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.
Every Song (Rock Band)
The success of your band’s performance depends on your skill with a plastic instrument. But when you and your bandmates are all nailing your parts there’s nothing better, especially because the characters on Rock Band’s virtual stage are always giving it their all. Even when you flub a note, the characters on screen continue to thrash, headbang, and call to the crowd like it’s their last show ever.
Sure, the animation is a bit shakey but that cheesy, good times vibe is part of your band’s appeal. Plus, think about how talented your band has to be in order to play the eclectic song list you’re bound to throw their way. They have to be as capable of playing Def Leppard and Black Sabbath as they are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Dinosaur Jr. Just don’t ask for "Freebird." We’re all tired of playing "Freebird."
Too Late to Love You (Kentucky Route Zero)
Kentucky Route Zero is an indie adventure game that uses its small scale in big ways. Traveling the backroads and highways of a magical realistic Kentucky, players encounter a slew of quirky characters and offbeat locales. One of its most memorable moments — and perhaps its most iconic — is an encounter with two musicians, Johnny and Junebug. After the duo helps fix your truck, you agree to watch their show at a dive bar nearby.
What follows is one of the most bizarre yet affecting musical performances you’ll see in a video game. Johnny and Junebug set up their keyboards and launch into some atmospheric synth pop. Junebug’s soft, pleading voice echoes throughout the empty dive bar, while Johnny's voice and dreamy keyboard complement it nicely. But before long, in typical Kentucky Route Zero fashion, something normal becomes something surreal. The ceiling of the bar fades away and suddenly you're under the stars. Junebug’s bright blue dress, illuminated by the spotlight of the stage, makes her seem like an alien come to Earth. The performance is beautifully strange and eerie, and the song will get stuck in your head for days.
Torched Song (LA Noire)
Most gamers remember LA Noire for its face capture technology and (sometimes goofy) interrogation scenes, but the music is unlike anything else in games. The period-appropriate jazz music is great (Rockstar knows how to track down quality music), but Team Bondi went one step further and made their own smoky jazz songs just for the game.
Claudia Brucken, whose voice is used for in-game singer Elsa Lichtmann, sings all three of the songs and her sweet, sultry voice is perfect for the character and a noir story. When detective Cole Phelps walks into a jazz bar and sees Elsa performing “Torched Song,” it’s easy to see why he falls for her. Just like the game, Elsa has an intoxicating sense of style and the song itself is a perfect evocation of Billie Holiday-era jazz.