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So, have you heard that new song Paul McCartney recorded for Destiny? It's a bit crap. Vacuous lyrics about nothing in particular, dull arrangement, and for some reason every instrument is drenched in enough reverb to make even My Bloody Valentine jealous. Still, at the very least being part of the soundtrack to 2014's Big AAA Gaming Event will give Macca a boost of relevance he's not seen since the early days of Wings, and a shot at actually selling records to young kids again for the first time in forever. It's certainly a step up from his previous attempt at being on the cultural pulse, flogging a collection of po-faced jingles through Starbucks.
Pop song tie-ins are a funny phenomenon. A good pop song used well can elevate a scene with its placement. Stuck In The Middle With You. Where Is My Mind. The End. If you're even moderately aware of film, hearing those songs mentioned will likely bring up some iconic cinema moments. Gaming is a little trickier. Since ascending to the upper echelons of contemporary pop culture, we've seen publishers take a much more conservative stance. Classic pop songs tend to just be used for trailers (see Black Ops' use of Gimme Shelter), and any pop song featured in a game tends to be something contemporary that record companies are looking to promote. When FF XIII was released, for instance, Square decided that the game itself wasn't enough of a punishment for long-time franchise fans, and gave us an equally tedious Leona Lewis tie-in single to promote the game/punish our ears with. Mirror's Edge made heavy use of Still Alive, a pop song by Lisa Miskovsky, whose accompanying video was essentially a demo reel for the game's art and graphics department. EA tends to use its various racing franchises and sports games as an advertising billboard for whatever artists major labels are looking to flog currently, complete with pop up label notes. Every now and then you'll get a game like Spec Ops, which used classic songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Mogwai in-game to help set mood, but those games tend to be fewer and further between. Licensing music can be expensive, and most publishers would rather use licensing as part of some form of promotion or advertising, rather than just for a game's own improvement.
It's a shame. Because every now and then, you'll find a game and a song that feel like they just belong perfectly together. Paul McCartney's guff may seem awkwardly shoehorned in over the Destiny credits, but a Daft Punk B-side from the Tron Legacy soundtrack? Or a new Glitch Mob single with spacey synths and punding drums? That could have been awesome. Well, in the name of imagination, here are some other examples of music and game that really should have got married somewhere along the line, and never did.
Bayonetta & David Bowie
Just to be clear, Bayonetta already has a phenomenal soundtrack. Platinum generally don't fuck around when it comes to getting good music to go with their games, whether it be the Nu-Metal guilty pleasure of MGR's soundtrack or the bombastic fanfare of Wonderful 101, and Bayo is no different. But if the game soundtrack was missing one teensy little thing, it was a bit of the Bowie. Think about it: Bayonetta is an extremely self-assured, sexually adventurous, extroverted Umbran Witch who enjoys nothing more than putting on a spectacular show for everyone. David Bowie is an extremely self-assured, sexually adventurous, extroverted musician from Brixton who enjoys nothing more than putting on a spectacular show for everyone. The two were made for each other. And just to seal the deal: Bayonetta prances around the game with the grace and athleticism of a prize dancer. No, seriously. A lot of her moves were actually based on dance moves. And we all know what Bowie thinks of dancing:
Magic Dance is a song about how dancing is quite literally magical. Bayonetta is a magical Witch who dances. The two go together like Red Bull and Jagermeister. Plus, the full song has a bitching guitar solo, and the ever-present associated image of Bowie's Labyrinth-era bulge, a picture that fits right in with Bayonetta's aggressive, in-your-face approach to sexuality. Next time you play Bayo, turn down the volume and stick this song over your speakers. Heck, put on the video in a Yotube tab or something. The combined crotch-in-face imagery of Bowie and Bayonetta will make your eyes water. Or should that be Bowienetta?
The Last of Us & REM
The Last Of Us is a dour, serious game about big, meaty themes. It is Scrunched Furrows: The Game. REM were a chirpy band who made upbeat college radio hits with strummy guitar parts and singalong choruses. You might think the two couldn't be more different. But that's the key. Not only does It's The End Of The World cover apocalyptic themes, it does so in a way which would provide TLOU with artistic cred that no-one could deny: dissonance. Think how many famous films have contrasted chirpy or major-key music with scenes of quite horrible violence or sadness: Resevoir Dogs, Wall-E, Dr Strangelove... if you want to be recognised as a Big Artistic Deal, soundtrack dissonance is almost a requirement. TLOU may have won 200 GOTY awards. Think how many it would have won if it had REM playing over the sight of Joel cracking skulls in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
All of them. It would have won all the GOTY awards. Including the one Gamespot gave to A Link Between Worlds. Speaking of Zelda...
Skyward Sword & Tom Petty
There's no thematic subtext or anything fancy here. Skyward Sword is a game where you go skydiving in order to find your bird. Free Falling is a song where the main chorus hook is "I'M FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!/FREEE FAAAAALLLIIIIING!" Nintendo wouldn't even need to include the whole song, just that chorus anytime you jumped off Skyloft would have been fine.
