Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Looking for Licensed Music in Video Games

This post contains spoilers for Red Dead Redemption

If you're still reading after that title pun, congratulations and thank you. Anyway...Ever since playing Spec Ops: The Line I've been thinking about licensed music in games and what it can add to a game.

As I said in our Spec Ops podcast, hearing recognizable songs in the middle of gunplay was probably my favorite part of the game. Here's a video of "Hush" playing during an early encounter:

I recognized the song, but it was completely out of its normal context. Within the game, Walker and his squad mates are also feeling the weird dissonance: psychedelic rock is playing while they're fighting for their lives, which helped link me to the characters. Something about it made me a little more wild eyed and battle seemed more chaotic. The normal generic guitar riffs or Hans Zimmer pounding were nowhere to be found in this strange place.

I took a quick stroll down memory lane to find some recent examples of great licensed music in games.

"Power" in Saints Row: The Third

In a game that is basically an exercise in indulging the ultimate power fantasy, this track feels right at home. Furthermore, Kanye's brash persona and love of catchy hooks fits right in with the Saints' swagger. What other song would you rather hear when skydiving out of a plane onto the roof of a building?

"Here's to You " in Metal Gear Solid 4

In a way, it's fitting that a cover of a Joan Baez song about two (likely wrongly) convicted Italian-American immigrants with anarchist leanings. Is it an allusion to Snake, who is metaphorically killed by a system that has doomed him from the beginning? Is it another critique of the tendency for leaders to exploit fear, xenophobia, and violence to maintain power? Is it some sort of meta-commentary or absurdist joke? Or does Kojima truly not realize how ridiculous he is? All these questions can be asked of the Metal Gear series as a whole, so I think it's a pretty great use of the song.

"Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," in Red Dead Redemption

When it comes to Western tropes, Red Dead Redemption always seems to have its cake and eat it too. It touches on almost every single genre convention out there but still manages to exist as more than a cliche or an homage. Much of this is do the systemic story: the game's open world tells an implicit story about the endless cycle of violence begetting violence. The end is inevitable and it's hammered home by one of the most classic cowboy songs in the book, but it's an hauntingly honest one. In fact, I'd recommend listening to full version as well:

That's a handful of recent games with licensed music, but I'm sure I'm missing some great examples. What are some of your favorite games (past or present) with licensed music?


  1. Take Us Back - Alela Diane in The Walking Dead

    After hearing this at the credits of The Walking Dead, it was difficult not to think back on all the choices (good and bad) I made as Lee Everett.

  2. Dunno whether the old songs in Fallout 3 needed to be licensed, but I particularly liked "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire", "Butcher Pete" and "Civilization".

    Brutal Legend's soundtrack has a lot of good songs, but the escape sequence with Dragonforce's "Through the Fire and Flames" in the background was fairly memorable.

    Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet begins with Dimmu Borgir's appropriately named "Progenies of the Great Apocalypse" as the alien comet infects the protagonist's sun.

  3. Braid OST

    Shira Kammen "Downstream"

    Jami Sieber "Maenam"

    Though the whole soundtrack is great. It felt not only appropriate thematically, but mechanically as well. After reading about the development of the game, it seems Jon Blow chose them for that very reason. Apparently it was also directly influential on how the background art was stylized. I love it even more for introducing me to artists i would have missed otherwise.

    I have tons of game soundtracks in my library and found it interesting Braid was the only one using licensed music.

  4. That was definitely a sonic punch to the gut!

  5. Great pics. How could I have forgotten Brutal Legend? I still have to play that game all the way through!

  6. I still listen to the Braid soundtrack regularly! It's always in it's own separate playlist in Spotify/iTunes sidebar, ready for any occasion I remember when I learned all the songs were licensed; I was very impressed Jonathan Blow was able to find songs that sounded like they were made for the game. I can't imagine the game without them!