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The Unbroken Circle: Five Modern Games with Folk Songs as Themes

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Music and gaming have gone hand in hand ever since gaming became an industry. Every kid who grew up in the 80’s likely has a mental library of classic video game theme music that they’ll carry with them until the day they die. You know the ones I’m talking about. But time moves ever onward, games are so much more now than they were, and the catchy jingles that defined yesteryear don’t really cut it anymore.

AAA games are now expected to come with their own amazing scores and soundtracks to match the best film and television have to offer, and most of the time they are up to the task. No more computery melodies of bleeps and bloops to infest our brains, we’ve got full on sweeping orchestral scores and popular music to heighten the moments and propel us to action in modern video games.

Sooner or later, every kind of entertainment has to come full circle and arrive back to the beginning of art as entertainment: folk music. First it made a comeback in popular music in the 60’s protest era and again recently with bands like Mumford and Sons. Movies -particularly indie films- have often used it and acclaimed films like O Brother Where Art Thou were built around it. Then it was modern television with shows like The Walking Dead leaning on the timeless sound for moments of poignant drama, and now finally we come to video games.

In the last generation of gaming, there have been games that have used folk music to incredible dramatic effect, proving once again that anything film and television can do, gaming can do better. Here are five examples of games using a musical style and songs so old nobody even knows where they came from to bring interactive entertainment into the dramatic big leagues while making ancient music new again.

Until Dawn

“Well what is this, that I can’t see?

With ice cold hands taking hold of me

When God is gone and the Devil takes hold

Who’ll have mercy on my soul?”

The opening credit sequence for the this year’s interactive horror story of choice uses a reworked version of the traditional (which is short form for “so old we don’t know who wrote it or when”) ballad “O Death”, which was originally recorded in the 1920’s.

The song a natural fit for acoustic blues, but the way it’s used in Until Dawn is particularly effective and brings it into the modern era nicely. A pulse pounding rhythm escalates throughout the song ha classical vocals and initially sparse orchestral instrumentation swoop in and out. The verses accompanied by various thematic images are interrupted by an introductory cutscene setting the stage for the story before returning to the song for the finale, making the journey ahead feel epic before it even properly begins.

As credit sequences go, you can hardly do better (unless you are Tales from the Borderlands) and the choice of song couldn’t have been more spot on. The sound of a beautiful feminine voice pleading for her life with the grim reaper is a good place to start off after the opening sequence where you see two teenage girls driven to their deaths. And with death seeming to lurk around the corner of every decision you make in the story, the lyrics are incredibly fitting.

The Walking Dead: Season 1

“All that we have known will be an echo

Of days when love was true

Muted voices just beyond

The silent surface of what has gone”

The finale for Telltale Games’ breakthrough hit series based on the unstoppable multimedia franchise that began life (undeath?) as an independent black-and-white comic put the small dev right in among the AAA heavyweights. A video game that can make grown men admit to crying is a video game that gets people’s attention, and even if you resisted the innumerable atrocities and tragedies thrown at you in the first four episodes, if that finale didn’t break you the you were already broken to begin with.

The song, Alela Diane’s “Take Us Back” isn’t an old song, but it sounds like it is. It could have come from literally any period of human history, its themes and melody are so universal and timeless. But in this context the lyrics embody the wistfulness of a ruined world ruled by the dead; a shadow of a time when humanity meant something.

It’s one thing to be born into a world of shit, but to be that first generation living with the memory of a once-thriving society and trying to find the hope to go on…it’s almost overwhelming to try and process what that must feel like. But after hearing “Take Us Back” over the closing credits of this remarkable work of interactive art, I know exactly what it sounds like.

Red Dead Redemption

“Step in front of a runaway train just to feel alive again

Pushing forward through the night, aching just to blow aside

It’s so far, so far away”

The best moment in Rockstar Games’ definitive tale of the death of the Old West isn’t dragging lassoed bandits through town tied to your horse, winning a quickdraw duel, or engaging in epic shootouts. It’s something undefinable that could only truly be experienced in a video game.

“Far Away” by Swedish-born singer-songwriter Jose Gonzalez takes the most basic function of an open world game and transforms it into a poignant, meditative moment of moody intangible beauty. If you ever needed an example of how music can utterly transform your perception of a scene, then John Marston’s long ride into Mexico is it.

While you, the player, is pretty much just directing your horse towards your destination the way you’ve done over and over while traveling hither and thither the whole game. During this turning point in the story, you get on your horse to ride into uncharted (by you, at least) territory and this gorgeous fingerpicked guitar is suddenly accompanying your journey as you gallop past the river colored by the gorgeous sunset.

