In times of soul-destroying headlines and worldwide government corruption, now humankind faces a new and frightening pandemic, known as cabin fever. We must band together and share our pain, to overcome, to look on the bright side. Cue Vera Lynn and the Wellerman Sea Shanty remix. .... spirit........ l i f t e d .. . .. . . . mu st. .. . b l o g .. . .
Whilst you and I gaze nobly through our windows, facing our greatest hardship, being inside, what is the soundtrack to your life?
Personally, I prefer really depressing music. Lifelong untreated malaise might be a factor here. But surely I'm not the only person to feel saccharine cheery bops somewhat out of place in everyday life?
I absolutely DO encourage positive escapism, happy for everyone to experience what little joy they can. But maybe you are like me, (you Sad Little Worm,) and pop anthems aren't the spring in your step during your daily mandated jog. You enjoy dark, mournful music to brood to, with the blinds shut, staring at the wall.
This is the least relevant OTHVRS-y and VR-y post here so far, and I may have to make a shift to putting these on my personal website. On the other hand, music and sound is a huge part of immersion... for anything! And shouldn't be ignored. Or maybe you are just sick of thinking about VR and how to make money moves in a stand still economy. If so, please read on.
Good sound design is invisible. Good soundtracks can be almost the same.
Would Disney-Pixar be able to nut-punch my heart, without the swelling of soul-wrenching orchestras? Kind of like their formulaic Copy and Paste hero's journey storylines, once you notice a Cry_here_plz.mp3 moment, it can become pervasively annoying. Even good music can be contrived as repetitive filler, or lazy brain-hacking.
Take generic-action whatever-flick, Atomic Blonde, for an example of media using Good Music to ruin itself, destroying subtlety in the process of making something that sounds expensive and recognisable. Throughout the film, bangers are sloppily pasted over the on-screen action with a "Fuck yeah!" veneer, an attempt to trick you into thinking whatever boring shit you are looking at is good, like that one song you like from the 80's.
Just because the track is good, or uses literal visuals-to-lyrics, doesn't mean the music is relevant to the film or scene at all - counterintuitively, this can be plain distracting.
Talking about lazy audience exploitation, we also know music has been ruined by advertising, again and again.
Hits from Grizzly Bear, Blur, M83 have all been handed the noose by UK television and advertising. Overuse, during the time I was watching telly (probably six or seven years ago) makes it hard to distinguish from good tune and marketing cash-grab. Even original soundtracks themselves can be co-opted in the name of 60-second product peddling.
What I'm getting at is that composing soundtracks from scratch is a much-preferable way of giving a lasting stamp to a piece of media, setting tone and atmosphere, without accidently sideloading in pre-established emotions from whatever the track already instils within the listener. Not to mention original works offer more artistic freedom, and do not require ridiculous licencing fees.
In ads, original music is preferable to ruining music I love. Silly jingles are perhaps small mercies. Even though they will be in my brain forever. And even though they also suck.
The Just Eat rap makes me want to die, but not in a beautiful Indie Pop way.
Here are my personal choices for the Soundtrack To Your Life. Hopefully to replace any daily earworms, such as the above.
FILMS & STUFF THAT USE DEPRESSO-HITS (NOT ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKS, SOFT, SAD)
Take This Waltz (Film, 2011) X
DEPRESSO ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACKS FROM MOVIES (GETTIN' MORE PLAGUEY)
The Fountain (Clint Mansell, 2006)
Stalker (Edward Artemiev 1979)
Annihilation (Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, 2018)
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Nick Cave, Warren Ellis 2005)
Revenge (ROB, 2018)
APOCOLYPSEY TRACKS THAT I LIKE (PLAGUE IT UP!)
ULTRA DEPRESSION PLAGUE GAMING SOUNDTRACKS
What this blog is really about. More than just "sad", something about bleak and helpless music makes many people feel really good. Maybe it's about a full-bodied wallowing, giving oneself to a nihilistic state of mind, addressing the universe as a chaotic and terrifying thing. All parts of life are beautiful, something something.
Maybe this fits in line with how people enjoy true crime podcasts, slowing down to ogle traffic accidents, or enjoying apocalypse fiction. Life is random and terrible. Enjoying the inexplicable is relinquishing control, and in a world where everything is power and control, letting go might be just what ya need.
In Gaming and Interactive, traditional audience expectations may be based around being made into a hero, becoming more powerful, doing the right thing, or looking and feeling cool. Many experimental pieces throw the gear providing "empowerment" in reverse, using gameplay mechanics and atmosphere to disenfranchise the audience. This subversion is a very clever one, one that inhabits Gaming and Interaction as more than just "for fun", but "for art".
