It's 2014 and my brothers and I are playing the latest release in the Mario Kart series, Mario Kart 8, and our race karts have returned to Moo Moo Meadows, a fan-favorite track that first appeared in Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo, 2008). Rolling green grassy hills, barnboard fencing, and the dull clanging ring of the cowbells that hang around the necks of a herd of grazing Moo Moos orient my driver, Tanooki Mario, to this rural racetrack. A rooster's internal clock goes off and it crows, indicating it's just past sunrise on the farm, and the opening fanfare signals that it is time for drivers to assemble at the starting line to race around this country dirt road track, past the barn, and along the river's edge, dodging the lowing Moo Moos who appear mainly in farm-based courses as slow-moving yet formidable physical obstacles for drivers to negotiate. As kart motors idle and rumble in anticipation of Lakitu's green light, the Moo Moos gently bellow and low alongside a lilting fiddle melody, inflected with stylistic ornaments associated with Irish traditional music. These sonic signatures and musical references imply an agricultural game environment. These sonic-spatial moments that I recall and write about here are an essential part of Mario Kart track layout and environmental level design, shaping race propulsion in ways that encourage ludic competition among player and nonplayer characters.
I use this opening listening moment from Mario Kart 8 to shed light on the spatial-temporal function of sound and music in shaping a game world, connecting players to location, and informing players of the conditions and challenges of place-specific gameplay.
In this themed issue, William O'Hara, Kate Galloway, and Karen Cook offer complementary approaches to listening to, in, and with game worlds, offering insight into how sound design plays a sustained role in worldbuilding, narrative design, and game mechanics. The sound and music of the video games addressed by the authors engage forms of what O'Hara refers to in his article as the “inevitable boundary crossing”—from one time period to another; from a time before anthropogenic climate change to the time of mass extinction events; from one ecoregion to another, each with its own defined bioregional sonic features; and from the game the human player plays to the game being played by their avatar—that are experienced sonically in games. Each author addresses different approaches to soundscapes, including embedded soundscapes (O'Hara), ecoregional soundscapes (Galloway), and the soundscape design of climate change (Cook). This themed issue offers a range of approaches to the study of musical play in video games, but each author also listens beyond ludomusicology to place video game sound and music in dialogue with timely interdisciplinary conversations.