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Eight Of The Best Uses of Licensed Songs In Video Games

by Blake Hester on Jul 13, 2016 at 08:57 AM

In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock released his film The Birds with no soundtrack or score, just the ambient sounds of his own film. It’s a rare, risky move that relied on excellent film making and tension building to pull off. However, used correctly, and more conventionally, a well-placed song or lyric can heighten the atmosphere of a scene or give just enough of an adrenaline rush to keep the pace of action going, putting visuals in the passenger seat to sound. 

We broke down eight games that use licensed songs so well it’s hard to imagine them without. Also, make sure to check out all of the songs in the Spotify playlist below (some songs may be NSFW).

Game: Life Is Strange
Artist: Angus & Julia Stone
Song: Santa Monica Dream 

Life is Strange is in no way a narratively light game, dealing with topics such as suicide, sexuality, and violence. However, among all the game’s several pulls at heartstrings, one scene in particular stands out, effective in its subtlety and its comfort in the quieter moments. After being reunited with best friend Chloe (who she had previously seen murdered), main character Maxine walks around her friend’s home. A home she frequented as a child and a home more broken than she left it many years ago. As she recalls her own time in the house, “Santa Monica Dream” by duo Angus & Julia Stone plays from their 2010 album, Down the Way.

What seems to make this scene work is how non-obtrusive the song is to what’s happening on screen. Mainly sang by the latter of the two, “Santa Monica Dream” invites players to reflect with Max about great times past and to speculate on the probability of those feelings ever returning. 

Game: Hotline Miami
Artist: Sun Araw
Song: Deep Cover 

Any mention of Hotline Miami is often followed by mention of its soundtrack. The hellishly difficult, violent, and visceral game’s backbone is in its songs, mixing techno, trap, and trance music. The tempo of which often matches the brutality of its violence and the harshness of its bright, oppressive visuals.

After a player finishes a mission, their adrenaline rushing and their eyes filled with violence, the players lead anti-hero Jacket through quieter (though far more sublime) moments where his grip on sanity is severely in question. The song often playing is “Deep Cover” by Sun Araw, a track that’s down-tempo and sonically troubling enough to give these moments a weird dreamlike, druggy quality where actions are questioned and motives are blurry.   

Game: Tony Hawk’s Underground 
Artist: Alkaline Trio
Song: Armageddon

The Tony Hawk series has always shipped with carefully curated soundtracks, appealing to several genres, tempos, and moods. Tony Hawk’s Underground, a narrative-driven take on the series, pushed this idea further, featuring songs from artists as diverse as punk legends GBH, hip-hop juggernaut Nas (more on him in a second), and the stoner rock band Clutch. 

One song that stands out from the rest, though, is “Armageddon” by Alkaline Trio, from their 2001 album From Here to Infirmary. The fast-paced, downbeat heavy song lends itself well to Underground’s gameplay, making each kick and push feel as though it’s the hand bringing stick to snare.

Game: NBA 2K13
Artist: Nas
Song: The World Is Yours

Basketball and hip-hop go hand-in-hand, so employing Jay-Z to curate NBA 2K13’s soundtrack is a relationship that just makes sense. Aside from including several of his own songs, and popular top 40 songs of the time, Jay-Z also included classic rap songs such as “The World Is Yours” by Brooklyn-born rapper Nas from his landmark 1994 album, Illmatic

Considering the often rags-to-riches stories that surround successful professional basketball players, “The World Is Yours” is an appropriate entry centered on the profession. Fun fact: This song was also featured in the aforementioned Tony Hawk Underground.

Game: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Artist: Midge Ure
Song: The Man Who Sold The World

There’s a certain layer of, possibly unintentional, romance to the use of Midge Ure’s cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold The World.” The swan song of Hideo Kojima’s Konami career, the song plays at the very beginning of the game, setting the tone for a game that redefines a genre and says goodbye to an icon – at least one penned by Kojima. 

There’s a certain finality to “The Man Who Sold The World,” a song that talks about roaming for years on a walk home, dying, and being “face to face with the man who sold the world.” Intentional or not, it’s undeniable how the song lends itself to both the game’s narrative and the real-world story of Kojima and Konami

Game: Guitar Hero II
Artist: Rancid
Song: Salvation

This list couldn’t exist without some mention of the Guitar Hero series, even if it would be nearly impossible to nail down to just one standout track from the hundreds of songs and bands that have been featured. So, to make it easier on myself, I picked one of my favorite bands, Rancid, and their song “Salvation” from the 1994 album Let’s Go, which was in Guitar Hero II. 

Game: Burnout Revenge
Artist: Emanuel
Song: The Hey Man!

The soundtrack to a car crash, Kentucky-based post hardcore band Emanuel’s song “The Hey Man!” is a noisy, raucous track that sounds like flipping a car into oncoming traffic. From the fast guitars to singer Matt Breen’s growl, this song is best listened to at 120 miles per hour, 60 feet in the air, or while crashing into a sidewalk. 

Game: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Artist: Flock Of Seagulls
Song: I Ran (So Far Away)

Possibly the magnum opus of licensed soundtracks, or at least the one most people talk about, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City’s soundtrack is more or less a time capsule filled with 1980s culture. Featured in the game’s original trailer, “I Ran (So Far Away)” by Flock Of Seagulls from their 1982 self-titled album, sounds as the game looks: bright, flashy, and decadent. Vice City furthered what was introduced in Grand Theft Auto III, allowing players to be as indulgent or as vicious as they want, yet with repercussions. No crime without its punishment, no victim without its retribution. No matter how far a player ran away, they couldn’t get away.  

What are some of your favorite uses of licensed songs in video games? Let us know down below.