Video games and pop music. Who’d have thunk it? Marketing departments, probably. But marketing or no marketing, we have some thoughts on the ways video games are using pop music, and, most importantly, why any game that hasn’t asked Carly Rae Jepsen to do the soundtrack has made a grave misstep.
Also, we made you a playlist.
Naturally, the first question we have to get through is: what is your favorite video game pop song? Feel free to be as generous with the term “pop song” as you’d like.
Zora Gilbert: As someone who has spent hours upon hours listening to Kingdom Hearts music while doing rote clerical tasks, I feel I’m contractually obligated to answer: “Face My Fears” by Hikaru Utada (no preference between English and Japanese). I’ve actually spent more hours just listening to her albums in sequence, because it’s hard to find a tidy compilation of Kingdom Hearts tracks outside of YouTube, and also honestly her music slaps.
Avery Delany: There is nothing in the entire universe that can beat “Mama Do” by Pixie Lott in Simlish. I live for it coming on my Sims’ radio. Having said that, I also live for hearing “Wild Dances” by Ruslana coming on the radio in GTA 4. I think the conclusion we can draw here is that I’m here for anything that has pop songs on video game radio stations?
Maddi Butler: Square Enix has given us so many gifts in this regard! I feel like nothing quite unites a room full of people like shout-singing Hikaru Utada’s “Simple and Clean” from Kingdom Hearts, but I’m also extremely partial to “Too Much is Never Enough” by Florence and The Machine from Final Fantasy XV. It’s so beautiful and perfect that I couldn’t listen to it for a solid month after I finished the game because it would make me cry.
Melissa Brinks: This is a tough question because not only is everybody who already answered absolutely correct, but I can’t decide! My favorite band in the entire world, The Format, did a Simlish version of “The Compromise” for The Sims, and that never ceases to amuse me. But also, “Real Emotion” from Final Fantasy X-2. And the version of “I’m Not Calling You a Liar” by Florence and the Machine from Dragon Age 2 is so good! Also: what’s up with Florence and the Machine and doing video game music? I’m into it.
Elvie Mae Parian: Everyone pretty much has name-dropped great picks I myself had in mind, so I’m going to focus on the jukebox selections that are in a lot of sports games. When people rank game soundtracks, there is a reason why a Tony Hawk Pro Skater title or two makes it on these lists. Pop punk is not dead. However, when Black Eyed Peas’ “Labor Day” started randomly playing in SSX3, I was completely caught off guard. It’s not even my favorite Black Eyed Peas song, but it just stands out to me in one of my favorite SSX games ever.
Kaitlyn Lyons: I’ve probably never played more than an hour of the Metal Gear franchise in my whole life and I won’t hesitate to rock out to “Snake Eater.” Otherwise, at the risk of making myself out to be a One Game Girl, I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t talk about the music in Life is Strange. From that soothing main menu music that makes me want to just stare at the sunset for hours to those first bars of “To All Of You” by Syd Matters as Max walks down the hallway in Chapter One you are immediately transported in Arcadia Bay. I swear that somebody who makes playlists for Starbucks is a Life is Strange fan, as well, because for a while there some of the most emotional songs in the game kept reducing me to a blubbering mess while working.
Maddi: I feel like Florence Welch has a very specific vibe, where she shows up at any given event looking like she was transported directly from a magical cottage in a misty forest. Now I’m a little sad she wasn’t one of the bards in The Witcher 3.
Melissa: Oh my GOD how did I forget “To All of You?” All the music choices in Life is Strange are fantastic, but I actually think one of my favorite song uses in the series is Before the Storm Episode 2‘s opening scene with “No Care” by Daughter.
What do these songs add to games?
Zora: I think Hikaru Utada’s songs have been a huge part of the Kingdom Hearts games! Each main game has its song, so to speak (“Simple and Clean” for KH1, “Sanctuary”/“Passion” for KH2, and “Face My Fears” for KH3), and they are all deeply embedded in the part of my consciousness that also remembers what my first childhood home smelled like. Utada’s music has given the collective Kingdom Hearts something really tangible—singable lyrics, recognizable hook—to latch onto, and they’re also incredible shorthand within the games for “you should feel an emotion now.”
Nola: Yeah I mean Zora pretty much has it here; pop songs, when used effectively, can isolate and clarify narrative tone for a game, even above and beyond a game’s ambient soundtrack. They provide anthemic lyrics that can stick with a player, they can add energy to a scene or distract from a weaker point in a game that devs might not have had time (or funds) to otherwise address prior to release.
Zora: Way to use bigger, smarter, clearer words to say what I said, Nola.
Nola: Someone had to class up the joint.
Avery: Pop music in video games has always been about the little moments for me, and I think that’s why I have such fond memories of video game radio station music. It’s not so much about how the music contributes to the narrative but what happens in the liminal spaces between the narrative. For me, it immediately evokes memories of cruising around Vice City as the sun sets and the neon lights of the city come on, sitting for hours with my headphones on, completely immersed in the escapism of The Sims or wandering through the expansive wastelands of Fallout.
Utada’s music has given the collective Kingdom Hearts something really tangible—singable lyrics, recognizable hook—to latch onto, and they’re also incredible shorthand within the games for you should feel an emotion now.
