I like random encounter tables. A lot. Even when it’s just a small sampling of at-level monsters to whomp or get massacred by while frantically failing escape rolls, there’s a simulationist realism to them I appreciate. Life is full of random encounters.
From catcalling and threats (and the actuality) of violence, to “random” police stops, and now the possibility of contracting a potentially lethal respiratory virus, taking a walk is rolling the d10s and seeing what happens. Always has been, really. Sometimes depending on your race or gender you get some modifiers. Some modifiers are better than others.
And then there’s the timeline. God doesn’t even know what you’re going to face when you tap the bird icon on your phone. Gygax might be right about one thing: maybe the world is made up of random tables—God’s spreadsheets, representing both the external and personal potential for weirdness, calamity, and maybe something okay, or at least mundane.
Sometimes the rolls come up hard and fast and it’s too much, or they’re far enough in between but the tabular contents are just unnecessarily unfair.
It’s why we have towns, inns, save points, safe zones. Moments for peace and restoration. A zone where the mad simulationists step away from their study in torment and allow us a chance to breathe and reflect. Sometimes you have to bring a tent or cabin and make your own, in the wilderness of cruel dice rolls. They’re fantasies of comfort in a realm of digital dangers.
This week I’ve been thinking and writing far too much, and I’ve hidden myself away in Jack de Quidt’s soundtrack for the Twilight Mirage season of Friends at the Table. I don’t know why this dazzling collection of synth-heavy space opera compositions, that evoke all the warmth and anticipation of what space exploration was supposed to be, feels so nourishing. But when I was on my third total rewrite of a review, it pulled me into a fantasy of looking up at the stars on a windswept sand dune, imagining all the possibilities out there, while being held by the immensity of cosmos.
I think it’s safe to say I have a fairly specific, but expansive definition of “home” here. But it set me on a path to thinking about all the ways in which the fantasies, half-remembrances, and longings for sanctuary have been evoked in videogames throughout the decades. All the ways home and safety could be communicated. And even the ways that’s been problematized, complicated. Home, safety, respite—it’s never that cut and dry, is it?
Earthbound: “Boy Meets Girl”
Twoson, the second town in Earthbound: Your first time away from home. All the magnificence of being told you’re ready to embark into the wider world. Maybe you’re going off to college in a different state. Maybe you’re just a bus ride away from a warm meal and a parent who will do your laundry on the weekends. It could just be a fantasy. Or maybe these were fantasies the realities of your life wouldn’t even allow you to indulge.
Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka (alongside assistant composers Hiroshi Kanazu and Toshiyuki Ueno) capture the essence of the triumph of independent adolescence. There’s hope, a sense of triumph and purposefulness. But also trepidation. A new town. A new home. Will you meet people? What are these street names? Still, the underlying message of these warbling wavetable horns and the tin-can clinking of percussion is a hopeful one. “No matter where you go, there you are” and you’ll learn new streets, and make new friends, and maybe get a little plant for your window sill. When you bring a special someone home for the first time, maybe they’ll ask who your roommate is. You never named your plant. They’ll suggest “Jonathan” adding “all plants are Jonathans.” Maybe this could be an okay place to stay after all.
Wind Waker: “Outset Island”
Before you even wake, it’s the cool breeze coming in off the ocean that you notice first. Then the soft rays of sunlight flitting down to perch on the gentle globes of your cheeks. You shift and send the bed linens flying, the sun catches your still closed eyes and you’re awake in an instant, hurriedly slipping into your clothes with a piece of toast in your mouth as you run out the door and toward the village center, salt air filling your nostrils with the promise of adventure.
I don’t know that it’s possible to outdo Joe Hisaishi when it comes to scoring the Ghiblian fantasy of a bucolic early morning in a coastal hamlet. But Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, and Koji Kondo definitely give him a run for his money on the Wind Waker soundtrack. For me, this was the promise Zelda always offered and finally began delivering on.
The grand melodic sweep of strings blending with the sing-song woodwinds is cloyingly sweet, but that is the fantasy. Nostalgia for a home so uncomplicated that oversleeping is the grandest of indulgences and where calamity seems impossible. The remembrance of a time and place that never really existed outside of imagination and longing.
World of Final Fantasy: “Nine Wood Hills”
I don’t think World of Final Fantasy got a fair shake. It’s easily my favorite Final Fantasy in a long while, and it’s not even a mainline title, or developed by Square-Enix. But there’s a care and attention paid to the fragments making up the world of Grimoire that even Kingdom Hearts just can’t manage. It’s full of heart without being irritatingly saccharine, except when it absolutely knows it is.
Home is kind of a messy concept in some games. Here, it’s a home that’s been fractured. An open plaza now empty. An echo of an actual place. It’s beautiful and serene nonetheless. Sometimes you have to be alone in a space. Sometimes you have to be alone with just one other person.
JRPGs need more fishing. And composers obviously influenced by Ryuichi Sakamoto. There’s nods to City Pop, ambient techno, a circular breathy vocal track layering over equally diaphanous, tidal pulsing of synth drums, grand piano and a low sweep of a solitary cello. Like I said, the Ryuichi Sakamoto influence is palpable. But it’s undeniably effective.
The auditory equivalent of the “Float” status effect.
Phantasy Star 2: “My Home”
I love when people just drop by. A space with space for my friends and loved ones. The blippy ovular snyths I mentioned way, way back before this column exist join up with the brightness of the best of the best bell tones FM synthesis is known for. Dude, the Algol star system is fucked. Biomonsters, rogue AI, evil Earthmen and a Dark Force behind it all?
