It can be difficult to work in silence, but finding music that won’t distract you from high-concentration tasks — like writing — is also a challenge. But it turns out that video game tunes could be the perfect background music when you need to focus. No, seriously.
As this Reddit post points out, video game music is usually instrumental, so it’s less intrusive, and it’s specifically composed to keep you focused and motivated. You may be sceptical if you don’t play games, but I assure you game music is much more than inane bleeps and bloops. This NPR radio segment from 2014 explains that video game composers are often classically-trained musicians who apply the same techniques to their work as any classical composer.
For a lifelong gamer like me, this isn’t exactly surprising — I often listen to game soundtracks while I work. That said, as a newbie, finding a good soundtrack for concentration will be tough — there are thousands of games out there, and unless you already have a list of faves, wading into the world of video game music can be overwhelming.
To save you the effort, I’ve put together a list of 10 of my favourite video game soundtracks to listen to while you write, or study, or draw, or whatever it is you do. The list collects beloved classics and personal favourites, but it’s in no way definitive — if your favourite game soundtrack is absent, it’s not because we don’t think it’s worthy, so by all means, name drop it in the comments.
Let’s kick things off with a recent indie release, Umurangi Generation, a first-person photography game set in a cyberpunk city seemingly just before the apocalypse. Composer Adolf Nomura’s lo-fi beats are the perfect accompaniment as you snap photos and solve puzzles in the colourful dystopia, and are great background vibes when you’re focusing on work.
Unlike other Nintendo franchises, the Metroid series is all about atmosphere, and each game’s soundtrack perfectly encapsulates the alien worlds you explore. However, if I’m picking just one Metroid soundtrack to listen to while I work, Metroid Prime’s is it. Kenji Yamamoto balances the eerie ambiance and heroic anthems Metroid games are known for, but his work on Prime redefined the series’ musical identity, and is a joy to listen to while you work.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
There are few gaming franchises as iconic as The Legend of Zelda, and much of its popularity is owed to its memorable music. Every Zelda soundtrack is great, but Ocarina of Time is arguably the best, or at least, the most memorable for a certain generation of Nintendo fans. Ocarina of Time (and its follow-up, Majora’s Mask) feature a magical musical instrument, the titular ocarina, and require players to memorise many of the songs composer Koji Kondo wrote for the game. (No wonder so many of us are still humming “Zelda’s Lullaby” nearly 22 years later.) It’s great music to keep you moving, whether you’re exploring a dangerous forest, delving into a dark dungeon, or collating some spreadsheets.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
Everyone has their favourite Final Fantasy game (mine is 12), but Final Fantasy VII is easily the overall fan favourite. But while I highly recommend the original PlayStation 1 game’s soundtrack, I think the one for the recent Final Fantasy VII Remake is even better. Remake updates many of Nobuo Uematsu’s iconic tunes with full orchestration and remixes from a range of genres without losing the spirit of the original compositions, making for a richer, more immersive listening experience.
Developers Supergiant Games might be best known for the recent cult indie hit Hades, but the studio’s first game, Bastion, has been on my writing playlist since it dropped in 2011. Darren Korb’s twangy guitar and hip-hop beats never fail to get my energy up, and the few vocal tracks featuring singer Ashley Barrat are moving even if you’re not familiar with Bastion’s story or gameplay.
If you need to get stuff done, just pop on the Doom (2016) soundtrack. Mick Gordon rearranged many songs from the classic ‘90s shooter into a mix of fast-paced heavy metal and electronica, and the results are perfect for ripping through a to-do list — or, even better, doing some heavy squats. It’s not a relentless avalanche of riffs, though; there are plenty of more atmospheric tracks for when you need a breather.
Persona 5’s soundtrack is full of jazz, soul, and funk — musical genres not normally associated with 100-hour long Japanese RPGs, but a perfect fit with the game’s stylish aesthetic — imagine if Cowboy Bebop was about high school demon slayers who pull daring heists within the minds of others. Composer Shoji Meguro’s style is equally eclectic, ranging from relaxing keyboard-driven tracks, to face-past battle themes with violin leads and punchy bass lines.
It’s hard to say anything new about Chrono Trigger’s masterful soundtrack, or the game itself, for that matter. If you’re a fan of RPGs, video game music, or just video games generally, chances are you’ve heard its most iconic tracks. It’s widely considered to be one of the best RPGs ever made, and its music — composed by Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu — shares similar accolades. It pushes you through an epic, time-twisting quest, so it can certainly get you through an afternoon at your keyboard.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
While Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and its predecessor, Donkey Kong Country Returns, were made by a different studio than the original Donkey Kong Country games for the Super Nintendo, developers Retro Games brought in one of the original composers, David Wise, to score them both. Wise recaptured the sound of the original Donkey Kong Country games well, and Tropical Freeze has some of the series’ best music — perfect jungle beats to jam to while you concentrate.
Crypt of the Necrodancer
Crypt of the Necrodancer is a challenging dungeon crawler in which every step you take, item you grab, or attack you launch must be timed to the beat of the background music. It’s a brilliant touch that gives the game a unique twist in an otherwise crowded genre. Naturally, for a game so dependent on its music, the soundtrack is excellent, and composer Danny Baranowsky’s catchy beats are just as fun and focus-enhancing to listen to while you’re not playing. Plus, you can enjoy the songs without worrying if you’re on tempo.
For a bonus pick, the game’s follow-up, Cadence of Hyrule, is a spinoff integrating characters from the Zelda universe into Necrodancer’s rhythm-based gameplay; it features an incredible soundtrack of remixed Zelda tunes, also composed by Danny Baranowsky.