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Five of the Best Video Game Soundtracks to Play (Without Playing at All)

You don't need to be in the middle of a game to fall in love with this music.

by Mike Diver
Jan 26 2016, 8:38pm

The sleeve art for C418's 'Minecraft Volume Alpha' album

Video games are great, aren't they? With all the puzzle-solving and the head-popping and the sword-swinging and the boss-slaying. The time travel and the world building and the shelter finding and the survival horror, um, ing. Yeah. Games are awesome.

As someone who plays quite a lot of video games for work these days, and who has a decade-and-more background in music journalism—I know, I'm like twice the scumbag you thought I was, now you know I used to review records and interview bands for a living—I've naturally found myself drawn to certain game soundtracks as an accompaniment to my working day. And, because these collections work fantastically well as albums entirely removed from the context of interactive play, I wanted to share some with you.

This isn't a top five gaming soundtracks ever sort of list or anything like that. Rather, it's just a friendly recommendation of a few immersive audio worlds within which to lose yourself, be that while fighting through a brimming inbox, finally sorting out all that spread sheet admin, or simply taking a break from it all with a cup of tea and a couple of ginger snaps. It's just stuff that I like, basically—you, you might think differently. And that's OK, there's no need for an argument. These can all be streamed on Spotify. I checked and everything.

Minecraft Volume Alpha, by C418

You pronounce it "see four eighteen," and it's the musical moniker of German producer Daniel Rosenfeld. Prior to Minecraft, available via Ghostly International, he put out a clutch of productions that didn't come close to engaging with a mass audience. What a difference a game makes, not that it's necessarily been to the artist's benefit—Rosenfeld dislikes public attention, and while he's evidently a splendidly talented musician, compared to Brian Eno, it seems like he's going to remain more of an enigma than a mainstream-engaging ambassador for the progression of gaming soundtracks. Seriously, though, Minecraft is one of my most-played records of the past 12 months (although it came out a few years back), with delicate tracks like "Living Mice" and "Moog City" effortlessly transcending the medium they were born for.

(Listen on Spotify)

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Oxenfree, by scntfc

A new addition to my selection of reliable soundtracks to see an afternoon through with, Seattle-based artist scntfc's latest release transports the eeriness of its parent game, the debut title from the new Night School studio, and successfully stands as a consuming hour of disquieting ambience shorn of interactive visuals. Oxenfree follows remix work for Rogue Legacy and the complete Galak-Z score, so it's not like scntfc hasn't had previous experience in the gaming medium. But there's something so uniquely strange about these arrangements that sucks me in whole, something so damn devilishly appealing about them. I know they're all an invitation to a dark side of found-sound recordings which, I'm sure, open a portal to some place you really don't want to be when played backwards. Yet I keep coming back for more. I don't know if any readers recall a British band called Reigns—check them out here—but the Oxenfree soundtrack really reminds me of their spooked field recordings processed through a down-tempo avant-dance filter. I liked Reigns, so I like this. Makes sense to me.

(Listen on Spotify)


Hohokum, by various artists

Another Ghostly release, the soundtrack to this PlayStation-exclusive art-puzzler from (the now defunct) British studio Honeyslug, is made up of bubbling electronic cuts that never fail to complement the game's retinas-tickling palette of colors. Unlike my other selections on this page, Hohokumis a licensed collection rather than one commissioned bespokely. But just as you don't notice any sonic dissonance in the gameplay, as one befuddling level shifts into another equally what-am-I-supposed-to-do layout of weird creatures and alien flora, playing this album from beginning to end gives the impression of it being the work of either the same act, or certainly very likeminded individuals. Among the artists featured are Matthew Dear (squelchy sweeps with robotic vocals), Geoff White (springy buzzes and glitchy snares) and Tycho (dawn-horizon, mid-tempo electronica for the still-up crowd)—each is singularly styled, yet everything fits together with a greater sense of cohesion than the game itself ever exhibited.

(Listen on Spotify)


The Last of Us, by Gustavo Santaolalla

Argentine composer Santaolalla has credits on a wealth of film and television productions, including The Motorcycle Diaries, Brokeback Mountain, Babel, and Netflix's recent documentary hit, Making a Murderer. His largely acoustic guitar-based soundtrack to Naughty Dog's post-apocalyptic road trip, his first for the medium, is about as blessed by sunshine and smiles as the game itself—which is to say, it's a melancholic collection that falls back upon repeated motifs across its course, everything building into a sometimes suffocating mix of tension and fear. When pieces like "The Hunters" and "By Any Means" break down into wild percussion, it's perfectly normal to feel the hairs on your arms stiffen, and the blurs in your peripheral vision begin to find threatening form—arms reaching out from shadows you know are entirely harmless, but, just like in the game, you're going to poke around in each and every corner, just to be sure there's nothing there. The two takes on "Vanishing Grace," though, are achingly beautiful, with the second, bracketed "Childhood," accompanying that giraffes scene. You know the one. This? No, no, just something in my eye.

(Listen on Spotify)

Related, on Thump: How Video Games Are Breaking the Drum & Bass Artists of Tomorrow


Transfiguration, by Austin Wintory

Transfiguration is a selection of Grammy-nominated composer Wintory's music for thatgamecompany's celebrated ambient adventure Journey, albeit stripped of its orchestral flourishes and rebuilt entirely in piano tones. What the music loses in scale, in the instantly gratifying swells of violin that punctuate the game's path from desert sands to snow-capped peak, it makes up for by revealing the very cores of these melodies, white and black notes running straight to the heart. It's natural to experience flashbacks to scenes from the game while this plays, but such is the set's sideways shift from the original arrangements that a piece like "Apotheosis" finds itself in a space somewhat closer to a jazz bracket than its ascent-accompanying in-game placement ever suggested. The tonal shifts between light and dark that are so obvious in the strings-attached versions are less telegraphed in Transfiguration, the end result a more measured listen, one that finds the sweet spot between atmosphere and attention-forefront intrigue. And the climactic, bare-bones "I Was Born for This" is a stunner.

(Listen on Spotify)

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Austin Wintory
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Hohokum