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?

Comments

  1. I loved how Saints Row: The Third used music, they didn't use it often, had a great soundtrack, and it make the missions feel more fun. My favorite came on accident though when I was forced to drive a tiger around while the song, "I'm the Best Around" played.

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    1. I didn't realise Saints Row had a licensed soundtrack. Is it as OTT as the gameplay? I will get around to playing it at some point, if not just so that I can ride a tiger!

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    2. Everything about that game is OTT. It has everything from rock to metal to rap to classical, sometimes it will play during a mission Black Ops style (though it does a much better job than BO). I should clarify though: you don't ride a tiger, you give a tiger a ride in the car, trying to avoid crashing and zoo trucks or else he'll paw at you.

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    3. No tiger riding? Right, I'm sending my copy back to Amazon!

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  2. The new Lumines soundtrack looks awesome. One of the reasons I am going to go ahead and get it at launch. I forget which, but I recall really loving one of the Tony Hawk licensed soundtracks. It fit perfectly with the type of punk rock I listened to at the time. GTA's are always great. I enjoyed Alan Wake's use of licensed music as well.

    Worst use of license music: Godsmack in Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. Ugh... that was terrible.

    While I generally prefer a more traditional game score, there are certain genres and games that just make sense with a licensed soundtrack.

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    1. How on earth did I forget about Godsmack in PoP. That was truly awful. By far the worst use of licensed music in a game.

      A really nice mix on Lumines. That is definitely a game that I will be enjoying with headphones.

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  3. i'm with TripOpt55 on preferring games with a traditional score but some games work well with a licensed sountrack. gta 4 is a perfect example.

    your blog made me think of ridge racer for the first playstation and how you could put in a cd after the game loaded and listen to whatever you wanted to while playing. that was pretty cool.

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    1. Didn't know you could do that with Ridge Racer. Nice addition.

      For me, Burnout Paradise is the definitive custom soundtrack game. I loved picking out CDs from my collection that suited the tempo of the gameplay.

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  4. I've never been big into music and never really noticed the soundtrack on both movies and games. Having said that there have been a few games that I couldn't help but fall in love with the music. Uncharted 3 had me humming along with that amazing soundtrack the whole time, I love dragon fights in Skyrim for that song alone. it is hard not to notice it in a game like GTA though, San Andreas was my Favorite GTA and I remember going though station after station looking for "welcome to the jungle" to cause some mayhem to, lol. I also can't forget the MGS games, that one theme song has always got me listening and the part in MGS3 when your climbing the very long ladder, OMG what a great song, lol.

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    1. I don't always notice music while I'm playing, unless it is a particularly good soundtrack.

      Love the Uncharted theme tune. I'll have it stuck in my head all day now! Snake Eater theme tune is probably my favourite of all time. So over the top, yet is suits MGS3 so well.

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