Audio Logs #1: A Journey into Gaming’s Most Memorable Soundtracks
A Rolling StartGames Features game soundtracks
At their best, soundtracks are orientation. They become aural-emotional waypoints, acting as guide and companion to our memories and feelings. They help establish thematic tone and tempo and bolster aesthetic choices. Songs carve out place names in our emotional landscapes. In the thick of combat they can drive the blood in our ears to a roiling crescendo, or tip us into weeping during the heart wrenching moments. And then, years later, they can unexpectedly bring back the cherished moments of humid summers passing a controller, of begging a parent for just one more game.
Think about the clamorous reverie of “Daytona” belted out across the arcade, bidding us to push our way through quarter-pumping bodies, past rows of rigid, noisy cabinets to sit in the hard, often uncomfortably damp, plastic seat.
Did you hear it just now?
In your head, pulled deep from memory?
Did the whole song begin playing out as you remember tightening your grip on the wheel?
Get in, we’re going for a ride.
Don’t worry, this mixtape is going to kick ass.
Hiroyuki Masuno has one job in the NES port of ICOM Simulations’ Déjà Vu: sell 1940s Chicago as a real, sinister, and mysterious place.
In just three main tracks.
On the Ricoh 2A03.
It’s a tall order. These 8-bit blips aren’t the sounds we associate with noir thrillers by a long shot. And yet from the title screen’s first bars, we are there, fighting the menacing wind whipping in off Lake Michigan, forcing us to pull our trench coat tighter around our unfamiliar body. There’s an unseen ensemble at the seedy bar we’ve ducked in to get out of the cold and find some answers. And that junked bathroom on the second floor of a brownstone we woke up in with no memory, the one with the bottle of barbiturates in the trash? Well, it’s going to be a long night, “Ace.”
With the same sonic palette as Shadowgate and The Uninvited, Masuno traps us in a smoky, nightmare of mistrust and intrigue with just a few jazz riffs where it’ll take more than a few cups of stale diner coffee to stay on our toes and stay alive to hear the truly baffling and upbeat end theme.
Persona 3 doesn’t want to impress you with orchestral themes overburdened with meaning. You’ll find no clever or cryptic song titles here. More than anything, Shoji Meguro’s soundtrack is a love letter to carefully curated teenage playlists. The pop songs you hum on your way to school, rummaging through sale racks at H&M, waiting on friends or late-night cramming. They skip tracks and repeat, doubling back to the same well-worn hits of the summer, and the slow jams you can’t let go of just yet. Sure, there are the standard instrumentals for the times you’re hacking through the depths of the Jungian subconscious, or talking to a friendly bookstore owner—and the Velvet Room is always there with its gentle dirge.
But that’s not what Persona 3 is about. Where most JRPGs have deliberate character and map themes designed to evoke the thematic resonance of each supporting actor or space, Meguro continues to deliberately break tradition and instead plunges us inside the soundscapes of the main character—this is their iTunes library.
From slick bubblegum to funky bops and rock infused hip-hop bangers, Persona 3 is the playlist of kids who know the MiniDisc is still the ultimate fashion accessory, but that the Sony NW-S2 is more practical and just as stylish.
If music is orientation, the situation of listener in space and identity, a formative block of memory and understanding—what do we do when we must be alienated from not only what we know, but that which is loved beyond all reason? Do we lean into that sense of displacement? Or is there another way?
Relationships end over assessments of Chrono Trigger. Few games have characters and locations as memorable and beloved, and a huge reason for this is the devastating efforts of Yasunori Mitsuda’s themecraft (rivaling even the adored master of game anthems, Nobuo Uematsu or lifeblood of marching bands, John Williams). Following the work that nearly killed him, chasing the highs of Frog’s triumphant heroism or the gentle breath and bell and plaintive cry of Schala would be folly.
Chrono Cross isn’t a game about saving a timeline, or stopping an extraterrestrial world-devouring tick. It’s a game about hard decisions, ambiguity, and displacement. Chrono Trigger asks us if we can be brave; Chrono Cross asks us to accept adulthood for all its love and tragedy.
It asks us to consider, “what even is bravery?”
This is a soundtrack drenched with the sensuousness of coastal rain and the caress of the wind. It knows this is not a journey we asked for, that not everyone gets a happy ending, that we will be required to weather our own fury, that it must stoke our sense of adventure, and soothe us in our grief. As much as the cheering of friends and the joy of springtime love flits in and out on Teutonic drums and bright Celtic strings, Mitsuda’s true talents and interest here are in evoking the many faces of calm and solemnity.
Much of Chrono Cross is given over to the memory of the warm hand of a mother wrapped around one’s own, or the gossamer weight a lover’s tears bear on our shoulder. As we shift between worlds, facing uncertainty and tumult, Mitsuda’s orchestrations envelop with the patience of a quilt. Rather than merely amplify our emotions, or orient us into a correct feeling, Chrono Cross gives us space and time to feel for ourselves. These are songs crafted to hold us when we need to be held for as long as it takes.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.