Pulp Fiction? Miserlou. Apocalypse Now? The End. Fight Club? Where Is My Mind? Donnie Darko? Mad World. Trainspotting? Born Slippy.
When utilised efficiently, a licensed music track can come to define a work of art – and vice versa. You may not know it’s titled Little Green Bag or that it’s performed by the George Baker Selection, but you could almost certainly hum the theme tune to Reservoir Dogs.
Limited for decades by technological limitations and nascent narrative ability, games are now increasingly making use of licensed soundtracks to enhance their atmospheric storytelling in line with their cinematic cousins.
One developer to have fully embraced the musical of its live-action siblings in TV and film is Remedy Entertainment, which often plays well-known tracks over the credits of its titles, as well as on radios in-game.
“For Quantum Break from the beginning there was always the plan of using licensed tracks since we follow an act/episodic structure,” recalls senior narrative designer Greg Louden. “Since Alan Wake it has become a Remedy trademark, and was inspired by great TV shows having licensed tracks at the end of each episode.
“With regards to using existing tracks, it’s inspired by wanting to create a pop culture classic feel like a Scorsese or Tarantino film. As these auteurs have proven, using existing songs adds a layer of cool to the experience. However, all of the tracks chosen must also have a deep connection to the story and provide additional meaning.”
Other studios have taken the integration of music to another level. One such outlet is Volition, which has created entire gameplay set-pieces around tunes as diverse as Power by Kanye West, What is Love by Haddaway and Paul Abdul’s Opposites Attract in its Saints Row series.
“One of the main foundations of the tone of Saints Row is pop culture and nostalgia,” observes senior audio designer Brandon Bray. “Licensed music is a great way to pay homage to that.
“The audio designer and level designer responsible for any given mission would come up with a list of songs that could be appropriate, and ranked them from ‘This would be rad’ to ‘Cool, but not ideal.’ We’d work with our music consultant to try to get our top choices.
“Sometimes it would work out, sometimes it cost too much. For some, we realised that it would be better to work with our composer on custom scoring so we could save the licensed music for a more appropriate time. We were going back and forth on whether or not we should use Aerosmith in the opening mission up until we submitted our release candidate.”
"Whether you use licensed music or custom scoring depends on what emotions you are trying to evoke."
Brandon Bray, Volition
While a growing number of games are making use of existing songs, very few – sports games excluded – have a soundtrack composed entirely of licensed works. This means that pre-existing tracks must be harmoniously combined with original compositions, without causing a record-scratch-like shift in tone.
“At Remedy we’re lucky enough to have both great licensed music as well as an original score by Petri Alanko,” explains Louden.
“In our experience, licensed music traditionally acted as a trademark played during end act screens to close the act. Whereas we use the original score during the acts to drive home emotional beats and add mystery, drama and other emotional-driven cues. Licensed music adds style and an additional means to summarise the story, whereas original music allows us to guide the audience during the story itself.”
Sébastien Gaillard, audio lead at Dontnod Entertainment, recounts the developer’s similar experience when designing the inclusion of licensed tracks alongside custom compositions in episodic teenage drama Life is Strange.
“Really early in the game development, alongside the writing and the pre-production, we decided to have both an original soundtrack and licensed tracks, as it was logical with our intentions for this project: each of them would and should serve a precise purpose at different moments of the game,” he details.
“It was really important to never have music for the sake of it, as the music shouldn’t be used as a ‘song jukebox’ with no real intention.
“When we were writing the game and key scenes started to emerge, we started to gather hundreds of different songs that could accompany those scenes, that would not only illustrate them, but also add secondary layers of meaning and narrative.”
Music shouldn’t only fit with your game – it must also strike a chord with your audience to reach its full potential.
“When used properly, licensed music pulls at the heart strings of nostalgia,” states Bray. “A personal example is using The Touch by Stan Bush in Saints Row IV. I am a huge Transformers fan, and the animated movie from 1986 holds a special place in my heart. A lot of people in our demographic have that same affection. When you get to the mission where you put on the power armour and that song starts to play, we want you to be immediately transported back to being eight years old, chowing down on Lucky Charms as you watch Rodimus Prime fight Galvatron.
“Whether or not you use licensed music or custom scoring really depends on what emotions you are trying to evoke from your audience.”
Another way to strengthen the bond between your players and game is by providing them with a level of control over the soundtrack. Think Grand Theft Auto’s in-car radio stations, but applied in relation to thematic storytelling.
“An aspect I’m proud of in the interactive narrative of Quantum Break is that, depending on your first junction choice, we change the in-game radio station’s music from hard rock – if you choose the aggressive option – to classical music if you choose the calmer alternative,” says Louden. “Essentially changing the ambiance and using music as a means of player choice for which it traditionally isn’t used.”
At select moments, Life is Strange allows players to interact with protagonist Max’s acoustic guitar – she will then accompany the licensed background music, directly bridging the gap between the player’s input and the game itself.
“The use of songs should never be gratuitous,” advises co-director and art director Michel Koch. “For us, it was important that it added to the player’s experience, added secondary layers or storytelling and made sense with the story, characters and the themes of the game.
“Allowing Max to play the guitar over Jose Gonzalez and Alt-J was important for us to anchor those two songs even more into Max’s universe, to show that she is relating to those songs and listening to them at the same moment as the player. Those songs are here for Max first, then for the player. It creates a stronger link between the player and Max.”
"The music business has its own set of rules that you need to explore before going on this road."
Luc Baghadoust, Dontnod
Including licensed music in your game can have significant benefits, but it also adds multiple complications, spanning from licence management and deal negotiations to the need for additional budgeting.
