Specific songs from the games and their context can tell you the details of some stories. Be aware of spoilers!
Lately, like many other players, I got completely carried away by the atmosphere of Alan Wake 2. I didn't remember the structure of the first installment, so the culmination of the first chapter that used a song was a big surprise for me. Instead of clicking "continue," I listened to Follow You Into the Dark, which was very atmospheric and perfectly matched what I had experienced moments earlier. The concept of incorporating a natural pause into the gameplay, akin to the end of a chapter in a book, was just perfect.
However, what caught my attention was the song itself. Thanks to it, I managed to gather my thoughts and sort the story out in my head. Such moments are few and far between in the video game industry. We are used to music being part of games, but don’t seem to pay that much attention to it. However, in reality, the music in games is often just a background, making it difficult to identify a main theme. On the other hand, a song lasts two to three minutes and has the power to completely stir our emotions, create the right atmosphere, or make us contemplative. There's a reason the Oscars have separate categories for music and song.
As I was listening to Follow You Into the Dark again from the in-game radio player, it brought to mind other games in which the developers used some well-known songs – and practically every time, these moments were crushing! They brought a smile to the face or evoke specific emotions, much like a car radio that unexpectedly plays your favorite song during a long journey. Songs create a far more powerful impression than the typical background soundtrack. Below are some examples!
The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie. Kojima understands the power of music
Many comments praising the choice of music are found under various videos featuring the intro of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. It's true that the entire hospital sequence also played a major part here, especially in how it ties the game's conclusion and unveils various plot twists typical of Kojima. However, we have to acknowledge that David Bowie's track, The Man Who Sold the World, playing from the classic Walkman, does half of the job. You can listen to a truly legendary piece of music, even if the vocals are performed by someone else. It takes you back to the atmosphere of past decades, and the song's lyrics resonate with the context of the entire character, although we may realize this much later. A perfect example of a perfect choice. It turns out that sometimes buying an expensive license for music is worth it.
Don't Be So Serious / Bones - Low Roar. Kojima understands…
A few years later, in his next game, Hideo Kojima demonstrated how excellent his musical taste is and how accurately he can direct a scene in which everything we see aligns with what we hear. Sam Porter's first steps with Don't Be So Serious playing in the background. The first proper mission and all of a sudden, Bones begins to play. Both pieces come from the Icelandic band Low Roar. The atmospheric and melancholic sounds, combined with Sam's walk and the charming landscapes inspired by those in Iceland, create an unforgettable atmosphere.
For some strange reason, we are thrilled to accompany Sam step by step, rather than seeking a quick travel option. Maybe the reason why this "courier simulator" turned out so well is because our first steps in the game – ours and Sam's – were rendered so magical thanks to Low Roar.
Take Us Back – Alela Diane. Who didn't cry over Lee...
The conclusion of the first season of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead was so powerful. Long, emotional, and taking away our beloved character, with whom we had formed a bond, whom we had grown fond of, and respected for what he did for little Clementine. Saying goodbye to these two was emotional on its own, but the feelings were amplified further by the song Take Us Back by Aleli Diane, which started a moment later. It perfectly matched the mood after watching the ending and didn't just allow you to walk away from the screen.
Take On Me – a-ha. Different methods, distinct outcomes
The famous 80s hit by a-ha has recently been featured in games twice, to a very different effect. First in Just Cause 4, presented as an easter egg. While running through the unfinished structure of the skyscraper, we suddenly heard the initial notes of the song, and then our protagonist stepped into a black-and-white, "sketched" world straight from the original music video. We not only heard Morten Harket's vocals but also acted out the music video, as the developers also included a girl in the entire scene. However, we must take into account that this moment was definitely more surprising and amusing for older players who can vividly recall the times when the song by a-ha was everywhere.
The second game brings completely different emotions, not only due to the a different setting. Ellie performs her own cover of Take On Me on acoustic guitar in The Last of Us 2. There's no distinctive music video, no running between mirrors – just Ellie playing and Dina listening. The scene highlights not only the romantic bond between the girls, but also Ellie's yearning for Joel, as he was the one who taught Ellie to play the instrument. There's also a sense of joy and normalcy in contrast to the dirty and violent world the couple has to face every day, along with a reference to a similar moment in the expansion – Left Behind.
