A Wholly Self-Indulgent Post About Music In Games

I am writing a great deal about various things in games that suck, and doing this and only this depressing for all of us. And I’m taking too long over it. So here’s a post about game music I like.

I am not equipped with much of a critical vocabulary when it comes to music. I don’t make the kinds of game that typically require music, and when I imagine making other kinds of games the music isn’t really something I consider. The closest my creative brain ever gets is the idle composition of fragmentary rap lyrics, and that‘s really closer to poetry than music. So ‘like’, here, includes music that stands out enough to make me not turn it off, and then actually remember it; which is well-suited to the game, but still works beautifully independent of it. There is doubtless a great stock of game music which does an excellent job in an inobtrusive fashion, but I am not proficient enough to notice or recollect it. Actual music writers, pray forgive my fumbling.

Scientist-RidsTheWorldGTA 3 – Scientist Rids the World of the Evil Curse of the Vampires (Scientist). The album appeared more or less in its entirety on the radio station K-Jah, and probably corresponded to some shittily-depicted Rasta faction: I don’t even remember, I only ever played GTA at friends’ houses. This was the first time in GTA, or in any game, really, when the music a) was good and b) felt like something that might actually be playing in the world. I promptly forgot about it until a year or so later when I was expanding my meagre dub collection and picked up the CD and remembered, oh, right. It is a much deeper, better, more emotionally nuanced album than either its schlocky horror theming or its appearance in GTA would suggest. Best track, and perhaps my favourite dub track ever: Your Teeth In My Neck.

Beyond Good & Evil – PropagandaThis is one of the tracks that has the virtue of sounding both badass and like something that would actually be playing in the place it appears. That marching-boots percussion, that perilously lurching phrase that switches from foreground strings to background organ. The setting of BG&E was attractive in large part because it was such a diverse, fusion-culture kind of place, one of those Caribbean islands whose demographics sound as though they’ve just rolled five times on the Random Immigration Table; and the soundtrack sounded like it.

Planescape: Torment  (Mark Morgan). One of Jacq’s favourite albums long before either of us played the game. It always puts me in mind of the Peter Gabriel soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ, Passion – they both have this juxtaposition of arid looming emptiness, insistent rhythm, and the sense that something long-familiar is vaster, more foreign, more fearsome than imagined. (Now that I google it, of course Morgan cites Gabriel as an influence.)

Sunless Sea (Maribeth Solomon, Brent Barkman)The music is such a big part of the SS experience that you should really only play it with The Good Headphones. SS is relatively slow-paced, its central mood one of sombre anticipation in vast, unknown darkness: if you don’t get into that mood, the pure mechanics of the game are likely to start feeling too slow-paced. Music is largely responsible for building and sustaining that emotional immersion.

There’s quite a range of mood, too – the conditional, relieved elation of making it safely back to harbour of Wolfstack Lights; the submerged alien creepiness of Benthic. Some of it – SultryKhan’s Heart – is right back in that Mark Morgan/Peter Gabriel feel.

American McGee’s Alice – Village of the Doomed (Chris Vrenna)A soundtrack that’s freaking amazing all-round, but to a great extent it’s all just elaborations on themes established here: clockwork regularity set off against those keening strings and voices, that almost-echoing, subterranean hum, the hints of unknown scraping things happening off in the distance. Vrenna is a veteran of Nine Inch Nails and (subsequent to Alice) Marilyn Manson; neither of those are bands that I have much investment in, but that anguished, sinister, rats-in-the-walls creepiness is just what the game requires.

Civ IV – Baba Yetu (Christopher Tin, Soweto Gospel Choir, Royal Philharmonic.) The first videogame music to win a Grammy, so I’m really picking some controversial choices here, boy howdy. But this is so good that Jacq and I would sometimes load the game just for the menu-screen music. Its role is basically a reprise of the one that Also Sprach Zarathustra serves in 2001: A Space Odyssey: an ever-building crescendo glorifying the arc of human accomplishment. Yeah, the lyrics turn out to be the Lord’s Prayer, but in context this isn’t how it feels – Civ has always been about the March of Human Progress, with gods absent or peripheral, and unless you speak Swahili all you can tell is that this is a grand triumph, even without the video to rub the subtext in your face.

Like all really good triumphant-crescendo songs, it’s the build from quiet simplicity that makes it work. And that build reflects the subject-matter, whether you want it to be about God or mankind: beginning with a lone voice in darkness, and thence to a grand blossoming. It’s full of wonder and optimism, the impression of the Greatest Story Ever Told. And christ but I love the… timbre? (yes, that seems like a suitably inexact term) of Bantu languages. (The only people whose voices which have ever set off an AMSR-like response in me have been Bantu-accented men.)

Skyrim – Dragonborn (Jeremy Soule). This is going for a similar epic-glory tone – and why not, videogames are sure as fuck the foremost epic-glory genre of our times. CHORAL MANSHOUTS.

