The soundtrack of my gaming life

Music to be murdered by

I have a deep love of ritual. Like my caveman ancestors before me (who would rally around a stone obelisk, or a collection of goat skulls, and dance to the pounding beat of skin drums), I have my own profane customs.

Nothing puts me more in touch with who I am than matching the perfect music to the right game. I darken the room, rally around the glow of the monitor, carefully set my playlists, and enter a trance-like state of gaming euphoria.

I don’t always play something over a game’s audio, but when I do, it tends to stick with me. My gaming discography traces a map over different times in my life and different moods. For better or worse, the following are some of the examples that stay with me to this day.

Game: Armored Core | Music: Tricky, Maxinquaye

I got really into the original Armored Core. Like, really into it. The proliferation of secret parts to find, odd story beats to pick at, and the infinite customizability of the mechs demanded multiple long playthroughs. I spent an entire winter with Armored Core. I’d poke and pick at it, try different mech designs, attempt to find uses for all those impractical missile packs that I desperately wanted to work, spend entirely too long designing custom emblem art for my mechs that no one else would ever see.

Armored Core was this slick, cool-ass game with a slightly melancholy bent. It demanded an equally slick, cool-ass soundtrack to go with it. Something with the right mix of techno-sleekness and a distinct undercurrent of depression. It demanded Tricky.

In the tender year of 1997 I found what resonated most with my soul – obsessing over robots while listening to chill, moody trip-hop. Nearly 20 years later, I still spend an inordinate amount of time tinkering with mechs to sad beats and ice-cool synth. Some might look at that as a lack of personal growth; I prefer to think of it as being comfortable with who I am. From the bottom of my heart, I can’t wait for From Software to return to the series so I can spend another winter doing it all over again.

Game: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 | Music: Metallica, St. Anger

My brother and I probably listened to Metallica’s St. Anger in its entirety about a hundred times. I like to call it “the worst summer of my life.”

Like all great car wrecks, a number of factors contributed to the disaster. We’d just seen Metallica perform at Summer Sanitarium and it was just about the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I had never been to a big rock show before and the flame throwers, decibel shredding volume, and open drug consumption dazzled me into thinking it was the best time ever (in retrospect, any show featuring Fred Durst and Mudvayne can only be considered unfortunate at best). St. Anger had just come out and fresh from the excitement of the concert, we were eager to hear Metallica’s latest sonic assault.

But, there was an added wrinkle, my brother just won an Xbox in a raffle. And one of the cool things the original Xbox could do that the PS2 couldn’t was rip audio CDs to the system’s internal hard drive. Do you see where this is going? We bought St. Anger, took it out of it’s sealed jewel, put it directly into the Xbox’s disc tray, ripped it, and proceeded to sit down with the only game we had for the console, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4.

I was already growing tired with the Hawk series formula, but playing it while trying to pretend to enjoy the absolutely unlistenable abomination that was St. Anger was like shoveling dirt on its casket. No, it was more like cracking open the casket, savaging the corpse of the series into an unrecognizable pulp with the shovel, and THEN tossing dirt on top of it.

Of course, ripping a CD on the original Xbox took approximately as long as playing through the album itself or longer, and we never quite got around to putting another disc through the process. Call it stubbornness, call it self-harm, but we listened to St. Anger from the first track to the last over and over again, as my brother joylessly went through every challenge in the game. It was the worst summer of my life.

Game: Sonic Adventure | Music: Korn, Freak on a Leash

The less said about this unfortunate chapter the better. Suffice to say, mistakes were made.

Game: Unreal 2003 | Music: NIN / Powerman 5000

Now, you might be rolling your eyes at the idea of a teenager playing a hyper-aggressive deathmatch shooter while listening to a bunch of industrial techno. You might be thinking “what a painful cliche” or that maybe I could have stood to have broadened my horizons during those formative years.

I have no defense. All I can say is it was the style of the times.

There really isn’t anything special about the bond between Unreal and NIN. Trent Reznor worked on the official soundtrack for Quake 2 so the lineage there is pretty easy to trace, deathmatch and Reznor are natural fits. Even at the time I thought Powerman 5000 was kind of garbage, but a garbage I enjoyed, like greasy fries from the chip wagon or those shitty barbecue peanuts they always have at fairs. Still, I can’t deny the sheer joy I had blasting that music as loud as possible while indulging in the deep insanity of Unreal 2003.

Unreal 2003 was interesting as a shooter because of the amount of customizability and power it gave the player. If you wanted to set up a bot match with 8 AI stooges and give everyone rapid fire Shock Cores, that was your business.

I remember in the heat of the summer of August 2003, I was playing a bot match where I turned all the AI up to maximum aggression levels and make the flechette spewing Flak Cannon the only available weapon the arena. I cranked the fire rate up to 8X the normal speed, turning the twisted corridors of DM-Asbestos into a veritable meat grinder of bouncing metal shards and explosive death. I had Nails cranked up to an ear collapsing level of volume, twitch killing wave after wave of enemies, wild eyed and jittery as my body responded to the sensory overload of it all.

Abruptly, the music stopped, the screen went black. I had a small panic attack and worried I cooked my computer when it wouldn’t turn back on. That’s when I realized the air conditioning was off too. The entire block was out. Soon I would hear it was the entire city, and then the entirety of Ontario reaching into New York and parts of the Midwest. The biggest blackout event in North America.

I’m told it was a software bug at FirstEnergy that caused the blackout. I’m told it was a combination of negligent maintenance standards and the failure of the alarm software that led to a catastrophic overload. I’m not sure I fully believe it.

