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Assassin’s Creed III — Main Theme

I’ve been listening to this an awful lot lately.

I fully admit to being a devotee of the Assassin’s Creed games. A unique and interesting narrative is enough to sell me on a series, and though the overarching story has sometimes drifted into the realm of sci-fi/apocalyptic cliche, the characters and settings are totally engaging. I loved climbing all over Damascus during the Crusades. Renaissance Florence took my breath away. Even Constantinople was superb.

The Assassin’s Creed series is an excellent example of how a modern game’s score can be both interactive and cinematic, malleable and evocative. This main theme from the latest entry, while not done by series veteran Jesper Kyd, is driving and excellent. Good music for listening to if you need to get stuff done. Composer Lorne Balfe did a real good job.

 

Kingdom Hearts II — A Fight to the Death

My apologies for a bit of a hiatus! Real life has become doubly real in recent weeks.

The Kingdom Hearts series, in my experience, is a somewhat divisive one– not quite a “love it or hate it” scenario, but many of the gamers in my acquaintance are either tremendously enthused with the premise or exceptionally uninterested.

I’d posit that to like Kingdom Hearts, only a couple of things need to be true: You must A) be able to enjoy a simple action-RPG, and B) have some affection for the various worlds of the Disney universe. I’ve met a lot of people who possess these two criteria.

However, in order to love Kingdom Hearts, you have to have an exceptional tolerance for the usual JRPG abstract philosophical gobbledygook, with which the games are flooded. There’s so much talk of light and darkness and hearts and memories and faith and friendship that it’s quite overwhelming, especially when much of it is so abstract that it begins to make very little sense. (Riku is hindered by the darkness inside him, but also made powerful by it–and by “embracing” it, he gets to keep the power but not be manipulated by it? I think?) What do light and darkness even MEAN in this world? Are they synonymous with hope and despair, or kindness and anger? None of the characters ever seem to be able to satisfactorily explain it, especially later on in the series when light and darkness both seem to be good things? Maybe?

Whatever your feelings about the games’ narrative(s), you can’t possibly object to their scores, by Square’s talented Yoko Shimomura, responsible also for Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana, among others. I brought up “Hometown Domina” earlier, but the track I’ve provided here today is proof that Shimomura is quite adept at battle music as well. The juxtaposition of energetic piano and intense rhythm creates a superb sense of urgency, and “A Fight to the Death” is one of my favorite pieces of boss music ever. It brings in some of the leitmotifs that Shimomura establishes elsewhere in the score in a way that is very effective.

Also, it’s a very appropriate accompaniment to the absurdity that’s occurring in the game–apparently, after the release of FFVII: Advent Children, Square decided that the film’s style of “Dragon Ball meets the Matrix” action scenes would fit perfectly in the climax of Kingdom Hearts II. In fact, if you haven’t played the KH games, I’d almost say that KH2 is worth it for the final battle alone. Completely absurd, over-the-top action. Totally disconnected from reality.

I love it.

Suikoden II — Bright Curtains (the Cooking Duel)

It’s Election Day, and as America selects its leader (and its destiny), this song will be stuck in my head from the moment I get up until the moment the results are all in.

I… I don’t know why. It’s just a thing.

Humans + Gears — Quickening

Speaking of Xenogears.

It’s early morning on a Sunday, and I’ve risen from my bed in order to tackle an almost insurmountable stack of evaluations to write for my students. There’s no one else up in my house, so I decide to put on some OC Remixes and get to work.

The first track that comes on is this one, from the community’s “Humans + Gears” project, a two-disc album of Xenogears remixes. Though the whole thing is a bit hit-or-miss, there are a handful of truly exceptional tracks, including this take on “Faraway Promise” by remixers Avaris and Level 99. I highly recommend you check it out.

Xenogears ramps up its religious allegory/giant mechas theme pretty early on, so the game doesn’t often stray into the pastoral (not in the same way that, say, Legend of Mana does), but there are a couple of locales in the game that utilize Mitsuda’s brilliant score to convey that setting quite nicely. I think the acoustic piece that these fine remixers have put together only adds to this mood, and hearing it in the kitchen of my house early on a Sunday morning definitely makes me wistful for the farmhouse in which I grew up.

Xenogears — The One Who is Torn Apart

It’s NaNoWriMo time, and that means it’s time for me to assemble my yearly writing playlist.

Based on the tune I’m offering here, go ahead and take a guess at the tone of my piece this year.

Xenogears is one of the most brilliant and most flawed games I’ve ever played. When it was initially released, it was among the most technically and visually impressive games available for consoles, and certainly the JRPG with the greatest scope–beating out even the biggest Final Fantasies. (It probably still doesn’t stack up against the Baldur’s Gates and Planescape: Torment, but hey).

I’m always hesitant when I consider recommending that someone try and play through Xenogears. If you can cope with its pace, its difficulty, the often awkward and dull translation, and the fact that the game is essentially unfinished–the second disc is like an outline for what the developers envisioned the rest of the game ought to be–it’s one of the most thoughtfully created and emotionally resonant games out there. It’s a game that legitimately tries to tell a mature story, though the telling of that story is hampered by a number of factors.

Recommending Xenogears is kind of like recommending someone tackle Ulysses–if they can glean from it the brilliant and remarkable insights present within the text, there’s little that can compare with the experience. There’s just an awful lot to slog through in order to reach those jewels.

But seriously, though. You should totally play it.

Chrono Cross — The Dead Sea

The wind is howling outside my windows. It’s nearing midnight.

