Music has almost always been an integral part of video games. Good music can make a good game great, and there are even some mediocre to bad games out there that are elevated by their excellent soundtracks (like, for example, Final Fantasy XIII – feel free to get your torches and pitchforks out now!) I’ve even reviewed a few game soundtracks on this site, and I’ve still got some left to write about.
Since video games and music go so well together, why not make a video game about music? And I don’t mean a rhythm game – those have already been done and done well. I mean a game centered around a particular musical artist or band. You might think this would be a pretty dumb idea, but people have already thought of, created, and published a few such games. These include Moonwalker, a Genesis game in which you play as Michael Jackson and rescue kidnapped children (quite the subject matter considering what he’d be accused of a few years after the game’s release) and Revolution X, an SNES game in which you play as some guy with a CD-shooting gun and rescue kidnapped members of Aerosmith (not sure the 90s-revival version of Aerosmith was really worth saving after hearing that horrible Armageddon song one million times, but sure, why not.)
As ridiculous as those games were, I think we can go further still. Instead of making a game based on an artist or band, wouldn’t it be even better to make games based on one of their works? It just so happens that I’ve got three classic 70s albums that I think would translate beautifully into video games. Any game designer out there is free to use these ideas, though you’ll need to work out the licensing issues with the bands and/or the estates of their deceased members on your own.
Suggested game genres: 3D tank combat or 2D Mega Man-style platformer
Tarkus was the second studio album put out by progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and it’s the first and perhaps the only album to feature an “armadillo tank” on its cover. Artist William Neal painted this bizarre album cover at the request of keyboardist Keith Emerson, who wrote a bunch of keyboard-centered instrumental pieces to insert into the title track to Tarkus, a twenty-minute suite about… it’s hard to say what it’s about, exactly. Supposedly it’s about the armadillo tank on the album cover going on a rampage and battling several other beasts as if it were starring in a kaiju movie (the liner notes contain a whole series of comics in which it does just that.) But the lyrics to the three songs written by singer/bassist Greg Lake that link together Emerson’s organ and synth freakouts don’t seem to have anything to do with that subject. Battlefield sounds more suited to the end of Henry V than to a monster movie. And God knows what the hell Stones of Years and Mass are about, but they’re definitely not about an armadillo tank battle. Oh well, “Tarkus” is an excellent piece of music, even if it is weird and self-indulgent, but “weird and self-indulgent” were the hallmarks of ELP. They were great musicians and apparently kicked a lot of ass on stage, so who cares if their songs made any sense?
But what sort of game would suit “Tarkus”? The obvious choice is a tank combat game in which you play as the Tarkus itself. Then again, it seems like Tarkus would make for a good enemy too. Since it looks like something Dr. Wily might have built, maybe a Mega Man-style game in which you fight the terrifying armadillo tank would be a better option. Maybe it’s chased Wily off and taken over his castle, and he comes to you and asks you to help recover it for him and promises to be good from now on if you do (and of course he breaks that promise in the next game, but that goes without saying.) Did I just write the plot of Mega Man 12? I hope so, because that would be amazing.
Suggested game genres: Indie 2D adventure game/brawler hybrid or Key-style depressing visual novel
The Who is one of the biggest, most influential rock bands ever, and Quadrophenia is one of their standout works, an ambitious double-album rock opera. It’s not quite as well-known as Tommy, the band’s first rock opera (at the very least, it never had a hit as big as “Pinball Wizard”) but it’s arguably even better. And it even has a way more depressing story, somehow. Quadrophenia is about Jimmy, a young mod (sort of like a 60s British punk/beatnik hybrid from what I can tell) who uses drugs, gets into street fights with rivals, goes through a bad breakup, and finally questions his role in society and the point of life in general and contemplates suicide. I can imagine that guitarist/libretto-writer Pete Townshend might have seen some of himself in the main character, since his work often comes off as both depressive and autobiographical. The fact that the real-life mods were fans of The Who in their early days probably made a difference too. Of course, all this concept would be worthless in this context if the music were bad, but the music is really damn good. I could not write a song like 5:15 or Love Reign O’er Me anyway, you can be assured of that.
Quadrophenia was adapted into movie form in 1979, but why not make a game of it as well? I can see it thriving in the indie game-developing community today, especially since a lot of the themes found on this album (lack of purpose, depression, existential angst) are also common themes in that sphere and among the younger generations today. I’m imagining a 2D pixel-art game involving some brawling sections River City Ransom-style. However, there is another option that you never would have guessed a weeb like me would have thought of – a visual novel. Specifically the really depressing kind of VN, the kind that Japanese developer Key is famous for creating (see Clannad, Air, Kanon, and Planetarian for examples.) The VN format allows for a lot more narrative and dialogue and even for branching story paths based on the player’s decisions. Maybe one good ending can be included, but it should be really difficult to get or only unlock after one or more playthroughs. Or just leave the player with only bad or at best bittersweet endings, just like Key would do.
Suggested game genre:
Space-based shooter Surrealistic exploration game
Another bizarre cover to another great album. Mothership Connection was released by Parliament, one half of a musical cooperative sort of thing with Funkadelic, both led by producer/composer/singer/insane dresser George Clinton. Both Parliament and Funkadelic put out albums, the main distinction between them being Parliament tended to be more dance-oriented R&B stuff whereas Funkadelic involved a lot more druggy funk-rock experiments. But the overlap between the two groups and their styles are so great that people usually lump them together as Parliament-Funkadelic, or just P-Funk. Mothership Connection is probably one of the best albums these guys put out, full of catchy funk tunes with sci-fi themes and some very weird lyrics about… just as with Tarkus, the meaning of a lot of this stuff is unclear. Flying a spaceship through a nebula made entirely of pot smoke – that’s what listening to this album is like. I highly recommend checking it out (Side A and Side B are both posted on Youtube along with every other piece of licensed music ever made.)
At first, I thought Mothership Connection would make for a natural space shooter, something like Gradius. But then I realized that these aliens coming in on the mothership aren’t here to fight, they’re here to have a party and probably to spread some otherworldly consciousness-alteration to the people of Earth. At least that’s what I gather from listening to the album. So a more appropriate choice of genre here would be an exploration game with surreal elements, something like LSD: Dream Emulator. Maybe a surreal space sim set to 70s funk/R&B. I don’t think a game like that exists yet, but I would sure as hell play it.
I’m sure there are a lot of other songs and albums out there that would translate into amazing games. Feel free to post your own ideas below. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this question: did I only write this piece as an excuse to review three albums I like, and also because I’m working all god damn weekend and didn’t have the chance to make progress in any of my games again?