“Effectively using licensed music is more challenging than you might expect,” warns Remedy audio lead Richard Lapington. “First challenge is earmarking enough money in the budget at the beginning of the project and actually making sure it is not spent by the time you do the licensing.
“Choose your tracks and start the process as early as possible. I’d also recommend using a licensing agent who will handle the legal, publisher and artist negotiations. It is possible to license yourself, but it takes time and there are some legal aspects you need to make sure you cover.
“Make sure that licensed music is part of the game’s budget and design. Choose the locations of the music carefully, ensure that the track you choose fits that scene and has time to play and be heard to its full – having a mismatch here doesn’t serve anyone. After you have your A list of songs, make plan B and plan C lists.
“The licensing process itself is relatively straightforward. However, something I personally hadn’t come across before Quantum Break was that we had a number of artists wanting to know the context of the scene the song would be used for, particularly any violent content associated with their track. In some cases, we had to write scene descriptions for the artist and the song couldn’t be used outside of that scene.”
Volition’s Bray echoes the caution that approval can often hinge on an artist’s personal opinion – making context key.
“The biggest obstacle with licensed music is that someone else owns it,” he states. “You have to get their permission to use it. If they don’t get the joke or don’t feel our game is the right fit for their music, then they have every right to not give us permission to use it. That’s the nature of the beast.”
Gaillard summarises: “Choose your titles wisely. The licensing process is quite long and complex. You need to be sure of your choices because, when the process is in motion and a contract is formed, it’s pretty hard to backtrack.
“You have to be careful with titles whose rights belong to several artists or labels. It’s almost always impossible to cut or edit the titles. You also have to explain why, where and how you would like to use each title.
“For a band to be included in a game is a new thing for many groups; some are afraid of being associated with an unknown context/image and it can be a challenge to persuade them.”
"We had a number of artists wanting to know the context of the scene the song would be used for, particularly any violent content associated with their track. In some cases, we had to write scene descriptions for the artist and the song couldn’t be used outside of that scene."
Richard Lapington, Remedy Entertainment
Even once you’ve pinned down an artist and track to use in your game, there are legal hurdles you’ll need to cross.
“Unlike big game publishers that have departments dedicated to this, the legal process could be really problematic for smaller studios,” says Dontnod producer Luc Baghadoust. “The music business has its own set of rules that you need to explore before going on this road, rules that can also differ in the country your artist or publisher is from.”
“Just be smart about what you’re getting yourself into,” offers Bray. “I highly recommend you seek out some sort of legal advice, as music copyright law is a minefield of backwards ownership and hidden clauses. And did I mention it’s expensive? I’m not kidding. I don’t think people realise just how much it can cost to put someone else’s music in your game.”
While small studios working to a tighter budget are unlikely to ink a deal with Taylor Swift or Beyoncé, there are cost- and effort-saving options for those wishing to make use of licensed music.
“The internet is full of licensing companies where you can buy tracks for your game for really cheap, and
all the legal is included as part of the deal,” suggests Lapington.
“If you want a specific song from a specific band, then it gets more expensive and the legal becomes more complex. How much it costs depends on the popularity of the track and what the artist/publisher wants.
“Also, remember that there are multiple costs, such as an artist’s fee, plus a publisher fee. For games, you’ll probably need worldwide rights, which may well involve different publishers for different regions.
“Be aware that if you use a track on the credits, it may cost more than other places in the game. Costs vary and change, but I’d recommend going into negotiations with a figure in mind. Use an agent, as they will help with budgeting and so on.
“I would like to see more games companies using licensed music, especially when it comes to local artists. This is not expensive and benefits both parties.”
While it may lack the draw and recognition of big-name musicians, Bray also praises the affordability of using lesser-known performers.
“Your best bet for small budgets is stock music,” he agrees. “If you have a smaller budget, you’re probably better off looking for music options to enhance fun and exciting gameplay, rather than spending money on musical showpieces. You could ask musician friends to write music or search royalty-free music sites.
“The internet has opened up a huge venue of royalty-free music, people who just want to get their name out there. Believe me, people aren’t going to buy your game because you have that hot track from artist so-and-so. For games, music rounds out the overall experience – it isn’t meant to sell boxes.”
Today, developers have the ability to meld original compositions, licensed music and dynamic gameplay together to connect with players in brand new ways – and the ways in which soundtracks and gameplay interact with each other will only continue to grow.
“One thing I’d really like to try is taking the stems from a known song and re-editing them to fit a dynamic game scene,” enthuses Lapington. “Having the lyrics fit to the actions of the game without messing up the original composition would be interesting to see and hear.”
While it may be tempting to build a game around technically impressive audio, Bray urges developers to continue to focus on what they know best.
“Do what’s best for the story and gameplay you want to deliver,” he states. “If you have the time and money to pursue licensed music, then go for it, just be smart about it.
“Otherwise, focus on your player’s experience, because ultimately that’s what they truly care about.”
FIVE STANDOUT SONG USES IN GAMES
To All of You/uoY fo llA oT – Syd Matters (Life is Strange)
Played in the first episode, this song is later reversed in the title’s finale as time runs backwards.
Power – Kanye West (Saints Row: The Third)
Used in its E3 trailer, Power reappears in Saints Row: The Third as players parachute into and raid a penthouse.
The Man Who Sold the World – Midge Ure (Metal Gear Solid V)
An electro-tinged cover reflects the start of Snake’s recovery – plus Hideo Kojima’s love of the late David Bowie.
Make it Bun Dem – Skrillex and Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley (Far Cry 3)
This blend of dubstep and reggae comes thumping in as the player blasts drug fields with a flamethrower.
Far Away – Jose Gonzales (Red Dead Redemption)
Gonzales’ fingerpicked guitar rings across the empty desert as John Marston rides into Mexico.