Sound Check

The inaugural post of Bit Creature's newest member, as he begins to explore the relationship of music to video games.

By: Garrett Martin

Filed Under: Editorial Life Music Reflections


I’m sorry, Neil Davidge.

I’m sure you did a great job on Halo 4′s score. The scraps and snippets that I vaguely remember seem appropriately stirring and inspiring. I know others give the whole shebang a big thumb’s up. Maybe I would, too, if I’d paid any attention to the game’s music whatsoever.

It’s not your fault. This is entirely on me. I’ve spent the better part of thirty years playing games and most of that time I’ve all but ignored game music. And that’s really weird, because music is one of the few lifelong interests more important to me than video games. I make it, I write about it, but above all I listen to it pretty much whenever possible. And that’s actually why I hardly ever listened to game music when I was young: I had headphones on. Twelve-year-old me picked Weird Al over the Bionic Commando music nine times out of ten, and twenty odd years later I’d probably still do the same.

Here’s what would happen: I’d get a new game. Maybe I’d rent one from a video store. (Those existed.) I’d play it a few times with the sound on, either out of a sense of obligation or to confirm that the game could be played just fine without listening to it, and as soon as I got tired of the repetition and the incessant bleeping and blorping I’d hit the mute button and turn on the Walkman.

It’s not that I always hated the music cranking out of my NES or Turbo-Grafx. (“Super Mario Bros. World 1-2″ is easily one of the best compositions of the 1980s, along with like half of the score to DuckTails.) I learned how to hook my Nintendo into a VCR into a stereo in order to record the music to Solstice, which is easily the finest game music of all time. It’s just that the vast majority of game music, then and now, consists of thinly sketched, repetitive themes that exist solely to complement the far more important aspects of a game, and usually don’t even do that very well. After one or two listens to most games, I was ready to pop that Ned’s Atomic Dustbin tape back on.

Also we have a set number of minutes in our lives. If I can maximize my time by doing two or three things at once, I will absolutely do so. Listening to the new tape I bought at Turtle’s while speeding through the game I brought home from Power Video was the most satisfying way to do two things at once when I was in middle school. If I only could’ve read a comic at the same time and also watched a Clash of the Champions. This is one reason we had four TVs side-by-side in our college apartment.

I will always associate certain records with the games I was playing while listening to them, and vice versa. Of course  I hear ”Korobeiniki” whenever I think of Tetris, but Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” is sneaking up right behind in the old memory banks. A week at my grandmother’s house one high school summer permanently combined the Jesus and Mary Chain album “Honey’s Dead” and the Sega Genesis version of Might & Magic II in my head. I barely remember anything about that game anymore, other than a weird cheat code that made my party into a pack of unbeatable and absurdly rich demigods, but when I dial that record up on the iPod I immediately think of the game’s large, colorful sprites and then-unusual first-person perspective. And I can’t hear Weezer’s first album without thinking of a strategy game called Dark Wizard that I played for twelve hours straight one night in 1994, with that CD on repeat the entire time. They aren’t separate pieces of work in my memory, but a single weird combo of anime-inspired tactical combat and noisy American power pop. It’s the closest the world will ever get to a Final Fantasy  set to Cheap Trick.

This illustrious history of not listening to game music was sadly ended by the rise of voice-acting. Technology had to ruin a good time. Once voice-overs were possible I had to take the headphones off so the game could tell me how to play it. Try playing BioShock while listening to Oneida: You can’t really do it. Even with subtitles you still need to hear splicers as they approach or the thunderous steps of a Big Daddy as it rushes towards you. The headphones are off and the stereo’s powered down, but the many years of pointedly disregarding a game’s audio make it too easy to ignore all but the most important sounds. So it’s the worst of both worlds. I have to listen to games when I play them now, but I’m not even really listening to them outside of crucial dialogue or instructions.

There’s one major exception: sports games. That’s the only genre that’s still universally improved by turning the sound off. Even silence is better than the same canned patter looping constantly over your baseball game or soccer match. And the game designers openly acknowledge that by letting you listen to your own MP3 playlist instead of their annoying commentary or major label product placement.

But so this is why I have no idea what Neil Davidge’s Halo 4 score sounds like. (I think it has strings?) I was too used to not caring about game music but also too focused on Master Chief’s computer girlfriend and the simple act of survival in a hostile environment to notice the music underpinning everything. Vitally integrating audio into the experience of playing a game might lead to a more fully formed medium, but it also removes a major reason I loved games when I was a kid. I was able to combine two of my favorite hobbies into a single activity. Those moments are gone, but at least I can keep my love for multitasking alive by drinking whenever I do pretty much anything.

[art credit]

Filed Under: Editorial Life Music Reflections

About the Author:
Garrett Martin is the Games Editor for Paste Magazine and reviews games for the Boston Herald and elsewhere.

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