful, with memorable melodies that spoke of longing and loss.
“Lost Souls' Alliance” by Peter McConnell – Grim Fandango Remastered
Part of the genius of Peter McConnell, long time collaborator of LucasArts/Tim Schafer/Double Fine, is his ability to turn his hand to all manner of styles and ethnic instruments and come out with something that fits the game, no matter how diverse the rest of the soundtrack is (this short documentary video looks into his approach to game composition).
With this track, he gently cross-pollinates Central and South American instrumentation with a hint of Angelo Badalamenti’s understated music for Twin Peaks.
“Nascence” perf. Robert Thies – Journey: Transfiguration (comp. Austin Wintory, arr. Laura Intravia)
If ever there was going to be a game soundtrack that received wider recognition, it was going to be for what many perceive as the high watermark of games-as-art: 2012’s Journey. Not content with a Grammy nomination for his original soundtrack, composer Austin Wintory has released two further albums of arrangements and curiosities related to the game and its sound.
The EP, Journey: Transfiguration, features some lovely, stripped back versions of the best tracks from the wider soundtrack.
“Catfish Muse” by R. Carlos Nakai – Civilization V
Civilization V has a gigantic soundtrack, stuffed full of original score, licensed tracks and library music—with an incredibly diverse range of music from different ethnicities across various continents. That said, this is a game people play for thousands of hours, so no doubt even 20+ hours of music can start to seem repetitive eventually.
And as for this hefty slice of Native American flute loveliness… well, it’s very relaxing, as long as you don’t hate the sound of the Native American flute.
“Eleanor's Lullaby” by Garry Schyman – BioShock 2
Quite a lot of Garry Schyman’s music for the BioShock series is like real life: nasty, brutish and short. Amidst the gloom though, he can summon the sublime.
This track plays over the ‘light’ ending of the game—the skies don’t darken, the world isn’t subjected to a horrifying evil and (some) characters live happily, blissfully ever after. Probably.
““β”1:Botschaft” by Masashi Hamauzu – Piano Pieces "SF 2" Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa FRONTIER 2
Composer Masashi Hamauzu grew up in Germany, the son of Japanese parents—a pianist and an opera singer. As a Square employee, he became the Final Fantasy series lead composer for the three games under the Fabula Nova Crystallis (Final Fantasy XIII) umbrella. His approach to game music is more angular and classical than other of Square’s composers and his arrangement skills have seen him contribute to the Merregnon Studios concerts, including Final Symphony.
Particularly lovely are his trilling, twisting and turning piano pieces. This track comes from a 2010 album of piano arrangements that yes, really is called: ‘Piano Pieces "SF 2" Rhapsody on a Theme of SaGa FRONTIER 2’.
“Peace of Akatosh” by Jeremy Soule – The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Skyrim, Skyrim, Skyrim. That’s all anyone ever talks about. Well, Square and BioWare alumnus Jeremy Soule has been working on The Elder Scrolls series since 2002, producing haunting music to knit together Bethesda’s giant fantasy game worlds.
This synthesised choral piece from 2006’s Oblivion massages the senses and is in keeping with much of Soule’s chilled-out work: not happy, not sad, just ancient, storied and vast
"Snake Eater" by GENTLE LOVE – Prescription for Sleep: Game Music Lullabies Volume II
This duo turned up in our ‘10 chilled game music tracks to help you play it cool this winter’ round-up, but it was impossible to leave them out here since the word ‘sleep’ is literally in the title of all of their albums.
Anyway, let’s talk about sax.
With this rendition of Metal Gear Solid 3’s James Bond-esque title song, Snake Eater, saxophonist Norihiko Hibino is revisiting his own composition, paying it loving homage whilst his piano partner AYAKI tinkles the ivories. It’s chill-out jazz at its cheesiest—and sleepiest.
“All Gone (No Escape)” by Gustavo Santaolalla – The Last of Us
If you haven’t played The Last of Us, this is a relaxing piece of solo cello with ensemble music.
If you have played The Last of Us, it’s a desperately sad, downbeat harbinger of the grey world of misery the heroes of the game will have to endure long after the credits have rolled.
But no problem—you’ll probably be asleep by this point, right?