High Scores: Factory Songs

There’s something inherently environmentalist about videogame music. In aiming to capture the essence of the natural environments their music accompanies (deserts, forests, frozen tundra, coral reefs, etc.), composers imply there is some unique quality in these environments worth preserving. The best videogame soundtracks not only evoke such environments but also suggest their precarity.

This is why the factory song serves such an important role in videogame music. It acts as contrast to the bright, pastoral music that precedes it. (Factory stages rarely come first in their games.) The music in factory-themed stages tends to be darker, heavier, more percussive, and more transparently synthetic than the music in, say, a water level. Factory songs have many influences: synth, techno, heavy metal, and industrial music. One sure progenitor of the videogame factory song is Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse,” composed in 1937 and used in Looney Tunes as early as 1943. Madcap and sinister, “Powerhouse” has become synonymous with satirical representations of industry. Most videogame factory music strikes a similar tone, though often much darker.

For such an important subgenre, factory music receives relatively little attention among videogame music fans. YouTube playlists of snow-themed or beach-themed music abound; there might be one or two such lists for factory music. In what follows, I want to sketch a brief history of the subgenre through a few important examples before offering an idea of how videogame composers and fans might treat the factory song going forward.

1988: “Metal Man,” Mega Man 2. Composed by Takashi Tateishi.

“Metal Man” epitomizes the factory song’s slick groove. Like industry, it rarely stops; when the melody rests, the bass line works through the night. The rare moments when both the melody and harmony rest for an eighth note or so, the percussion continues its insistent, mechanical beat. The song runs like a well-oiled machine.

When I played Mega Man 2 as a kid, I would usually choose Metal Man’s stage first. The boss fight itself is pretty simple, and the reward for beating it—the Metal Blade—is notoriously overpowered. In fact, even Metal Man is vulnerable to his own Blade. In the late-game refights, it takes only two shots from the Blade for Metal Man to self-destruct. Industry lives and dies by its own buzzsaw.

1992: “Chemical Plant Zone,” Sonic the Hedgehog 2. Composed by Masato Nakamura.

“Chemical Plant Zone” inspired this list. It’s a classic. The Sonic soundtracks have plenty of standout tracks, but this particular title is a staple of top-ten lists and covers. I like to think of it as a foil to the other most famous Sonic song: “Green Hill Zone,” the first song of the first game. “Chemical Plant” is the second song of the second game. “Green Hill Zone” is pastoral; “Chemical Plant,” antipastoral. I especially appreciate knowing what this factory makes: while many video games’ factories are generically industrial, the “chemical” in this title infuses the song with the particular flavor of acid.

Sonic games are environmentalist. As the hero, your job is to rescue the animals Dr. Robotnik has imprisoned inside his robot henchmen. In the Nineties, Sonic games felt of a piece with the Nickelodeon Earth Day celebrations and Zoobooks and those “Eye on Survival” tiger t-shirts that everyone seemed to have. The combination of Sonic and Ecco the Dolphin went a long way in establishing the Genesis as “green.”

1994: “Fear Factory,” Donkey Kong Country. Composed by David Wise.

Compare “Fear Factory” to “Aquatic Ambience,” one of the most celebrated videogame tracks of all time. “Aquatic Ambience” wouldn’t be as poignant without the existence of a “Fear Factory” to pollute the water. In fact, we see this pollution illustrated in the level “Poison Pond,” where the blue water of previous stages has turned green, littered with tires and other industrial waste from a neighboring factory stage. In this pond, “Aquatic Ambience” takes on a cruel irony; its darker movements, like the shrieking electric guitar riff in the middle of the loop, stand in sharper relief.

This is what makes “Fear Factory” one of the most compelling songs in an already stacked soundtrack. It casts a shadow over everything else. And the shadow is strangely beautiful. Mixed in with the pulsing bass and rapid-fire marimba are plaintive strings and the same echoey piano we hear in “Aquatic Ambience.” The song complicates the easy binary of industry-bad/nature-good by capturing the seductive beauty of the assembly line.

In Sophocles’ Antigone, the chorus marvels at humanity, which “wears down the imperishable Earth, too, / the oldest of gods, a tireless deity, / as the plows trace lives from year to year.” Great factory songs, like “Fear Factory,” capture this ancient and hubristic awe over our own ability to shape the world.

