Let the Music Play
Effective use of music in all sections of videogames always adds to the gaming experience
It wasn't so long ago that all sounds and music in videogames were very 'tinny' and metallic sounding, as cartridges could only hold the barest essentials to make music. And without the ability to store music, there was little need for systems to have the ability to output quality sound.
Today, that's all changed. DVD-based games can store dozens of full-length songs in addition to the game's code, with franchises like Grand Theft Auto taking full advantage of that capability.
Over the years, there have been a number of awesome and/or interesting choices made when syncing action up to music that create memories that last long after the game's been traded away or donated to a friend:
Jaguar XJ220 – When the Sega CD add-on for the Genesis came out in 1992, it brought CD-quality music with it. This racing title had six original instrumentals to complement the racing action. The best was a great, piano-heavy riff called "Indego." Reminiscent very much of the smooth jazz genre that was exploding in popularity at the time due to greats like David Benoit, it had a feel that said 'racing' and 'relaxation' at the same time. Better yet, you could even take the CD, pop it in your car, and drive along to it for real.
Fallout 3 – When you start up the game, you're treated to a stark, washed-out visual that slowly pans out to the Ink Spots' 1941 standard, "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire." It becomes apparent you're in a bus that was perhaps a part of a mishap. But just before you hear the song's title verse for the second time, it's eerily matched to the camera pulling out of the bus and now showing a ravaged Washington, DC that seems to very much have been set on fire.
Grand Theft Auto IV – With more than a dozen radio stations that play on an in-game loop through the entirety of the game each time you steal a car, there's a lot of songs packed into the game. And while Rockstar may label the city you play in as Liberty City, everyone knows it's really New York City. So the first time you're driving along, listening to Liberty Rock Radio 97.8, and Hello's 1975 classic "New York Groove" starts pouring out of your sound system, it's like the game's designers saying, "yeah, it's really New York City" right along with you, and maybe even saying "welcome home."
Gran Turismo 5 – This game gets a two fer, and they're both before you ever play the game. The lengthy intro starts with a movie depicting car creation from the moment the metals are mined from the ground, synced beautifully to Lang Lang's playing of the Precipitato movement of Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Sonata No. 7 in B♭ major, Op. 83 (1942) ("Stalingrad"). Then the movie shifts to in-game graphics and a view of the action ahead of you, and My Chemical Romance's 2011 song "Planetary (Go!)" takes over. When it's over, you are so pumped to race.
BioShock 2 – If you told British bandleader Henry Hall in 1932 that his new recording of "Hush, Hush, Hush, Here Comes the Bogeyman" would be used almost 80 years later in a videogame, he'd probably be thrilled that his music would be long-lasting and then ask "What's a videogame?" But no matter, a song from the 30s played during segues in the Dionysus Park section of Rapture fits quite well with the Art Deco stying of the environment. And while the charming melody and humorous lyrics may put you at ease, the best part may be that you're also left to decide for yourself which of the game's many enemies is the bogeyman to you.
Final Fantasy X-2 – An original J-pop song called "Real Emotion" that you essentially get a full-fledged music video for opens this PS2 direct sequel to FFX. A pulsing beat, some decent choreography, and getting reintroduced to the trio of heroines Yuna, Rikku, and Paine await in this well-designed sequence. And when Yuna pumps her fist and the game logo slams onto the screen, you really can't help but get goosebumps and think "I wanna watch that again."
This is just a sampling of the wide variety of music that's fit well into gaming: jazz, classical, big band, pop. The types of songs that can be placed sensibly into videogames is as varied as the types of games themselves. And they can all make a great game even more memorable.