Is it fair to give a game credit for a soundtrack that wasn’t written for it? It’s an interesting question, and one that was inevitable for a column like this to eventually confront, but it doesn’t make it any easier to answer. It’s true that the use of licensed music in video games is a powerful tool, but it doesn’t seem right to praise a developer just because they can afford to pay a record company their exorbitant fees.
Personally, I feel that it all comes down to how pre-existing tracks are utilized in new software. For example, Guitar Hero and Rock Band don’t really get any kudos for the way they implement particular tracks, since pretty much every tune is functionally identical in terms of gameplay. On the other hand, you have titles like Saints Row the Third, which combines mainstream pop music with its missions in ways that augment the game’s personality, tone, and humor. Yes, Saints Row is actually pretty smart bec–Hey, stop laughing!
Warning: Some spoilers may follow.
After the tense and action-packed opening, Saints Row 3 settles down into a comfortable groove to introduce its story and characters. While the protagonist, Shaundi, and the rest of the gang may not be the most dynamic figures in video game history, there is an undeniable sort of charm to their sociopathy. Nowhere is this more clear than in the segment in which The Boss and comic relief sidekick Pierce sing along to Sublime’s “What I Got” (embedded above). Impressively, all 7 voice actors for the main character put their own spin on this bit of karaoke, including the comedic zombie voice.
What makes this sequence so great (besides the best ska punk band ever) is the way it humanizes the psychotic killers at the center of a game with an M rating so hard that Wolverine could use it as a scratching post. Guillermo del Toro once said that, “A good monster is a monster you can imagine in repose,” and this is blindly clear in a scene which makes a couple of mass murders likable–nay, lovable. Any game designer could have locked the car’s radio station to a particular song during a specific mission, but Volition went the extra mile and had its characters sing along so charmingly that you forget about the drying blood of the car’s previous owner all over the interior.
After the premise and story arc are firmly established, The Third becomes a game about taking back what was once yours. To that end, Kanye West’s “Power” is utilized in a pivotal scene in which the player parachutes down onto a skyscraper to kill rival gang members and take over their headquarters. Obviously, the set-piece is fantastic. The vocal opening earns the oft-overused adjective of “epic” as you look out over the Steelport skyline, while the King Crimson sample during the chorus is infinitely more effective in a firefight. And yet, this soundtrack choice is more than just a good fight song.
As perhaps the most modern and recent cut of music in the game’s soundtrack, “Power” could just be seen as capitalizing on what was popular at the time of release. However, consider the lyrics of the song in conjunction with the rise and fall of The Saints as in-game cultural icons. The game starts with the gang at the height of their power, having traded their street credibility for fortune and fame, only to lose it all with one fatal mistake. This almost directly mirrors the background for the track, which was written after West went from one of the most celebrated new artists to an industry pariah as a result of his selfish behavior.
If Saints Row as a series can be said to have any major theme, it’s the acquisition, loss, and transfer of power. This idea is explicit in both the mission and its lyrical accompaniment, as one shows how far the protagonist is willing to go to get The Saints back on top, while the other ruminates on the burdens of that kind of strength. I’m not saying there is any deep, hidden meaning here–it’s just that the implementation of the licensed song is so appropriate that it raises the enjoyment of what is a pretty traditional seek-and-destroy mission.
Of course, the Saints franchise is nothing if not a more lighthearted spin on the Grand Theft Auto formula, and the soundtrack serves this end too. The Third‘s finale tasks you with making an important choice: get revenge or save the girl. Either way, you’re treated to the glorious 80′s cheese that is Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero.” While this is a surprisingly effective choice for the penultimate mission, the juxtaposition between the song’s earnestness and the ludicrous events of the game are hilarious by contrast. A lot of serious “saving the day” songs could have been used in this scene, but the pitch-perfect use of a specific licensed track makes this an incredibly memorable moment.
I would even go as far as to say that the confluence of sound and plot at the end of Saints Row 3 bring the series around from general parody to specific satire. Grand Theft Auto IV ended with antihero Niko Bellic forced to make similar decisions involving revenge and the tragic death of a character close to him, which was treated with serious weight and drama. By playing an analogous situation for laughs, Volition more or less waves its floppy purple dildo in Rockstar’s face. The original series of open-world crime may have coined “The Grand Theft Auto Effect,” but Saints Row the Third took the practice of using licensed music in video games and turned it into an art.
Music Mondays is a weekly column by Austin Yorski and Robert Heck dedicated to discussing the most interesting audio experiences in electronic interactive media. Tune in every week for more original game soundtracks that you need to hear. Feel free to disagree with, add to, or question everything. I welcome your feedback. Also, follow me on Twitter @austinyorski (please).