We Are the Music Makers, and We are the Players of Games: Alternative Soundtracks to Video Games

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.

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  1. One thing I haven’t seen on youtube that I’ve done an infinite amount of times: Synced up Deltron 3030 with Halo 2. I’m not joking when I say that they were meant to be together and sync up to the point where explosions match beats, cuts scenes match the tones of the music at the time, etc.

    It’s insane and if I knew how to, and I could properly sit down & sync it up, I would jump at the chance.

  2. Sara, this is the greatest single article I’ve ever seen on this site. Possibly of all the interwebs. Any excuse for me to play through SotC again is welcome, so I’m going to have to try that.

    Back in the day, me and my bro spent an afternoon playing “Siphon Filter” while listening to “Licenced to Ill”. I don’t know why, but when “Paul Revere” came on, everything just fit so perfectly.*

    I also have very strong memories of listening to “Whatever and Ever, Amen” and playing Zelda 2 for the NES. I don’t know if they actually fit together in any way, but I can’t play or listen to one without being drawn back to them together.

    God, I love music.

    *Please don’t take this as encouragment to play Siphon Filter and do this now. I in no way condone that.

  3. Clemens, you’re killing me, lady. I want to play Journey so much after seeing you write about it and I’m sitting here with only an xbox 360 to my name. I remember when the original xbox came out I used to looooooooooove making my own custom soundtracks for games. It’s part of the reason I switched from Playstation. Tony Hawk was probably my biggest success given my large punk and metal collection tinged with ska, reggae, and rap, but I remember some serious epicness involving fighting and adventure games syncing up with my stuff too. Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee was partly built with custom soundtracks in mind as it would start and stop the songs in time with the beginning and end of each round. The character introductions at the beginning of the round synced up perfectly with the intro riff to Ministry’s “NWO”, which was already the perfect soundtrack for smashing up Tokyo. Win.

    At some point I just stopped doing it, though. I think it was partly due to my soundtracks distracting other gamers through my headset when I played online and waking up my wife (I tend to game in the middle of the night), and partly due to the fact that gaming soundtracks have gotten much better. It seems kind of messed up when so many people work hard to get the the music in a game just right only to have me blast Killswitch Engage and Cypress Hill over it. Awesome article, though. I always look forward to your pieces.

  4. I had a blast replaying Super Metroid paired with the Flaming Lip’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
    Also this is a given but any early Ennio Morricone while playing Red Dead Redemption is fantastic.

  5. J5, I haven’t heard of that combo. Sounds killer. Is there a particular point you sync up in the beginning when you play?

    DocDoom, thanks for the boss compliment, and the hilarious asterisk. I’m with you re: ridiculously loving music. Sometimes it seems there’s nothing better on Earth.

    trashcanman, it’s a two hour game. Two hours that can shake you to the core. You don’t know anyone with a PS3?! Borrow it! Play while they watch! Whatever you gotta do, just play it! I also hear you about the original musicians/designers/developers needing to have their work recognized. I tend to only do this once I’ve played through games many, many times, as a way of freshening up the joint.

    Sullivan, Ennio Morricone with Red Dead Redemption! Obvious? Maybe. Well, totally. Have I tried it, though? NOPE. Am I gonna? YUP.

  6. I haven’t done it in a while, but if I remember correctly, the mome nt you are in the FPS perspective, hit play. It’s a trip, if you’ve ever heard Deltron 3030 before the 3030 track starts peaking with the chorus right as you walk through all the people cheering you on and cuts out and swtiches to the next track almost exactly when your ship gets attacked.

  7. Oh man, for years now I’ve always played racing games and air combat games while listening to hard rock and techno. Yes, I would play Air/Ace Combat games while listening to the Top Gun soundtrack, and still do to this day. I have various cds (now playlists on my ipod) that are simply titled “driving music”. I’ve made it it’s own genre on my ipod as well so I know exactly where to find it.

    One little experiment I’ve messed around with in recent years is, using the OC remix versions, or any cover versions of videogame songs, and playing said game with the new/alternate soundtracks that fans have made over the years. It really is one of the best examples of “For fans, by fans”.

    – watch the intro to Super Metroid (when Samus is narrating) to the one remix that gives the song an orchestral sound. It makes the game even more epic than it already is.

    – play Sonic 3/and Knuckles with the Michael Jackson songs that the songs in the game are based off of.

    And I think I speak for everyone here when I say “Guile’s theme goes with everything” lol.

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