Five Music Videos that Capture the Gaming Experience

The three most important artistic elements of my life have been music, video games, and film in that order. They gave me places to go and things to do when I had nowhere worth going and nothing worth doing. They gave me friends when I was alone and joy when nothing else could. That is to say, these things were absolutely vital to me growing up. But very seldom have these three things I love come together equally to create something that satisfies me on all levels.

Enter the modern age. Anime is a thing you can now see without spending upwards of a hundred dollars on a boxed set, gaming is the single biggest entertainment medium, and to see a great music video you don’t have to rely on MTV to play it for you. Thanks, internet. Like in the Police song, the nerdy message in the bottle I sent so long ago has come back with millions of replies and all of my geek pastimes are everywhere now.

But still, it’s not often I come across something that works as a film, as a musical piece, and captures the essence of gaming at the same time. But in recent years, I’ve found some here and there and it’s my duty to share them with you. So clear a little time (who are we kidding, you’re browsing the internet.You have the time) and let’s take an audio-visual journey into the worlds of gaming through five music videos.

Me and You

“Are you ready?

Do you know?

I feel it too.”

Nero’s inaugural 2010 album, Welcome Reality, helped change the way I look at electronic music. Yeah, I was kind of one of those “real music means real instruments” guys. And for the most part, I still am, but hearing music like this makes me realize it’s not the instruments that matter, it’s the artists, and a well programmed dance song can be just as artistic and brilliant as an epic rock tune.

The video opens in that most classic of video game locations, the arcade. A magical place from many of our youths filled with light guns and steering wheels. Our protagonist leaves the crowd and wanders the abandoned halls to find that fabled gaming cabinet that was a standard of ‘80s cinema and urban legends.The game is a combination of classic beat ‘em up and racing and the protagonist SUCKS at both. The music has a great epic feel that seems to perfectly sum up the excitement of firing up a new game for the first time and the video is pure nostalgia fuel that does a solid job of capturing the arcade experience.

Speed of Light

“Let’s shoot the moon you and me

I’m not particular you’ll see

Just a lonesome galaxy”

Ah, the mighty Iron Maiden. Secretly one of the biggest bands in the world for three decades running and still perhaps the best live act you can see on a stage. Also: total bunch of geeks. Aside from routinely writing songs about science fiction novels and horror films, they also released a best of set in 1999, Ed Hunter, that included a PC game based on the fan-voted songs on the album. The game was an awful rail shooter, but still. How many bands create video games for their CDs?

2015’s Book of Souls proved that not only does the band still have it musically, but they are willing to push the nerd envelope even further with the video for the lead single, “Speed of Light” taking us on a tour of gaming history with the band’s demonic mascot, Eddie. It begins with a Maidenized Donkey Kong, cruises to a Contra-esque 2D shooter, through the fighting game era (Satan totally does a spinning piledriver, but Eddie’s critical art and fatality game can’t be fucked with), and into Elder Scrolls/FPS territory, ending up back in the place that every gamer who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s left their hearts: the arcade.

 

Protoculture

“Video games, I got many to play

Before my life expires, fulfill my desires”

Del the Funky Homosapien had his brush with fame guesting on the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” in 2001 to drop two of the best rap verses ever heard on popular radio, but he has always been an underground MC at heart, and a true geek. If he’s not finding ways to slip terms like “combo-spamming” into his rhymes, he’s probably referencing Marvel Comics or crafting another amazing cyberpunk hip-hop concept album with his supergroup, Deltron. Dude is legit.

This is the one video on the list that isn’t an official release, but as fan-made vids go, this is an hard project to screw up since the lyrics do most of the heavy lifting. Del and guest Khaos Unique probably set the world record for most gaming references compressed into four minutes, rhyming over a Darkstalkers sample. Nostalgia for ColecoVision and obscure references to games like Nightmare Creatures is the kind of cred you can’t really fake; these badass rappers are nerdier than you are. I questioned Del’s claim that he beat Legend of Zelda in an hour using the map in the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power, but apparently it can be done in half that time, so Del: 1, Nick: 0. And there’s a Master Chief moonwalk in the video. Gotta love that.

