If there’s one question that developers are bound to ask themselves when creating a game, it’s ‘do we go for an original score or licence some songs?’ And while both options certainly have their merit, I’m a licensed song kinda gal. While all music can make an impact, there’s just something about the correct existing song that heightens the experience.
Yes, I can totally see why some prefer original music. It’s nice to hear something new that the sound team designs explicitly for a game. However, I do think there’s something to say about games that utilise licensed songs, especially as I have to admit that there are times when they make no sense and are simply present for the sake of it. We all remember those country tunes from WWE 2K15… a wrestling game with country music? Can’t help but wonder if the devs found themselves trapped in an ankle lock or something.
But there are games such as Life is Strange that demonstrate just how good licensed songs in a game are, and I can’t help but draw attention to the series and the music you can hear within. Not only do they feature songs from known artists, but they have a purpose. Don’t Nod and Deck Nine use them to great effect. I’m going to save the most impactful moment for the end of this feature, and I’m sure most Life is Strange fans can likely guess the song and the moment in which it occurs.
I want to first take a look at the latest entry in the series, Life is Strange: True Colors, and explain how the songs perfectly fit the story you experience. However, I must immediately point out that the main song from the game, Haven (yes, this is due to the name of the town), is made for the game itself from indie singer-songwriter Novo Amor. This is a circumstance where it’s from a known artist yet is specifically for the game itself.
Haven is a song full of feeling, from the lyrics to the music itself. It forces you to comprehend the gravity of the story and the fact that Alex is in a new place. Somewhere she was ready to finally call home, only to lose her last remaining family member. However, in contrast to that, the song from the game’s trailer, When You Call by Volk (featuring Bellsaint), gives a sense of hope. There’s no piece of music Deck Nine could possibly create that would convey this message as powerfully.
Another impactful moment courtesy of licensed music in True Colors comes courtesy of Radiohead’s Creep. However, it’s a cover by Alex herself that appears in-game, as she plays the guitar and sings the song following an unfortunate encounter with her brother and Mac, in which she feels Mac’s intense anger (as her ability is to feel exactly what others feel) and launches an assault on him, accidentally hitting her brother as he tries to pull her away. Listening to her self-degradation, labelling herself “a creep and weirdo”, is something I think many people can relate to.
But you know what might just be the most hard-hitting scene, courtesy of Novo Amor’s Carry You? It’s during the zen moment on the rooftop in chapter four after you speak to either Ryan or Steph. The song plays as Alex has an internal discussion with her deceased sibling, telling him that she thinks she solved why he died and who’s responsible, and how it’s “terrifying” that she has no more threads to pull “because of the other side of all this, after Typhon, after you, there’s just… normal life.” A licensed song with the lyrics “I will carry you always” playing over a scene where a young woman speaks about going on without her brother is paramount, and as someone who’s had to face such a moment when I lost my mum, this resonates with me in a way that words can’t truly express.
So it’s clear that Life is Strange: True Colors makes great use of licensed music, but what about where it all began? Well, the first Life is Strange game features numerous pieces of licensed music, each of which fits perfectly into the world, capturing what you should feel perfectly. Honestly, you should never underestimate the impact that the perfect song can have in the moment in a videogame.
For instance, the words “forget the horror here” play as you witness Chloe fade away from the memories she and Max made together throughout that week. Honest, Foals Spanish Sahara is the perfect song for this ending. Listening to it as you not only watch Chloe disappear but as Max, Kate, Chloe’s mum, and many others attend her funeral heightens the emotions that you feel.
Though it’s not this part of the game, and this specific licensed song that hits me the hardest in Life is Strange (though it certainly puts me on the cusp of tears). For me, it’s when one of my favourite songs begins to play, Mountains by Message to Bears. It’s a song about running away and leaving your past behind you. It’s about making a fresh start with that certain someone.
In Life is Strange, before Max returns to Arcadia Bay, it’s all about Chloe and Rachel (as you can see in Before the Storm). The pair long to get away from Arcadia Bay. Chloe just wants to escape the memories that haunt her in her childhood town, while Rachel wants to make it big in LA. They make plans to do this, only for Rachel to disappear. It leaves Chloe feeling abandoned.
Then, at that pivotal moment in the first game, as Mountains plays, Chloe and Max find Rachel’s body. Again, a licensed song used to perfection adds to the emotion on display. You have to listen to a song that says “if we could run away into the light of day”, as a girl cries over the body of her best friend. It’s harrowing to watch, and no original music score could ever fit that scene as perfectly as that of Mountains by Message to Bears.
Another licensed song to fit perfectly in the first Life is Strange is Obstacles by Syd Matters. This is the music that plays should you choose to sacrifice Arcadia Bay and save Chloe. You witness the girls leave the ruins of their hometown behind after its devastation by the storm. It’s the words “someday we will foresee obstacles” that truly stand, for the game is all about Max’s powers, manipulating time, and having vivid premonitions of seeing the town fall.
The lyrics “we played hide and seek in waterfalls, we were younger” also help to make this song an impactful choice for this ending. Max and Chloe were childhood friends, they got up to all kinds of mischief across Arcadia Bay together, but now it’s gone, and those memories of when they were younger are all they have left.
Admittedly, Don’t Nod certainly could have opted to create its own music for Life is Strange, but using songs that people know and may already feel that emotional connection to hits that much harder. Music is an underappreciated part of videogames, and while I can appreciate the talents of sound designers and those that choose original scores for games, I’ll forever be an advocate of licensed songs.