And of course, the name “Fear Factory” is a shout-out to one of the founding bands in industrial music. Listen to the first fifteen seconds of the band’s 1991 album Concrete for a taste of the themes the DKC song title is in conversation with.

1997: “Mako Reactor,” Final Fantasy VII. Composed by Nobuo Uematsu.

The list doesn’t get much darker than this. What’s more, it’s third on a soundtrack of 85 songs, breaking an unspoken rule of games working up to the cold, unforgiving world of the factory. This sequencing foregrounds the antipastoral and lets the pastoral provide the contrast. This is in keeping with the themes of FFVII, which imagines a manmade apocalypse, the possibility of no world outside of what man has brought about.

Interestingly, the first contrast of lightness we get in FFVII comes not through an environment’s theme, but through a character’s. The game’s fifth song, “Tifa’s Theme” characterizes eco-terrorist Tifa (a play on Antifa, perhaps) as a ray of hope. Twenty-five years after the game’s release, this still strikes me as radical.

2000: “Factory Investigation,” Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards. Composed by Jun Ishikawa.

The darkness in Kirby games continues to amaze me. I keep wanting to mistitle the song “Inspection,” because “Investigation” implies something has already gone terribly wrong. The song picks up many of the musical motifs of “Mako Reactor,” notably the bells and synthesized human voices, evoking a Greek chorus, or “O Fortuna.” The YouTube comments are rife with stories of how the song traumatized its various listeners:

when i played this game and i got to the part when the animals were trapped in the water or something, i always thought the factory was going to kill the animals. (daniel hungler)

This song is really ominous. Gives you the feeling that really horrific things are going on in this factory. (Joker)

this song is very sad, but for one reason is interesting for me too (blacksonic583)

This final comment really gets at what I find valuable about the videogame factory song. We may expect castles or haunted houses to provide the tonal contrast in a videogame soundtrack, but using a factory ties the darkness to our present moment in a way that is deeply, interestingly sad.

2004: “X-Naut Fortress,” Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Composed by Yoshito Hirano and Yuka Tsujiyoko.

Because factory songs lean into the technology required to produce videogame music, they can be heard as little exemplars of the current console generation’s sonic abilities. In “X-Naut Fortress,” I hear Nintendo’s transition from cartridge to disc loud and clear. Just as TTYD stretches the limits of the GameCube’s graphical processing by overloading the screen with sprites, this song crams in layers and layers of high-quality audio to show just how much the console and, by synecdoche, the X-Naut Fortress can do.

The X-Naut Fortress is a factory on the moon. We’re told it’s a “lab for genetic experimentation.” In this lab is a room that regresses Mario and friends to their 8-bit selves, back to the third generation of console gaming. The play on “genetic” and “generation” hardly seems coincidental. Because the level comments on the process of videogame evolution, it’s easy to hear the song “X-Naut Fortress” as a similar commentary. This may be the only videogame factory stage that produces video games themselves.

2011: “Lanayru Mining Facility,” The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Composed by Hajime Wakai, Shiho Fujii, Mahito Yokota, Takeshi Hama, and Koji Kondo.

Mines and mining songs occur so often in video games as to constitute a separate subgenre from factory songs, but “Lanayru Mining Facility” lands squarely in the latter category, not only because of all the conveyor belts and switches in the dungeon it scores, but also because of the song’s presto tempo, its bass line switching robotically back and forth between the same two notes. The song innovates the subgenre because it is, in fact, two songs—“Past” and “Present”—that the game switches back and forth between depending on the player’s actions and position in the dungeon. What’s even more innovative is that “Past” is the more complicated, active, industrial song of the two. “Lanayru Mining Facility” suggests that industry itself is ephemeral, precarious, subject to forces of nature.

This subgenre offers a rebuttal to the argument that video games are just for kids. Environmentalism, too, is often dismissed as naïve and unrealistic by those with an investment in the “real” world of extractive, unsustainable industries. Players and composers might take more seriously the tonal contrasts such factory songs provide.

There’s more room for innovation within this subgenre. Factory songs might blur the boundaries between industry and nature. “Lanayru” does this with the desert and its mining facility. The song “Fruity Factory” from 2014’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (David Wise, again) does something similar, this time through the jungle and a fruit-processing operation. Game designers should not treat factories as insular, self-contained environments but rather as parts in a broader ecology, and those levels’ themes can help reflect that reality.