Thursday, 8 January 2009

Gaming Soundtracks (and not the kind you’re thinking!)

The first album from the Emo rock band ‘Panic! At the Disco’ has been stamped into my brain to such a degree that, if I can’t quite remember all the words, I can certainly always sing the melody. Also, whenever it’s played, a strange phenomenon occurs in my brain as it stirs up memories of a place far, far away from anywhere I have actually ever been. For me the album ‘A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out’ will always remind me of the crimson shores of Bloodmyst Isle, and a young Warrior in his low teens named Davetwo.

Back in the day I was a pretty serious WoW player, spending as much as 10-12 hours a day playing if given the chance and while I was levelling up my third character towards the goal of level 70 I also fell head over heels for Panic! At The Disco. The album was on massive high repeat, not entirely unlike the act of ‘grinding’ for XP. As an indication of just how much I listened to that album at the time, for a period of about a month I would often lie in bed awake at night listening to the album just because it was so infectious. I am frequently go on what Dan Bruno has called ‘bingeing’ on media (he originally applied it to games, but I think it’s an idea that has wider applicability also).

So when I put it on again just the other day it felt like being back there grinding on Blood Elves for XP. The sensation of being in that place was just below the surface, like having a word on the tip of your tongue but for a feeling of place. My response was almost one of synaesthesia in that the music becomes the sensation of ‘being there’ again. Of course, this album is by no means the only example, there was another in particular that also reminded me of Un’Goro Crater (another World of Warcraft zone) which I can’t recall right now but will probably recognise instantly the next time I hear it. And if this sort of thing is purely the result of the confluence of music and game levels then Metronomy’sNights Out’ album will remind me of my GoW2 marathon of the other night…

But I suspect Metronomy will be saved from that rather unfortunate fate for the time being. For starters, GoW2 wasn’t memorable enough (more on that a bit later), and there probably wasn’t enough repetition to ingrain the ‘location’ with the music into my brain. And in that sense, WoW is perhaps a stellar candidate for this kind of musical/locational imprinting because a player often spends long periods of time in one particular location doing highly repetitive tasks.

Another album that reminds me of a game level is ‘Lost in the sound of separation’ by Underoath (possibly the best album to Audiosurf to ever). There is a particular part in the 4th track of the album, where the cacophony cuts back to primarily the sound of the hi-hat beating out a straight rhythm. After having been barrelling along at 100mph the track comes to a period of relative calm (a flat area in the track) and it undulates up and down beneath you in time to the hi-hat. It’s quite memorable to the point that now whenever I hear that part of the song I see the track hopping up and down madly in time to the hi-hat in my mind, even if I’m not playing Audiosurf. However, Audiosurf is probably unique in that it renders levels unique for each song in a way that is generally representative of the song itself. Whether this improves the chances of imprinting the level/music combo, I have no idea, but the game also encourages replaying songs over with its scoring system.

I’m sure if I took the time I could think of a bunch more examples of non-game music reminding me of a place in a game, but the important fact is that the phenomenon happens at all. Videogame ‘levels’ are as real to my brain as ‘physical’ places.

Care to share a similar occurrence of game bingeing mixed with music bingeing? I’d love to hear about your own extra-game musical experiences if you have any. Let’s see if we can’t find some patterns about when and how they occur and whether it really is just as simple as plenty of repetition.


Anonymous said...

So, when I didn't know any better, I signed up for Columbia House back when they were doing one of their "8 free CDs!" deals, and they started sending me their monthly "alternative" picks (which I shouldn't complain about too much, because that's what got me into Depeche Mode...but that's a story for another time). Anyway, one of those picks was a best-of album of Tears for Fears songs. One of my most vivid gaming memories is playing co-op games of Sega Genesis Madden Football with my brother while burning Tears for Fears songs into my brain.

I mean, Tears for Fears. Wow. That looks stranger in print than I thought it would.

Travis Megill said...

I actually don't have any game/music experiences because I always feel guilty and stressed when playing music over a game. I either want to hear the soundtrack of the game or layering the two is overwhelming.

I do, however, have those experiences with books/music. The strongest connection is between Tool's Lateralus album and the novel Imajica by Clive Barker. That album, specifically, Parabol/Parabola, always reminds me of the Reconciliation!

Nels Anderson said...

Any time I hear Ace of Base, I think SimCity. And I'm deadly serious.

When I was much younger, I used to play SimCity on my SNES while listening to my sister's cassette of The Sign on the stereo in the same room. You play "The Sign" or "All that She Wants" and I cannot help but think of arranging residential or commercials zones (no mixing) in 3x3 blocks, leaving the centre empty for a park or a special building.

