Video games are the best way to feel like a top-shelf, grade-A, Hugh Jackmannish bad ass of Hugh Jackman proportions. They’re the only medium that allows you to karate kick helicopters with impugnity, fist-fight old men ontop of futuristic air craft carriers, and even blow up the Death Star in a B-Wing. Heck, video games make “being a plumber” look like “Lord of the Rings” on an acid trip.
Then why is it, I wonder, that so many games are so bloody fantastic at melting players into sobbing piles of teary-eyed emotion globs? Is it the heroic sacrifices? The interactive nature? The Sony-brand low-frequency sonic sadness generators installed in every PS3?
To be honest with you, it’s all those reasons. However! Nothing will snap you back like a rubber-bandy snappy-thing faster than hearing that one song that played during that heartbreaking moment. They say smell is the sense tied to memory, but “they’re” wrong, like they were wrong about Narnia being real. Those dicks. A tune will bring you right back to the exact day and moment something happened to you. This effect works even for the kind of rented self that video games provide. Let’s get our tissues out, because here are the songs that give the feels . . .
4.) “Main Theme” – Metal Gear Solid 4
Metal Gear Solid is a weird, weird game series. Not like, “hey, that cloud is shaped like a turnip” weird, more like “fat-bomber-villain-who-rides-roller-skates” weird. I mean to say it is Japanese. Extremely. Metal Gear Solid is a long-running fan-favorite game series, and stands proudly in the pantheon of gaming deities. Ostensibly, the story is about a grizzled badass blacks-ops soldier who’s tired of war. There are a lot of anti-nuclear proliferation themes, stories about shell shock, PTSD and the exhaustion of constant war. I mean, it takes on some seriously heady shit – the long-term psychological health of child soldiers is a major storyline.
BUT. Then there’s also cyborg ninjas, and a vampire powered by nanobots, and mechs that “moo,” and insane AIs, and about forty gallons of homoerotic subtext. It’s something that has to be experienced if you enjoy stealth action, espionage stories, or surrealism. The (modern) series spans four main games, from Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on Playstation 3. Except for some shameful digressions, the games follow the story of Cold War artifact Solid Snake, a tired man who’s only ever been good at killing. He also has the most rad voice in video games. Do me a favor: click on this video, and then read the paragraph as the music is playing.
The fourth game is his final game, and Snake is having a rough time. He’s got the body of an eighty-year-old, he’s dying from an artificially created virus, he can barely keep up psychologically or physically with everything that’s going on, and he’ s still the only one with a shot at saving the world. So he drags himself, battered and bruised, through every encounter. Finally, Snake is infiltrating the last area, a vault containing an evil AI responsible for everything going to hell. The only way through is a hallway flooded with microwaves. Snake begins pushing through it, jogging at first, then walking. He collapses to the ground, and you’re jamming on the buttons just to keep him crawling. Then he’s pulling himself along with one hand. Outside, the game shows you that all of your closest friends and loved ones are fighting for you, all of them in desperate, going-to-die situations. All you can do to help them is get through this hallway, and Snake’s old body is failing, burning, breaking down. All of your friends outside are losing, and they’re going down swinging. That song up there is playing throughout the entire scene. Pushing you along. Give you the strength. Making you keep fighting.
If I’m EVER in a do-or-die situation, if I ever feel the entire world crashing down on me, if I can do nothing to help myself and my loved ones but crawl ahead, to just take one more step, I’ll remember this song, and I’ll remember Solid Snake.
Honorable Mentions: “The Best Is Yet To Come,” Metal Gear Solid. “Way to Fall,” Metal Gear Solid 3. “Snake Eater,” Metal Gear Solid 3. “Snake Eater” is actually my favorite Metal Gear Solid song because of it’s James Bondian style, and it’s even used PERFECTLY in the scenes in which they use the song. Snake Eater would have made the top spot, except for the fact that it includes the words “some day you’ll feed on a tree frog” in the lyrics, and I just can’t bring myself to reward that kind of fucking nonsense.
3.) “Eyes on Me” – Final Fantasy VIII
Every Final Fantasy takes place on a new fantasy(ish) world, with a new cast of characters. They’re epic, melodramatic adventures, usually starring effeminate teenage characters fighting evil empires and wizards and space-douchebags. I love(d) the Final Fantasy series – Final Fantasy VII is the reason I became a gamer. Sure, I’d played video games before then – gems like “Maniac Mansion” on the NES, “Aladdin” on the Genesis, and more “Street Fighter II” than I care to admit. However, I remember seeing Final Fantasy VII on by best buddy Michael’s TV, and my world exploded. It had everything I loved about D&D, but also motorcycles and big ass swords and killer music. I pleaded with my parents to get a Playstation just so I could play FFVII, and it remains to this day my favorite game of all time.