King

“I won’t be paralyzed

Don’t you know my aim is true

When you’re in my sights”

This one’s more style than substance and the song isn’t really my cup of tea, but you’ve got to love that video. It really makes me wish I had a daughter. Grades is a British DJ who’s gotten around in the three years since his debut, collaborating with K-pop artists and remixing classic R&B, but if the only thing he ever did was this video, his career would’ve been worthwhile.

In this charming combination of live action and animation, a little girl gains video game superpowers and dances her way to awesomeness. What this video reminds me of is classic platformers and beat ‘em ups where you played them so much that you had every level memorized and the early game became less about survival and more about stylishly performing for any spectators that were on hand. In modern days, I guess I’d compare it to Dark Souls where you become so familiar with the enemies because you’ve fought them so many times that you have the movements down pat and it’s all just effortless. That megablaster is OP, though.

Shelter

“And it’s a long way forward, so trust in me

I’ll give them shelter, like you’ve done for me”

“Shelter” transcends the music video format to become a masterpiece of short form filmmaking that just happens to be built around a great song. If you only watch one of these videos, this is the one to see. The song is an international collaboration from producers Peter Robinson and Madeon and was released last year in partnership with Crunchyroll. The video was created by A-1 Pictures, an anime studio known for shows like Sword Art Online and the Persona 4 and Valkyria Chronicles animated series’, so they are no strangers to gaming culture.

The narrative is a bittersweet science fiction story of loneliness and escapism told from the perspective of a young woman whose only companions are virtual reality and her own happy childhood memories. She creates massive, endless, amazing worlds with her mind but her tablet still reads no messages. Isolation and escapism can be a big part of a gamer’s life experiences and that feeling of being completely alone in the world and only being powerful and meaningful when exploring fantasies in game form is a very real thing, which is a big part of the passion that drives gamers to defend the medium as fervently as they do. “Shelter” captures both that amazing imaginative experience of completely immersing yourself in a virtual world and the hopeless melancholy that can lead us to seek shelter from harsh reality there. It’s easily one of the best music videos of all time.

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Not Dead Yet: Five Games that Have Represented Punk Culture

punk

Almost since the likes of the Ramones put on leather jackets, figured out they couldn’t keep up with the musicality of classic rock, made up for it by playing the simplest music at fast and hard as possible, and were dubbed “punks” for it, the refrain from the press has been “punk is dead”. The claim persisted through the ‘80s while hardcore dominated and developed the underground scene into what would become alternative rock, and even after punk joined the mainstream spotlight along with the ‘90s alternative explosion, it was just seen as proof that the ideologies that founded the scene were gone.

And now, nearly half a century after its founding, maybe they’re finally right. There are no prominent up and coming “real” punk bands to speak of, no parental groups raging against the “decline of Western society” due to loud, fast rock music, no police breaking up the shows. Just aging rockers doing what they’ve already been doing for decades and aging fans still showing up to hear the songs they love. Hardly a threat to the establishment.

In pop culture, it’s become almost a complete non-entity, former Pussy Riot members rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite and guesting on House of Cards aside. And video games? Hell, if you type “punk video games” into Google, all you get is some dude who remade classic 8-bit games in his favorite punk rockers’ images and called it Punktendo. Where’s the representation, gaming industry?

Ironically, punk and video game culture have seldom crossed paths in any meaningful way. I say ironically because the two scenes have had a lot in common and have practically grown up together. Deemed socially unacceptable by liberals and conservatives alike, it was nerds and outcasts that made both cultures and the fan crossover between the two is not insubstantial. But it wasn’t until the last two console generations that I’ve finally begun to see punk make its way into mainstream gaming in drips and drabs.

