Setting the Scene: Atmospheric Music & Narrative

Skyrim, The Elder Scrolls

What elevates a game from moderately entertaining to irresistibly addictive? The kind of game where you tell yourself you’ll put your controller down, but four hours later … Anyway. It’s partly the story structure. Graphics that aren’t too hard on the eyes is also a plus. But in my experience, the soundtrack is what hooks me, engaging me in the story in ways I couldn’t escape if I tried.

As in other forms of media like movies and television, video games are similarly shaped and, essentially, all but narrated by the music that accompanies it. I’d be willing to bet the much-lauded Skyhold cutscene in Dragon Age: Inquisition wouldn’t have had quite the same impact without the swell of strings and crashing drums to carry the theme itself. Music is an absolutely imperative component to the gaming experience, and without it, a game will almost certainly fall flat.

From the vast expanse of soundtracks across all genres, I’ve rounded up my top favorite atmospheric songs that exemplify the different variances in storytelling techniques. Let’s start with the more seasoned contenders and analyze what, exactly, these forms of music add to the narrative and overall gaming experience. If you can put the controller down once one of these songs starts up, there’s no hope for you. Unless you ordered a pizza, in which case, carry on.

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Ain’t So Simple: Story Structure in Gaming


What is it that sets video games apart as a medium from, say, film or literature? The answer lies right in your hands: the controller. Video games require direct interaction between game and player in a way that no other medium does.

When analyzing literature, theorists and critics often talk about the “contract” that is made between author and reader when a reader picks up a book. It’s a promise implicit in every work of fiction: read this and you will be entertained. What form this entertainment takes depends on what kind of book; it might be informative, thrilling, hilarious, inspiring, terrifying, or any number of experiences. But it must be entertaining or the reader will simply put it down and move on.

The same principle holds true for film and, of course, for video games. But with video games, the need for player interaction adds an extra dimension to the promise made by the medium. The promise is not simply “this game will provide you with entertainment,” but also “you, the player, will help shape this story.” This ‘shaping’ of story can be as basic as determining whether the hero succeeds or fails, or as complicated as choosing what pixel to place where in an infinite digital space.

This demand for interaction complicates the creator’s already challenging process of telling an interesting story. The player must be allowed to weigh in on the story at some level, or they’ll feel betrayed by the medium, the creator/player promise having been broken. So game creators must construct stories that are not simply told to the player, but also adapt and change based on how the player chooses to interact with the game.

The types of stories that game creators construct to deal with this problem fall broadly into three categories: linear, multipath, and RPG/open-world. Obviously, there are many games that straddle the line between two of these categories, or plant themselves in one category but borrow elements from another. Because of this, it’s perhaps easiest to think of these categories as benchmarks on a sliding scale, rather than strict divisions.

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That Time Dragon Age Made Me a Feminist

Morrigan, Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware

It’s hard to believe it’s only been five years since my ‘feminist awakening’ so to speak, but then again, I was still posturing as a straight woman back then. I guess the core of one’s self-identity really can change in a small amount of time. Is it all circumstance? Did Bioware help push along what I already knew to be true, but just couldn’t accept? If that’s true, I owe a lot more to the franchise than just my money (but you can continue taking that too, please and thanks).

Come with me back to 2009 when Lady Gaga was just hitting the music scene and the Twilight craze was reaching its zenith. Now, this was around the time I was watching 4PlayerPodcast (now known as 4PlayerNetwork) almost every day. They were, as far as I could tell at the time, one of the only male-centric Twitch channels that weren’t laden with misogynistic and otherwise unsavory commentary, which made watching a painless affair. It was with them that I began my journey into Thedas, and subsequently, my second introduction to RPGs: Dragon Age: Origins.

As any avid Bioware fan and initiate into the wide world of character creation, I spent an embarrassingly long time shaping my Cousland to suit absurd expectations. (I’ve restarted the game so many times I can recite Duncan’s speech verbatim. “The Chantry teaches us that it is the hubris of men which brought the darkspawn into our world …” C’mon, I know you know it.) The start of the game went as expected—insofar as my Cousland was surrounded by men (with the exception of Wynne, who I wrote off immediately as a grandmother figure) and all the men commented on the fact. “You know … It just occurred to me that there have never been many women in the Grey Wardens.” No shit, Alistair.

For all intents and purposes, I’d settled into my play style secure in the fact that I (Cousland) was being permitted into a male space primarily due to necessity and circumstance (all other Grey Wardens were presumed dead) and that the women I’d meet along the way would fit neatly into the usual brand of virgin/whore subset.

And then I met Morrigan. That’s when things started to change.

