One of Talking Time’s more persistant forum games is the Best Game Music Forever Thunderdome. A theme is presented, and people nominate pieces of video game soundtracks which fit that theme. Once there are enough to fill a tournament-style bracket the songs are pitted against each other, and simple majority vote determines who advances through the lists. (Here’s the current Thunderdome thread, which this post is about.)
I’ve taken a passive interset in some of these events in the past, but never participated. I like listening to the tracks, and discovering new music I wouldn’t have heard otherwise, but I’ve never felt compelled to nominate a song or vote for a winner. These kinds of contests are always about popularity, so I never feel like I’m particular invested in them, nor can I really affect their outcome.
This Thunderdome was the Real Ultimate Final Battle edition. Each of the 64 songs selected represented the final boss fight of a particular game. During the planning stages there was a short discussion about whether Final Fantasy games should be banned, which offended me on two levels. First, I am a card-carrying, rose-tinted, dyed-in-the-wool Final Fantasy fanboy from way back in the short pants days. Like, seven out of the ten best final boss themes are from FF games anyway, right? The idea of it being knocked out of the competition was unpalatable to me.
And second, the simple idea of excluding any game was absurd. If you did that, you weren’t really looking for the Best Song Ever. You were looking for the Best Song Ever, Except These Songs. That anyone would even consider such a bizarre rule confirmed to me that the whole contest was about popularity, not music, right from the get-go.
So I left a pithy comment about it, and having done so, felt obligated to nominate something. It just so happens the best final boss music ever is Battle for Freedom, from Final Fantasy XII. I still wasn’t very well invested in the contest, so I asked my pal John to keep an eye on it and let me know when my track’s bracket came around. Otherwise, I was afraid I’d forget to go back and vote.
The first song Freedom went up against was The Oracle (Secret of Mana). There were two reasons I was shocked Oracle was in the running. First, it’s a fucking terrible song; just random grumbles, scratches and banging trying to pass itself off as music. And second, the Dark Lich isn’t Mana’s final boss! That honor goes to the Mana Beast, whose infinitely-better track Meridian Dance had not even been nominated!
Probing the Lich-lovers a bit, I found out that a lot of people liked the track not for its musical merits, but what it represented inside the context of the game. It was okay that the track sounded awful, because the Dark Lich himself were awful. The song is good because it fits the scene; whether it actually stands on its own merits is somewhat irrelevant.
I hadn’t considered that angle, and I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. It ended up not mattering much; Freedom trounced Oracle quite handily, as well as the next few songs it took on. I became confident that it could go at least to the semifinals.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, my man Nich had nominated Ulala’s Support Chant (Space Channel 5), and it was proving to be something of a dark horse. When I first listened to the song I thought it was the gayest thing I had ever heard, but it slowly grew on me. Nich and I had a lot of opportunities to discuss the Thunderdome and what our respective songs meant in it. We were pretty sure neither of us would actually win the damn thing, but wouldn’t it be cool if the finale were Ulala vs. Freedom?
He then pointed out that the heroine from each game ran around in hotpants. At that moment we knew we had to do whatever we could to get our glorious hotpants vs. hotpants showdown. Being in different brackets, this meant our songs had to go all the way to the finals.
The obstacles in our way were Demise of the Ritual (Shadow of the Colossus) and Shadowlord (NieR). These games are something like sacred cows at Talking Time, and would both receive lots of votes regardless of what the music sounded like. Freedom met Demise in its quarter-final round, and it very quickly became clear that the race was going to be really tight.
I should note that I think Demise is a bad song. It is short, boring, overly church-y, and there is almost no composition to it. I can’t imagine any music lover hearing it and developing much of an opinion of it. However, Shadow of the Colossus is a game that is very heavy on the emotions. To someone who had played the game, the song was obviously more than the sum of its parts. And indeed, this was the explanation I got from everyone I talked to who had voted for it. This rubbed me the wrong way, because we were supposed to be voting for songs, and not gameplay experiences.
But then, the whole thing was just a popularity contest, right? There’s more than one way to win those.
Freedom barely eked out a victory against Demise, and the bracket swung back to Ulala in the semi-finals. There was no way Ulala was going to beat Shadowlord, so Nich and I started hitting our contact lists. Folks were called in from the most distant corners of TT to shill for us. I personally brought in three people, which was just enough to push Ulala over the top — it won by a single vote and advanced to the finals.
Freedom’s semi-final competition was Diva from Guilty Gear 2. The song was decent (and, again, I enjoyed it more after a few plays), but it was largely just thrashing guitars; I knew in my heart of hearts that Freedom deserved to beat it. we had underestimated Diva’s popularity, though, and it also had the advantage of the crowd that just watched their beloved Demise get crushed. A few hours after the voting opened, Freedom was down by something like seven votes.
So I shilled and I shilled. I shilled like I never shilled before. I called in favors, I made promises, I bargained, I pleaded. It backfired once when I tapped a guy who just happened to be Diva’s biggest fan. I even went on IRC. I never go on IRC.
But it paid off. The Freedom votes started stacking up, and it won in the end. Right now, it’s hotpants vs. hotpants in the finals — exactly what we were aiming for.
The whole exercise has been fun, although there are a few people who are butthurt about it. Apparently asking for people to vote for you is cheating; outside the spirit of the contest, and whatnot. And you know, maybe that’s true. But it’s no more unfair than, say, wanting to exclude a game right from the outset. Or refusing to listen to a song because you hate the game it’s in. Or voting to make a song lose rather than win. Or nominating a song that doesn’t fit the contest theme properly. Or voting based on which games you like more, or allowing your gameplay experiences to color your judgment.
It wasn’t about proving that Battle for Freedom is the best song in the bracket. That’s just a matter of taste, and isn’t a particularly interesting goal. It was about identifying the game being played, and figuring out a way to manipulate it to get the results we wanted. We wanted hotpants in the finals. The game was a popularity contest. Popularity contests can be rigged.
It was all in the name of lulz.
As of this writing I don’t know who is going to win. It looks like Ulala is taking the bulk of the votes, which pleases me. I’m amused that the funky little Rhythm Game That Could is going to win out against all those orchestral mega-epics. I won’t be stuffing the ballots anymore, and I probably won’t put a horse in the next Thunderdome. But golly, was this ever fun.
Three objectively good things came out of this whole debacle:
1) Ulala’s Support Chant grew on me so much that I broke down and ordered a copy of Space Channel 5 from Amazon. It should be showing up next week. Being exposed to new games — and new types of games — is one of the reasons I love Talking Time, so I consider this a victory.
2) The Guilty Gear discussion I had on AIM eventually led to a Castlevania discussion somehow, which morphed into a more general game design discussion, which led to a flippant comment about how Kayin and I (Kayin being the villain who betrayed me in the semi-final vote) should do a podcast. So that might happen!
3) I had cause to make this great image:
Ah, Vayne Solidor. You trolled Dalmasca, you trolled Talking Time, and you trolled… our hearts. God bless you.