For anyone who has ever flagged a game as one of their favorites, there is a good chance it was done so based on more than just good gameplay or an impressive storyline. This was also done so based on its music. Speaking personally, most of my favorite games do not just have amazing game concepts but also amazing soundtracks, with a game’s music score having just as big an impact on a memorable experience as a game’s mechanics. I, like many other people, associate certain songs with scenes from video games. In some cases, video games have even helped me to discover new types of music that I never knew existed before. As it turns out, its becoming ever more common for game developers to license songs which already exist in pop culture in order to enhance the gaming experience in unique and novel ways. I want to discuss how this licensing method helps build on the preexisting ways that music enhances the gaming experience.
Video games have a long history with music. The Mega Man series is a perfect place to look for our first foray. No, I am not referring to Mega Man X 5’s bosses all being named after members of Guns N’ Roses, but the first Mega Man game back in 1987. Elec Man’s stage music is strangely similar to Journey’s “Faithfully.” Take a listen, it is not a stretch. For me it was hearing Jill play “Moonlight Sonata” in Resident Evil; immediately recognizing the piece and feeling a sort of connection with the game after hearing the tune so many times. I know there are a few I have missed as well, like when my friends would tell me about Rob Zombie songs playing during Way of the Warrior, which seemed like such a cool thing at the time, but what a horrible game. As much fun as those moments were in the past though, systems advanced and so did the way in which licensed music was used.
Before I get into the science and behind the scenes of how connections are made through the songs, I want to tell everyone about my favorite moment concerning this subject. I am a huge fan of a little series called Saints Row, which readers will see me mention a lot in this, but I think there is a defining moment in the games, and it has nothing to do with becoming president or fighting space aliens. In Saints Row: The Third, there is a mission called Party Time. A lot of players are familiar with this one because it epitomizes everything that Saints Row is about. There is a rival gang occupying a nice penthouse that the protagonist has eyed for his/her own, and there is some asshole in the pool. The mission requires the player to parachute down and jump through several hoops to obtain their new palace, but the incentive comes from a tune played in the process. Kanye West’s song “Power” begins as the helicopter takes position for the dive, and it does not stop until victory is achieved.
The name of the song implies the feeling it generates while the mission proceeds. There is a true sense of power felt by dropping in from the sky and just taking over, laying waste to those who stand in the way and running around solving problems like it was something the player was born to do. The song and connection made between it and the scene is just epic in nature, without feeling too forced. It is weird how many people told me they had a hard-on doing this. I actually replayed the mission before writing this article to make sure the whole thing was not a flub; that after knowing what was going to happen I would still experience that same excitement and positive vibe of control. It holds up. I felt like a boss.
Now that we know the awesome potential of music being used correctly, how does it all work? I do not think there is an argument for most people that music evokes emotions; that listeners get into the flow and it accent events. We associate memories with certain songs. For instance, there are entire bands I cannot listen to because of certain ex-girlfriends, and I know I have personally ruined two Guns N’ Roses songs for certain friends. Research shows that listening to music activates networks in areas of the brain that are responsible for motor control, creativity, and emotions. This goes a lot further though. A study was published in NeuroImage about the groundbreaking 2011 study done by Finnish researchers, who were able to break these ideas down even further with data that showed how the brain processes the different parts of music: rhythm, tonality, and timbre—what some refer to as sound color— and they did this in the most realistic listening situations possible.
Aspects like rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and repetition cause stimulus in the brain, and those thoughts are bounced back-and-forth across these networks, with the capability of creating a bond, which means memories. This is often referred to as a reminiscence bump. Bonding is important because it ties a bit of music or sound to something else, and that is what game developers go for with a good soundtrack. Some video games seem to just throw a list of popular songs on a playlist, or pick a few whose themes align with their new game, but then there are games that simply nail the process of making the music as much a part of the whole process as everything else. My aforementioned experience with Saints Row is one of the best examples of this done correctly, but it is not the only way.
