Mario Katharsis: Five Video Game Tracks That Get Me Right in the Feels


Mario Katharsis: an ongoing series in which an intrepid games journalist cracks open her sternum to reveal the most emotionally affecting moments of her gaming experiences, rated on a scale from single banana peel to spiny shell.

Like many office drones, I use Pandora Radio to help the day move along. While I didn’t ever explicitly create a station seed for video game soundtracks, the robots inside my computer keyboard can obviously tell I’m a gamer. It’s probably the callouses. Thus, I hear a lot of game soundtracks throughout the day.

As you might expect, this varies from awesome (there’s nothing like hitting a deadline while “Rock Anthem for Saving the World” plays in the background) to embarrassing (“An End, Once and For All” from Mass Effect 3).

Clint Mansell, you sonofabitch.

I’ve done some similar posts before, and I’ve also talked a little about being a theatrical sound designer, so it goes without saying that I’m sensitive to both the transcendent power of the musics and to quality effects/voice work. Great sound can take games to a whole other level. Here are five gaming tracks that get me right where it counts.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf — “11 pm,” Kazumi Totaka

Funny that with all that talk of Pandora I’d start with a track that hasn’t even appeared on the eponymous internet radio station. What can I say, I’m a complicated woman and nobody understands me but my man.

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been playing AC:NL daily, and one of my first acts as Mayor of Rivendel (there’s an eight character limit for town names, don’t question my nerd cred) was to pass an ordinance officially declaring it a Night Owl Town. This means shops stay open and townsfolk wander around later. Obviously this was to better serve my real-life schedule, but I also wanted to make sure I was able to fish, plant fruit, and talk to my animal buds with this song playing in the background.

I don’t know what it is about this track, but it hits my nostalgia button pretty squarely. For some reason the meandering piano and acoustic guitar melody takes me right back to sitting on the carpet surrounded by more than a few coloring books, waiting for Sesame Street to start and getting distracted by dust motes twinkling in a stray afternoon sunbeam.

Fallout 3 — “I Don’t Want to Set the World On Fire,” The Ink Spots

Talk about nostalgia. Bill Kenny’s voice makes you feel like you were a part of The Greatest Generation even if your mother wasn’t a twinkle in your grandmother’s eye at the time. We ladies get twinkles in our eyes, too. For the record.

I seriously try to avoid watching this teaser because it makes me absolutely fiend for Fallout 3, and I’ve got a backlog of shame to get through.

This is a also a gem of sound design—from the test pattern at the very beginning, to the flickering vacuum tube, to the perfectly aged Ink Spots track, to the main theme overtaking it (with a brief moment of Kenny’s voice breaking through one last time, stamped with just the right amount of reverb now that the “camera” is out of the decimated metro car), to Ron Perlman’s declaration of warfare’s doomed historical cyclicity, and finally, the fade into post-apocalyptic wind.

To paraphrase Rob Reiner’s mother, I’ll have what I’m having.

Journey — “I was Born for This,” Austin Wintory

Yeezus Kanye West, I can’t even. This is what is happening to me right now:

Just please play this game. For me. No actually, for you. If you like video games, you have to play Journey. It takes two hours and you know someone with a PS3. Or you know someone who knows someone with a PS3. They will like watching you play. You will be better friends and/or marry them probably.

Or let’s start a petition to get thatgamecompany to put it on Steam. Or let’s work together to get thatgamecompany to hire me and then I’ll figure out how to secretly get it on Steam, then get fired.

It will be worth it.

The Legend of Zelda — Main Theme, Koji Kondo

Let’s take a break from the heart-wrenching and focus on the stirring, shall we? I took a bunch of math classes in high school, all the way up to calculus. I was pretty much the queen of mathematics, and had a million suitors vying for my affections. When I wasn’t busy fending them off, I was taking math tests. On exam mornings, I would listen to the theme from The Legend of Zelda—and I mean the 8-bit version. No school like the old school.

