Essay to write? Snarky tweet to compose? To help you concentrate, we’ve highlighted some of the best video game music that won’t make you sit up and take notice.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Sometimes you want some music on — something not too distracting that will soothe certain parts of your brain without engaging other bits. Something that will slide down your ear holes without touching the sides.
Sure, there are an untold number of bland ‘music to work to’ playlists out there (e.g. three hours mindless pan flute set to photoshopped pics of pristine beaches) but we’ve put in the research and carefully compiled a playlist of fantastic video game music that has been scientifically tested* to charm you without grabbing your attention.
The goal was also to assemble a playlist that can be played on any of the major music streaming services which, for licensing reasons, naturally limited our choice of tracks: for instance, almost no Nintendo soundtracks are available via Spotify et al; whilst some classic SEGA music is available on Spotify but not Apple Music.
* On myself, whilst drafting this article.
Without further ado, here are the playlists for your listening pleasure:
- Spotify playlist (also embedded below, may contain adverts)
- Apple Music playlist
- YouTube playlist (may contain adverts)
Please enjoy! (But not too much).
“What Is Your Birthday” by Yasuaki Fujita from Tarot Mystery
I had no idea that many of the games featured even existed, let alone sported some superb tunes — this, from the 1995 SNES title Tarot Mystery, would make any contemporary electronica artist proud, with its intense arpeggios and dramatic choir pads:
There is also an excellent Diggin’ in the Carts video documentary series, available on YouTube, which features interviews with legendary Japanese composers including Yuzo Koshiro, Michiru Yamane, as well as the likes of Hideo Kojima.
“The Musty Scent of Fresh Pâté” by Percival Schuttenbach from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Blood and Wine
Much has been made of evocative The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s soundtrack, which featured the Polish folk stylings of the band Percival. The freeform musical approach of the band, combined with their traditional folk instruments, helped the musical director/composer Marcin Przybylowicz find a unique sound for the game.
The band returned for the giant final expansion pack Blood and Wine with their bowed gusles and hurdy-gurdys in hand, contributing this track featuring a breathy flute and renaissance fiddle, where no one element pokes out above another:
“Oceanic Glow” by OBFUSC from Monument Valley
Both released in 2014, Monument Valley and Hohokum shared in common a colourful aesthetic and some easy breezy electronica — indeed, this track by OBFUSC would have felt right at home in the latter title. But it was Monument Valley which won mainstream attention in part thanks to its striking presentation and clean simplicity; and whilst sound is not necessarily as high a priority as user interface and game design in mobile games, the team at ustwo succeeded in creating a soundscape as compelling as the iconic visuals.
The aptly titled “Oceanic Glow” makes you want to jump in a convertible sports car and cruise down the California State Route 1 with the sun shining down:
“Theme from Edanna” by Jack Wall from Myst III Exile
In Myst III — one of the best-regarded games in the series — the world of Edanna is known as the Age of Nature, where the player works their way through a structure akin to a giant living tree rising out of the picturesque blue sea. To represent this, composer Jack Wall (also known for his work on the Mass Effect series) builds up several layers of North African-influenced instrumentation, before establishing a lazy, loping groove that sounds a little bit like what legends like David Bowie got up to in the studio during the late ’80s and early ‘90s:
“Power Plant” by Vince DiCola & Kenny Meriedeth from Saturday Morning RPG
For many generations, Saturday morning cartoons have fired the imaginations of children, some of whom grew up to be filmmakers, game developers etc. (hopefully this isn’t something that will dry up in the age of Netflix). Mighty Rabbit Studios’ episodic RPG unapologetically pays homage to the TV genre — and it makes sense that they would hire the architect of so many memorable ‘80s music moments, Vince DiCola.
DiCola’s work for the classic animation Transformers: The Movie is the very epitome of retro-chic ’80s awesomeness, and he, alongside his writing partner Kenny Meriedeth, has tapped into that same rich vein of cheese prog (I say that with all the affection in the world) for Saturday Morning RPG. What might sound like a pretty straightforward downtempo track slathered in late Pink Floyd-esque solo guitar is instantly made cooler because it’s a sound you don’t often hear in video games.
“Made of Words” by Damjan Mravunac from The Talos Principle ~Made of Words~
Yes, Laced Records is in the business of selling The Talos Principle ~Made of Words~ soundtrack album on vinyl — so automatically we think it’s amazing — but beyond this, Damjan Mravunac’s understated score has genuinely wormed its way into our brains, both from playing the game and listening to the soundtrack album in isolation.
