Getting Nerdy about Music

From a game mod to Splinter Cell: How I discovered a song by accident.

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Over the years, I’ve amassed ridiculous amounts of video game knowledge. I created the Secret Area as a good place to share said video game knowledge with people. Often times it’s rather crufty trivia that I couldn’t resist sharing, but other times it’s about my personal experiences with games, much like this entry.

Video game music is something I’m also interested in. While I am a bit of an outlier in terms of my game music tastes – I usually prefer stuff by American and European composers, and don’t really care much for Japanese game music past the SNES/Genesis era – I still love finding information about game music, much like a lot of things I like.

So I’m gonna get nerdy about video game music. I’m gonna write about something that came to mind fairly recently that I thought would be worth sharing. Such as how a game mod introduced me to a hip-hop artist’s music by accidentally hearing it in a AAA game.


Poke646 is one of the best Half-Life mods out there. At the time, most Half-Life mods reused most of the existing templates that the original game used, making Black Mesa look like a research facility that spanned a whole continent. Mods like They Hunger and many others changed how people looked at Half-Life, but not nearly as much as Poke646 did. People were even pointing out how creator Marc Schröder basically made an art style that predicted the later City 17 style of Half-Life 2 years before its announcement.

But I’m here to talk about the music. The game’s credits, featured below, featured this haunting, ambient hip-hop tune with prominent piano accompaniment.


The hip-hop styled track really fit in line with the rest of the game, which also had some great original ambient music. Thankfully all this music is in the Poke646 mod folder, which makes it easy to listen to outside of the game.

Cut to 2010. I had recently picked up Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction Special Edition for $35 at Ubisoft’s online store because of an issue of the special USB keys not working on some copies. As I was going through the game itself, a certain tune started to play that sounded rather familiar…

(WARNING: Spoilers for Splinter Cell: Conviction are featured in the video.)

Yep. It’s the same song. Until then, I had thought that credits music was a unique track made for Poke646. In reality, it was a licensed song: DJ Shadow’s “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” from his 1996 debut Endtroducing…..

Ubisoft had licensed “Building Steam…” to play over this part of the game. Since it had been years since I had played Poke646, I had realized the tune sounded familiar but couldn’t quite place it until I replayed the mod much later. After knowing this fact, I bought the song off Amazon not too long after.

Most games usually have a composer do all the incidental music, rarely do they use a licensed song unless it’s made specifically for the game, like Eminem’s “Won’t Back Down” and “Survival” from Call of Duty: Black Ops and Call of Duty: Ghosts, respectively. At least that’s how it was a long while ago, now licensed music is used all the time in games, stuff like Rock Band and Guitar Hero thrived on it.

Why Ubisoft thought the DJ Shadow tune fit this particular scene is a mystery that we’ll probably never know. But it does fit well with the scene in question, even after hearing it somewhere else years prior.

To bring it back around to Poke646, “Building Steam…” got a remix when the mod’s sequel, Poke646: Vendetta was released in 2006. In addition to the standard piano riff that played over the credits, there’s now a prominent guitar solo, which plays over the mod’s credits. In a way, adding additional instrumentation to a song that heavily uses samples is pretty cool, because it’s using a song with samples as a sample for a new song. It’s fascinating, really.

“Building Steam with a Grain of Salt” has become “the Poke646 theme” in my mind, despite being used in some big budget game. Still a good song, highly recommend you give it a listen. Can’t say if the rest of Endtroducing….. is as amazing, but I’m willing to bet it’s a solid album. DJ Shadow himself is no stranger to the video game world, in addition to the licensed music, he has contributed remixes to a few games such as the “El Dorado Megamix” for the Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune soundtrack, and two tracks made specifically for Motorstorm Apocalypse. So he’s contributed music to the video game world, both directly and indirectly.

I don’t follow many hip-hop or electronica DJs, but after hearing “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” I could probably get into this kind of music. Hell, I loved Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which was mostly by Amon Tobin, as well as finding most of Crackdown‘s licensed music enjoyable, which has that same kind of chill trip-hop style. Guess it’s time to broaden my tastes in music.

2 comments From a game mod to Splinter Cell: How I discovered a song by accident.

Music began playing any time I opened this website, so frustrating!

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