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One of the Boys: How MMORPGs Shaped My Young Queer Life

I never wanted to be “one of the girls.” My mother was a top finance executive when I was growing up, a working mom who had made her way up the ladder with her brains and talent. As a kid I worshipped her and became enamored with pant suits, corporate board rooms, and the idea that women could do anything that men could do, and they could probably do it better. She worked tirelessly to help me grow and excel and claim the opportunities she never had growing up in the ‘60s while instilling a sense of purpose and capability I still carry to this day. So when I imagined my future self, when I played house or make-believe, that is how I saw myself. In fact, whenever I did play house when I was very young, I ended up getting in fights with my “husband” because I refused to stay home and clean (usually I made him do that).

However, even though I had this positive influence, I still had eyes and clearly noticed that while girls were able to do a lot more things 30 years later, everything was still separate but “equal,” and I hated it. For example, why girls could only play “soft” ball, not “hard” ball, or that girl’s lacrosse, ice hockey, and other sports changed the level of aggression depending on which sex was playing.

This confusion was only made worse by early ‘90s advertising. In a world of Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kids, My Little Pony and so on, I floated, lost, unable to find anything in common with these frivolous hyper-feminine toys and role models. Where was corporate Barbie? Where was scientist Barbie? Lacking strong female figures to identify with when it came to TV and toys, I decided that I just wouldn’t play with girl things because they were dumb. In fact, I would ignore girls altogether, because they were dumb too. I was just going to be one of the boys instead. So when other girls played tea party, I played man hunt with the boys in the neighborhood. When other girls wanted pink LA Light-ups, I was horrified and clearly wanted the blue and an Islanders jersey to match. In fact, my Halloween costumes were probably the best indication of how I felt about myself at the time: Raphael the Ninja Turtle, The Green Ranger, a Wizard, a Ninja, and a Knight all made an appearance as soon as I had any say in the matter.

The Blue Sword, Robin McKinley
The book that introduced me to female heroes.

Consequently, my mother was also a huge science-fiction/fantasy fan and I grew up listening to bedtime stories from the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and one of the only books I remember as a kid with a strong female protagonist: The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. It was here that I found my true calling and saving grace. Finally, here were pages filled with strong female warriors. Heroes that were able to save countries and win crowns. Girls who, through extra dedication, could learn to fight just as well as any man. From the age of 6 years old, I knew it was my destiny to become this Knight and to do great things in the world. I just wasn’t sure how to do that in the real world I saw around me.

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Tomb Raider 3 & Loving Problematic Media

Recently, I’ve begun watching a playthrough of Tomb Raider 3 thanks to the boon of various Let’s Play channels on YouTube, and I find myself exploring the South Pacific levels by proxy for the first time in nearly a decade. (Let’s Plays let me relive the gaming experiences of my youth in the background of my life, keeping my hands free for other tasks such as petting cats and procrastinating.) This is my first time seeing this game as an adult, and I can honestly say that I am more than a little horrified by that entire chapter of the game.

Stella Lune/
Nevermind that Lara Croft is dressed for the sole purpose of contracting malaria. [Stella Lune/]

Now, I loves me some classic Tomb Raider — it was one of my formative gaming experiences as a child, and Lara Croft was one of the fictional characters I looked up to when I was young — but let’s be real here: classic Lara Croft is a goddamn psychopath in every sense of the word. Her goal is to recover ancient artifacts from their resting places, presumably to put on display (usually in her private collection, it seems), and she will kill anyone who stands in her way without hesitation. By the third game, her homicidal tunnel-vision extends to indigenous peoples who are trying to protect an artifact that has significant religious importance to them.

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Hardcore Mode: The Changing Landscape Of MMORPGs

Every time a new MMORPG is announced, the same comments tend to appear in varying degrees of coherency. World of Warcraft, like it or not, redefined the genre as we know it, thus it inevitably pops up whenever a new game emerges on the scene. You get the people hoping this new game will be the fabled WoW killer, followed closely by those sighing over the prospect of yet another WoW clone. And then, of course, there’s the people declaring that WoW sucks, this newly announced game will suck, and MMOs have sucked ever since [insert year or game title here].

I left that last part blank because the golden age of MMOs is largely subjective. You can point at growing and shrinking subscriber numbers all you like, but that doesn’t really matter when people are drawing from their fondest memories of a game. As for me? Ultima Online was the first big MMO I played. Having firsthand experience of how it originally was, I’m always wary of anyone who says they want games to go back to being that hardcore.

In addition to being a player versus player free-for-all, almost everything on you in vanilla UO could be looted when you died. That sweet sword you worked so hard to get? Gone along with anything else the looter could carry. Any skills you learned also atrophied with disuse, so finding people macro training was almost as common as seeing people running naked down the street to get their back-up gear from storage. Another strange fact of life was finding random body parts strewn everywhere. Simply because all corpses could be dismembered, no corpse went desecrated for long, their parts dropped on the ground for anyone to pick up and rearrange.

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