Friday, January 8, 2021

Sing Me A Song

I have something of paradoxical relationship with music in games. Except for very rare cases, I always leave the audio on its default setting. It's my contention that the soundscape, music included, is as important to a game as the visuals. I literally never do what I hear some people do and play my own choice of music instead.

Usually that works perfectly well. At worst the music might be bland and uninteresting, in which case the DJ in my brain fades it out. It has to be exceptionally jarring or unpleasant for me turn it down. If it ever comes to the point where I feel I have to turn some or all of the music off, which has happened, but rarely, it's more than likely I'll decide to stop playing the game altogether rather than carry on in silence.

This means I hear a lot of music that's written specifically to loop while play goes on. Most games of all genres seem to use something of the kind. The whole point of game music is that it can be heard countless times without making you want to rip your speakers out and throw them through the window. Inevitably, that tends to favor the kind of music that's easy to ignore.

There are exceptions. The incidental music in Vanguard was memorable enough that I downloaded all the soundfiles from YouTube when the shutdown came. I went a step further when I heard City of Steam was closing. I bought the soundtrack on iTunes. I even play it sometimes.

Had those games not been about to disappear, removing the possibility of my ever hearing them again, I wouldn't have bothered. It wasn't even that I couldn't bear the thought of losing the music itself, more that I feared listening to it might be the closest I'd ever come to playing the games again. Sadly true in the case of City of Steam but gloriously not so for Vanguard.

My take on film music is much the same. It's self-evidently crucial to the experience but I own thousands of albums on vinyl, CD and download and only a handful are soundtracks. Even of those few, most are really just collections of songs. 

Separated from the visuals in film or the gameplay in games, non-diagetic music doesn't do much for me at all. Diagetic music though...

Oh, boy.

I love diagetic music. I love it in movies, TV shows, games... wherever, whenever, however. I love snatches of songs that play on the radio for a few seconds. I love the blare of a pop classic over the tinny tannoy system in a down at heel funfair and the smokey jazz drifting from the stage in a nightclub scene. 

I love it when there's a whole scene where a band plays a whole song as the dialog runs under, over and around. And best of all I love when someone in the cast steps up and sings, not in the great tradition of musicals, though I love musicals too, but in context and in character.


In my opinion these things don't happen nearly enough. Although maybe that's why it's so unforgettable when they do. And I do find it hard to forget, which is significant since, as regular readers will doubtless remember, unless they have memories like my own, remembering stuff is not one of my prime stats.

I was brought to thinking about all this because of several things that happened to me recently. The first and most striking was a moment in Disco Elysium. More than a moment, really. A set piece, of sorts.

This is a minor spoiler. Fair warning. There's a task you can pick up quite early on that culminates in your character performing a karaoke version of a song called The Smallest Church in Saint-Saens. There's a dice-roll to decide whether you sing it well or badly. 

I failed the roll. The game then locks as the performance starts. You can't stop it. You can't access options to mute the sound. You can't even tab out. It was so excruciating I had to close the game using Task Manager even though I hadn't saved for a while. I could link to a version of the failed performance on YouTube but I won't. Don't go looking for it. You'll regret it if you do.

In retrospect I could just have turned the sound down on the speaker but I was so in the moment I didn't think of it. I just wanted it to stop. Then I reloaded the most recent autosave, fortunately not too far back, and tried again. As I've said before, I don't enjoy save-scumming and I hadn't planned for it this time but it turned out for the best. 


The second time I passed the check. When the successful take begins you might think it was going to be another difficult listen but by the time it ends you'll take a different view. Or I did. 

Curiously, the song itself isn't entirely original to the game. Disco Elysium's soundtrack is by British Sea Power, a band of which I've long been aware without ever really taking much notice. They seem to have re-purposed one of their own pre-existing originals The Smallest Church in Sussex. Honestly, it's no surprise it was a b-side. The in-game version is much better.

So that was one. Then there was the night-club scene in Backbone:Prologue. I say "night-club". It's really a brothel. Oh, spoiler. Sorry. (Actually, not a spoiler, since the distinction has no material impact on the plot. Unlike what goes on out the back).

