What music does to us: non-diegetic songs in Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 3

Ask most gamers to name their favourite memory of Red Dead Redemption, and the chances are their eyes will mist over a little and they’ll describe crossing the border into Mexico for the first time.

Red Dead’s open, Western setting is beautiful in itself, and crossing the river from the fictional state of New Austin into the harsher, reddened landscape of Nuevo Paraiso is indeed a visually impressive moment. But what is it that makes this resonate so strongly in gamers’ minds? It’s that as you mount your horse, and set out into the new country, a piece of music starts to play. Not unremarkable in itself – music is as big a part of games as it is films. So what is it about this particular piece of music, the lilting song Far Away by Jose Gonzalez, that enhances the experience so much?


The song itself is non-diegetic – that is, it does not “exist” in the “game world”, but is artificially laid on top of that world. When you drive around Grand Theft Auto’s Vice City listening to Gary Numan or Tears for Fears, you are hearing diegetic sound: the songs are being played by Wave 103, one of many fictional radio stations in the game. In Red Dead, the howls of coyotes, the sounds of your horse’s hooves, and John Marston’s speech are all examples of diegetic sound: we are given a clear grounding of where those sounds emanate from. But Jose Gonzalez isn’t riding alongside Marston as he enters Nuevo Paraiso. And although both Vice City and Red Dead share the same developer (Rockstar), Marston’s horse is not fitted with a radio.

Another non-diegetic song can be found in Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3. Your character, Jason Brody, is handed a flamethrower and tasked with setting fire to the local drug lord’s weed fields. Upon reaching the fields – a veritable playground of explosive barrels, plentiful ammunition and panicked enemies – Make It Bun Dem by Skrillex and Damian Marley kicks in, and plays on a loop as you complete your mission. Added to the explosions, the spreading flames and Brody’s gleeful shouts (“I LOVE this thing!”), it makes for quite a spectacle.

As with Red Dead Redemption, the majority of the rest of the music in Far Cry 3 is contextual: it plays when you encounter an enemy, or unlock a bit more of the map, get in a chase or complete a mission. It fits seamlessly with the playing experience and is a “normal” bit of game design, to the extent where as players we barely register it, or at least rarely distinguish it from everything else that is going on at that moment. Brooding drumbeats may set you on edge as a cougar strides towards you, but it’s a rare moment indeed that you would think back to the cougar attack and muse on just how effective the music was at that particular instant.

It’s a device rooted in filmmaking, albeit cleverly adapted to be contextual given that both Far Cry 3 and Red Dead are open-world rather than a more linear game like, say, the Call of Duty series. In the most linear of games, players are effectively progressing from Story Point A to Story Point B with little or no divergence from that path – just like the experience of watching a film*. Music can be used in films to make scenes more emotional, more dramatic, or just plain more awesome, but we barely notice that the part of the reason we feel that way is because of the music. We’re so used to the film-watching experience that we expect and accept music as part of the package. Unlike the linearity of a film, open-world games like Red Dead and Far Cry 3 have to adapt to what the player decides to do, and where they decide to go, and play its music accordingly.

But Jose Gonzalez and Skrillex are used in a very filmic way in these two games: the game’s developers have decided that at those specific moments in the story – entering Mexico and reaching the weed fields – they will add those songs to the gaming experience. They are two rare moments of directorial intervention in otherwise very open-ended games. And, as many commenters and countless YouTube clips attest, it’s highly effective. I defy any gamer (or at least, any who enjoy First Person Shooters) to watch the video of Far Cry 3’s Kick The Hornet Nest mission and not break into a big, dumb grin, whether you’re familiar with the game or not.

Burn!

Why does this work so well? In some respects, it shouldn’t work at all. It’s a fourth-wall-shattering piece of intervention that should break the flow of the game and remind the player that they are just that – a player, sat on their backside, playing a video game. In the case of Red Dead, the fact that the game is very definitively set in 1911, and goes to great lengths to remind you of this setting, yet features a piece of music from the 21st century, should be somewhat jarringly anachronistic.

Yet the opposite is true. A commenter on Kotaku.com sums up the Skrillex/Marley song on Kick The Hornet Nest thus:

“…this song was perfect for this mission and made it feel truly insane […]. The detached brutality of fiery death set against the flaming fields and this song felt completely unhinged. I felt that this mission, more than almost all others, marked Jason’s complete surrender to the jungle.”

Quite apart from destroying the moment, Make It Bun Dem is seen as a crystallisation of Jason’s move from privileged middle-class brat to a semi-psychotic jungle warrior. And while not all commenters are as positive about the song’s inclusion in Far Cry 3 as the one above, there is near-universal approval for Red Dead’s use of Jose Gonzalez and how it enhances the beauty of those first moments in Mexico.

