Happening:

Extra Life


Brett Massé

A Zelda jazz cover highlights splendors of video game music

Ar 171209751
David Holub/DGO
Ar 171209751
David Holub/DGO

My brother recently texted me a link to a video. I'm not sure what kind of stuff your family might share with you, but my brother has a pretty great taste for the obscurely beautiful, the obscurely insightful, and the straight-up obscure. Sometimes it'll be a wonderfully nerdy analysis of the first few seconds of the lift off of a Saturn V rocket, sometimes a 15-second video where the punchline is an over-engineered, over-acted exposition of the F-bomb. Regardless of the subject matter, I'm always pleasantly surprised. On this particular day he shared a jazzy version of a song that would play in an old favorite Gameboy game, “The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening” and was instantly seized by the notes and chord progression and waves of nostalgia.

“Link's Awakening” takes place on an island, somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. During his travels across the sea, (the hero) Link's ship is wrecked in a storm and he washes up on Koholint Island, a place very separate from any other game in the franchise. Through a series of dungeons and puzzles, the player assumes the role of Link and must find eight instruments of the Sirens on the island and play them to awaken the sleeping guardian, the Wind Fish who is asleep atop a mountain inside a giant egg. Makes sense.

The songs that play throughout this game are instantly memorable themes, driven deep into our minds through hours of gameplay and unfairly emotional battles. My brother and I reflect on important songs in the Zelda franchise. There are so many! From the overworld music in the original game, “The Song of Time,” from “Ocarina of Time,” “Oath of Order,” from “Majora's Mask,” “Dragon Roost Island,” from “Wind Waker.” The entire series is saturated – completely drenched – in music.

There is a secret language that is known only by the music composer and the listener. Emotions are laid bare and the unmistakable experience of being present occur when really listening to music. We are transformed by each beat and by the end of a song or movement or progression, find ourselves to be different from the person we were before. It is this foundational passion that led me to press headphones hard into my ears, eyes clenched shut, when listening to that Walkman when I was 5, to study music and learn to play throughout school, to work at the sanctuary that is Katzin Music for four years, to build a playlist of favorites as a means to get to know someone more intimately. It becomes such that listening to music is not exclusively an auditory experience, but one that pierces the individual perception of existing. I was informed of an acquaintance's passing recently; her partner performed her favorite song for her as she smiled for the last time and quietly departed. There are many ways to express feelings, but few are as pure as music.

The brilliant designers who take music seriously in video games (and in other media) understand this. Not only can it bring to mind the visuals and the puzzles of the game, but music can also help conduct players through a situation, helping guide them through actions and places. For me, I can even recall who I was at the time I played almost any given game, what I was feeling, who I was with, who I missed. It's this distinctly potent distillation of listening to video game music that helped convince my high school band director to prepare an entire marching band show using video game music as the source.

My brother expands after a moment's thought, “Most of the Zelda games hold music as one of the most important powers the hero can use. Not the sword, but the song ... that's fascinating to think about. The sword mostly just hits things and that's what people think is Link's power, the oh-so beloved Master Sword. But with the ocarina (Link's primary musical instrument throughout the Nintendo 64 games) you can heal, you can uncover, you can teleport, you can play with time, you can give peace to the dead, you can change the time of day, you can create storms, call giants,” he said. And that's just one game! The importance of music in Zelda games is powerful, even when playing through a small speaker of a chunky Gameboy.

Music is in our genetics it seems, providing a platform for our unfiltered selves to feel and experience life, and time, deeply. Writer, filmmaker, activist, and music lover Susan Sontag once wrote on the topic of music, “Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.”

Brett Massé is currently washing dishes at a Zen Buddhist temple.