5 videogames making excellent use of licensed music

From 80s power ballads to feminist punk anthems, add these game tracks to your playlist

Videogame scores are a huge part of how we experience and relate to games, contributing enormously to the atmosphere they evoke. Well-placed licensed tracks from artists can also be a good way to hone in on the era of a game, and bring it into the real world. These 5 titles nailed the use of licensed tracks in videogames – check them out if you want to expand your library while being thoroughly entertained.

1. Gone Home

Gone Home is an introspective exploration game that takes place entirely within an abandoned house in Portland, Oregon, where Katie Greenbriar realises her family has disappeared.

One of the most striking aspects of Gone Home is the way the creators accurately portray the revolutionary Riot Grrrl era in which the game is set, using the mystery of Katie’s missing sister to highlight the way in which this music opened up the minds of young girls in the 1990s and changed the way they saw themselves.

Not only does the licensed music of Gone Home capture perfectly the angst filled, revolutionary punk era that surrounds the game, it also utilises this music to help explain the identity struggles Sam experiences – and shows how feminist bands like Bikini Kill and Heavens To Betsy are vital to telling her story, and getting her through it all.

Top track to listen out for: Complicated – Heavens To Betsy

2. L.A Noire

L.A Noire is a neo-noir detective game that takes place during a murder spree in the 1940s Los Angeles underworld, using innovative MotionScan technology to create realistic suspects and interrogations as you try and decipher who can and cannot be trusted.

In a similar way to Gone Home, L.A Noire completely encapsulates its 1940s detective-noir vibe through the era specific tracks that can be heard throughout the game. Whilst it must be mentioned that the original score of this game plays the predominant role honing in on this sense of post-war exploitation, the licensed tracks are also vital to evoking the period in which the game is set.

Most of the licensed tracks (of which there are over 30) can be heard on the in-game radio, with jaunty jazz tunes of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong playing from the car as the player cruises through the crime ridden streets of Los Angeles, and investigates suspects’ homes.

However, whilst there is a definite focus on authentic 1940’s standards in L.A Noire, Rockstar Games also commissioned original tracks from The Real Tuesday Weld and Claudia Brucken to create the character of Elsa Lichtmann (the sultry jazz singer at The Blue Room) creating a unique mix of modern and classic sounds that appear entirely authentic.

Top track to listen out for: Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall – Ella Fitzgerald and The Ink Spots

Buy the soundtrack here.

3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Say what you will about the ultraviolent, open world action game Grand theft Auto, but there’s no denying that the entire series has a consistently stellar soundtrack, with each game primarily using licensed music from the in-car radios to showcase a vast amount of carefully picked, era specific tracks.

The strongly-defined aesthetic of 80s themed Vice City stands out in particular, with its blast of retro classics and power ballads blending in perfectly with the neon bright world the player is thrown into as they drive around in whatever Chevrolet they’ve just carjacked.

(And if you fancy reliving that 80s magic in all its glory while cruising around another game in the series, read this easy guide on how to swap the in-game soundtracks.)

Track to listen out for: The Message – Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

Buy the soundtrack here.

4. Alan Wake

Alan Wake is a psychological survival game that plays out in the same way as a TV show, with a strongly episodic structure and frequent in-game cliff hangers. The game is heavily inspired by the TV show Twin Peaks, with the unsettling small town setting of “Bright Falls” and the surreal series of twists and turns bearing a striking resemblance to the show. I recommend playing this when going through a bout of Twin Peaks withdrawal, it helps numb the pain.

The TV-like, episodic structure of Alan Wake is key in showcasing some of the best music moments in the game, as it uses a different song to signify the end of each chapter, playing out the song in its entirety whilst the episode credits run.

The creators of the game, lifting the player out of whatever dark Lynchian twist the game has just uncovered, use a variety of dark and atmospheric tracks from the likes of David Bowie, Roy Orbison and Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds to enhance the creepiness of the plot and engross the player in whichever disturbing twist is yet to come.

Track to listen out for: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds – Up Jumped The Devil

Buy the soundtrack here.

5. Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption, the open world, western adventure game, follows former outlaw John Marston as he journeys through the Wild West to track down his former partners in crime and bring them to justice.

The soundtrack of Red Dead Redemption is a pivotal element in embodying the key themes of this game, and much of that is owed to Billy Elms and Woody Jackson, who expertly composed the original score that dynamically captures the wilderness of John’s journey. However, one of the most crucial and memorable moments of the game uses a licensed track from Jose Gonzales, playing the song in its entirety as you make your way on horseback into Mexico:

Not only is this one of the most hauntingly atmospheric moments of the game, it exemplifies how a well-placed track can completely change the tone of a game, and create something truly unique.

Track to listen out for: Far Away – Jose Gonzales (obviously)

Buy the soundtrack here.

Main image: © Rockstar Games/RodrixAP via Flickr