Using licensed music in a game is a risky maneuver. A song made for the radio or the club won't wasn't built to convey exactly what a game might be going for. It can be awkward and hokey beyond repair. But when deployed during a specific narrative beat or used on an in-game radio station, the right licensed song can date and detail the setting, set mood and reveal character, or provide a pitch perfect backing track for a dramatic or action-heavy scene. They might be the first thing we remember about some games, for better or worse.
So we decided to look back licensed game music we still can't quit, and found plenty of great (and horrifying) tunes that introduced us to a new genre we didn't know we could love or underlined a particular moment in our lives.
If there's an ear worm a game introduced to you missing here, be sure to share it in the comments.
When Worlds Collide by Powerman 5000
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
Good lord, being 13 wasn’t fun. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 didn’t help much either. It’s during those formative years that we truly start to carve out an identity for ourselves, and THPS2’s eclectic, almost satirical snapshot of early ‘00s ‘cool’ culture had a huge influence on me. Because of THPS2, I took up skateboarding in a rural Montana town with craggy sidewalks that would kill a horse. Despite terrible conditions, our skater crew found a way, and music was our fuel. So of course we pulled from our Teen Bible (THPS2) for inspiration and the one song that I can still recite from memory today, as much as it hurts, is When Worlds Collide by Powerman 5000.
The music video really speaks for itself, but When Worlds Collide has it all: spiked yellow hair, abusive fisheye lens, and a bunch of nondescript leather and demon shit. But despite the mischievous, gravelly vocals and hokey fuzzed-out guitar riffs, it’s a pretty catchy tune. Whenever I pulled off a 900 on the moon or a Darkslide as Spider-Man to When Worlds Collide, I felt cool. I definitely wasn’t cool, but as a 13-year-old hormonal mess, it was enough.
Late Goodbye by Poets of the Fall
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
I'm very fond of Remedy's two Max Payne games, and I love that the second used this melodramatic Finnish rock track as a motif throughout the story. At various points, you hear a cleaner singing Late Goodbye, Mona humming it in the shower and even a gangster playing it on a piano before Max dives into a room and kills everyone. Then, of course, it memorably plays over the end credits as well. It's a very cinematic touch, and unconsciously I started to really like Poets of the Fall, possibly as an extension of how much I enjoy Remedy's games generally. Who else would think of doing something like that in a game? Quantum Break was meant to have a song from the band too, but apparently got in the way.
The band's lead singer Marko Saaresto is a friend of Remedy's Sam Lake, hence why Alan Wake uses music by the same band as the Old Gods of Asgard as well ( is another favourite). I find the band's music pleasingly melodramatic—and I think they helped define the personality of these particular games by Remedy that its players are fond of.
Bloodlines by Ministry
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines
"What is it like to be created inside a world where life is a crime?" I don't know, Al, but I'm glad you asked, because Bloodlines, the title track of the Vampire: The Masquerade RPG of the same name, is one hell of a song. The whole soundtrack is great—Lacuna Coil, Tiamat, Darling Violetta, and Chiasm all turn in spectacular efforts—but Bloodlines is the one that really knocks it out of the park. Technically it probably doesn't count as a "licensed" song since it was written specifically for the game, and it stands separate from the rest of the soundtrack, which is licensed and far more gothic than Ministry's howling industrial rage. But it's ripping good stuff, shifting smoothly back and forth from a shadowy, Bela Lugosi beat to the kind of all-out thrash that makes a man want to mosh until his eyes bleed. That's good enough for me.
The Bloodlines soundtrack was responsible for turning me onto goth rock at a point in my life when I really should've been too old for such things. Bauhaus, Joy Division, Gene Loves Jezebel, Flesh for Lulu: Nothing too extreme or exotic (although in hindsight I suppose that the sight of a man of a certain age in a sensible American-made sedan driving down the street with Lecher Bitch screaming out the windows may not have made the best possible impression on my parents' neighbors), but it was a definite departure from my usual fare, and one that's stuck over the years since. The irony is that even though Ministry is the high point on one of the best videogame soundtracks ever (and Activision really deserves credit for so perfectly nailing it), I never became a fan of the band. Just wasn't my thing. But it helped me discover a lot of other things that are—and I will never hear that track, or any of the others, without immediately being transported back to the dance floors of Confession or The Asylum. That's a nice bonus.
Sometimes by Miami Horror
Grand Theft Auto 5
The single biggest influence on my music tastes over the last ten years is Rockstar Games. Clearly, the publisher has a strong background in the music industry, and that's benefited everything from GTA 3's esoteric and exciting soundtrack of mostly unknown artists, to Vice City's snapshot of the '80s, to Max Payne 3's left field use of noise rockets HEALTH to create that game's intense action themes. GTA 5 is the culmination of that: an all-encompassing, generous slab of music where each station hits the right note. Licensing this music is what Rockstar money is for, and it's a real education if your exposure to new music or genres is as limited as mine.
At first, Non-Stop Pop was my go-to station, with its familiar mix of music that was in the charts when I was a teenager (The Time Is Now by Moloko is a particular favourite). Then over time, that turned to chillwave/electropop station Radio Mirror Park—Sometimes by Australian indietronica band Miami Horror is the real standout for me. That encouraged me to track down their first album, the brilliant Illumination, and that basically ignited my interest in that entire genre. Their second album, All Possible Futures, is even better. It's basically like someone blasted the concept of summer into your ears, which is a relief when you live somewhere as gloomy as the United Kingdom.
