News

Amid Boston Overdose Crisis, a Pair of Harvard Students Are Bringing Narcan to the Red Line

News

At First Cambridge City Council Election Forum, Candidates Clash Over Building Emissions

News

Harvard’s Updated Sustainability Plan Garners Optimistic Responses from Student Climate Activists

News

‘Sunroof’ Singer Nicky Youre Lights Up Harvard Yard at Crimson Jam

News

‘The Architect of the Whole Plan’: Harvard Law Graduate Ken Chesebro’s Path to Jan. 6

Beatable Games, Unbeatable Music

By Julia E. Hansbrough

At age 10 I was, as far as pop culture went, a hopelessly backward little girl. My total exposure to The Spice Girls was an awkward birthday party during which my host demanded to know, “do you think you’re more like Baby Spice or Ginger Spice?” When a friend told me how awesome N*Sync was, I matter-of-factly trotted over to the kitchen sink, genuinely curious as to what awesome thing had been stashed in there. About the only artist I was familiar with was Eminem, thanks to my older brother, but after receiving a tongue-lashing for muttering the words to “The Real Slim Shady” at recess, I deduced that Mr. Mathers fell squarely in the ‘not appropriate’ category.

My mother, in a subtle attempt to make me cool, gave me a CD player and a Britney Spears CD for Christmas that year. After she patiently answered my questions about who the heck Britney Spears was and why the CD was so pink, I gave “Baby One More Time” a listen or two. And I tried to like it, honest. But a week later, Nintendo Power magazine decided to send me a little “thanks for subscribing!” gift, and I became the proud owner of the “Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” soundtrack. Ms. Spears no longer stood a chance.

I loved that Zelda CD, listening to it over and over, and I tried, with absolutely no success, to get my friends to listen to it too. The conversation ran something like this:

Friend: How do you even ... are you supposed to dance to this?

Me: Well, you don’t.

Friend: Where are the lyrics?

Me: Well, there aren’t any.

Friend: And ... you like this?

Me (with cheerful obliviousness): Of course!

For years, video game tunes were all I listened to—and when I figured out how to convert MIDI files into sheet music, they were all I really wanted to play on the piano. Nowadays, I’ve diversified my tastes quite a bit, and I listen to just about everything: hip-hop, ska, pop-punk, classical, whatever. But I still find myself drifting back to my myriad video game music playlists from time to time. The opening theme to “Chrono Cross” still sends a chill down my spine every time I hear it. Despite the fact that I haven’t seriously practiced piano in years, I can still play “To Zanarkand” from “Final Fantasy X” by heart.

I’d be perfectly willing to chalk up my love for this strange little niche of music to just my being weird, if I were the only one—but it turns out there are tons of people who love game music. Check out a site like ocremix.org and you’ll find a community of dozens of amateur musicians and music majors who spend their time creating remixes and covers of their favorite game tunes. (Incidentally, this explains why I have six versions of “Terra’s Theme” from “Final Fantasy 6” in my iTunes library: techno, dance, acoustic guitar, orchestral, and—not making this up!—French rap.)

And it’s not just the fans. Some game composers have an obsession bordering on insanity with crafting the perfect soundtrack. Yasunori Mitsuda composed the music for “Chrono Trigger,” a 1995 Super Nintendo game. Back then, everything was still 2D, graphics were still fairly simple, and the potential music range was still limited by the game system’s clunky, primitive technology—but Mitsuda absolutely slaved over the soundtrack, working night after night until he passed out. In the end, he managed to stress himself out so much that he developed ulcers, became hospitalized, and had to have someone else finish the last few songs for him. All that for a set of bleeps and bloops—but some of the prettiest bleeps and bloops I’ve ever heard.

I can’t tell you what exactly it is that makes game music special: it’s often deliberately designed to be played over and over, repetitively; it’s meant to be background noise; and, until very recently, it was limited to a narrow spectrum of synthesized sounds. Composers were forced to play two roles, both composer and sound engineer. And yet, a kid in my Expository Writing 20 class last year wrote his final paper about game music. I know a girl at the Berklee School of Music who attributes her choice to play piano to her love for the “Final Fantasy” soundtrack. Orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Atlanta Symphony have performed multiple game music concerts. I might have been weird as a kid for neglecting Britney Spears for the sounds of Zelda. But more and more, it seems like I probably wasn’t the only one.

—Columnist Julia E. Hansbrough can be reached at jhansbrough@college.harvard.edu.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Columns