An Ode to iMUSE (or Missing Contextually-Based Music in Space Games)
After I published the story of my most memorable dogfight the other day, we got into a discussion about TIE Fighter and its ilk on one of my favorite gaming forums, Quarter to Three. During that discussion, someone brought up the amazing interactive and contextual music system that LucasArts was using back at the time, iMUSE (which you can also read about here). No, Apple fans, it’s not a Mac-based product, it’s a specific piece of music software. :P Anyway, this got me to thinking about contextual music, how it added so much to this and other games, and why we don’t see (or hear) it much anymore.
When I go back to play TIE Fighter, I don’t use the “enhanced” Windows 95 versions. Why not? Because they, instead of the midi-based interactive iMUSE music — which was AWESOME, in my opinion — the switched to redbook audio, which, sure, sounds better in many respects, but misses that emotional sting that one would get when the music would change based on what was happening during the battle.
I mean hell, one piece of music in particular still gives me chills. Called “The Battle,” the specific part at about fifty-three seconds in, just REALLY moves me. Whenever I hear it, instantly my mind imagines a shot of me, flying TIE Fighter, blasting at some rebels (or, sadly, other imperials). Few pieces of music still get to me like that one does.
Anyway, it was in X-Wing and TIE Fighter that I first encountered the iMUSE system. Apparently they were also used in the LucasArts adventure games at the time, but I’d stopped playing adventure games after the first Police Quest title. I recall I had a Sound Blaster AWE32 card, which was the biggest card I’d ever seen at the time. Nearly as long as my forearm, it was a fantastic sound card, and helped bring X-Wing and TIE Fighter to life like no other games before them.
I mean sure, the Star Wars legacy was pretty solid then, having not yet been ruined by the prequels. The music was totally more recognizable than space sims before X-Wing. And yet, even with this to help it, it’s as if the programmers of iMUSE created a piece of software that allowed us to have our own, personal soundtrack to our battles. It’s as if they tapped into the music we might play in our heads while we play these games, or imagine ourselves in Star Wars-based battles, and made it an integral part of the game.
Sadly, I don’t recall a game or a time after X-Wing and TIE Fighter in which contextually-based music was used so effectively, if at all. Most games use standard soundtracks, it seems, to match up with certain parts of the game, rather than lets the events in the game cue certain bits of contextually-based music. The only example that I can think of is Just Cause 2, but that kinda makes sense since it’s an open world game where the player makes their own story.
Where am I going with this? The tl;dr version of this is that I ultimately miss the kind of awesome, well-written, contextually-based music found in X-Wing and TIE Fighter. I might be looking back through the glasses of nostalgia, but I think one reason that, after all these years, the one space battle that sticks out in my mind more than any other might be in part due to the music that accompanied it.
Take a look for yourself to see what I mean. Here’s a YouTube video of the mission I mentioned in my other article, “Destroy the Lulsla.” (I couldn’t embed the video and start it two minutes in, sorry) The video starts a couple of minutes in, at the start of the mission proper, but listen to the music as you fly your craft around. Listen to the cue that plays when some Rebel fighters enter the battle a minute or two later. This should give a good example of how contextually-based music can really help add to the atmosphere of a game, and why I miss it so.
Anyway, hope you’ve enjoyed my ramblings. Thanks for reading!