It may be a lazy observation, but as games have become more film-like – graphically, aurally and narratively – it may well be that we are becoming more comfortable treating them as similar to films. Certainly there were very few titles fifteen years ago that had the narrative or visual complexity of a game like 2012’s Black Ops 2 (however flawed that narrative may be), which was a part of what made 1998’s Half-Life so utterly groundbreaking at the time.

Yet if we’re playing games in a similar mindset to when watching a film, why do we remember these two moments in Far Cry 3 and Red Dead because of their use of music? Shouldn’t we just remember the moment as a whole package – visually, aurally and experientially – rather than picking out that specific detail?

Perhaps not. When it comes to songs – as opposed to score, original or otherwise – games are still keen to keep their music diegetic. When, in Bioshock, your character is attacked by Sander Cohen’s horde of psychos, it is accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers – the swooning melody clashing with the violence of the attack – but only because Cohen, an artist, has a penchant for matching fine art with death.

Like Apocalypse Now’s Ride of the Valkyries, the classical music in this instance is played through a public address system in the game. In Grand Theft Auto or countless other games where the player spends significant time driving vehicles, songs can be found on your radio. As a gamer, you’re aware at all times of where the songs are coming from (and in many instances, you have a choice over what song you’re listening to, in-game).

Do game developers fear that non-diegetic songs will kill the experience for the gamer? Quite possibly – there are so few examples out there of non-diegetic songs in games that it’s a tempting conclusion to draw. Yet, as we’ve seen with Far Away and Make It Bun Dem, non-diegetic songs can significantly enhance a gamer’s experience, if they are sufficiently well-integrated into the game.

As a gamer, would I care if Skrillex started playing in Far Cry 3 while I was doing something fairly mundane like walking around the jungle? Of course not, if anything I’d think it was a glitch or find it faintly annoying. Conversely, would I have enjoyed the mission Kick The Hornet Nest if it only included the sound of burning weed, or if – heaven forbid – I was playing the game with the sound off? Without being able to know for sure, I am fairly confident that, while I might have enjoyed the mission, it wouldn’t stick in my head and I certainly wouldn’t have dived for YouTube to share the clip with others. Burning stuff with flamethrowers has been FPS fodder for decades (even Mario was lobbing fireballs back in 1985). Equally, you spend your entire time in Red Dead Redemption traversing stunningly beautiful landscapes that John Ford would have been proud to include in his films – Mexico is “just another level”. But add a little non-diegetic music, and…

SUNSET IN RED DEAD REDEMPTION

Whether we accept non-diegetic songs in games because we’re used to them as a filmic device, or whether we – as gamers – simply don’t mind that fourth wall being broken in ways that everyone seems to assume we would (it’s nothing new, playwright Bertolt Brecht was doing it a century ago), it does seem as though developers are missing a trick in not using them more frequently. That’s not to say that every game needs four or five pieces of pop music dropped in at crucial points – Far Away and Make It Bun Dem work in part because they are so unexpected – but, as all film directors and producers know, what you’re hearing can be just as big a part of the experience as what you’re seeing.

ENDNOTES

Finally: two contrasting examples of fourth-wall-breaking music in games. One is stunningly good: Portal’s villain GLaDOS singing the closing song Still Alive (from beyond the digital grave) is probably my all-time favourite piece of music in a video game (“I’m not even angry […] even though you broke my heart. And killed me. And tore me to pieces. And threw every piece into a fire.”).

In the other, the characters of Black Ops 2 perform Avenged Sevenfold’s Carry On (many of them also from beyond the digital grave). Stunningly, unjustifiably bad.

* I’d like to be clear here that a game’s linearity does not necessarily imply a lack of quality or enjoyment. Halo 4, for example, is very much a straight line – albeit a straight line through some large and open areas – but is a fantastically tight and thrilling experience for all that.

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16 thoughts on “What music does to us: non-diegetic songs in Red Dead Redemption and Far Cry 3

  1. I think my favourite use of music in a game is probably Solar Fields’ soundtrack to Mirror’s Edge combined with Lisa Miskovsky’s “Still Alive” song in the finalé. The whole game has a theme to it and my memories of the game are all touched by it.

  2. Good of you to draw attention to the fantastic use of music in RDR. You may be interested in a recently-emerged remix of the music, vocal samples and sounds from Red Dead Redemption. I teach a college-level course on the Western genre (which includes analysis of Western video games!) and write about this art category at http://www.westernsreboot.com – if interested in a post about the remix, you can find it at:

    http://westernsreboot.com/2013/03/02/red-dead-redemption-remix-bend-the-western/

    Thanks again for a thorough article!
    Chad
    http://www.westernsreboot.com

    1. Thanks Chad – just listening to it now. I studied Westerns as part of my university degree – it was quite an eye-opener. I’d originally just thought Westerns were just a bit of throw-away entertainment, and soon discovered they were actually socially important bits of film with tremendous artistic merit. So like video games then 🙂

  3. Max Payne 3 also had a salient instance of non-diegetic music, another rockstar production. In my opinion not as potent as it didn’t fit the environment/pacing but it did encourage the player to interact more forcefully and I still remember it.

