Monday Mixtape #11: Computer Game Music

Should a center that concerns itself with the ancient arts of music and storytelling get involved with computer games? Isn’t that the pastime for geeks and freaks? Well, not only have we been playing a lot of games at the Mezrab, with the door closed and the beamer connected to an Xbox. We also did this as an honest appreciation of the medium, not just to take a break from politics and artsy fartsy events. Yes, you hear this right: at the Mezrab we believe that games have come a long way since the early builds of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong and some of the finest storytelling, music and other creative endeavours of today are poured into computer games. To celebrate this fact, we’ve compiled a few of our favorite songs!

Be warned though in case you haven’t played these games but plan on doing so, the text will have massive spoilers.

Portal / Credit song “Still Alive”

In recent years the computer games industry has become a billion dollar industry, rivaling cinema not only in yearly sales but also in money spent per title. What’s true for film is equally true for computer games, having a budget of tens of millions doesn’t mean you will make the best game out there. With money to produce the best graphics and fanciest music scores come producers who want a return on investment, ie. a veto over ideas that are too risky. Luckily small teams with a good idea and a bit of money to run with it sometimes produce great hits and show the big developers how it’s done. Portal is one of those perfect gems. A simple story about a human lab rat trapped in string of increasingly dangerous test run by a robot promising cake at the end of the trial.

Grand Theft Auto / Gangster Friday

Grand Theft Auto is the game that critics of the art form love to hate. Isn’t that the game where you play a criminal who can run people over, shoot them and beat them to a pulp with a baseball bat? True, the creators responded, and you’d be a pretty bad parent allowing your kids to play with these games. Just as you’d be a bad parent for allowing your kid to watch any Martin Scorsese film. The games have grown considerably in production values, the last installment cost $ 100 million to make, paying for famous actors to voice characters, cartoons and mockumentaries that your character can watch on various televisions and hours upon hours of music he can listen to while driving around in his stolen cars. However, it all started with the very first song in the very first game of the series: Gangster Friday.

Red Dead Redemption / Far Away by Jose Gonzalez
The maturing of video games doesn’t mean games only get more violent. Players are now being catered by games that deal with the complicated issues we want all good art to deal with. Rockstar, the same company that made the Grand Theft Auto series, brings us an adventure that takes us back to the wild west. In the same way that the GTA franchise referenced all great (and superbly bad) gangster films, Red Dead Redemption brings back to life the great westerns of old. But there’s a few great twists: while the story progresses and the regular themes of good verses evil and forgiveness versus revenge are explored, the game allows us to feel remorse for a time and a genre that has died out. While the beginning of the story is in a typical Wild West setting, the later towns are paved and feature the occasional car, making the player feel silly driving his trusty steed. When the final climax approaches and the player shoots wave upon wave of American Indians, no kill gives a sense of achievement, only the feeling of being an accomplice to one of the great injustices of our times. Where some great books and films allow us to understand and feel sympathy for unkind characters with questionable pasts, this game takes one step further. We’re the one directing the action when the character acts.
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Grim Fandango / Blue Hector
Creative brilliance doesn’t always translate to commercial success. Witness Grim Fandango, a fiendishly funny and stylish game that according to the San Francisco Chronicle “feels like a wild dance through a cartoonish film-noir adventure. Its wacky characters, seductive puzzle-filled plot and a nearly invisible interface allow players to lose themselves in the game just as cinemagoers might get lost in a movie.” Maybe it was too intelligent, referencing the Maya afterlife, South American politics, the beat poetry scene and many other subjects the average gamer wouldn’t know about when the game was released almost 15 years ago. No matter, for those who did enjoy it, lets listen to the music one more time and relive the memories.
Bastion / Build That Wall
When Bastion hits you it hits you like the hammer with which the cute little protagonist runs around. Up until that moment it’s an original, enjoyable and at times sad game about a boy that runs around in a world gone bad: a cataclysm has killed (almost) everyone, turning people into dust. He runs around on floating rocks trying to make sense of what’s happened, trying to find survivors, while shooting and smashing colourful enemies. Finally he meets the old guy who narrates the story of the game and a few people from a country that used to war with his own. While the protagonist is distinctly (fantasy) American, the foreigners are Japanese based. Suddenly there’s the realisation: the story is a parable for the second world war and the use of the atom bomb. And while the game is cute enough for little kids to enjoy without thinking twice about what it means, it’s sad enough to make grown men cry.
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