Going into the weekend I had a panic attack. A bad one. I don’t get them often. Usually it’s just a non-specific anxiety, a PTSD reflex, a long undercurrent of small dread, or a brief bursting hiccup.
This time I spent an hour leading up to it feeling out of sorts. A tightening soreness. Like being put into a litho press. Then it began to hit in the middle of a phone call with my partner and their mother. I went to take a shower, felt better, then spent 25 minutes convinced I was dying. Intermittently growl-begging for my partner to just knock me out entirely. I tensed every part of my body as taut as a mooring line in a violent storm. At some point I remember asking for a tray of Oreos and a bag of Tostitos, cramming them into my mouth and dry swallowing them. I have no idea why. A panic attack is like doing an untrained, unexpected 100-yard dash. Expand that over several hours and I guess my body just desperately needed calories and serotonin? Eventually I just passed out. I don’t remember it. Bodies and psyches have limits and I finally had hit mine.
The next two days I felt like I had the worst flu, I couldn’t breathe because the muscles in my chest and abdomen were too tense and exhausted to allow my lungs to fully inflate. My head rang. I tried to sleep as best I could, passing out for 20 minutes here and there, sometimes a sustained hour or two. I plunged myself into hot epsom salt baths and scalding showers whenever I could bear standing or the pain got too bad. It helped, until the hot water ran out. I’d fall into a heap on the same bath sheet on the bedroom floor. Other times it was confusion, pain, chronically on the verge of tears but unable to cry. Not knowing why I stood up when I had, looking at my partner from the kitchen and weakly saying “I don’t know.”
I had a podcast to record on Sunday that I somehow managed to rally for, but then immediately fell apart after. I tried going through some ideas for this column, but my focus was off. I was hating everything I wanted to listen to, overwhelmed by the noisiness of it all.
It turns out a lot of great game soundtracks are really contraindicated for this level of internal fission. The blippy screaming of 8-bit sawtooth and square lead, or the cockrock guitars from a decade of games building off the Anime Ravenloft aesthetic of Castlevania. Techno. Or the excessive use of Hans Zimmer Cinematic Bullshit we often get now.
I needed to soothe my brain. Unknot my body and let the totality of myself heal and rest.
Calm and peace. Familiar and serene. But with a present vividness to haul me out from this psychosomatic turbidity, so I could access my thoughts and feelings again.
I needed memory and fantasy in equal measure to reorient myself emotionally.
Then I figured it out.
Things are stressful now. Which is an understatement. I don’t know anyone who is genuinely OK, not all the time at least. Hopefully my two selections this week will be as equally healing for you as they are still being for me.
I heard the soundtrack before I put fingers to thumbsticks and actually played it, in a friend’s truck, driving home on 64 East to an apartment I didn’t want to be in.
One speaker buzzed low, constantly. But the effect of being in a bubble in this strange world, born of our own but not, communicated all the better for it. We listened in silence. We parked and listened longer. Vocals in far flung amalgamation of tongues, the occasional whip-like driving rhythm, massive pounding drum important, but overwhelmed by the quietude of string, and bell, and key. And always those voices. Deep resonant plainchant ones, vast diaphanous lamentations, or the quavering pierce of a child.
There is vibration throughout Nier: Replicant’s soundtrack. Again, deep—the kind you feel in your organs as blood moves in supernal ways, while others that innervate and exalt wind round. And then there’s Emil’s song, where the serene humanity and instinctive immediacy of choir has never been so effective in a videogame. The kind of song where not knowing anything, where just being present in the melody swells the tongue in the back of your mouth as you are inert against Ghibli-esque tears welling against the corners of your eyes.
In Nier: Replicant, composers Keiichi Okabe, Kakeru Ishihama, Keigo Hoashi, and Takafumi Nishimura have created a possession more than a listening experience. Where other composers mix genres and textures with multicultural nuances, creating an often ham-fisted TTRPG sourcebook approach to worldbuilding, gesturing openly at reference and borrowing, this is a tightly woven tapestry. It wants you to acknowledge it as a work of dedicated craftspeople at the top of their game. That it is an artifice, collected from borrowed ideas as much as original from human imagination, but also that it is genuinely an otherworldly transmission even when it’s eerily familiar.
It’s 82 degrees the night I wrote this—far too hot to build a snowman, to consider snow as a concept. But when you need something you just need it. And this week, I needed the gentle purring of Priscilla Snow’s synths. I needed the frost and breath. The way sound is muted by treacherous cold blankets we only see cataclysmically anymore. And how beautiful it glitters. Composers have tried to express notions of cold and ice and snow before, often in grand sweeps of Romanticism. But this is smaller, an elemental fable.
The atomic crystallization of childlike joy and hope ringing through bright bells. Brushed, filtered snares of a dragged pine bough and tiny footfall trails in crunched powder. Giving way to an open meadow where wind whips ghostly spirals across drifts. Distant echoes of woodland creatures as piano sunlight flits through gauzy cirrus synth harmony.
There is cocoa and storybook harp. Fogged breath on window panes and diminutive gloved hands putting the final touches on a new segmented friend as the next flakes begin to fall. The safety of sleep as the quietest night you can imagine wraps its arms, quiltlike, around your world. When foxes and owls emerge to take tea, when stars plot openly.
Fantasy? The want for a memory? Or the recreation of distant sensation to fill a weeping hole. Snow’s collection of sweeping ambient emotion and plucky melody is alchemical, a sensual sonic tarot, a world all its own to find what you need inside. Even if it’s your own breaking heart.
is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.