The ‘80s were filled with visual stereotypes as countless beat-em ups featured mohawked punks to wantonly murder, but where can one find a game that at least attempts to give some genuine representation to one of the most influential movements of the twentieth century whose ideologies and practices still persist in various forms of art, activism, and entertainment to this day? Well, I found five. It ain’t much, but it’s something. Dye up your liberty spikes and crank this shit up, because I’ve found evidence that punk is still alive in modern gaming, if just barely.   

Guitar Hero

“That one is predetermined

That one, it finds another.

This one comes in one window

Sliding out the other.

We need an instrument

To take a measurement.”

-Fugazi

Guitar Hero is the rhythm game smash hit franchise whose thoughtfully diverse setlists have made playable to countless gamers rock classics both iconic and obscure. It had been done before, but never like this. The style and sheer quality of music involved eclipsed all other rhythm games at the time and kicked off a craze that would eventually lead to the oversaturation and decline of the genre. But when it was hot, it was hot, and it has made a modest comeback recently along with its equally great sister franchise, Rock Band .

There is no sojourn through rock history that is complete without a tour through punk, and Guitar Hero has always obliged. Characters like Judy Nails and Johnny Napalm delivered playable punk aesthetic and attitude while the setlists often went above and beyond. The legendary Sex Pistols, who haven’t released a proper album in literally forty years, got together to re-record not one but two tracks for the series and other classic bands like the Stooges, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Donnas, Bad Religion, MC5, Generation X, Misfits, and Dropkick Murphys have been included along with the likes of, the Offspring, Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World, and Rise Against to make for a pretty solid cross section of punk culture from a musical standpoint.

Orwell

“Big Brother, he is a watching

Watching me and you.

Big Brother is a-watching

And he’ll know your every move.

They’re really really gonna do it to you

Just wait and see.

They’ll be telling us what to do

And they’ll want us to die laughing.”

-The Vandals

One of 2016’s breakout gaming experiences was also one of the only ones to portray punk culture in a meaningful way. Orwell is a unique story experience that casts the player in the role of the titular author’s Big Brother, altering the concept to be more in line with modern politics and further blurring the lines of morality as you snoop in the lives of private citizens in an attempt to stop a series of terrorist bombings.

Rather than a celebration or even positive representation of punk, the game portrays the culture in a refreshingly objective manner. As a government agent tasked with investigating terrorist acts, you have to look at the vocal anti-government scene forming before your eyes and try to decide how much of it is bluster and how much represents a real threat. It’s a fascinating conundrum that I imagine the people in charge are dealing with all the time.

In the ‘80s, police violently dispersed punk shows as part of their routine and bands like the Dead Kennedys and Suicidal Tendencies were harassed and investigated by the FBI for their anti-authoritarian lyrics. Tasking the player with investigating the members of a punk band, whose leader is often quite forceful in his political condemnations, made for a very interesting experience playing from the other side of the fence. Orwell itself represents the ethics of punk as a minimalist independent game that made up for what it lacked in resources for flashy graphics and scintillating gameplay with creativity and a strong message that allowed it to make the very most out of what it did have.   

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

“Early man walked away

As modern man took control.

Their minds weren’t all the same

To conquer was his goal.

So he built his great empire

And slaughtered his own kind.

Then he died a confused man

Killed himself with his own mind.”

-Bad Religion

The Shadowrun franchise is very much a product of the same horrific policies that helped give rise to the hardcore punk scene. While the media declared it “morning in America”, unprecedented numbers of homeless people filled its streets as poverty ran rampant due to our newly minted economic policies of taking money from the poor and middle class to give to massive corporations. The dark, cyberpunk dystopia where dragons rule the world behind corporate governments pitting the poor against one another by paying them to sabotage the competition as the only possible means of income is as inspired by 1980s America as it was by the fantasy and science fiction genres.  

