Humiliating Artifacts

Confessions of a video game music remixer.

By: Aaron Matteson

Filed Under: Editorial Humor Music Reflections


I fully support the “nerd and proud of it” movement.  I love that comic books are cool now and that talking about Super Nintendo can be an aphrodisiac. To an extent, I revel in this new welcoming atmosphere.  I can admit that I played AD&D in junior high or that I have dreams about A Song of Ice and Fire without fear of ostracization. (For those of you who are curious: these dreams have to do with me fighting Jaime Lannister in the Riverlands. After the battle we develop a grudging respect for one another. For those of you who weren’t curious: sorry, carry on.)

But, even now, there are limits. There were dark reaches of my lonely adolescence, times when I immersed myself in geekdom to a degree that is beyond the reaches of the general public’s understanding.  In particular, there is one hobby that I had as a young man that I am reluctant to speak about even with my closest friends.

When I was in high school, I made video game music remixes.

Within the community of people who do this, “remix” is a general term used to denote a fan-made arrangement of a track from a video game’s score. There’s a sizeable group of people who make these remixes, ranging from casual musicians who throw something together in a sequencer and post it online to fans with serious training making impeccably-produced riffs on the famous theme songs of gaming history. And, for a time, I immersed myself in this niche community.

I was an odd duck in high school. Except for a select few songs, I did not listen to rock or pop songs; I preferred orchestral movie scores. So while other kids listened to Dave Matthews or Coldplay, I was usually listening to some blustery fanfare or melodramatic string suite by Hans Zimmer or John Williams.

Really where this love of soundtracks came from, I think, was years of playing video games. Instead of the pop anthems of TV shows, I wanted my life’s background music to be the rousing strains of the best video game scores. Since I couldn’t find much actual video game music (and what I did find was of such low quality), I settled for movie music.

Until one day I stumbled upon www.ocremix.com, and shortly thereafter upon the now-defunct www.vgmix.com, which were the two major sites for remixers of video game music. There I found a huge cache of music from all the games of my youth – Zelda, Super Mario World, Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV – arranged and embellished by other like-minded gamers.

I compiled a huge collection of the free arrangements available on both sites, and as I listened to them on the school bus or on my way from class to class, I was absolutely blissful. After all, most video game music is meant to evoke the clarity of purpose that comes with having a single goal and going after it. The adventure and mystery of Zelda 3’s Dark World theme, the brooding glory of Magus’s song in Chrono Trigger; hearing iconic pieces like these as interpreted by the remixing community instantly connected me with my favorite childhood stories of bravery. They made me feel whole, less like a pushover and more like a warrior.

It was only a matter of time before I downloaded a demo version of the sequencing software called FruityLoops and started making my own remixes to share with the internet.

Even then I was ashamed of this new love. I fought hard to make friends in high school, to win out against awkwardness and prove to people that I was funny, normal, worthwhile… and it was sort of working! But I knew that if my secret hobby was found out, I’d have to explain why I was so obsessed with video games that I not only played them, and not only listened to their soundtracks when I wasn’t playing them, but spent hours putting together my own dopey covers of video game songs.  And I didn’t have an answer to that question, except that it made me feel safe, which sounded so lame it made me want to give myself a wedgie.

There is a part of us all that is afraid to be judged.  I believe that even the most extreme iconoclasts and renegades have something that is so dear to them, that defines them on such a an odd and personal level, that they hide it so no one can tell them it’s stupid.  I was scared.

So I went under a pseudonym online – “Rayagon,” a name that I thought sounded cool; it had absolutely no meaning. I never mentioned remixing to anyone offline for years. And, when I went off to college, I buried the whole thing. My remixes, the pride and joy of that time in my life, died with my old computer and iPod.  When vgmix.com folded, I assumed many of them were gone forever.

Hide your weird, comforting secrets too well, and you’ll lose them.  And though my arrangements of Earthworm Jim and Halo tunes were completely mediocre and awkward, as the years went by, I began to miss them. I wanted to hear my clumsy teenage attempts at emulating some part of the purity of childhood adventure. I wanted to try to take myself back in time. And so, having lost all of my own copies of my old remixes, I searched “Rayagon” on YouTube, on a whim.

And there they were.  I found all of the remixes I ever shared, all of those early forays into the tough business of making art.  They had all been saved and shared by other people just as geeky as me, just as invested in this idiosyncratic little hobby as I had been.  And it was like I’d found a little footbridge, built by people who cared as much as I had cared, back to my past.

I’ve got them on my mp3 player now.  And if anybody happens to hear one and asks about it, I fess up. Because I’m still a little self-conscious about them, but I know their worth.  They’re humiliating artifacts, proof of two eras in my life that I don’t want to forget — the struggling teenager, and the kid with the controller in his hand learning about heroes.

Filed Under: Editorial Humor Music Reflections

About the Author:
Aaron Matteson is a stage actor in Brooklyn, a Seattle native, and an alum of Village Voice Media's Joystick Division.

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