With the impending release of 'Grand Theft Auto V' this Autumn, which has been highly anticipated by gamers since...ooh, the last game in the series, comes the welcome return of not actually playing the game properly, but cruising around the ever-sizeable in-game map in a fantastic car, accompanied by music that just sounds cooler accompanied by evil deeds such as driving like a complete lunatic and randomly murdering innocent passers-by for no good reason.
From the initial installment of the game in 1997, which gave us non-licensed yet still entertaining tracks in the form of primitive radio stations (a rock station gave us a medley of fictional 'hair-rock', a country and western station played the same amusing song about gold mining and 'big and hairy' womenfolk over and over again, and there was even a pop-style chart rundown) through the amazing 80s-set 'Vice City' (featuring, incredibly enough, practically the entire 'Scarface' movie soundtrack on one in-game radio station alongside romantic tracks, funk, Spanish, rock and new wave stations) and the latest game in 2008 (which included genres such as hard rock, drum 'n' bass, electro, rastafarian and even Eastern European music), the 'Grand Theft Auto' series has been one of the most varied, surreal and downright listenable video games in recent history. But this cash-cow franchise is not the only beneficiary of an excellent game soundtrack.
Whereas some games opt for the use of present day artists and bands, or even songs that are to be released in the future (the Fifa series of football games on the current generation consoles typically feature lesser known bands breaking through onto the music scene; British group Bastille were featured on 'Fifa 13' before their debut album was released) others use much older music to wonderful, atmospheric effect.
The 'Bioshock' series, a game set predominantly in an underwater dystopia that's gone to pot, uses songs from the 1940s and 50s to evoke a sense of time and also to match the wonderful visuals - art deco buildings infused with an almost steam-punk ethic. Corridors of reinforced glass and futuristic vending machines offering 'Plasmids' (special powers that can be harnessed by the player) stand side-by-side with antique furniture and statues and bars that wouldn't be out of place in a Bogart movie. The use of Bobby Darin's 'Beyond the Sea' on the second game's trailer was a particular masterstroke, tying in with the underwater setting for the game, as well as being music of the period featured in the game. 'Bioshock Infinite', the recent third outing in that series went a stage further and gave us cover versions of songs like Tears For Fears' 'Everybody Wants to Rule the World' as if it had been recorded in an alternative universe where the song was written in 1912. As such, it is reimagined as a rag-time jaunt sung by a chap from a barbershop quartet. Really.
1940s music was utilised perhaps more eerily in the 'Fallout' series, in particular 'Fallout 3' which appeared on Playstation 3 and XBox 360. Set two-hundred years after a global nuclear war, you emerge from a 'vault' (a massive underground bomb shelter) looking for your missing father. With the life mankind knew before the war effectively over, the only music to be found in this dangerous wasteland is broadcast by ramshackle radio stations who appear to only have access to the type of songs found on 78s and gramaphone records. Hearing tracks with a barely disguised irony (such as vocal group The Inkspots' 'I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire', or the swinging ode to a murderer in 'Butcher Pete') really transforms the music from being simply 'boring old songs' to having a real meaning in the in-game world. I myself have become a fan of the artists featured in these games, and can now be found enjoying ditties by The Andrews Sisters, Django Rheinhardt and Fats Waller, whereas before playing those games, I'd have probably stared at you blankly after hearing their names.
With the progression in the quality of games (which goes hand-in-hand with the technology available), so the budget for the games increases. With this comes a need for the year's big blockbusters to have a proper script, great voice acting, graphics, playability and sometimes, its own musical score. Vast, sprawling epics such as 'The Elder Scrolls' series benefit greatly from this - set in a fantasy world not a million miles away from the likes of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, licensed tracks by established artists wouldn't necessarily 'fit' with the gaming style, it featuring monsters, dragons, swordplay and magic. The excellent soundtracks to the Elder Scrolls games 'Oblivion' and 'Skyrim' really come into their own even when listened to outside of the gaming environment. To back this up, the 'Skyrim' soundtrack was released in its full 4-CD entirety to fans who couldn't get enough of the spooky, emotive, relaxing and dramatic musical themes and compositions included in the game. They really are a joy to listen to and proof that gaming can benefit from a great soundtrack as much as the next Hollywood movie.
We've certainly come a long way from the likes of a Spectrum screeching a barely recognisable incarnation of a theme tune at us in primitive beeps and bloops, that's for sure. There's even live events you can attend where orchestras play themes and popular tunes from modern day games, all for the entertainment of those willing to pay to listen to it.
With all this advancement, here are some developments that could become very real in the next few years:
1. DJs creating mixes for in-game soundtracks -
While we've had novelty games such as 'DJ Hero', where top name disc jockeys have lent their skills to creating original mixes and 'mash-ups' of songs for the casual gamer to play along with, we surely cannot be far off DJs offering their turntable skills to games such as 'Grand Theft Auto' - how cool would it be to hear an exclusive mix by Tiesto, Paul Oakenfold, 2 Many DJs or David Guetta as you cruise the streets of a virtual city?
2. Band's albums forming soundtracks to games -
A new or established group (or even a sole musician) could feasibly release an album by having it featured in a game. Whereas composers such as Hans Zimmer and David Arnold could be brought in to create new music for a game, how would a soundtrack album by the likes of Muse, techno-stalwarts Orbital or veteran multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield be recieved for a video game? It's an intriguing scenario and one that might just become more commonplace in future.
3. Music from a game gets into the pop charts -
This happens with movie soundtracks, so why not with games? Admittedly, movies are and always will be more popular than games, but the way the music contained within them is released and distributed remains the same. Game soundtracks can be picked up way more frequently nowadays (classics like the original music from 'Doom' can even be picked up for free on the web), but what's to stop an original composition featured in or at the end of a video game breaking into the charts? A number one hit seems unlikely, but with more original music being made for games, I can see this happening fairly soon. With the advent of downloadable content ('DLC') with games, soundtracks are commonly offered as free downloads if a game is pre-ordered, or bought as a special limited edition package. Some of these are of questionable quality or are likely to be played more than once, but for the truly great soundtracks this is definitely a way of increasing their appeal.
On the subject of games and music, who remembers the novelty single that accompanied the release of the PC classic 'Lemmings' featuring dialogue from the game ("Geronimo!!!" "Noooooooo!!")