In 2013, a wonderful thing happened. The unique RPG franchise came back to video games after years in hibernation to erase the mediocrity that was the baffling 2007 online-only shooter from our minds. Shadowrun Returns’ Kickstarter was such a success that it has spawned two sequels, and the first, Dragonfall, further proved that the developers understood the roots of the series by bringing punk ideologies into play in a way that I’ve never seen in video games before. It was also one of the best tactical RPG’s I’ve ever played in both story and gameplay.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall puts players in the seldom explored vicinity of post-Awakening (basically, a magical apocalypse) Berlin, where the government has collapsed following an anarchist revolution, leaving it known as the Flux State. The people within are left to their own devices and they like it that way. As a shadowrunner living in an anarchist community, you get to see firsthand how this is working out as people pull together to withstand the encroaching influence of the corporations in a place where punk is now the law (or lack thereof) of the land.

Dragonfall puts a former punk rock singer in your crew, which makes for an even more direct connection to the culture, and along with the franchise’s classic punk-influenced aesthetics it makes for a pretty cohesive representation of the scene and its values. It’s also one of the only games where I’ve actually felt compelled to argue with a fictional character about philosophy as one of my go-to runners criticized another character as a community leader when anarchy is supposed to be about not having leaders. No, stupid, anarchy is about not having institutional governmental authority. A true leader earns willing followers through deeds, not by enforced mandate. Anarchy is freedom, authority is oppression. Fuck you.

Gone Home

“You’re a big girl now

You’ve got no reason not to fight.

You’ve got to know what they are

Before you can stand up for your rights.

Rights, rights?

You do have rights.”

-Bikini Kill

At first glance, this indie walking sim wouldn’t appear to have much in common with punk. The deafening silence and foreboding atmosphere as you piece together the events of the game’s story by exploring an abandoned house and its contents is a stark contrast to the loud, fast, angry nature of punk music. While the game got a lot of attention for its portrayal of LGBT issues, let’s be honest: that’s hardly a novel thing anymore. Only really noteworthy if you’re desperate for attention on the internet and seek to get it by making the same old meaningless noises at each other over whether gay people should exist, as if whether people should be allowed to be people is something to argue over. Punk fought and won that battle long before the internet began using peoples’ continued obsession with other peoples’ genitalia for clickbait. What is unusual -and perhaps a first- is Gone Home’s portrayal of the ‘90s riot girl (or “grrrl” if you want to make it seem like you growl when you talk) movement.

For those not in the know, this feminist thing; it’s not new either. The roots of modern feminism are possibly best explored starting with the riot girl scene, which stemmed from women banding together to make punk shows better places for the ladies. Punk was already more accepting of women than other scenes by its very nature, but there was still room for improvement. Bands like Bikini Kill had all of the sound and fury of their male counterparts and would request that the rowdy men up front make room for the ladies, who had often been relegated to the sidelines at male-dominated rock shows. And it worked. Turns out a little assertiveness and the ability to rock goes a long way.

Back to the game, as you explore the house and rifle through the belongings of your character’s absent sister, you find a lot of classic riot girl fliers and zines ripped straight out of the ‘90s. And if that isn’t cool enough, you can actually activate tape players (the nostalgia!) and get blasted with legit punk rock from the likes of Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. So as a work of interactive fiction, LGBT-themed art, and a small window into a seldom explored aspect of the feminist and punk rock scenes, Gone Home is a memorable experience.

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland

“Doesn’t understand why you’d wanna walk.

Ain’t got time to sit and talk.

Used to be just like you and me.

Now he’s an outcast of society.

Beware, he’s possessed to skate.”

-Suicidal Tendencies

As big as Guitar Hero in its time, the Tony Hawk: Pro Skater series suffered a similar fate after similar mismanagement from Activision. It wasn’t the first skateboarding game by a longshot as classics like Skate or Die and 720° nicely offered up some punk aesthetics beyond giving you something to punch in the ‘80s, but Tony Hawk certainly brought it to another level and a massive audience on the PlayStation. And it was the first game I’m aware of to really emphasize the connection between punk rock and skateboarding (the two scenes are practically synonymous irl) with a selection of underground punk songs on the soundtrack.