It’s a lot. It’s hard out there for you and your crew. And the squad needs a nice place to chill out. Rudolf needs to play some videogames. Anna needs to bake cookies. Nei is going to flip out about no one using a coaster, but it’s all in good spirits. Sure, Hugh is going to constantly give you shit for using Windows when you could be using Slackware. Kain has retooled your water heater to produce hot water much faster and hotter. You’ll never shower better! You also won’t believe your utility bills next month.
With such a simple melody, Tokuhiko Uwabo has encapsulated an entire season of a Slice of Life anime inside of a colossal space opera. This is good. Every stop to regroup before heading back into another punishment dungeon becomes its own onsen episode. And that’s what we need to face hordes of monsters and the machinations of people in power. We need more onsen episodes.
Final Fantasy XI, Mog House
Final Fantasy XI was the first digital space where I had a home. I could never afford one in Ultima Online, and World of Warcraft wouldn’t even consider housing for ages. But tucked away in San D’Oria, I had a little apartment to call my own.
It’s almost a K.K. Slider tune. There’s that strong stroke of acoustic guitar. Warm and familiar. Naoshi Mizuta (with Nobuo Uematsu and Kumi Tanioka) combines the twang of guitar with plucky marimba, and the cooling temperament of flute to fill a virtual home with lightness, breath, and calm.
It was a lot like my first apartment. Music was always on in the background while I assembled furniture to store my accumulation of personal artifacts. A bed much too big for the cramped, minimal space. But it was mine, and collapsing on the bed at the end of the day, to assemble a Gunpla, before checking on the few houseplants specifically chosen because they were difficult to kill—it was home. A new one. And when the dishes piled up in the sink, nothing in the cupboards to eat, and the walls seemed to close in, my Mog House was a place I could escape into and reconsider my options before setting out into the expanse of Vana’diel.
But mostly, I’d just log in, admire the space I had curated, and fall asleep on my bed as this song played softly in the background.
Legend of Mana, “Places of Soul”
I love Legend of Mana. A lot of people don’t. They’re wrong, but it doesn’t matter. I’m in a fairytale cottage at the base of a grand tree on a sunny hillside. My friends are downstairs hanging out, rifling through my pantry, just lamping by the fire. My cactus has a rich inner life. I live near a magic tree with a face. It’s that kind of world that Yoko Shimomura has to score here. And, when it’s that cloying a pastoral fantasy, you have no choice but to match it.
Shimomura offers a gentle flute melody, floating by like milkweed on the breeze. It’s hopeful, serene, but with just a hint, a whisper of sadness lurking at the end. This is a dream, we are inside a fairy tale book. Eventually the dream will end, the book will close. We’ll have to wake up to our lives and keep going on. That’s the promise of this song. It’s a momentary respite in a dream, you can’t inhabit it fully, not for long. But just maybe it can be a place to let a part of yourself find safety and sanctuary.
Remember when I said I love Yoko Shimomura? Yeah, this is one of the reasons why.
Also, every home needs a cactus. Specifically a Lil’ Cactus. A ‘tus.
Dark Souls 2, “Majula”
Majula is a special place. And Motoi Sakuraba (alongside Yuka Kitamura) has created a theme befitting and enduring as this broken, endless village.
I could say “if you know, you know” and most people wouldn’t fault me. It’s a home, after a fashion, for those of us who fell into Dark Souls 2. We know it, and even if we don’t necessarily love it, we respect its purpose and are grateful for it.
It’s not the ancient, lush ruin that Firelink Shrine is. It’s not ancient at all, how can it be? Except that it is. It’s complicated. It’s completely unstuck from time. Well, almost.
Time happens here. Probably. Definitely differently. There is movement after all. Activity. Not a lot. Just enough.
Ocean waves swell against precipitous cliffs but never really crash. Undulating against rocks that hint at lost landmass. A bonfire crackles. The sun is wrong. Weakly spectral through haze and cloud. It blooms around structure and through trees with diaphanous glare, casting long shadows in an eternal afternoon or early morning. Maybe midday, but not. No, it’s definitely afternoon. It could be night for all it matters though.
The phrase “dark night of the soul” arrives to us from the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross. It describes a sense of complete abandonment of spiritual connection to God.
“Desolation.” Completely. Alone.
There’s a hand bell player struggling with a simple melody at the heart of Majula. A harp-like music box. And the searing of strings just barely above the surface. Like a record playing too low at the other side of the room. An occasional drum. And a growl of horn. Melody breaks down.
“The center cannot hold.” Harmony becomes dissonance becomes piercing like the circular saw that excised Majula from geography and time into a spatial and spiritual liminality. Whatever place meant for Majula before it’s different now. Not that “before” matters to Majula. And it shouldn’t to you.
All that matters is this is home now, when connection breaks down and signal becomes noise becomes silence. Majula offers stillness.
A respite of melancholy.
Majula is not even close to the best of all possible worlds. That’s out there. There are paths to them. Maybe. But it’s not for you. Not now. Majula is where you need to be sometimes, right now, for a while. Maybe you’ll venture out into the world beyond this unbound binding. You’ll be back here though, maybe sometimes often, depending on how life goes.
And there are others here. Maybe friends. Neighbors, of a sort. People as stuck-unstuck as you. This is a sanctuary for whom sanctuary has been denied. They’ll come and go. Shuffle feet, and maybe speak words. They’re the same as you. Even if their struggles seem different.
Take your time. It’s okay to be here. The rest of the world is waiting. Recovery isn’t linear, or as expected. If you find your way to Majula, it’s because you needed to. If you find yourself back in Majula, it’s because you needed to. Let the bells wash over you like the weak sun. Take comfort in it. Majula isn’t a place where hope doesn’t exist. It’s a place for when hope seems at a distance. There’s a comfort in just knowing it exists for us.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.