Many people disliked the sequel, Final Fantasy VIII, for a lot of reasons. The magic system was extremely different, and it involved “drawing” magic and spending it, making it possible to run out of spells. Some people didn’t like that it was a love story – it had world-ending sorceresses and war, but the game and the marketing laser-focused on the expansive love story. Hell, it actually had two love stories in it, taking place in different time periods. I actually loved the shit out of that game – it focused entirely on the characters (to the detriment of the plot, certainly), making you really care about this lot of effeminate teenage saviors. I spent a summer on my parents balcony with a Playstation and a TV, getting sun and playing a rented copy of Final Fantasy VII. Here’s the next song, from that game. Let me explain it, because it doesn’t sound great.
I’ll admit to being slightly ashamed at just how many tears my eyes are capable of generating while this song is playing. As a song, it’s a saccharine, goopy-sweet achievement in cornball love songs. When I first had my wife listen to it, she was deeply upset at me. Many respect points were lost that day, I can tell you. I tried to explain the story that’s tied to the song was the reason for my manful weeping.
You see, Final Fantasy VIII is about two love stories. One story takes place in the past, and it’s about a sensitive artist-type name Laguna who joined the army. Laguna and his two best friends are traveling soldiers, walking the Earth, getting into adventures, and generally being way over their head. Laguna frequently visits the capitol, and he always goes to this little piano bar. In it, a girl named Julia Heartilly (subtlety!) sings to classy folks, business peoples, and off-duty soldiers alike. She’s a nervous waif, but she’s an amazing singer, and Laguna finds himself falling in love with this performer he doesn’t know. Over time, as he returns again and again to the bar, the two begin talking, but they’re both nerdy wrecks with no social skills. Finally, they get together, and Julia writes this song, “Eyes on Me,” about Laguna. The two profess their love, but the war tears them apart – Laguna is sent off, and he never sees Julia ever again. Years later, Laguna marries another woman, and he adopts her daughter and starts a family. He’s forced to go save the world again, and when he’s gone, his wife Raine dies. What he doesn’t know is that she was pregnant, and had a child while he was gone. The child was put up for adoption in Laguna’s absence, and he never knew he had a son.
The second love story is the main story, and it’s about a young moody badass named Squall, who grew up in a kind of battle-orphanage. He’s also really good with his “gunblade,” which is a sword that can shoot bullets and Japan is really strange. Anyway, Squall and his fellow soldier-orphan-siblings are sent off to help some freedom fighters called the “Timber Owls” take on magic-Nazis. There he meets the resistance leader, a beautiful young girl named Rinoa Heartilly who looks like a cross between a young Shannon Doherty and a J-Pop singer. Over the course of the game, the two fall in love – one of the major turning points is when Squall goes into space to save her from the moon (which makes monsters), and is forced to eject them both into vacuum with almost no air left in their space suits. While their floating over the monster moon and their air is running out, the two talk about their childhoods, their lives, and fall in love. Dude. Japan.
Anyway, big surprise twist later – Squall is Laguna’s lost son, and Rinoa is Julia’s daughter that she had with some other guy. So even though Laguna and Julia were never able to be together, their children were. Anyway, this song plays a few times during the game, most notably during the game’s 12-minute final cutscene which is in itself a horrible tearjerker involving Laguna grieving for two of his lost loves and being reunited with his adopted daughter and then one of the villains is fishing and everyone ends up happy.
2.) “An End, Once and For All” – Mass Effect 3
Mass Effect 3 is the breakneck finale to the epic Mass Effect trilogy, a sprawling, intelligently-constructed space opera. The story follows customizable hero Commander Shepard, who can be a guy or a girl, white or black (BLACK SHEP!), good or evil, nice or super-dick. My Shepard was a red-headed sniper chick with a jaw like Julianne Moore and a right cross that could fell a buffalo. She wore her heart on her sleeve and followed her conscience, except when she was pissed – than woe be to the bastard on the other side of the “Renegade” button. The game is amazing not only for its well-drawn characters and backstory, but because of it’s choices – Mass Effect has hundreds of choices per game that effect the story. Main characters live and die by your choices, and in fact entire worlds can burn or be saved depending on you.
The third game promised a unique delivery on all of the choices you’d made through the first and second game, and for the most part, it delivers. Some people disliked the ending of the game, but I think they may have missed the point that the entire third game was the “ending.” Your choices come back to haunt you, and how. Even something as simple as stopping medical research bites you in the ass in the third game. Anyway, I don’t want to get into it to deeply because I still consider the game fairly new, but at the end . . . shit goes down. Here’s the song that plays over the finale.
Spoilers Ahead – Highlight to read them: Commander Shepard has made it to Earth, been blasted by a space squid, and crawled onto the Citadel. After talking the Illusive Man into killing himself, and watching her commanding officer and father-figure die, she crawls onto a rising pedestal to finish the galaxy-eating Reapers once and for all. There, she meets a hologram of an eldritch and ancient artificial intelligence, who explains the rules of the universe to her. Organics build robots. Robots rebel, and murder organics. It happens every time, over and over again, with countless civilizations, for eons. So, a highly advanced race made an AI to solve the problem. Unfortunately, they weren’t fucking paying attention to the problem they were trying to solve – the AI came up with the solution alright. It created the Reapers, unstoppable techno-organic space Cthulhus that “harvest” all advanced civilizations, including the people who made the AI. Every 50,000 years the Reapers return, kill most everyone, then turn their DNA, culture, and memories into a new Reaper. Essentially, they’re floating museums for lost cultures, except if museums could shoot laser beams.