Maddi: I think, in addition to everything Zora, Nola, and Avery said, they add an element of relatability. Especially in Square Enix games, the use of pop songs with English lyrics marks the themes in a game and probably makes them more relatable to a Western audience because it telegraphs them right away. FFXV was marketed as “fantasy based in reality,” and I think using recognizable names like Florence Welch and Vivienne Westwood made the world feel more like an extension of our own.
Melissa: Agreed with all of that. I’ll just make a case for “Real Emotion” since it’s a particular fave for me—Final Fantasy X ends on an incredibly sad note, and Final Fantasy X-2 begins on an almost jarringly cheery moment, in comparison. Of course, that scene is a bit misleading—it’s not actually our girl Yuna wearing that pop star dressphere—but the use of a pop song shunts Final Fantasy X-2‘s world into the future, whereas the world of the first game felt a bit like it took place in the past. The establishment that pop music not only exists, but that former summoner Yuna is now a sought-after pop star, tells us a lot about how the world of Spira has evolved in the time between games. Some people might read it as cheesy, but the soul of the first game is there; it’s just that the music sets the tone up to be different right from the start, which makes those emotional gut punches hit all the harder.
Elvie: I think pop songs in particular, whether or not they were written originally for a game or licensed from our reality, also help to add dimension to these settings when implemented correctly. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has music players that can curate coming right out of 80s-90s America, featuring artists like a-ha and The Cure. It creates these questions about whether or not the events in Metal Gear are actually accurate to history. The SSX franchise’s soundtracks, however, mixe both licensed music and originally produced music specifically for the game. Not only does this insinuate a connection to our world, but it is suggestive of its own, distinct music industry. The 2012 SSX soundtrack is especially good about this, introducing a dynamic radio system with a radio jockey character popping in between tracks like an actual show. It’s not only suggesting this game possibly takes place in our world, but its own developed world.
If you could have any pop singer do a song for any franchise, who would it be and why?
Zora: I’m… passing on this. Someone else go first.
Nola: i’M pAsSiNg oN tHiS!
Ahem. Anyway, I said last week that they should do a Final Fantasy X-2 remaster with Carly Rae Jepsen music and I stand by that. Call me, Squeenix!
— Stephen Capps (@stephencapps) August 4, 2018
Maddi: They already added Ariana Grande to Final Fantasy Brave Exvius, there’s no reason they couldn’t just do the same for Carly Rae Jepsen. Give her a sword!
Melissa: Carly Rae Jepsen is the correct answer. Let me play every game as Carly Rae Jepsen. Replace all of Skyrim‘s bard songs with Carly Rae Jepsen.
Elvie: She already got a sword, she needs a soundtrack! (Stream Dedicated.)
But to add on to this, I would love it if Imogen Heap got involved with a video game someday. Her sounds are already fantastical and ethereal, which would honestly be versatile for many genres. As is, she loves exploring tech and I’m surprised a video game has not already been in her portfolio. She is very open to sharing her work and already has contributed to a lot vastly different things such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and nearly had her work used for the Twilight movies.
Are there examples of pop music in video games you feel were badly chosen, and why?
Maddi: Personally, I think Final Fantasy XIII made some choices that are very much… of its time. I’m not overly fond of the Leona Lewis song (“My Hands”) they chose as the theme for the North American and European trailer because the association doesn’t quite match up for me. The song is about the end of a relationship, and while that’s certainly a theme in XIII, the loss of romantic love isn’t really the central conceit of the game—it’s about Lightning fighting to get her sister back.
FFXIII’s version of the chocobo theme (which has lyrics!) is, in my opinion, an equally odd but far more haunting pop music choice. The mere thought of it is enough to get it stuck in your head for days.
Melissa: I have thought and thought and thought about this question and I can’t think of any in games I’ve played. The closest I can think of is that Dirty Vegas’ “Days Go By” was a poor choice for DDRMAX2 because it was far too slow on easier modes, which made it impossible to time the steps right. This was very painful for me, a person who liked both DDR and this song, but who is extremely bad at rhythm games and can only play on easy. Thank you for letting me air this 17-year-old grievance.
Nola: So what you’re saying is that days go by and still you think of it?
I also don’t have a pick for this but I do have the opposite—there’s one I think works incredibly well, but I didn’t mention it earlier because it’s not my favorite, and that’s Cage the Elephant’s “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked,” which suits the opening to Borderlands so much it’s honestly sort of shocking. I mean sure, it’s basically a more up-tempo “What It’s LIke,” but it’s still catchy as hell and absolutely fits that arid desert locale from the beginning of the first game.
Kaitlyn: Yes! Borderlands did a great job with drawing you in with “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked,” and in my opinion maybe even topped that in Borderlands 2 with “Short Change Hero” by The Heavy.
Maddi: Even knowing very little about Borderlands I feel like knowing that song was used would make me consider playing. This is getting away from pop now, but I also really liked the electronic Hotline Miami soundtrack (especially “Roller Mobster” by Carpenter Brut and “Knock Knock” by Scattle), even though the gameplay isn’t really my style.
Melissa Brinks is Sidequest’s editor in chief, co-creator of the Fake Geek Girls podcast, author of The Compendium of Magical Beasts, and an aspiring beekeeper. She once won an argument on the internet, and tweets at @MelissaBrinks.