At their best, video games try to simulate every aspect of their narrative, making sure everything in the game is consistent and “exists” within that fiction. Music’s often an exception: a good song doesn’t have to exist “in the world” of the game for it be good. The right song can modify the experience of a particular piece of film completely, and the same is true for games. It can tell us more about the emotion and weight of the scene without having to justify itself.
Many gamers probably have memories tying a game to an album you were listening to at the time, but there’s nothing like when the game itself does the tying, especially in the moment. And in the moments these songs appear, they uplift the entire segment in a remarkable way, creating that powerful association that leads to some of the most unforgettable moments in gaming.
8. ‘THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD’
Game: ‘Metal Gear Solid V’
Midge Ure’s cover of the single from David Bowie’s third album is a perfect fit for Metal Gear Solid V, a game obsessed with the idea of legacy and history. The song sets the mood for the game in a way that’s actually a little misleading at first (the rest of the game doesn’t really evoke the mood of the song), but during those early moments in the hospital, that doesn’t matter.
The poppy synth and Ure’s sinuous voice make the your hospital stay that much more disorienting, especially when the song goes from existing outside the world to within it, as the audio levels lower and you find out it’s been playing from a nearby speaker. It’s a truly special opening, and you can tell the moment was crafted around the song instead of the other way around.
7. ’THROUGH THE FIRE AND FLAMES’
Game: ‘Brütal Legend’
Even by the time Brütal Legend came out in 2009, DragonForce’s “Through the Fire and Flames” was already a bit played out, having made its big gaming debut in Guitar Hero III two years prior. But you have to admire Brütal Legend for going for it and putting it in one of the most memorable parts of its story.
There was also a bit of a sentimental aspect to it—by putting it in a game chock-full of old-school metal and rock anthems, Tim Schafer was, in a way, inducting DragonForce into a sort of rock hall of fame, canonizing them among metal greats like Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne.
6. ’BUILDING STEAM WITH A GRAIN OF SALT’
Game: ‘Splinter Cell: Conviction’
Splinter Cell: Conviction isn’t my favorite Splinter Cell game by a longshot, but it had its moments. By far the best was the use of DJ Shadow’s “Building Steam with a Grain of Salt,” which, like “Through the Fire and Flames” had kind of been done before. But it’s the way Conviction actually uses most of the song in motion, from the incredibly long and low-key intro during the initial conversation between Sam and Grim, then switching to the song’s more up-key tempo as revelations about the plot come into light and the mood swings from somber to intense.
Considering how many other tired or more current songs they could have gone for, using an old DJ Shadow song was a surprisingly restrained and impressive choice.
Game: ‘Far Cry 4’
The Far Cry series had tried the song/section pairing before by playing Skrillex and Damian Marley’s “Make it Bun Dem” during a segment in Far Cry 3 in which you burned an enormous marijuana field with a flamethrower. It was hokey, the song wasn’t great, and the actual segment itself was kind of boring.
Luckily, Far Cry 4 tried it again, and the result was this wonderfully trippy bit where you’re looking for someone inside a factory teeming with noxious fumes. In a game filled with psychedelic segments like these (usually not for the better), this part stands out for actually being fun to play. And the song is much better, which brings the entire experience home.
4. ’HORSE STEPPIN’
Game: ‘Hotline Miami’
In a game filled with incredible music and so bent on having you understand the importance of music (when you choose to exit the game, it briefly displays a number of the artist featured on the soundtrack), it’s strange to know the best song is at the title screen.
Sun Araw’s “Horse Steppin’” is a song as mesmerizing as it is aloof, and making it the first thing you hear after the developer title cards sends a strong message: Hotline Miami is something different. From the Russian text to the homemade VHS look, the title screen says everything it needs to about the game you’re about to play, and the song could not be a more perfect fit.
Game: ‘Saints Row 3’
Saints Row 3 was the epitome of being at the right place at the right time. It came out long after Grand Theft Auto 4 was in the rearview but before excitement for Grand Theft Auto 5 really had time to build. The game capitalized on its own timeliness, putting together everything you’d come to expect from modern open-world games into a single outstanding package.
It also took advantage of its timeliness by featuring an entire segment devoted to Kanye West’s “Power,” a song with enough staying power to have leftover relevancy a year after it debuted. The song doesn’t really fit the section of the game it’s paired with, honestly, but it’s so in line with Saint Row 3’s “just go with it* attitude that you couldn’t help but smile, shake your head, and think “Goddamn it. This is good.”
2. ’FAR AWAY’
Game: ‘Red Dead Redemption’
“Far Away” absolutely matched the tone and feel of Red Dead Redemption, but as with all of these songs, placement is key. And “Far Away’s” placement in the plot of Redemption is perilously non-traditional. For one, it doesn’t take place until several hours into the game; many players probably stopped playing before they ever got to this point. It’s also a bit out of nowhere, but not out of place; the José González song plays as John Marston rides into Mexico for the first time, into a territory he’s less familiar with on a course to continue the revenge plot he’s been cajoled into following.
It’s not overbearing, either; it just follows you, as you think about what’s going on in the plot up till that point, and whether you’re actually heading the right way and will actually get to Mexico by the time the song ends.
1. ’SNAKE EATER’
Game ‘Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’
Metal Gear Solid 3’s titular song is popular for a number or reasons (for the incredible title sequence it accompanies, for being such a spot-on recreation of classic James Bond themes), but its best moment within the game comes when you’re climbing up an impossibly long ladder, on your way to one of the game’s last areas.
The Cynthia Harrell song comes out of nowhere, and it’s not super fitting. But it builds a moment from these parts nonetheless. The best part? As long as you keep climbing constantly, it syncs up perfectly. It’s also the exact kind of thing you’d expect from Hideo Kojima, the series’ creator. It’s a bit weird, and you’re as likely to raise your brow at it as much as follow along, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who never lost control. Oh no, not him. He’s written for Playboy, Paste, GamesBeat, VICE, and several others. You can follow him on Twitter.
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