Taking it a step further beyond mere sight and sound, American Wasteland added a story and an open world to what was pretty much a pure gameplay franchise before that point and it included aspects of skatepunk like graffiti tagging, fanzines, and the communal anarchist nature of the community. Skating or walking (as if) around a virtual LA blasting tunes from the Misfits and Black Flag and trying to earn enough to get to the next skate competition is about as skatepunk as you can get. The game’s back cover art was a blatant reproduction of the Clash’s iconic London Calling album cover replacing the guitar with a skateboard.

So yeah, there is punk rock in video games. And as long as there is punk rock anywhere, it ain’t dead. All it takes is a group of people who want to play fast, loud, uncompromising music about what they think, the freedom to think it and play what they want regardless of popular trends, and some other people who feel the same and want to listen to them play it. You may not see it on TV. You may not hear it on the radio. But it’s always going to be there. One of punk’s defining moments for me was the late, great Wendy O. Williams’ final prophetic declaration as she dropped the mic on the career of one the most underrated bands of all time, screaming “I’m inside your DNA. You can’t make me go away.” Indeed, it’s always been there. Even when you couldn’t see, hear, or feel it. And it always will be.

Lemmy Kilmister: A Life Immortalized in Games  

lemmy

Last week the music world lost one of its greatest legends. Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister was the living incarnation of rock and roll and an ageless beacon for hard rock fans to rally behind. The old joke was that when the bombs fell, cockroaches and Motorhead would still be standing. He was the man who proudly declared that he wanted his band to make your lawn die if they moved in next door and made music that would send the members of AC/DC scampering for cover with their hands over their ears. In other words, the dude was badass.

The world is way less metal without Lemmy in it and although it was amazing that he lived to be seventy considering his insane lifestyle, I’m genuinely sad that future generations will never see his like. But he has left behind a legacy, not only of awesome music and crazy road stories, but in video games. He famously spent every possible moment of his free time gaming at his favorite bar, was reportedly a big Star Fox fan, and has appeared in and inspired multiple video games over the years. Here are six of Lemmy Kilmister’s contributions to the gaming industry.

Iron Fist

lemmy motorhead game

It’d be wrong not to open with the fact that Lemmy starred in his own old-school beat ‘em up game named after his band. 1992 was an exciting time to be gaming. If you had a Super Nintendo or at least a Sega Genesis, that is. Amiga, maybe not as much. But at the very least they had Motorhead, a game whose endearing title screen approximation of Lemmy’s musical stylings alone justified its existence.

The game itself consisted mostly of Lemmy brutalizing onscreen representations of other musical genres and healing himself with booze, which actually strikes me as a pretty solid tribute to his life and career. After the rock legend’s passing, some enterprising souls took it upon themselves to convert the game to modern PC format and post it online for free for posterity to enjoy.  

And prior to Lemmy’s demise, the Bulgarian Steam-based fantasy RPG Victor Vran was prepping an expansion pack titled “Motorhead Through the Ages” that will introduce elements inspired by the band’s forty year career of demonic imagery and nasty attitude. Expect an announcement soon.

Born to Raise Hell

lemmy killmaster brutal legend

In 2009, Psychonauts mastermind Tim Schafer unleashed upon the world the most metal video game ever created. Brutal Legend took Double Fine’s trademark charm and humor, Jack Black’s manic energy, the sounds of metal, and some of rock’s greatest icons to make the world’s first and only open world action/RTS/racing/heavy metal tribute game. And you’d best believe Lemmy was at the top of the list of contributors.

