The Sounds of Great Game Places

What’s your favorite game soundtrack? Games transport us, be it to sprawling floating kingdoms or a backyard barbecue. And music plays an important role in making those places feel whole, from the symphonic deep space expanses of Homeworld to the rocked out city streets of Jet Set Radio to Katamari Damacy’s giddy j-pop. The best of them stick with you, reminding of places you never wanted to leave.

Digging through my music collection (kicking the Windows habit will do that to you), I noticed that just three of the many game soundtracks I’ve collected over the years have hung around in a meaningful way — creating unique places that I still regularly return to in sound.

When you hear the opening bars of Hyllian Suite, for example, you know you’re in for something special. Jade’s lighthouse home is a warm, hopeful place, and the world beyond is at once more amazing, amusing, and threatening. The Beyond Good & Evil soundtrack captures that world deeply, along with the fantastic characters that inhabit it. Who can forget the high tech rasta rhinos from Mammago’s Garage or the secret passage discovered to tune of Slaughterhouse Scramble’s butt rock or Double H’s quietly insistent message in Enfants Disparus? (Download it here.)

Where BG&E provides places where we can sit still and soak up the atmosphere, Wipeout 2097 (aka XL) never stops, giving only tiny flashes of a future landscape through the windows of anti-gravity craft moving at mind numbing speeds. That doesn’t stop us from imagining the world, though. And music plays an essential role in making that happen, with an electronic soundtrack that provides the perfect glitched-out counterpoint to the highly finessed, Red Bull reflexed racing at hand. Even when you can’t see the city for the demonically winding track in front of you, that world is taking shape in your mind’s eye, guided by sound. Until Wipeout, Playstation only promised the future. Wipeout finally delivered it — and the soundtrack played a triumphant role in making that future feel real. (Grab a used copy of the game cheap and rip the soundtrack right off the disc. Ah how we long for the free music love of PS1.)

Ever wonder what orange sounds like? Rez has the answer. No game ties music and visual so tightly together. After all, the game world in Rez is the music, synaesthetically speaking of course. That’s because every interaction with the world magically happens in time with the music and vice-versa — one intimately informs the other. It’s a stunning accomplishment and one that gives every area its own diverse flavor. From Egyptian fireflies emerging from the blackness alongside Buggy Running Beeps to the steps of a pixelated giant in a Chinese-inspired labyrinth, fittingly set to Rock is Sponge. But none of them can top Adam Freeland’s enigmatic Fear accompanying the mindblowing inside-out final stage. (Import the soundtrack via Amazon.)

Rez is a case study in trigger theory gone right — the idea that a few well placed hints (musical in this case) can trigger a wholly new reality inside the player’s head, far beyond what exists on-screen. But the other games here use music to similar effect. The experience happens within you; as a deep connection between what the game provides and your own memories. Triggers let you escape into your own dreams, instead of those of the game designer. It’s genius when done right. And my favorite soundtracks trigger memories of places I long to visit again and again.

We last talked about the intersection of music and place in Colma: Slacker Awesome in Deadsville, USA.

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