Soundtracking: A Defensive Memoir

So there’s a lot of strange theory and rhetoric about soundtracking in games these days. A lot of it is related to prep, railroading, and other loaded words. I’m going to blatantly ignore all that and pretend like some people agree with me that Soundtracking in Games can be awesome.
And I’m also going to do a Top Five, which I’ve not done in forever.

Top Five Musical Moments In Games Where I Was A Player

#5(song)(artist) - Exalted by David Drake (this moment would be higher if David or i could recall the song…)
David Drake was running an ongoing hard-core Exalted game where we all played Dragon-blooded kung-fu monks. It was, and easily is, one of the best executions of a Trad Game I’ve ever experienced. Regardless of how my character fit into the game, how I loathed the system, or what I think of my place at that gaming table, with those geeks at that time, that Exalted game will forever shape my understanding of how an RPG can be pure, unrelenting awesome.

The Musical Moment I’m thinking of was the start of a session wherein we’d just been surrounded by a siege army. Our school, the Northern Seal Monastery, was now being threatened by the Empire just as every other major school of Kung-Fu in the realm. David played this song, and as the music swelled, and the timbre changed he poured on more and more details, carrying our imagination out over the walls of the school past the camps and ramparts, like a bird, high enough to see just how screwed we really were. Martial Arts gods and monsters were around us in every direction, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, horses, and weapons.

You could feel the kinetic imagination boiling under each players skin. We were afraid, but we were not going to break, run, or explode in violence. We waited for our masters to instruct us. We waited for a solution.

#4 - Oye Como Va by Santana - Afterworld by Tom Church
There is no way I can explain to you how awesome it was when Tommy the Gun played this song. I could tell you about Afterworld – a game of dinosaur special agents fighting a street war that would someday save the distant future-earth they called home. I could tell you about the descendants of mankind, both frightful and amazing, and how alien they seem to us now. I could tell you about our human revenants that were reborn to genetic technology and nano-bad-assery. But in the end the game was about rockstar battle dinosaurs with guns, teaming up with ancient human techno-heroes in a future where mankind had almost vanished, changing into a savage bad-ass monster species. It was a world of altered genetics that rang so clear with Tommygun’s imagination that it was truer than a signature.

This song belongs to The Masters. After countless sessions where these human-ancestor bad-ass monster companions had savagely fought T-Rexes with knives, or slithered through dark caves to rescue us from threats that gods would wince at, we found ourselves in need of going to town. In a rented mini-van. To ‘blend in’ our Masters (who we only ever called ‘the Masters’) changed their ragged armor and tribal tattoos for khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts. We all got into the minivan – half a dozen characters that could fight whole armies on their own – and drove into the local ski-resort town.

And as we did, Tom played this song. It was amazing.

#3As The Rush Comes by Motorcycle - Alterscape by Andi Blija
A homebrew game I’ve put more time and love into than any other game I’ve ever played, Alterscape is the reigning champion of musical magics for me. Iconic among these moments is the first time I entered the hypnotic underworld of Synthemus – a cyberpunk love letter by Andis Blija – specifically into a place called Temple. Andi played this song while I walked through the halls in search of the only friend I’d found in the dark city of Isis. From the front entrance, through the open hallways and the great dance hall, into the back rooms where I jacked in and started my exploration over in the Aspnet. It was breathtaking, and the music was a somatic component to spellbind that experience.

#2 - Inner City Blues by Asteroids Galaxy Tour - Alterscape by Kai Ford
I’ve tried and tried to re-use this song. I’ve tried to claim it as my own. But I can’t. As much as I want to, the moment when I first heard it is cemented in my spirit. We were on a boat sailing to the island called Midnight in a cosmonox called The Hours when our pirate crew docked on the edge of a new place unlike any other I’ve seen in the worlds of imagination. It was a city built on rock, rising up out of the waters, reaching toward a tower at the center, like a spike of modern marvel jutting out of the patterns we’d seen so far. There were people there, and they each had a streak of bright imagination that defined them. And though you can’t say it was unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, the position of all its elements and the spirit with which it was presented made it come alive in ways that I will never forget. There are few masters of the craft I can say I’ve met that blend such palettes of brilliant cosmology. Jacob Hale is one. Chris Farmer is another. But this world was thoroughly the open-hearted wonder of Kai Ford. An amazing imagination. A cunning gamemaster. And a blissful artist.

#1 - Built then Burnt (Hurrah! Hurrah!) – A Silver Mt. Zion - Terminus by Chris Farmer
This song shaped my understanding of color and depth in a game, as well as the emotions you can find in music. Chris Farmer imagined a place called Terminus. He shifted its weight slightly to be held up by D20 Modern’s ‘Urban Arcana’ books. It was just enough to bring a motley group of gamers together for a game that’s still in my top ten of all time. A campaign by design ruined by bad friend-politics, this was the first time I’d really witnessed someone putting their own personal heart into a game.
Chris played this song at the opening of the second session, when he further explained the mythos of the world we were about to inhabit. It was, in his reality, a speech given by the young warrior queen Wuuda, to muster her army of children to rise up against the powers of Terminus. This rebellion could never work in that nexus, it was forcibly forgotten by the streets under the smothering presence of Mother. But such courage and magic could not be dissolved, either. And so one of the moons over Terminus is named Wuuda, and some say she is the child-queen, still in some place above the city. Every time I listen to this song, I’m back there, in Terminus, contemplating the powers and shapes of such a hand-crafted place, such a wondrous reality. I wonder, over and over and over, what happened to Wuuda, and who or what that moon in the sky really is.

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