More Than a Feeling
The purpose that multisensory integration serves in video games, then, is as much emotional as it is practical. The nostalgia evoked by particular sounds, songs or movements is what keeps players coming back again and again. Some old game sounds and music are still fondly remembered as some of the most defining aspects of these games, or even of gaming itself. In his FFVI example, Cheng talks about the opera level in the game, in which a non-playable character (NPC) is singing an aria, and the player has to carry out a series of small tasks to allow the NPC to finish her song. If the player makes a mistake, the song stops, and the player must start from the beginning. Cheng explains that this one level of the game came to “occupy such a special place in gamers’ memories,” citing online forum comments such as “‘I don’t even remember what the opera was about, but this makes me, a grown man, cry every time’ (Kevvl14, 2011),” (2014:74-5). Even as I am contemplating the role of sound and music in video games, I am always silently humming along in my mind to the theme music from Super Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. Newer game sounds can follow gamers into the real world as well. For example, none of my roommates can hear “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (the A-Track remix, of course) without also reenacting the movements to the song on Dance Central. Obviously, this song is not unique to the game, but the scenario in which we make fools of ourselves in front of a screen which shows our virtual selves having an epic dance battle in a crowded club is.
Even more touching is the creation of game music that has nothing to do with actual gameplay. The LoL soundtrack I mentioned earlier is one such creation. For example, there is a song on that soundtrack called “The Curse of the Sad Mummy.” This song comes with an accompanying music video and a documentary called Frequencies, which is about the making of the song and video. Much of the conversation surrounding the composition process is concerned with making sure the “vibe” of the music is right for the character that the song is about. This character happens to be a sad mummy named Amumu who can never have any friends because he just ends up throwing a tantrum and killing them. His slow, piano-led song is a little different than some of the others, taking its cues from Emo rather than classical music. It only changes pace at the end, when Amumu apparently learns about his curse and proceeds to destroy everything around him when he screams in anguish. The video shows this happening as the vocalist is also loudly belting the word “yeah” over pulsing strings and an ominous sounding cello solo. In the documentary, more than one person talks about their love for the game, saying thing like “we’re all nerds” and emphasizing the importance of creating a song that will do justice for those players who have related to Amumu’s character for a long time. This is why when I heard the lyrics that accompany Amumu walking around sad and alone, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were really only about a sad little mummy:
For many years, young Amumu traveled through the lands
determined to make friends, if only they would understand;
but even when Amumu stood upon the ledge of hope,
his hope would disappoint him, and he would remain alone.
Gamers also make their own music inspired by their virtual lives by recording covers of songs from the game, composing entirely new music inspired by the game, or simply setting clips recorded from an actual game to music. In the LoL community, there is also a celebrated tradition of making parodies out of famous pop songs, and LoL parodies abound. They’ve done everything from “Blurred Lines” to “Gangsta’s Paradise,” replacing the lyrics with LoL language that no one else really understands. Two years ago, I watched a LoL parody of the Bruno Mars song, “Treasure,” with Chris. The lyrics had been changed, and ever since then, I have not been able hear that song without saying “Thresh hook” where the word “treasure” is supposed to be (even though I only recently learned what it meant).
Songs and videos like these exist for no other reason than to be enjoyed by the fans. They keep the gameworld alive for the players, so that LoL doesn’t just cease to exist when the game is over. Some of these songs and the situations associated with them are about as synthetic as the experience of music gets, but gamers don’t remember them for their resemblance to reality. We remember them because they help us bring our virtual personalities into reality, and they remind us of when we were kids (or were at least free enough to act like them). If only for a moment, they bring us back into the worlds of games where our only responsibilities are to save princesses and perform ridiculous dance moves better than our friends and defeat our enemies by throwing tantrums because we’re all nerds and we actually have no friends. Game sounds and songs are romantic that way.
Nothing Really Matters
It’s been three years since Chris dropped out of school. Every once in a while he still mentions plans of reentering reality, where people get degrees and don’t share apartments with their friends or spend most of their free time playing games. But this is reality. Writing this paper, I’ve learned that sounds and music in video games can act as a powerful immersive force, motivating gamers to win, allowing them to take their identities with them into fantasy worlds, and connecting them with like-minded people in the physical world outside of fantasy. I’ve also learned that “negative media attention plays a crucial role in constructing interpretive communities of players, because it tends to draw fans into a defensive collective” (Miller 2012:50). It’s no wonder Amumu is so angry at that eleven-year-old kid and his mother. At almost every turn are people just waiting to tell them that what they’ve invested their identities in is not real; they’re not real. For millions LoL “provides an imaginary interruption of that inevitability and the myriad fears and setbacks that confront us: the darkness within and the darkness without” (Cheng 2014: xvi). But escapism is bad – worse when there’s work to be done; and if you don’t have work to do, then you’re clearly not working hard enough. “Real” is always best, but only activities that are physically, socially, and emotionally engaging can be considered “real.” Oh, wait…