Monday, December 3, 2012


Back in the summer of 2011, Kill Screen was taking pitches for pieces for their sound issue.  I sent one in; Chris Dahlen, the editor-in-chief, accepted it.

It was the first piece I ever sold.  "Giddy" doesn't even begin to describe how happy I was.  I had enormous respect for the magazine and couldn't believe I'd get to be among the all-star list of contributors on that front page.

Alas, the piece got cut for space, and although Chris originally planned for it to fit into the following issue, he left Kill Screen and the new editors chose to take subsequent issues in a new direction.  My piece no longer fit.

I showed it to Kirk Hamilton, the Melodic block editor, when I first came to Kotaku, and we agreed that it was great and that we should do the hard work of editing it to fit, sometime, but (more due to me than to him), "sometime" never managed to come before my time at the site ran out.


It's not perfect, and it could use an editor, but here's that piece, in its entirety.  Because sometimes, you just need your music to make you a goddamn space marine.

I can’t remember the time in my life when I didn’t understand it:

One goes down.
Two goes in.
Three goes out.
Four goes up.

Such simple instructions, those gestures, such a harsh demand or gentle suggestion, depending on the hand doing the conducting.

[At our supermarket, they play “I Don’t Want to set the World on Fire” and I must fight the urge -- honed over a hundred hours of Fallout 3 -- commanding me to dive for cover behind the nearest shelf and watch for Super Mutants.]

I was raised in a home where the formal language of music was spoken fluently.  Everyone understands music, of course; I was just born to parents who studied and taught its grammar.  I remember learning the word “hemiola” in high school, remember learning the word “syncopation” in second grade.  I remember learning clefs and staves and fermatas and a necessary smattering of Italian.  I remember learning piano, recorder, and horn; learning when to breathe, when not to breathe, and when really not to breathe.  I remember learning to step off, always, with my left foot.

[My left foot, which is the one that will drag behind me unevenly when attacking aliens à la Mass Effect 2, because that ⅞ is an uneven time and my left knee is my bad one.]

But those are just details.  Music was the true language spoken in our home, the G-clef decor of the living room (itself assembled around accommodating the piano) as clear a cue as the “se habla español” sign on any shop window.  Much in the way studying film taught me how to explain what it is we all see and know, studying music merely taught me how to explain what it is we all already hear and know.

[Someone’s ringtone is the Super Mario Brothers music and my thumbs twitch in muscle memory and sympathy.  There should have been a 1-UP in there.]

But when the music is right, none of that matters one damn bit.  We hear it on a level that reaches through our skills and our cynicism and goes straight to the hind-brain.  We hear it in a way that changes our perception of place and time, a level that tells us when to grin and cheer or when to be afraid, or even when to do both at once.  In the context of the game, the right music is a set of emotional directions, a collection of story pointers, or even an explicit guideline, telling us what to do.  (The music speeds up?  Run faster!)

Taken outside of the game, though... the right soundtrack is transformative.

I walk home, wearing my iPod, and I hear the music begin and I crank it up to eleven.

A few blocks later, I'm not me anymore.

It's not the breeze off the highway making a mess of my hair. It's a stiff wind making me look dramatic. Flames are probably swirling in it, just out of my peripheral vision.

I'm not some anonymous girl walking home from work at 6:00, through the rapidly dimming streets of the city.

I am fierce.  I am bold and lithe. My kohl-rimmed eyes are blazing intensely at a foe I cannot see. Whatever I am wearing, it is bound to be made primarily of leather, and surely exposes more of my midriff than is strictly necessary.

I have a dagger gleaming sharply in each hand, and I know how to wield them. Whatever I am facing, the battle is more than likely to result in my demise but I face it, tall and unafraid, jaw set, an undeniable courage and ferocity in every aspect of my being.

I am transported. The buildings melt away and are replaced -- by mountains, a cave, a ruined temple, a jungle, a spaceship, a windswept tundra, or a rocky beach. I melt away and am replaced. I am a warrior, a thief, a scout, an assassin, a space marine, a pirate. I am half Jack Sparrow and half Commander Shepard and wholly something. I am walking with purpose, with drama, well-timed, a defiant swagger shouting silently to my enemy, you cannot take me.

And then I reach a red light. I stop in my tracks, jarringly, unable to reconcile this object of mundanity to the inner me, the fierce one that wants to escape the world of offices and taxicabs and umbrellas.

I am pudgy, and weak, and my music is far too loud. I turn it down, so as not to damage my hearing. Responsibly, I wait for the light to turn green, tidying my frizzy hair and straightening my sensible pea coat. I let the piece of music finish quietly while I buy a quart of milk at the corner store.

With a sigh, I turn the music off and stuff the headphones into my pocket. I unlock the door, stop and check the mail, and trudge up the many flights of stairs to my apartment.

But maybe, just maybe, something secret gleams in my eye as the door clicks shut and I disappear.

Maybe just enough ferocity lingers beyond the edge of music to make me a bolder, more daring person in the real world.

And maybe, just maybe, I hang up my coat and feed the cat with more of a swagger in my step than is strictly necessary.  

This is the power of the music.  I have been a detective, a courier, a warrior, a thief, a scout, an assassin, and a space marine -- and that’s just this month.  I carry those never-were experiences with me, when I step away from the game, but the music always brings them back, even against the grey of the winter of the real world.  Exactly, you could say, when I need them most.


  1. [At our supermarket, they play “I Don’t Want to set the World on Fire” and I must fight the urge -- honed over a hundred hours of Fallout 3 -- commanding me to dive for cover behind the nearest shelf and watch for Super Mutants.]That's awesome. I never seem to encounter songs from video games outside my own collection, but sometimes I'll be running and dire music from Bastion will spin up on my phone and suddenly I'm watching for the ground to rise or fall beneath my feet. Going the other way, when I imagine shooting my way through to the Final Boss showdown (a la the The Real Folk Blues episode of Cowboy Bebop) I like to think Carlos Santana's "Put Your Lights On" will be playing. 

  2. The Giant we shop at every weekend seriously has a playlist that's about 45% Fallout 3, 45% Fallout: New Vegas, and that last 10% is other stuff they could get that they didn't need to pay royalties for, from the same era.  It seriously gets downright creepy, especially if I've been playing one of those two games lately.

    (Of course right now it's about 80% Christmas corporate, as happens in December.)

  3. "45% Fallout: New Vegas, and that last 10% is other stuff they could get that they didn't need to pay royalties for,"

    Sounds like the same thing to me :)