He shows up on a gigantic motorbike to aid in your quest as a unit in your ever-growing horde of hellscape-dwelling metalhead revolutionaries. In an amusing irony the iconic bass (strung with the webbing of metal spiders, natch) he used to sonically assault audiences for decades actually HEALS in the world of Brutal Legend. Ironic in a way, but somehow fitting. After all, where the harsh sounds of heavy metal offends most people, for us it’s just what the doctor ordered.

(Don’t let ‘Em) Grind You Down

tony hawk pro skater 3 grind

Gamers who popped Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 into their consoles were smashed in the face with Motorhead’s seminal signature hit “Ace of Spades” right off the bat as it was chosen for that game’s intro sequence featuring real live stunts from some of the X Games’ best. The series was always known for having the coolest music of its day, but this one song is arguably what made this entry memorable.

The sheer chaotic energy of that song is what’s made it an instantly recognizable classic in spite of the fact that I’ve never even heard it on the radio. It’s a natural fit for skate punk culture and the experience of hurtling down a ramp, spinning in midair, and grinding across ledges to that kind of song just perfectly encapsulates the feeling that Pro Skater was always trying to capture. Sometimes, you just need the right soundtrack to bring it all together.

Enter Sandman

lemmy guitar hero metallica

If there was ever a game that Lemmy should star in, it was Guitar Hero (is Bass Hero a thing?). The series had its fair share of playable legends at its peak, but it wasn’t until Metallica got their own game and they insisted on bringing their personal hero along that gamers got to rock out as the man himself.

Lemmy (who can be seen jamming with Metallica irl in the appropriately-named documentary Lemmy) was an obvious fit for the game as one of the most iconic metal singers of all time and “Ace of Spades” was also appropriately featured in the original Guitar Hero and again as DLC in the second game. Needless to say, there’d be a gaping hole in this series without Motorhead’s music.

Love Me Like a Reptile

lemmy new super mario bros

It doesn’t matter what kinds of games you like, your experiences have been touched by this man in one way or another. When Nintendo product analyst Dayvv (if that’s your real name) Brooks was called upon to name the new villains in what turned out to be arguably the NES’s greatest game, Super Mario Bros. 3, he turned to his love of music and Lemmy Koopa was born.

In a recent Kotaku interview, Brooks declared the long-standing rumor that the character was named after the singer to be true, saying “This Koopaling struck me as being the kind of character who would do his own thing, no matter what anyone else thought. I think it was those crazy eyes. Lemmy Koopa was in the crew.” Both Lemmys are also noted for their massive balls.

If you’ve ever played through a Mario game, odds are you’ve met Lemmy and now you’ll always remember his namesake too. Damn it, I really want to hear Motorhead score a Super Mario Bros. game now…

Ace of Spades

lemmy video poker rainbow

The most iconic line from Motorhead’s most iconic song reads “You know I’m born to lose/and gambling’s for fools/But that’s the way I like it, baby, I don’t want to live forever”. But if any performer should have lived forever, it was Lemmy Kilmister. No other performer’s live sound and presence is done less justice by mere recordings. It feels appropriate to close this journey through the gaming history of a true legend with the fact that the man died gaming. Even more appropriately, considering the song, it was a video poker machine.

When he wasn’t recording or touring, Lemmy passed his time at the Rainbow Bar and Grill in Los Angeles. The two rock institutions are so intrinsically linked that if you googled “lemmy bar” the Rainbow’s official websites were the first three results. He was known for always sitting at the same machine and when he was diagnosed with cancer (just after his birthday party, fuck you very much) the bar’s owner let him take the game home with him. Days later, he passed away in front of it, gaming up until his final moments.

He wasn’t playing League of Legends or Starcraft, but in terms of sheer hours spent playing video games, this man probably has us all beat in the hardcore gamer department. Seventy years old, an unshakable legacy of timeless music, legions of adoring fans, and immortalized in multiple video games; you can’t say it wasn’t an amazing life. Goodnight, sweet prince of darkness.  You are already dearly missed.

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

folk

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.