Bryan said...

This is part of the reason I don't listen to other music when I'm playing a game. The music usually represents one thing for me, and games represent another, so to put them together, I have these dissonant memories that each one provides. Because, normally, I would not use a new game or album, but something I was familiar with. The same applies to books, and as such I must read in silence. When I tried to do it in the cases where one of the media was new, I was distracted trying to pay attention to the new album over the new game or vice versa, and in the end found that it is not something I do well.
The other part of the reason is that I'm usually genuinely interested in a title's score, so I want to hear it the way it was intended. (I will give an exception to Blue Dragon, during which I would play the Final Fantasy 7 battle music through the Xbox rather than listen to that horrible boss battle music).

Anonymous said...

Autechre's Amber remains forever intertwined with Descent 2. It was one of the first games to pull Red Book audio off the game's CD for the soundtrack. Naturally, you could simply replace the game disc with an album of your choice to craft your own soundtrack.

Now I can't listen to Autechre's album without conjuring up mental images of the desolate underground labyrinths, deadly robotic machinery and hurtling through corridors and mine shafts at breakneck speeds.

As you can imagine, I was quite pleased when The Software Refinery decided to feature the likes of Autechre, Black Dog, LFO and Squarepusher on the soundtrack for Hardwar.

Jonathan Mills said...

My chocolate & peanut butter gaming soundtrack moment is GTA3 on Xbox with The Clash's UK debut as the in-game soundtrack. Even before going back in time with Vice City, GTA had a washed-out retro feel, and The Clash fit in perfectly.

I would also occasionally jack an ambulance when Janie Jones came on so I could recreate the more chaotic scenes from Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead.

GTA has been great at using violence, satire, and confrontation as cultural commentary in the same mode as classic punk. Hopefully I can turn that idea into a full blog post.

Daniel Purvis said...

Ooooo! I beat you to this topic but in printed format -- Super Potato Zine 02.

In short, I revealed my love of the Tool album Lateralus but that whenever I play it, I long to play Digimon World (PSX). Then there's Pantera's Far Beyond Driven and a strong connection to Gran Turismo 2 and Garbage's track As Heaven Is Wide that draws me to the original GT (it was on the soundtrack).

Hehehe. Good post man.

Sorry to hear you listen to Panic! At the Disco :(

Unknown said...

I don't usually listen to music while playing games for most of the reasons given here but I have done it a couple of times for some accompaniment to repetitive gaming where I don't need to concentrate much. I have one noticable example of this phenomenon though.

When Battlefield 1942 came out I had just started listening to A Perfect Circle. Eventually I also started playing the awesome map that was released with a patch, Battle Of Britain. It was a mostly aerial based map, both teams were on totally seperate sides of the channel and the Germans objective was to destroy radar bunkers and a factory with their bombers. Fighters would accompany the bombers to protect them from British fighters. This cultivated the scenario for the most intense dog fights I'd ever experienced in a game and was very memorable.

Anyway, eventually I became so comfortable with dog fighting I'd started listening to music in the background but Mers De Noms was on high rotation and for some reason gelled well with the gameplay for me. So now whenever I listen to Mers De Noms I am sent across the channel to take the fight to the British shores. :)

Ben Abraham said...

So I'm hardly the only person that this has happened to then...

I think it's pretty clear that it takes quite a lot of both love and repetition with both the music and the game to make this kind of thing happen.

I'm sure there's something applicable to in-game soundtracks that we can learn from this - like 'make your ingame soundtracks as memorable as successful albums' or something.

@ Daniel - Hey man, I used to listen to Panic At The Disco. =D

Denis Farr said...

I still recall playing Ultima Online back in the day. To this day Daft Punk's Homework and Blümchen will remind me of those days.

In reference to the last interview you posted, I tend to give a game a chance. If the music becomes too repetitive or I'm spending too much time in the game world, I will supplement with my own soundtrack. MMOs and grinding games are popular candidates.

deckard47 said...

It is amazing how many bits of music (and the related games) this instantly brings back. What's stuck in my mind the most is playing No One Lives Forever 2 and Dungeon Seige, while listening to Weezer's Green Album and Cake's Motorcade of Generosity. They just all fell into place together somehow. Good times.

Anonymous said...

OH MY JOSH this happens to me all the time!

Linkin Park - Meteora: Commander Keen.

Thrice - Artist in the Ambulance: Off-Road Velociraptor Safari.

And i'm sure there's plenty of others. Sad, i know, but hey its not my fault my memory is stimulated by music AND games at the same time...

btw, I'm LOVING your blog, Ben!