I’ll always remember the first time I heard “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” by Cage the Elephant, the first song I heard from what would later become one of my favorite bands.
Some of you might think you’re in the wrong place after reading that last sentence, but the rest of you know exactly what I’m talking about. A series of commercials, trailers and the opening cinematic for the first Borderlands were all set to this song, giving a cool game an extra layer of badass. It was good when you watched it, but it became great when you heard it. So great that 6 years later I still sing it, the same way I belt out the chorus to “Simple and Clean” from Kingdom Hearts or smell the sea air when I hear The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker theme.
My point is this: if a game is a present, a good soundtrack is the silky bow on top. It can take you back in time or be that little push you need when considering a game.
When I think of a great soundtrack, the first game that comes to my mind is Hotline Miami. The songs weren’t unique or popular and they didn’t have any catchy choruses or popular bands, just 80’s synths and funky bass lines from people who had no idea their music would be in a video game.
But, it absolutely worked. Looking at Hotline Miami strictly from a gameplay perspective, it’s a fun game. Listening to the soundtrack without playing the game is a bit weird – sporadic at times, but I would listen to a few songs again. However, through the simple act of playing the game with the music in the background, it all clicks into place. Suddenly, this fun game became a game that I would play multiple times through. I would convince my friends to try the game simply by sharing a couple tracks from the soundtrack with them. And now, years later, I still get an eerie feeling when I hear “Deep Cover” and I still get a surge of adrenaline every time “Crystals” comes on.
Hotline Miami’s soundtrack holds a place in my heart because I heard it while playing the game, but I would argue a game’s soundtrack only gets more valuable as time passes. I mean, what gamer isn’t completely overcome with nostalgia when they hear the original Pokemon game theme? When I heard that song (17-18 years ago?) I didn’t pay it any mind, but now I hear it and I remember asking my mom what deposit and withdrawal meant, I remember trying to navigate through Rock Tunnel in the dark, I remember using every spare moment before school leveling up my Pokemon. These things didn’t mean much to me at the time, but those are moments that I will never experience again. They’re just memories now. I won’t play the game the same way ever again, but the soundtrack will always be the same.
Whether it’s original or just a collection of songs curated for a game, a soundtrack has the potential to be another part of the game to love – or sometimes even the only part of the game to love. The sad fact is, you can only enjoy something for the first time once, but a soundtrack can bring you closer to those feelings.
Next time you play a videogame, think about this: you may never be in the position to experience it the same way, but listening to 30 seconds of pixelated tones or pre-recorded instruments can meet you halfway. There’s something special about that, don’t you think?