Remember Westwood Studios? Let’s take a trip back to the ‘90s, where journalists like Christiane Amanpour didn’t use the phrase “Forever War” even though they were soundly in the midst of covering it. Let’s take a trip back to Command & Conquer.
This week, I’ve been cramming a lifetime’s worth of A Total War Saga: Troy into my brain. I needed to talk coherently about it, and the best way I know how to do that is shove as much as I possibly can of it as quickly as possible into my system—half-measures are for the weak.
And I realized something, I had never played a Total War before.
In fact, I hadn’t played anything even vaguely resembling an RTS in decades. Literal decades. Nearly three of them.
It’s not my genre. I’m not good at it. You’ve seen the articles about the reaction time drop-off rate in people after their late teens, the impossible Actions Per Minute that professional Starcraft players are able to achieve. Let’s just say that twitch responses have never been my strong suit. And I’ve never been good at processing large volumes of information quickly.
So, yeah, obviously when it came to strategy war games, “Real Time” was not something that was ever going to get along with me. But in 1995, there was a game I couldn’t put down. For weeks, I abandoned school work and responsibilities to cram as much of it into my body as possible. Again, no half-measures. I’d been a devotee to Westwood Studios since the first Kyrandia game, I loved the first Dune (the sequel is fine), but it was Command & Conquer that detonated my sense of identity as a “gamer.”
I was a good Sierra girl until this happened.
Here’s the thing though—I have absolutely no recollection of what Command & Conquer even plays like. I have no fond memories of wrecking shit, or multiplayer matches with friends, I certainly couldn’t even tell you the plotline anymore (there’s crystals, Tiberium, and the Brotherhood of Nod is run by Kane, because every bad dude in the ‘80s and ‘90s was named Kane, Caine, Cain, or Kain). I don’t even remember if I enjoyed playing them!
What do I remember? It was slick, stylish, and of course…The soundtracks absolutely RIP.
Prepare for battle kids, this week we’re going all in on Frank Klepacki’s first sonic hell march…
Streaming audio hit big around this time with PCs and the TurboGrafx. While consoles were duking it out over who had the best (blah.) MIDI processing, PCs were opening up the sonic space with CD quality audio with real recordings streamed directly from the disc like you would listen to them in a discman. It was cool. Like, really cool. And as much as I have deep fondness and appreciation for everything happening console-side at this time, the shift in fidelity and expansiveness was undeniable.
Command & Conquer was probably the first game I really remember taking full advantage of this possibility space. Where a song like “Act on Instinct” opens with high quality audio samples reminiscent of news reports before getting right into the crunch of real guitars, the bang of high quality drum samples. The slap bass that drives monotonously throughout “No Mercy” coupled with techno screeching and ridiculous faux-edgy samples saying “Mercy is for the weak” are pricelessly indicative of exactly what was happening in Industrial music at the time. There’s a lot of KMFDM happening here.
See, Command & Conquer is pretty much a snapshot of what edgy-cool dudes were listening to at the time. The guys who would go on to major in classical guitar in college because they were math nerds who loved to shred. The kinds who wouldn’t stop trying to talk to you about how brilliant Godflesh was. The long hair, death metal kids who loved AD&D because it was “Player vs DM” and you got to do “really funny shit like kill the whole party.”
Yes, this is explicitly drawing from dudes I knew. Look, at least I didn’t sleep with them.
Fuck. Ok, there was one (1). Damnit.
Anyway, forget about that, and listen to this…
So, of course, there’s Rage Against the Machine in “Demolition” because RATM happened and it was basically the coolest thing for White Dudes at the time aside from White Zombie (whose influence can be felt here but most intensely in later franchise entries). That’s where this soundtrack lands most confidently, in the Slayer- (and Slayers-) postered bedrooms of the guys who felt The Brotherhood of Nod’s Virtual Boy black and red aesthetic really spoke to their souls.
We can forgive them, because it does slap. Well, we can forgive the ones who grew up and started shampooing more and talking about Godflesh less (seriously, what is with you dudes?).
If Command & Conquer only gave us arguably one of the best Industrial Techno albums of the mid-’90s, in a videogame, that alone would be impressive. But there’s more here. Klepacki’s influences dart around in a manic, but self-assured sprint—there’s Hip Hop and Stravinski and Peter Gabriel prog-rock influences show up with a wink and a wave.
“Air Strike” is one hell of a final theme. The kind of god awful thing you’d find at the end of a US Armed Forces Recruiting Ad turned War Movie that’s also a Sexy-Steamy-Maybe-Thriller. There’s the blippy, farting synth bass heartbeating steadily as the credits roll to a knock-off Top Gun. The icy-but-soft synth harmonies as the names of all the military consultants scroll past too quickly at 3 AM on TNT. And then the fucking sleezy synth sax, wailing out because someone just had to shoehorn a shower scene in the movie that Command & Conquer never became. It’s also triumphant, a pat on the back for doing your duty for capitalism and country, soldier.
But someone’s also going to try to bed you to it. Just wait. Relistening to it for this column, the song literally got me pregnant, at a dive bar outside of a USAF base called “Fly Boyz.” No fibbing.
Remember how I mentioned the hip-hop influence?
“C&C Thang” is ridiculously titled, and it’s a silly, silly song. But it’s an absolute bop and it makes no sense in the context of an RTS that’s drawing heavily from ‘90s CNN’s coverage of Desert Storm, the Bosnian War, and the civil wars in Somalia and Afghanistan. But we have it forever now, we have all these songs forever.
I’ll probably never return to Command & Conquer. I played through them all. But I’ll never forget the scorching synth sweeps against the aggressive bass of “In Trouble” while guitars crunch and samples of fake combat pilots break through with frantic maydays. This soundtrack is why I played the game. It’s why I played all of them (okay, I wanted to see how batshit the story and FMV got too—it got Amazing).
Sometimes a soundtrack is just enough to kick you over the edge to embracing games in a genre that is diametrically opposed to who you feel you are. For me, that was Command & Conquer’s energetic and genre-spanning mix of epic rockers. God this soundtrack rules.
Of course, I couldn’t let you out of here without dropping in “Hell March.” Sure, it’s from Red Alert, but…
Everyone loves “Hell March.” You’ll love “Hell March” too.
Typing “Hell March” in quotes is fun.
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.