#68 Tune up

I’ve been playing Eidos Montreal’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, and having a fine old time. It’s not much of a game so far, per se — the combat system is rather bland and the fights are too long, and in between is some very by-the-numbers thirdperson platforming in the Uncharted style. But it’s wonderfully written and terrifically performed, and you’re never more than five minutes away from an arresting sci-fi vista. In what has been a quiet Q4 so far, it is doing its job very nicely.

And the music! The music is terrific. I quite purposefully avoided finding out what was in the game’s licensed soundtrack ahead of time, because I wanted it to be a surprise — the era of music that powers the movies is like catnip to me, and I wanted to experience it fresh. During an early escape sequence, you pilot your spacecraft through an on-rails gauntlet of flying space debris and big explosions. Suddenly Flock Of Seagulls’ ‘I Ran’ started up and reader, I lost my mind. The sequence was so linear, and so clearly pre-canned, that I doubt I could have failed it if I’d tried. But with a classic from yesteryear ringing in my ears, you bet I flew a little faster, tried a little harder, took a few more risks. Lovely stuff.

That is a weirdly rare treat these days. It’s not so long ago that licensed soundtracks were everywhere — powering our racing and extreme-sports games, scoring our open-world mayhem in an era where every studio and its dog seemed to be making a GTA competitor. There are certain songs that I will forever associate with specific games, regardless of where I first heard them: ‘Never Too Much’ with Vice City, ‘Superman’ with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, ‘Miles To Go’ with Sleeping Dogs… I could go on. So I will! ‘Let It Snow’ with Mafia II, ‘Work’ with GTAV, ‘Paint Yourself’ with Saints Row: The Third. I will leave it there but honestly, I could ramble on about this stuff all day.

My point here, I think, is that there is a direct correlation between the quality of a game’s licensed soundtrack and both my enjoyment of it in the moment, and my fondness for it in retrospect. There is magic to this, and it is not as easy to get right as you might think. For proof, allow me to present Watch Dogs, a game whose soundtrack was clearly put together in a hurry, and I suspect by people who had not played the game or its genre competitors. Watch Dogs, you may remember, is set in Chicago. And so its slender licensed offering is comprised of songs by bands from Chicago, songs about Chicago, songs that have Chicago in the title and, yes, the actual band Chicago. There is also a single usage of Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.’, as the backdrop to a drug deal gone horribly wrong. It is quite fantastic, and the only specific part of the game that has stuck with me. I think that says a lot.

These days things are different. Yes, there’s loads of licensed stuff in GTA Online, but experiencing that would involve playing GTA Online. There’s music in FIFA and NBA 2K, but it sits apart from the game itself, a polite, dinner-party-style backing for the menu screens. I’ve played and enjoyed every Forza Horizon game, but I couldn’t name a song from any of them. The music in those games sort of washes over me — theirs is not the soundtrack to your sun-dappled hoon down countryside A-roads, but the radio station playing in a taxi journey that you are too polite to ask the driver to change. So. Where have all the good songs gone, and why?

Part of it, I think, is a question of setting. Everything is fantasy or sci-fi these days, it feels like, and so maybe there’s less of a demand for real-world music now our open worlds are set in the far future, or distant past, or in a parallel something-or-other. This is why Guardians Of The Galaxy can do what it does: the source material allows it to blend futuristic sci-fi with old-school, real-world bangers. I suppose the live-service era complicates things, too: how much more does it cost to license a song for a game you hope will be in operation for over a decade?

Maybe modern processing power, and the lavish production values it affords, mean games now do a good enough job of approximating reality that developers no longer feel the need to reinforce our connection to these worlds; to imbue their creations with authenticity and realism by bringing songs we know and love into the equation. Perhaps it’s just my age! Maybe it’s simply that today’s game soundtracks are being made for a younger generation and no, that’s impossible. It’s the children who are wrong, definitely.

What a shame, though. I have so many wonderful memories of hearing the right song at the right time in the right game. You make these little memories and connections, and they spill over into the real world too. I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my 30s, and when I finally got into my first car I had my keys in one hand, and in the other a CD wallet containing San Andreas radio stations ripped from the PS2 disc, and a Mafia II soundtrack downloaded off the web. Lovely stuff.

I have this recurring daydream where I’m at Rockstar Games, interviewing for a job curating the soundtrack for the next GTA. Someone gives me a pen and paper and tells me I have 15 minutes to come up with a ten-song playlist in a certain genre. Overlooked ‘80s pop for a new Vice City, or  vintage hip-hop for a return to San Andreas; classic rock for the one in ‘70s Los Angeles I wish they’d make, likewise a ‘90s London GTA with UK Garage, jungle and Britpop stations. My daydreams are awesome, yes. But what a shame they seem so unlikely to come true, given the shape of today’s game industry. Developers, if you’re reading this, do get in touch. I have a big record collection, and I am eager to use it.


  • Microsoft and Sega Sammy have announced a ‘strategic alliance’ that will see the former help the latter out with various cloud-powered tech stuff. More precisely, in Sega’s words, the deal will “allow the business to move forward with ‘Super Game’, a new initiative for developing new and innovative titles where the key focuses are ‘Global’, ‘Online’, ‘Community’ and ‘IP utilisation’.” Actually that’s not very precise at all, is it. As you were.
  • Roblox experienced a rather dramatic server ouchie over the weekend, caused apparently by “a subtle bug”, that left it offline from Thursday through Sunday.
  • The US government is investigating Tencent’s recent takeover of Sumo Group. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which ratched up scrutiny of Chinese investment in the Trump era, is casting an eye over the deal despite Sumo being headquartered in the UK, as it has studio interests in the US as well. Both Sumo and Tencent are complying with investigators, as you’d expect.
  • Amazon’s MMO New World is shedding users at quite a rate — it’s lost half its playerbase since launch, averaging 135,000 dropoffs a week.
  • Here’s a Spotify playlist of every song I mentioned up there. That’s nice, isn’t it? You may suggest relevant additions in the comments, if you like.

There you go! I hope you had an excellent weekend. The clocks went back in the UK yesterday, which is either a wonderful thing or a terrible one, depending on whether or not you have small children. For me, the day felt like a week. As ever, if you’ve enjoyed today’s edition, do please give it a share! And if you’ve really enjoyed it, perhaps you’d consider a paid subscription; at current exchange rates an annual sub will run you just 13p per day. A small price to pay, I think, but I suppose I’m biased. Have a great couple of days, and I’ll see you Wednesday.