Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #1: Smiles And Tears

#1: Smiles And Tears

So this is it. It's been a long journey, it's been tough, it's even been painful at times; but we've bonded together and worked through it all together, and yes, we've even had fun. I'm talking, of course, about this Top 50 list. And there's no better way to end it than with this.

I called Aria de Mezzo Carattere the most beautiful video game music ever, and that it is; but this is a close second. And while the Aria was 100% pure beauty, there's something uniquely stirring about this track that you hardly ever find anywhere else. If you just clear your mind and sit back and listen to this music, it will take your mind to unusual places.

Throughout EarthBound your play will be repeatedly interrupted by a random cameraman dropping out of the sky and taking photographs of you. (There are 30-some places in the game this can happen.) He has no apparent connection to the story and his presence in the game is never explained until the very end of the ending. EarthBound's credits come in two parts: first the in-game credits set to a funky beat (see #11), and then EarthBound's magnum opus, this music playing while the game shows you all the photographs that were taken and the credits roll. It is actually quite powerful.

I've had 15 years to think about what exactly makes EarthBound so different from every other game--and no doubt EarthBound is a unique game--and so prone to being either loved with devotion or detested with scorn by almost everyone that plays it. And I think one of the important reasons for this is, there is a very strong undercurrent of sentimentality all through EarthBound. You don't really get that with other RPG's; you get epic stories and, sometimes, deep character development, but almost every time the character in question is angsty and broken to some extent. That's absent from EarthBound; the four heroes are early-teenage kids whose regularly scheduled childhood was interrupted by the urgent need to save the world from the horror of Giygas' eternal darkness. EarthBound mixes jokes and lightheartedness with "this is serious business and these kids are really struggling" unusually well, and the further you go in the game the more it slowly tilts toward serious business. By the time you finish the Lost Underworld, the jokes are gone. Right after that is Magicant (i.e., Ness's subconscious) and it's a silly and whimsical place... but not really. And it turns dark fast and culminates with Ness confronting the evil in his own soul. Before Earth's 13-year-old chosen champion can defend it from the encroaching darkness, he must first conquer himself.

There's something a little tragic about so much being dumped on a 13-year-old's shoulders. EarthBound is full of whimsy, but the game also very subtly points you back to that point. For Ness and his friends, this was a tough road.

Leaving off the game, let's talk about this music on its own merits. Of all the video game music I've heard, this track stands up better than almost all others separated from its source. And like the game, this is because it is very powerfully sentimental. It combines EarthBound's whimsy with its nagging sense of loss. And the music is perfectly titled. Smiles and tears.

This would be perfect music to set to a five minute slide show or video show in loving memory at a funeral. Go ahead: quiet everything else in the room, put this music on, close your eyes and focus your thoughts on some departed friend or family member of yours. Or even a beloved pet, or a TV character you were especially attached to, for that matter. See if the room doesn't get dusty at some point. If it doesn't, you are a 15-to-30 year old male. Try again in a few years. It'll pass.

And so this list ends. Thanks for reading, everyone.

1 comment: