All it takes is one song. One song and you could be taken back to a time in your life to when you first heard it or—more likely—when it first held meaning to you. I’m sure most kids of the late 90s and the entire 2000s have a very specific memory attached to Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”, probably one including a slideshow or a graduation party. Others might be some song that happened to come on the radio the very first time you started a road trip with some friends or how your high school sweetheart would lie with you as she listened to (and you hated but never said anything about) Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars.”
This is the soundtrack to your life. This is the aural framework from which influences and memories are tied to your being. Your very existence, whether consciously or not, all sprouts from these little dots along your timeline and builds on each new one. This is, after all, how soundtracks work. Take away the soundtrack to Garden State and you just have 102 minutes of Zach Braff and Natalie Portman being depressing. Take away the Pixies’ “Where is my Mind?” from the end of Fight Club and you are left without that heightened catharsis. It’s sometimes the periphery of something that defines it.
Did you ever consider, though, that you have a “gametrack” to your life as well? It is a concept I first heard during the Giant Bomb GDC 2013: After Hours Livestream Spectacular when Paul Barnett of Mythic Entertainment said that he believed that everyone has a golden age in their lives when they played the most video games. Most of these games would end up having a profound impact on that person’s life because it is when they are most receptive to such an external influence. He called it the gametrack to your life.
I think he misspoke slightly, though; it’s not when you play the most games but when you are most ravenous for them. There is a period of your life when you just don’t feel like you can ever play enough and when you’ve played them all, all that’s left is to stew in them. You go back to favorites and replay them over and over again until you feel like you can (and, probably, did) play with your eyes closed or laying upside-down off the couch or with just one hand.
This era often falls within your childhood for no other reason that most people get their start at that time. It’s a familiar curve most people follow: the initiation, the familiarization, and then the hunger. You consume and consume and consume until almost every game in that period of time begins to replace nucleotides in your DNA. These games, by no other metric, become lifetime favorites and cannot be reasoned with or defended for many reasons beyond “just because.”
Mario Kart is a great example of this. Just reading those words prove this notion; you probably pictured a specific version of Mario Kart. For me, it’s Super Mario Kart for the SNES. For you, it might be Mario Kart 64 for the N64 or Mario Kart: Double Dash for the GameCube. This is probably the first Mario Kart you played, and thus the most important one. Every subsequent release is not only compared to its immediate predecessor but also the one on your gametrack regardless of time difference. I still compare how the hop feels to Super Mario Kart.
The entire SNES catalog may be my gametrack. It was during this time when my father would reward me with good grades with a trip to Blockbuster on Friday so I could rent a game. I would take a game like Bonkers or Animaniacs or Cool Spot or Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow and just completely dismantle it over the course of a weekend. And in the intervening weekdays, I would just think about that game and fantasize about the next one. All of these probably informed my affinity for platformers to this day.
And then the Internet happened. More importantly, Flash happened. You can tell this happened a long time ago because Macromedia was still the name behind the software, but the end result is what’s important, namely old arcade games. When computers were barely sophisticated enough for SkiFree and Chip’s Challenge (add those to the gametrack list), Flash came along and wouldn’t you know it, people started cranking out games. Most often, they were arcade ripoffs because those were simple, so I spent hours upon hours playing Tapper and Pac-Man and Galaga and Robotron 2084 and mostly every other game that came before my time once Atari and Commodore 64 games came around. All of those shaped my love of simple but demanding mechanics.
One particular bit stands out as an oddity that I’m sure some small percentage of you out there will remember: Spikything.com. It was the creation of a web developer and designer named Liam O’Donnell but at the time it was everything. It was home to Super BugHunt, Egg Fighter, and, most importantly, Super Kickups. That, more than anything, crafted whatever predilection I have for super simple, easily engaged, highly addictive games.
That’s not to say, however, that your formative years are everything. My growing interesting in singular experience, narrative-driven games began to emerge in high school, and even modern releases along the likes of Journey and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are now on the gametrack (as is BioShock Infinite, if you couldn’t tell from last week’s theme). But that time is still important. That ravenous youth. It sets the theme and gives a place for the aural story to start. Soundtracks, much like the movies they follow, establish so much and take you from one place and leave you at another. Gametracks are similar in that way; it’s just that we don’t know where they end up until they’re done.
What’s your gametrack?