Video Game Scores to Listen to While Reading
Here at Quirk we love video games with all our nerdy hearts, and since National Video Games Day is September 12th and we also love books, we thought we’d combine the two and pair some of our favorite video game soundtracks with your favorite book genres.
Many of the following scores include tracks with more distracting sound from grand choral movements to light breathing (thank you, horror genre), so you may have to filter out some tracks for a more personalized playlist, depending on your individual tastes. But if you’re looking for some nice background music while you jump into your next adventure, romance—what have you—these soundtracks are a good place to start.
Ori and the Blind Forest (by Gareth Coker)
Combine this with Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ score for over four hours of fantastical ambience. If you liked the music from Avatar: The Last Airbender or Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films, you’ll be drawn to Coker’s songs. You’ll have no trouble expanding your imagination with the help of heartfelt tracks like “Ori, Lost in the Storm,” “Naru, Embracing the Light,” and “The Blinded Forest.” More ominous tracks (“Thornfelt Swamp”), epic choral arrangements (“The Spirit Tree”), and cheerful tunes (“The Waters Cleansed”) also make up the score for a well-rounded fantasy tale.
Other than the obvious Tolkien books and all the Terrys (Pratchett, Goodkind, Brooks), try pairing this with: Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet graphic novels, Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series, or books by N. K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor.
Gris (by Berlinist)
Berlinist shoves a lot of emotion into this one hour score via dramatic choral melodies (highlighted in “In Your Hands”), strings (“Komorebi” tracks), synthesizer ("Descent"), and piano (“Mae”) that would pair well with a more casual fantasy. Whatever the fantastical elements, make sure there’s a good deal of character growth, occasional danger, and a heaping helping of heartbreak.
Pair with: Tillie Walden’s graphic novels, V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series, or Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Realm books.
Try Christopher Larkin’s Hollow City score for a spooky, actiony fantasy (have you heard “Enter Hollownest” or Amelia Jones’ vocals in “City of Tears?”) or Takeshi Furukawa’s The Last Guardian for tales with atmospheric and expansive worlds (give “Sanctuary” and “Overture Lore” a listen).
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (by Manaka Kataoka, Yasuaki Iwata, Soshi Abe, so many more)
Kataoka and her co-composers deliver a whole six hours of immersive tracks for teleporting yourself to an expansive world of potential and opportunity. This score has everything from general tunes for travel (like “Great Plateau” and the “Riding: Day” tracks) to town pit stops (try “Gerudo Town” and “Hateno Village”) to action-packed battles (tracks with “battle” in the title). Whether you’re looking for music for the small or grand moments, Kataoka and her team have got you covered.
Pair with: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, Faith Erin Hicks’ The Nameless City graphic novels, Philip Reeve’s the Mortal Engines/Fever Crumb series, or Rick Riordan & Rick Riordan Presents titles.
Child of Light (by Cœur de pirate)
With a composer that goes by the name “Pirate’s Heart,” it’s no surprise Child of Light’s music would fit well with an adventure/action tale. This game features a ton of piano and strings, throwing in the occasional surprises like a flute. “Pilgrims on a Long Journey,” “The Lowest of the Low,” and songs featuring the melody from “Aurora’s Theme” embody that epic journey feeling in that of Howard Shore’s compositions for The Lord of the Rings movies, and among the more melancholy tracks (“The Girl and the Firefly”), there’s some cheerful tunes (“From a Flock of Crows”) and high stakes action tracks (“Metal Gleamed in the Twilight”).
Pair with: Richard Adams’ Watership Down, Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, or books by Tonke Dragt, Leigh Bardugo, and George R. R. Martin.
Pair Austin Wintory’s mystical and explorative Abzû score with Mackenzie Lee’s Montague Siblings trilogy or books by Yann Martel and Michael Crichton. Also, give “Berry Mine” and “Credits” from Frida Johansson and Henrik Oja’s Unravel score a listen for Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander vibes.
