I’m pacing across a road that’s been colored with a century’s worth of dust, waiting for a lone car to pass by. When one starts to crawl from the horizon, I place myself directly in its path. Like clockwork the car in this case, a beaten down pick-up truck, comes to a stop. I move around to the driver’s side, point my weapon, throw the vehicle’s occupants out and jam my foot on the gas. As I speed into the sun that’s starting to set over Blaine County, Radio X plays out at full volume over the truck’s stereo.
This isn’t real life; I’m not a carjacker. I’m sat in my pants eating Doritos and playing Grand Theft Auto. Yet the songs on the game’s soundtrack, which range from All Saints and Jai Paul to Suicidal Tendencies and Bob Seger, bring my moments of virtual criminal life closer to reality. Later, I’ll outrun the entire Los Santos police force while Lady Gaga’s “Applause” blares in the background. As my virtual crime spree comes to an end, I decide to ditch the truck and jump in a taxi for a tactical cig break. I hear “El Sonidito” by Hechizeros Band for the first time, and I fall in love with its little beeps.
The scenarios I’ve attached to these songs have brought them into my day-to-day life. As a result, new artists and groups – those who wouldn’t have been on my radar had they not been on the game’s soundtrack – are now on my daily playlist. In fact, there is no relationship quite like the one I have with video games and music.
On the surface, video gamers like me are being introduced to new music. That’s a good thing, because there’s nothing like falling in love with a brand new song from an unexpected source. But underneath it all, there’s a bubbling undercurrent that plays a role in helping to establish the careers of artists and composers alike, bringing them far greater revenue and exposure than ever before. Just think about the gluttony of past and present artists that’ve been discovered through Grand Theft Auto’s radio stations.
So where did it all start? Big name franchises like Grand Theft Auto, FIFA, and NBA are well known for their soundtracks, but the inclusion of popular songs in video games predates their next-gen existence by almost a decade. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker – which incorporated synthesized versions of the musician's hits, such as “Beat It” and “Smooth Criminal” – is arguably the first video game to include pop music on its soundtrack, arriving in 8-bit glory on the Sega Genesis in 1989. Games like Wipeout 2097 (which included Chemical Brothers and The Prodigy on its soundtrack) and Quake (which was scored by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails) arrived shortly after, cementing the idea that including popular music on a game was more than a fad. For me, though, the pinnacle of video game music didn’t come until 1999, with the release of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. It’s that game that opened my ears to a whole new world.
Each afternoon I would rush home from school, throw my bag on the floor, and gallop over to the Playstation to tear up the School level on the game. Now, don’t get me wrong: I loved kickflipping down stairs from the confined safety of my settee. But, as a kid living in a world without high-speed internet, the most interesting thing about the game was its soundtrack. Because from Goldfinger to The Vandals, it introduced me to a punk scene I hadn’t heard about before.
As the franchise continued, moving from the Playstation and on to the Playstation 2, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater had a strong influence on my music taste. In some ways, it was like a big brother. Alongside the likes of the Bouncing Souls and Less Than Jake, later editions included Frank Sinatra, Gang Starr, and Public Enemy, opening my ears to new music years before the Swedes dreamt up Spotify. I know I’m not alone in my love for the THPS soundtracks either; they’ve become a sort of cultural reference, entering the nostalgia canon for my generation, with playlists littering YouTube decades after the games were released. And it’s these generation-defining soundtracks that have helped the bands involved sell a lot of records.
Tim Riley, former Activison employee and the man responsible for most of the music within the Tony Hawk series, says Fall Out Boy shifted 70,000 copies of their album in one week after their music was featured in 2005’s Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland. Goldfinger’s “Superman” is now their most popular song, and is seen by many as the title track to the series. Through its soundtrack, the game became synonymous with a millennial love for punk music, and it’s arguable a load of musicians wouldn’t have as established and decorated careers without it.
Since the release of the Tony Hawk franchise, video game soundtracks have exploded. These days, you’re just as likely to see Lorde on the soundtrack to Assassin’s Creed (where she featured on the game’s trailer) as you are on the radio. And who can forget The Sims 3, which commissioned artists as diverse as Damian Marley, the Flaming Lips, and Katy Perry to re-record their songs in Simlish. But these big name titles aren’t the only ones bringing music to the attention of a gaming audience. Take the game Life Is Strange: a third-person adventure title that was released in 2015. It covers some intense subjects, from drug-dealing to abuse, yet what’s special is how the developers of Life Is Strange have carefully licensed music to use as part of the soundtrack, helping to amplify the raw emotion embedded in the gameplay.
