Enjoying Hi-Fi Rush? You should be. Tango Gameworks‘ “shadow-dropped stunner”, as we called it in our five-star review, is a blast. If battering the gears out of robots wasn’t enough fun, Hi-Fi Rush sets it all to a banging high-tempo soundtrack: one minute you’re skipping along to The Black Key‘s ‘Lonely Boy’, the next it’s a battle to the death where your greatest weapon is The Prodigy‘s ‘Invaders Must Die’.
Splashing out on Hi-Fi Rush‘s full soundtrack can’t have been cheap. However, its very existence – a stealth-launched rhythm game where your damage is based off how well you can groove to Nine Inch Nails – is a sign that the games industry’s musical streak is getting much bolder.
In the face of the industry’s flashier collaborations, though, Hi-Fi Rush’s colourful brilliance looks rather reserved in comparison: who knows how much Riot Games splashed out to get Lil Nas X to make a track for League of Legends, or land the likes of Denzel Curry and PVRIS for Arcane?
Even then, Riot tends to avoid mixing its songs with the studio’s games too much – something that other studios have been dabbling in a lot more of late. Take Metal: Hellsinger, for example. Aside from being one of 2022’s best shooters, The Outsiders‘ Doom-inspired rhythm shooter drew from all corners of metal royalty to create Two Feathers’ star-studded soundtrack.
The likes of Matt Heafy (Trivium), Serj Tankian (System Of A Down) and Allisa White-Gluz (Arch Enemy) all contributed to Metal: Hellsinger‘s score, which is inseparable from the game itself because the objective is to shoot, blast and dodge to its beat. By the time Hellsinger‘s four-hour campaign sizzles to a close, silence feels like a stranger – your heart feels like it should still be beating along to a snare drum, and Hellsinger‘s thunderous riffs linger in your ears long after you’re done blasting the brimstone out of demons. In another universe, The Outsiders could have saved a fortune by going the same route Hi-Fi Rush did and using licensable tracks for its biggest blowouts – but it certainly wouldn’t have been as thrilling if every song hadn’t been hand-crafted for each level.
Elsewhere, CD Projekt Red‘s Cyberpunk 2077 blurred the way we think of in-game radio stations by inviting a host of A-list artists to create songs for Night City’s various radio stations. While artists like A$AP Rocky, The Armed and Rat Boy chipped in original music to bring Cyberpunk‘s airwaves to life, others played bigger parts. Grimes created new music and voiced a character in the game, while Run The Jewels‘ ‘No Save Point’ is the lifeblood of Cyberpunk‘s iconic opening montage, a rapid-fire introduction to Night City that sells the cutthroat city’s vibrant, dingy atmosphere in mere minutes. Though Cyberpunk can struggle to properly curate its music when you’re out and about in Night City, scores of bangers mean that like Hellsinger, you’re rolling credits with a bunch of earworms in tow.
Though Cyberpunk‘s original music takes the form of a Grand Theft Auto-style radio station, GTA developer Rockstar traditionally takes a wildly different approach to its own musical collaborations. Last year, GTA Online debuted all-new music from Dr Dre, complete with a series of missions that involve working with the musician to get his unreleased tracks back. However, Rockstar’s finest collaborations lie in its Western epic Red Dead Redemption series.
After striking gold with José González’s ‘Far Away’ with the first Red Dead Redemption‘s introduction to Mexico, the studio re-bottled that lightning in the sequel by enlisting the likes of Willie Nelson, Rhiannon Giddens, D’Angelo, and Josh Homme to work their magic. Following a pivotal moment in protagonist Arthur Morgan’s story, D’Angelo’s rumbling and gently defiant ‘Unshaken’ steps in during a quiet horse ride to offer a glimpse into the disenfranchised outlaw’s mind. At odds with a world that doesn’t want him and trapped in lifestyle he’s beginning to regret, Morgan spends the remainder of his life wondering if it’s possible to find redemption for the things he’s done. If you play your cards right, it is – but Morgan doesn’t survive long enough to see it.
In the game’s prologue, where you play as John Marston following Morgan’s death, Morgan is eulogised by Nelson and Homme in two separate renditions of finger-picked folk song ‘Cruel World’. Though the track doesn’t sound out of place in Nelson’s wider catalogue, it manages to work on several levels specific to Red Dead Redemption. Morgan’s death is still a sore point by the time it plays, and in many ways ‘Cruel World’ pays tribute to the peace he’s found after a life of hardship. However, the song also acknowledges that Marston has made it out – he’s settled down with his family and escaped the outlaw lifestyle that Morgan couldn’t…though there’s a cruel twist of irony for fans of the first game to savour.
Like Metal: Hellsinger, Red Dead Redemption‘s OST is deeply intertwined with the game itself – just on an emotional level, rather than physical. In itself, that’s nothing new – music has always been a powerful storyteller in the hands of many studios. Yet whether it’s Rockstar enlisting a genuine country legend for three minutes of play, Hellsinger building an entire game around a metal soundtrack, or Cyberpunk featuring several radio stations full of original bangers, the industry is certainly getting bolder.
Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see where this relationship goes – will more developers start chasing that A-list talent for their games? Will more artists see the merit in creating music for games? Will cold hard cash decide all of this? The answer (at least for the last one) is yes. However it plays out, it’s us – the players – that stand to reap the rewards.
Still buzzing from Hi-Fi Rush? Here’s eight other iconic scenes in gaming that were brought to life by licensed music.