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In video games, we only have three senses. You can intake the game most directly using your sight. You see the cinematics, you glance at the HUD and gauge your health and mana, and generally learn how to react to the games mechanics. Sometimes you feel the rumble in your controller as that big boss thunders into view, the vibrations letting you know something special is about to go down. But what I always remember most vividly is the music in games that flow throughout these special scenes, each note of the song ringing at precisely the right moment.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes and concentrate especially hard, I can almost recall exactly what happened on my screen when the opening notes of To All of You by Syd Matters played during the opening moments of Life is Strange. I see Max Caufield, walking into the hallway of Blackwell Academy and beginning one of the most emotionally stirring stories I have ever experienced in a game.
Music in games is so memorable because unlike film, most times, you are directing the action on screen as a song scores the moment. And because of the autonomy the player has in action out the moment, the music becomes seared into physical and auditory components of their memory. Whenever I picture Max Caufield and Chloe Price, I always hear the familiar tones of To All of You and think of the tragedy of their tumultuous relationship.
Similarly, some songs remind me of the anxiety I felt at the potential direction the story was taking. When I hear the song Retrograde by James Blake, suddenly I am watching Rhys descend to Pandora again. I can feel the fear I had for Rhys and Fiona as they crashed to terra firma and lost Loader Bot to the machinations of Handsome Jack. It was the lowest point for those characters. And when I think of how Episode 5 of Tales from the Borderlands began, with Rhys and Fiona falling to Pandora with no hope, I’ll never forget James Blake’s haunted coo ringing in my ears.
What’s most important however, are the mental connections you make between the music in games and the memories you make in those moments. Immediately called to my mind is earning my first 100% in Guitar Hero while tearing through Killer Queen by Queen and crossing into Mexico for the first time in Red Dead Redemption as Jose Gonzalez’s Far Away gently faded into my childhood bedroom, filling me with excitement and disbelief as I realized that John Marston’s story was really just beginning.
I will never forget these moments because they help fill out the scenes of these great video game set pieces in my memory but also because they introduced me to incredible new artists that I may never have discovered otherwise. After dropping into my first half-pipe in the introductory skate park of Skate 2, The Clash’s Death or Glory began to play and I began my deep dive into one of my all-time favorite bands, ravenously digesting every song from London Calling that I could.
The music in games I’ve played showed me the importance of how soundtracks make great video game moments epic and memorable, from making emotional associations with songs to video games like Life is Strange to exposing me to an unexpected new realm of music like The Clash. The next time you are playing a game and hear a song, think about how the music is impacting the moment. It may stick with you in ways you’d never expect.