(Disclosure: I have synesthesia, and my particular brand of it lets me see colors, shapes, and textures when I hear certain noises and rhythms, so you may not have the exact experiences I get, but hopefully you’ll understand what I’m trying to get across.)
As many stoners will tell you, if you play The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon at the same time, they will line up. Whether or not they actually match perfectly or if this was even intentional (it’s not), there are droves of people that swear the album works well alongside the movie, with some going so far as saying it’s better than the original soundtrack. When people think of listening to music while playing video games, they often recall garbage blaring through some jerk’s mic for everyone else on the team to hear. This, as many of you know all too well, is quite annoying. In my time playing single player video games, I have played a few albums as background music that may not exactly line up with every shift in a game’s plot, but still resonate thematically. These game/album mashups particularly stick out in my mind.
Fallout: New Vegas and Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus
The Fallout series is predicated on the idea of taking just about every hope for the future found in sci-fi movies of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and burning them to cinders in the crucible of nuclear hellfire. From there, you trudge through the wasteland, trying to piece back together what remnants of civilization are left (or blow them up, if you’re cold and heartless). The world of Fallout should’ve been an utopia, but everything is disjointed, mutated, and on fire, and the background music reflects this dissonance. Old timey crooners like Dean Martin belt out tunes while you try to not get disemboweled by a nest of Cazadores, guys dressed like Roman cosplayers who murder entire towns in the Mojave Desert, and then there’s Fisto. A broken retro-futurism combines with a cool, 1960’s era Vegas vibe to make a world rife with action, intrigue, and off-kilter jokes and sub-references.
Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma is an album that, much like what New Vegas does visually, takes echoes of the past and expertly turns them into an aural mosaic of the future. So much of Cosmogramma is centered on the classic cool that permeated jazz clubs in the 60’s and 70’s, combined with new elements to create an unique sound. The album vacillates between laying down smooth, head-bobbing beats to tracks that seem to be cobbled together from old record fragments. Songs like Intro//A Cosmic Drama evoke the grandeur one experiences when encountering in-game locations like New Vegas or Zion Canyon for the first time. German Haircut entices listeners with intrigue as they stealthily infiltrate high-tech facilities like the Sierra Madre or REPCONN rocket test site. The fast-paced and often jerky drumming of Arkestry reflects the unrelenting and lurching push for scientific progress present in Big MT research complex. When the song opens with its wild beeps and warped electronic flourishes, it even sounds like you’ve teleported directly into a mad scientist’s lab. Each song harkens back decades, and yet it sounds as though it fell out of a wormhole that’s connected to what we thought the year 2281 should be like, which makes Cosmogramma an excellent second soundtrack to New Vegas. When Flying Lotus is playing in the background, it helps me immerse myself in the game and feel as though my character is this debonair, hyper-intelligent wasteland warrior who could put out a fire just by walking by it they’re so cool.
Mass Effect 2 and Lazerproof by Major Lazer and La Roux
This duo may seem a bit odd to make, but Mass Effect 2 and Lazerproof function beautifully together. Much like New Vegas and Cosmogramma, when these two are married together, they form a hell of a power couple. Unlike the last combo, though, I found Mass Effect 2’s original background music not very memorable and lacking the theming elements of New Vegas’. The soundtrack is very electronic and futuristic, which fits the genre, but it at times feels a bit… sterile. There is not a lot of passion in the tracks, except during a battle or the mad dash at the end of the game. They are pretty songs to be sure, but they have a synthetic, mechanical quality to them that is counter to the narrative of the series, which is the preservation of all sentient organic life in the galaxy. If I want to save everyone, I better have a damn good soundtrack to get my blood pumping through my veins. This is where Lazerproof comes in. The mixtape by Major Lazer and La Roux merge 80’s new wave with Jamaican dancehall to form this amalgamation of electronic beats and organic rhythms.
Lazerproof’s opener, Bulletproof (Nacey Remix) [ft. Matt Hemerlein], could easily have played over the rebuilding of Commander Shepard sequence. It may be a little bit too on the nose with the “returning stronger than ever” theming (“This time baby I’ll be bulletproof”), but it definitely fits the idea that the commander is back and taking names. When you arrive at Omega, the station’s orangey hue and stiflingly hot atmosphere matches the slow burn of Colourless Artibella. The pacing of the song works to help you slow down and appreciate the environment and characters around you. When you’re sneaking around the facilities on Illium and are about to engage enemies in close quarters, the song that should be playing is In 4 the Kill Pon De Skream. The intimacy of Houstatlantavegas Pains is perfect for conversations with your comrades on the Normandy as they tell you their tragic backstories.
This game/music combo is for those who want to save the galaxy while still wanting to bounce your head. I also just like the image of everyone on a spaceship getting down to a dancehall mixtape.
Manaan Level in KoTOR and Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois by Sufjan Stevens
This is a one-off since it’s just for a particular level in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic with a particular song, but the tranquil setting of Manaan’s artificial island hub of Ahto City and the breeziness of the song’s piano go hand in hand. While the town is metallic and sterile in its design, it resembles a seaside resort with a gorgeous view of the ocean as the waves crash upon the shore. Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois matches this peaceful ambience, with the woodwind section creating a sensation of a slight gust of wind brushing past your face. It’s so peaceful that you may forget that you’re trying to solve a murder case AND get to an ancient star map that could change the balance of power in the republic. You know, those minor things.
I’m not writing to convince you that these pairings are perfect, or that any music you like will fit with the feeling of any game you play. Obviously, Sufjan Stevens will not pair well with Overwatch. Maybe you have a favorite game/album combo already, in which case please share what it is. All I’m suggesting is that the next time you replay a favorite game of yours, try turning the in-game music volume down and start playing an album you think may harmonize with it. It may not be a Dark Side of Oz experience, but the combo may pleasantly surprise you.