A horror game might place the protagonist in a silent, darkened hallway where only the sounds of his footsteps and labored breathing can be heard, creating an atmosphere of being completely alone. A knocked over paint can followed by an unintelligible chattering can cause the paranoia of being watched set in without having to show anything at all.
Licensed music can have the same effect as original efforts if done properly. One of the last missions of Saints Row the Third presents Bonnie Tyler's "I Need a Hero" in such a way that it matches perfectly with the game's overall satirical and over-the-top tone. Both Borderlands' intros capture the viewer's interest with the first game in particular, setting the pace for the game's irreverent feel. The right song can also give a scene emotional weight, much like in World in Conflict, where Audioslave's "Shadow on the Sun" accompanies a group of marine helicopters attempting to retake Governors Island from the invading Soviet forces.
FarCry 3 highlights just how important music can be during a scene. Early on in the main campaign, Jason Brody has to burn down a field of marijuana in an attempt to create chaos and disrupt the flow of drugs for the island's despot, Hoyt Volker. As he closes in on the crops, the music starts to slowly change into "Make It Bun Dem", an appropriate mix of reggae and dubstep by Skrillex and Damian Marley. The upbeat, almost surreal tune emphasizes the glee that the once hesitant-to-kill Jason has further devolved as he excitedly destroys the crop and murders anyone in his way, laughing and cheering the entire time. This scene, one of the highlights of the game, would have been easily forgettable without the song playing in the background.
Play this scene with the music off and you will know exactly what I mean.
While the right song can make a good sequence great, it can also save what would have been an otherwise boring stretch of gameplay. During the climax of Max Payne 3, the game reaches a moment where Max has to cut his way through seemingly endless waves of hired goons down a long airport terminal hallway. What would have been a generic showpiece is made into something memorable by HEALTH's haunting theme to the game hanging in the background as Max slaughters his way from one end of the hall to the other. The music flows perfectly with the bullet-cam and slow down mechanics saving what would otherwise have been a frustratingly long turkey shoot.
"One second, let me turn on my iPod."
Sometimes in a game, it's not a single song, but a soundtrack as a whole that brings the entire thing together. It would be easy to point to the massive licensed discography is that is the Grand Theft Auto series, but I would argue that those games stand alone just well enough without the music. There are those games, however, that when they are mentioned one of the first things brought up is the amazing soundtrack. Katamari Damacy wouldn't be anywhere near as beloved without its catchy, lounge singer crooning, absurd beats. Anyone who has played this is already thinking about their favorite tune from Katamari just by naming it, it's that infectious.
In a similar vein is Persona 4. The entire breadth of Persona's soundtrack serves to help one embrace the culture of a high school student in a small Japanese town. From the J-pop battle music to the cheery tunes that play while exploring town, the music serves to pull the player into the world itself. By immersing someone so fully it makes what happens to the characters have a greater impact. These aren't just some nameless NPCs made to give quests or act as cannon fodder, but living people with lives that are cared about. In combination with a great translation, the music helps breathe life into what would be nothing more than another JRPG in a modern setting.
Sometimes it can just suck you in.
And then there is Bioshock: Infinite, where the music in the game in part of the plot itself. While wandering around the floating city of Columbia, barber shop quartets sing covers of songs which are several decades from being released. 80's pop hits are changed into carnival music and ragtime tunes hinting that there is something very off about the entire setting. Anachronistic uses of well known songs like this do far more to build a world mythology than any cut scene could have conveyed.
Best use of licensed music ever.
As games continue to grow as a storytelling medium, it's important that all aspects the experienceare covered. The most amazing action packed set piece can fall flat without an appropriately epic musical score driving the player forward. Likewise, a forgettable moment can be given an extended life by simply choosing the right song to play alongside it. The atmosphere of a game can be completely ruined if something breaks the immersion, pulling the player out of the experience and killing any emotional attachment that might come along with the game. Much like how a good meal can be made exceptional with the right combination of spices, the right music can make a mediocre game better or a fantastic game into something that will truly be remembered.
Steven Brown falls asleep listening to the Skyrim soundtrack every night. You can listen him on Twitter to hear his thoughts on damn near everything.view gallery