Without doubt, video games have become a part of the popular culture; with some aspects of the game culture also introduced (and marketed) in the non-virtual present in the form of merchandise, costumes, action figures and so forth.

It is a huge market – while gaming now has obtained the status of a cultural practice – worth billions of dollars. However, there are several movies that do not have their origin in a novel or a film script, but commercially successful computer games.

Besides that merchandise “hardware,” there is also the music, diegetic and extra-diegetic, that works as a soundtrack to some of the more popular games and simultaneously introduces a unique past and has audiences buy those songs, while several game developers offer respective OSTs as DLC (downloadable content) online.

The past in those games is too distant to have been experienced by the mostly young generation of gamers. (Interesting enough though, music in pioneering 1980s computer games was “one of the least considered elements of early game development.”
But even for music collectors and students of popular culture this aspect of an otherwise rather distant fan culture – computer games – turns out to be fascinating, as here, like in present day music production, video production, fashion and style in general, certain aspects of old, vintage or “recycled” and sampled music play an important role.
It is another – but in some aspects very similar – retrospectively aimed approach to aged music, uprooted from its creation and original setting. So there are many interesting parallels. (Within the last ten years or so, a number of academic works on music in games in general have turned up. With miscellaneous topics such as if music, if pre-existing to the game, is experienced differently in the game, while the game itself, according to the songs played while, for example, either climbing a mountain, shooting opponents or solving a puzzle, is somewhat modified or actions may be tamed down or receive extra meaning through the song lyrics).

These game soundtracks, at least those studied here in Andra Invanesscu’s title, have often a very “retro” style and point to a past many decades ago. She researched the virtual video and mostly the audio environment of commercially very successful video games. Such as the Fallout series, Mafia III, L.A. Noir and many others. But mostly the BioShock series (consisting of three individual games), which is a first-person-shooter set in the huge and defunct fictional formerly exclusive underwater city of Rapture that is built in art deco fashion with all details; while the last part set in Columbia, a neoclassical style city floating in the clouds. This includes architectural features as well as audio characteristics, in this case music in the style (and partially original music) of the 1920s and 1930s that is used and played both in diegetic and extra-diegetic scenes.

The game world there depicts also social and economic details, apart from audio by Louis Armstrong, The Andrew Sisters or Annette Hanshaw, to name but a few. This sphere as Ivanescu identifies it, is remarkable, while the idea to fill a game world with nostalgia is not new. “The type of complex semiotic world built from elements of the popular culture of the past, including architecture, literature and music and film, is not unique to BioShock, but is integral to a number of video games of the twenty-first century. … These games offer their players increasingly extensive experiences of bygone eras through the lens of popular culture…” Nostalgia, a feature also present in countless movies and TV production, has for deaceds invaded large parts of our everyday life in politics, design and culture.

The use of (old) audio in a computer game seemingly is a natural technique, as “…popular music is unique in that it is often appropriated as recorded artifact, making the link it creates to the past stronger. In other words, while popular culture is adapted, reproduced, modified for the purpose of the game, popular music is often appropriated in its original form, but its meaning emerges out of its new contexts.” Even as the usage of nostalgic songs is not new and has been applied in countless movies before, music in video games has a special place.

At the same time, popular music (or once-popular music) in this book is “…examined not simply as music or sound, but as an intertextual nexus, linking a variety of paramusical connotations to new video game contexts.” One of her key terms is the concept of “remediation,” a process in which the past is introduced by way of using past media. There are many interesting points Inaescu can make about the use of vintage music in video games, namely that “…the ‘nostalgia’ present in the ‘nostalgia games’ examined is, in most instances constantly undermining its own alluring retro aesthetics with social, political and cultural commentary, creating a permanent state of ambivalence.”

And the use of popular music quickly enables the player to establish a relation to bygone times (be they the 1920s or the 1980s); this link is much stronger than those activated by any other media. And while other (pop) cultural artifacts are more often than not reproduced or modified for the sake of the respective game, (aged) popular music is mostly reproduced in its original form. 
Popular Music in the Nostalgia Video Game supplies  an interesting discourse into a region where one would not expect popular music and its heritage to be forcefully present. The title also offers some insights on how variations of “authenticity,” “memory,” and “reproduction” work in this genre.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019

Andra Ivănescu. Popular Music in the Nostalgia Video Game: The Way It Never Sounded (Palgrave Studies in Audio-Visual Culture). Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, 165 p.