As dozens of “Games in Concert” across the globe can testify, video game music is popular and a genre of music to take seriously. But another thing games are very good at; are licensed songs. Just like Tarantino, Kubrick and Snyder, video game makers are often brilliant at picking appropriate pop songs, oldies or classical pieces to turn their productions into instant cult hits. Either used ironically, dramatically or just because it’s cool, licensed songs add something to a game.
I made a list, completely and utterly personally biased, of the best licensed songs in games. I made a rule to only pick songs that are contextually used in a particularly scene. So it eliminated the radios in Grand Theft Auto or the songs on loop in the Tony Hawk games. Obviously the list contains mild spoilers. For your listening pleasure I included links to each song; though to fully appreciate them you obviously need to hear them in the scenes depicted.
1. Far Away – José Gonzalez (Red Dead Redemption)
Halfway Rockstar Games’ Western epic, protagonist John Marston ventures into Mexico in the hunt for his former gang mate. After a dramatic river crossing and a frantic shoot-out, Marston finds himself alone in the wilderness and rides his horse into the unknown. Right that moment the soothing guitar riffs start and Swedish-Argentinian singer-song writer Gonzalez starts singing the most appropriate song possible. “It’s so far, so far away, It’s so far, so far away. Cold wind blows into the skin. Can’t believe the state you’re in..”
2. It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World – James Brown (The Godfather II)
The Godfather II is not a very good game. Halfway the story I decided I would rate it about six out of ten. It’s fun, has some interesting concepts, but it never really gets good. But when the credits roll and you have that slightly unresolved feeling lingering, James Brown’s famous song gets a whole new meaning. The notoriously chauvinist lyrics become ironically appropriate for the sad, self destructing life of a mobster. “Okay”, I thought to myself. “Six and a half, then.”
3. Fortunate Son – Creedence Clearwater Revival (Watch Dogs 2)
Ubisoft’s hacker-themed open world game might just be one of the most socially woke, contemporary narratives in the mainstream market. Sharp-witted and on-par with modern life it tackles themes like racism, big data and the influence of hackers on mass media and election results. In an attempt to right the wrongs, protagonists Marcus at some point goes after a load of fraudulently filled out ballots with the goal of destroying them. What’s better with that than the rebellious 60s shout-out against the establishment?
4. Holding Out for a Hero – Bonnie Tyler (Saints Row The Third)
Many wouldn’t notice that the song is contextual, when nearing the finale of The Saints’ wacky tale of violence and mayhem. The track is also featured on the in-game radio, so if you happen to be in a car you won’t notice it immediately. But as you rush to rescue your friends, Tyler’s booming vocals spur you on to lay waste to your enemies and emerge truly a hero.
5. Broken Wings – Mr. Mister (Grand Theft Auto: Vice City)
“Tommy Vercetti… Huh! Shit. Didn’t think they’d ever let him out…” With these words, one of the most popular games to date kicks off. Fifteen years later still a classic: Vice City. As Sonny Forelli talks, in the background we hear the soundtrack of the 1980s. A synthesizer track and the melodramatic power ballad of Mr. Mister. Overproduced, morose and a tad cheesy, everything you need to frame a 1980s gangster drama in fictionalised Miami.
6. Make it Bun Dem – Skrillex & Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley (Far Cry 3)
With this one I can just imagine someone on the Far Cry 3 team snapping their fingers and jump up at the sudden realisation: “That’s it! That’s the perfect song for that mission!” Tasked with burning down a weed field, the reggae link seems obvious. But the frantic violence and noise would be mismatch for the mellow sounds of most rasta music. The solution is this fusion of smooth stoner tunes and Skrillex’ adrenalin surging dub-step.
7. Sympathy for the Devil – Rolling Stones (Call of Duty: Black Ops)
Okay, it’s a wildly overdone trope, but it works. Rock and roll music during Vietnam war battle scenes. In Call of Duty’s case it settled their success of adventuring into a new setting of the cold war. Putting that song in as you cruise down the jungle river was their way of saying: “Look, we know this stuff. We know what we’re doing.” And they did.
8. Avé Maria – Franz Schubert (Hitman Blood Money)
The adventures of Agent 47 are probably the most whimsical in terms of tone and setting. Sometimes IO Interactive wants to be cold and gritty, sometimes tongue in the cheek funny and sometimes just outright B-movie style cheesy. Their most popular title to date took a more serious tone, especially in the intro that foreshadowed a possibly dark end for our bald hero. Falling leaves, autumn sun, a sombre looking crowd at a cemetery and the poignant tones of Schubert’s Ellens Gesang III, better known as “Avé Maria”.
9. Space Oddity – David Bowie (Alan Wake)
Beautiful, mysterious and a little odd. That’s Alan Wake in a nutshell. And that’s why one of David Bowie’s most famous songs goes so well with it. It embodies the ambition and creative direction of the team behind the Twin Peaks inspired mystery game. Remedy wanted something new and different; a bit strange and quasi-intellectual. Meant for twenty- and thirty-somethings that like old music and television.
10. Waltz of the Flowers – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (BioShock)
Happy music goes well with sad scenes. We know that since Good Morning Vietnam and that thing with Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. Likewise you can make absurd, macabre scenes extra harrowing by combining it with oddly mismatched music. Deadly Premonition did it, intentionally or not, I never figured that out. A Clockwork Orange did it, definitely intentionally. And one of the best scenes in BioShock, when mentally ill drug addicts, dressed in bunny masks run down a stage under the music of The Nutcracker while trying to kill you, it was wonderful.