If you’re a regular reader of my weekly contribution to Unreality, you’ve probably gathered a few things about what makes up the constitution of a typical Sara Clemens. For one: I’m obviously a writer, so I’m pretty handy with the turns of phrase and I have a propensity to use the “Title: Subtitle” format for naming my articles—wherein “title” probably equals “bastardization of a quote by another writer” and “subtitle” equals “what the eff the article is actually about.” Two: I take my video games very seriously. Three: I’m also a sound designer, so I take my video game sound effects, and especially music, very seriously.
What you may not know is that I also spent four months studying wine and its many attributes so I would always be able to pair the perfect wine with any dish. A person who does that professionally is called a sommelier. I would never apply to be a sommelier at a restaurant, because I remember nothing from that class on account of being drunk the entire time. However, today I will be your sommelier. A very particular sommelier: one encouraging you to load up your favorite video game, mute the sound on your televisions, make sure the subtitles are enabled for any dialogue, and try these alternative soundtracks on for size.
“So three are red, one is white, they have cool labels, but the great news is that ALL are booze!”—Me, Sommelier
Music can make or break a video game, just like it can with films, television, or theatre. A good soundtrack is responsible for so many things in a game: setting mood and tone, stirring emotion, and sometimes providing a hint system for the player, giving them auditory clues that they’re headed in the right direction or close to solving a puzzle. (Portal 2 is an excellent example of the music acting as a wonderfully understated guide throughout the player’s testing.)
One day in the distant past, I came home from school and couldn’t decide whether I wanted to play my Nintendo 64 or listen to Songs in the Key of X for the hundred-millionth time (oh yeah, X-Phile all the muthafuggin’ way). So I turned down the volume on my TV, loaded my Super Mario 64 save file, and blasted Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” on the stereo. I was on a water level, the one where you have to outsmart a giant eel by swimming in front of his face until he finally leaves his cave to try to eat your rotund Italian-meatball-shaped butt. And oh yeah, you have a limited air supply. That day, that sh*t was epic.
Pictured: how Nick Cave made me see that thing.
And there you go. Change the music, change the mood. Much like a Dark Side of Oz type of scenario, you may end up with some truly awesome combinations, and what’s even better—you end up extending the life of your video games. We all know the typical play-as-paragon, then play-as-renegade repetition, but changing up the soundtrack is an easy, often epic way to experience your gameplay in a new way. For your enjoyment, I’ve assembled some of my favorite game and soundtrack pairings.
Fallout 3 – Hit Singles, 1958-1977
Is this a weirdly specific compilation album to choose? Yes, yes it is. I was a member of Columbia House, okay? Some months there was just nothing to pick and I was contractually obligated to purchase seven more cds at full price!
This isn’t the most creative of pairings, since the game itself gives you a pretty good sampling of fifties songs to listen to whilst roaming the Capital Wasteland. But hey, that’s how I knew the whole retro songlist thing would work. I will never forget, as long as I live, coming home with Fawkes to Tenpenny Tower after a long day of saving wastelanders from his brethren and hearing Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” start up right when we walked into my room. And I had already developed quite a soft spot for the lug. And decided Ron Perlman (I have a major thing for deep voices) would play him in the movie adaptation in which I would star.
That song’s real sexy, you guys.
“So hey, I think we uh, left some stuff back at that place. With the stuff. We should go and get that stuff. Because I’ve been a lone wanderer for a long, long time.”
“Wow, is that a ceiling up there? Such a great ceiling!”
Tasting notes: dusty familiarity on the nose; Motown mouthfeel; aftertaste of deep awkwardness.