You'd expect a song in a night club and you get one. It's good, too. Once it gets going. There's a curiously anachronistic texture to the treated vocals that give it a trip-hop feel. Nothing wrong with that. And who knows how genres might interact in a world where squirrels deal drugs on street corners and spaniels in poodle skirts vamp under klieg lights?

The final trigger for this post didn't come from a game at all but from the fifth episode of the fourth and final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, in which all the main cast members perform a ridiculously professional version of Bonnie Tyler's eighties barnstormer Total Eclipse of the Heart while supposedly jamming in someone's basement.

I was planning on embedding it here because it really is something to see as well as hear but in what has to be one of the most impressive acts of self-parody I've seen in a while, the video is age restricted on YouTube. You have to give Google your credit card details or send them a copy of photo ID, which can take up to three days to verify, just so you can watch a completely, totally innocuous clip of some fictional teenagers singing a pop hit from nearly forty years ago. Of all the things they could pick on, they went with this?

I guess if they'd left out the intercut scenes of Sabrina finally getting to do what everyone else in Fright Club did in Season Three we could have avoided all that fuss. Instead we'll just have to have the band, minus Sabrina on lead vocals, thrashing their way through Teenage Dirtbag. No age verification required.

That's not one of my favorite examples but it still works. And that's the thing. Diagetic songs almost always do work. It's just a question of how well.

There's something irresistible about music and performance that arises organically from the world we're seeking to inhabit. Something extrinsic melody layered across the surface or slipped in behind the flats can't match. Yes, both play their part, and when it comes to directing attention and marshaling emotion a finely-judged score can't be beaten, but it's the performances, staged or found, that land.

And there aren't enough of them. Particularly in games. There should be more spots like the red room in Ninelives or the cellar bar in EverQuest II's Thalumbra, both of which I thought I'd already recorded and uploaded to my YouTube channel, something which now seems to have happened only in my dreams. 

Here's a thought: mmorpgs that have music systems should also have dedicated locations for live performances by players. Concert halls and clubs, where gigs can be scheduled and promoted. With in-game posters and fliers you can hand out. Why is that not a thing?

Which begs the question, if it were a thing, would it even count as diagetic music at all? Mmorpgs offer options for integrated performance that other media can't. In a movie theater the audience can sing along but they can't appear on screen. Players can.

As you can probably tell, this isn't so much a considered analysis as me working out some thoughts as I go along. The whole thing feels like a sprawling tapestry of interwoven concepts and I'm not so sure I want to pick it apart at the seams. I think maybe I just want to sit back and enjoy it.

Or maybe join in.


  1. Star Wars Galaxies had this, or at least as close as I think we’ll ever get to see. It’s tough in MMOs since the experience is simultaneously shared, so the context is different for everyone. Maybe that’s why when we do encounter something like it, it sticks with us that much more.

    1. I thought of SWG as I was writing. It's the go-to game for player-made music as gameplay but I only know that from hearsay. I didn't play it in its heyday. It's surprising no-one else has taken the concept further since, though.

  2. This video shows the Sabrina clip, just with the lyrics on screen - surprised they felt the need to age-check this mere shadow of some sexy times!

    And I couldn't resist googling the Disco Elysium failure based on your reaction... though I didn't listen to the whole thing after the start was enough to nearly make me jump out of my chair, lol.

    1. The whole Sabrina thing is weird to begin with. The tone changes quite a bit across the seasons as things get more and more exaggerated and camp but the whole focus on sex and Satanism never really goes away. But then, I gave up trying to figure out the rating structure of shows on Netflix and similar platforms long ago.

      As for the failed karaoke, imagine how much worse it would be if that was your character, to whom you'd become attached and in whom you'd invested 24+ hours of play...

  3. I can't believe you force-quit the greatest scene in the game.

  4. Having listened to both the "success" and "fail" tracks of "Smallest Church" on YouTube, I have to admit that I like the "fail" better. At least the character tries to sing instead of mumbling through. In spite of the obvious attempts to sound awful, to my taste the singer is too good to really manage to fail. A lot of it is reasonably on-key, and it has the emotional warmth of a real human being with a poor-normal singing voice doing their best. The first and the last note are by far the most jarring, which tells you just how hard the vocalist was working to pretend to be bad.

    If you're going to recite your way through karaoke in a more-or-less monotone speaking voice, just don't karaoke at all. That's not what it's for.


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