I have conflicting feelings about Neil Druckmann from The Last Of Us fame, infamously quoted as saying "We don't use the word Fun." in regards to the Naughty Dog studio. Personally, to me, The Last Of Us as a series uses dystopia-fetishism and violent misery-porn, packaged in preachy guilt-trips and cliched moralizing.
But Druckmann isn't wrong, games don't have to be fun. Here's some. And soundtracks.
THE CAT LADY (2012)
Lily of the Valley, by Michal Michalski. <-
A psychological horror, centred around the mundane, average Susan Ashworth and her attempted suicide. Susan Ashworth is not special, she's not beautiful, she doesn't even have any family or friends. Upon dying, you as Susan are placed into a surrealistic purgatory, granted immortality and tasked to kill five "Parasites", in doing so will save innocent lives. Susan's story, although tragic and unkind, is one of gaining strength over the horrible events around her, and her own mental illness. While still featuring some morbid and edgy scary bits, they sit well within the overall mature, poignant tone of the game.
The track "Lily of the Valley" reflects the The Cat Lady's eerie stylings, whilst still being cathartic and hopeful. Through the music we feel Susan's character arc, as she gains strength and defiance against her own personal demons. The world is horrible, but when you're at your lowest low, there is only one place to go - up.
Although not nearly as wonderful as when accompanying the actual game, the rest of the soundtrack is pretty cool, too.
I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM (1995)
Intro & The Hate Pillar by John Ottoman. <-
An epic of "Fuck You" experiential gaming, I Must Scream is based off of Harlan Ellison's disturbing short story of the same name.
I Must Scream exists as a a grim, twisted future wherein the world's most intelligent Artificial Intelligence has gained self-awareness, usurped worldwide powers, committed genocide on mankind, and now spends eternity torturing the last five humans, disallowing them to die. The game plays with the short story's plot, alternatively delving into each character's backstory, and their each individual hell.
Ottoman of Hollywood-composer fame, created a sickening backdrop to an already uncomfortable experience. The gameplay is dated, being a 90's point-and-click adventure game, and it's tedium feels purposeful, as does the dreary orchestral backing. Ethical and moral quandaries within the puzzles (although pretty obvious, eg: save baby or eat it) were ahead of their time. As was the extreme difficulty, prompting a meta wink-wink-nudge-nudge towards the futility of playing such a game; this is not a world in which you should win.
I Must Scream's music is thoroughly unpleasant, disorientating and vaguely "adventure gamey", at times. And it's there, always, enhancing my experience and being awful. Both novel and game are so dispiriting, they make the listener feel like a Great Soft Jelly Thing.
PATHALOGIC CLASSIC HD (2004)
Wandering Night (Utroba Night) by Andriesh Gandrabur <-
Covid-19's official soundtrack, Pathologic Classic HD is a bleak beauty of experiential gaming. Like I Must Scream, you are doomed to fail, and like The Cat Lady, you're a weak, puny civilian. Depresso-Plaguey as hell, Pathologic takes the player through a 12-day wind-up, putting you as a doctor in search for a cure to a deadly disease.
Pathologic uses everything in it's arsenal to make the experience difficult. During this time you must eat, sleep, get infected, get uninfected, barter with locals, steal from locals, heal others, kill others, walk a lot, and I mean a lot. And that isn't a suggestion - this is for survival.
The marriage between gameplay, story, and vibe makes for a tight, perfectly crafted piece of art. But where would the game be without completely hypnotising you with it's triphoppy, electro, industrial tunes?
Pathologic 2 also utilises tribal-steppe-chanting to layer an ambient soundscape. But the original game's score remains a perfect match for the world of Pathologic's brutal genius. The wild, volatile moments of the full OST further toy with the players psyche like a kitten and yarn. You are desperate, confused, and now dancing, stupidly.
SILENT HILL 2 (2001)
Promise (Reprise) by Akira Yamaoka <-
Legendary for many gamers, Silent Hill is a series esteemed for it's offbeat, haunting, and enigmatic style. Within Silent Hill 2, the fan-favourite of the series, the player acts as a man named James, revisiting the town of Silent Hill after receiving a mysterious letter from his dead wife. The once-touristic paradise has become a foggy abandoned nightmare, swarming with monsters, and requiring the player to traverse the map by breaking and entering various locations, like apartments, hospitals, and hotels. Oh, and by jumping into holes.
