Forza Horizon A good soundtrack can often be overlooked in video games, but just take a minute to recall those video game moments that have been a pleasure to your ears. Chances are that some of your most memorable experiences in this regard were accompanied by licensed music.

It seems strange to praise developers for implementing songs into their games that have been created by other authors, as this naturally takes much less time and effort than those who compose original soundtracks for their games. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played many games with original scores that have accompanied the on-screen action beautifully – most commonly in role playing games such as Oblivion, Fable and Kingdoms of Amalur which all have their own wonderful chimes, not to mention more linear games such as Halo and Uncharted that have their own wonderful pieces. This really helps to give the world charm and identity, but it seems to me that the moments we remember the most are the ones that we can associate with other experiences. There’s something great about hearing a song you know (and even better, one that you like) in a video game as you already associate that track with something else in your life.

KoA Reckoning's original score matches its art style perfectly

KoA Reckoning’s original score matches its art style perfectly

So whilst it might be considered lazy for developers to feature popular songs in their games that have already been written, if they are used at the right moments it can be extremely effective. Think of that time in Spec Ops The Line when a mere shooting gallery becomes a pulse-pounding riot as you pull the trigger along to Hush by Deep Purple, and who can forget The Beach Boys in Bioshock Infinite or the Blue Oyster Cult with Don’t Fear The Reaper in Prey. Original scores are great, but licensed music really adds a certain something to video games.

But it’s not just games with musical moments that stand out, it’s also games that have completely licensed soundtracks to accompany the entirety of the product. LittleBigPlanet, whilst have a few original tunes here and there, was largely made up of licensed songs and was all the better for it, as My Patch by Jim Noir perfectly accompanies a platforming section within the game. Then we have racing games, with their balls to the wall, pedal to the metal attitude – the best of which are spent rocking along to relevant blood-boiling hits. In my opinion, the original Forza Horizon had the best soundtrack in video games, with a wonderful mixture of pop/funk, bass and rock, all of which are fully licensed. The first time I heard Away From Here by The Enemy whilst driving along the open road a grin developed on my face.

Spec Ops The Line doesn't have many licensed songs, but when it uses them it does so effectively

Spec Ops The Line doesn’t have many licensed songs, but when it uses them it does so effectively

Furthermore, another great thing about licensed soundtracks is that they introduce you to some new bands that could become your favorites. For instance, until playing Forza Horizon I had never heard of The Subways but their song – Rock & Roll Queen – that is featured in the game gave me the desire to find out more about them. The same can be said for a number of artists that appear in the FIFA titles, most of which are modern and therefore make me feel slightly fashionable for once, and I couldn’t forget the plethora of great artists that DiRT 2 introduced me to.

So how do you feel when it comes to music in games? Do you like your soundtrack to be specifically composed for the game you’re playing, or do you prefer the sense of recognition when a song comes on the in-game radio that you like? Whichever way you lean, there’s no denying the importance that a good soundtrack has in a game – licensed or not – but what I will say is that licensed music can make an average game good. Period.

  • Agree entirely. My most recent moment would of been on Watch Dogs where during a mission C.R.E.A.M starts playing, it was the perfect song choice and was for me the high light of the game

    • Sounds cool – I might get around to playing that game one day!

  • I mostly agree, for certain types of games, often licensed music can be very effective (notably sports games). For more narrative driven games however, a score composed explicitly with that story in mind can’t be beaten. I’m a composer so I’m biased towards original scores, but there are examples that use both original and licensed music for different purposes and this can be very effective. Bioshock, an example you used combines both licensed songs to support the period and world in which you are playing, as well as a gripping underscore that supports the emotion of the moment. Red Dead Redemption which I’ve been playing recently has a couple of key moments where a licensed track perfectly supports the emotion of the moment, notably when you first arrive in Mexico. Part of the benefits of original music are how it’s implemented into the game. It’s much easier to design a score that reacts interactively and dynamically to gameplay using music composed explicitly for that system. Most licensed tracks will simply playback from start to finish or fade out at a specific point whereas a custom score can react to the gameplay from moment to moment.

  • rtgould

    I should add, some of my favorite licensed scores includ the SSX games and Need For Speed Undergounrd. The latest SSX game is interesting because it has a very sophisticated dynamic music engine that applies digital signal processing to music, both the bundled soundtrack and your own tracks to create a reactive score with licensed music. Check out this video for breakdown of that system…

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=tLiA1dbMpls&feature=player_detailpage

    • Hey thanks for taking the time to write such an in-depth comment! I agree with your points about a mixture of licensed music and an original score to create a realistic/believable setting as well as an original atmosphere. On the other hand I play a lot of FIFA and because of its fully licensed track list that game has got me into a lot of bands and artists that I otherwise wouldn’t have listened to!

      Once again, thanks for your feedback – if I was making a game I’d let you compose the soundtrack 😉

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