When games become musicals



In this column, Richard Cobbett took a look at the world of story and writing in games.

Who doesn't love a good musical number? The answer: people who are wrong. Ever since PCs learned to sing with the sweet voice of a Soundblaster, songs have been used to add a special little something to the experience. Done well, they're often a game's high point. Done badly, well, let's not dwell on that, though it's surprisingly rare to find a complete clunker

The chance to do a good musical number just seems to energise everyone, from writers to musicians to artists and animators, with a fairly common story being that something began as just a whimsical throwaway suddenly becomes a whole production. The War Song from the first series of Sam & Max for instance, being made on something of a shoestring budget and intense time pressure, went from a quickie to, well, this:

Doing it well though isn't easy. The Saints Row developers have wanted to create a full musical number for years, but it was not until standalone expansion Gat Out Of Hell that they finally pulled off a full Disney-style routine. (I won't embed it because it's spoilerific, but you can watch it here if you like.)

So, just for fun, let's take a look back through the ages at some of the standout musical numbers. Minus a few like Still Alive, if only because it's the PC's equivalent of Let It Go. I think we've all heard it enough times now.

Bastion: Setting Sail, Coming Home

Both of Bastion's songs are fantastic, but it's this amazing combination of the two that puts the perfect full stop on the game. The first half, Build That Wall, is sung by a girl called Zia, so sweetly and softly that it's easy to miss what it actually is—a war song targeted at the main character's people that flat out says "Do whatever you want, we will crush you." 

The second half, Mother I'm Here, is sung by the villain, Zulf, whose discovery that the Calamity responsible for the game was actually a superweapon intended to destroy his people leads him to the not entirely unreasonable desire to strike back... until his own people tire of the deaths it's causing and turn on him. Both characters' stories are combined for this, the tear-jerking end credits song that reinforce the terrible cyclical nature of Bastion's story in one ending, and its bittersweet conclusion in the other. It's not called the Calamity for nothing.

Discworld 2: That's Death!

The story of this one is that the makers originally wanted to use Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as the game's intro, making for the 50th joke in Discworld 2 that's more Python than Pratchett. Claiming to be bored of that though, and not without cause, Eric Idle instead suggested making up a new one. Working from the brief to sell death long before Manny Calavera showed up, the result was this cheery little number. "Well, the greatest and the finest have already died! Why not simply join them on the other side?" The singing skeleton, "Bone Idle", later showed up in-game too.

The next Discworld game, Discworld Noir, also had a musical number, though a much simpler one: a melancholy tune about impending doom. Unfortunately it has bad memories attached for our hero, so we only hear a snip of it.

And speaking of bad memories...

Silent Hill 4: Room of Angel

Generally, original songs in games are energetic and bombastic affairs intended to be funny, memorable and toe-tapping. Even the bleak Silent Hill series typically gives them some energy, from I Want Love to One More Soul To The Call. And then there's this one, which is rather better known to console players than PC gamers since the series never really developed a foothold on our platform. But still, damn...

Freedom Force: Nuclear Winter

I'm mostly throwing this one in as a pointer to how the simplest song can make an impact. Freedom Force's first real supervillain was the soviet Nuclear Winter, whose five-line theme and a handful of oh-oh-oh backgrounds was notable for being the actual level background music rather than a cutscene. It was very disappointing when none of the villains who followed had anything similar.

(And certainly it was more successful than fellow short song, the No One Lives Forever credits, which desperately wanted to be a Bond-style intro but just felt like everyone had lost interest midway through. "Cause no-one lives forever. But even then... oh, whatever. Who's for a long lunch?" Great game. But what a shame.)

Total Distortion: You are Dead

There's one thing worth remembering about this game. That was it.

The Curse of Monkey Island: A Pirate I was Meant to Be

Lucasarts didn't do that many musical numbers—Glottis in Grim Fandango doesn't count—but in a fight between this one and Sam and Max's King of the Creatures, this one wins. It's a rare case of an interactive song that also counts as a puzzle, albeit one about as simple as clicking on a button marked "Click This". Arguably though, to go straight to the answer is to fail the puzzle. Certainly, it's to miss the point with a blunderbuss.

