The soundtracks for our power fantasies

Okay, so that Civ 4 menu music is pretty iconic, isn’t it? A quasi-orchestral arrangement of the Swahili version of the Lord’s prayer. Awesome. I have a friend who uses that song to de-stress while writing papers, and recently I bought the song off of iTunes, too. Oh, Baba Yetu: I wish I’d had the sense to buy this earlier. As a kid, see, I listened almost exclusively to game soundtracks—exclusively to bad game soundtracks. I had a Walkman and a stack of blank CD-Rs, but no budget for buying my own music (PC games and Pokemon cards are expensive, man), so when I got sick of listening to my dad’s collection of classical music I would jump on the PC and dig around in Program Files.

And thus, at the age of ten, I discovered Caesar III’s horrifically brash and overbearing soundtrack.

Listening to Caesar III’s music is like being repeatedly hit over the head with the British Museum. It’s calculated. It’s dry. Designed to be loopable ad-infinitum, the music has few swells or changes in emotion or tone. Just… trumpets. Drums. It sounds like the design team told the composer to “make the game sound like that one scene in Ben Hur,” but forgot to tell him which scene they were talking about, so it just ended up sounding like all of them. There are little marchy-marchy sounds, like jangling chain-mail and clattering army-sandals, built into a couple of the tracks.  They only make it worse.

Listening to the music of Caesar III is like listening to Mussolini or some shit, guys.

But I adored it. I had a brash and overbearing personality when I was ten. I liked listening to movie soundtracks, but I only liked listening to the loud, triumphant bits. As the years went on, my burned CD of Caesar III music became a short-term fix for me in the low periods between Lord of the Rings soundtrack releases.

Because I played Ensemble Studios and Maxis games almost exclusively until middle school, the soundtrack of my early childhood gaming experiences not a very good soundtrack. Looped. Marchy-marchy sounds. Bad MIDI plunkety-plunk stuff. Eventually, it all started sounding as sour to my ears as it must have done to my friends and parents: when the time came for me to graduate to ‘real people music,’ I immediately ran out and purchased Paul Simon’s Graceland from Wal-Mart. Since then, game music has been conspicuously absent from my iPod.

Well. World of Goo got on there—that’s a magnificent soundtrack, that is. And today I spent quite a while listening to fragments of Baba Yetu. But all of those other brazenly triumphant tracks are gone. On top of that, my favorite games are no longer the ones about violence, civilization, barbarism, and control. I don’t even play Civ 4. When I was a kid, I played games partially (mostly?) to enact power fantasies, I suppose. Caesar III and its music were part of that. Now I play mostly indie games, and my favorites are the ones that baffle me, the ones that play tricks on me. When I was ten, the games with the biggest emotional punch for me were the ones where I perpetrated the deaths of millions. Now they’re the ones where I die constantly, or the ones where death isn’t even an option. Those two in particular have some brilliant, moody music. I still like to listen to Lord of the Rings soundtracks, yeah, but now I spend more time listening to jazz, or to the Talking Heads: music that bleeds out from our marginal cultural spaces, I suppose.

Is there something juvenile and coarse about violence? Yes, definitely. Is there something juvenile and coarse about music that celebrates violence? Usually. Are games about violence juvenile and coarse? I’m going to say that they don’t have to be. But am I saying that just because I do admire so many violent games? Am I going to wake up someday and decide that I’m too much of an adult to play Dead Space, or to admire screenshots of MadWorld? I’m already too much of an adult to enjoy Condemned 2: Bloodshot (I mean, it’s terrible), and, like Leigh Alexander recently mentioned, I’ve always been uncomfortable with games that seek to replicate exactly the violence of the real world without really addressing– actually, let’s face it, without criticizing— the morality of that violence.

Power fantasies will always be a part of gaming and, therefore, of game music. I think it’s important that they stay with us, obviously—games are a relatively safe place to have that kind of power fantasy. It’s good for us in the same way it’s good for little kids to play violent make-believe. It’s a kind of exploration. There’s some kind of exploration going on in the Christopher Tin arrangement of Baba Yetu I put at the start of this post– it’s marginal in that it’s the Swahili Lord’s Prayer, but it’s been turned into this kind of crazy grandiose thing, and it’s in a game that’s all about dominance and power fantasies. Something to think about later, I guess. There’s certainly a place for that kind of music: we need power-music to go along with our power-trips.

But this doesn’t mean I’m going to stop hating on the Caesar III soundtrack.

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11 Comments

  1. Switchbreak

     /  April 22, 2010

    One of the only game soundtracks I listen to while not playing is Akira Yamaoka’s work from Silent Hill. The game is incredibly violent, but it’s kind of the opposite of a power fantasy. Everything, including the music, is designed to make you feel vulnerable, scared and confused. The music would hit you with Merzbow-inspired industrial noise and then it would give way to soft acoustic guitar and simple melodic piano samples before falling back into static and clangs of metal. It was a constant, brilliant push-and-pull between beauty and fear.

    I’m not sure what that says about me that my favorite music to come out of games was stuff that was designed to be intentionally off-putting.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  April 24, 2010

      Hey, if the music gets a strong emotional response, however off-putting, I’d say it deserves to have people love it. Holst’s “Mars” is supposed to be a bit uncomfortable– it’s in 5/4 time– and yet everyone thinks it’s badass, because it gets that emotion just right. Same with the Saruman music from the Lord of the Rings movies: the tracks where the main percussive line was being played with hammers on a tire iron. I’d go so far as to say that music that gets a negative or strained emotional response can be even more satisfying on an atmospheric level than music that goes for the more pleasant emotions. Scary or frantic music can elicit an actual physical response from me. Nails-on-a-chalkboard kind of stuff. If the composer hits the right balance, it’s fantastic.