Flow (by Austin Wintory)
Wintory’s score may be short, a bit under one hour, but it’s underwater sound matches perfectly with that of a space opera. Eerie echoes (“Glass”) and non-lyrical vocals (“Shadows” and “Steel”) add tension, mystery, and wonder that typically comes along with space exploration, all without being too distracting. Kudos, Wintory.
Pair with: James S. A.Corey’s The Expanse series, Jeff Lemire and Ryan Nguyen’s Descender/Ascender comics, Andy Weir books, or the William Shakespeare's Star Wars series by Ian Doescher (the final installment, The Merry Rise of Skywalker, came out this year).
Monument Valley (by Stafford Bawler, OBFUSC, & Grigori)
Also under one hour, Monument Valley’s tracks range from more low-key, techno beats (heard in “Amatuer Cartography”) to mystic voyages (“At Journey’s End”) to calming atmosphere (“Sounds Form Shattered Seashells,” “Observatory,” and “The Garden”). Add on Monument Valley 2’s score for another hour of background music.
Pair with more fantastical sci-fi like: Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Aurora Cycle, Philip Reeve’s Railhead series, or Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy series.
Heinali’s Bound features some techno and imaginative elements, but be warned, a lot of the tracks swell in pitch and volume, which though beautiful, can be distracting. For even more industrial sound with danger and suspense, give Simon Chylinski’s Subnautica a listen.
The Wolf Among Us (by Jared Emerson-Johnson)
Did you recently pick up a new crime noir and think, “I need some light background noise that constantly reminds me of the ever impending menace, anxiety, and fatalism presented in this novel?” Look no further than The Wolf Among Us. There’s tracks for that (“Main Menu,” “Fabletown,” and “Opening Credits”) along with tracks for hinting at suspects (“Faith”), chase scenes (“Chasing Dee”), and shocking reveals (“I Was Fine”). And a season two of the game is planned for release, eventually, so you'll have even more tracks to add to your reading playlist in the future.
Pair with: Ben H. Winters’ The Last Policeman series, Keigo Higashino’s Detective Galileo series, or Megan Abbott and Gary Anthony Haywood books (he has cozies too!).
Professor Layton and the Curious Village (by Tomohito Nishiura)
Include the other main games in this series, and you’ll have over five hours of tracks to enjoy. The more cheerful accordions and strings make these scores perfect for cozy mysteries. There’s more tense tracks (“The Looming Tower”) and relaxing tunes (“The Veil of the Night”) that add variety, but many are a mix of light tension and curiosity (“About Town,” “Professor Layton’s theme,” and “The Plot Thickens”) which is perfect for casual investigating.
Pair with: Kellye Garrett’s Detective by Day books, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and titles by Rita Mae Brown and Louise Penny.
Inside (by Martin Stig Andersen and SSØS Gunver Ryberg)
Under forty minutes, this indie game soundtrack features moody scores that are ghostly one moment (“Mind” and “Inside”) and petrifying the next (“Shockwave”). Tracks like “Hunted and Alone” even feature pounding feet, shaky breaths, gunshots, and barking dogs, so watch out. Good for monster horrors or slow burns with varying degrees of fear scattered throughout the story.
Pair with: books by Stephen Graham Jones, Grady Hendrix, Gwendolyn Kiste, and yes, Stephen King.
Amnesia: The Dark Descent (by Mikko Tarmia)
For many horror video game fans, Amnesia’s still one of the scariest, and after giving Tarmia’s score a listen, it’s no wonder. You’ll want to stick to tracks with “Ambience” in the title and steer clear of ones like the “Attack” tracks. But even among the “Ambience” tracks, you’re not safe, so prepare yourself for some proper fear. If you’re brave enough, plug in your headphones for a full surround sound experience before you dive into your read.
Pair with: Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, and books by Ania Ahlborn.
