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Video Games: Making the Music

Understanding a music compilation requires more than listening to the sounds. NPR music critic and correspondent Ann Powers explained that “music is not a thing, but things are important to music. You can’t really understand 1920s blues without learning to shimmy and slow drag. It’s incredibly enriching to discover the stuff an artist kept around, the notes that hold answers in their margins, the lucky charms and ritual objects of an artistic life.” This idea applies to video game soundtracks, too. When we are immersed in a game, how often do we consider how the score alters or compliments the game experience?

In the spaceship simulator game Faster than Light, a player assumes the role of a Federation spaceship captain and navigates the craft through the galaxy.  The captain must manage the crew, fix the engines, outfit and upgrade the ship, and guard against rebel forces. The success of the captain depends on her ability to micromanage tactics and resources. The ambient soundtrack heightens the tensions—like when the captain realizes the ship is almost out of gas or a few crew members have perished. Sound designer Ben Prunty sought to create a retro sound that complimented the game’s retro graphics. He explored the depths of Internet sound libraries to find the unusual sounds that make-up the score. Prunty then created two versions of each song—a Battle version and an Explore version. The game moves back and forth between the tracks depending on the action of the game.

The soundtrack for the first-person shooter BioShock Infinite presents a different tune. In this game, set in 1912, the player follows Booker DeWitt through the flying city of Columbia as he seeks to rescue prisoner Elizabeth. Some of the themes, religious and racial extremism, heightened the need for a compelling soundtrack. The score includes several contemporary songs modified to reflect an earlier period in history. Music director Jim Booney assures players the approach is not gimmicky, as “the arrangers and performers were all totally sincere in their approach, and a lot of research and effort was put into making these versions as period-authentic as possible.” The soundtrack proves catchy. In one scene, the player explores a boardwalk and an accordion version of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” plays in the background. Booney digitally altered songs to match the recording technology available during the early 1900s. He also used gramophones and phonographs to create layers of tarnish. I especially enjoyed Scott Bradlee’s take on “Tainted Love” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Prior to working on BioShock Infinite, Bardlee founded Postmodern Jukebox. On the Postmodern Jukebox website, he posts adaptations of contemporary songs like “Call Me Maybe” and “Royals.” His goal is to get the audience to think of songs as “malleable globs of silly putty.” The songs he worked on for BioShock Infinite help to create the alternate reality. He notes that the “songs served a purpose in the plot and it was important that they didn’t come off as a parody at any point.”

If the scores above do not appeal to you, check out Saints Row IV version of Haddaway’s “What is Love,” Vice City’s adaptation of Billy Jean, or Joe Hisaishi’s score for Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch.