Serotonin: Which makes us feel more: music or visuals?

November 21, 2014


I am sitting in my boring room, not listening to anything at all. I put myself in a blank stasis, to figure out if silence can be deafening and seeing nothing can be a beautiful sight. I fail to answer those questions, quickly. Whether it’s because I’m a slave to stimulation, or thoughts of gorgeous aesthetics and catchy tunes are too much to resist, I’ll never know. Specific songs creep in and force me to remember things that matter, things that don’t and all things in-between.

Watching Interstellar recently unearthed emotions in me rarely caused by film. I’m no critic; I can’t tell you why it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. I’m not immune to the hokey plot device it employed, nor the disruptive pacing. I get that. It will also never matter to me. The visuals, which made me feel very small in the best way possible, made my senses perk up like I’d been shot with adrenaline. Seeing the speed of the spaceship flying across space, only for the camera to zoom out to show just how little we are compared to planets, was transcendent.

Hans Zimmer’s score, highlighted heavily by the organ, sounds important. It feels important. It punctuates the scenes so perfectly I felt I was watching a visual and auditory religious experience. Would the explorers find what they were looking for? Would I live long enough to see us touch down on another planet? Would… could I even dream of looking at the stars in their natural habitat? My hands are shaking as I type this. Space, humanity, survival, dreams and the unknown: all brought to me for $17.95 (IMAX is expensive).


In the last Serotonin, I discussed whether gameplay or story made a larger impact on me.  Now, in a wonderful bout which I assure you will have no losers, is visuals versus music. Am I more compelled to feel when looking at colorful worlds or hearing some quiet jazz? Will memories flood back if I see an old friend, or hear something familiar? Have I played anything that showed me how powerful images and music can be, on the level Interstellar did?

I’ve played many small games that mystified me with their beauty. The end of Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter was stunning, using a peaceful scene to convey relief in contrast to the game’s harsh, relentless underground levels. Journey’s surfing in the sand stole my breath from me. But to match a movie of Interstellar’s scope and ambition, I have to go bigger.

World of Warcraft remains one of the most memorable games I’ve ever played, if only because it’s also the game on which I’ve spent the most time. For well over 1,000 hours, I ran, rode, fought and explored my way across Azeroth with a zeal I never knew I had and sense of wonder I will never reclaim. Is this what I was missing out on when I heard tales of EverQuest or Ultima Online? Hey, what’s that mountain over there? Why does it have… oh man, can I go up there? I asked myself such questions so many times. Often an answer would come from a friend, confirming or denying. Or, better yet, I’d get an uncertain response. So, we’d go find out.

Running or galloping around the fields with my friends’ characters hearkens back to the days of us all living in the same, tiny town of Sackville, New Brunswick. Discussions at the pub or casual run-ins on campus almost always led to World of Warcraft. The conversations were rarely anything but excitement about a new area, or how amazing a new weapon looked.


All are pleasant memories, but what perked me up was the first time I rode a gryphon. I could’ve jumped out of my seat! I thought something had gone wrong; surely moving at this speed across the most vast landscape I’d ever seen was a bug. This can’t be the new normal, I’m not ready for it. But it was, and how basic it seems now!

The true adventurers would go on foot, seeking out every nook and cranny to fill out their map. But even those struck with the greatest wanderlust would seek out a ride now and again. To efficiently travel to different areas, you can purchase a gryphon ride. An automated flight, you move at lightning speed on a route that is, thankfully, not always in a straight line. There’s too much to see. I’ve never been this high up before. There’s no loading screen. I can actually see my buddies jumping next to the gryphon trainer as they fade away in the distance.

I have full control over the camera as I’m soaring over every tree in sight. To my left is an amazing mountain range I would undoubtedly visit one day. To my right, a clear field of farms, perfectly yellow, and some towers. The scope of the world, the appealing cartoonish graphics and the ability to see as far in the distance as real life floored me. That I got to eat up constant visual treats like Westfall or Elwynn Forest with friends at the same time was too much. The visuals may be dated today, but the impact they had will remain. The power I felt watching the landscape transform beneath my feet was childish but appropriate. I will never forget that visual as long as I live.

There is a scene in Interstellar of a reunion I will not spoil. It is well worth the wait, but what stood out was the song playing. It won’t leave me. It could be the last song ever played on this earth for how sweeping and emotional it made me. The organ is an underused, underappreciated instrument in both games and movies. As words are exchanged, the buildup and pace of the organ perfectly matches the strength of the voices. It is a chilling, hopeful song that fills me with confidence in music as powerful an emotional tool in games as in movies.


Xenogears has an odd history. This 1998 JRPG was unlike anything I’d played before. Its scale was so grand I believe it was released on the wrong system, far ahead of its time. It was also rumored to have run out of budget mid-production, resulting in a puzzling second half (or lack thereof). Its themes range from loyalty to love, psychology to religion. To explain its plot would be cruel; you have to experience it. Even better, you have to listen to it.

The soundtrack was composed by Yasunori Mitsuda at the age of 26. To say Mitsuda is an extraordinary musical talent would be an understatement. The melodies he’s created are of such high craft, it’s almost disappointing a broader audience wasn’t introduced outside of the games he’s worked on. I listen to him on the way to work, allowing myself to be encouraged beyond what’s needed for the day. I listen to him while I run, confirming my decision to keep going. Something is out there. Go find it. I’ll help you. Oh man, here come the drums…

Awe. Pure awe. Xenogears demands your full attention as it forces you to reach beyond what most stories dare to. Existentialist questions arise. Why am I here? Why are we here? Who am I? Why? Daunting proposals, no doubt. Thankfully, Mitsuda’s score matches perfectly and helps ease any hesitations. How can I tell you what “Bonds of Sea and Fire” does to me? I think it’s meant to be soothing, but I can’t help but feel sad and nostalgic, particularly 45 seconds in, when the song changes routes from a curious onlooker into a confirmed presence of authority. This is what happened. It was tragic, but we can learn from it. I, Henry Skey, can learn from my mistakes. It mesmerizes me when I’m staring out at the ocean, or walking through the park. Morose bliss.


A perfect juxtaposition, “Wings” improves my mood immediately. I am no longer walking, nodding at things that have come to be. I’m now blissfully aware of how amazing my life is. Humanity put a probe on a comet! I’m feeling great! That dog is adorable! That person helped that other person at the grocery store when they dropped a bunch of stuff! Horror? Demise? Grief? Not today. “Wings” lets my smile be genuine and wants me to experience me, without any pretense. To be deprived of such music would be worse than never hearing it in the first place.

There’s no winner, except those who have fun and acknowledge these artistic endeavors and remember them fondly. What takes years to create, minutes to experience and decades to enjoy is a collaborative effort of many people, all with different skillsets, outlooks on life and hopes about the future. What a treat it was to see lines of code turn into Elwynn Forest. How gratifying it is to still hear “Wings” and be as happy as I was 16 years ago the first time I heard it. How emotionally satisfying it was to see, and hear, Interstellar and dream of our futures together.