This is actually a rare phenomenon for me. Once in a while, a song will resonate with a certain mood, or a certain event, or even a certain story, and I’ll want to replay it to continue setting the ambiance. It happens most often while I’m writing. For example, as I was nearing the end of “We Interrupt This Broadcast,” the song “Blue” from Cowboy Bebop got into my head and made a home.
It was thematic, and it was even evocative of part of the time period I was addressing.
I had a short story I was writing once – the sort of thing, as so many of my fitful attempts at fiction are, where I have a set of scenes in mind, or concepts, or an emotional ambiance, but not those tiny, fussy elements like plot and character development. The closest to plot I came was another iteration of the Monomyth, which I’d freshly discovered. Still, for an ostensible epic about a rural Midwest kid who comes to discover magical power and a hidden world, the jangling banjo and orchestral sweep of The Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorceror” hit the spot precisely, and I listened to it on repeat as I wrote.
Every once in a while, I will hear a song that strikes my fancy, and I keep wanting to listen to it. Not necessarily right after it’s finished, mind you. But maybe every day, or twice in a day. But it’s dangerous: I risk burning out on it. It’s a little like cotton candy: small bites can be delicious, but if you eat too greedily, if you drool over it too much, that sweet and intricate structure just turns to a cloying, clumpy mass.
This is part of why I don’t often listen to some of my very favorite songs. I don’t want to dissolve them. I may never be able to recapture the sensation of hearing a certain song for the first time, but the less frequently I listen to it, the less I approach it, the more I let it find me, the better. It’s also part of why I’m glad of things like Pandora: they broaden musical horizons with things you might actually like to hear, but preserve the element of surprise. There’s a deep difference between putting on your favorite song and hearing it on the radio or on a stream. It’s great to have control, to have the means of instant gratification, sure. But when that control is held just a little out of your hands, when you have to content yourself with what you get, you appreciate a mediocre song all the more – if just out of stubbornness. And when you DO get what you want from something that’s out of your control… it’s as if the skies have parted, the sun has emerged, and the great and acephalous system has cast a little ray of light right onto your face. Out of all the many things that could have been, it was a thing you like. And if you hear two of your favorites in a row, or a whole block of winners before the commercial? It’s inexplicably reaffirming! No amount of listening to those songs by choice could match the delight of hearing them unexpectedly on the radio (or online radio analogue.)
What songs have I listened to the most, then? Let us consult Winamp and its Most Played list. Even though it’s been through a few new computers now, and is therefore not a comprehensive list of how many times I’ve listened to things, it’s at least got a year behind it. So, disregarding my usual DJing intro song (67 plays!) and things from holiday sets or other special occasions – all that listening and rearranging and relistening fudges the numbers hard – what have I most frequently played?
I’m not surprised that it’s a mashup, but I am a little surprised it’s one of my more recently acquired ones – and not by one of my favorite mashup artists, either! Not to say I dislike this guy’s work by any means; his just isn’t one of the names that leaps more swiftly to mind. But, regardless, my most-played not-a-special-set song is “Freefallin’ Explosions” by LeeDM101, a mashup of Ellie Goulding and Tom Petty.
What’s made me hammer it so hard? I’m not even sure! I’m not particularly familiar with Goulding’s work, so it wasn’t a surprising conjunction of two incredibly disparate things. I’ve long liked “Free Falling,” though, so perhaps it was just the drama of the orchestral arrangement in the background that, heedless of its context, put that old familiar song in a newer, richer ambiance.
Still, I can’t say I ever felt compelled to listen to it twice in a row. This prompt is difficult.
But I’m forgetting something. In fact, I’m forgetting some of my very fondest songs – songs that were explicitly designed to be listened to over and over, on an unceasing loop. Songs I could listen to for perhaps even hours at a time, and gladly, without wanting to punch the speakers into the Sun.
That’s right. Video game songs.
With good video game music, it’s not just a sense of “needing to listen again right after it’s finished.” It’s more accurate to say that hearing the song finish at all seems alien and wrong. I genuinely wonder how many times in my life I’ve heard some of these melodies, and how many more times I’ll hear them before I die or go deaf or whathaveyou.
But this won’t just be a list of my favorite pieces of video game music. There’s many a video game song out there that I love, but have only rarely heard, after all – some from games I’ve never even played. To fit the bill of this prompt, it’s got to be something I really have heard over and over again on loop – it’s got to be from something I’ve actually played. This narrows the field significantly. I’ve owned every other Nintendo console: NES, no SNES. N64, no Gamecube. Wii, no Wii U. Plus a Game Boy and a Game Boy Advance. Friends, relatives, and roommates have had other consoles, though, but I played them more rarely, for less time at a stretch, and so I was always focused more on sheer gameplay. With my own games, on the other hand – or those I rented from the local video rental place (before it became the Blockbuster rental place, before it became a local athletic wear place) – I had no qualms about squandering my gaming time however I saw fit. Suicide missions! Playing with my eyes closed! Trying to get the lowest possible score! Ignoring the real narrative and goals and imagining other stories – like my survival narrative where Link slashed bushes for firewood, ate candle-roasted monster bait, and tried to recruit more of those money-gifting traitor Moblins to his cause. But, yes, that squandering often included parking myself somewhere in the game and simply listening to the music while I did something else. Which confused my mother to no end, of course: “If you’re not playing Nintendo, turn it off!” But there were certainly some songs that I was particularly excited to listen to, and eager to give just one more repeat before I pressed Start or turned it off.