A small part of me will always wonder if it was my fault. If the sheer madness of 8X Flak Cannons bouncing off the walls to Trent Reznor’s desperate screaming rage on the Broken EP didn’t cause an overload somewhere down the line. An experience so metal, so intense it plunged millions of people into darkness.

I mean, probably not. Right? All the same I never played with those settings again. Best to be safe.

Game: City of Heroes | Music: Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre on audiobook

When the City of Villains expansion hit City of Heroes, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. A massive overhaul of the core game that applied all the lessons the team learned during the first few rocky years of CoH’s lifespan. It took everything that was great about CoH and made it even better while also addressing some of the flaws and annoyances that undermined the original release. It was a more interesting, compelling, and addicting version of a game I already deeply loved.

Too bad I was mired in too much school work to really appreciate it. The year CoV came out was probably the hardest year of my university studies.

I fucked up all my course registrations the year before, missed a bunch of compulsory credits I would need to graduate and was scrambling to fix it all. I was taking extra classes and working like a madman while the best time to play CoH was passing me by. So I got clever.

My literature class was focused on classic works from women authors, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and the like. Works I perceived as long, dreary novels about upper crust fops and ladies of leisure, books I had no real interest in reading. So why not try to make the most of the situation by combining them with a little CoH? Admittedly, playing a fast-paced MMO while trying to pay attention to a literary classic isn’t exactly the best learning environment, but I found a way around that as well.

The Stalker was a new character class introduced in CoV. A kind of villainous rogue that specialized in stealth and crippling sneak attacks at the cost of utterly folding during sustained fights. Stalkers were great, they filled a much needed niche in the CoH ecosystem, but only at high levels. Early game Stalkers were abysmal. An Albatross to any team that would try and carry one. While other villains like the Brute and Dominator classes relied on constant, sustained aggression, the dumpy low-level Stalker was constantly whining for breaks between mobs, a chance to recharge their back-stab or get back into stealth. They were universally reviled for ruining all the momentum of a pick-up group and consistently sabotaging tough fights. They were lepers.

I spent those nights doing double duty grunt work, listening through some of Austen and Bronte’s novels while slowly, carefully, paying my dues as a solo low-level Stalker. I chipped through those painful early levels while chuckling at the comically farcical lives of the idle-rich and marveling at how much of an absolute jackass Mr. Rochester could be. I came through those nights with a battle-hardened and mature Katana/Super Reflexes Stalker who could take lives with impunity and slide back into the inky shadows he called home, and a great appreciation for the subtle melding of comedy and sadness that typified Austen’s writing.

It was an educational experience I’d recommend to anyone.

Game: Skate | Music: The Misfits, Stactic Age

Unlike some of my earlier misadventures in music, I’m afraid I can’t blame this one on my age or lack of awareness. I knew damn well what I was doing and I did it anyway. I’m not even sure why I felt the need for outside music, Skate had a perfectly decent soundtrack with several of my favorite artists represented in it. DEVO, Agent Orange, The Sex Pistols, there was nothing wrong with what EA set their cube gleaming fantasy to. All the same I went into the options menu, gently strangled the native soundtrack, and pulled a pair of cheap portable speakers up to the couch. I set up a playlist of Glenn Danzig’s plaintive early-’80s whining and proceeded to shred.

Maybe I was trying to make the experience more authentic. I’m sure more than a few teenagers have bashed out a tooth on the lip of vert ramp while listening to Ghouls Night Out. Or maybe not, I have no idea what real skaters listened to. I squandered the early teenage years one needs to spend building up the knee calluses and leg muscles for big air playing fucking Sonic Adventures and listening to Korn.

Fuck my choices. Fuck me.  If I could have it back, I would definitely substitute the hours I spent helping Big the goddamn Cat pull fish out of a lake busting up my teeth at the skatepark. I’d get into fights over the authenticity of post-Cobain Nirvana, sneer at mall cops, get arrested throwing a Dreamcast off an overpass. It would be a good life.

Sadly that will never be. The die is cast, the story has been written. The closest I’ll ever get to feeling like that alternate-reality rebellious 16 year old version of me is cruising down the concrete hills of San Vanelona while blasting Static Age out of a pair of shitty speakers two inches from my ears. Leave me my emotional crutches.

Game: Battlefield Bad Company 2: Vietnam | Music: Beach Boys

I think this started as a joke, some boozy gag about beaches and relaxing in the middle of sniper fire and artillery barrages. But, soon the combination of Bad Company 2’s DLC Vietnam pack and the playful harmonies of the Beach Boys became inseparable for me.

In a development that I’m sure would have mortified my metal-loving 15 year old self, I actually totally love the Beach Boys. The ironic goof of playing their chipper tunes while reenacting one of the most vicious conflicts in history gave way to a completely genuine appreciation for the group’s talent and range. Bad Company 2: Vietnam featured a lot of era appropriate licensed music with some great picks like CCR’s Fortunate Son and Village Strollin’ by Wolf People, but I’ll always prefer my custom soundtrack of picks from Pet Sounds and All Summer Long.

Besides, shitty cheap deaths from sniper bullets were so common in that game I needed something to calm me down. The Beach Boys mellowing effect probably saved me from an aneurysm.

As for right now, I’m digging on Overwatch while listening to a bunch of New Retro Wave. Reaping souls and fucking up my ultimates to uber-chill synth inspired by an ’80s that never really happened. I’m pretty happy with the situation.

How about you? Do you have any favorite game/music combinations? Do you try to thematically link what you’re playing with what you’re listening to? Share your soundtrack in the comments!

Nic Rowen