I’ll Miss You, Custom Soundtracks

customsound

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.xbox menu

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.gta sound menu

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.

walking dead zombie clem

“Oh. I just died in your arms tonight. Must have been something you saaaid….”

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.

Celebrating the Most Horrorful Time of the Year

halloween

October 31st is my favorite holiday, and very likely yours if you’re here. Most of the public may prefer Christmas for its crass commercialism and stable of timeless classic films and television specials or Thanksgiving for its epic mealtime, but Halloween is a holiday custom made for nerds. A whole day dedicated to cosplay, candy, horror, and evil music? Yes, please! It’s a time to celebrate all of the things we love with a sinister edge. Whereas the sights and sounds of Christmas very often reek of populist sentimentality and cynical modern cash-ins in the form of soulless Christmas albums and other forms of entertainment with a sheen of general cloying saccharinity, quality horror and everything that goes with it is something that never needs to be forced. Fear is with us everywhere we go all year ‘round and having one day to really celebrate it is a wonderful thing. But how to make the most of Halloween in 2014? I thought I’d share my experiences from this past month’s lead-up to October 31st and maybe give some of you some ideas about how best to pay homage to the spirits of the dead via geek-flavored entertainment new and old available this year. Continue reading

All Rocked Out: The Evolution, Rise, and Fall of the Music Game

musicgame

Remember that brief moment in time when playing video games with friends inevitably meant breaking out plastic instruments and grooving to an eclectic assortment of rockin’ music? Or, if you were less inclined to rock, you could bust dance moves on a floor pad at home or double up with a friend at your local deserted arcade. Either way, at some point in time it seemed like everybody was a slave to the rhythm game. What happened?

Growing up, there was this hand-held game called Simon. And what Simon said went. It was made up of colored buttons, which would light up in order to play a melody. Your job was to repeat the sequences to replay the melodies, which would get more complex the longer you played. This was the humble birth of the rhythm game.

 

It didn’t get really good until well into the video game craze, when the original PlayStation found a way to make hip-hop playable with Parappa the Rapper in 1997. I remember going to a friend’s house and he had a disc of demos, one of which was for that game. That one song demo was more memorable than the vast majority of full releases I’ve played since. Finally, my dreams of being a hype man were virtually realized in a barrage of kicks, punches, and blocks. Heads were bobbed.

For the record, this player is weaksauce. No improvisation = no fun.

Parappa was massive in Japan, and led to a huge influx of rhythm-based games in arcades, including the ubiquitous Dance Dance Revolution. Other Japanese arcade games in the 90’s that were less popular overseas were GuitarFreaks and DrumMania, which were the first to utilize simulated instruments.

With the American arcade scene all but dead by that time, American gaming companies like Harmonix eventually appropriated the formula for home consoles to create Guitar Hero and then Rock Band, kicking off a nearly universal music game craze.

This is where most of us got onboard, me included. DDR had its fans, but we gamers are by and large not the dance around in your living room type. The couch and chair are our natural habitat. We can maybe deal with holding a light plastic guitar and banging our head a little, but dancing? Do we look like Miley Cyrus to you?

I have so many fond memories of Guitar Hero and Rock Band games, it’s not even funny. The song choices were divinely inspired, the presentation was brilliant, there was challenge, great visuals, and universal approval, even from non-gamers. It was great. And the final boss from Guitar Hero 3 is one of the greatest of all time.

How do you beat challenging Satan to a metal guitar battle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”? You don’t.

My custom band in Rock Band 2 was named Midget Apartheid (which got them banned from Xbox Live as a punk group should be) and consisted of a vampire girl on vocals and a zombie named Yum-E Brainz on drums as well as a recreation of my character, Thrashcanman, from the first game, who looks like he should be playing in Rammstein. I was really proud of that group.

Everybody loves music, gamers love games, and even non-gamers will game if there is music involved. Talk about a winning formula. Surely there is no way to screw that up. Surely. Unless, of course, they oversaturate the market to the point that people simply stop giving a damn because the alternative to dropping them altogether is to do nothing but buy and play music game after music game full time.

