Music is a big part of my life and the lives of most people I know. As a music and film fan it’s always been interesting to me to see how movies can take licensed music and use it to emphasize certain plot points. Although I think comparing games to films is mostly a bad habit, I think using licensed music like this is a trick that games could use a little more often in order to really drive home emotional punches that are often sorely lacking in gaming’s collective narrative. So, here are the rules:
- The song in question must be licensed, and must have been written with no connection to the development of the game.
- The song must be used in a narrative context. This means if it’s a skippable song on a radio station, one of many songs used in a rhythm game or it has no narrative or emotional merit then it does not count.
- The song must emphasize an emotive or narrative quality in the game. Long-story short, it has to make the game’s story at least appear better (and for a narrative-game sort of guy such as myself, the translation is a better game altogether.)
Cool? Cool. From five down to one, let’s see what we’ve got.
#5 – Saint’s Row: The Third — ‘Power’ by Kanye West
Volition struck gold with Saint’s Row: The Third with the mentality that everything is open to negotiation as long as the joke goes on, even if the joke is only a gentle ribbing at the game industries tendency to over glamorize everything. Is there really a better way to include a song so crammed full of self-serving, glory-addled bragging and stark cynicism than to have it playing as the protagonist launch himself from a helicopter and parachutes onto the roof of a penthouse before ruthlessly slaughtering all the guests at the party of an enemy? Even the song title, ‘Power’, seems satirical under the circumstances, with the player-character embodying a certain sense of caricature throughout ridiculous action set-pieces prior to this moment; now, though, he has power and uses it.
#4 – Prince of Persia: Warrior Within – ‘I Stand Alone’ by Godsmack
I’ll be the first admit I may have been going through my emo kid stage back when I first played Warrior Within, but I never understood the hate for the inclusion of this song, or the frustration people had with the game in general. Yeah, it’s a little heavy, but with the generally over-metal’d vocals taken out of this Godsmack track, the emphasized guitar and general instrumentation does a pretty good job of conveying the pace which the Warrior Within was trying to set with the Dahaka chase scenes that the song looped over, as well as keeping the tone of the game somewhere between angsty and homicidal.
#3 – Gears of War III – ‘Mad World’ by Gary Jules
Let’s be totally abruptly honest here: The story for Gears of War kind of sucks. Sure I’ll give the writers the benefit of having littered their narrative with cool touches but there’s nothing any more important than “aliens vs. bro’s” for nearly three whole games. Still, when Gears of War III reached its turning point, the moment whence upon fist-pumping your way to victory would prove a thing of the past, I found myself vaguely unsettled by the strength with which it carried it’s nobility. A large part of that is due to Gary Jules’ rendition of Mad World, here hauntingly slowed down and in places simplified so that the soft echo of keys clinking or the long stretched introduction of strings can emphasize the story in a way I never expected. I came to shoot Locusts, I walked away awkwardly affected.
#2 – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – ‘Way to Fall’ by Starsailor
The story stops, the screen goes black and after a moment, there’s the soft jangle of an acoustic guitar being strummed. A piano riff dances along and after 23 seconds of song, just as the vocals kick in the credits roll onscreen. Technically the game is over, but those few minutes just after the conclusion to MGS3 provide just as much of a gut punch as the narrative that just played out. Way to Fall perfectly captures all of the emotional development and personal realization encountered by Snake Eater‘s protagonist Naked Snake, as well as highlighting the tragic surrogate mother-son relationship between Snake and The Boss that culminated moments earlier. It’s one of the few credits sequences truly worth sitting through because it’s not simply a list of people who made the game happen…it’s the true ending of the game. You could just as easily play the whole song out over a black screen followed by the credits and all the beauty would be retained.
#1 – Saint’s Row: The Third – ‘Holding Out For A Hero’ by Bonnie Tyler
It’s not cheating to include Saint’s Row: The Third twice on this list. The rules are right up there, go see if I said I couldn’t include two songs from one game. The simple truth is, these songs are both on here because they both highlight the game’s narrative in different ways. ‘Power’ achieved it’s kicks by showcasing how the game gave you your first truly powerful moment. ‘Holding Out For A Hero’, however, highlights everything that I loved about Saint’s Row: The Third, which is total unabashed commitment to a dumb joke. When the protagonist is faced with the final choice of helping his homies or taking down the big bad guy, it’s almost embarrassing; these are not the choices of a game like Saint’s Row. These are the choices of bigger more established franchises that have backed themselves into a corner by being unable to please everybody. Then, as you’re given free reign to make your decision some synth kicks in, followed by that all too familiar keyboard jangle and the pounding rhythmic drums. As Tyler’s voice kicks in, it already feels like a race against time and, oh my god, it is so dumb it’s perfect! There’s not even any need to concern yourself with beating any clock to make a decision, either as the endless drum solo’s and horn blarings are looped until you finally reach a destination. Turns out, no matter what you do, you’re still a hero in some sense and that’s the final middle finger that The Third gives to every other video game out there, thanks to this 80′s slice of super-cheese.
So, what do you guys think? Any stand out tracks I missed? Let us know in the comments!