One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.
Usually when people talk about the worlds games create, they’re talking about graphics first and foremost. I’ve been playing since the early ’80s, and perhaps the most readily apparent way to see how the medium has progressed since then is to look at screenshots: it’s pretty much like first looking at cave paintings and then a Caravaggio – although admittedly a Caravaggio that’s like to have been done by a teenage Caravaggio who’s been glutting on Michael Bay movies or the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I appreciate a beautiful looking game, but music can be just as great at evoking moods and stimulating my imagination. In that respect, I’m like the world’s oldest Pavlovian Dog, though with less literal salivating: play a few bars of the Bubble Bobble tune and I’m in a cartoony world where chibi dinosaurs burp bubbles, while the first few notes of Ultima perennial “Stones” return me to verdant Britannia with its hamlets and castles, and “Baba Yetu” makes me want to go and found a civilisation. More modern gaming soundtracks tend to be orchestral, often indistinguishable from what you might hear in a movie, but some of my favourite recent soundtracks have been more minimalistic, hearkening back to the chiptunes I grew up with, without being overly imitative.
One of my favourite video game composers of recent years is Richard Vreeland, also known as Disasterpeace. He might be known to genre film fans as the man behind the music of It Follows. Inveterate gamers may have found that film’s music strangely familiar – Disasterpeace was hired in part due to his work on indie puzzler Fez, and there are one or two tunes in It Follows that could be remixes of the composer’s earlier work. For me, as someone who’s been playing games for a long time, his music does bring back a time that was less immediately complex, but it isn’t simplistic or even childish: there is a poetic abstraction to it, an oddly effective mix of the synthetic and something more warmly organic, that fits well with pixel art. It is used particularly in Fez and in the more recent Hyper Light Drifter, two games that infuse old-school visual aesthetics and gameplay conventions with a decidedly more modern vibe, and Disasterpeace’s music is in the same vein: it uses chip tune-like sounds and melodies to trigger memories and feelings, but it’s not literal imitation, it’s closer to a dreamlike evocation of what games used to sound like. This may also be one of the reasons why the composer’s music is such a good fit for It Follows, with its purposefully vague historical setting and its mix of the old (cathode tube TVs) and the new (mobile phones and smart devices).
As much as graphics, from pixellated lo-fi to almost-photo realism, music is a large part of how video games create worlds, and Disasterpeace’s work is a great recent example of such aural world building, whether in indie games or in atmospheric genre cinema. I am already looking forward to whatever worlds he will next create.