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.
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.
“…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…
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.
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.