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.
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.
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.
After the Joker’s blood infects a small group of people, Batman sets out to capture the infected before they go full-on Joker on Gotham City. Of course, Batman is also infected and through Arkham Knight he encounters hallucinations of his nemesis, the Joker, at every turn. When Batman goes to capture Johnny Charisma, a cabaret singer and one of the infected, he finds Charisma has strapped himself to a bomb. Suddenly lost in hallucination, Batman instead sees the Joker, with a bomb strapped to his chest, dancing and singing the ominously titled “Look Who’s Laughing Now.”
The performance, delivered by the voice of Mark Hamill, is gloriously over the top. The whole song maintains the dark yet playful tone of the Joker himself, while the performance is a delicate dance between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Dark Knight, as he tries to disarm the bomb without Charisma-as-Joker noticing.
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.