High Scores: Forest Interlude

There’s an image from Donkey Kong Country 2 that haunts me with its saturated, campy beauty. It’s the final screen of a 102% run. Many of you may be able to picture the short scene in your head:

Donkey, Diddy, and Dixie Kong look out toward Crocodile Isle from a cliff on Donkey Kong Island, their home and home of the first game. It’s evening; most of the sky is deep indigo, and the big fat fruity sun sinks into the water, just like the enemy Isle the Kongs have nuked. All fifty-two levels meet the fate of Atlantis. King K. Rool escapes on a galleon, his guffaw carrying to the Kongs, who look out stoically over the water, now empty. Dixie’s banana-yellow ponytail undulates like a windsock from atop Donkey’s shoulders. Donkey’s massive hand covers Diddy’s back with paternal pride. The only sound is the wind; there is no music.

Do the songs sink with the Isle? Do “Stickerbrush Symphony” and “Forest Interlude” and “Krook’s March” and “Hot-Head Bop” go down to Davy Jones’s Locker along with the Krazy Kremland amusement park and the Krem Quay swamps and K. Rool’s Castle? I’m inclined to think the music does drown, like Prospero’s book. At least in the timeline of the game, they are lost to the future. The silence that accompanies the game’s true ending is a testament to their loss.

Maybe my purpose in writing this column has been to somehow reverse this drowning, to boot up the game and hear the music bring the world back to life. I’ve listened to “Forest Interlude” about once a day for the past three years, since I started writing this column back in August 2020. I’ve listened to this video, “10 HOURS of Forest Interlude,” all the way through multiple times. Why do I hold on so tightly to this song and this soundtrack and this genre of music? And why does it always seem to slip through my fingers?

My predicament feels kind of like the ropes in Ghostly Grove. Diddy and Dixie can climb these phantoms as long as they’re on screen, but in seconds, they disappear with a wail, leaving the Kongs to fall. Maybe all music feels this way: inherently abstract, only alive when it’s being played. When the song’s over, the music turns back to notes on a page. When the page—or the cartridge—is gone, all that’s left is the memory of the song in the listener’s head. And when the listener is gone, well…

That’s what I’m worried about, I guess.

I’m a middle-aged man in love with the toys I played with as a 10-year-old, hypnotized by the songs those toys played for me. Perhaps “High Scores” has been a protracted midlife crisis. By arguing for the value of the songs I’ve essayed in this series, I’ve actually been arguing for the value of my experience with those songs. Maybe I didn’t need to. Maybe I should have spent more time appreciating the music than trying to convince readers that it deserves a wider audience. I don’t know that there’s much of a way to expand the audience for videogame music without expanding the audience for video games, which is in fact expanding. Maybe these songs don’t need my help.

Still, there’s something terribly lonely about loving videogame music. When I used to work night shifts at my office job, my boss wouldn’t let us wear headphones, so I’d play videogame soundtracks on my laptop, quietly, but loud enough for my coworkers to hear. It always felt slightly embarrassing, this disclosure of my fantasies, this airing of my ghosts. The music, I knew, was cringey. Kiddish. Chirpy. Twee. But I needed someone else to hear it, on its own, outside the games it came from. I had to balance my embarrassment against my love.

I suspect the risk of embarrassment is the case with the many other artists who pay tribute to videogame music. However popular the covers of Zelda and Undertale and Final Fantasy music have grown online, there’s still something fringy about videogame soundtracks in both popular and classical music circles. It’s too lowbrow for the purists and too nerdy for the masses. There’s a bravery to the work of Smooth McGroove and Luke Pickman and PPF and the MUSICENGINE Orchestra and all the other artists who make this music more tangible, less imaginary. And this is to say nothing of the composers themselves, who have been historically uncredited for creating some of the most enduring melodies of the past forty years.

We fall in love with melodies, maybe a lullaby your mother sang or the song that played during your first dance as a wedded spouse or an aria you delivered to a packed auditorium. We know these songs intimately; we hear in them as much character as we hear in the voice of a friend. It’s a human experience, befriending a song. Stick the modifier “videogame” before “song,” though, and the last sentence becomes a little more suspect. Why? Is holding onto a child’s plaything into adulthood a sign of arrested development? Is videogame music too simplistic, too synthetic? Does the geekiness of the otaku make us doubt their ability to feel genuine emotion? Whence this prejudice against the music I love so much?

Part of the problem may be the sidelining of music in the gaming community itself. In videogame reviews, music is usually treated as one category among many, weighted less than graphics and controls and “replay value,” as if we didn’t replay the games to hear the songs. Some game developers may think of music as detachable, something the player might as well mute. But Nintendo and Square have shown how important a Koji Kondo or a Nobuo Uematsu is in the creation of a brand. And more recently, Toby Fox has shown how much a game’s soundtrack can stand in for the game itself. Undertale has comically unimpressive graphics. But because of its music, it became one of the most important games of the twenty-first century. Fox didn’t need a fully orchestrated soundtrack and a live band to do it; he used roughly the same tools Kondo used for Super Mario World or Wise used for Donkey Kong Country. It’s the same with Eric Barone and Stardew Valley or Lena Raine and Celeste. These games are accomplishments in sound. They deserve reviewers and critics with great ears.

In general, I’m excited about the possibility of more collaboration between the worlds of gaming and music. And I’d throw literary and media studies in there, as well. The premise of Cartridge Lit is that games are literature. So much of what’s expressed in a game comes through the music, the notes on the staff that create character, place, and emotion. The best readers of games are those who understand the intricacies of a game’s musical text. I’m not a musician, but I hope I’ve shown through this column how even a simple understanding of time signatures, leitmotifs, tempo, phrasing, and chromaticism can provide deeper insight into what the game’s composers intended the player to feel. Putting these feelings into words has made my love of videogame music a lot less lonely.

Just today, my rock-climbing gym was playing the Mario Kart 8 soundtrack over the loudspeaker instead of the usual pop. There’s something incredibly motivating about hearing “Rainbow Road” when you’re dangling off a wall. If you fall, get back up. That’s the implicit message of basically every videogame song. It ends when you end. It starts when you start.

An “interlude” is a short piece between acts in a play. More broadly, it’s any piece in the middle, without a real connection to the main events of the narrative. This is the last entry in this column, but it’s not the last I’ll write on video games and the music that makes them magical. I hope it has given lovers of the genre license to express that love in ways that may not have seemed acceptable before.

Work videogame songs into your playlists at parties. Learn to play them on the guitar or the piano. Go see performances of videogame soundtracks by traveling companies like A New World or Game On. Share the work of these creators on social media. Don’t be ashamed of the joy this music brings you. There is so much darkness in the world, so much injustice that demands our attention, that attending to something as trivial as a videogame song might seem escapist, naïve, even ignorant. But I believe the light these songs shine can help us survive. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.