Friday, January 21, 2011

Videogame Music: Scarlett’s Spark of Life

So, music and games, music and games, music and games. It’s a relationship that we hold in high regard around here. Last week, we saw a couple of posts on the subject—one by Stephen Totilo of Kotaku and a well-crafted next-day response by Dan Bruno on his blog, Cruise Elroy.

Totilo’s post was food for thought, and in case that sounds like it has a bit of a begrudging spin to it, let me clarify: I enjoyed reading the post but I either disagreed with its conclusion (“Until 2010 I felt [games musicians] were required. In 2010, however, my behavior proved they were not”) or accepted it as unremarkable (“Games are the entertainment of meddlers and tinkerers. We, the players, will change them to suit ourselves”). At this point, I’m essentially echoing what Mr. Bruno said in his post—in his much more eloquent and metered fashion.

Like the aforementioned authors (both of whom, I should note, are excellent games journalists), I’m absolutely not shy about pulling the plug on a game’s music when it has been playing for a while on an infinite loop. This often happens somewhere around the 15-hour mark, once my subconscious has absorbed all four of the tunes that a game has to offer to the point where I’m humming them in my sleep. Without any data whatsoever to show for it, I actually think we’re at a bit of a turning point in this regard; that it was in the last 10 years or so that games became so long that they required a score more complex than, say, Super Mario World. I can’t possibly count the number of games in which I’ve turned the sound off and never looked back—in college I even made a special “Zerg” mix for the original Starcraft. (Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral factored heavily.)

Anyway, this is all just backstory—I really just want to share an experience that I’m currently having with a game whose soundtrack felt absolutely essential to the experience: Scarlett and the Spark of Life, which I recently wrapped up on the iPhone. I purchased the game to keep me company while on a recent business trip to southern California, during a trade show for my day job. The show itself gets extremely busy, but there’s also plenty of downtime—last year, ever the late adopter, I picked up Flight Control and absolutely played the shit out of it. (Incidentally, Flight Control is a funny game to play when you’re waiting for a plane. I’m sure I’m not the first to say so.)

Besides having fantastic music, Scarlett is also a game with very little music: instead of providing a backdrop for gameplay, music in Scarlett mostly underscores player progress. Each time the player solves a puzzle, the music—an acoustic guitar-driven Renn-Fest jangle—serves as part of the reward. It almost never loops, even when you want it to... And if you’re at all like me, you will almost certainly want it to.

While on this particular business trip, one of my co-workers and I were paired by our company to be roommates. Although I could argue for the necessity of “games musicians” to the point of asphyxiation, I absolutely cannot stand hearing music from someone else’s portable gaming device—and I certainly was not about to let the sound of Scarlett’s puzzle-solving interfere with my colleague's post-show relaxation. It also didn’t feel quite right to throw on headphones while in someone else’s company. With these self-imposed conditions, I realized I had only two real choices: I could either push ahead and play without sound, or simply wait until later to play the game.

In the end, I chose to wait. By all accounts, Scarlett and the Spark of Life is a short game, but it took me a full week to finish. My hotel-room experience proved to be just the beginning—it turns out there aren’t many times when I’m alone enough to comfortably play a mobile game with the sound turned on. (I dunno, I guess that’s a good thing?)

Totilo closes his piece with the following: “We take a risk ignoring video game music, because we can and because it suits the behavior of a gamer. I’m now one of those people. I hope I don’t miss something great.” The truth is I’m not sure why I was compelled to leave Scarlett’s sound on when I booted it up for the first time—my iPhone is almost always set to vibrate, so I rarely ever hear the sound of the games that I’m playing. In one noteable instance, I played the entirety of Peggle without ever hearing the hilarious “Ode to Joy” explosion at the end of each level. I had no idea it was even there, and although I loved the game, I still missed out on something great.

As much as I’m enjoying Scarlett, it’s also the kind of game that will almost certainly never get a second playthrough, so I can only say this: I’m glad I didn’t miss out.
blog comments powered by Disqus