Video Game Soundtracks for Your Real Life

Like a film score, video game music is intended to immerse the player (or viewer) in the present.

If not for a composer’s hand lending aural intensity to what is happening on your computer or TV screen, a character’s well-timed jump or sword slash might just feel like the result of a few empty button presses. The right music can motivate us to conquer a great evil, explore long-abandoned ruins, or lay siege to our adversaries … virtually, of course.

But while there’s no shortage of memorable tunes that work beautifully within the context of their games, only a select few hold up once the controller has been put down. Here are some of the songs from gaming history that transcend play, and create soundscapes that stand all on their own.

“Halo Theme” by Martin O’Donnell, from Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

The science fiction action game Halo: Combat Evolved ushered in an entire sub-genre of interactive adventures centered on fighting alien combatants as a futuristic super soldier. After putting the Halo game disc into their Xbox consoles, players are greeted by a hypnotic, angelic chorus that suggests something almost sacred in its calm. But these voices quickly give way to a dizzying mix of syncopated drums and melodious strings, which better reflect the frantic interstellar firefights ahead. By the time players choose an option from the main menu, they feel ready to take on the whole galaxy. After the game is over, Halo’s Gregorian chorus makes an ideal soundtrack for an evening of stargazing.

“Legends of Azeroth” by Jason Hayes, from World of Warcraft (2004)

The best-selling computer game World of Warcraft introduced millions to a sprawling online medieval fantasy world, filled with noble quests and mythical creatures ready to be taken on by guilds of likeminded adventurers. The song that plays at its login screen underscores this premise with thundering war drums, as well as a suite of orchestral strings and woodwinds. But while this thumping introduction to the world (of Warcraft) is exciting, it doesn’t distract — making it ideal background music for non-gaming activities including reading, studying, or even meditation.

“Dragonborn” by Jeremy Soule, from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)

Like World of WarcraftThe Elder Scrolls games are celebrated for placing players into elaborate fantasy environments, where they can embark on a seemingly infinite number of quests.

The most recent entry from The Elder Scrolls series, the Norse-themed Skyrim, introduced players to new foes in the form of huge, menacing dragons. To complement the game’s new challenge, composer Jeremy Soule added rousing vocals to the series’ original, purely orchestral score. The result is enchanting, with pounding timpani, heralding trumpets, and a forceful gale of a chorus. In fact, the song is so effective in creating a sense of place that players might even believe they’ve been transported to the frosty north … at least until it’s time to power down the Playstation. It is 11 p.m. on a weekday after all.

“Apotheosis” by Austin Wintory, from Journey (2012)

Journey is an exploration game where the protagonist is an anonymous cloaked figure making its way through forgotten desert ruins and mountainous terrain alike to ultimately uncover the source of a mysterious signal. The game’s penultimate track comes at a pivotal moment in the character’s trek and reflects the complex slew of emotions of a hero finally reaching the end of a quest. Layers of strings soar over each other, alternately foreboding and triumphant. Bells and subtle flutes drift in and out of the background until the song is reduced to just a single viola, guiding the player’s final steps toward the mountain’s peak. While rarely in everyday life do such great challenges arise, the epic sounds of “Apoetheosis” are enough to make anyone feel ready to conquer their day.

“Athletic Theme” by Koji Kondo, from Yoshi’s Island (1995)

The classic Super Mario series is known for its infectious scores almost as much as the whimsical acrobatics of its namesake Italian plumber. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island sports a crayon storybook aesthetic, as the player assumes the role of pudgy dinosaur, Yoshi, and carries a baby version of Mario across a huge, brightly colored adventure. The hopping “Athletic Theme” plays in the background of a level filled with quickly dropping platforms, making the song’s title appropriate indeed. If there ever were a video game tune begging to become the soundtrack to your morning cardio, this would be it.

Bonus: when the track is pared down to its ragtime-influenced piano roots, the results are a sonic feast — sounding equal parts Super Nintendo and Scott Joplin.