07-Nov-2022 Commentary

Video games have become the soundtrack to our lives

Video games propose a thousand ways to be. We live, we breathe, we dream the experiences they gift to us — either across an eight-hour campaign as the titular hero or through months as an alter ego in massively-multiplayer world.

Become what you want, when you want. Become a beefed-up supercop that chases green orbs across a darkened cityscape, or a bow-wielding hunter that slays giant mechanical dinosaurs. Become a near-infinite wardrobe of things to wear, with each choice saying just as much about us as the real decisions we make — simply because there’s so much to do and so much to be.

If reality’s palette spans a thousands colours, then video games span a million — a palette not shackled by the constraints of day-to-day life. We can blend those colours to create an identity that’s truly distinct from the person sitting next to us at relatively little cost.

We spend countless hours in these virtual worlds, too — effectively forging multiverse versions of ourselves. You’re a fighter, a skater, a soldier: each its own alternate lived life, if only fleetingly. And when those identities inevitably die, those memories, those feelings, become part of the baggage we carry — they become part of the soundtrack to our lives.

Talk of that song by that band in that summer might now be replaced by talk of that game on that console in that winter. These virtual experiences evoke feelings so powerful they score time like a composer scores a scene. More scenes come and go — each with their own video game backdrop.

It’s a perspective that frames remakes as more than just cynical cash grabs — transforming them into emotional time machines that return us to a point our soundtracks were at their best. That Spyro remake might take you to a time when a loved one was alive or a high-school romance was in full swing — the very presence of that game fossilising that association forever.

It also speaks to something many of us might be afraid to admit: some of the most memorable moments of our lives were sat in front of a screen. That’s really what they are, of course: memories. We don’t remember playing a game or holding a controller — we remember doing it. We remember how it felt to be there.

But it’s not clear we can make that admission without judgement or prejudice about how we spend our lives — it’s not clear that we can make that admission without the assumption our real lives are somehow deficient. But that admission is simply the reveal of an alternative timeline in our lives that’s hidden from view. One that’s rich, varied, and feels real.

To consciously step away from that experience can also be a marker of growth. The departure from a game or games can say just as much about our lives. It can mark a tremendous milestone for some, as their worlds expand far beyond the pixels and polygons of a digital reality — into new relationships, new hobbies and new realms of well-being.

For others it can score the contraction or collapse of their world, marking a time they felt forced into a make-believe one. Video games score the ebb and flow — the euphoric highs and desperate lows — of life.

But they’re also a history, a tapestry in microcosm. Digital profiles document a small, personal slice of our timelines — with every achievement, every victory, forever recorded in the tome of some distant server. Your would-be child might one day see what you played in your teenage years, revealing a snippet of your tastes and personality back then. They can rewind your soundtrack long after it’s come to an end.

These profiles record our soundtracks, preserving what we did — and who we became. As we grow, our so-called video game soundtracks change with us. A youth marked by the fierce competition later replaced by the slower, more thoughtful escape of a fantastical open world in our graying years. A year of perpetual play followed by near nothingness, as we grow from adolescence to adulthood to parenthood.

Every achievement, every trophy is a new line on our palm or wrinkle on our face — a tree ring that reveals how we played and when. To rewind that soundtrack gives us the opportunity to revisit those times in a way far more immediate, far more real way than almost anything else. We can return to those sandboxes and apply the wisdom of our years, taking a different approach that reveals a contrast between who you were then and who you are now.

Services like Game Pass muddy the waters, providing an endless mixtape accessible on demand — making both that soundtrack diverse and rich, but muddled and vague. Here, no single game marks a period in our lives. It’s hard to say that Gears scored last winter because it sat alongside half-a-dozen other games. That feeling you had from that time-defining experience is diluted by many others more.

But they do offer the ability to share our soundtracks with others in an immediate and affordable way. You can share that mixtape, jumping in and out of tracks together to forge those associations with and about each other. That connection isn’t stunted by your inability to afford something the way it used to be.

And yet that cacophony in the soundtrack is just that — just another part. Like many more before it, it’ll eventually be replaced by an experience that’ll come to colour the next part of our lives. And whether that shift happens next week, next month or next year, it will come — and likely score a new chapter in our stories, blending cherished memories from our real and digital worlds together until our soundtracks fade to silence.

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