It never failed to get me pumped (though if I’m being totally honest, I would usually use the one-two punch of Zelda and “The Battle” from the Gladiator soundtrack), and I scored so well so consistently that I was presented with a bust of Pythagoras at my senior awards ceremony. Put that in your function and derive it.

Mass Effect 3: Citadel DLC — Anderson on Shepard, Keith David

*Spoilers Below*

Whenever I play a game I like to “act the part” as it were, so I managed to maintain a stoicism to match Shepard’s throughout the ME trilogy. There were a couple moments where I almost broke—saying goodbye to Garrus before making the final run for the Crucible was one of them. But I made my final choice, sat through all of the credits, and watched the sweet little scene at the very end without once breaking out my cryface.

Even though I was only partway through ME3 when the “Citadel” DLC was released, I chose to play it after I had finished the main storyline. I wanted to have the same experience other ME fans. I am so glad I did. Getting the crew together for one last hurrah was so bittersweet in light of my knowledge of the ending, and the way they handled Anderson’s appearance was absolute genius.

If you play the DLC after you’ve “won” the game, like most did, you’re perfectly aware Anderson dies in the final assault. Even though he’s alive at “Citadel’s” point in the story, he never actually appears in the room with you, nor do you talk to him via the usual holographic comm channels. You see him only on vid screens and hear his disembodied voice recordings on scattered datapads, which makes the scene where you walk around his apartment gathering his biographical notes feel like settling affairs after a funeral.

Maybe it’s because I played my Shepard as a Colonist/Sole Survivor—a woman who loses her family, gains a new one with the Alliance, then loses it again when she watches her unit be devoured on Akuze—maybe it’s because Anderson never had kids of his own, or maybe it’s because I wasn’t brave enough to lose it when he told me he was proud of me while we overlooked Earth one last time, but hearing him call me a rare soldier and an even rarer woman was the arrow that finally struck true.

I lost it, and I lost it over everything. Garrus, Mordin, the uncertainty that my final choice was the correct one, everything.

Keelah Se’lai, Admiral.

Mario Katharsis Rating: Blue spiny shell shot to the kart, and Keith David’s to blame.

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  1. My personal favorite piece of video game music USED to be “Metal Gear Solid Main Theme”. Watching the intro screen of MGS2 would get me so pumped up and emotional…

    Then it was discovered that it was basically stolen note by note from Russian composer Georgy Vasilevich Sviridov’s work which really sucks.

    Still a beautiful piece of music but kinda soured the emotional reaction I always had to it.

  2. @Sara – go watch/listen to this
    it’s good for the zelda feels

    and also the skyrim music will always hold a special place in my heart for various reasons. but most importantly, it is amazingly well done.

    after that is the Final fantasy series, Uncharted, and Deus Ex Human Revolution. just great stuff really.

  3. I watched Hyde Park on Hudson with the wife and they kept having random songs on the radio playing in the background. As I kept singing along, my wife looks at me dumbfounded and asks, “How do you know these songs?”

    My response? “Pfffft, Fallout 3, OBVIOUSLY.”

  4. Music in games almost always inspires enormous amounts of emotion in me, mostly because I’m an almost ridiculously emotional person to begin with. There are at least three places in Mass Effect 3 when I broke into outright sobbing (Mordin’s death, Garrus’s goodbye, and the end of the Citadel DLC, for the curious), and I had silent tears of awe/sorrow/joy running down my face during the entire final section of Journey. So, discounting the ones that overlap with yours (An End Once and For All, I Was Born For This), here’s my top five most emotional tracks in gaming:

    -The Price of Freedom/Why, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core
    Really, the entire ending of this game, from the futile final battle all the way through to last scene, with Cloud landing on the train in an unconscious echo of Zack, makes me cry like a big baby. If you’ve played FFVII, then you know how Crisis Core must end, and that expectation makes everything even more poignant. The music to this day makes me a little misty-eyed when it starts up.

    -Midna’s Lament, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
    Not her theme, which is beautiful, but Midna’s Lament, the piano theme that plays when you are trapped in wolf form in the light world and have to rush a dying to Midna to Hyrule Castle. The song manages to perfectly mix the feelings of urgency and sorrow that the scene conveys. You’ve just suffered a huge setback against Zant, your only ally is gravely injured, and it’s going to require a great sacrifice to get her back.