      Reply
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  2. At this point in time, as I type these keys, I am 37, and grew up with the Atari VCS and 8-bit home computer range.

    I enjoy Dead Space, a fun and solid shooting experience. I have not played Modern Warfare (yet). I am currently perspiring through Saints Row 2 which is incredibly juvenile. While the gameplay is pretty fun, the narrative is all pow-pow, F U MOTHER FAPPER, and people getting deaded; I find it dull and the main character unlikeable. Seems like bad-ass unlikeable is all the rage these days – http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/unskippable/656-X-Blades.

    I find I tire of FPS blasting not because of violence-without-context, but because they offer little over the last FPS adventure. Age breeds boredom and familiarity, not necessarily a grumpy and cantankerous nature.

    Reply
    • lauramichet

       /  April 22, 2010

      Yeah– I mean, there are plenty of violent games out there that go the extra yard and really blow my socks off. It wasn’t my aim to denigrate violence in games, really, but to explore the degree to which over-the-top power-tripping was part of my childhood relationship with games. The music of Caesar III and the gameplay of Civ 4 is violent in a not-really-obvious way, because it’s about exerting power rather than capping the other guy. But for a kid like me, that kind of controlling violence was more important than the ultra-bloody kind. These days, I’m all about stuff like Dead Space– I mean, that was a beautiful beautiful game. As far as I’m concerned, that game was nearly perfect. But that kind of game is still not the kind of game that I normally play anymore. And I don’t play RTSes or Civ-style games anymore, either. Not because it isn’t GOOD, but because, I think, one of the core emotional reasons I was so into that stuff as a kid no longer matters to me.

      I’ve heard a lot of divergent stuff about Saints Row 2– Iv’e heard people who say that it’s much, much better than GTA, because it doesn’t take itself seriously; I’ve heard other people who thought it was very very ‘eh.’ Thanks for the link to X-Blades, by the way– I hadn’t seen that before.

      Reply
      • My only purpose was to re-assure you the impulse to play any sort of violent games won’t necessarily flag =)

        I’m heading in the opposite direction of you, actually. I missed out on strategy and RTSes in general, and have been trying to have a go the last couple of years.

        I have only played one game of Sins and that was in Jan 2009 after I received it for Christmas. I would like to play it again one day. The real problem I find now is heavythunking games require more time than eat-my-crosshairs twitchfests.

        I’m still undecided about SR2. It fixes a lot of problems that GTA sprouted in its San Andreas years (I loved GTA3, GTA:VC but GTA:SA was far more work than play and I was glad to be shot of it DO YOU HAVE TO WALK IN AND OUT OF THAT GODDAMN WARDROBE EVEN WHEN I CHANGE YOUR SOCKS), but it’s a bit variable – driving is not as solid as GTA – plus it doesn’t help that the PC port is on the shoddy side, relying on CPU power and not GPU power. It literally VSYNC’s my face off.

  3. theprettiestboyontheplanet

     /  April 23, 2010

    Civ 4 really does have some great power-music, especially once you start getting into the modern era. For me though, nothing will ever top the music that plays in Civ 2 as you’re waiting for your multi-player game to start up. We only ever played the pirated copies of the game which had been installed in our school’s computer lab, and that tiny menu track was the only one which remained intact. It was enough though. That minute-long, looping drum-fest made eminently clear to all involved that things were going to get incredibly violent, quickly. Many hearts were trampled underfoot in the mad race to Gunpowder which inevitably followed.

    The only game-related items residing on my iTunes today are the soundtrack for the first Katamari Damacy and those Fez demos they released a while back. Katamari’s songs are certainly not power-music, but they do serve a similar sort of function in a way. Where Civ 4’s opening notes prime the player for a an hour or fourteen of large-writ conquest and glory, Katamari’s absurd, ecstatic intro serves to prepare you for the relentlessly illogical and joyous fever dream that is to come. The nonsensical spirit of that game’s world would be much harder to access were it not for the monosyllabic chorus which greets you at the title screen.

    Reply
  4. I have to wonder if I’ll ever exit the power fantasies section of my life. Maybe it’s just a bit different with me though — I grew up with Unreal Tournament, and the first time I ever played Civilization (or any game like it, really) was this year.

    But I still play Unreal Tournament, so I’m probably just a different person.

    Reply
    • I think that as I get older I have less and less control over my life. Long working hours, children making demands…

      So perhaps my power fantasies are only now entering puberty. Bring on the Civ!

      Reply
      • theprettiestboyontheplanet

         /  April 23, 2010

        You’re never too old to slaughter a spearman with some mechanized infantry.

  5. Sam L

     /  April 29, 2010

    Yah I grew up on Civ II and III music too. Interesting thing about most of the Civ IV soundtrack is they drew much more on pre-existing classical music. While I was initially a bit sad to see this as an outsourcing of creativity, I wonder whether player’s interest or literacy in classical music of the great composers will increase as a result. (Just like I got a unique appreciation for In the Hall of the Mountain King by playing Midnight Rescue, yeahhh)

    Reply

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