The most stupendous thing about music games, for my regard of which I will never apologize (not, I suppose, that I do a lot of apologizing on here anyway), is their ability to not just curate your past into a nostalgia-strewn resurrection-fest, but to make, through associations, familiar melody construction, and work undertaken (see: gaming hours spent) pursuing the shape of their songs whether previously known or not, to make you feel as though they were known to you, part of you, threaded into your past as surely as into your present. The mantle of known-ness they wrap around you has to be one of the few times where familiarity, the repetition of what is old news, doesn’t chafe your heart or leaden your step: it’s not the humdrum workday, the same-old turns up the same-old roads, but the euphoric realization, whether through tapping a stylus or slamming a button or, sure, twisting your body at just the right time in front of the Kinect, of success. I know this song, those high scores say. In whatever way this game seeks to determine that, I know it.
Even if it was years and years ago that you last heard it, and ages before that since you first heard it. Even if you never played the game, or heard the radio pop song, that it’s attached to.
The first music game I played (not counting Julliard Music Adventure) was Elite Beat Agents. And no, this surprises no one, but I knew next to none of the songs. I was the eldest child and my parents’ tastes in music skipped the decade into which I was born–so I never partook in any of the 80s megahits, and spent many an awkward evening as a teenager and college student bobbing my head along to songs everyone but me clearly knew by heart (an affliction never really quite remedied until several years’ worth of gay nightclub attendance, after which time my repertoire of Madonna, Cher and David Bowie had grown considerably). And, sure, all those songs were (do you think they could have afforded otherwise?) covers. But now, flipping through the radio or waiting in line in a supermarket, one of the originals will come on and I know it. I don’t just know where the music is going, I know how it gets there–through motions repeated over endless attempts to perfect the song score, I’d damn well better know. So these melodies from a decade I was born into but knew nothing of were now a seared into my brain through striven-for repetition, as known to me as to those who listened to them while driving too fast in their parents’ volvos in acid-washed jeans and trendy mullets.
Flash forward then to the release of Theathrythm: Curtain Call two weeks ago.
There are 221 songs on that game. I do not know them all. Never having owned a console prior to the PS1, I couldn’t. To the occasional distaste of my peers, my favorite Final Fantasy game was and remains FFX, probably because it was my first (though, if you really want to go off on a tangent some day, there are some fascinating parallels between its love story and that of the Outlander series…but I digress). I had played, then, maybe eight of the 25 games whose songs appear in that game, and though I reached the arbitrary 25K “finished” point two days after release, that was done largely by repeating songs I knew from the few games I had played, over and over. I kept unlocking new songs for different games but had little interest in them; all my focus was on the games I had played.
Then I unlocked the FMV scene-backed song for FFX-2, a game I had scorned loudly upon its release, and persisted in playing with many a derisive snort largely because the pre-YouTube internet promised that if you completed the the game 100%, you would be granted a cutscene that “fixed” the tear-streaked ending of FFX. I never managed that 100% ending (though my sister did), but I tried, because FFX features my het OTP as its primary focus. All the corniness and camp I detested so staunchly as a teenager I can laugh at a little more now, but still: I didn’t expect to care so terribly much when one of the songs from that came cropping up in Theathrythm–especially a song with lyrics, which tends to cause my interest to plummet precipitously.
But. The FMV they play in the background as you try to complete the song? It has that long-ago promised cutscene in it.
And suddenly it was the most important thing in the world for me to complete it. With a perfect score, on ultimate difficulty. Because every time you tried, you got to see the assuaging of all the misery you’d felt at the end of FFX, sniveling alone in your living room and terrified that someone would come in and see you there. I’d seen the cutscene in the years since, of course–again, we live in the age of YouTube–but still, the chance to fix it, to make things right, was tantalizing. [I also, full disclosure, am a lot more receptive to the big misunderstanding at the center of FFX-2 now, as someone who has actually had relationships, than I was as a stern and (mostly) heart-hardened teenager, so the plot details 3/4 of the FMV brings back to life aren’t nearly as laughable as they were to me at 16.] “Down, left, tap tap SWOOP and–dammit!” became a common refrain in the wee hours of the morning before I had to head to work. I had never earned the cutscene the way you’re supposed to, but I’d be damned if I’d let Yuna’s let’s-not-start-a-war-oh-and-by-the-way-my-heart-is-broken powerpop ballad get completed on anything less than a triple-S score.
I was so concerned with that song, then, jumping back to FFX songs when I needed a break, that I didn’t really pursue the rest of the game. I unlocked song after song, even some more FMVs, but I paid them little heed. It wasn’t until this morning that, whilst attempting to tweak my party’s abilities, I hit a wrong button and randomized my song selection and ended up at “Theme of Love” from FFIV.
Which I knew. To my shock.
Lured by the snippet they play as you consider playing the song or not, I went in and tried it on ultimate cold, and, sure as Suteki da Ne, I knew where the music was going. And I know that’s a stupid way to phrase it but I have no musical training, and even having sat in on a class where to my delight I learned about things like the pentatonic scale, and its mathematical explanation for why we desire certain notes to be the next one, and others not–even after that, the best way for me to explain the wonder of recognizing a song I didn’t remember I knew is knowing where it is going. I am so slow to listen to new music because that recognition, that ability to settle into the known notes and feel each of them to their depth without having to work to appreciate what new things they might do–that is why I listen. So to dip and twirl at the right parts, to pause and to hold in time with a song forgotten–lent to me, burned for me (through likely illegal means like Kazaa), by someone I’d long since spurned and never seen since–was fantastic. Fantastical. Buoyed by this find, I hit the randomize button again, intentionally this time, after finishing the song, and ended up with this.
And it was magical:
The reason music games are powerful is the reason games themselves are powerful. It isn’t that the story is only yours, or that only you can complete it, or that it’s somehow not some mass-marketed, heavily-produced string of code wending its way through innumerable expensive pieces of equipment on its path to your fingerpads and eyeballs and, eventually, your cerebral cortex. It’s that, through whatever tricks of technology, even something so simple as asking you to move a plastic stick in time to a beat, they are able to make you believe that actions you take have value. In completing a melody…in reuniting lost loves…in reliving a past you’d forgotten you had. And that will never, ever get old.