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Music in video games

A few days before the release of Valve Software‘s gaming epic The Orange Box, it was announced that it would contain a song from Jonathan Coulton, the guy who made (most famously) Code Monkey. As it turns out, the song ran during the credits to Portal, one of the games in The Orange Box. It’s an absurdly catchy tune sung from the point of view of a murderous female-esque computer (think “The Softer Side of Skynet”) after the conclusion of the game’s single-player story line.

MTV Games (The folks publishing Rock Band) talked to Coulton on their Multiplayer Blog, and, among other things, talk about the fact that there are a select few video game anthems to reach the level of this song, titled “Still Alive,” and they discuss why that is.

Seems to me that there are two things required: a very catchy or recognizable tune, and a very successful game. The Multiplayer Blog post mentions the theme from Halo. Despite being in one of the best selling games of all time, this song is still a bit obscure because it just isn’t catchy enough.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is “Hell March 2“, the theme song for the game Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. It’s an amazingly catchy and distinct song with a strong beat that any player of RA2 would recognize in a heartbeat. But, sadly, RA2 never enjoyed the wide-spread success of Halo, for reasons that mystify me. It is one of the rare games that uses full-motion video to tell the single-player story, where its much more mainstream contemporary Starcraft used scrolling text as mission briefings. For example, take this introduction to the game that plays as soon as you boot it up for the first time, without prompting, immediately sucking you in:

On a side note, “Hell March” and all the other music for RA2 was also created by the musical genius Frank Klepacki, who did all the other music for Westwood Studios before they were run into the ground by EA. It’s uniformly excellent stuff.

But back to the point: Halo had fame, but not catchiness. RA2 had catchiness but not fame. Given that Valve has fame unparalleled by any other developer (except perhaps id Games at the height of the Doom craze), all they needed was catchiness. Coulton produced that, in spades, and now he’s got a chunk of fame to call his own.

“Still Alive” is something of a “perfect storm” in the video game music industry because it has actually had attention purposely drawn to it, instead of it being relegated to being background music. But for anyone who thinks that it is the only good video game song to come out in the last decade, I have a few gigabytes of music that say otherwise.

Categories: Gaming
  1. October 23, 2007 at 1:40 am

    Great. Now I’ll have that song stuck in my head for the next week.

  1. April 21, 2008 at 8:38 am

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