Licensed for Sound
When I think back to my days playing Grand Theft Auto IV, one aspect of that game stands out above all else: the soundtrack. As much fun as I had orchestrating drunken drive-bys, getting curb side blow jobs in a convertible (with the top down) and firing off conveniently placed stunt ramps, these activities just wouldn't have been the same without the accompaniment of licensed tracks. Spread across a range of genre spanning radio stations, there was something for everyone in GTA IV. The music brought character to Liberty City and infused the polygon streets with life; it was the pulse of a city that was never more alive than when the radio was on.
It didn’t take me long to settle upon some favourite tunes and stations, and to this day I can't hear Kanye West's "Flashing Lights", Ne-Yo's "Because of You" or Alexander O'Neal's "Criticize" without being transported back to Liberty City. Drug deals, murder and extortion had to wait until I'd searched through the FM frequencies and found a favourite track. The carefully chosen music and believable stations have become an integral part of my GTA IV memories, in the same way that I struggle to separate my recollections of Mafia 2 from the period music that brought that sandbox to life.
For years, licensed music has been used to great effect in video games. Wipeout was my first experience with a licensed soundtrack. It contained many of dance music's most influential acts of the nineties, including Orbital, Leftfield and the Chemical Brothers, lending credibility to the fledgling PlayStation and making Sony’s intentions clear. It combined the sound and urgency of the Club with the time-tested racing genre, bringing video games to an entirely new audience and contributing to a trend of licensed soundtracks in racing games that continues to this day. Gran Turismo followed only a few years later with familiar beats of its own, and moving into the more recent past, let’s not forget the sounds of Paradise City and the freedom of custom soundtracks in Burnout Paradise.
Having seen the impressive track list, I'm greatly looking forward to Lumines: Electronic Symphony - yes, I did end up pre-ordering a Vita - as footage suggests that the music and gameplay make for an ideal coupling. Activision's now dormant Hero series has made great and rather lucrative use of a range of artists. DJ Hero excelled in creating outstanding mini-mixes - tunes that would feel at home on your iPod and structured in a way that make you feel like your actions are having a real effect on the output, whilst sparing you the embarrassment of having a rhythmical nightmare.
While a licensed soundtrack may help a game to click with a broad audience in a way that an OST may not, the results are not always as stellar as those mentioned above. EA and 2K have a nasty habit of forcing a mish-mash of ill-fitting songs onto their sports titles, which has resulted in my always playing their franchises with the sound off. When done properly, with an appreciation for the original song and the content to which it’s attached, a licensed track can work wonders as part of an otherwise original soundtrack, as seen in Red Dead Redemption and the songs that bookend the chapters in Alan Wake, such as David Bowie's "Space Oddity". However, this is not always the case. Call of Duty: Black Op's use of the Rolling Stones fell flat, despite tracks like "Gimme Shelter" having long been associated with the conflict in Vietnam. Its use in Black Op's gun-boat chapter felt like a lazy attempt to force it onto a scene where it didn’t belong.
Throwing a pop song, usually by a well-known artist, onto the end of a game that otherwise contains an all original score is unfortunately common practice. Leona Lewis crooning at the end of Final Fantasy XIII made me want to punch a moogle, and if I ever get the chance to speak with Hideo Kojima then the first thing I'll ask is what on earth possessed him to put Star Sailor over the end credits of Metal Gear Solid 3.
In the last couple of years, it has become increasingly common for game trailers to cash-in on the use of licensed tracks. In 2011, publishers were actually required by law to feature Kanye West "Power" in every other trailer they produced. It’s rather jarring when a popular song or genre is shoe horned into every trailer going (dubstep, please fuck off) without a care for how well it meshes with the game on show. One of the most heinous examples was Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, where Ubisoft ran TV ads featuring Tinie Tempah's “Pass Out” - probably not the first song that comes to mind when pondering life in Renaissance-era Rome.
Sometimes publishers will get it right. SEGA’s use of Kele's "Tenderoni" in the debut Sonic Generations trailer was a stroke of genius, as the speed and rhythm of the song perfectly suited the gameplay on show. More recently, I was rather impressed by Binary Domains use of a licensed track – Unkle featuring Ian Astbury – that succeeded in causing me to become even more hyped for a game that I was already overly excited for.
How do you feel about licensed music in games?