Rock The Spacebar is a twice-monthly column investigating the great music that underpins your favourite games. This week, Dom Peppiatt turns down their radio, takes a cab ride through Watch Dogs: Legion, and reflects on that special something that makes in-game soundtracks feel authentic, memorable, and – most importantly – realistic within their own world.
It’s nearly midnight in June 2005. The windows are open, there’s a nice breeze coming through to cool down your room, and you’re glued to a TV screen – a fat, CRT deal that hums faintly as your launch PS2 wheezes behind it. It takes a lot of effort to run GTA: San Andreas at this point. Rockstar made a pretty demanding game here. As well as loading in to the open world of Los Santos as you’re cruising around in your boy racer with a flame decal painted on (hey, you were 13, it’s OK), your poor little PS2 is having to stream high-quality music from the in-game radio station, too. It’s getting warm in here, and I think it’s the PlayStation’s fault.
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Whether it’s The Stone Roses’ ‘Fools Gold’ and its shoulder-rolling, head-nodding intro playing out as you take your first ride out of the city and into the wilderness near Mount Chiliad, or the bass-driven angst of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ blaring out of your tinny speakers as you bed down in a car park and make an ill-advised last stand against the Los Santos Police department, the music of San Andreas perfectly encapsulated a time and a place. In a heartbeat, it conjures up the heady, pacey, cannabis-scented streets of a fictional LA in the early 90s. Even its own OST sounds like a West Coast deep cut, filled with high-pitched synth melodies and hip-hop beats that evoke palm trees, sunsets, and street crime.
GTA is the blueprint for in-game radio stations. The best of the best encapsulate a hard-to-define zeitgeist of each era, from the ’80s right up until today. V-Rock, Flash FM, Radio X, Electro-Choc, Non-Stop Pop – not only do these stations nail the vibe of going on late-night trips to the local chicken shop and popping some tins in a car park after, they also feature hosts that wholly get the brief. Kenny Loggins, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Karl Lagerfeld, Gilles Peterson – damn, even a pre-acting career Cara Delavigne – all of these iconic names hosted stations held up to their respective genres. And they made a real good job of it. Points to their natural charisma and Rockstar’s writing. Fictionalising a radio show, with fictional hosts in a fictional world, is not an easy thing to accomplish.
And that’s something Ubisoft would prove to us, 10 years later. The first Watch Dogs game – a title that promised to be a cybersocial, Black Mirror-esque commentary of life in the modern age – was set in Chicago in 2013. But it could have been anywhere; between bland everyman protagonist Aiden Pearce, a bafflingly krautrock-infused original score, and a derisive facsimile of the Windy City that had even less personality than its milquetoast main character, Watch Dogs sucked. Ubisoft’s version of a GTA-like sandbox was a wash. But at least it made over half the people that played it change their views on the ‘dangers of technology’. Eat your heart out, Brooker.
Watch Dogs 2 was better. In fact, it’s probably one of my favourite games of the PS4/Xbox One era. Your main character, Marcus Holloway, was immediately more likable than Pearce – and actually had something about him, as a character – and the sunny, good-tempered setting of the San Francisco Bay Area was a world away from the rain-slicked streets of a Chicago folly. The soundtrack was composed by Hudson Mohawke – who you may know from his work on ‘Yeezus‘ – and boasted electronic music and hip hop, more relevant and in step with its dressing than its predecessor.
The stage was set for the third game in the series: Watch Dogs: Legion. GTA exploded into public consciousness with its third outing, so surely Watch Dogs could mimic that cadence, right? Public opinion on the series was at an all-time high following Watch Dogs 2 – Ubisoft would have to fumble the ball real hard to mess this up. And the setting seemed so on-the-nose, too: the game is set within a fictionalised representation of London after a series of bombings. Scotland has seceded from the Great British union. England has pulled off Brexit, at the cost of its economy and international dignity. Hacker collective DeadSec has been framed for terrorism in the city. The country is under the grip of an unelected, totalitarian regime of fascists, masquerading as heroes of the public good. It’s supposed to be fiction, huh?
Watch Dogs: Legion, though, is pants. There’s no real main character – the conceit is that you recruit people off the streets and can, in theory, play as anyone. As nice an idea as this is, it just means that your player characters are homogenous, soulless NPCs that get possessed by you, some miscellaneous sentient ghost, as events unfurl around them. It was a nice idea, Ubisoft, but I think it needs more time in the oven.
The missions are lousy, too; rinse-repeat hacking puzzles and braindead infiltrations into a number of London landmarks that, somehow, all look the same on the inside. There’s none of that Rockstar attention to detail here. But the music, at least – that was the game’s saving grace.
Whether it’s the special in-game mission, “Fall on My Enemies”, which wrangled a Stormzy at the peak of his fame and got some genuinely impressive mocap out of the British megastar, or the stations that veer from Bring Me the Horizon to Alt-J, Fatboy Slim to Lady Leshurr, Skepta to The Chemical Brothers, Legion somehow manages to capture the chaos of the British airwaves unlike anything else. A standard Friday night around here might see you listening to Radio 6 before you head out – getting an earful of whatever Alt-J has been working on lately – before your cab, blasting out Fatboy Slim, rolls up to your mate’s place. They’ve got Radio 1 on (there’s Skepta) and you’re heading out to The Old Blue Last, which is probably playing The Libertines (again).
Legion’s shrunken version of London knows the ambiance of our fair city, and plays it back to you with easily-licensable tracks that pick up the dirt under the fingernails of one of the most metropolitan cultures in Europe – no, in the world. Playing GTA: San Andreas feels like a time capsule of the ’90s, and I hope that Legion does the same for Britain in the early 20s – the 141-strong tracklist of Watch Dogs: Legion is something of a who’s who of British music, across the spectrum, of a country frozen in time due to the pandemic. And Ubisoft doesn’t get enough credit for that.
Of course, Watch Dogs and GTA aren’t the only games with radios: Cyberpunk 2077, Sleeping Dogs, and Saints Row have all used the mechanic – and to great effect. But I think, really, only the latter GTA games and the last two Watch Dogs games have understood the importance of the radio, and how integral authentic, effortless-sounding stations are to the feel of an in-game world. Watch Dogs: Legion had a lot of problems, but I keep the game installed on my consoles, because sometimes all you need to do is hail a cab, pop your character in the back, and let a radio driver ferry you around a miniaturized version of Waterloo whilst you listen to Baddiel, Skinner, & The Lightning Seeds doing ‘Three Lions’.