  4. “Do game developers fear that non-diegetic songs will kill the experience for the gamer? Quite possibly – there are so few examples out there of non-diegetic songs in games that it’s a tempting conclusion to draw.”

    Whilst GTA is a high-profile example of diegetic music in games, the majority of uses of song in the medium have surely been non-diegetic? Even if we were to consider just the soundtracks of games in the racing genre (Burnout, Gran Turismo et al.), the music here has almost always been non-diegetic and, certainly since the dawn of streaming audio, much of it has been song.

    The use of non-diegetic song in linear moments such as intro movies and cutscenes is another obvious case, but it is particularly relevant to the discussion here because it is closer to your “filmic” (i.e. prescribed/authored) observation about the Red Dead and Far Cry 3 examples.

    I think the crux of the issue is “meaning”. It’s certainly one reason why developers shy away from using songs – the specific connotations of a lyric can make a song harder to integrate into the experience. It’s already quite a tall order to find a piece of existing music (i.e. pre-written music that you can license) that is musically fitting for the project and will brilliantly fit the specific context you have in mind. If you throw in the requirement to find a piece of music that has lyrics which reflect and enhance what the player is doing at that moment then that’s quite a few boxes that need to be ticked. It’s really common to find a song which has a chorus or repeating refrain which is “perfect” for the use you have in mind, but it’ll also have verses which are about something totally inappropriate or unrelated and this nixes its suitability. In other words, it’s actually quite hard work 🙂

    But it obviously works the other way too, as you’ve identified – finding a song which aligns brilliantly with the experience creates something special. When it works, it adds meaning.

    If you analyse it after the fact, the Skrillex/FC3 example works on several levels. But it’s quite a chaotic and messy experience – the music is a big part of it, but it’s not the focus. For example, the music ducks down when the flame thrower fires or the player character is speaking – they are considered to be more important than the music. There’s added value here for sure, but because the player is busy playing the game the music isn’t the centre of their attention.

    That’s in stark contrast to the Read Dead example – all other audio is ducked for the music. This mix decision tells you “listen to this – it is meaningful”. That is until the track nears the end and the crickets creep in over the top and smoothly return/transition you back to the game again and out of the spell that the song has cast over you. The player isn’t busy at this point (pressing forward doesn’t take much effort for your average gamer, right?), so they are free to engage with the song and, essentially, forced to do so. Though I imagine most folks were willing victims 🙂

    Which begs the question – are there examples of non-diegetic songs where the player is busy playing the game AND the song is the primary focus? Is this even possible? Maybe this is another reason why the use of non-diegetic songs is so uncommon? Songs which are central to the gameplay experience are almost uniformly diegetic, e.g. in SingStar, Rock Band et al. the music is the gameplay or takes place in a world built around it; in Vib Ribbon or AudioSurf the diegesis is literarily constructed from the music.

    Interesting stuff 🙂

    1. Thanks for the detailed and interesting response, Kenny.

      Where you say “the majority of uses of song in the medium have surely been non-diegetic” perhaps I should have been clearer here. Driving games aside (as in games where the primary mode is to race, rather than games in which you occasionally drive like GTA or Sleeping Dogs), there are precious few examples of non-diegetic songs being used in games in the way that Farcry 3 or Red Dead do, which had led me to wonder why this is the case. Another commenter below has raised Max Payne 3 as another example but it really is rare, mainly restricted to the game’s intro or credits. The only other example that has sprung to mind as I’ve been thinking this topic over is in the original Black Ops when Sympathy For The Devil starts to play as you pilot your boat through Vietnam:

      This would have been a great example to use in the post, in hindsight. SFTD was released during the Vietnam War and the Stones already have previous in Vietnam movies (Paint It Black in Full Metal Jacket) – for a little while there you’re not playing a game but watching a war movie. It’s a nice touch, if somewhat unsubtle given that its reference point is so obvious.

      I was particularly interested in your point about the music ducking down for the player’s actions in FC3, but vice versa in RDR – I must admit I hadn’t even considered that, thanks for the extra analysis. Clearly very significant in the “directorial intervention” I was trying to highlight. And yes, you’re quite right that the timing of Far Away in RDR couldn’t be much better – for the next few minutes you do nothing but cruise through beautiful (but empty – in terms of game mechanics) countryside.

