When Music Makes the Game

Yesterday I started playing Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. I’ve never played a Far Cry game, but heard good things about this one so I wanted to give it a go. I get through the cinematic intro and the gameplay starts. I’m in a helicopter, with a laser gun, and Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally is playing. Boom, I’m instantly hooked. And I’ve never even seen Predator. A good song automatically gets me excited to play.

It got me thinking about how a good licensed soundtrack can really enhance a game. One series that uses music exceptionally well is Saints Row. Popular music is used enhance set pieces – in SR3, Kanye’s Power plays as you take over a rival gang’s penthouse apartment, and Holding Out for a Hero is the track when you race to rescue your crew near the end of the game; in SR4 Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing plays as you’re selflessly risking life and limb to diffuse a nuke and save the United States from an attack.

Music is also used to help you bond with your homies on their loyalty missions. Pierce’s mission is always a highlight in the games for me, with SR3 having him and The Boss sing along to What I Got, while it’s Opposites Attract that offers a bonding moment in SR4. It’s the music that gets me into the game, and performances of the voice actors that make the characters come to life.

Another game that uses licensed music in a spectacular way is Spec Ops: The Line. Vietnam era rock is a mainstay of the war shooter, even those set in present or future days. While The Line does deliver a few of these classics, such as songs by Hendrix, Deep Purple, or the lyrically relevant Nowhere to Run by Martha & the Vandellas, it also delivers some more diverse, though ultimately very fitting songs. Rather than stick to the 60s and 70s catalogues for the soundtrack, it ventures into more recent music that plays homage to the sounds and messages of the era, such as the Canadian rock band Black Mountain’s Stormy High, or The Black Angels’ The First Vietnamese War. More unexpected are the addition of Mogwai’s quiet RU Still In 2 It or Björk’s Storm. However, though they are unexpected, they fit the tone of the game perfectly. Spec Ops: The Line is a game that subverts expectations in many ways, not just musically but narratively. I highly recommend listening to the soundtrack, preferably as you play the game.

Good music can also be used to great effect in trailers, often making me interested in a game that would otherwise fly right under my radar. My feelings on the Call of Duty franchise are quite ambivalent. Advanced Warfare was the first game I played (and reviewed) in the series, and while I thought it was a solid shooter, it didn’t send me running out to pick up any of the other 700 games in the franchise. When the Black Ops III trailer released a few weeks ago, I thought it looked great. However, after thinking about it for a while, it occurred to me that the use of The Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black was responsible for 99% of my excitement. The actual gameplay doesn’t look much different than AW. This is not the first CoD trailer to make use The Rolling Stones either.

Original soundtracks also often make a game for me, with Bastion being the soundtrack I always think of first, but that’s a topic for another post.

Is there any particular use of licensed music in a game that sticks out for you?

10 responses to “When Music Makes the Game

  1. Even if it can be a bit cheesy / overtly predictable at time, the music is what got me hooked on Life is Strange. Especially episode one. The choices and gameplay of the game are somewhat meh; the main mechanic is ok, but nothing special; the story is really heavy-handed; the music, however, makes me feel like I’m a high-schooler living the story of the game…
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    • I didn’t really recognize any of the songs from Life is Strange but they did fit the game really well, I thought.

  2. Far Cry 3 did a great job with music integration:


  3. Gah, SR3 is waiting patiently for me to get around to it – you keep giving me reasons to want to skip games I already have installed to get to other ones!

    To be honest, I have really only experienced licensed music in two genres: racing games and sports games. Not surprisingly, both were when I was living with my mate who had a PS2. We played a fair bit of FIFA and a few racing games, mostly Gran Turismo and Wipeout. I remember the music in Wipeout much more than in any other.

    I’ve noticed more games, more indie games in particular, are making use of licensed-quality music in their trailers recently. It does generate a LOT more interest in me than it probably would have otherwise. Two examples of this for me, are One Finger Death Punch, and Symphony.
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    • It’s true, licensed soundtracks are generally confined to certain genres – the ones who sell well and can afford it. After making this post I thought, wow apparently I’m all about shooting people in games but it’s just that most of the other genres I like don’t licence a lot of music outside of maybe the trailer.

      Speaking of racing and sports – I also really liked the Gran Turismo soundtrack though it was fairly limited and since that was a game you could easily sink hours into it got quite repetitive. My boyfriend plays a lot of MLB The Show and the recent one has the most terrible menu soundtrack I’ve ever heard. I think sports music should pump you up, but this soundtrack makes me want to drown myself.

  4. Oh man. Bastion and Transistor get huge music props, and the Hotline Miami 1 & 2 games have great music that adds so much to the retro synth-funk ambiance. I’ve actually been super impressed with Payday 2’s soundtrack – it’s a FPS PVE heist game, but the electronic fast-tempo music, which crescendos or adjusts to match increases in action, adds SO MUCH to the experience.

    In a different vein, I’ve heard the Mass Effect and Borderlands series has great music that’s a little more subtle? I do remember my time in Borderlands, the music was great but not as noticeable, just one more piece of a great immersive game world.

    I do miss the old Burnout/Tony Hawk style games where they had licensed music by alt-rock groups. Not only did they really fit the fun of the game, they were great ways to discover new, not-quite-mainstream music. 😀
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    • I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that most instrumental soundtracks, like Mass Effect’s, just don’t stick in my head. I remember liking the ME music as I was playing, but ask me to hum a few bars of any of the songs and I couldn’t do it. I’m also terrible at ‘name the game this music is from’ trivia. Tony Hawk comes up in a lot of articles about best soundtracks, though I haven’t played any myself.

  5. I agree, the Saints Row series is the perfect example of how to use licensed music in a video game. Not only does it suck you into the moment but the music is used in such an epic (or humorous) way that every time you hear the song afterwards it makes you want to play Saints Row.

    Other great uses that come to mind are Twisted Metal 4 and Crazy Taxi, in which the gravelly sound of Rob Zombie and the energy of the Offspring can transport you back to the mid-90’s. And I have to mention Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. It has such a great soundtrack and so many of those perfect moments where the song intensifies what’s going on in the game! It’s worth checking out if you’re looking for something unique to play.
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    • I hadn’t heard of Contents Under Pressure, but that sounds cool. I’ll keep an eye out for it, I’m always looking to expand the PS2 library.