You know what I love? Songs. I love when instead of ever-looping ambient music that continues forever, a game figures out how to implement an actual, voiced, start-to-finish song into a scene. It’s so rarely done and so difficult to pull off that when a game does it properly it can be incredibly emotive, adding a whole heap to an otherwise typical or uneventful sequence.
There’s no hard-and-fast way to put a song into a game, but a variety of games have experimented with it in meaningful and evocative ways.
Along with (I imagine) most game players, I first encountered ‘songs’ in gameplay as opposed to background music in Rockstar’s games, specifically in Grand Theft Auto III.
As you play the Grand Theft Auto games, the only music in the games comes from the car radios. This music takes the form of specific, progressing songs that actually end. I remember it being a noticeably weird thing when I first played Grand Theft Auto III, that songs ended and new ones start.
I was so used to music that would just loop forever, patiently waiting for me to do something that would forward it to the next type of music. But in Grand Theft Auto III, the songs never waited for me. They would end and a new song would start, regardless of what I was doing. It helped to create a sense of the world being larger than just me. Liberty City wasn’t just there to be my playground; it was a living and breathing city that I was just a single inhabitant of.
In Red Dead Redemption, where the cars were replaced with horses, diegetic songs on the radio wasn’t really an option as, well, there is no radio. But Rockstar San Diego still managed to use songs instead of endless looping ambient music to great effect at several key moments of the game. The first is when José González’s “Far Away” plays as you first ride into Mexico. The song’s lyrics along with the lonely guitar plucks gives this real sense that Marsden is going further and further away from his home.
And then, even more powerfully, is when The Law finally tell Marsden he can actually return home to his ranch. Jamie Lidell’s “Compass” plays, with a hesitant but uplifting tone that mirrored my own “No way I am actually going to see my family. Right? Wait. Maybe I will.” I galloped so hard through the woods of Tall Trees, wanting to get home as fast as possible. The song died off just as I was galloping up the road to my porch. It was perfectly timed so that if you did exactly what the game wanted you to do at that point, it just worked.
Of course, that is the problem with relying on specific, non-looping songs. If the player doesn’t do exactly what is expected of them for one reason or another, the song just might not work. I have heard people complain how while riding into Mexico, a pack of coyote killed their horse, leaving them to run for their life into the desert while González plays them off. It sounds hilarious, I suppose, but it would be infuriating if it happened to you.
Other games that use songs overcome the pacing issue by kind of cheating and creating a looped version of the song. In most cases, you would think this would completely lose the effect of using a song in the first place, but occasionally it works.
On one of the final missions of the gloriously absurd Saints Row: The Third, Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need A Hero” plays as you drive across a city engulfed in a three-way war and then shoot your way through a whole heap of enemies. At first, you expect the song to end but it just keeps going forever. Yet, it is so perfectly mixed that the song was going for a good ten minutes before I even noticed it was looping.
Here, even though the song was looping like the most typical videogame music, the fact it was still noticeably an actual song complete with lyrics just gave the mission a kind of tongue-in-cheek faux gravitas and just made it an absolute pleasure to play.
The most interesting game I have played this year, Spec Ops: The Line, tries something similar but it doesn’t quite work as well as in Saints Row: The Third. The game uses a variety of songs throughout the game to great effect, such as protest-era pieces from the likes of The Black Angels and Deep Purple, to add a discordant kind of irony to some of the skirmishes. It works excellently but, strangely, the developers decided to loop the songs rather than have them just play once.
This worked in Saints Row because “I Need A Hero” was cut in a way that the endless looping just sounded like one continuous song. In The Line, the song fades out, ends, and then just starts again. The songs themselves are great, but I would have much preferred these songs to have just faded out and ended, forcing you to finish your skirmishes under a heavy silence.
Still, the fact they are there at all creates a powerful atmosphere that contributes beautifully to the game’s themes. Using songs instead of ambient music isn’t simple, but it opens up entirely new avenues for the ways audio can contribute to the experience of gameplay. I love that more and more titles are experimenting with songs, and I’m excited to see how they are used next.