Max Payne 3 - The Original Sound Track by HEALTH
Max Payne 3
More Max, and I’m cheating here slightly, because I was already a big fan of LA noiseniks HEALTH when Rockstar announced they were doing the entire soundtrack for the third game. Despite the band’s let’s say, uh, anarchic reputation—follow for a few days to see what I mean—it was clear they took the job , spending so long in the studio on the project that their own LP got delayed as a result. The result was, for my money, the single greatest music/games crossover. (Bear in mind I don’t actually have any money.)
The single released from the record is embedded above, and is a signature HEALTH banger in the same vein as songs like USA Boys and Die Slow. It works superbly when it arrives for the game’s climactic shootout, but also isn’t really representative of the rest of the music—which is darker, more droney, and unusually consistent compared with HEALTH’s explosively scattershot other LPs. What’s most impressive is how hard the band clearly considered the source material. (Arguably more than it deserved.) The wash of melancholy synths and menacing ambient scree combines perfectly to channel Max’s paranoid, druggy, Favela nightmare. This is also one of those soundtracks you can stick on whilst in the supermarket and instantly transform browsing for broccoli into a significant life moment.
Friday I'm In Love by The Cure
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
How many people did you kill to steal the one cassette of Kids In America by Kim Wilde in Afghanistan? It was three in my case. There's a great chunk of '80s pop music hidden in Metal Gear Solid 5 that you can have blasting out of your helicopter as it comes to pick you up, or back you up in battle—plus you can drop your own into the local files, which is neat. But the choice that left the greatest impression is this track by The Cure, a band I'm not sure I ever thought much about before playing MGS 5, since their heyday was slightly before my time. Plus my mum likes them, which is always a bit of barrier to believing something is cool.
Now I forever associate Friday I'm In Love with sprinting across deserts alongside D-Dog and sniping dudes in watchtowers. MGS 5 basically encouraged me to pick up the band's seminal Disintegration album, which I now have to admit is a better late '80s electro rock album than Violator by Depeche Mode.
Pruit Igoe by Philip Glass
Grand Theft Auto 4
I can't say I listen to Philip Glass that much recreationally—his music is a bit intense for say, a few beers and a game of Mount Your Friends—but I will forever associate the dense streets and towering structures of GTA 4's Liberty City with Pruit Igoe (as much as I do with Koyaanisqatsi, anyway). It ran alongside the game's almost ten years ago, and then features on trippy radio station 'The Journey' as well. Other than one episode of Battlestar Galactica, it was pretty much the first time I heard his music.
There's something about the concentrated vision of New York in GTA 4 that's a little bit mythical. The golden skies, the very clean look of Star Junction, the way skyscrapers are lit at night—an ever-so-slightly idealised interpretation of the real thing that still has some magic to it. When Pruit Igoe comes on the radio, it all comes together in a powerful way, particularly for a time when GTA 4 was years ahead of other open world games in fidelity. It's some weird pop culture capsule of New York.
Hey, I don't want to get too flowery (or wanky) about this, but if there's something I love about the way games and music speak to each other, it's that a piece of music can make you remember in detail a place you've never really been to, like you would recall a place in real life. I personally find it has a more profound effect than music from a film. Rockstar's games, and their use of music, frequently generate this response.
Ingrid Is A Hybrid by Dusky
Forza Horizon 3
Forza Horizon 3’s gorgeous open world rendition of Australia may represent the car enthusiast’s dream, a map with every sort of terrain and over 300 vehicles to romp around in, but in truth—and it pains me to say it—Horizon 3 is an EDM prison. Sure, there’s a hip-hop, some alternative rock, and classical music to listen to instead, but somehow the station always ends rolling back to drum and bass or house music. I don’t remember touching the dial, but through restarting the game or event-specific music, EDM finds a way inside.
One track in particular is impossible to avoid. As soon as the game boots, Ingrid Is A Hybrid opens with some light, glassy synth—an ambient musical cue that ramps into the meditation exercise that is Forza Horizon 3. And then the lyrics kick in, a chant that cuts to the core of Car Life: “Take me away / give me a sanctuary.” Please, please take me away. Give me a car sanctuary. It’s an act of psychological warfare, one that chips away at my resistance to EDM every time I start up Forza. I don’t know what’s real anymore. Maybe I’ve been switching the stations back to electronic music this whole time. I mean, sometimes I catch myself thinking about going to a music festival. When I close my eyes I see glow-in-the-dark bracelets. Maybe .
Atomic by Blondie
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
Make no mistake about this, Vice City is the alpha and omega of all gaming soundtracks. Even Rockstar’s other GTA games cower in its shadow. As a man of a certain age who was raised by a father with a big time crush on Debbie Harry, I was already aware of Blondie, and had definitely heard Atomic a few times before. But some songs don’t reveal their true kaleidoscopic pop perfection until you’ve heard them whilst speeding around a neon-soaked Miami on a moped, mowing down anyone who looks at you side-eyed with an Uzi. Atomic is one of those.
Honestly, I could have chosen half a dozen tracks off Vice City’s drawling, fizzy, lipsticked Wave 103 station alone. Kim Wilde’s Kids In America (which is also used to amazing effect in Metal Gear Solid V), Spandau Ballet’s Gold, Nena’s 99 Luftballons—these are songs which you wouldn’t normally associate with startling violence, but as Kubrick showed with A Clockwork Orange, and Tarantino later made an entire career from, terrifying action sequences mesh amazingly with a sugary soundtrack. The first couple of bars of Atomic are so insanely cool that you immediately have to commit to doing something ridiculous to be worthy of the music. If you aren’t at five stars wanted by the time the first chorus kicks in, you’re playing wrong.