Playing By Ear
The real MVP in 2019’s video games? The music.
Ever scoured through YouTube or Spotify for that one song you heard in-game? Clicked replay repeatedly? Felt the strong urge to shell out $9.99 to buy the whole game’s album?
I’m guilty of it. Most of my iTunes library filled to the brim with game and movie soundtracks. Some music makes us feel a certain way, transports us to a memory, or is catchy enough for us to hold onto.
How many times have we replayed Megalovania from Undertale? Our hearts beating with the song, recalling each part of the in-game fight sequence? Or The Creeping Shadow from Shadow of Colossus? This forlorn and tense song that transports us to a moment where we sneaked around a lumbering colossus?
Music is the language of emotion that immerses the player into the created world. It can become a storytelling tool that either elevates or goes unnoticed. Audio directors and composers aim to create a soundtrack with pieces that resonate with us. Sometimes it’s so successful we get the case of the earworms, a special form of auditory imagery (Margulis, 2015).
I’ve found the stronger the video game’s soundtrack, the more memorable the story.
Why? Because somewhere within that three to four minutes of that one song, we believed in that created world.
Great soundtracks or any usage of music in a game keeps the game’s story alive in our heads even after we’ve hit the off switch.
In remembrance of 2019, here are three games whose music have kept me company long after I played and helped elevate the story.
It’s lonely in Death Stranding. Hideo Kojima portrays an isolated America attempting to connect after a crisis that gave Mankind a hard look behind the curtain on the afterlife.
You spend most of the game in a muted world. Nature and death have devoured outward signs of humanity. Sam Porter Bridges, the protagonist, must navigate this void listening to the scuffing of his boots, the howl of wind against rocks, and the snapping of the Odradek. The silence can become maddening, to the point Sam will hum and mumble to himself.
Then Sam climbs over that hill, sees a preserved city from afar, and the digitized drumming notes of Don’t Be So Serious play.
There is a restrictive and intentional touch with music in Death Stranding. Lyrical music only plays as you approach your destination. We’re relieved to hear people singing and the sight of a base — a haven. It is the game signifying we will not run into any enemies. These moments are always coupled with a landscape shot (camera pulled back) of Sam racing forward with no one else in sight (Maher, 2019). It’s both lonely and comforting.
Low Roar, the band that dominates Kojima’s track list, sound carries a clean, wistful, and melancholic twang that fits perfectly in this world. Kojima’s hand-picked songs’ lyrics and tunes help create smooth transitions in the story and encourage player reflection both on the world they are exploring and Sam’s story they are following.
“When the music plays, where the camera changes flawlessly according to the player’s situation, players will feel like they are watching a movie (or a TV drama) when playing the game.”
The specific curation of these songs are catchy and well-known artists, such as Chvrches and Khalid, have music featured in-game. However, I don’t want to discount the atmospheric music created by composer Ludvig Forssell and Joel Corelitz for the game’s cut scenes. The two composers took innovative approaches in their music to help create a familiar, but strange world. With the help of a prepared piano (a piano that has been heavily modified to create strange noises), faraway choir singing, and guttural humming, the composers leave us with discordant noises that pull us closer to The Beach.
My favorite, and with an iconic 5–6 note melody 40 seconds in, is ‘Fragile.’ It’s the theme for Fragile, a character shouldering a weighty burden she cannot shake off, but fiercely wishes to write her own ending to her story. It’s poignant and fierce, the prepared piano the main focal point. Frankly, her theme song creates the emotional punch to her scenes that dialogue alone cannot manage. Often times, it’s the music that gives strength to the writing.
The soundtrack — both selected and composed songs — make us believers of Kojima’s lonely world of a limping America trying to pull itself together. It, also, keeps us in our seats, holding onto the hope his characters hold of a better tomorrow.
Death Stranding’s music direction deserves a repeat and a like!
