10 of the best licensed music moments in video games

Laced With Wax 10 of the best licensed music moments in video games

By Thomas Quillfeldt and James Marshall

Cinema has amassed a mountain of iconic moments soundtracked by popular music tracks. Video games as a medium are catching up though and in many ways have the advantage—after all, many games allow for emergent moments of joy where the soundtrack and gameplay match up perfectly for that player, at that moment, in a way that might not occur for anyone else.

Here are some of our favourite moments (or tracks that made for great personal moments) where the game and a licensed music track (i.e. not part of an original score) fit perfectly.

“Far Away” – Jose Gonzalez – Red Dead Redemption

I know, I know—starting with the bleeding obvious one. But in light of Rockstar’s announcement of Red Dead Redemption 2 (a missed opportunity for some further creative alliteration) we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to remind you about this magical moment (that tees up the section of the game everyone bitches about—Mexico).

The game’s original score by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson is excellent, authentic not to the historical Wild West but to the Ennio Morricone-scored 1960’s movies that depict it. The soundtrack also includes a beautiful, plaintive track by Jamie Lidell (Compass).

“Back At The Funny Farm” – Motörhead – Brütal Legend

As Eddie Riggs constructs his Hot Rod "The Druid Plow", a.k.a. "The Deuce", seemingly out of thin air before proceeding to mow enemies down, we hear the late, great Lemmy (who appears in the game) and the gang power up their fiery riffage. The game features 107 heavy metal tracks in all, covering several sub-genres.

“Miami Disco” – Perturbator – Hotline Miami

Anyone who has played Hotline Miami can tell you that it feels a bit like taking drugs (not that we’d know ;–). Specifically, drugs that get your heart racing, your brain firing and your hands nervously shaking.

From the moment you burst in through the front door of the game’s eight level, you’re on the move, smashing a goon to the floor and caving his eye-sockets or bashing his head to a pulp. It’s pretty grim, but you’re blood is up thanks to this propulsive slice of four-to-the-floor electro-house.

“The Late Goodbye” – Poets of the Fall – Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

The plot of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is not full of daisies and sunlight being a tale of corruption, double-crossing and assassination in darkest New York.

And nothing says hard-bitten American noir like early Noughties Finnish post-grunge. In this case, the song was written for the game based on a poem by Sam Lake, the writer behind Max Payne, Alan Wake and director of Quantum Break—and the buddy of Poets of the Fall’s lead singer.

The track is weaved into the game at various points beyond just playing over the credits: various NPCs including janitors, cleaner and bad guys hum, whistle and sing the song as well as tinkle the ivories.

“If You Leave Me Now” – Chicago – Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V’s Trevor is many things. A psychopath: evidently. A loyal friend: violently so. A soft-hearted romantic? He is according to this particular storyline, which sees Trevor kidnap Patricia Madrazo—the love of his life and the wife of Mexican gangster Martin Madrazo.

It would not be hyperbolic to say that Rockstar, with GTA 5’s licensed soundtrack, leads the games industry in terms of sheer volume and overall quality of tracks, not to mention the game’s technically astonishing audio engine and use of both diegetic (e.g. in-car radio) and non-diagetic (background score) music.

“Fear” – Adam Freeland – Rez

Rez is a game—and a pioneering vision of the future of interactive entertainment—so cherished that it refuses to become consigned to the bargain bin of history. Originally released on Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 in 2002, it received an HD release on Xbox 360 in 2008 and has now, in 2016, been remade by original creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR (newly named Rez Infinite).

Producer/DJ Adam Freeland has seen plenty of his music used in video games but the use of Fear to soundtrack the final level of Rez—Area 05—is remembered fondly by fans.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Midge Ure – “The Man Who Sold The World”

At this point in his career, Hideo Kojima as a creator is up there with movie directors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese in terms of being known for their very deliberate, frequently iconic use of licensed music to soundtrack particular scenes.

The opening to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain had fans on tenterhooks as the player character emerges from a coma to the 1982 Midge Ure (he of Ultravox) cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World. At this point, players aren’t sure who they are, where they are or what’s going on but if you’re at all familiar with Kojima’s infinitesimal attention to detail, you know that these lyrics are supposed to mean something significant.

Fallout 3 – The Ink Spots – “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire”

Grim, grey, green, gritty, gruesome—yet eerily beautiful at times—Fallout 3’s wasteland (set in 2077) is made infinitely more interesting thanks to the game’s inclusion of 30’s, 40’s and 50’s radio hits (a juxtaposition jukebox, if you will). These songs jingle and jangle, in stark contrast to Inon Zur’s moody, ambient score which has much more of a Wild West vibe. Since there’s nowhere near as many licensed tracks here as in a Grand Theft Auto game, you will likely hear some of these classic cuts over and over which, for me at least, spoke to the desolation of the game’s world, the survivors’ reliance on whatever thin corpus of culture is left and echoing the fact that in the mid-20th Century, one would have listened to these songs over and over on vinyl for lack of anything else to do.

Sleeping Dogs – Rustie – “After Light”

Sadly, United Front Games, developer of the really rather good open world game Sleeping Dogs, has shut down so this one goes out to them.

There are so many aspects of the game that couldn’t quite keep up with the higher-budget productions of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series but arguably, Sleeping Dogs has something GTA doesn’t: Cool (with a capital "C"). Its neon-drenched Hong Kong setting and excellent soundtrack (with a few renowned indie records labels including Roadrunner and Ninja Tune curating in-game radio stations) elevated the game. Bangers like electronica artist Rustie’s After Light in particular helped sell the feeling of illicit nighttime street racing.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas – Ronnie Hudson And The Street People – “West Coast Poplock"

There are a hundred amazing musical moments in Grand Theft Auto games, many of which are unique to individual players. This makes it hard to narrow down the best of the best, so let’s call this one a personal favourite.

Set in 1992, GTA: San Andreas is pretty uncompromising in its depiction of the Bloods, Crips and Hispanic gangs, the effects of crack cocaine and the urban war that was L.A. street life. It’s not all doom and gloom as the game lets you pull up to the lowrider challenge and pump those hydraulics along to classics including West Coast Poplock, one of the most famously sampled songs by classic hip-hop artists.

The wider soundtrack is, as you’d expect from Rockstar, impeccable, with other favourites including Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird and The Who’s Eminence Front playing whilst learning to fly out in the desert; Willie Nelson’s Crazy playing whilst you see the sunrise around the side of a mountain; and Guns N’ Roses’s Welcome To The Jungle as you escape through the L.A. storm drains on a motorcycle.

Honourable mentions:

  • Saint’s Row: The Third — Kanye West – “Power”
  • Gran Turismo 2 – Feeder – “Buck Rogers”
  • BioShock – Bobby Darin – "Beyond The Sea”
  • Prey (2006) – Blue Oyster Cult – “Don’t Fear The Reaper”
  • WipEout 2097 – The Prodigy – “Firestarter (Instrumental)”
  • LittleBigPlanet – Toumani Diabeté's Symmetric Orchestra - “Tapha Niang”
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction – DJ Shadow - "Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt"
Obviously we’ll have missed stuff—hit us up on Twitter @Laced_Records or on Facebook and tell us how wrong we are.