Many such songs were high score music or victory music. Something about it fascinated me: this was a song you could only hear if you performed a certain series of tasks with a certain degree of accuracy. This was pre-Internet, after all: there were no soundtrack downloads, no Let’s Plays. No feasible way – save maybe for an audio cassette recorder with the mic held up to the TV speaker – to hear any video game’s music outside of the game itself. This wasn’t music that you could hear on demand; it wasn’t music that was dispensed seemingly at random by the vagaries of the radio station playlist. It was music you had to earn. Save for Game Genies and cheat codes, anyway. I’m not ashamed to admit I often used hints culled from an outdated, battered copy of The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide, borrowed from the library. Matt’s reflections on it in this Dinosaur Dracula article reflect my own with surprising accuracy. …Including the bit about never beating Super Mario Bros. I wasn’t driven to win for winning’s sake; I just wanted to see – and hear – everything.
So what were -and are – my favorite things to hear?
Sometimes, I’d just get in a Tetris mode. I’d let it gather dust for months, play it again on a lark, and find myself hooked once again. Hours would be spent before the little television, my features galvanized by that intense, semi-unblinking rictus of concentration known to the wise as Tetris Face. And when I beat my high score? Oh yes, the wood paneling of the family room would be echoing with this for as long as I could get away with it.
Though I had many of the staples of the NES, I also had a few obscurities that I loved as much as Mega Man or Mario. (Maybe not Zelda, though.) Prime among them was Pin-Bot, an NES port of a pinball machine by the same name. Only with a a sort of level system that recolored the playfield and introduced clouds that could eat your ball, wasps that could steal it and take it away to one of the drains, other wasps that bombed your flippers, and bonuses that turned your ball into a prism or a cube. Through it all, some of the most amazingly strange music.
The intro theme – which, it seems, was an 8-bit version of the high score music on the actual pinball machine – always got a full listen:
But the NES game’s own high score music…
It’s the most ridiculously simple tune! There are barely any chord changes! And yet it was beyond endearing, somehow. It looped like that forever: unlike the intro theme, there was no clear beginning or end, making it even harder to stop listening and play another game or – still harder – to turn the NES off.
But there did come a time when the NES was turned off for, it seemed, good and all. It may have been after I got the N64; it may even have been before. Regardless, there were many years when my gaming was relegated to the N64 alone. As with the NES, though, I owned few games – but, by this time, that local rental place had become a big chain retail place, and so it carried a strong variety of games to rent. And – surprise of all surprises – they often had more than one copy of popular games! I particularly loved renting San Francisco Rush for the N64. I’m certain I could have bought the game twice over for all the rental prices – and overdue fees – I paid. But it was everything I wanted in a racing game. Shortcuts! Ramps! Off-roading! Hidden secret keys! Cheat codes! Explosions! And if you got to a high score, you didn’t just get to put your name on the leaderboard. You also got to hear one of the most exuberant bits of music ever. I’d rarely listen to this less than twice.
THAT’S yo’ name!
Again, as with the NES, I did have the standards. And I certainly did spend plenty of time idling around in Gerudo Valley for absolutely no reason but to take in the music. …And because I loved diving into the canyon. The first time I’d done it, it was just on one of my typical Dumb Ways To Die adventures; I was certain it would be yet another stupid thing where, yes, there’s water down there, but you’re going to die halfway down for some arbitrary reason. Imagine my thrill when I actually hit the water! When I floated downstream, all the way to Lake Hylia! And yet, even that delight was tempered, because I was always sad to stop listening to this song.
But there was another N64 game with a disproportionately excellent soundtrack. One, like Pin-Bot, which nobody seemed to have heard of except for me. The game was Tetrisphere, a sort of 3D Tetris (only not) where one tried to match one’s blocks to the blocks that comprised a freely-rotatable sphere below, generally to clear a certain number of blocks, or expose a certain amount of surface area of the core. The entire soundtrack was excellent, but there was one song in particular that I adored: a song, appropriately enough, called “Extol.”
I was known to restart levels until I got this song as the background tune. I don’t know when, or even how exactly, but at some point many years later, but before the dawn of YouTube, I managed to find the song in mp3 format, languishing on a personal website of… I actually want to say it was the composer. And now I can listen to it on loop as long as I like – though, again, it’s more fun when I hear it randomly.
