When most people think of some of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time, the usual suspects tend to come up in the conversation. Final Fantasy, The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, etc. Those games feature amazing musical scores that can tug at your heartstrings and get your heart racing and there is no denying that they’re masterpieces. But as I was coming up with story ideas for our month long celebration of video game music I found myself being drawn in a different direction. In my mind, some of the most underrated but incredibly effective soundtracks in gaming are the ones featuring licensed songs.
I’m not talking about games like Rock Band or Tony Hawk, although I do appreciate the music in those as well. I’m speaking more specifically about games that use songs to immerse you in the world that they’ve created. Songs that make you feel like you’re right there in that undersea dystopia or that small town in the pacific northwest. I think a well placed song in a game can be every bit as effective as a moving orchestral score, so I wanted to take this chance and highlight some of my favorites from over the years.
In L.A. Noire you play as officer Cole Phelps as he solves a variety of crimes and works his way up the ranks of the police department in a post WWII Los Angeles. The setting is iconic and has been the backdrop for films such as Chinatown, L.A. Confidential and The Black Dhalia but never has it been conveyed in a game as impressively as it was in that 2011 game. On top of the state of the art motion capture performances, the game featured an outstanding soundtrack. Throughout the game, radio station K.T.I. brings you the sounds of the time period from Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and many more. The iconic songs, combined with actual commercials and radio dramas from the era lend an authenticity to the game that can’t help but draw you in and make you feel like you’re walking the beat right there alongside Detective Phelps.
There’s probably no video game soundtrack that I’ve listened to more in the past year than the fantastic collection of indie rock that makes up Life is Strange. The game was my (and Adam’s) Game of the Year last year and the contribution the music made to the overall experience cannot be understated. The game is filled with powerful scenes and songs like Crosses by Jose Gonzalez, Santa Monica Dream by Angus & Julia Stone and Foals by Spanish Sahara helped to drive home the emotional impact of the game. I wouldn’t even consider myself a huge fan of indie rock, but the masterful way in which they incorporated the songs into Life is Strange was brilliant. You could tell that a lot of love and thought was put into choosing each song to help to tell the story of Chloe and Max.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City tells the story of Tommy Vercetti, a former member of the Forelli crime family who is just getting out of prison after 15 years. His rise to power in the fictional Vice City (based on 1980’s Miami) is accompanied by a stellar collection of music featuring some of the top songs of the decade. Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Twisted Sister, A Flock of Seagulls, Lionel Richie and countless others fill out the seven different radio stations that will serve as your soundtrack as you punch, shoot, smash and crash your way to the top. And let’s face it, there’s no better feeling than blasting Madhouse by Anthrax as you smash your way through a police roadblock going 100mph.
There are so many moments in gaming that use a perfect song choice to take a powerful scene to the next level. From first discovering the city of Rapture while Beyond the Sea plays in Bioshock, to the gunfire and explosions fading away to the song Mad World as a friend makes the ultimate sacrifice in Gears of War 3, and Jose Gonzalez‘s haunting Far Away which accompanies you as you travel to Mexico seeking revenge in Red Dead Redemption. A great song can compliment a scene and amplify the emotions of the moment. They can make your heart race with excitement, make you sweat with fear or they can make you cry.
So while they might never get the same amount of attention and accolades that a composer and an orchestrated score receive, I think it’s important to appreciate the time, skill and artistry it takes in choosing just the right song in a game. Hats off to the unsung heroes of game development. Your hard work has helped to create some of the most memorable scenes in gaming history.
What are some of your favorite songs from video games? Let us know in the comments section below!