Unshaken - D'Angelo / That's The Way It Is – Lanois. Arthur, it’s time to ride
Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great example of how a fantastic and atmospheric soundtrack can easily be overshadowed by an even better and more powerful song. The last ride of Arthur Morgan, accompanied by That's The Way It Is by Daniel Lanois, quickly became one of the most touching, emotional moments in video games, especially since it is associated with the protagonist's bitter farewell.
Unshaken by D'Angelo is played a little earlier, emphasizing the moral ambiguity of Morgan's actions. Similarly to The Walking Dead, both tracks greatly enhance the overall experience. They allow you to remember those moments and songs for a very long time. A regular piece of soundtrack wouldn't have that much power.
Flashback FM / Flash FM and others - rocking the van around town
The GTA series is definitely known for its radio stations. While the latest part of the series didn't impress me much in this respect, I still recall the radio stations from the older installments: GTA 3 and GTA: Vice City. The Flashback FM from GTA 3, where you could listen to almost all of the songs from the movie Scarface, really stood out. More than once have I launched the game not to complete a mission, but just to drive around the city, waiting for She's On Fire, Push It to the Limit or I'm Hot Tonight to play on the radio. I experienced a similar feeling in GTA: Vice City, thanks to the Flash FM station playing music from the 80s.
The developers from Rockstar studio were well aware of the power of those songs. In one of the first missions, everything was arranged so that upon entering the car, you would immediately hear Michael Jackson's hit, Billie Jean. A small detail that set an unusual mood while giving us something familiar.
Glukoza - Schweine. Niko isn't the same without that song...
The GTA series deserves one more mention. The first car ride for Niko in the fourth installment was once again directed to start with the song Schweine by Glukoza. It wasn't a famous song, but it was definitely very characteristic and catchy. After I heard the chorus "Eins, zwei, drei, schicke-schicke Schweine" once, it was impossible to get it out of my head.
Schweine isn't the kind of song that evokes extreme emotions or sentimentality, but it serves as a good example bringing up a completely different issue. The song's license has expired, so in the new version of GTA 4, installed from the publisher's servers, the ride with cousin Roman starts with a completely different, unremarkable track. I tried to play the new version and... it's just not the same. I didn't like it, I had the impression that a certain era ended. For someone who hasn't played the original before, this will probably be a meaningless detail, but for me, it somehow incapsulated the essence of this entire game. It seems like a trifle, but it completely changes the perception.
The Wolven Storm – Priscilla. It doesn't have to famous
Priscilla's Song from The Witcher 3 is a good example of how an in-game song doesn't have to be a hit record. Just like in Red Dead Redemption 2, it's proof of how a wonderfully crafted soundtrack can be overshadowed by a few minutes of a song. Developers from CD Projekt didn't simply play the song in the background. Priscilla gets her instrument ready on stage, prepares her audience, who sit in anticipation of the performance, and then proceeds to completely mesmerize Geralt, townsfolk, and most importantly us –just like at a real, cozy recital.
This is a moment where you don't consider skipping the cutscene, but instead absorb every word sung by Priscilla, which, by the way, is about Geralt and Yennefer's relationship. The numerous language versions of this piece sparked curiosity for a reason, and it's no surprise that it’s been covered numerous times. We remember games and the stories told in them because of moments like this.
Whoever sings, wins
Of course, we can mention many other songs. Let's just recall the themes from John Carpenter's horror films in What Remains of Edith Finch and The Crew: Motorfest, Should I Stay or Should I Go from Far Cry 4, or Get Low from the menu of Need for Speed: Underground. Why do developers so rarely use the power of songs? One possible obstacle is the cost of licensing or creating entirely new pieces. I have high hopes that this will change and ambitious projects will incorporate such elements, because songs are effective in nearly every video game genre and situation. A song is good for everything! I hope there will be a lot more singing in games.
Darius Matusiak | Gamepressure.com