As I hinted at earlier, another method is players creating that bond themselves by turning off the sound and selecting their own music. When I was younger, and changing a CD was more of a hassle, I remember listening to the new Puff Daddy and the Family album (don’t judge!) while playing through Mortal Kombat Mythologies. Now when I play that game or think about it, I suddenly want to hear “It’s All About the Benjamins” again. As I grew up and games allowed me to adjust their soundtracks I would uncheck the tracks that I did not like, or as with Grand Theft Auto, I learned which radio stations to avoid. That is why there are so many different stations though and a wide array of music, so that there will be something everyone will like. Doing this and limiting the soundtrack is how players control what songs they hear while playing and building a tighter association with that game.
Some games integrate their licensed music into the game, making it a part of the setting and using it to literally help sculpt the tone of a title, or enhance a world. Not to beat the drum of GTA excessively, but they seemed to have perfected this. I remember cruising around in San Andreas listening to the radio, feeling like I truly was on the West Coast. Some will argue that GTA: Vice City has the best licensed soundtrack to date—which is hard to argue. Both of these games are set in specific time periods, so there is a certain historical feel to capture. When the first song a player hears while controlling Tommy Vercetti is a classic Michael Jackson song, they feel as though they are either playing Moonwalker (no, really, it is a good arcade game) or are back in 1986. Okay, so perhaps not that specific, but I do know older people who have played the game and expressed how the soundtrack collects not only the major musical titans of the era, but the personalities on the radio as well. Rockstar has a group of producers that select the music for their games. They take a lot of time and do extensive research for this because they want every song to fit, and know that the soundtrack is imperative for the overall experience.
There is a possible negative side to bonding, though. I remember trying to beat Halo 2 on legendary. There is a big fight towards the end of the game where Master Chief must fight his way through two warring factions while “Blow Me Away” by Breaking Benjamin plays. I died so many times doing this that I began to hate that song, hearing that guitar riff in the intro began to piss me off, because it meant that I had died once again in a flurry of pink needler death. Now when I hear the song I twitch just a little. Music is often associated with action in games. Songs are used to make the player feel like moving, firing everyone up to want to punch or shoot the bad guy. That song should have ramped me up to want to run back into the fray, but it ended up more like video game PTSD, whereas hearing Rob Zombie come up in Twisted Metal 3 drove me to win. Humor can also backfire when using songs to try to be funny, like how the remake of Samurai Warrior has the main character singing “The Touch” by Stan Bush at the beginning. The cheese can be a little bit of a killer, and will not work for all audiences. I personally love when the main character in Saints Row sings along to popular 90s songs on the radio as you drive around.
Developers know music is important for a first impression as well, which is why a lot of work is put into finding the right song for the trailers. Using popular or new hot songs in a trailer can help to sell the game. I remember seeing the trailer for the first Gears of War and hearing Gary Jules version of “Mad World,” which immediately got me more interested in the story of the game. For my last mention of the GTA franchise; this is a company that excels at trailers. GTA 3 made excellent use of the classic opera to cement the mafia theme, but one that sticks out to me recently is GTA V’s spot using the classic “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. Watching both of these back-to-back again makes me not only realize how much the company has grown, but that they have always respected their music.
It is funny to me how many times I hear someone say a game turned them on to a band. Personally, Vigilante 8 introduced me to The Mighty Mighty Boss Tones, and Duke Nukem: A Time to Kill used Stabbing Westward’s “The Thing I Hate” as its intro song, and they became one of my favorite bands. I have since listened to both bands extensively, but will always relate them back to those first experiences. The reverse works in a way as well though. I played Resident Evil, but loved the movie’s soundtrack so much that hearing any of the songs from that movie’s soundtrack now makes me want to replay the games more than see the film. It is actually a bit odd how widely game soundtracks have crossed over into other mediums. Hell, I have friends who went to see Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy music performed with a live symphony.
These songs do not just create personal memories, but social ones as well. A fellow employee recently could not remember which Saints Row games he had played until I mentioned the mission with “Power” playing in it and he immediately remembered pretty much everything about Saints Row: The Third. Licensed music is a powerful thing in games when used properly, and helps to set those that use it well apart from the pack. I know GTA and Saints Row got a lot of attention in this piece, but I am always looking for more good examples of this to experience. I want more connections to games I can remember fondly, and share those memories with others, and hope more developers create moments like this for me to love in the future.