It would have easy to pick tracks that are essentially bland, formless ambient music to fill this list — the kind of thing playing in the background during a massage — but brilliant chilled-out tracks like “Made of Words” offer so much more. It starts out with some beautiful ambience before a lonely piano motif signals that this is a piece of motion and progression. And whilst there are interesting sonic hooks (such as the spooky flourish at 1:14) and the piece is gently emotive, everything is suitably restrained enough to make it pitch-perfect background music.
Laced With Wax interviewed both The Talos Principle composer Damjan Mravunac (“Interview: Talos Principle composer on humanity in the digital realm”); and the vinyl sleeve designer Tom J Manning (“On the record: Pondering the art of The Talos Principle OST vinyl”).
“The Crossing” by Celestial 天上 from Sleeping Dogs
It seems that the Sleeping Dogs IP isn’t sleeping with the fishes just yet, as the purveyors of the Fast and Furious franchise have (at the time of writing) secured the rights to produce a movie based on the game (which is itself already an homage to Hong Kong crime movies like Hard Boiled and Infernal Affairs). If that does well, maybe we’ll see a Sleeping Dogs 2 in the near-ish future, but for the moment, those of us that enjoyed the 2012 original will have to cherish our memories of it.We opined in “10 of the best licensed music moments in video games” that many aspects of Sleeping Dogs couldn’t quite keep up with the peerless production values of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, but that United Front’s title had a certain cohesive sense of cool that more recent GTAs lacked. And there were certainly some very smart choices made around the exceptional licensed soundtrack, which combined tracks from the West and East — this mellow-yet-toe-tapping track is from the Hong Kong-based collective Celestial 天上, known for its ‘Asian Dub’.
“Tell It By Heart” by Jami Sieber from Braid
There is something eerie in a Wicker Man sort of a way about the music choices for Braid (it may surprise you to learn that it was all licensed from a music library). The soundtrack does a lot to set the game far, far apart from the venerable 2D platformers of old (Super Mario, Mega Man and the like).
Here, American cellist and composer Jami Sieber creates a sorrowful air through a lovely arrangement made up of several layers her own playing. She also employs looping and string techniques including harmonics and pizzicato to add a sense mystery to proceedings.
“Pale Watchers” by Darren Korb from Bastion
Keen Korb-watchers have been looking forward to each new Supergiant game in anticipation of another great score, the latest being 2017’s Pyre (Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube). But it was 2011’s Bastion that saw both the developer and composer burst onto the scene, with Korb splicing genres to create his own: ‘acoustic frontier trip-hop’.
Every so often in this track there is a beautiful little burst of sunlight (for instance at 0:28) when the chords and looping lead ostinato hit a major 7th chord.
“Meridian, Shining (Onwards To Meridian)” by Joris de Man from Horizon Zero Dawn
We’re big admirers of many different aspects of 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn: Laced With Wax interviewed one of the composers (Joris de Man — “Melody maker: Horizon Zero Dawn co-composer on odd samples, scoring tricks and teamwork”); and we waxed lyrical about the incredible photo mode (“Point and shoot: Bringing video game photo modes into focus”).
Some have accused Horizon of insensitive cultural appropriation, but it’s undeniably a game made by an intellectually and artistically engaged team that was omnivorous when it came to gathering real world influences. Like much of the soundtrack, De Man’s “Meridian, Shining” is a mash-up of several different musical influences and ethnic flavours, resulting in a sonically lush track that perfectly evokes journeying through the jungle and emerging at the outer reaches of a magnificent raised city shining in the sunlight.
“Go Forward” by Chilled By Nature from Grand Theft Auto IV (Self-Actualization FM)
The music industry harbours more than a few truisms — one being that radio is critically important for music discovery. That said, it still feels pretty revolutionary in the video game world that the makers of Grand Theft Auto continue to opt for a jukebox soundtrack absolutely stuffed with top tier artists and tracks. One can only assume that the diverse in-game radio stations across all the games have exposed millions upon millions of players to tracks and genres they never would have dreamed of spinning otherwise.
In particular, the more niche genre stations are treasure troves of some of the best of, in this case, new age spiritualistic music, but also jazz, classical, latin, reggae and on and on. And you need only be driving along with no law enforcement in tow — catching the light in just the right way as you turn a corner or crest a hill — to have a track reach you in a meaningful way.