The beautiful scenery and haunting music combine to make the most mundane of open-world gaming chores magical, and the lyrics naturally mirror Marston’s journey as well. There aren’t many lines in the song, but with the recklessness of your hero’s quest to do whatever it takes to leave his past behind, both the player and the character understand on some subconscious level that the past is something you are never free or clear from. The song suggests this as well, painting the story of a man so weary he’s not sure if he’s working towards a true goal anymore or just trying to find a way to finally die. No matter how far he goes or how hard he tries, his dream of a peaceful life is always far away.

The Walking Dead: Season 2

“Little girl, little girl, don’t lie to me

Tell me where did you sleep last night?

In the pines, in the pines, where the sun never shines

You shiver the whole night through.”

Nothing says success quite like an encore. Telltale didn’t waste much time in expanding their smash hit into a second season, passing the protagonist’s torch to the young girl players spent the first season protecting. And given the glorious feels and universal praise for their use of music at the end of that first season, they decided to expand on that and use songs at the end of each episode.

As with before, the wistfulness of folk music wins the day and provides gamers with a few minutes to reflect on what they’ve just been through emotionally. Most of the tracks are from a band named Anadel with their highlight being “In the Water” closing the first episode with traditional acoustic folk to set the tone. Other episodes feature piano ballads and an instrumental as well, all hauntingly lovely tunes.

But my pick for the standout theme of this soundtrack is Episode 2’s closer “In the Pines”, a traditional piece sung by Janel Drewis, but probably best known as a song Nirvana covered during their legendary MTV Unplugged performance. Given the heroine Clementine’s “little girl lost” story in this season as she looks for stable footing while being tossed  from storm to storm, this song sums up that feeling perfectly.

At this point in the story, she’s been lost in the woods scavenging to survive and comes across a band of survivors living in a cabin. The beautiful, protective tone of Drewis’ performance and slow dirge-like pace of the music encapsulates the tragedy of a young girl with nowhere to go in a harsh and indifferent world.

Video contains Season One spoilers.

BioShock Infinite

“Will the circle be unbroken?

By and by, by and by

There’s a better home awaiting

In the sky, oh, in the sky”

BioShock Infinite should get some kind of lifetime achievement award for its groundbreaking use of music in a video game. Specifically, in taking classic songs and using them in way you never would have expected. Everything from the strains of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” emanating from a mysterious portal to a lone woman singing CCR’s “Fortunate Son” in the style of a traditional slave spiritual as a city in revolt burns around her to a barbershop quartet treating us to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” not only provide musical delight, but build the world of the floating city of Columbia and foreshadow the mind-boggling revelations of the story’s climax.

The masterstroke is the use of the inescapable folk hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, originally written in 1907 and rewritten and popularized in the 30’s by the Carter Family as a funeral song celebrating the infinite nature of life, death, and rebirth while mourning the passing of a loved one. Irrational Games used the original lyrics and turned them on their head for BioShock Infinite in a way that’s so brilliant, it hurts my brain. The scene where your character picks up a guitar on a whim and accompanies his charge Elizabeth as she sings the chorus slowly and sweetly while offering some food to a homeless child gave me goosebumps. One of my favorite moments in what I consider one of the best games ever.

What this scene did in a single bar of music was illustrate the theme of the entire game in a context having nothing to do with the lyrics as they were written originally. As we find out later in the story, the game operates on multiverse space-time physics theory and the story itself on an infinite time loop. And given the setting of a city floating in the sky and the general religious bend of its culture, there you have it: an incredibly complicated sci-fi setting and theme summed up in the chorus of an ancient hymn.

Additional themes implied by the song choice is the “all of this has happened before/all of this will happen again” nature of human politics and of oppression and revolution (think Orwell’s Animal Farm) illustrated as a parable within the game’s story. It’s kind of sad that a lot of people so criminally misunderstood it all. That’s a lot of depth in two lines of songs, though, any way you look at it. The game’s closing credits reprise the song in its entirety on a more festive note, showing the two lead voice actors actually recording it in the studio for a truly wonderful credits sequence celebrating a monumental gaming achievement. A beautiful way to end a beautiful game.

And not only does it sum up the themes of the game, but the theme of this article as well. This age-old form of human expression, its timeless songs, and the universal emotions they represent always find their way back to us and always with something new to add. Whether it’s in popular film, television, radio, or video games, folk music is something that people are always going to relate to on some level. So yes, the circle will, in fact, be unbroken, and as long as there are people around to sing it and hear it, there will be folk songs for every occasion.

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About Nick Verboon

I am a guy on the internet who writes stuff sometimes. Try and keep up. I used to write reviews Amazon and other sites under the moniker trashcanman before semi-retiring from my unpaid career for a while. But now I'm back in action writing columns for Unreality and Gamemoir. Enjoy. I

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