Pokemon Sword & Shield
The new installation into the Pokémon universe is a far cry from its predecessors with music. Pokémon Let’s go, Pikachu and Eevee! (2018) modernized timeless tunes we’ve listened to throughout the series. Pokemon Sword and Shield? It explodes with new energy and tries to compliment the personalities of each character.
Don’t believe me? Give the Gym Leaders’ theme song a listen.
Gym battles take place in massive coliseums, reminiscent to professional soccer tournament games. It’s you, the gym leader, and thousands of fans in the stands. Composers Go Inchinose and Minako Adachi structured the song to fit the stretch of battle, using buildups as transitions into a quicker beat, incorporating more instruments. The final build up occurs when the Gym Leader has one Pokémon left and the crowd is up on their feet, cheering from the stands. The fans become part of the music. It’s a clever move from the composers, pulling us further into the illusion that we are in that stadium.
The battle music for the supporting cast (Gym Leaders, Rivals, Enemies) attempt to reflect the characters. Hop’s theme is optimistic and upbeat, fitting his character. It will later evolve into a salsa-tinged hit, reflecting his newfound confidence in himself (because hey, what doesn’t say “I got this” like salsa music?). Bede’s battle theme is quick on the percussion and synths, throwing us into a mad race where I feel rushed. Fitting for Bede who spends most of the game annoyed with our existence. Marine’s theme is a mix of sweet and tough, electric guitar on display. It’s a nod to her Spikemuth roots, even sharing the same musical intro as Team Yell’s and Piers’ (Marine’s brother).
However, there are two outliers that stick out that highlights the composers’ thoughtful approach to the characters and the storyline: Leon’s and Piers’ themes.
Champion Leon’s battle theme is mixed with the Hall of Fame song. The Hall of Fame theme song only plays after you beat the Champion. We haven’t beaten Leon yet, but it’s already playing and it’s not playing for us.
It’s a subtle, but confident message: your chances of winning are near impossible. Leon’s battle theme is an assumption from the crowd (who sing along the entire time), Galar Region, and Leon that he will win — again. To Leon, these major battles are another win to him. With that tidbit in mind, this makes beating Leon even more daunting and thrilling.
The next outlier is with Piers, Spikemuth’s Gym Leader.
The Galar Region has been flourishing thanks to Chairman Rose’s influence, except for Spikemuth. Spikemuth is rundown, broken, and isolated. There is no grand stadium, big televisions, and hordes of fans. Why the harsh contrast?
The theory I have behind Spikemuth’s state is that Piers refusing to embrace the Dynamax technology has blacklisted him.
It’s fitting, then, that Piers not have the same Gym Leader battle theme as the others. Piers’ theme highlights electric guitars and is rock-infused, a contrast to the uniformed Gym Leader Battle Theme. Ultimately, Piers’ theme is him taking a stand against the norm, despite the consequences.
Piers’ punk theme and Spikemuth, also, feels like a punk subculture reference. In the United Kingdom, in response to high unemployment and youth feeling devalued in the ‘70s, the punk subculture was born (Carroll, 2019). It’s a defiant and loud movement in public spaces (like Team Yell) fighting against social isolation. Isn’t that what Spikemuth is going through?
Piers rebellious theme and refusing to drink Galar’s Kool-Aid emulates punk. It makes sense why he is a key ally later in the game against Chairman Rose and his capitalistic corporation. It’s details like this that help provide depth to the storyline.
I do not want to forget about the atmospheric music that plays when visiting different locations. There is Motostoke, a very industrialized city, the city’s song will cue with the sound of bells (Big Ben/Elizabeth Tower reference?) and machines clinking together. Or Stow-on-Slide’s theme song, a fan favorite that is flute and acoustic guitar focused. This song plays as you enter this a town filled to the brim with Galar artifacts and fossils. It feels like a tip of the hat to the UK’s title of being a “dinosaur paradise” (Saul, 2014). Which is fitting because you can meet a scientist just outside the town that will stitch fossils together for you.