...heck, Link could even pass as an anime fantasy version of a young Tom Petty.
Wolfenstein & Tool
A more obvious reader would perhaps have thought of Rammstein as the go-to music for Wolfenstein's Nazi killing madness. For me, Die Eier Von Satan is a far better match. It's a thumping piece of industrial clatter so full of gristle you could choke a donkey on it. It's fstuffed with ominous German that sounds sinister as hell, complete with crowd chants and rally cheers. It's even got Satan in the title. If early-90s iD was a band rather than a game developer, this is the sort of music they'd be making.
And as any Tool fan knows, in a wonderfully meta-twist, Die Eier Von Satan is actually a rather comical song. The German heard in the song is singer Maynard reciting a recipe for cookies from a German cook book. The industrial sounds and rallies chanting are simply put in there to make aural allusions to Nazism that don't exist, and the Satan in the title is just there to make things sound more evil. It's a wonderful example of a band encouraging listeners to hear things in a song that aren't there. In practise, the song is about as pro-Nazi as Eisenhower. Which makes it a perfect fit with Wolfenstein, a game that has had no small amount of controversy regarding violence, but which at the end of the day has said nothing more confrontational than Nazis are evil, dabbling in the occult is dangerous, and robot Hitler should be destroyed. A message I think any right-minded person can get behind.
Especially this guy...
Super Mario & Queen
...wait, someone already did it? Dash nab it! Ah well, nothing better than confirmation of how well the creative genius of EAD Tokyo and the mercurial sound of Freddie & Co go together. Enjoy!
The Wonderful 101 & The Beatles
Because dramatic irony is a wonderful thing. I Want To Hold Your Hand is a song by the Beatles where Lennon and Macca sing about how much they want to hold your hand. That's pretty much the lyrical entirety of the song, in fact. Whereas The Wonderful 101 is a game which makes clear from the outset that it does not want to hold your hand. At all. Not even a little bit. Not even a pinkie. Tutorials are for the weak, and essential abilities like Dodge should be bought from the shop. If you want hand-holding in your hackey-slash games, go play DmC, or God Of War, or something. Kamiya cares not for your feeble cries for tutorials, the Wonderful 101 is a game for only the hardest of the hardcore!
Of course, W101 is such an insane game that you could equally choose Happy Mondays to play over it, and it would still be just as fitting.
"Twenty four hour party people!"
So there you go. A bunch of games with pop songs that would fit like a velvet glove. If that's not enough to cleanse your mind of Paul McCartney's earnest gurning in Destiny... well, I've heard good things about prozac recently. Go try it out. Or just listen to some prime Marty O'Donnell, and just be glad that Mick Jagger never got to foist a comback single into any of the Halo games.
See, with all these blogs going up about the community's various favourite games, I thought I'd try something a little different. A piece on my most unfavourite game of all time. Morrowind. The high point of the Elder Scrolls franchise. The great white hope of western RPGs. The fantasy sandbox by which all others are measured and found wanting.
Now just to be clear, an unfavourite game isn't a game I think is the worst ever, or that I think should be held to some objective standard of general shittyness. I think Oblivion is a far worse game than Morrowind, for one thing, and there are games more broken and buggy than either games out there to be experienced. A game like Bubsy or Superman 64 can be unredeemingly awful, yet take up the same amount of space in my brain as Latin, or Gamelan music, or Thatcher/Reagan slashfic. Morrowind, however, sits on the shag carpeting of my mind like a craggy turd, its mere presence leaving a smell it's impossible to shake off. It's a game that I have tried to get into no less than five times. I have bought it twice, installed every mod known to man, and spent countless hours trying to pierce its chitin shell to find the sweet meat underneath. I have wanted nothing more than to love Morrowind, and on some level I still do. There's something about the idea of Morrowind which is amazing, something I really want to get into and lose myself in... but everytime I've tried, I've found myself utterly underwhelmed by the entirety of the experience. Each time I've tried to get into it, I haven't managed to get more than a few hours into the story, yet collectively I've probably spent a dozen hours or more in the game. I've spent less time in Arkham City and Metal Gear Rising, games I enjoy munreservedly, than I have wandering the swamps of Vvarvendell, waiting for the next crab or rat to get the jump on me.
