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Five Great Uses of Licensed Music in Games

by Eric Frederiksen | July 19, 2013July 19, 2013 3:30 pm PDT

I love music in games like Grand Theft Auto, Fallout and Forza Horizon—games with radio stations—but picking the right song for the right moment takes a special touch. We see it all the times in movies, but in games it’s a bit harder to find. Talking with friends, I found most scratching their heads after one or two suggestions.

A good choice of licensed music can tell you something about the scene you’re taking part in or the character’s state of mind, or just convey a feeling.

It’s not that I look down on composed music, but with a few exceptions it usually doesn’t stand out the way those licensed picks do. Here are some of the best examples of those carefully chosen licensed tracks.

Far Cry 3 – “Make it Bun Dem”

At one point in Far Cry 3, you roll up on a field of marijuana with a flame thrower; as Jason Brody, your mission is to burn it with the intention of riling up its owner.

After barely escaping from your captors with your life a couple times, this is the first time Brody is starting to feel powerful, starting to become more hunter than hunted. The bombastic reggae-dubstep mix from Skrillex and Damian Marley playing as you unleash flames across the fields and drop pirates left and right helps make you as a player feel more powerful to match Brody’s feeling. I found myself being a bit less careful and a lot more crazy during this sequence than I normally am throughout the rest of the game.

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Alan Wake – “Haunted”

As the only instance of music playing during a non-interactive scene in the list, this was a tough choice; but. ultimately the moment is such a memorable one that I had to include it.

As the second episode of Alan Wake comes to a close, Alan and Barry are going to visit the waitress Barry had met before. The darkness has taken her over, leaving a trap for Barry and Alan to walk into. The choice of Poe’s “Haunted” is perfect here as both a way to make the game feel that much more like an episodic television show and as a funny punch line for the dire situation the two are about to walk into.

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Red Dead Redemption – “Far Away”

As a game set in twilight of the Old West, Red Dead Redemption isn’t the first title to pop to mind when thinking of licensed music, but the few times it chooses to use it, it’s really powerful.

Jose Gonzalez’ “Far Away” plays as John Marston enters Mexico for the first time. It’s a reminder of how far away the former outlaw is from his family and what he’s going to have to go through to get back to them. The somber tone fits as you control Marston, riding yet further away from the family you’re trying to protect.

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Max Payne 3 – “Tears”

The song “Tears” by Health doesn’t have as much to say about what’s going on in Max Payne 3 as “Far Away” or “Haunted” do in their games, but it gives the airport sequence it takes place during the extra gravitas it needs to really feel like the climactic shootout it is.

The end of Max’s journey is in sight and every corrupt gun still standing is between him and his goal. The driving beat pushes you forward through the scene and keeps you moving. For me it had the added effect of making me value Max’s life that much more through the scene. The last thing I wanted to do was interrupt this awesome song that’s making this one of the most memorable scenes in the game. Making it through this sequence alive on hard difficulty was easily one of my top gaming moments of 2012.

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Saint’s Row: The Third – “Power”

Saint’s Row is known for one thing, more than any other: Going way over the top. So why not Kanye West’s “Power?” It’s a perfect match, almost a description of the game in itself.

This is a bit different from the others in that it features more than once in the game, bookending the campaign and showing up in the in-game radio, but the fit is so definitive that it’s impossible to match. It’s like plaything through one of Kanye’s dreams.

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Eric Frederiksen

Eric Frederiksen has been a gamer since someone made the mistake of letting him play their Nintendo many years ago, pushing him to beg for his own,...


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