I got to play the actual Pin-Bot table only once or twice in my youth – and I sucked at it. But there truly is something about pinball music that’s so distinct from any other game music. I’m not versed enough in music or electronics to explain what it is, really. It’s the way the music is layer upon layer of electronic horns and squeals, and the sound effects are so much more visceral somehow, being associated with so much… actual mechanical physics, I suppose. The vocals – often from times when vocals were amazing in their own right – are so muffled and tinny, yet so charming, especially in contrast to the rest of the electronic bombast. It’s no realistic-sounding orchestra, but it’s no Casio either. It’s like a MIDI hopped up on Mountain Dew and Pixy Stix.
Of all the pinball games, the one that’s most dear to my heart may well be Black Knight 2000. Whether I was playing it with my dad at the little game room in the inn at my favorite State Park, or whether I play it with The Boyfriend at the local arcade, it’s got so many fond associations. And, even if it didn’t remind me of particular good times, it’s still incredibly badass. The vocals! The taunting! The choir! The bizarre shaking chunking madness at certain points! It’s absurdly motivating.
But I think that the video game music I love and could listen to most of all – more than anything from my pre-college days, perhaps even on a par with the nostalgic songs from my childhood, possibly even rivaling some ‘normal’ music – is the music from the now-shuttered browser game, Glitch.
Glitch was the apex of whimsicality. Not completely childish, anything but pointlessly edgy. Even its Hell had charm. Gitch was surreal, and inspiring, and sometimes melancholy, and the music made it even moreso. I can’t explain it, really, but from the first time I heard some of the songs, they felt familiar. It was like nothing I’d ever heard before, but it somehow bore nostalgia from the start – as if it already knew it was going to be gone someday. I couldn’t put my finger on it at all, on what I could have possibly heard before that would have made Glitch’s music feel once-known, once-loved, and forgotten.
The whole experience – both of the familiar music and of Glitch itself – reminded me of a rare species of dream I have.
In them, my dreamself goes to a place that my waking, thinking mind – which is always along for the ride – knows I’ve never been to before. Maybe it’s a shop, modeled only vaguely after one I’ve actually seen. Maybe it’s some theater’s backstage, only tangentially like any I’ve worked in. But, in these dreams, my waking-self knows I’ve never been there, and my dreamself doesn’t believe it’s ever been there, and is only ambling around, lost at worst, a tourist at best. But the people there know me. They’ve heard of me. And they stand a little more straight, smile a little more sly, and say they always knew I’d be back. I apologize for the confusion and say there must be some mistake, I’m new here, I’m just visiting, but they – or someone they take me to see – just says they knew I would say that, too. And then they give me something they say I’d left there once before: a wallet I’d lost, or a notebook, or some similar personal effect. Awkward now, I try to hand it back, but they’ll hear nothing of it. Open it, they say, it’s been ages! Not sure whether I’m humoring them or myself, I do – and it all comes washing over me. Memories of a whole life I’d lived once and forgotten. Things made, friends met, conversations held. Helping and being helped. A whole sphere of my life that I cared about, deeply – but, somehow, forgot. It’s overwhelming, and it’s undeniable, and even my attendant waking-self is thoroughly impressed and weirded out by how my brain is generating all of this. When I manage to reach my words again, I apologize, saying I have no idea how I could have forgotten for so long, or why it took me so long to come back, and I swear I didn’t mean to abandon anyone or worry anyone for all these many years. But I’m assured that all is well – that it’s just the way of this place. People come and go, remember and forget, and nobody even pretends to understand it all, so neither do they judge. But, someday, even without their willing it, even without remembering, everyone finds their way back. It may not always be to stay – and there I hold up my shaking hand and say no, I wouldn’t let it happen again, I couldn’t possibly forget again – but they just shake their head, smile, and say again no, it may not always be to stay, but everyone does find their way back.
Glitch itself is trying to come back – in Children of Ur and in Eleven – both of which are patterning themselves closely on the original, reviving that world once loved and shared and lost. It’s been long enough now, and some people likely found Glitch so late and got to play so little, that someone will have that sort of experience. They’ll stumble on this browser game, decide to give it a try, and find themselves in a place they didn’t know they knew, a place they didn’t remember they’d forgotten.
Ultimately, the biggest reason why I don’t listen to some of my favorite songs, though I very well could listen to them on loop… is because I want to preserve them as time-capsules. I want to take them in, let them surround me as I am in a place at a time, then forget them. And, when I hear that song again, some years in the future, unlock that capsule and be able to feel, if just for that moment, that immersive, suffusing sense of place and time once more. Something so acute, so overwhelming, that couldn’t have been called up from memory without that key – that song (or, often, that smell.) Yes, that does a disservice to the song: it puts aside its meaning as a song itself, renders it secondary to what it makes me feel and think and remember. But, what can I say. Sometimes, I appreciate a song for what it means on its own. Sometimes I appreciate it for my personal interpretations. And sometimes, selfishly, I appreciate it for how it reminds me of myself.