The punctuating shouts are basically kiai, the short, forceful exhalations that accompany a blow in martial arts. You’re trained to do those partly because it’s good breath practice, but largely because it’s a confidence pump. It takes some training to learn to give a really good kiai, not because it’s physically difficult but because there’s a lot of social-conditioning reflex to overcome; there’s no normal social context in which making that kind of alarming racket is acceptable. And that gives the delivery of a really solid kiai an amazing feeling of strength and freedom.

So that’s a pretty appropriate thing for a game that’s about fighting. But in Skyrim shouts are actual attacks: they’re words in the ancient language of dragons, whose very words changed the world. This is a cooler and deeper theme than the rather… confined plot-writing of The Elder Scrolls ever really gets to explore, but it still gives the music a stronger relationship to the fiction than the ‘oh, just do a big LotR-sounding epic fantasy thing’ that’s my base expectation for a fantasy CRPG.

The Fallouts. Well yeah obviously the Fallouts. Mark Morgan also does fine ambient work here, but: the thing the latter Fallouts do amazingly well is put you in a place where, yes, there are only ten LPs on your desert island, and you didn’t get to choose them, but by god they were popular enough to end up there, and they’re all you’ve got, so you’d better learn to like ’em.

Fallout is concerned with the 40s and 50s, and in general it treats the era with broad, cartoonish strokes. Which is fair enough: if Duck and Cover or the mushroom-cloud cake had been fictional, they’d feel heavy-handed. But the songs are the main place where, to some extent, that era gets to speak for itself. Which is really more powerful. And uncomfortable.

The best Fallout songs, in order, are as follows. No thinking person could argue otherwise.

  1. Maybe – The Ink Spots
  2. Big Iron – Marty Robbins
  3. I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire – The Ink Spots
  4. Why Don’t You Do Right – Peggy Lee
  5. Butcher Pete – Roy Brown
  6. Anything Goes – Cole Porter
  7. Goin’ Under – Darrell Wayne Perry and Tommy Smith, singer unknown
  8. Civilisation – Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters

Peng! One of those bizarrely amazing games that would sometimes show up in the cover CD of my dad’s MacWorld. It was a shared-keyboard multiplayer Bike kind of game, in the kind of 3D you got when 3D was new and exciting; and in fact it was way better than Bike, mostly because you could jump – on the flat, only just enough to clear an existing trail, but at high speeds and off a good ramp, you could soar. (The jump power took time to recharge, so you could still get into plenty of trouble.) The paper-thin premise was something to do with eternal suffering in the afterlife, and it had extremely weird level themes – The Boneyard, The Percolator – with textures that felt like HR Giger done cheap, across maps that were all organic curves and ripples, surrounded by darkness. The players were just spheres with an image wrapped onto them, and they were… an odd assortment. Stalin. Hitler. Beavis and Butthead. A pirate, a sentient eyeball. They made ungodly howls when they died, which might happen because you clipped through the floor and fell into the unending dark abyss. My brother and I played the shit out of it – the gameplay had a pretty keen balance between the flexibility of speeding up, jumping, and using terrain to avoid the ever-encroaching trails. But the thing that cemented its weird, inspired cult-hit feel was that every level had its own music, and all of them were instrumental tracks from Prince songs.

There was a weird symbiosis between all these elements that I am not adequate to fully express. I had not previously realised how good Prince’s instrumentals were, for a start. The short of it is that I still can’t hear Gett Up or I Would Die 4 U without flashbacks.

Brütal Legend. As a game entirely about ridiculous over-the-top heavy metal fantasy, this really needed to bring the loud angry sounds, and… yes. Yes it does. I like metal more than I used to, but big swathes of it remain boring to me – old-school 70s metal, in particular, mostly just sounds like poorly-equalised, kinda-naff rock. But Legend is a near-perfect tasting session, providing a good context for the music while absolving you of any requirement to take it too seriously.

The Walking Dead S2. It only has songs over the credits, which scarcely counts: but damn those are some good credits songs. The standout is Janel Drewis’ version of In the Pines. I first encountered the song through Bill Munroe, but it’s a southern Appalachian folk song of considerably older vintage:

…Judith McCulloh found 160 permutations of the song… the person who goes into the pines, or who is decapitated, is described as a man, woman, adolescent, husband, wife, or parent, while the pines can be seen as representing sexuality, death, or loneliness. The train is described as killing a loved one, as taking one’s beloved away, or as leaving an itinerant worker far from home.

I’m always a tiny bit sad that TWD only ever skirted around the edges of full-on Southern Gothic, and this feels like a nice acknowledgement of that mood.

The Yawhg (Halina Heron, Ryan Roth). The music is the oddly-situated lynch-pin holding together a rather disunified game that’s more than the sum of its parts. To a far greater extent than Sunless Sea, this is a game which absolutely relies on the audience keying into its weird palette of moods – if you don’t click with it, the game’s going to be pretty disappointing, too random and too simple. When you’re engaged in wacky swords-and-sorcery romps around the town, the music’s there to remind you, no, this is not actually that kind of game at all.

