As video games become more of a mainstream and profitable form of entertainment, the opportunity for creators to draw in talent from not only Hollywood but the recording industry becomes bigger. While the trend with big budget games as of late seems to lean towards big orchestral scores that mimic the bombast of those found in summer blockbusters, some choose to license popular music instead, which benefits record labels with added exposure as well as drawing in much needed publicity from a wider audience.
Though often this manifests in cases like Grand Theft Auto or EA Sports titles by simply littering the game with a swath of moderately recognizable tracks wholesale, some games manage to use the concept to not only accentuate specific the moments but in some instances define the entire experience.
Spec-Ops: The Line
A lot has been said about the artistic merits of Spec-Ops. Although I find it debatable as to how successful the game is at conveying its lofty themes, its strength is in how it sets up memorable moments in visually stunning locations. During the trek through storm ravaged Dubai, an eccentric DJ occasionally plays music over the speaker system, songs that are very deliberate and resonate with the themes of the game. The experience of hunkering down behind cover in a ruined TV studio with crazy people shooting at you while psychedelica blares over the sound system was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had with a shooter, especially without stopping the action for story reasons.
It’s rare for a military shooter to really have something to say; it’s even rarer for one to do so without spouting exposition at the player constantly.
Most people would probably say that the first Borderlands opened with an extremely memorable piece of licensed music (Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked”), which really set a high bar for the sequel to match. Not only did Gearbox manage to put together one hell of an energetic opener that topped the original’s, they did so with a song that nailed the surprisingly layered and thematically dense story underneath the surface.
Many tend to write off the franchise as merely silly and addictive, but this game managed to slip a lot of stuff in about identity, running from your problems, and moral relativity. These themes are encapsulated by the use of The Heavy’s “Short Change Hero,” the song’s relevance becoming all the more apparent the further into the game you get.
Pandemic’s swansong is a tragic and flawed one, though props should be given for it’s ambition. Set in a colorless noir vision of Nazi occupied France, the player’s goal is to help the French resistance while simultaneously tracking down the killer of the protagonist’s best friend. Borrowing many mechanics from Grand Theft Auto (somewhat unsuccessfully), The Saboteur ends up mostly a mess to play through, and the story doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park to compensate. It does, however, provide some stirring moments artistically, and you could see where the potential for something great existed.
The moment that sticks with me above all others is at the end of the main campaign, when the protagonist makes a slow descent up the Eiffel Tower to finally confront his friend’s killer. Every soldier stationed to guard the inner sanctum is dead or suicidal. The entire journey up, piano music can be heard faintly. Right before reaching the endpoint, the player comes across a bar where the piano player sits, slowly belting away with what little life he has left.
The piece of music is an instrumental version of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” the soulful Big Band song used in the promotional videos for the game.
The song’s inclusion in this particular moment is incredibly haunting and elevates the otherwise anticlimactic ending to something truly memorable. It’s a case of a small artistic decision having a profound impact on the experience.
While this might seem like a bit of an obvious choice for those who’ve finished the game, I would be remiss to leave it off the list simply because it is a recent release. Ken Levine and Irrational Games created a game lauded for its daring storytelling abilities, and the carefully selected pieces of pop music make a big impact on many important moments in the game.
Every instance where musically familiar pops up in the game is a powerful one, but perhaps the most effective is a soulful rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” belted out by a member of the working class revolutionary group, the Vox Populi.
“Fortunate Son” not only echoes the themes of the game, but also draws the player into the world of Columbia with something eerily familiar. On top of that, there are threads laid out for those who are attentive to justify such anachronism. The idea of licensing pop music is actually a plot point revealed via voxophones, something rarely (if ever) done in media at all, let alone in video games.
This list only scratches the surface on how licensed music is used to complement, or in some cases define, gameplay experiences. We can only hope that as the medium evolves and gains social traction, we’ll continue to see the trend toward the use of licensed music expand.