What is it I don't like about the game? In a word: everything. As soon as I fire the game up, every facet of the game's structure sets my teeth grinding, wishing it could be less arduous. The game presents you with a huge open world to explore, but your character walks with all the speed of a tectonic plate. You can sprint, but your stamina bar is so low that anything more than ten seconds spent running will bring your character back to a crawl. And if you get attacked by antyhing, then the best of luck to you, as you've rendered yourself too knackered to properly put up a defence. The game promises you a giant setting to explore, then makes the very act of exploring as tedious as it possibly can. You can fast travel, sure... but fast travelling around the map requires money, and that's the one thing you don't have when you're first starting out. For the first section of the game at least, you're faced with either going penniless, or slow marching it from town to town, city to city, sort of like one of the Canterbury pilgrims, but with an infinitely more boring story to tell:
" A tale of woe I shallen tell thee/Of a prisoner's endless misery/That whilom was kicked from humble boat/And cast asunder, with nary a groat/Nor raiment, food nor arms to bear/No horse to ryde, no humble mare/Left to walk the lonely road/Attacked by rats and crabbes and toads/Till pon a chance he saw the lights/Of a friendly city in the night/He marched his feet with greaten haste/And was struck down by one of the cliff race"
If the combat was great, then that perhaps could make up for the general tedium of exploration, but it's not. The combat in Morrowind is legendarily broken, which is what makes the experience even more frustrating. You slog from Point A to Point B, hoping for something to add a little spce to proceedings, then when a monster jumps you, you're left to realise that even the spice in this game is a bit bland. Everything is done on dice rollls, yet you're left to swing and flail like you're doing the Time Warp at a LARP convention. I like combat in RPGs/ I like fighting monsters, and getting stronger by defeating them. I like swinging swords and casting fire spells. But somehow, Morrowind takes the basic primal appeal of swinging a sword at a giant troll, and makes it a game of chance where all the numbers are rigged against you. Combat in Morrowind isn't something to be experienced, it's something to be suffered for wrongdoings in your past lives. It's penance for a life lived in sin. It's nothing but punishment, with not even funny animations to give it some kind of humour or levity.
And this is the thing: if the story was better, I could endure dodgy gameplay. I've played through JRPGs that had less-than-stellar gameplay to experience a ripping yarn, and can overlook mechanical defects if the themes and drama make up for it. But Morrowind doesn't do that. It does the one thing I absolutely hate in fantasy and sci-fi games: throw a load of lore at you, and expect that to do most of the story. Now, I hate lore. I hate it when a game throws encyclopedias of made-up nonsense to wade through, and calls that a valid trade-off for some good characterisation or emotional writing. I like my fantasy fiction to have the basics of narrative down, like characters and arcs and ideas bubbling away under the surface. Making up a load of backstory, then dumping it into the game to be waded through like fish guts on the deck of a trawler, has no appeal to me. But that's where the meat of Morrowind's story lies: going through endless bloody books, flicking through scrolls, scanning journals for anything interesting or entertaining. I like fantasy settings that are well realised, don't get me wrong, but I also like some immediacy to proceedings. I don't have an endless amount of spare time, and if a game is going to demand so much of my attention, I want something other than backstory and lore to work with. Give me a great story, or great gameplay, but give me something to get some immediate feedback from.
On every level that matters, Morrowind goes against everything I enjoy in games, be it its approach to narrative, or the broken fundamentals of its gameplay... and yet, for some utterly inexplicable reason, I still want to like it. Love it, even. There's something about the idea of Morowind which I want to be in love with, something about the idea of getting lost in a world of giant mushrooms and weird insects that fundamentally speaks to me. This says just how much I want to like it: I bought the game as a teenager on a Sold Out software disc, then when that disc disappeared, I bought the GOTY version, even though I already knew I didn't like the game. Maybe it was the idea that the expansions could fix some of my problems with the game, maybe it was just the basic idea of wandering alone in a fantasy world, but I bought the game again, installed it again, fired it up again, and within three hours was utterly confused as to why I had done it. Even now, writing about Morrowind, I can feel the urge to fire it up once more, install some graphics mods, and go exploring. And I know what would happen if I did: I'd start a new game, marvel at how nice the new texture mods and graphics tweaks look, and get bored of the game before the evening was done.
No other game has this effect on me. There have been games I've hated, and never played more than once, and there have been games I've loved that have taken up hours upon hours of my free time, but never has a game had quite the same love/hate relationship with me. It's like meeting a woman, and falling in love with the idea of her, rather than the reality. I know that Morrowind is a broken, buggy mess that has nothing of what I look for in games, but I just can't quite quit it. It's stuck in my conscious like a splinter, irritating and impossible to remove. I have many games that I would consider as my favourites, but no games has ever had the singular success of so resolutely being my unfavourite: a game I want to love, but which I cannot find a single thing to love. Other people love Morrowind more than words, and that's absolutely fine. I would never begrudge anyone the hours of enjoyment they've got from exploring Vvarvendell and all its mysteries. On a subconscious level, I may even be slightly jealous. The sort of joy those gamers have got from the game is exactly what I want for myself. It's why I refuse to get rid of my discs, why I eye the game up everytime it goes on a Steam sale. Morrowind is the bad first sniff of cocaine that still leaves me itching for more. It's that bad LSD trip which leaves my brain on the floor, yet still has me wanting to return to the psychedelic realm. It's a tick that sticks my psyche with its mandibles, grabs on, and is then impossible to shake loose.
Fuck it, I've still for the disc in my drawer. What harm could one more reinstall do...