Best VGM Bonus Round – Licensed Music In Video Games

For my first VGM Bonus Round feature, I looked at some of my favourite uses of Classical Music in videogames. In this second feature, I want to turn my attention to some of the best uses of Licensed Music in games – that is, music produced for the masses that somehow ends up enriching your gaming experience.

A fitting piece of music can improve a dramatic situation a thousand fold – not only in games, but in TV and film as well. Imagine Pulp Fiction without Dick Dale’s ‘Miserlou’, the lobby scene from The Matrix without the sounds of the Propellerheads, or the introduction to the BBC’s Formula One coverage without that classic bass-line from Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’. Most of the time, music produced specifically for the programme/film/game does the job of setting the scene, but more often than not it’s the strange juxtaposition of hearing a song from the radio suddenly kick in that people remember. Get it right, and you go down in history. Get it wrong, and you have the capacity to ruin your project (remember the use of ‘Hallelujah’ in Watchmen? Yeah….)

I’d like to point out that this list isn’t for Licensed Soundtracks; otherwise it would just be dominated by Grand Theft Auto, Rock Band and Guitar Hero games…though I may get round to doing this one day as a separate Bonus Round feature. What I want to highlight in this list are songs that you perhaps didn’t expect that make an otherwise standard piece of gameplay highly memorable, and only play at specific points in the game – I’ve also decided not to include songs that play during credit sequences to narrow the choices down a bit. As ever for this feature, the list is not in order; it’s just a short selection of my personal favourites.

Honorable Mentions

The use of ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult at the start of Prey is suitably creepy, and including ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ by the Rolling Stones in a Vietnam-themed segment of Call Of Duty: Black Ops is commendable for attempting to capture the mood of the time and not having to resort to using ‘Fortunate Son’. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen footage of these two songs in action rather than played the games, so they just narrowly miss the list.

1)   Kanye West, ‘Power’ (featured in Saints Row: The Third (Volition Inc., 2011))

My relationship with the third Saints Row title has not been a happy one – the game regularly glitched out on me, and I couldn’t finish the final mission because I kept falling through the game world. Having uninstalled it in frustration, I can’t now reinstall it because every time I try Steam crashes my computer. Fortunately, I played enough of it to experience this gem of a moment – in an early mission, the leader of the Saints decides to storm a penthouse party and take the building for themselves as the new HQ for the gang. How to get in? By jumping out of a helicopter of course.

The moment you do, ‘Power’ kicks in – I don’t particularly like hip-hop, but damn this song does an excellent job of getting you pumped for the inevitable killing spree that will follow when you touch the ground. It’s also worth it just for that one lyric ‘No one man should have all of that power’ while you lead essentially a one-man army against the Syndicate. It’s a high point that sadly the rest of the game never really reaches again.

I should quickly note that the Murderbrawl mission much later on in the game also has an inspired use of Joe Episototo’s ‘You’re The Best Around’ as you defend Hulk Hogan from a bunch of luchadores with a chainsaw. Yes, this game IS ridiculous at times.

2)  The Beach Boys,  ‘God Only Knows’ (featured in Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013))

Upon ascending to the sky city of Columbia at the start of Bioshock Infinite, Booker DeWitt is greeted by a festival-of-sorts, showing off the wonders of civilization 30,000 feet above the ground. As he wanders around, there are plenty of distractions to observe including a charming barbershop quartet. As you get closer to them, you can make out the vocals above the noise of zeppelins and fireworks…but wait a second. Those lyrics seem oddly familiar; and that’s when it hits you that you are hearing a four man version of the 1966 hit ‘God Only Knows’. But it’s 1912 – how did they get the lyrics for the song?

The use of the song right at the start of Infinite is notable for two reasons. First of all, it’s a genuinely good cover version of a brilliant song. But more than that, it’s the most oh-so subtle of hints that not everything is quite right with the city of Columbia (ignoring the fact of course that it’s a city flying in the sky), and therefore acts as a clever precursor to the events to come. And don’t worry; if you missed the quartet at the start, the song makes a reappearance in the closing credits.

3)  Kreeps, ‘Bad Voodoo’ (featured in Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (Rockstar San Diego, 2010))

There are a couple of moments from Red Dead Redemption that I could have stuck on this list; hearing Jose Gonzalez sing ‘Far Away’ as John takes his first steps into Mexico is one of my personal gaming highlights of recent times, as is hearing Jamie Lidell’s ‘Compass’ as you go to meet your family for the first time. Purely for the unexpectedness of it though, this song makes my list. I enjoyed Undead Nightmare, as it was a solid if sometimes repetitive piece of story DLC. It never really had the same spark as the main tale though – at least I thought that until this excellent song kicked in on the final ride to Escalera. Come War, let us mow down the zombies!

4)  Skrillex feat. Damien Marley, ‘Make It Burn Dem’ (featured in Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft Montreal, 2012))

I despise dubstep in general, but Far Cry 3 did a pretty good job of trying to convince me of its worth. Around halfway through the game, Jason is tasked to go and burn down a field of marijuana to put a dent in Vaas and Hoyt’s drug operations on the Rook Islands. Sounds simple enough, and once you get to the field in question, you pick up a handy flamethrower and get to work. Standard gaming sabotage mission.

But then the camera starts to shake a bit, your directional input gets a bit woozy, and you realise that Jason is getting high on the fumes. Not long after, the soothing wubs and dubs of Skrillex bombard your ears, and you have a fully fledged trip on your hands. A definite highlight from a game that isn’t short on spectacle.

5)  Harry Nilsson, ‘Coconut’ (featured in Alan Wake (Remedy Entertainment, 2010))

Alan Wake is filled with slightly peculiar choices of licensed music inkeeping with its strange atmosphere, including songs from David Bowie and Roy Orbison which play over the episode finales of the games plot. The real clincher however, is a song known more from adverts for Coca-Cola with Lime than anything else. At the start of the game, you enter a local café where two old men ask you if you can put the record player on. Do as they ask, then you put the lime in the coconut and drink it all up. It’s all made better when you realise later on that the two old men are former rock gods who escaped a local lunatic shelter just to come and listen to the song – rock and roll, dudes.

6)  Gary Jules, ‘Mad World (Instrumental) (featured in Gears Of War 3 (Epic Games, 2011))

The Gears Of War series never exactly had a standout soundtrack, certainly compared to other big budget shooters like Halo. On occasion though, the games manage to capture the sombre mood of war and impending doom with a surprising amount of emotion. It’s never more evident than at the end of the third act of Gears Of War 3; with his team surrounded, Dom tries to buy Marcus some more time from the approaching Locust hordes. During the scene, an instrumental version of ‘Mad World’ starts playing, and the result is a moment that brings even the manliest of men to tears. As a bonus Easter egg, on the ‘Gridlock’ multiplayer map there are ash statues of fallen civilians. Complete a round without any of them being touched, and the music will activate in the background

Hope you enjoyed reading, feel free to leave a comment if you have a particular favourite which I have omitted.


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