“Patches of Sky” by Coeur de Pirate from Child of Light
French Canadian singer-songwriter Coeur de Pirate made a triumph of the soundtrack for the 2014 UbiArt game Child of Light. This particular piece pushes ahead at a fair clip, and its minor chords and low strings keep it sounding dark where a similar piano-led piece might descend into mawkish sentimentality. It fits hand-in-glove with the tone of Child of Light’s story — a darker take on traditional tales like Sleeping Beauty.
“Bad Qi” by Jon Everist from Shadowrun: Hong Kong
This track would also have worked perfectly on the aforementioned Sleeping Dogs’ soundtrack, evoking as it does the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong society. Further to Sleeping Dogs’ contemporary setting though, composer and audio director for Shadowrun: Hong Kong, Jon Everist, successfully makes things feel suitably cyberpunk-y with a strong dash of urban fantasy. Elements of the track are reminiscent of Alexander Brandon’s “The Synapse (Hong Kong Streets)” from Deus Ex.
If “Bad Qi” doesn’t make you bob your head along, I don’t what will — it’s all about the instrumental hip-hop beat here, with other elements coming in and out in subtle ways as the track progresses (perfect for our purposes).
“Vegas” by Jesper Kyd from Hitman: Blood Money
One of the most prolific western video game composers (and still going strong), Jesper Kyd has created any number of tracks that would sit comfortably on this list (indeed, a track from Assassin’s Creed II appears on our ‘further listening’ list). But this track from 2006’s Hitman: Blood Money is simply mesmeric: it’s pleasantly melodic, featuring a mixture of compelling synth sounds and several layers of percussion that never threaten to overwhelm.
With this score in particular, Kyd was explicitly aiming to nail that ‘background music’ sweet spot, where tracks didn’t get old after multiple repetitions:
“I wanted to create a score that could play often, not only for big action moments or key puzzle solving moments…. This is a hard balance to achieve in order to create the most immersive experience, and I wanted to find this special blend [for Blood Money].”
“Beacon” by Disasterpeace from FEZ
I thought I could get through this article without bringing up FEZ — the quintessential relaxing background video game score — but I don’t possess the fortitude. It’s just too remarkable not to remark on it, and several of the tracks stand shoulder to shoulder with some of Brian Eno’s best ambient work (and he invented the genre!)
The mellifluous tones conjured up by Richard Vreeland AKA Disasterpeace in “Beacon” make you want to pour a bubble bath and chillax until the water gets just a little bit too chilly. Like all of our ‘concentration’ tracks above, there’s enough movement and a satisfying enough chord progression to keep things interesting, but not so interesting that it pulls you away from whatever your primary focus might be.
There’s also a sensational little musical moment where, at 0:58, a chord is left hanging in the air until 1:04, when a deeply satisfying lead synth chimes in, working its way across the chords underneath like a little white man in a red tasseled hat jumping from platform to platform...
These tracks are also included on the Spotify/Apple Music/YouTube playlists except where they’re unavailable:
- “Back In Venice” by Jesper Kyd from Assassin’s Creed II
- “Hotline” by Jasper Byrne from Hotline Miami
- “The Winding Theme #1 (Hotline Miami 2)” by Dag Unenge from Hotline Miami 2
- “Super Strut” by Deodato from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Radio Espantoso)
- “I Made It All Up” by Mike Morasky from Portal 2
- “Smooth Hector” by Peter McConnell from Grim Fandango
- “Interwoven Stories” by Todd Baker from Monument Valley 2
- “Red Flag” by Dan le Sac from Subsurface Circular
- “Air Parsing” by Ben Benjamin from Hohokum
Full VGM albums to aid concentration
Here are just a few suggestions of soundtracks (including ones we’ve covered above) that work as whole entities in terms of helping you focus:
- The Talos Principle ~Made of Words~ by Damjan Mravunac (Spotify; Apple Music; YouTube)
- FEZ by Disasterpeace (Spotify; Apple Music; YouTube)
- Minecraft - Volume Alpha by C418 (Spotify; Apple Music; YouTube)
- Bastion by Darren Korb (Spotify; Apple Music; YouTube)
- Subsurface Circular by Dan Le Sac (Spotify; Apple Music)
- Monument Valley / Forgotten Shores / Monument Valley 2 by various composers (Spotify; YouTube)
- Hotline Miami (SoundCloud) / Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number (YouTube) by various artists
- Hohokum by various artists (Spotify, Apple Music)
Be sure to check out the essay “Why we ♥ video game music: The background soundtrack of our lives”; and let us know what else should have made it onto our our ‘concentration’ list via:
Thanks for reading!