Over the years, video game music has taken on a life of its own becoming more than just a soundtrack to button mashing. Bands and musicians make entire careers out of remixing and covering video game music. Orchestras tour the world playing music from The Legend of Zelda and Elder Scrolls: Skyrim.
But one kind of video game musical performance remains underrated: the characters themselves. Sometimes developers are clever and inventive enough to shine the spotlight on their characters and give them the chance to perform in the game itself. These moments are rare but can be extremely effective. Watching in-game characters sing or jam out can draw us as players closer to their world and emotional state or provide a moment of levity and tenderness in the middle of all the usual violence and gunfire. So summon your inner Simon Cowell and decide which of these musical performances are guaranteed hits.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Bioshock Infinite)
Bioshock’s music has always done a great job of transporting players to different times and places. In Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games used music to address the game’s ideas about alternate universes and quantum mechanics, taking anachronistic songs and converting them into a style appropriate for Infinite’s turn of the century setting.
One of the most memorable musical moments is an impromptu duet between the main character, the violent Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt, and his reality bending companion Elizabeth. Infinite is a violent game full of blood and bullets with little time to breathe between all combat. So when Booker picks up a guitar, starts strumming and Elizabeth joins in singing it’s a calm moment in the center of a violent storm. The old hymn they play, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” is beautiful and the performance is a moment for the two characters to bond in a way they haven’t been able to up until that point. The song also cleverly plays into the game’s themes of historical cycles and the cyclical nature of oppression.
Cara Mia Addio (Portal 2)
The original Portal created an instant classic with its closing theme “Still Alive,” so the music in this sequel had a lot to live up to. Luckily, Portal 2 delivered a song that was not only excellent on its own but hilarious and bittersweet when taken with its in-game performance.
In both Portal games, turrets are obstacles, some of the only “enemies” in the game. The final scene of the game inverts your expectations, putting you face to face with a firing squad of turrets that look like they’re about to fry you with lasers. Instead, they launch into song. As you ride the elevator out of the testing facility, a chorus of robotic turrets serenade you. The song, with all its harmonizing robot vocals, is funny and downright bizarre, but it’s also bittersweet. Sure, the testing facility probably scarred you for life, but it was a little fun. Plus, you’re still alive.
Jump Up, Super Star (Super Mario Odyssey)
Super Mario Odyssey is the closest thing we have to a true video game musical. In a single brilliant moment, Odyssey’s New Donk City level transforms into a full-on celebration of Mario history complete with a joyous, jazzy performance from Mayor Pauline.
The New Donk City set serves as Odyssey’s emotional climax before you fight Bowser for the last time. It builds in a fantastic way, with Mario running around the city, collecting musicians for Mayor Pauline’s celebration. Once Mario collects all of the band members, the game erupts into a musical extravaganza. Pauline sings Odyssey’s theme, “Jump Up, Super Star!” the perfect music for what follows. Mario runs and jumps his way through his greatest hits, with several levels pulled straight from classic Mario games. The punchy, big band horns, bouncy beat, and flamboyant vocals are as much a celebration of Mario’s history as the level itself.
The Wolven Storm (The Witcher 3)
Geralt, the grumpy protagonist of the Witcher series, is much too moody to break into song. Instead the task falls to better performers to sing his story. Priscilla, known by her stage name Callonetta, ends up picking up that duty by singing a ballad called “The Wolven Storm.”
The ballad is a melancholy love song that makes some not-so-subtle references to Geralt’s own rocky relationship with the sorceress Yennefer. Priscilla’s voice conveys all the longing and desire that Geralt is incapable of showing himself. She’s captivating, and her performance reveals Geralt’s bleeding heart without needing him to actually get sappy or sentimental. Not that he ever would anyway.