However, this “cycle” of organics has done something that’s never happened – they have a chance to defeat the Reapers because of Shepards actions. So, the AI offers a new solution, three choices – Shepard can choose to destroy all synthetic life (including your allied synthetics, if you have them), she can choose to control the Reapers by downloading her consciousness into the Reapers themselves (and thus dying), or she can leap into a big green laser beam that will disseminate her genetic code into all of life, causing an instantaneous evolution that would make all synthetics part organic, and all organics part synthetic. The next step, the final peace.
Shepard has been fighting for synthetic rights her entire life, and one of her best friends is her AI spaceship who became a hot robot. She saved the geth, and helped them make peace with their creators and enemies, the Quarians. Shepard has time and time again brokered peace between humans and synthetics, and so watching Earth burn under the Reapers, she makes her choice. She runs for the central laser, knowing that synthesis could be the only lasting peace. She leaps into the beam, and as she begins falling, disentegrating, light flooding around her, this music cuts in. Slow motion images of her friends and loved ones appears in front of her eyes as her body comes apart. We see her allies all at the cusp of destruction but the Reapers . . . change. Emerald light suffuses them, and the fighting stops. But then it begins to spread, engulfing everyone and everything. It even travels through the Mass Relays, infecting all life in the galaxy.
In the end, we see that peace finally happens. The Reapers are now a force for good, using the ancient knowledge of countless civilizations to help society rebuild. The warring species are at peace, lead by the greatest woman alive, the Shepard who finally brought her flock home.
1.) “God Only Knows” – Bioshock Infinite
My thoughts on Bioshock Infinite are well documented here. There are actually two songs in this wonderful game that turn me into a snuffling, huffling, crying mess. However, this next song is by far the one that kills me the most. It’s an old favorite, and it appears for the first time while you’re walking through the floating city of Columbia. It’s a delightful anachronism, because the game takes place just before the twenties, and it’s sung by a barbershop quartet. Check it out.
The song is forgotten, and you’re foisted into an epic science-fiction story. The ending is very complicated, but needless to say the story of Booker and Elizabeth ends on a heartbreaking note. Spoilers below, highlight:
SPOILERS: It turns out, the girl you’ve been escorting and becoming close with the entire game is your daughter. You find out that you sold her, as a baby, to pay for your life-threatening gambling debts. The buyer is a strange old man and his two creepy identical-twin assistants. However, at the last minute Booker freaks out and changes his mind, running to save his daughter Anna. Booker’s too late, and Anna gets taken by the old man through some kind of portal. Booker lives in misery, a drunken shell of a man, regretting the worst mistake of his life. Until the assistants show up again, and offer to take him to another world. His mind is scrambled by the process – he remembers some things, but because he traveled to another reality, his brain makes memories and erases others to keep his story “straight.” It turns out the assistants are trying to defeat the old man – a villain named Zachary Comstock, a killer, thief, and despot in charge of the floating city of Columbia. You learn later that Zachary Comstock is, in fact, you – Booker DeWitt. In the past, after the murderous battle of Wounded Knee, a guilty Booker found a preacher giving baptisms in the river, to wipe the horrible sins from the soldiers. In one universe, Booker doesn’t get baptised – he holds onto the guilt for his sins, and becomes Booker DeWitt. The version that takes the baptism always becomes Zachary Comstock, a self-righteous man who has learned how to forget his sins and press on.
Elizabeth, really your daughter Anna, shows this all to you at the end, and the both of you understand what must happen. In order to save Elizabeth from her horrible life, to save the people of Columbia and New York City, and to prevent Booker from turning into a monster who would sell his own daughter, there’s only one solution. They have to kill Booker before he makes the choice at the baptism. It’s the only way to kill Zachary Comstock in every reality. And so Booker lays down, and Elizabeth’s hands close around his throat, and she drowns him in the river where he might have been baptized. Elizabeth blinks out of existence, the credits roll, and the barbershop version of “God Only Knows” plays. God only knows what I’d be without you, indeed. To say I cried would be an understatement. It crushed me. What are we without our sins? Without our regrets? What are we without our loved ones? We know what Booker becomes without his daughter, in all realities, as Comstock or Booker. And what is Elizabeth without Booker? Nothing. Nothing at all.
There is a moment of hope after the credits that leaves the ending up to you. You can choose to believe some version of Booker somewhere survived, with a little baby Anna to try again. Or maybe not. Maybe she isn’t in that crib at all . . .
Honorable Mention: “Circle Be Unbroken,“ Bioshock Infinite. It’s a gorgeous song in a beautiful moment of the story, and it has Elizabeth singing while Booker plays guitar. The song is sung (and the guitar is played) by the actual voice actors, and it has a sweet hope and a beautiful sadness that makes for a truly excellent song.