The soundscape mixes between classic rock, ambient despair, and oh-fuck-is-something-there industrial. Yamaoka treats us to alternative triphoppy breathers, allowing contemplative and sombre moments when the audience is roaming. Then - Surprise! - he grinds thrashing industrial in random rooms, provoking the player into high-alert. Paradoxically, the best (or worst) moments of Yamaoka's sound design is the use of silence. These moments make SH2 unpredictable. When playing we catch our breathe, ears peeled for white noise; trying to catch the radio's crackle, our one signal for an incoming creature.
Each track on the album invokes isolation, mystery, and self-reflection. Compare the SH2 OST with the original Solaris soundtrack, by Eduard Artemiev. Fans of both will find similarities in tone and narrative. Don't fret, though because these unnerving vibes don't stop here! The droney Silent Hill signature tunes continue on throughout the game's series, namely into Silent Hill 3.
Promise (Reprise) is my highlighted track for it's iconic melody. It is extremely hard to pick a favourite. It's much easier to pinpoint, for example, the series' best ever use of a mandolin.
HAUNTING GROUND (2005)
Something Lacking by Seiko Kobuchi, and Shinya Okada <-
A survival horror wherein the player is dropped into an unknown mansion, chased by the staff and tasked to escape, guided by a sweet White Shephard dog named Hewie. An interesting title, in that the game uses a character degraded by extreme sexual voyeurism to make the player feel vulnerable. The main character, Fiona, jiggles boobily in fear, only able to meekly kick at her enemies, hide under furniture, and call on Hewie for help.
The sound design in this game is excellent. The hide-and-chase gameplay is trickled with horror aesthetics, quiet and foreboding until an enemy wanders onto the scene. Step, step, step, STEP, STEP... door creeeeaaak.
"Something Lacking" is a track I picked for it's relevance to the character it is themed on, Daniella. She is the castle's maid, devoid of feeling, emotion, or a true soul, the "essence of life". Originally serving meals and watching stoically from afar, she later moves on to stalk Fiona. We can assume she can at least feel jealousy, honing in on Fiona with razor-sharp focus as the chasing begins. Her desire lies in taking Fiona's womanhood for herself: more literally, her uterus.
"Something Lacking" is a track that reflects Daniella in that it is mechanic, robotic, deliberate, and crazed. Her movement mirrors this, sharklike, glitchy and jerking like a malfunctioning machine. Her "boss fight" theme combines this track with the game's main fight music, to create this dissonant remix.
The chase themes, when played, gain momentum and urgency depending on how physically close the enemy is to the player. Just another nice titbit. nrrr nrr NRR NRR NRR NRR
SOUND & IMMERSION
Is this post another excuse for me to use THE OTHVRS as a personal blog about videogames? Yes.
Besides that point, I'd like to take a moment to discuss immersion in Games, Theatre, and VR.
Each game I've spoken of is a wholly-realised sum of all parts, their soundtracks not an accompaniment, but pillar in the overall vision. Smaller budget, or indie games are more often likely to have a singular conceptualization, something towards auteurship. This is due to less cooks, so to speak. It's true to say none of the games mentioned are triple A blockbusters.
To summarise, each of the tracks uniquely serve their Interactive Fiction in powerful supportive roles.
The Cat Lady uses "Lily of the Valley" to enhance our yearning for hope, painting a silver lining in an otherwise dire, unfair world.
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream uses an achingly cheap and cheesy 90's score to adorn what is basically a pain-simulator.
Pathologic uses "Wandering Night" to alienate the player with confusing, unusual beats, placing them in the shoes of the main characters, somewhat confused foreigners in an esoteric town.
Silent Hill 2's "Promise (Reprise)" creates a beautiful piano refrain and undercoats it with haunting synths, setting the emotional, melancholic mood against an eerie, uncertain horror.
Haunting Ground uses "Something Lacking" to describe Daniella's presence as a a villain with sound, further emphasising what we know in visuals and story, and suggesting more hints to her backstory.
I love my gothic, survival horror, psychological, emo games just as much as I love my music of the same genre. Immersion through 1 of 5 senses is not something to downplay, especially when creating an Interactive Fiction of any kind. It can be make-or-break in a VR experience, when 360 spatial audio also comes into play.
So, if you are looking for new albums to hit up while watching rain drizzle down your window, I hope I can help scratch your itch.
I am by no means a Sound / Music human being or professional, so I'd love to hear more suggestions of ugly, dreary tracks from any readers, or suggestions of more Good But Bleak interactive games or theatre bits to play.
Comment below or message on my twitter @Finicholson.