After 10 years working from home, I’ve noticed some strange correlations in my productivity. In particular, I am far more sluggish and unmotivated when I forget to put on some music (and when I forget to open my windows). It seems small, but some good background jams can really make a difference in the work you get done.
This isn’t just anecdotal, either—plenty of research actually suggests music can help you get into that “flow state” required for more productive work, particularly fast-paced instrumental music that doesn’t distract you with lyrics. It turns out, there’s a genre of music that fits this bill perfectly: video game soundtracks. After all, they’re designed to engage you with the task at hand without drawing too much attention to the actual tunes. And thanks to a viral TikTok, Mario Kart streams have gone through the roof with students racing to finish homework on deadline.
This “life pro tip” has been going around the internet for a while, but in my experience, not all video game soundtracks are well tuned to this purpose. I’m not sure I’d personally put on a 10-hour stream of Mario Kart‘s superstar theme, but I do find upbeat is better than slow and ambient for getting me motivated. Here are some of the best soundtracks that fit the bill.
Note that this isn’t a list of the best game soundtracks of all time—instead, we’re focusing on ones that fit that engaging tempo and tune that motivate you to plow through work. (So no Monument Valley here, as incredible as that game’s sound design is.) Most games still have some quieter ambient tracks, but hey—you can always weed those out in your work playlist.
While NieR: Automata‘s story and gameplay may not be for everyone, Keiichi Okabe’s soundtrack is objectively fantastic. It somehow strikes this perfect balance between soothing and head-bopping, with that slight nudge to keep you pushing forward. A few songs have vocals, but they aren’t in English, so you aren’t likely to get distracted, making for a perfect soundtrack to your workday. And if you like this style, you’d probably like a lot of Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy soundtracks as well.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
There are dozens of games with epic fantasy-style soundtracks, but if we had to pick a go-to, it’d probably be The Witcher 3. Not only does it have its own unique folksy flavor, but it has more upbeat battle tunes than many of its compatriots in the fantasy space, making it a good soundtrack for getting things done. If you’re willing to do a bit more pruning, plenty of other games have similar styles, including Skyrim, Baldur’s Gate 3, and Halo 2.
Okay, enough dancing around it: Mick Gordon’s Doom soundtracks are easily some of the best fast-paced work music in existence (provided you enjoy heavy rock and metal). If these crunchy, heart-racing riffs don’t drive you to get stuff done, I don’t know what will. Of the two, I think Doom: Eternal has more up-tempo tracks, making it the better work soundtrack—though it isn’t officially available to buy or stream except on YouTube. Thankfully, 2016’s Doom is also a banger.
Grand Theft Auto V
For a soundtrack with more modern, pop- and hip-hop-style groove, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games never disappoint. The GTA V score combines a few different styles into a surprisingly coherent set of tracks that are great for getting to work, albeit with a more mid-tempo speed.
It’s hard to talk about Bastion‘s soundtrack without gushing about the whole game. Every element of its design—graphics, gameplay, soundtrack—coalesce perfectly into a unique experience that few other games can replicate quite this well. The ambiance of this hack-and-slash game makes for an engaging soundtrack that rarely has a dull moment, even in the rare slower tracks.
Crypt of the Necrodancer
If you’re looking to get into the zone, what better soundtrack than a rhythm-based game? Crypt of the Necrodancer‘s soundtrack, composed by Danny Baranowsky, is easily one of the best work-ready game albums out there, with its upbeat tempo and incredibly groovy instrumentation—from guitar-focused rock tracks to electronic dance bops. If this hits the spot for you, be sure to check out Baranowsky’s other soundtracks, including Super Meat Boy and Crypt’s Zelda-focused counterpart, Cadence of Hyrule.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Speaking of Zelda, I knew I couldn’t get away with ignoring Link’s adventures on this list. If I had to pick one Legend of Zelda game to back my workday, it’d probably be The Wind Waker (available on CD but sadly not on Spotify). It may not be the most famous Zelda game, but the soundtrack has all the Zelda charm you know from more popular titles, with plenty of jaunty tunes to keep your motivation up.
Super Mario Galaxy
Ask 10 Mario fans which soundtrack is the best and you could probably get 10 different answers. Heck, ask me on 10 different days and you’ll get 10 different answers. But today, I’m going with Super Mario Galaxy: It has a ton of catchy, groovy melodies that keep your energy level high, and they’re so peppy that you might even catch yourself enjoying your job. Unfortunately, it isn’t on services like Spotify, and you’ll have to track down the CD on eBay.
I could do a whole separate list of retro-style chiptune soundtracks, but in the interest of self-control, I’ll have to pick a few of the best here. When it comes to upbeat jams, I’m always drawn to the soundtracks Konami put out in the NES era, with Castlevania III at the top of my list—though Contra and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: The Manhattan Project come awfully close, and the newer Shovel Knight soundtrack harkens back to those days beautifully as well.
Streets of Rage 2
I’ve never played Streets of Rage 2, but any retro enthusiast will tell you this was one of the best soundtracks of the era. And, considering it’s designed to guide you through the streets in a fit of rage, it’s a perfect tempo and tune to keep you motivated at work. Just make sure you don’t punch your computer monitor in the middle of that important project.
Sonic the Hedgehog
There’s one retro game series that still has me hooked on its soundtrack years later: Sonic the Hedgehog. The tunes in the original Genesis games were so catchy, I still hum them as I do the dishes, and it drives my wife crazy. (Sonic 3 is my personal favorite, and the Michael Jackson mystery surrounding its soundtrack only makes it more compelling.) Stream the original soundtracks or listen to the newer remixes from Sonic Generations, which are equally catchy with a more modern sound.
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