High Scores: Stickerbrush Symphony

There is a canon of video game music, and central to that canon is “Stickerbrush Symphony,” composed by David Wise for Donkey Kong Country 2 on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. If you haven’t heard it, please stop reading and listen to the song immediately (and then, please, come immediately back).

Start with the original, unremastered SNES chiptune, and follow it up with this cover by PPF, which is my favorite but far from the only homage. A simple YouTube search will turn up versions of “Stickerbrush Symphony” on instruments from the accordion to the violin, arrangements for Mario Paint’s MIDI composer and for Symphonic Gamers’ live philharmonic orchestra. Imitated by many, beloved by most, ranked near the top of almost every relevant list, Wise’s creation has come to represent for video game music what “Moon River” represents for film music, a work that both exemplifies and transcends its genre.

I’m not here to argue that “Stickerbrush Symphony” is a great song. (It is.) I also don’t want, nor am I able, to explicate its musical composition. I am a writer, not a musician, and “Stickerbrush Symphony” interests me mainly as a narrative device. Beautiful as the song is on its own, it works on my heart as part of a story. Or, more aptly, two stories: the story of DKC2 and the story of childhood.

Ultimately, I want to understand why, on certain days, the song makes me cry.

It did yesterday. Walking around my neighborhood, masked in sunglasses and a black bandanna, my earbuds humming with PPF’s cover, I did what I often do when listening to video game tracks out in the world: I imagined myself inside the level scored by the song. In DKC2, “Stickerbrush Symphony” first plays in a level called Bramble Blast, the last stage in the story’s third of six main chapters, roughly the middle of the game. (Since the Super Nintendo DKC games are a trilogy, this level marks roughly the middle of the series, as well.) Tonally, DKC2 is far darker than its predecessor. For much of the game’s first half, the player travels through dim, sunken places: wrecked underwater galleons, volcanic caverns, mineshafts, bogs. Bramble Blast lifts the player into an entirely new, bright, elevated environment. We are, suddenly, up in the clouds, thin cirruses against a blue sky shrouded by green brambles. The shift is at once a shock and, largely because of “Stickerbrush Symphony,” a relief.

Aside from its aesthetic differences, Bramble Blast differs from the preceding levels in gameplay, as well. Up to this point, DKC2’s stages are either hop-and-bop platformers or underwater tunnels the player swims through, monkey-style or on swordfish-back. All are chock-full of enemies, and all allow the player a generous freedom of movement. Bramble Blast, on the other hand, severely restricts movement. Since almost every platform is hostile (that is, covered in thorns), there is no virtually no ground for either the Kongs or enemies to stand on. The player must traverse the level by blasting from barrel to midair barrel, most of which shoot in only four or fewer directions. With few exceptions, the only enemies are hornets blocking one’s path from barrel to barrel. They are to be avoided, not attacked. The effect of all these design choices is to leave the player feeling suspended—stuck—in a midair maze, without a clear path forward.

“Stickerbrush Symphony” accompanies this state of suspension. Its tone is plaintive, peaceful, and, above all, lonely. As the user named Fatmanonice points out in a post titled “When Nostalgia Sings” on Smashboards.com, brambles in a garden are evidence of overgrowth, of abandonment. The height and sprawl of this level’s brambles suggest a longtime, complete desertion by any caretaker. The relative lack of enemy sprites contributes to the sense of loneliness, as well. As the player navigates the midair labyrinth, stuck in a barrel, deciding which direction to take, the screen may be nearly devoid of action—just the barrel’s rotation and the slow drift of the cirrus clouds in the background. As in every level of DKC2, the music loops every two minutes or so, but in this level, the looping of the track becomes a complement to the story, not just a limitation of the SNES hardware. With few opportunities to die and start over—few enemies to harm the Kongs or pits for them to fall into—the player is far more likely to hear the background music uninterrupted for as long as it takes to navigate the maze and clear the stage. In the middle of the story, the player is invited to enjoy the scenery for a bit. We may be stuck, but we are not in any real danger. And while we figure out which direction to take, we are given this audaciously great song, almost too good for a video game, to keep us company.

