Pop music might not be on your iPod rotation, but video games have warmed up to them over the years. More than just audial wallpaper, there’s a method to this musical madness. As games have matured, the way that they utilize popular music has matured with them. Now if only popular music could do the same.
More often than not, you can guess the music a game will feature before you even open the package. Is it action, adventure, RPG, or a shooter? Then you can probably expect some instrumental music not far removed from Pirates of the Caribbean or Lord of the Rings. Is it spooky? Then some shrill off-key piano is probably in store. Indeed, BioShock was praised for its haunting melodies, but were they really that different from any other survival horror game?
What’s missing, what’s drastically underutilized in contemporary games is popular music. The Grand Theft Auto series is unique in its ubiquitous usage of popular tunes in building atmosphere: 80s hair bands for a cocaine-stained Miami of yesteryear; 90s era rap for a Rodney King-brutalizing Los Angeles; some bumping Kanye for a modern day New York City. To this day every damn time I hear “A Horse with No Name” I’m transported into dune buggy driving through a desert just west of Las Vegas.
A Fallout virgin prior to Fallout 3, I had no idea of the premise behind the game. Even after reading about the setting—200 years after the destruction of a 1950s retro-futuristic version of 2077—I still struggled with the concept. Regardless, Billie Holiday and The Ink Spots helped ease me into the disorienting environment. For some reason, hearing these artists as the only music available drove home the idea that in Fallout, culture and society never really advanced after the 50s.
One standout example of great usage of pop music in games is a famous scene in Red Dead Redemption; one of my favorite scenes in any video game. When I finally took John Marston south of the border in a disorienting and jarring scene, riding my pale horse during a gorgeous sunset through the jagged cliffs, Jose Gonzalez’s haunting voice chimed in, stopping my clock. My clock, perhaps, but not my horse. No, I kept on riding through the desolate Mexican desert, flanked by yipping coyotes; all the while Gonzalez softly explained just how remote my goals really were.
Up to this point, the game featured nothing but the occasional harmonica or steel guitar ambience music of a traditional spaghetti western. Why then, some may ask, did Rockstar decide to insert a popular vocalist like Jose Gonzalez into the game? But no one who played the game would ever ask that. In a gut-wrenching scene, when Marston finally thinks he’s getting what he wants, I mounted my horse to ride toward my game-long goal, and right on cue, Jamie Lidell’s three-packs-a-day voice carried me the entire ride.
Red Dead Redemption only features four songs with vocals, drastically few considering I spent over 50 hours beating it. But these songs are so perfectly timed and positioned that any more would be tragic. If I sound like a broken record regarding RDR, it’s because this game, for the first time ever, used popular music so perfectly and with such laser-point precision it should be imitated ad infinitum.
Now, I know that this formula would not fit in every game; I would hate to hear anyone’s voice in Limbo or Assassin’s Creed. But an epic rock ballad strumming while Cole MacGrath is on his way to face the Beast in Infamous 2 wouldn’t go unappreciated. Hell, depending on his decisions throughout the game, it could very well be a remorseful tune.
For the longest time, developers were limited to pings and dings and music just wasn’t in the equation. Indeed, Coleco’s first games were often scored by whatever completely random blip the developers could conjure out of the motherboard. From there, music took on its famous 8-bit melodies and before long, games featured full instrumental songs. However, for some reason, beyond the rare title like Tony Hawk, pop music was ignored almost wholesale. And like any habit in the video game industry, this one has been hard to break.
I understand that only companies with Rockstar’s money can afford to pay artists like Gonzalez and Lidell to write a song for their game or license a song from Kanye West, but this should not be an insurmountable barrier for smaller studios. There are a million musicians with a million voices, many of whom would leap at the opportunity to be featured in a video game. For many games, any avoidance of vocalized music is base laziness. It’s easier to pay an established composer the standard fee to score your entire game than it is to dig and hunt for the perfect song for a given scene.
Do I think this will become commonplace or even slightly more frequent? Absolutely not. But I do think it needs to happen. Using popular music in a game proves confidence that video games so often lack. No critic in their right mind is going to diminish an action game because it chooses to use clichéd instrumental scoring. But the thought of putting, say, LMFAO in a game, no matter how fitting, is terrifying to a developer. So, to the timid developer, scared to bring us the best product possible; man up.