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“With Original Songs by…” The Importance of Music In Video Games

Everyone knows that damn song from the film Titanic by Celine Dion or before that, the extremely overplayed Bryan Adams song from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and of course, every James Bond movie has it’s own individual song composed for it.

Throughout the film industry, this is common practice.

A film will not only have an orchestral score but individual songs to be promoted alongside the film and sold separately as original soundtracks.

While you may be familiar with Hollywood employing musicians and bands to sell their movies, it’s not unique to film. You might be surprised at how prevalent this technique is in the games industry.

In video games, using songs to market individual titles or create original soundtracks is undertaken with much more subtlety. Unbeknownst to many, games have been seeking out musicians for years and understandably so, because music is crucial to video games.

Before there were voices or speaking characters in games, there was simply music or 8-bit noises that we interpreted  by us as a means of understanding our characters and building emotive relationships with them. Link from The Legend of Zelda and his occasional “Hyaaah”‘s were all we had and yet, he’s one of the most iconic characters of all time.

The importance of music is paramount and it has long been a part of video games but now there are songs specifically written for video games and I’m not talking about orchestral scores, but individual songs released for games or to accompany them.

In 2004, Halo 2 was released alongside a soundtrack for the games which was comprised of music from the game itself by composer Martin McDonnell alongside music inspired by the game from popular bands at the time, Breaking Benjamin, Incubus and Hoobastank.

The reviews were mixed, many feeling that the inclusion of these bands was unnecessary but some found it to be incredibly refreshing, back then video game music was only just beginning to be accepted and revered with the same level of regard as film soundtracks.

A second volume of the Halo 2 soundtrack was later released and many critics of volume one hailed it as the unofficial “official” soundtrack of the game.

Despite the mixed feelings of fans and critics, this didn’t deter other game franchises from using well known bands to promote their games, for example Valve used Southern blues rock band, Clutch to advertise Left 4 Dead in the US and Elbow, a well known alternative rock band in the UK. Mike Morasky, a Valve composer used to be in a band himself but specially created songs under the in-game band name Midnight Riders.

Of course, one franchise which has been heralded for it’s soundtracks is the Grand Theft Auto series. The first few games included a few musical artists but most of the music was comprised of homages to certain genres and bands. Rockstar realised that for many fans, one of the most memorable parts of their games are the radio stations. By GTA: San Andreas, Rockstar had music from huge bands such as Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill, David Bowie and Billy Idol to name a few, as well as incorporating in-game fictional bands like Lovefist and sampling music from the previous games. Furthermore, after using the Seryoga song King Ring in their trailer for GTA IV, Rockstar contracted the Belarusian rapper to compose an original track (Liberty City: The Invasion) specifically for the game.

The radio stations in the GTA series are so integral to the games popularity, many players have come across music they would have otherwise been ignorant to, a fan who enjoys rock music might become a fan of another genre based purely on the connection between the game and the soundtrack. Admittedly, there are songs I never cared for until I heard them in games.

Similarly, I hadn’t heard of Tinie Tempah until hearing him on the Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood advertisements on TV. Although his music isn’t used in-game, I now associate it with the Assassin’s Creed games and have since actively sought out his music.

A more obvious game series that utilises the music of various bands is Rock Band. Many bands showcased in these games released new versions of their songs specifically for Harmonix to use. Employees of the company also had a chance to promote their own bands within the game, apparently almost all of the development team are in bands or are musicians. Bang Camaro, Anarchy Club and The Main Drag are just a few bands featured in the games made up of Harmonix employees!

Certain songs by established artists in Rock Band, such as Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas (originally released in 1976) have re-entered popularity and are now embraced by a younger audience in a complete opposition to the bands usual demographic. The music used in the Rock band series even has multiple playlists or tags on music apps like Spotify and Last.fm due to it’s popularity.

Then there are the songs that cross-over two different games completely, like the inclusion of a rather familiar track from the Portal credits finding its way into the Rock Band downloadable catalogue. Still Alive by Jonathan Coulton was already a fan favourite but being able to play the track and sing along to the maniacal lyrics was a perfect harmony (pun intended… and now highlighted so you appreciate it). Not to mention the fact that it was a free download. Oh, and the other fictional Valve band I previously mentioned, the Midnight Riders, now have songs on the Rock Band marketplace too.

This week saw the release of GTA V, the most expensive game made to date. With it the industry is beginning to get more complex, making more money than ever before and mimicking the film industry. While it is impossible to say what other factors will be harnessed (just think about how many ads for video games you saw in the cinema this year), it would be interesting to see how this pairing of original musical tracks and major video game releases blossoms.

Or, alternatively will it die a staggered death and be looked back on with furrowed brows and murmurs of “who thought that would be a good idea?” What do you think? Do you like the idea of your favourite bands or artists scoring original tracks to coincide with the release of a video game or would you rather keep those worlds entirely separate?

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Grant Kowalewski

    September 25, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    While I believe it can be beneficial to utilise artists in creating a score and soundtrack for a game, it can be limiting and a potential boondoggle if it takes precedence over development.

    A prime example of a great soundtrack, while not original music ("The Living Dead" by Phantom Planet being the exception), being used to market a game is Stubbs the Zombie. It involved covers of 50's favourites covered by prominent bands at the time. It helped give a feeling of familiarity, but disease to the game that helped it be more than just another zombie game. It also gave gamers a look at old and new music alike due to the inclusion of artists that they might not have known about.

    The issue I have with having artists record original pieces for a game is genre clashes. This happens in movies, as well. While having the Arcade Fire and Metric contribute to the Twilight franchise makes sense, but using Avril Lavigne in Eragon felt forced and gimmicky. Having Daft Punk write the soundtrack for Tron: Legacy worked because they understood the feel of the project. Portal and Jonathan Coultons contributions worked due to specific theming and by being great as separate entities.

    A separate issue arises due to game setting. It can be jarring and cause a loss of immersion to hear music in a completely different context. This can be beneficial when the developer wants to unsettle their audience or play it for anachronistic humour. This limits it's availability.

    A game set in the present has a soundtrack or song by a major artist. It sells based on it's merits as both a well-developed game and a good song. Companies see this and begin producing games to match using the same formula: present day + big name artist = money in the bank. This discounts the actual value of developing and causes budgets to be pushed towards the musician and not the development team and producing a mediocre game. Budgets will skyrocket (we've already seen the dangers of that in movies and television) and companies will shy from making games that don't adhere to the idea. It's not a likely scenario, but it is a worrisome thought.

    I would love to see developers involve all the tools available to them, including artists and musicians who wish to contribute, but only if it produces a better experience for the gamer.

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