Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. For the moment when it comes to games the last 3 are out. Until smellovision, haptic interfaces and lickable screens are omnipresent, game designers will continue to rely on the big 2, sight and sound, to create their worlds. Why then does sound design always seem to take a backseat to the graphics? The worst kept secret in interactive design is that sound is half the experience. Sure, a cool interface or a golden forest is a joy to experience, but add the right click and beeps or singing songbirds to the mix and your immersion increases ten-fold. And this isn’t limited to sound effects. More and more videogames are including elaborate soundtracks that elevate the experience to the level of a grand ballet – a heady mix of sight and sound that stays with you long after the game is out away on a dusty shelf. With this in mind, I’d like to share 5 of my favorite musical moments in videogames – where the mix of music and the moment made for an extra special and unique experience.
5. Grand Theft Auto Vice City: Run to You by Bryan Adams
Beach Cruising at Sunrise
yes I used to listen to this in high school. A catchy, somewhat sad Canadian rock tune that emerged in the age of video. But when I was driving along the beach in Vice City, watching the sunrise and doing nothing in particular except enjoying the view, something magical happened. Suddenly i wasn’t playing a videogame. I was coasting along a Miami beach, windows down, radio blaring. The power of the soundtrack suddenly came into focus, its ability to enhance a moment and make it something other than just a means to get from mission 1 to mission 2 by pressing the A button. I suppose when it comes to popular music soundtracks like those found in the Grand Theft Auto games, it doesn’t matter which particular song is playing. There are so many that we’re each likely to experience a moment where that long lost tune and game activity combine into something special for that particular person.
4. Beyond Good and Evil: In Hot Pursuit by Christophe Heral
Battle with the Domz Sea Serpent.
You’re casually leaving Mamago’s Garage in your rusty but trusty hovercraft, enjoying the sunny, ganja-fueled music, and perhaps thinking about the pleasures of a good joint when suddenly the skies darken, the mood changes, and Teratosaurus Imperator swoops out of the sky. This enormous sea serpent twists and turns in a lifelike manner across the surface of the water, several times the lenghth of your own ship, and In Hot Pursuit begins to play. Suddenly you’re engaged in a life and death shoot out while the choir sings to the rafters and the electro beat pounds along, simultaneously extolling the ‘larger than life’ nature of the serpent and the urgent nature of the moment. It’s this sudden change of contrast that makes the battle stand out that much more clearly, and the desperate chanting of the choir still haunts me.
2:38 in the video
3. Super Mario galaxy: Starbit Festival by Super Mario Galaxy Orchestra
Welcome to the Starbit Festival
I expected catchy music – every Mario game has it, going back to the original now iconic Super MArio original theme. So when Starbit Festival started playing, my first thought was that it sounded somehow familiar – an idyllic almost off tune piece of music that said “This is a Mario game”. As i began to wave my Wii wand around at the tv, collecting starbits and marveling at the then novel way of interacting with my screen, i crossed the crest of the first hill and suddenly the fairy-like majesty of Mario’s newest kingdom spread out before me. Starbits sparkled, mushroom men screeched a somehow soothing “Meee-hahhh!” as i spoke to them, lamps glowed and i began my journey down the village road that would lead to hours of adventure. But what really made this music so poignant later on was that it was never repeated again until the Final Galaxy, then only if you collected all 120 stars. It was a piece that was written just for that initial moment of wonder, and it’s subtle electronic beeps and orchestral whimsy captured and enhanced the scene perfectly. Whenever i hear the song I think of that first moment in a videogame when everything is new and nothing is known.
2. Mirror’s Edge: The Atrium (Kate – Puzzle) by Unknown
Into the Rafters
Some soundtracks are subtle. When I first arrived in the towering atrium level in Mirror’s Edge i was floored by the beauty of the light. There were sunsoaked walls, deep shadows and beautiful glass and girders. Once i picked up my jaw off the ground, i began my long and frustrating climb to the top of the room – several stories up. And i died. I fell and died then i fell and died again ad nauseum, slowly learning the ropes, cursing the screen and more than once throwing down the controller and leaving the room, declaring this the worst game in existence even as I marveled at the gorgeous scenery, innovative mechanics and that unique sense that somehow, this room and this city was a real place. Eventually i reached the top (today i can do it in minutes) and went on to finish what has become my absolute favorite game of 2008.
It was only months later, when i heard the song that plays in that room, that i realized how much I had invested in the experience. I instantly recognized it as the music from the Atrium, and I was surprised at the flood of memories it produced. I realized that music was with me the entire time i was climbing and leaping among the girders – i just didn’t notice it at the time. Sometimes a composer writes a piece that, for a minute, becomes like a friend to you – sticking with you through thick and thin, never annoying or intruding into the experience, just enhancing it and prodding you along, enveloping you like a warm bath.
5:00 in the video
1. Shadow of the Colossus: Counterattack -Battle with the Colossus by Kō Ōtani
While the entire soundtrack for Shadow of the Colossus is absolutely stunning, this is the battle that stood out for me. As you chase the colossus by horseback you get a feel for how truly immense it is. A creature of animated rock and earth whose every wing dwarfs your character in size and drags heavily across the sand spewing clouds of choking dust dozens of feet high. But once I manged to daringly leap from horseback and desperately grab onto one of the giants wings, the real thrill began. Phalanx rises into the sky taking you along with it as you hold on for dear life. Counterattack swells in the background and suddenly you’re soaring miles above a sun bleached desert on the back of a gigantic flying serpent at least 100 times your size – this doesn’t happen everyday. Possibly the most immersive and thrilling moment I’ve experienced in a videogame to date, in a videogame that is arguably the closest thing the genre has to true art.
1:15 in the video
I know each of you have your own musical moments that stand out for you. This is the beauty of videogames – they are really experiences and artworks that combine in ways that reach beyond the obvious. We need a new term other than ‘Games’, which has too many childlike connotations to fully describe their nature. As we progress they’ll continue to entertain us, even as they develop into something that means much more. Feel free to share any of your own moments in the comments, and if anyone knows who composed the Mirror’s Edge Atrium music of Starbit Festival from Super Mario Galaxy, please let me know and I’ll add it to the post.