The ninth console generation was kicked off last week with the launches of the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. The new hardware has enabled games to look shinier than ever before. But while flashy graphics easily catch the eye, excellent sound is far more important and, sadly, less appreciated. The most effective games are those that use their soundtrack to craft an immersive experience. This playlist is a selection of video game music that, when appreciated alone, will help you to tune out the distractions and get down to work.
“Welcome to Los Santos,” Oh No
A symphony of synthesized piano and pounding bass, rapper Oh No’s title theme for Grand Theft Auto V is the perfect tone-setter. Taking inspiration from ’80s movie scores by artists such as Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream, this song perfectly evokes the obsessive ambition underscoring the rags-to-riches crime stories that are GTA’s bread and butter. Even extracted from the in-game setting of Los Santos, it fills listeners with an urge to make progress.
“Uncharted Worlds,” Sam Hulick
Composed as ambient sound for the original Mass Effect’s galaxy map, “Uncharted Worlds” finds beauty in its understated quality. Sam Hulick perfectly layers the various synthesizers so that the piece subtly grows from a light melody to an orchestral medley seeped in the wonder of exploring distant planets and encountering fascinating scientific anomalies.
“The Path (A New Beginning),” Gustavo Santaolalla
Gustavo Santaolalla’s score for The Last of Us is as minimalistic as it is powerful. Mirroring the game’s post-apocalyptic themes, Santaolalla’s stripped-down classical guitar was used sparingly — it was treated like a scarce resource, and as such, packs a massive emotional punch when it is used.
“The Path” stands out as one of the soundtrack’s more elaborate compositions. In The Last of Us, it serves as the end credits song and perfectly captures the complex hope-tinged uncertainty that made this cliffhanger so impactful.
“Cleric Beast,” SIE Sound Team
This is the song that plays when your deadline is fast approaching, and you realize you’re never going to get your assignment in on time. You break into a cold sweat, you curse yourself for procrastinating, but it’s too late — the fatal hour is here. This piece was written for the first boss fight in Bloodborne, and its crushing, bleak atmosphere is completely appropriate. It was in this battle that most players realized how truly punishing the game would be. As players improve and the tide of the battle turns, however, this once oppressive piece turns into the theme of hard-earned success.
“Unshaken” is one of the most pleasant surprises to be found in a video game. This song was written for Red Dead Redemption 2 and reflects the game’s revisionist western style in its unique blend of soul and country. D’Angelo’s deep, hypnotic voice works with the slow percussive groove and subdued keyboards to emphasize the meditative quality of the soul-searching lyrics. This is the song that plays as you consider changing majors for the nth time.
“At Doom’s Gate,” Mick Gordon
The ultimate victory lap tune. Mick Gordon’s roided-up rhythm section and massive drums make this piece from the 2016 Doom reboot one of the most merciless heavy metal jams ever created — it’s impossible to listen to this without engaging in some form of frenzied stress relief.
“Still Alive,” Ellen McLain
Sung from the point of view of GladOS, the homicidal artificial intelligence from Valve’s revolutionary 2007 puzzle game Portal, “Still Alive” is catchy like no other video game song. Jonathan Coulton’s trademark geeky, satirical lyrics are absolutely hilarious, even if you haven’t played Portal, while opera singer Ellen McLain’s voice, though modulated to sound artificial, still features the paradoxical sense of humor that made GladOS such a memorable antagonist. After all, this is an upbeat jingle about the difficulty of killing one’s nemesis. Cued to play over the game’s credits, “Still Alive” elevates Portal’s ending because it’s also surprisingly reflective, making it the perfect capstone to a long, gruelling journey.
Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].