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Arts and Culture

Gamers Let the Music Play

Indie vets like Jim Guthrie are creating beautiful music for the button-mashers.

By Thom Wong 3 Nov 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Thom Wong writes regularly about music for The Tyee. He can also be found ruminating about the state of menswear at The Sunday Best.

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Play again? A screenshot from Bastion.

Even if you've never played a video game, chances are you're familiar with a video game song. A few bars of the Super Mario theme are usually enough to get a roomful of people humming; it's so popular that an entire subculture of cover versions has sprung up around it. (My favourite -- this xylophone cover from a high school talent show.) Video games have progressed a long way since those early 8-bit days, both visually and sonically, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in indie gaming.

The iPad game Sword and Sworcery has become a sensation with its low-res graphics and meta-narrative storytelling, but chances are it's Canadian indie vet Jim Guthrie's soundtrack that people remember the most. Part Blade Runner-era Vangelis, part found sound montage, The Ballad of the Space Babies does what every good soundtrack should by advancing and adding to the story.

Standout track "Doom Sock" provides just the right amount of mystery to a game where your overall goal is only revealed in segments. "Ode to a Room" is the best Bond theme song not in a Bond film; if the producers of the next 007 have any sense at all, they'll hire Jim Guthrie to help glue together what is sure to be a mess of a plot. 

Bastion by Darren Korb from the game of the same name is currently the number four top-selling album on Bandcamp. Bastion has become famous in certain circles on the strength of its narrator alone, a gravelly-voiced gentleman that offers commentary on everything you do. If you play the game, you're likely to hear him intone, "And then he went and killed himself," many, many times.

It's a tall order trying to match Logan Cunningham's dry wit with music, but Korb accomplishes this with what sounds like bhangra bluegrass, a wild mix of sitars, zithers, rockabilly guitar, and thumping beats. "Build That Wall (Zia's Theme)" wouldn't be out of place on O Brother, Where Art Thou, and it's not hard to imagine a future where artists line-up to cover it. 

Korb himself provides the vocals to "Mother, I'm Here (Zulf's Theme)," a song so sad you can barely imagine fitting it into a videogame, until you factor in the fact that Bastion begins with the apocalypse. Cunningham does his best Tom Waits on "The Pantheon (Ain't Gonna Catch You)," providing the soundtrack's hero-walks-into-the-desert moment. But it's the faster stings that really stand out, demonstrating that video game soundtracks can be every bit as compelling and vital as their film counterparts.   [Tyee]

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