It is no coincidence that so many players say “Stickerbrush Symphony” sounds like childhood. In the speed-running community, it has become something of a meme. A fixture of Games Done Quick programming, DKC2 runs are inevitably accompanied by donation comments from fans looking forward to “Stickerbrush Symphony,” singing the praises of Wise’s creation and how it “reminds me of my childhood.” The humor of the meme is not ironic; rather, the nostalgia gamers feel upon hearing the song is so widespread that it seems universal. And while most repeat players, speed runners or otherwise, will get through Bramble Blast with zero trouble, the fondness we feel hearing the song comes from the memory of playing the level for the first time, of getting lost in the maze, and of having the Symphony accompany our lostness.

We are inclined to think of childhood as a time of freedom, unburdened by adult responsibilities. But much of childhood is an experience of being limited. You cannot reach the top shelf. You cannot stay up past nine. You must complete your homework before you can watch TV. While the adults enjoy drinks and laugh in the living room, you listen from the second floor, trying to make out their conversation, stuck between your bedroom and the top of the stairs. As you grow older and learn how the big the world is, you keenly sense how much is beyond your grasp. You see the Statue of Liberty in a book and find New York City on a map, whose scale tells you how many thousands of real-life miles lie in its eight inches between your home and Ellis Island. Family vacations happen once or twice a year, if at all, and they are to the same relatives’ homes. Summer vacations, those vast stretches of time, are marked by deep, languid boredom as much as, if not more than, they are by liberation. You may feel stuck between parents, between friend groups, between age groups (see “middle school”), between knowledge and wisdom, between desire and agency. This betweenness is frustrating and lonesome but can feel mysteriously comforting in retrospect.

For me, “Stickerbrush Symphony” is the theme of childhood self-discovery. To hear it is to remember my nine-year-old self becoming aware of my solitude—and all the sadness, frustration, comfort, and mystery that solitude contained. To hear it today is also to realize that solitude never went away. It is a space I’ve carried with me long after I first entered Bramble Blast, and it has only grown wilder since then.

Which brings me back to yesterday’s walk, to the familiar tears that pooled under my sunglasses as the same lovely loop—or, rather, a tribute to that loop—measured my steps. More than any other time since grade school, the COVID-19 quarantine has felt like summer vacation. I do not have a full-time job. I do not have social engagements aside from the occasional Zoom hangout. It is up to me to structure my days, and more often than not I feel as if I’ve failed at this, regardless of how hard I’ve tried. I write forty lines of poetry or five hundred words of prose. I read a book beyond my grasp. I do 150 pushups, 150 squats, 150 situps, 150 mountain climbers, and still feel like shit—formless, directionless, stuck. As I often did as a child, I feel of little consequence.

But these tears were closer to joy than sadness. I might have been crying to grieve my current isolation, but I was also crying out of a certain pride that I have learned how to be stuck. I will make it through this crisis, just as I made it through the crises of childhood: divorce, relocation, friendlessness, bullying, verbal and physical abuse from people who knew I was different and wanted me to either fundamentally change or disappear.

In part, they may be tears of gratitude to the songwriter, Wise, who did not condescend to his audience, who knew that his music didn’t have to be zany for the game to be fun, or juvenile to appeal to kids. I believe he knew the inner life of children is as emotionally rich and complicated as the music he composed. I believe he knew the world his song created would become part of the players’ inner world, a place they would carry with them and cultivate as they grew older. And so, when I hear this song, I am overwhelmed with gratitude—to Wise, to Rare for making a game I’ve loved for so many years, to my parents for their protection, and for the video game consoles they gave me and the televisions to play them on. And I am grateful to my childhood self for surviving, for allowing a space within himself to accommodate uncertainty and difficulty, and to let those thorns climb and twist into something forbidding yet beautiful.