One of my most enduring game memories is getting into a car in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and tearing down the road to Two Tribes on Wave 103. Pop is the perfect gaming accompaniment - why can’t we have more of it?
Wave 103 is the greatest. It helps make Vice City into a city that has more life in it - screaming down the road in a supercar was never more pleasurable, and the music gave you a definite sense of time and place. It was functional world building - you want the neon eighties? Okay, we’ve made the perfect soundtrack straight from the eighties.
By the time I was let into the Rockstar North office to work there on GTA IV in 2007, I was gushing all over the place about how much I liked the Vice soundtrack, and even though working somewhere changes your experience of a game, I still love almost everything about the GTA IV soundtrack too. The Rapture’s No Sex For Ben is still one of my favourite tracks because every time I walk down a rainy, moody New York sidewalk it reminds me of Rockstar’s Liberty City. And it’s weird now I’ve left, but GTA V’s pop radio station is exactly my music taste and is run by a DJ called Cara, so sometimes I wish I still worked there.
Rock and roll is dead and pop is iiiiiiin!
But Saint’s Row 4 uses pop music to the max too: my favourite moment in the entire franchise is when you’re flying your spaceship along for the first time and your character flips the switch on the radio. Haddaway’s What Is Love comes on. This is my jam! you squeal, lasering things along to the beat.
The best pop music is designed, in many ways, like some of the best games. Good pop is very finely paced, with moments of high attention and low attention, it is written to emphasise euphoria and movement, and composers of pop music pay close attention to how they can hook people with ‘set pieces’ (choruses). It’s easy to see, for example, why the developers of Farcry 3 chose M.I.A.’s Paper Planes to open the game, because the song is about travel, guns, and murder, and it is also exquisitely timed to be exciting, punchy, raw.
It was quite disappointing, then, to play Farcry 3 and see that the narrative there wasn’t quite as strong a critique of colonialism as M.I.A.’s work often is, even though it tried to be just as provocative. You have to be careful to choose your tracks wisely to emphasise your best parts. For GTA that’s driving. For Saint’s Row, that’s jokes.
Of course, games like Guitar Hero, Elite Beat Agents, and Rock Band use pop music or karaoke as the obvious draw, and take their tips from the music to construct buttons for the player to hit, rhythms to tap, and what is referred to as ‘level design’ is actually centred around presenting a track of music as visual instruction to press along to or sing along to.
One of my favourite games to take a piece of music as game design instruction is the free browser game Kanyezone. It takes the Kanye track N***** In Paris and converts the abstract lyrics of the rap song into design. The lyric from the outro ‘Don’t let me get in my zone, don’t let me get in my zone’ is converted into a screen where Kanye’s face is wandering around randomly, and in the centre is the ‘zone’. Your job is to control a small circle around the zone with the arrow keys to butt Kanye away from getting into his zone, or Jay-Z will turn up and yell at you that Kanye is definitely in his zone.
It’s actually quite an easy game to get to grips with but hard to be good at. Of course, you earn points in the form of fake dollars and get on the scoreboard.
Probably the best part of audio design in the game is the part where you restart the game and Jay-Z yells ‘SHUBOI’.
It’s a really interesting look at deconstructing a pop track’s lyrics into something that’s playable, and also using samples from the track itself to have you keep paying attention, get up some rhythm, and to groove along too.
It’s obviously very expensive to license pop tracks for use in commercial games, so indie games have so far only dabbled in pop music. My friends over at The Fullbright Company negotiated a private deal to use Riot Grrrl music in the game Gone Home, and the amazing game Crystal Warrior Ke$ha made by my former colleague at Rock Paper Shotgun, Porpentine, asks the user to play a Youtube track by Ke$ha before you navigate its Ke$ha mythology and quotations, thus avoiding any copyright issues.
The soundtrack provided by M.O.O.N. and Peturbator for the top-down fuck-em-up Hotline Miami creates the mood and compulsory risk-taking you experience playing the game. Though the developers knew the soundtrack would be essential to the feel of playing the game, it was hard to get the kind of tracks they wanted, so Jonatan Soderstrom said they went to negotiate with artists on Band Camp, says Rock Paper Shotgun:
“We had a temp soundtrack in place for the game,” says one half of the game’s dev team, Jonatan Soderstrom. “But when we couldn’t get the licenses for the tracks I went out on to Band Camp and found a bunch of cool music you could download for free. That’s how I found M.O.O.N.”
The soundtrack in Hotline Miami creates a strange, feverish feeling in you as a player, and when you die in the game, as is often the case, the tap of the ‘R’ to respawn and try again becomes part of the rhythm of the soundtrack. As I said as a newb game critic back in the mists of time:
It is the vibrating eighties beat of Drive, the soundtrack that the original GTA wanted but couldn’t have. It is a pumping powerhouse of neon rave, addictive and sordid. ...When you die, which will be more often than you blink, you start right over immediately, not a drop in the beat. Keep going all night, it says. Keep going until dawn birds knock you into realization that you have wasted your life on this beautiful and savage game. Each environment is a new triumph of brutal one hits, and the plot increasingly persuades you that you are hallucinating, that you are a deluded idiot for playing on, and yet you cannot tear yourself away.
Obviously expense is the limit with pop tracks, but in the future my hope is that more music labels will actually reach out to gamemakers, or make it easier for them to license their tracks. There’s a great relationship to be had between music labels and games, and it doesn’t just stop with the big budget studios or the rhythm game developers. Pop and games can be beautiful together.