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.