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More Than Just Noise: Happy Garland Blues


Steambot Chronicles is, without a doubt, my favourite game of all time. In the many years I have spent gaming, I have never played a game quite as massive in scope or rich in detail. The game serves as a window into a massive, living world, one that seems almost as real as our own. It's really quite remarkable, and whenever the opportunity arises to talk about it, I take it.

So, naturally, when this month's musing topic came up, I was delighted. After all, as the 20 something people who've actually played Steambot Chronicles are well aware, the game has a heavy focus on music. In fact, during development, Irem made every gameplay element, with the exception of billiards, revolve around one of three themes: giant robots as an everyday part of the world, character development within that world, and the music played in that world.

I could go on at length about the fantastic score, the busking simulation mechanics, or the surprisingly deep rhythm minigame, but alone those are hardly enough to warrant a monthly musing. Instead, I'm going to delve into the way the music of the game reflects the development of the characters, specifically the main love interest, Connie, (short for Coriander.)

Please Note: MANY spoilers follow.

At the outset of Steambot Chronicles, our hero, Vanilla, awakes on a strange beach, with no memory of how he got there or who he is. Fortunately, he is found by Connie, a beautiful young girl who is picking herbs for her sick mother, and after a series of misadventures the two become fast friends. Alternatively, depending on your choices, she hates you for being dick to her the whole time, but for the sake of brevity I'm going to write this from the perspective of someone who took the nice guy route. Either way, she thanks you for taking her home, and then rushes off to a concert.

You see, it turns out that the charming young girl who you've become friends with is, in fact, the lead singer for the Garland Globetrotters, the most popular band in the nation. Much of the game's plot revolves around your interactions with the band members, and their shared history. That history, and, later on, your interactions with the band, both have a huge impact on the music Connie writes.

Take, for example, the first piece, "In Your Voice:"

In your eyes I see a pond of trouble
You've been hiding from us all the time
But you can't keep it all in forever
Can't you see we're all right here for you?

Seems like a pretty simple pop song about love and friendship and crap, right? Well, at the beginning of the game, you'd be forgiven for thinking that way. However, once, you're a bit farther into the game, you find out about Dandelion, the band's old leader. Dandelion left the band following the death of his brother, Chicory, so overcome with grief that he couldn't go on playing.

This song is Connie's way of trying to reach out to him, to convey to him that his friends are still with him, and that artistic expression, or "singing out loud," is the best way to overcome his grief. She revisits this theme a few times in later songs. She also seems to be rather fixated on the events surrounding the death of Chicory, as is evidenced by her next song, "Impossible."

Where do I
Fit in the picture of your world?
When you're soaring so high
And I am left alone
Here, on the the ground

I can't
Even see you anymore
So high up there
Like a bird
I wish I could fly to you

Again, on the surface, this seems like a fluffy, silly pop song about unrequited love, and when you first hear it, indeed, that's what it sounds like. Again, though, once you know more about the band's history it becomes clear that the song is about more than that. In fact, it's Connie's lament over the death of Chicory. He was carefree, innocent, and he died that way, his soul free to soar like a bird. However, his death took Connie's wings, her innocence, away from her, and she can no longer reach the same heights she once did.

Connie loved Chicory, and in losing him she's lost the courage to trust and love others. She sings of how her only hope is for him to fly back to her, or, in other words, to find a friend as carefree and kind as he was. By going the nice guy route, Vanilla becomes that guy, and allows her to write joyful songs again, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

The third song, "I Cry," is rather unique, because it's a collaborative effort between Connie and Dandelion. She wrote the lyrics, and he provided the sheet music. Not to mention the subject matter...

The rain suddenly stopped when you came
My loneliness abandoned me at once
Oh, but when you spat those words at me
The rain just poured down on me again

When you first meet Dandelion, he asks you to bring Connie a letter and some sheet music he wrote. It's stated that the music forms the basis for "I Cry," the song you play in Neuhafen. Now, here's where this blog goes into speculation. We never actually SEE the letter Dandelion sent to Connie, so we don't really know the contents. I think it's likely that the letter contains an offer for her to join the Bloody Mantis, (an evil organization, created by Dandelion, bent on the destruction of Happy Garland for reasons outlined here.)

The song opens with Connie singing about waiting for him in the pouring rain, in other words, wallowing in the loneliness of having both Dandelion and Chicory leave her. His letter took away those feelings, temporarily, however, its contents quickly brought them back. She is is confused and hurt to find that Dandelion isn't the man she thought he was, that he's so consumed by grief and desire for revenge.

In the song, love is used as a metaphor for revenge. Part of her wants to take revenge alongside Dandelion, however, she decides that she doesn't really need revenge, and instead chooses to rely on herself and her music to help her get through her pain. She uses the song to vocalize this internal conflict.

The next song, "Just Shout it Out," appears as part of a sidequest. However, it is important, as it's Connie's last plea to Dandelion to stop what he's doing and come back to the band.

Pulled down by gravity
The weight of a thousand bricks, on your shoulders
It gnaws right through you, your flesh and bones cannot carry the weight
You can no longer stand it
Hold onto something strong

This song's a bit more clear cut than the others, which is I think why it's hidden in a sidequest. It's pretty obvious that the subject of the song is Dandelion. The thousand bricks represent the grief at the loss of his brother, and the whole "edge of insanity" bit is pretty obviously aimed at his plans to blow up Happy Garland. The "something strong" he needs to hold onto is his friends, and the song returns to the idea that artistic expression is the solution. Of course, you wouldn't be able to figure that out until after you fight him, but it does lend credence to the theory that Connie knew what was up with Dandelion all along.

After spending the entire game fixating on Dandelion and Chicory, Connie finally gets around to writing a song for you, as a way of saying "See You Later" as you sail off into the sunset.

Feels like I've known you for so long, but there's always something wrong
I could never understand, what this feeling was
Searching for its meaning, I went through everything
Every piece of shattered glass, and then I realized

When I saw you, for the first time
Washed up on the shore and lost
I knew that I, had found someone I could call my own

Yeah, the meaning is really obvious, but it still shows depth in its own right. It shows that Connie has finally managed to move past the tragedy that's dominated her life, that she's found someone new to love. Sure, it's sweet and sappy, but above all, it's a good ending to a compelling character arc, and what's really amazing is that a lot of that arc is simply implied in the subtext of Connie's songs, rather than being shown to the player outright. The developers used the music masterfully to convey a beautiful story, and the end result is truly remarkable experience.

As a bonus, I have also figured out what the song "Music Revolution" tells us about its writer, Fennel:

It sucks because he's not a very good musician and it has no depth because he's a shallow moron who thinks he's better than everyone else.

Man, I am an analytical genius.
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About g-offone of us since 12:04 PM on 11.17.2009

Features Editor of Hardcore Gamer now. You can read my stuff there.
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PSN ID:xtreme_phoenix


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