Crypt of the NecroDancer (Danny Baranowsky). Somehow this takes chiptunes and cheesy dance music, neither of which hold much inherent appeal for me, and combines them into something fuckin’ awesome. And after that it makes things yet more awesome by having an in-game character who sings along. The sad thing is that the best tracks are strategically placed in the intro and the first two levels, so it never gets any better than the beginning. (But you can just make every level play the 1-1 music if you want.) You’ve got to appreciate title puns on the level of Grave Throbbing and Portabellohead, too.

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 – TNT (AC/DC). Again, I have very little interest in AC/DC outside this context, but it’s the perfect song for the game. Sweaty adolescent posturing is precisely what a skating game should be about, and this song is the sweatiest and most teenaged.

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13 Responses to A Wholly Self-Indulgent Post About Music In Games

  1. dfabulich says:

    You didn’t mention Grim Fandango. Heard it?

    • It was one of those on-my-list games for years; I’ve recently picked up the remastered version, but the music hasn’t quite registered for me yet. (Another reason why I am a bad person to write about music is that it often takes a long time for me to realise that I like music: my brother will give me an album and then two years later my brain will finally register that it’s amazing.)

  2. Bifurcate:
    A) Wait, didn’t Necrodancer ping your zombie thing?
    B) What did you think of the official alternative soundtracks?

    • A) Yes, it does. I played some of it before the cut-off, and since then Jacqueline has played it within my hearing a fair amount.
      B) Wasn’t aware of their existence. Will mention to The Person Who Can Actually Play It.

  3. matt w says:

    A bit of Tlön seems to have leaked in, as it will.

    I guess the chiptune thing is going to rule out Cave Story for you. I was thinking about Knytt Underground but the Nifflas thing that blown me away is NightSky. I wouldn’t listen to it on its own the way I might with Knytt Underground but the way it comes and goes fits the game beautifully. Though what I really want to praise is the sound design.

    • The thing about chiptunes in games, like pixel art, is that I am generally OK with its very finest examples; the scale of their popularity ensures that there are going to be some astounding examples. The difference between loving or hating a genre / artistic technique / medium is usually just the difference between enjoying the top, say, 30% of its output and only enjoying the top 5%.

      I found Within A Dark Forest very capable as an overall experience – enough to overcome my usual irritation at pixely platformers. And the music was very much part of that seamlessly-capable execution, for sure.

      • matt w says:

        Oh well I would definitely nominate Cave Story as part of the top 5% then! I may even have enough of a sample of chiptune soundtracks in games to make that judgment. Gestation is a nice sample.

        The only Nifflas games I’ve been able to play are NightSky, Knytt Underground, and The Great Work, because of Mac ports. They all have good soundtracks.

  4. Very enjoyable post, as usual.

    Just to be mainstream as hell: I love the Final Fantasy soundtracks. Of the games I’ve played, it’s a close contest between FF6 and 7: in my opinion, 6 has the better tunes, but 7 does a lot more with Leitmotivs, expanding themes or tying them together in order to illustrate the story. For example, RED XIII’s theme is like an incomplete version of “Cosmo Canyon” (the theme of his homeland, from which he was abducted), going through some of the same bars but sinking back instead of reaching completion. Even more interestingly, the “Mako Reactor” track shows up in “The Mako Cannon Is Fired” and Sephiroth’s theme (“Those Chosen by The Planet”), since the Mako energy was used in turning Sephiroth into what he is. Then a part of “Those Chosen by the Planet” shows up almost unchanged in “The Birth of a God”.

    • Actually, now that I think of it, the one thing that really annoys me about the Planescape: Torment music is how the leitmotifs for its female NPCs get all soft and twinkly, regardless of how appropriate that might be for the character. Like, Annah is a shit-talking, slum-dwelling street-brawler with part-demon ancestry, whose main job prior to the game’s opening has been finding, looting and selling unclaimed corpses, but she’s the love interest so she gets this.

  5. Pingback: The Singles Jukebox » Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – Cecilia and the Satellite

  6. metaphlame says:

    There was an utterly charming interview with, not Soule himself, but one of his sub-sub-sub-lackeys, shot in the recording studio as he gushed over the soundboards about the choir and the audio balancing and the drums. You looked at that guy–pretty young, 30 tops–and thought “there is a man who is doing EXACTLY what he most loves.” I always think of it when I hear the dovahkiin theme. Behind the thundering shouts and the crescendo of drums there is a sound mixer who is basically squeeing it up in the soundbooth. ❤

  7. natecull says:

    How about the ending tracks of each episode for Alan Wake?

    Disclaimer: I haven’t actually played it, only watched Let’s Plays, but they seemed like nice music choices.

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