These are just a few of the songs that have helped create enjoyable environments and moments. With Pokemon Sword & Shield, the composers created noteworthy tracks that makes me want to go on this adventure one more time. New game, anyone?
You start in The Oldest House, the headquarters to the Federal Bureau of Control. The building doesn’t comply to the laws of reason and gravity. It’s a surreal place filled with surreal items and things. Petri Alanko and Martin Stig Andersen are no stranger to Remedy games and have banded together to create a soundtrack meant to crawl under your skin and highlight the strangeness within The Oldest House.
It works. They created songs that have had me fast walking straight out of a handful of rooms.
The first track to give me chills? Portam Ad Inferno (Gates to Hell). This is an unnerving track with a singular, low note that thrums throughout the entire track in the background. Voices murmur nonsense as they slowly creep into the track before being snuffed with a crystal clear click. The song continues in that fashion: moments of calm interrupted with surreal, threatening beats. It’s fitting seeing that is exactly how Jesse Faden’s (the protagonist) journey is like throughout the Oldest House: pockets of relief in a sea of strange.
The next track that struck me was Furnace, which plays during one of Janitor Ahti’s missions where you must ‘feed the Furnace.’ Alanko and Stig Andersen created a piece that combines the sound of metal groaning, the soft hum of heat through pipes, and this harrowing suspicion that this machine you must feed is alive. I was expecting something to leap out during the mission. Or for the furnace to devour me, but it never quite happened, the suspense from the music gnawing at my nerves.
This is a recurring theme throughout the soundtrack. The composers created unhinged tracks that still leave me with goosebumps.
My all-time favorite tracks, however, come from Poets of The Fall (Old Gods of Asgard). We can find one of their tracks by the Central Research. There is a study being conducted measuring paranatural responses after listening to Poets of The Fall. Hit the red button, go inside the room, and enjoy My Dark Disquiet. It’s no surprise that many players admit to staying put and listening to the entire 5 minute song. It’s a hit.
But the singular track from Poets of The Fall that has left me on the edge of my seat and grinning, was when Take Control plays in The Ashtray Maze. Most of the game is Jesse trying to understand and regain control of the Federal Bureau of Control. The Ashtray Maze mission is a moment where Jesse steers The Oldest House and its paranatural bizarrity (with Ahti’s blessing).
I can’t help but grin as walls disappear, drop, and flutter in and out of existence. Platforms rise and fall, the laws of physics thrown in the trash as the music swells around you. There is a moment where all the walls open in the maze, enemies on the other side, things look bad — whoosh, walls stitch themselves close. It’s like an invisible hand is guiding us, pushing out the worst of the maze, making us wonder if we really are in control.
Jesse Faden’s verdict after the song was over, “That was awesome.”
I agree with her. When it comes to Control’s choice of music, it’s awesome.
These three games used music to elevate storytelling, create enjoyable experiences, and help us believe in the game’s world. Even though the year 2020 is here, I’ll always remember the set of tracks that have left me with memorable moments in-game.
What about you? Any tracks from 2019 that gave you a serious case of the earworms?
Carroll, A. (2019). Running Riot: Violence and British Punk Communities, 1975–1984. Criminocorpus. Retrieved from http://journals.openedition.org/criminocorpus/5657
Garst, A. (2019, November 8). Playing piano with a sledgehammer: creating Death Stranding’s unidentifiable score. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2019/11/8/20954112/death-stranding-score-music-interview-joel-corelitz-ludvig-forssell.
Maher, C. (2019, November 11). The sound of Death Stranding and how Hideo Kojima selects the music for his games. Retrieved from https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2019-11-11-the-sound-of-death-stranding-and-how-hideo-kojima-selects-the-music-for-his-games.
Margulis, E. (2015). Earworms: Those songs that get stuck in your head [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/3NE_OoO-N54
Saul, H. (2014, July 2). Jurassic Britain was a ‘dinosaur paradise’ with over 100 different. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/jurassic-britain-was-a-dinosaur-paradise-with-over-100-different-species-roaming-the-uk-9578116.html.