A couple of weeks ago, I played Undertale for the first time – my thoughts on which you can hear in an upcoming podcast episode. It was a great time, and I amazingly got to play the game with mostly unspoiled eyes even though I got to it nearly four years late to the party.
Fortunately, the setting I played it in was as cozy and contemplative as the game itself. Kiersten and Celia drove down to visit me in Longview (bless them) and we spent the weekend alternating between Undertale, napping, and brief trips out of my apartment for food.
So while I trudged through the quiet, peaceful screens of Snowdin Forest, lying on my couch in real life surrounded by friends and crunching on handfuls of popcorn, I experienced a kind of cozy introspection I’ve rarely felt since childhood.
It’s a feeling I get only when the music, visuals, gameplay and story of a game come together to form a sort of uneasy peacefulness. When a game entices you with pretty scenes and funny writing but hints at a secret emotional left hook it’s saving for you, it hits this feeling which I like to call “honeyheart;” the sensation of feeling suddenly a little bit lost inside the world of a game, separated from your real world surroundings, and anticipating the emotional ride the story is about to take you on.
It’s also the tiny, unsquelchable voice of the Old Testament God, or your parents, or your third grade teacher, inside your head reminding you that you’re spending the day playing video games and you ought to feel at least a little guilty about that.
What triggers it? Lonely, beautiful landscapes that ask me to pause my quest for a moment — like the view from Ahto City across Manaan’s endless ocean in Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic. By that point in the game, you’ve spent hours running from sith and searching for clues to a planet-sized, dark-side powered factory generating an endless supply of warships and battle droids. (Even at its best, Star Wars is fond of its tropes.) But for a few moments on Manaan, a neutral-zone ocean planet with few straight-up battles in its plotline, I forget about all of that.
The scene is pretty. The game play has slowed down. The plot has taken a breath. But what clinches the feeling is the music: gentle piano notes and otherworldly strings hover above choir chords that trade between serene and discordant. It’s the tension of a theme that is peaceful but pock-marked with moments of discomfort and creepiness. It snaps you back into reality: the sith are still here, even if open-war is banned … and they’re watching you.
It’s a feeling that can only really come in a game you know is going to be good.
Now take the “Snowy” theme from Undertale – which I think hits all those same notes. Calm, lovely, but just a touch apprehensive. The G major to F# minor drop every third measure is, to me, a reminder that this world of playful internet humor and quirky monsters is also a serious story with real consequences for your actions. “Another Medium,” the Hotlands theme, accomplishes this too. Actually, a lot of overworld themes tend to tap into the “honeyheart” feeling. That means that nearly the entire Minecraft soundtrack is honeyheart fuel for me, as is the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion soundtrack
Honestly, I don’t really have any kind of conclusion or neat way to wrap up this thought. I just wanted to share some kind of way I get when I play good games.