Back in the day, I had a choice to make: to upgrade from my old and busted PlayStation to either the next logical step on the Sony console ladder for more of the same or try something different and give this new Microsoft Xbox thingy a go. Seems like going with the safe choice would be the obvious answer given the rise and precipitous demise of so many upstart consoles over the years, but I couldn’t get the possibilities of the Xbox off of my mind.
The biggest factor in my choice to convert to Microsoft was the kind of exclusive games they were offering, specifically Morrowind, Knights of the Old Republic, and Halo, but what was arguably the clincher was the promise of custom soundtracks. This idea kind of blew my mind at the time.
Video gaming is something I consider to be my first love and still my one of my best friends, but music is my wife. Get the two together and now I see this metaphor going in some really inappropriate directions so I’ll just say that the idea of putting my favorite music in my favorite games was best summed up with two words: yes please!
The concept came about thanks to Microsoft’s almost-a-PC approach to their console that has since been aped by the competition across the board. The Xbox’s hard drive allowed gamers to rip music CD’s onto it, and some games took advantage of the newfound multimedia capabilities with awesome results.
One of the first games I bought was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2x, and I bought it specifically because it had custom soundtrack support. I had spent way too much time downloading wicked tunes onto my new video game system and I was not going to let it go to waste. The Tony Hawk games are known for having pretty bitchin’ soundtracks already, but when you spend hours and hours playing a game and hearing the same dozen songs over and over, it inevitably gets old.
You can only “Bring the Noise” with Anthrax and Public Enemy so many times a day before even a collaboration of two of your favorite acts of all time bores you. Patching in the hundreds of songs I’d loaded onto my Xbox reinvigorated the game for me big time. Even if I hadn’t liked the game, the excitement I got from creating the soundtrack and having it integrated seamlessly was a great feeling.
This wasn’t like playing a CD in the background while you game. The game started the song when the level began, ended it when the level ended, used them in the menus; the music of your choice was part of the game. The Grand Theft Auto games actually patched any playlists it found on the hard drive into the in-game car radios so that you’d hear your own music collection while channel-surfing, which was really cool.
A lot of my memories from the Xbox/early 360 years are linked to my custom soundtracks, it’s kind of crazy. Playing WWE SmackDown vs Raw and creating a customized wrestler’s entrance with any walkout song and syncing the lights and fireworks to it was amazing, smashing cities in Godzilla: Destroy All Monster Melee while Ministry’s “New World Order” blasted, Bad Brains’ “I Against I” kicking off another split-screen thrashing session with a friend in Tony Hawk, finishing up a mission in Conflict: Desert Storm and having Fugazi’s “Break In” set the perfect mood as my team rushed to the extraction point; there weren’t a ton of games who supported this feature, but all of the ones that did have special kinds of memories for me.
Naturally when I got my 360, the first thing I did was rip a bunch of CD’s to it to create custom playlists. Unlike the original Xbox, the new one had a menu button that would allow you to play any music you wanted during any game. And with a USB port and wireless connectivity, streaming tunes from your iPod and computer made it easier than ever. But it wasn’t the same.
Yeah, I had an awesome time making a badass girl-powered soundtrack to inspire me to kick butt as Ayane in Dead or Alive 4, some thrashy stuff for mowing down my fellow gamers without mercy in Gears of War multiplayer, and an eclectic collection for adventuring in Kameo and I really enjoyed all of those games with my own music, but playing music over a game’s own soundtrack somehow just isn’t as awesome as a game designed to make your music its music, you know?
Not only that, but during the past gen the in-game soundtrack and voice acting became really vital the experience of most games as storytelling took center stage in a lot of titles. The wrong music could really spoil the mood in that kind of game the same way the right music could make experiences in older, simpler games more memorable.
I mean, are you going to be playing Mass Effect and getting romantic with your crew member of choice while Slipknot screams about slitting your throat and fucking the wound in the background? Or perhaps have Puffy AmiYumi extolling the virtues of eternal friendship in saccharine J-pop harmony while beloved companions in Telltale’s The Walking Dead are torn apart before your eyes? No thanks. From a comedy standpoint, it’s freakin’ gold, but it would kind of spoil the intended dramatic effect.
Even in some shooters like the Halo games, the in-game music is such an important part of the dramatic tension and epic feel in the narrative that it would just seem wrong to put some random playlist in its place. Video games have become art, and with that distinction, the appeal of a custom soundtrack has lost a lot of its appeal to me. When I started running out of room on my hard drive, the music was among the first things I discarded. It felt a little bit sad.
It’s not that I would trade in the more sophisticated approach of modern gaming for the simplicity that lent itself to custom soundtracks, but I can’t help but feel nostalgic from time to time for that brief era where seamlessly combining my favorite music and my favorite hobby in digital bliss made for some really great times.
Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate brought the feature back and I was considering getting it based on that alone. But since I already bought DOA5 once and it was goddamn unplayable (literally; the game froze at least once an hour), all faith in Team Ninja is gone. I’m not buying a game again for custom soundtrack support when the first version was broken. Custom soundtrack revival: denied.
So yeah, I’ll miss you, custom soundtracks, and I don’t think we’ll be meeting again. But for that moment in time, you made my life and my games that much better and I’ll never forget the good times we had. But from here on out, I think my music collection and my game collection are going to have to remain separate and in some ways, that’s probably a good thing.