Those of you who actually take your video watching seriously no doubt have noticed Rhymedown Spectacular, the new series on The Escapist I co-produce with Jim Sterling. If you’re unfamiliar with it, you should probably watch it now. Stick it on in the background while you read this, maybe. Basically it’s a poetry reading, and I have found over the years that writing in a rhyme structure is something I find appealing.
This interest once manifested as one of my occasional little indulgences I have been known to tack onto the end of a Zero Punctuation. The one I’m referring to was quite a while ago – I think it was one of the Guitar Heroes – and it was the one where I displayed the title screen of the first Deus Ex and then sang some lyrics I’d made up to accompany the very memorable theme tune of that game. And I had a bit of fun with that idea, so for a while I had my eye out for other games I could do something similar with. Maybe put out a compilation album someday.
But with the possible exception of Uncharted, I never found anything quite as suitable again. There just aren’t very many video games these days that have memorable or iconic theme tunes. Oh, you’ll find plenty in retro gaming – your Mario, your Tetris, your Sonic, even moving a little further ahead you’ll have your Doom and your Duke Nukem 3D Midi title tunes. Music from when the sound guys had very little to work with and even adding a drumbeat to your basic melody was like keeping plates spinning. Now, though, as with so many other features in video games, the loss of limitation has led to in-game music becoming generic, unmemorable, and unwilling to stand out. Quick: hum your favorite music from Sonic 2. Chances are good you went for the title tune, or Chemical Plant, or Mystic Cave or one of those. Now: hum your favorite music from, say, Halo 4. Yeah, that’s my point.
Half the triple-A games these days just use interchangeable bombastic movie trailer orchestral pieces and the rest fall back on the kind of electronic music that gets played at nightclubs when the management feel that not enough drinks are being bought. And this is a shame, because a good, memorable use of music can add so much to a gaming experience.
It was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon that made me think of this, because the game’s introductory game play is a helicopter turret sequence while “Long Tall Sally” by Little Richard is playing. Now, this is part of the game’s commitment to parodying 80’s action sci-fi because the film Predator starts with the very same song being played as the main characters are being flown in by helicopter. But this is the good kind of referential comedy that works on some level even if you’re unfamiliar with the reference material. In Predator they weren’t using a mounted gun at the time, and sweeping over a base mowing down terrified helpless enemies like the ejaculating god of death while Little Richard is vocally having a really good time in the background was just plain fun. It set the tone and left me with a really good first impression, fully on board for some ironic fun violence.
And it really highlights how so few triple-A games in recent years have used a rockin’ soundtrack to such an effect. The only genre that does the kind of thing I’m talking about reliably is driving games, usually by pretending that the music’s coming out of the car stereo. I was having a ball weaving through traffic at high speed in Driver: San Francisco, but I was having twice the balls – I might almost say an entire scrotum – doing the same thing while a really good song was playing. Me, I’m mainly into classic and 80’s rock, so every time I got into a car in Saint’s Row 2 I’d switch over to the 80’s station, and ploughing through pedestrians took on an almost cosmic significance as I did so to the sound of “The Final Countdown.” Even more so when my main character started singing along.
But I can’t recall many really effective uses of bangin’ choons outside that genre, not in modern gaming. There are a lot of songs that enhance a driving experience, because there’s a certain rhythm to driving: maintaining your speed, watching the scenery rhythmically flutter past, the heavy bass hits of pelvises smacking against the front bumper. But virtually every kind of gameplay has a rhythm that a punchy song can get the most out of. Whether it’s running from cover to cover snapping off gunfire, or blocking your way through a melee fight, a good song instantly makes any moment of generic combat memorable.
I can remember a few right now. Staying with Saint’s Row, near the end of Saint’s Row 3 you’re given a mission to run off and rescue someone, whereupon “I Need A Hero” by Bonnie Tyler starts playing, independent of any car stereo. And I found that the moment stood out in my mind so much that a few days later I found myself looking up the song on Youtube. And when I did so, I couldn’t help noticing that the first comment – and incidentally I loathe that one often accidentally sees the top comment on a Youtube video and in almost every case it spoils the best part of the fucking thing – was someone asking “Hey, did anyone else come here because of Saint’s Row 3?”
A few other cases leap to mind. That one bit in Spec Ops: The Line where the Radioman starts taunting you by playing “Nowhere To Run” by Martha and the Vandellas over the sound system as you fight off the enemy (maybe sorta possibly a reference to a similar use of the song in The Warriors). Or of course the ending song from Portal, that certainly helped plant the game in the collective memory.
So the number of triple-A games I play that put all the effort into getting expensive orchestral soundtracks made strikes me as triple-A doing the same thing triple-A always does – spending a whole lot of money and ultimately getting a more generic experience out of it. I mean, at least that J-rock song from the title screen of Dragon’s Dogma is something I still remember about it. And I haven’t found a single commercial-grade bleach that’ll help that fact.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.