The Pros and Cons of a Licensed Soundtrack

In an age where music is available at the push of a button, it’s to be expected that licensed music has made its way into the gaming sphere. While original Genesis bass beats and lighthearted Nintendo melodies ran riot in the 16-bit era, games now have the power to bring epic anthems and symphonies from acclaimed artists to our consoles. Licensed soundtracks are underrated components of modern games, but their roles mean much more than we might think.

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Licensed soundtracks in games aren’t anything particularly new, but it wasn’t until the N64/PS1 era that the music of major artists began to creep into our favorite videos. Higher quality audio hardware in the new consoles made it possible to recreate hit music without degrading it to MIDI status. One of the most notable uses of licensed music was the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series, which featured punk and alternative tracks from the likes of Primus, Goldfinger and Rage Against the Machine. Other games like the EA Sports line later began using contemporary music, while other extreme sports games like SSX continued to pick from the radio garden. Licensed soundtracks became commonplace outside of sports games as well, as the Grand Theft Auto series used various eras of music for its games. Rhythm games probably got the biggest use out of licensed tracks, as classic games like Dance Dance Revolution signified the flood that eventually made it to Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Licensed music may sound like a corner-cutting way to capture a contemporary artist (anyone who hears their favorite new song in a Madden game is sure to take notice), but games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater use licensed music in a more sophisticated way. The punk anthems like Goldfinger’s “Superman” have become synonymous with the skate punk music scene, and as a result, the game series that channels that same vibe. Activision even re-licensed “Superman” for the HD update Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD. That instant connection between shredding a half pipe and the rebellious punk anthems does a powerful job in framing the skateboarding lifestyle. In the case of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, it was used to perfectly complement an athletic scene that, up until then, had been underappreciated at best.

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Grand Theft Auto is another great example of using contemporary music to frame its atmosphere. Take Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a game that takes place smack dab in the 1980’s. With constant references to cultural figures of the era, it makes perfect sense to have a licensed soundtrack with tracks right from the 80’s. Squeeze, Blondie, and A Flock of Seagulls all get their share of spotlight, making the game’s world feel authentic to its proposed timeframe. Grand Theft Auto III pulled a similar idea for its use of 70’s-era music, but Vice City is definitely the first in the series to really set a scene with already established tracks. Using songs that are popular do a great job of drawing the player into their mirror world of the decade, something that generic rock or pop couldn’t do as well.

But this is also a double-edged sword. While licensed music can set a scene well, it can also lock the music into that scene. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, for example, with its use of tracks like “Superman”, almost sounds retro in tone. While these tracks had contemporary strength in the 90’s, their placement today emits a more nostalgic vibe. The licensed music frames a tone, but what happens with that tone can do more bad than good. These songs can lock the game into its own era, bursting with nostalgia, but not much else.

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Licensed music performs the double duty of representing both its source material and the game it’s used in, which has led to both positive and negative results. While it can do a great job to frame its heyday, it can also serve as a limiter, locking a game into that single era and making its future reliant on nostalgia. It serves to represent more than just a band or their career; it’s also a way to bring the important stuff of the real world into the game world.