Home‎ > ‎2009 Archive‎ > ‎

Thinking Aloud: Music and Gaming Together

posted Aug 30, 2012, 12:33 AM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: October 19, 2009

Perhaps it’s just the result of one of my various strange habits, but sometimes computer games and music become indelibly associated with each other in my mind. I’m not talking about game soundtracks (which are a relatively recent phenomenon), but about listening to music of my own independent choice while gaming.

It’s a habit that I developed when I first started gaming on a computer — and remember, I go back a full quarter of a century, back to the original Zork. Back then, computer games were pretty much all silent, except for the occasional alert beep or cheesy sound effect. That being the case, it just seemed logical to crank up some tunes while I played — why not maximize the value of my leisure time by indulging in two forms of entertainment at once?

The indelible associations form because when I first discover that I like something, I tend to engage it intensely, on the intellectual level if not the emotional level. That’s why, when I break open an enjoyable game late at night, I’ll wind up playing until dawn. With music, it means listening to an album/CD over and over again until I’ve had my fill of it. With a book, I won’t reread it cover-to-cover upon finishing it, but I will isolate certain passages or ideas for future reference. It’s why I keep promising myself that I’ll write at length about anime on this blog, as an alternative to boring my friends with long explications (or indeed, explication of any length).

As a consequence, when a period of intense engagement with a game and intense engagement with music coincide, the two fuse weirdly in my mind. Therefore, I don’t think I will ever be able to separate SimCity 2 from the early albums of Joe Jackson (like Look Sharp! and I’m The Man) in my mind, although the two have nothing to do with each other. So last week, when I brought home Galactic Civilizations II from Fry’s on the same day that Megumi Hayashibara’s Plain arrived in the mail, the die was more or less cast.


(I will have more to say to say about GalCiv II once I’ve played it through at a higher difficulty level, but it appears at first glance to have done a splendid job of stealing the best ideas from Master of Orion and other 4x sci-fi games).

Unfortunately, this luxury of combining music and gaming has diminished over the years, as Moore’s Law has enabled a substantial hike in the production values of computer games, and their audio component becomes more prominent and even crucial to the game experience. I think Nobunaga’s Ambition was the first game I played where sound cues were important to following the action. Years later, Fallout was the first CRPG where I really wanted to hear the dialogue. These days, there are still strategy games where I can turn off the BGM and turn down the SFX, and crank up my own music in the background without losing anything of the experience of the game. But goodness — can you imagine turning down the sound on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and missing the dialogue, even if it’s to enjoy (for example) a CD packed with Verdi and Puccini arias sung by Placido Domingo?

But still, habits can die hard — and the odder they are, the harder they die. If I can’t play a computer game without turning the sound down, there’s a corner of my mind that will say that I’m being cheated.