[SPOILER ALERT] As the game’s fourth episode wraps up, players are presented with a decision. They can choose to euthanize one of the main protagonists, putting them out of their misery, or they can move forward. Given that the scene is virtual, it sounds trivial, but it’s the inclusion of the Message To Bears track “Mountains” that helps to bring the scene’s raw emotion to life. In fact, it’s so emotional that some fans have cried while playing through the scene. Others have reached out to Message To Bears to say how the song has affected them. Message To Bears tells me he’s “found new listeners” through the game and the track in question now has nearly a million YouTube plays.
Whether it’s driving down the Los Santos freeway or anxiously deliberating over whether to inject a virtual protagonist with morphine, it’s that emotional connection between music and specific scenes in a game that helps to drive music sales. Dan Croll is an electronic artist who has featured in both FIFA 14 and GTA V. One of his tracks featured in a Justin Bieber playlist, but it was his inclusion in the Grand Theft Auto franchise that led to a phenomenal increase in fans, and far outnumbered the traffic from Bieber’s hat tip. “Once GTA V brought me here, I was blown out of the water”, he says. “Games enthusiasts from all around the world were contacting me to say how much the track had connected with them”.
It’s no surprise that video games are now being seen as a profitable method of music distribution. Former CEO of Universal Music, Zach Horowitz, once cited that inclusion in the Guitar Hero series boosts real world sales of an average of 200-300%. Activision chief Bobby Cotick remarked that Aerosmith earned more from Guitar Hero than they ever did from an album. It’s like the vinyl reissue of the video game world. In November, digital sales for Inon Zur’s theme song for Fallout 4 surpassed 17,000. That figure may seem paltry in comparison to major artists, but it’s a high number when you take into account that people have been that into the game they’ve gone out of their way to purchase the title music that plays on repeat.
So given that these bigger, more popular titles have the potential to drive revenue streams further than a Justin Bieber playlist can, it’s perhaps easy to see why Universal Music Group made an investment in Swedish mobile games developer, Nuday Games, last October. The studio’s first release is a trivia-based mobile game called Rock Science: The Rock Game of the Century. Essentially, it’s a pop quiz. Or rather, a rock quiz, as players are quizzed on their knowledge of bands, ranging from Motorhead to Korn.
There’s some skepticism about major labels getting involved at the root core of the industry. Where some developers put music in their game because it increases the artistic quality of the product, others simply use it to promote their title, which is why Jason Derulo was dismally employed to introduce Just Dance 3 to consumers at last year’s international gaming conference, E3. But when it’s done right, these games help sketch out the music taste of gamers, which is especially helpful for the hardcore elite who refuse to leave their console each time there’s an opportunity to gain double XP when playing online.
I discovered some of my favorite bands through games like Tony Hawk’s, Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX and GTA. Listening to AFI’s All Hallows EP takes me back to playing Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, completing the Foundry level on 100% for the first time. Most recently, the tragic passing of Dave Mirra saw me taking to YouTube playlists as I repeatedly played “What I Got” by Sublime. When I heard the news, it felt like a huge blow had been dealt to my childhood. I spent a portion of my life playing Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX, and owe my discovery of bands such as Pennywise, Sublime and Deftones to the game, as well as countless others.
The influence of these soundtracks hasn’t just affected gamers, either. In a way, these games have the power to shape the music tastes of a generation, and birth entirely new sounds through their influence. From grime to hip-hop, you can’t count the number of musicians who cite Playstation’s Music 2000 as their gateway into production. Bands such as The Reign of Kindo and BadBadNotGood are covering their favorite video game tracks, too. And increasingly, there are tours celebrating the music of video games like Pokemon, where full orchestras play the tracks out live.
Basically, the future relationship for video games and music is so bright it makes me feel kinda nauseous. Games bring music into our life; with them, my music library would probably be a near empty vessel, containing the one David Bryne song that came packaged with my copy of Windows 98. And as all PC gamers know, that would be a terrible place to be.
Follow Mat on Twitter.