Check out Garry Schyman’s Bioshock Infinite for lighter tunes with subtle unease (“Lighter Than Air”), but beware there’s some intense violin and piano chords throughout the score. If you’re okay with ditching the ambience feel and you want straight-up disturbing tracks to pair with, say, a Junji Ito manga, try Christian Vasselbring and Tobias Lilja’s Little Nightmares.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf (by Manaka Kataoka, Atsuko Asahi, Kazumi Totaka)
Kataoka and her co-composers are back at it again, this time with a whole eight hours of music for your casual contemporary reads (because the standard one to two hours isn’t enough for Nintendo). That’s not including the soundtracks from the other Animal Crossing games, like the latest New Horizons. There’s a lot of variety here, from more cheerful tunes (“Main Theme” and “Town Tree”) to specific location-based ambience (like the low-key “Museum” or relaxing “Dream Suite”). For non-intrusive tunes, play the tracks named after times (“12AM”- “11PM”) while you read. They even have rain and snow versions!
Pair with: Caitlin Major and Kelly Bastow’s Manfried the Man graphic novels, Svetlana Chmakova’s Berrybrook Middle School graphic novels, and books by Rainbow Rowell or Lauren Weisberger.
Although Holowka can’t compete with Kataoka’s eight hours, there’s an astounding variety of sounds featured in his indie game that adds up to over five hours when you combine both albums. Whether you’re looking for something peaceful (“Gregg’s Woods,” “Snow,” “The Bridge,” and "Mallard's Tomb"), spooky (“Astral Fish,” “Someone’s Coming,” and “Ghost Hunt”), tense (“Aftermath”), upbeat (the “Town” tracks and “Home Again”), hopeful (“Ending Credits”), or just plan experimental (“The Hole at the Center of Everything”), Holowka included it in the score.
Pair with: Maggie Steifvater’s The Raven Cycle, books by Haruki Murakami or Liane Moriarty, or any unique subgenres like magic realism or genre-blends like psychological dramas or urban fantasies.
There’s also scores like Chris Remo’s Firewatch which feature a lot of acoustic guitar (“Stay in Your Tower and Watch”) and some more techno sound (like in “Exfiltration”).
Flower (by Vincent Diamante)
Despite only having eight tracks, Diamante’s music adds up to one hour of genuine heart. These scores effortlessly switch between cheer, sadness, and hope, all within the same track (“Peaceful Repose” is a great example). There’s some subtle drama (in tracks like “Solitary Wasteland”) and more impactful drama (“Purification of the City”) that would make for a great soundtrack to a contemporary or lighthearted romance.
Pair with: Ashley Poston’s Once Upon a Con series or books by Nicola Yoon, Jenny Han, Becky Albertalli, Nora Roberts, Robyn Carr, or Fern Michaels.
To the Moon (by Kan R. Gao)
If you’re one for more heartbreaking romances or something more historical, try Gao’s score from To The Moon. There’s quite a bit of sad piano (“Born a Stranger”) that works well for romantic struggles, but mixed in are tracks filled with hope (“Once Upon a Memory,” “Moonwisher,” and “Anya by the Stars”), mystery (“Uncharted Realms” and “Spiral of Secrets”), and adventure (“Launch” and “Take Me Anywhere”).
Pair with: books by Jojo Moyes, J. R. Ward, Beverly Jenkins, or Lisa Kleypas.
Genres are overlapping and blending even more than before, so these aren’t end-all, be-all matches. Pair Child of Light with a period drama, To the Moon with a coming-of-age tale, or Gris with a character-driven sci-fi adventure. Just maybe don’t listen to Amnesia with your next romance read…
Gabrielle likes a lot of things and dislikes very little. Retired ice cream cake decorator, occasional farmhand, and reminiscing library worker, she spent her childhood dreaming of fighting fires and her college days writing about Bong Joon-ho before he was cool. Now, she preaches the importance of dental hygiene; chats up books, movies, and comics via the Quirk blog; and legally climbs silos. Whether the legality of the silo climbing makes her more or less interesting is up for debate. Email [email protected] if you want to review our titles or feature our authors.