      Re: “are there examples of non-diegetic songs where the player is busy playing the game AND the song is the primary focus? Is this even possible?” That’s a whole other blog post right there!

      Driving/racing games – and this time I WILL include GTA in this category – are, musically, an interesting sub-genre. Certainly when I opened my copy of GTA IV the first thing I did was flick to the back of the manual to see what the radio tracklistings were like. I know several people who loved the Tony Hawk series of games, but if you were to ask them for their memories of those games they’ll start singing Lagwagon or Pennywise. Those games have become synonymous with music, almost a showcase for certain bands.

      1. Here’s another observation (which I similarly wish I’d thought of when writing my reply but, hey, that’s why discussion is so valuable 🙂 )…

        …what are the uses of non-diegetic song in film?

        Primarily, it’s montage sequences. And not just your stereotypical “Rocky” montage sequence…

        …but almost always a sequence making strong use of ellipsis:

        All of which is built on top of one of audio’s primary functions in film – it’s the consistent glue that holds the spliced footage together. It bridges the gaps and presents something which is fractured as a unified whole.

        As with the Max Payne 3 example, perhaps the most common use of non-diegetic song in film is introducing the end credits, which is the ultimate example of super-gluing two different realities together:

        But, to get to the point – what do games avoid like the plague during gameplay (i.e. whilst the player has control)? Ellipsis! Not being able to easily clone the common filmic use of the device is surely another factor that contributes to the dearth of examples of the meaningful use of non-diegetic song in games.

        But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. I guess it’s more down to there being a lack of exploration of these ideas in mainstream games.

        Here’s another example of “song and montage” which offers a different approach that could perhaps be even more applicable to games:

        Here we have music being used to glue different worlds together (there’s one shot with three different locations/times) but, crucially, we are seeing them all at the same time rather than in a sequence, and we also have the additional information being added by the music and lyrics. It’s a real melting pot, but it hangs together beautifully.

        [As an aside – it’s also interesting to consider whether the song is non-diegetic here. Given that the film isn’t in any one place, the “film world” might as well be taking place in the same “space” as the music – if it’s all happening in Willard’s mind then it’s actually a diegetic use of song. What this shines a light on is the fact that all “diegetic” music has a non-diegetic element and vice versa – in reality it’s more of a sliding scale than a binary classification.]

        Games display parallel information and visuals all the time (e.g. the game world plus info in a HUD, or features like ghost playthroughs) but they tend to be synchronous in some way (so that they make sense). Maybe the key to asynchronous parallel visuals in games is non-diegetic song… 🙂

  5. It’s an interesting post, while reading I thought about an interesting example of non-diegetic soundtrack in GTA IV. To be honest it is almost borderline in the context of your rumination, but not so far off.

    Music is inherently made by the interweaving of sounds an pauses, and Rockstar know it well.
    If the GTA franchise is characterized by the constant presence of a diegetic soundtrack there is a single precious moment, right after the mission “That Special Someone” in GTA IV, when the developer do what in hindsight seems the only possible move in a fictional world where music is so pervasive.

    In that moment Niko turn off the radio.

    I bet that for many players it would be the first quiet driving experience since they started the game. For certain it would be the first time when the control escapes them.

    And it’s powerful. Like a good, calibrated pause in a tremendously good composition it stands to last, to burn a mark in the player memory.

    Sure, I’m not strictly speaking of a song, it’s more of an exception to the rule in the argument of non-diegetic intervention, but still, that moment defined more than many other my personal experience with the game, and did this by masterfully administering the soundtrack, with a final effect very similar to the border crossing in RDR.

  6. The Half-Life series also featured non-diegetic music (as far back as 1998). One rather popular song is Surface Tension: http://youtu.be/zRf9fhj-2BA?t=6m15s The song starts with the same bit that the gamer hears when they start the game and the logo plays. In this scene that bit is extended and the gamer gets to hear more of the tune. The devs might have deemed it fitting to accompany the ‘breathtaking’ sight that is Nevada wastelands (which you get to see once you leave the pipe) with a suitingly badass song or something. 🙂

    I also want to refer to a scene in Black Mesa (the mod that re-envisioned Half-Life in the Half-Life 2 engine) where music kicks in just when a chance to finally escape the facility is at your finger tips: http://youtu.be/YJlIvLIcscw?t=55s

    And there is also Half-Life 2 which boasts several examples of well-placed non-diegetic music: http://youtu.be/6KINVLlkce0?t=2m30s In this example I think the song plays when you engage with the enemy in your first ‘proper’ firefight in the game.

    All these songs seem to have in common that they are short, intense pieces, perfectly suited to burn 30 or so very special seconds into the memory of each gamer.

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