When I was a young music fan in the deepest throes of untreated attention deficiency, it wasn’t rare for me to keep my boombox playing on repeat when I played video games. The world was filled with exciting art in both mediums, and my eagerness didn’t allow me to pause one to explore the other. I subjected myself to a never-ending barrage of sound and lights like a loose dog in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
While I no longer have the patience or energy to subject myself to such overstimulation, I will sometimes take advantage of my PlayStation’s built-in Spotify App to choose my own soundtrack. And sometimes, the results are really nice, the flavors of the music and the game mingling like a delicious cocktail. Or a suicide from the soda machine, if that’s more your speed.
Here are some pairings that I’ve found (or have imagined) would be really enjoyable.
Elden Ring and Death Spells by Holy Fawn
We’ll start with the combination that kicked off the idea. The other day as I was riding my magical horse exploring some ruins in the massive open-world RPG Elden Ring, I had Death Spells by Holy Fawn playing. In a particularly dreamy passage of the album, my wife looked up from her computer and remarked that it felt like an 80s fantasy movie.
And she was absolutely right. With the atmospheric dream pop of that moment paired against the luminous fantasy landscape, it conjured the same mood of movies like Legend or The Neverending Story. But Death Spells also features plenty of crushing heaviness, which is a great companion for the game’s unforgiving boss fights.
I’ve also heard the rumor that Death Spells was inspired by Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, a similarly magical open-world game. I’m not saying it’s true, but it makes sense.
And speaking of Zelda…
The Ocarina of Time and Kid A by Radiohead
I’m probably dating myself with this one, but when I first experienced this pairing, they were each only a few years old. And both Kid A and Ocarina of Time were massive game-changers. With Kid A, Radiohead expanded the palette of rock music and introduced some truly bizarre influences into the mainstream, just as Ocarina of Time expanded the Zelda franchise (and, by extension, the adventure/RPG genre as a whole) into the third dimension. And if you ask me, both of them totally hold up today. Though I would pay way too much for a proper remake of Ocarina.
Grand Theft Auto and The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails
The Grand Theft Auto series totally changed the landscape of the gaming industry by introducing an open-world environment where you really could do anything. You could steal cars, hijack helicopters, operate a taxi, beat up strangers, terrorize a city with military-grade weaponry, and even play pool.
But, there were consequences: cause too much havoc and you’ll get pursued by the police, the FBI, and at certain levels, even the military. It wasn’t just the law coming for your head: in some games, at a certain part in the story, rival gangs that you’ve wronged will target you on sight, blocking off entire sections of the city.
Now, the games all have their own soundtracks by way of the in-world radio stations that you can play in your car (GTA3 had a reggae station that was entirely culled from Scientist’s dub classic Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires). But, what better accompaniment for a game that allows for both unbridled hedonism and the consequences thereof than a concept album marking the rise and fall of an unbridled hedonist? Nine Inch Nails‘ The Downward Spiral might be culturally perceived as a glorification of all things gratuitous, but there is a catastrophic end to this cautionary tale—not unlike what happens once you reach the elusive fifth star wanted level.
Shadow of the Colossus and Agaetis Byrjun by Sigur Rós
Shadow of the Colossus is one of the most inspiring games I’ve played. The main character traverses a beautiful yet desolate landscape to vanquish unbelievably large enemies in order to save the life of his beloved. Even now when I play the remastered version for the PS4, I’m still struck with the same awe at the sheer grandeur and scale of the game.
It’s not unlike Agaetis Byrjun, the breakthrough album of Iceland’s Sigur Rós coats an almost alien landscape with immense colossi of sound. The atmosphere is walked by huge washes of bowed guitar, layers of keys and strings, and the soaring, heartbreaking voice of Jonsi Birgisson. I’ve heard this record hundreds of times, but I still feel a lump rise up in my throat when “Svefn-g-englar” kicks in, much the same way that my heart swells the first time I see a colossus cresting the horizon in Shadow.
Doom and Reign in Blood by Slayer
Doom is a simple enough premise: you are a marine that has to blast your way through Hell with heavy firepower. It’s a violent, bloody power fantasy that is meant to be more fun than serious.
In that same vein: despite all of Slayer’s invoking of Satanic and occult imagery, frontman Tom Araya is a devout Catholic who treats his lyric content with a sort of tongue-in-cheek campiness. Their classic album Reign in Blood is probably the most ridiculous they ever got, offering up almost cartoonish sacrilege with absolutely sickening riffs. When you put the two together, you might wonder if the only reason the makers of Doom didn’t originally include the classic thrash album as a soundtrack was that the hardware couldn’t handle it.
WWE Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain and Weathered by Creed
Okay, hear me out. Any wrestling fan in the early 2000s heard “My Sacrifice” way more often than they wanted to. This is because it was their go-to montage soundtrack. Any time they wanted to highlight the pain a wrestler went through to achieve just about anything, they would cut clips while this song played.
So, for a quick dose of nostalgia, pop in Here Comes the Pain, widely regarded to be the best wrestling game of that era, put “My Sacrifice” on repeat, and escape the slow passage of time.
Super Smash Bros. and Ultrapop by The Armed
When the first Super Smash Bros. was launched, it took the kinetic chaos of fighting games and cranked it up to eleven, with a cast of beloved video game characters. And as the series continued, they added more characters, more items, and more chaos. There are some stages where the very landscape attacks you while trying to survive an eight-player melee. I’ve played a few eight-players matches with people in the same room before, and it remains one of the most chaotically fun experiences of my life.
And when it comes to chaotic fun, not much music matches the hyperactive maximalism of Ultrapop by The Armed. The band has as many as sixteen members playing at once, with more ideas in one song than most artists fit into their entire career.
You might want to check with your doctor before mixing these two together though.
Goldeneye and Mezzanine by Massive Attack
As a kid in the late 90s, few games were as ubiquitous as Goldeneye for the N64. It was the main event at every sleepover, youth group lock-in, and afternoon hang-out session. And while the pause music is the stuff of legends, that level of quality isn’t consistent throughout the entire soundtrack—the wailing MIDI guitar solos in particular were a little obnoxious.
But for whatever reason, the Brosnan era of Bond is always tied to trip-hop in my mind, and there is no better trip-hop album than Massive Attack’s masterpiece Mezzanine (otherwise known as the album with the House theme song). Throw on that record, turn on your N64, and let the chill vibes slink on in.
Tony Hawk Pro Skater and the Tony Hawk Pro Skater Soundtrack
Okay, listen. Sometimes a game already has a perfect soundtrack. And though the quality of the games might have suffered the longer the franchise went on (what even was American Wasteland?), every single soundtrack in the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series was immaculately curated. And yes, I’m counting the short-lived iOS port of THPS2.
The soundtrack served as an introduction to punk, ska, hip hop, and metal for many young gamers. From Lagwagon’s “May 16” to Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to Bring the Noise” by Public Enemy and Anthrax, every track (okay, every track but “Blood Brothers” by Papa Roach) perfectly captured the mood of skating around on an idle afternoon. But no track on any game is as iconic as “Superman” by Goldfinger, which became the unofficial theme song of the series.
What did I miss? What are your favorite music and video game pairings? Drop them in the comments.