I can think of few locales in any video game that haunted me so much as the Dead Sea in Chrono Cross. It was altogether foreign and alien–a futuristic world, frozen in time, captured at the very moment of cataclysm.

There are a number of revelations that occur when you visit the Dead Sea, but I’ll not discuss them, for the dual reasons that  they’re not particularly compelling out of context and that I don’t want to ruin them for those who haven’t played the game. (You should. You really should.)

Yasunori Mitsuda’s gloomy piano does wonders here in terms of conveying a sense of ruin and mystery. Indeed, listen to the track and imagine exploring any derelict structure, in reality or in fiction. I think you’ll find it an excellent fit.

Silent Hill 2 — Theme of Laura

Are you caught in a nightmarish existence, tormented by shapeless horrors of guilt and doubt, trying desperately to seek solace or aid from people who never quite seem to be seeing the same world you are? Are you constantly beset by the nagging, itching sense that on some fundamental level, all of this is your fault?

Yeah, well, you and everybody else, huh?

Akira Yamaoka’s theme from Silent Hill 2 doesn’t really need an introduction. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of video game music of all time. It does an astonishing job of conveying the grim tone of the game, fits in nicely with the grungy visual aesthetic of the series, and even manages to sound mournful–an appropriate presentiment of the game’s ultimate thesis. It lets you know that in the town of Silent Hill, things ain’t all right.

As if you couldn’t have guessed.

Eternal Darkness — Black Rose

Eternal Darkness is not the most frightening game I’ve ever played. It is, however, the best attempt I’ve ever seen to have a gameplay mechanic mess with the player’s perception of what’s going on in the game world.

Here’s an anecdote which I frequently relate when attempting to explain the game’s “sanity effects” to people: One night in college, after a long night out on campus carousing, I decided that rather than try and sleep, I’d pop in Eternal Darkness and play one of the game’s chapters. I was still energized by the night’s partying, and it was October, so horror games were definitely on the docket.

My good friend Bob, who had been out carousing with me, plunked himself down on the bed across from the television and watched. Bob, it is to be admitted, may have been carousing a little harder than I had, and so his normally keen senses were a trifle dulled. As I maneuvered my unlucky protagonist through the decrepit hallways of an ancient and blasphemous temple in the heart of the unexplored jungles of southeast Asia, the tension grew as I was assaulted by monsters and booby-traps. It seemed as though from around each corner might spring the nameless terror which would slaughter and devour my unfortunate avatar.

Soon, though my health and sanity were dwindling and I was reaching the climax of the chapter, Bob had to rouse himself from the bed and use the restroom–the alcohol in his system had gotten the better of him. Quietly, so as not to disturb my concentration, Bob slipped off the bed and stepped toward the door, just as I entered a room which contained not one but two enormous abominations, which roared at me in throaty rage.

The sound on the television cut out. In neon green block letters, at the top right of the screen, the word “MUTE” appeared.

“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Bob blurted, looking frantically about the floor below him in the dim glow of the television. “Did I step on the remote?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My character’s just going insane, that’s all.” I’d encountered this particular sanity effect before. On the television, the abominations lurched toward me silently.

I don’t remember whether I survived that particular encounter. What I do remember is the expression on poor Bob’s face: stricken, terrified, as though the game was somehow deliberately making him question the nature of his reality. Bob and I were both a little tipsy from our evening’s adventures, of course, but the game’s intended effect was spot on. I could see writ large on Bob’s features the same cry that any one of the game’s protagonists is wont to shout when faced with such madness: “This… isn’t… really… happening!

The 7th Guest — The Game

A little more Halloween goodness.

At a party this past weekend, some friends and I played a round of the excellent Betrayal at House on the Hill, a board game which takes its cues from classic horror and slasher films–and which contains the excellent mechanic of morphing into one of fifty different endgame scenarios once a certain threshold has been passed and the “traitor” is revealed. In this particular game, the heroes met their untimely end at the hands of a gang of hellspawn (thanks for siding with the Demon Lord, Hayley).

I like to play my board games with a little bit of mood music, and so I searched for some appropriate tunes on YouTube once the game got going. I immediately settled on the soundtrack to The 7th Guest, among the first CD-ROM adventure games to be widely available (it precedes Myst!).

I’ll confess that I haven’t played through either The 7th Guest or its sequel, The 11th Hour, but I thoroughly appreciate the horror aesthetic, and I have a fondness for the cheesiness of FMV-based adventure games. I prefer to get my puzzles from either an English gentleman in a top hat or a wannabe mighty pirate, but The 7th Guest has always been on my list of classics to try. I fell in love with the soundtrack through a couple of OC Remixes by the excellent Mazedude. Check out one of them below:

Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins — Athletic Theme

This one’s kind of special: Super Mario Land 2 was the first game that I ever owned (save for Tetris, which came bundled with my Game Boy, and I received them simultaneously anyway). Even at the tender age of six, I had enough cultural knowledge to understand that the Game Boy Mario titles were “weird,” of a distinctly different flavor than the classic NES Mario trilogy or the SNES games that were to follow. That weirdness wasn’t always good, but there were certain elements of it that were positively great–and most of Super Mario Land 2 is an absolute delight.

The music, in particular, is kind of awesome. There are only a few primary leitmotifs in the game’s score, but they’re traded on in different ways that make them unique and different each time they recur (kind of impressive, given the Game Boy’s limited sound technology!).

The game is also notable for the introduction of Wario. I admit that, when I was six, I did not imagine that he would go on to become a staple character in the Mario canon. Also, I’m just realizing that Wario is more than twenty years old. Yikes.