    -Dust to Dust, Final Fantasy XIII
    FFXIII is a little light on hope, but the one bright spot that everyone is aiming for once they get to Pulse is Oerba, and the belief that there will be people there who can help the party in their quest to defy their Focus, or at least for Fang and Vanille, a chance to see home again before they succumb to undeath. To see it ruined, covered in crystal dust and crawling with cieth is a hard blow, and then on top of everything, you have this incredibly melancholy music playing the entire time, even through battles, which are against monsters that were once people that Fang and Vanille might have known and loved.

    -Living With Determination -Iwatodai Station Arrange-, Persona 3
    Getting away from the sadness a little (but only a little), this song from P3 never fails to both make me pumped up and a little melancholy at the same time. It replaces the normal “derping around town” music during the final month of the game, when your party has decided to fight a deity of destruction in order to save the world, even though you really have no hope of winning. People outside are giving into despair and even welcoming the end of the world, but you stay strong, and hope against hope that you can stop it.

    -Apotheosis, Journey
    Even more than I Was Born For This, this song makes me want to cry, but in a good way. “Apotheosis” is Greek for “ascending to godhood,” and after the hardships of your little guy’s journey, you break through the clouds and into the heavens. Sailing through the sky to this track, with the entire level just bursting with color and life, is such an enormous emotional payoff that I didn’t expect from this little game, especially one with no actual words.

    Honorable mentions include but are certainly not limited to: Star-Stealing Girl (Chrono Cross); Neverending Journey (Lost Odyssey); Setting Sail, Coming Home (Bastion); I Was Lost Without You (Mass Effect 3); The Sending/Hymn of the Fayth (Final Fantasy X).

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play Journey again.

  5. Oh man, that Journey track is exquisite. My favorite soundtrack from top to bottom has always been FFIV. I played that game endlessly during high school and I kid you not when I say that a day never passes without some snatch of music from that game being hummed by me. Just amazing music for its time and still impressive today.

    I don’t know if you listen to any hip hop, but some guys put together a mash-up album of rap songs remixed with Zelda music (for those times you want to be nerdy AND street) called The Ocarina of Rhyme that I really enjoy.

    Oh, and I don’t care about spelling, if you are naming your village after Rivendell, NOBODY is questioning your nerd cred.

  6. Awesome picks, everyone, and thanks for the links.

    Frothy_Ham, that is ridiculously interesting. I’m late to the MGS franchise, so I haven’t had a chance to get attached to the music, but I am totally going to check that out for curiosity’s sake.

    J5, awesome. That happens to me on occasion, too. I also get the Danny Kaye/Andrews Sister song “Civilization” (Bingo Bango Bongo) stuck in my head ALL THE TIME. Which is not great; it’s more than a little racist.

    I’m with you, EvaCybele, the entire Journey soundtrack could be on this list, along with much of Mass Effect 3‘s.

  7. @Sara have you played through Telltale’s the Walking Dead game? (If not, why? It won ALL the awards last year, and rightly so).
    It’s theme, Alive Inside ( ) , still sends shivers down my spine, and whenever I hear the ending theme ( don’t look down at the recommended videos or comments though if you haven’t finished the game) I pretty much lose it.

    Mass Effect Citadel was brilliant, and it touched all the right emotions (and the funny bone with stuff like “Shepard! Wrex! Grunt!” ) but the Walking Dead will always be the one game that made me cry like a little baby when I was through it. And it pretty much spoiled child characters for me, because I can’t imagine a character being more real and lovable than Clementine. (The Last of us has 10/10 points? What? Ellie’s no Clementine, not even close!)

    1. I haven’t, because I’m the worst. I just bought it on Steam and plan to dive in as soon as I’m done with a writing project I’m working on for another site: playing through Myst for the first time. I know, I’m the worst! My backlog of shame really is shameful.

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