But wait, what's that I hear you say? Probably nothing, because the fact that Lucasarts created an entire musical game at one point has very much slipped through gaming's historical cracks. It was called Mortimer and the Riddles of the Medallion, and readers of Crapshoot (RIP) may remember it as the game that is still locked in their brains. It's the story of a kid on a flying snail who has to solve musical riddles, which aren't the tightest lyrics you'll ever hear, but are clearly designed to NEVER LEAVE YOU.

The reward for all this was one of the hardest final levels in the history of the universe, and this final screw-you from the designers. Presented with several options, it turns out the answer is actually something completely different... and, well, just watch. And wince at the rhyming of "Lodius dude / fondued". Not until Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude's library/therapy pairing would there be a wince like that one.

Luckily, there aren't any other ear-worms quite like— Psych! Here's Laura Bow 2.

Laura Bow 2: The Archeologist's Song

You may be wondering how long it will take to forget this song. The answer is that you will never forget this song. I am sorry. (Disclaimer: I am not sorry.) For a while, Sierra had a bit of a thing about songs, giving us examples like this, the unforgettable Soylent Clear jingle from Space Quest 6, and the song that made a whole adventure gaming generation ask "Was this even worth turning the microphone on?", the King's Quest 5 ant song. Tsk.

Sierra's attempts were often odd, though. By far the one it was proudest of was King's Quest 6's Girl in the Tower, to the point of trying to get players to request it be played on radio stations when it should clearly have been used as musak in cheese shops. A couple of years later though, we got Phantasmagoria, and in my experience most people agree that its opening theme is pretty much perfect for it—a threatening song called Consumite Furore that just drips with menace and devilwork... that will then be completely missing from most of the game, but never mind.

Nice. But what played at the end of the game? Uh...

Ouch! Like being punched in the face by the '80s, right there. If not quite as badly as...

But back to Sierra. While its style tended towards the cheesy, that could be genuinely fun. Leisure Suit Larry 6 for instance threw in a country and western song that on the surface seems a bit out of place. Police Quest players however will instantly recognise it as the story of that game's two lovers, cop Sonny Bonds and his sex worker girlfriend Sweet Cheeks, only from Sweet Cheeks' perspective. Yes, the best in-jokes are always the ones that have entirely too much unnecessary work put into them... up to and including hiring Melora Hardin to sing a sleazy cabaret song about Kickstarter.

Also endearingly goofy, in a very different style, was the intro to Freddy Pharkas: Frontier Pharmacist, which opted to tell its backstory like this:

For special points though, if you got the demo version of the game you got a different song entirely, this time more focused on selling the game with lines like "Now his life's the stuff of stories. Of computer games with inventories." This was a floppy disk demo, so sadly went unsung. But, if you feel like a rousing chorus yourself, you just have to follow the bouncing ball. The, uh, slightly sluggish bouncing ball.

Dreamfall: Rush

Here's a slightly different use of music to most, but one I thought was very effective. It comes at the end of the story, so spoilers if you're still to play it. Essentially, it's the main character going home after her quest is seemingly complete, with the use of a soft vocal track used as a push to the fact that things have changed and are drawing to a close... unfortunately with a really painful cliffhanger. Like a lot of Dreamfall's style, it's artistically underplayed and all the more effective for it. (I wrote about how much I love the city of Europolis in Dreamfall Chapters, with a big reason being its amazing soundscape).

All of these are of course just a handful of the many songs sung in games, and I can think of a good few that are worth looking at on their own. If you've got any favourites of your own, post 'em in the comments below. Until next time though, there's just one more that has to be included because it wouldn't be right not to—and I think we all know what it is. At some point, someone sitting in an office somewhere thought of this idea and decided "Yes. Yes, this has to be done." And then they convinced other people that, indeed, it had to be done. And then people played it, and they pinched themselves to be sure they weren't dreaming, and they said "Ow" as it turned out that they were not. Yes, I of course mean...

Legacy Dark Shadows: Credits

And your guess is as good as mine.