If you’re reading this right now, it’s not unlikely that you’ve come across me at one point or another, most likely over on the Grimdark Fiction Readers and Writers Facebook group. I’m… a bit of a black sheep in the community, if I’m being honest. I don’t mean that in the sense that I feel unwelcome, far from it. If anything, Rob and Phil are easily two of the nicest guys in the industry, if not the fandom at large, and said Facebook group is a product of that. What I mean is, I’m not really a grimdark guy. Sure, I watch Game of Thrones, I’ve read some of the grimdark staples, hell if we’re being honest I’m shopping a pretty grimdark short around as we speak. That said, though, I’ve always had a bit of a taste for the more pleasant side of the genre. Give me your Sullivans, your Weekes, your Brooks, and your Greenwoods. Give me your tropes, your tie-ins, your halflings.
Seriously, there’s a whole thread on /r/Fantasy right now talking about why people don’t care about halflings, and it’s a bit upsetting.
Similarly, my inspirations are maybe not quite what one might expect for a fantasy author, grimdark or not. I won’t belabor the point about how video games have become a major influence to fantasy writers, because that’s already been discussed by the inimitable Sam Sykes. Music has more often than not been considered the greatest muse for any creative endeavor, and such has been my case on several occasions. Now, obviously if these two things are so common as inspirations for the modern day writer, then I’ve just wasted your time, right?
Well, I want to tell you a story about when the importance of music collided with a video game in so perfect a way that it swapped out the lenses through which I saw the world.
In 1998 my family got a Sony Playstation. It was the first non-Nintendo console we’d owned since the Genesis, and it was already a couple years into its production cycle. I mention this because it leads up to two important facts about this story:
- Up until the release of the Nintendo 64 two years prior, I wasn’t a terribly well-informed gamer, and most of what I did know from then on came from Nintendo Power magazine.
Because of this, I was blissfully unaware of any Final Fantasy game between the original, which I had for NES, and VII, which was on a console that, when it was released, I didn’t own.
That’s right, I never experienced the Final Fantasy games that, for many people, were life-changing pieces of media. In truth, by the time I did have a Playstation at my disposal, there was little drive for me to pick the franchise back up, and I probably wouldn’t have, had it not been for the fateful day when my older brother came home from a trip to the local Blockbuster Video, a rental copy of the new Final Fantasy game in his hand.
Now, people can rag on Final Fantasy VIII all they like, and I won’t for a second tell them that many of their points aren’t valid, but the fact of the matter is that this game sunk its hooks deep into twelve-year-old me, so much so that I asked for a copy for Christmas (keeping the save file from the rented copy on a memory card for months). My brother, too, fell in love with the game, and it was his further influence, in fact, that pushes this little story forward.
In a time when most teenagers were listening to the latest pop-punk, or the nascent rap-metal that inundated the radio, my older brother’s musical tastes were a bit more off-the-beaten-path. Yes, by the mid-late 90s the mainstream was beginning to see the emergence of electronic music by way of Fatboy Slim, the Prodigy, and that one commercial for The Gap where someone is skating an all-white vert ramp to the Crystal Method. My brother, however, was tapped into something a bit more esoteric, something he shared with me one afternoon.
“I have to show you this!” he told me excitedly as he beckoned me into his bedroom. “It’s this subgenre called happy hardcore. There’s this song, ‘Distant Skies’. You listen to it and you just imagine Squall and the others flying the Raganrok over Gaia!”
Sidenote: The Raganrok was the name of the ship your party eventually gets in FFVIII that allows you to fly across the map.
He cued up the song and pressed play, and damned if he wasn’t spot-on. The music had a pulsing, frenetic backbeat, a soaring synth hook, and the classic backing of a grand piano chord structure. My eyes widened as if to manifest my mind’s eye in physical form.
It was perfect. The music was the scene. The two were intertwined intrinsically. In my mind the movements of the Raganrok mirrored the highs and lows of the song, each crescendo a punch on the throttle of her controls.
The experience set me on the path of what would become a love-affair with both JRPGs and electronic music of many different stripes. The latter I would eschew as I got older, favouring punk rock to fuel my teenage angst and post-secondary political radicalization. That feeling never subsided, though, the feeling of how music could not just impact or inform, but become the very backbone of a scene. It didn’t always manifest in fiction, mind you. As a matter of fact I more or less stopped writing fiction from ages eighteen to twenty-six. More often than not, it existed as something more ephemeral; vague narratives that would play out in my mind, but never on paper. The soundtracks, however, were always constant.
Funny enough, it was when I was on a particularly nostalgic kick, listening to a happy hardcore playlist I found on Spotify, that what was arguably the most pivotal plot moment in Collapse of Kingdoms, and arguably in the whole of The Four Kingdoms Saga, came to me. Funnier still, if you look hard enough, you can see the influence of some of those most formative Final Fantasy games in the plot.
Some authors seek their inspiration in metal, Tolkien, and if they’re in my age bracket probably Final Fantasy VI, VII, and Neverwinter Nights. And all the power to you if you do. Whatever your grim (or not-so-grim)-spiration, just be sure to keep that volume cranked to eleven, and remember to save often, or all progress may be lost.
Brandon Draga was born in 1986, just outside Toronto, Ontario. His love of all things fantasy began at an early age with games like The Legend of Zelda, Heroquest, and Dungeons and Dragons. This affinity for the arcane and archaic led to his studying history at York University from 2005 to 2011. In late 2012, he began writing a D&D campaign setting that would lay the groundwork for the world of Olhean, the setting for his “Four Kingdoms Saga” novel series, compared by critics to the works of Terry Brooks, Michael J. Sullivan, and R.A. Salvatore. Brandon has also proven that SF/F can be made accessible at any age, writing the lauded picture book “Dragon in the Doghouse”. Brandon still lives just outside Toronto, and when he is not writing enjoys skateboarding, playing guitar, and playing tabletop games.
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To find Brandon’s books, check out his Amazon author page here!
And, for special bonus Draga action, you can listen to our Keeping it Indie Panel episode of The Grim Tidings Podcast as well!