So instead of playing it smart, our corporate gaming overlords opted to release multiple games every year as well as slews of downloadable content to tempt music fans. Small investments: huge returns. Not only did we get the regular full games from Rock Band and Guitar Hero both, but both franchises released additional games based on real bands like The Beatles, Aerosmith, Metallica, and…..Green Day?

In case you’ve ever wanted to shout “Maybe I’m the faggot, America!” while jamming with your family.

If I had to pinpoint the minute it all went, wrong, I’d go with that one. In addition to too much rock, lamer people got second rate titles like the stupidly named Band Hero, numerous karaoke games, and even a DJ Hero series on top of them. By the time we got to Lego Rock Band, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the coffin lid was closed, nailed, set on fire, and then dumped into an unmarked grave.

Interestingly, at this point the genre didn’t literally die so much as it changed its focus. Rock Band 3 and other games changed the design of instruments to make them more trends come and go, but making real music has always been cool and will always be cool, and people do love to dance. Enter Rocksmith and Kinect.

Rocksmith was designed for guitar players and uses a cable to connect a real electric guitar to your console. It provides in-game guitar lessons, a great set of songs, a built-in tuner, and a customizable amp full of unlockable effects for custom tones that are worth the cost of admission by themselves.

With Microsoft’s new Kinect motion sensing technology, there was only one way to go. Well, two if you count light saber battles. But the obvious one was dancing games; so many dancing games. Michael Jackson: The Game, Just Dance, Grease, and god help me, The Black Eyed Peas Experience all happened, and we all let them happen. And remember how everyone wanted A Star Wars Kinect game? Well, here you go.

Where’s your god now?

If you can watch Han Solo thrusting at you while “Great!” and “Awesome!” flash on his crotch and not die a little inside, you are a stronger fan than I. This brings me to my next topic of discussion: celebrities. When a game is based around existing art, people, and intellectual properties you are going to have to deal with the creators and owners of that content, and that is a whole other can of worms.

For starters, legends like Led Zeppelin and hipsters like Jack White are on record as hating the very concept of music games and refusing to allow their music to be used while Courtney Love casually signed away the rights to her late husband’s music and likeness and then pretended to be offended when that image was used in-game as if he was just another celebrity whose likeness was licensed to be used in the game.

Cobain confirmed as ultimate hype man.

And while Jon Bon Jovi had no qualms about licensing his music for the same game, he turned down the offer to put him in it because see above video. Does this mean that the “queen of grunge” who is always sniveling about cred could stand to take lessons on integrity from a ridiculously mainstream 80’s hair metal singer? Looks like.

The aforementioned Black Eyed Peas got slapped with a million dollar lawsuit from Ubisoft after repeatedly ignoring requests to port their crap-hop atrocity dance game to iOS formats in breach of contract, showing just how many shits they had to give about it.

So it’s not just gamers who stopped caring about music games. Even the people starring in them don’t really care.

The funny thing is, if any of us went over to somebody’s house and there was a Rock Band party going on, we wouldn’t hesitate and a great time would be had. The appeal of “playing” great music is still there and always will be.

But the fact that these companies have burnt this winning concept out with excessive saturation could not be more apparent. It’s just hard to get excited for something that is constantly in your face and it’s too expensive and time-consuming to have so many games coming out on an almost monthly basis.

It’s easier to just move along to something else. And no, adding zombies to double up on the cliché factor was not the appropriate response, Rock of the Dead.

The only question at this point is whether or not resurgence can happen. The appeal of great tunes is eternal, but I wonder if there is another way to erase the passé-ness of it all and make rhythm games part of the standard gaming diet again like they were just a few years ago.

I don’t personally see how it can happen anytime soon, and I suspect and hope that the industry can learn a lesson from this that we gamers learned long ago through countless multiplayer matches: nobody likes a spammer.

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