Music is one of the most immediate art forms. You can hear a song, even one you don’t particularly like, and pick up on a spectrum of emotion and intensity right away. So when music is put to good use in a game, the combination of immediate emotion and interactivity has the potential to force a tear, make us sweat, highlight the beauty in horror, and so much more. There are too many to count, but we scoured through the archives to highlight at least a few of the greatest musical moments in PC gaming.
It goes without saying that these are best experienced firsthand, so before you watch a video or listen to a tune, please be wary of spoilers.
Max Payne 3 - The airport gunfight
The best decision Rockstar made with Max Payne 3 was having a noise rock band score it. HEALTH’s brash arrangement of synthesizers and steady, pulsing percussion function as the neo-noir underpinning of Max’s life on the edge. It’s comically overwrought, but that’s part of the charm. During one of the climactic scenes, Max starts a massive shootout in an airport terminal and right when the action kicks in, so does the best tune from the game. Even though the music’s heavy bass invigorates the action, the vocals and repetitive nature express a mechanical mundanity in Payne’s life up until this point. There’s been a lot of death and shooting, and TEARS is Max’s internal conflict coming up for air: the drive to feel anything through monotonous listlessness and exhaustion. Poor fella.
Super Hexagon - The one good run of twenty
Chipzel’s soundtrack for Terry Cavanagh’s Super Hexagon is super intense, even on its own. For a while, I used it as an exercise motivator. It can loop forever and maintain intensity without any immediate sense of monotony. Each track functions as the heartbeat of the stage, giving a beat for the colors and shapes to pulse and spin to. With the music muted the game actually gets easier, but without sweaty palms I’d argue you’re missing the point.
Portal 2 - The National’s strange easter egg
One of the most profound musical moments in a game is also one of the easiest to miss. Squirrelled away in a small corner of an early level in Portal 2 is a radio that plays a song written for the game by The National. Exile Vilify sputters out of a tinny speaker on a radio found in a Rattman room, a Portal character who exists in the margins, but plays a significant part in the overall story. If you’re unfamiliar, read up on the wiki or check out the Portal 2 prequel comics. For Valve to commission an acclaimed band to contribute a song and then to hide it feels bonkers, but it works out perfectly. It’s a tragic swell about perception and isolation in Doug Rattman’s arc and a somber, atmospheric mystery that builds on the player’s disorientation in Aperture Science, a confusing enough setting on its own.
Kentucky Route Zero Episode 3 - Joining a band in a bar show
Every song from Kentucky Route Zero is excellent (thanks, Ben Babbitt), but they’re especially powerful when you’re given the lyrical reins. In the game’s third episode, a live band loops a Beach-House-y track and you’re tasked with choosing the lyrics as they play. There are no right or wrong choices, just a subtle sense of authorship and player reflection. As with the whole of KR0, it’s mundane scene made momentarily magical. It’s the game reaching out and asking you to sing along, to be part of this band and not just some detached dialogue enforcer. You’re still just clicking on text, but through the performative context it feels intimate and real.