RANK’EM: TOP VIDEOGAME SONGS

On this episode of Rank’em, I wanted to look at some of my favourite videogame songs. I am talking actual songs here, ones with lyrics and everything. Often when I see these sorts of lists, they are focused on musical themes (think: overworld theme from Zelda) and classical pieces. There aren’t that many games that feature awesome songs so I am even going to cheat a bit with this very list as some of these songs come from trailers for videogames. The original Gears of War popularized this practice for trailers and so if a song, be it from a trailer or a game, sticks in my head then it might crack this list.

HOUSE RULES:

Song has to be significant aspect of game or trailer, eliminating all racing games or sports games, even those curated by Jay-Z.

One song per game, this artificial limit means some games got screwed, (namely Red Dead Redemption that would normally occupy three spots on the list).

I generally don’t like metal – sorry Brutal Legend.

No pirate sea shanties – sorry Assassin’s Creed 4 – or bard songs – sorry Dragon Age and the Witcher – but you should totally check this out.

No music games – sorry Guitar Hero and Rock Band.

Sorry guys, you may rock pretty hard but you are ineligible for this list. Better luck next time!
Sorry guys, you may rock pretty hard but you are ineligible for this list. Better luck next time!

Honourable Mention: Cyberpunk 2077: “Bullets” – Archive

On the heels of my article last week on CD Projekt’s the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I wanted to highlight these awesome trailer released years ago for a game that has yet to come out. CD Projeckt has admitted that the trailer was partially used to gauge interest in the project and the wicked “Bullets” really helped ramp up excitement for it. The fact that the game is unreleased means that this can only be an honorable mention.

  1. Assassin’s Creed: “Lonely Soul” – UNKLE

A lot of people disliked the first Assassin’s Creed, often characterizing it as a glorified tech demo. While it is true that it was a lot simpler than much of what came later, it was also more focused. You truly felt alone in a big world and this trailer really captures that. It also highlights the anachronistic nature of the series: the slick future meeting the ancient past. Very cool.

  1. Alan Wake: “War” – Poets of the Fall

Remedy very much enjoys Poets of the Fall as evidenced by the Finnish band’s presence in both Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake, the latter of which featured many songs scoring some significant story moments and action scenes. Of those “War”, although cheesy, was probably my favourite and it gets the nod here.

  1. Gears of War 2, “How it Ends” – DeVotchKa

For a certain generation of gamer, “Mad World”, the Gary Jules remix of a Tears for Fears song featured prominently in a series of trailers and television ads will always represent the destroyed beauty of Gears of War. Gears of War 3 even acknowledged the enduring popularity of the song with a few notes playing from it at an emotional moment. That being said, the DeVotchKa song used in the trailer of Gears 2 took advantage of the emotional stock players now had in the characters to deliver a more powerful experience and I much prefer the song so it bumps Mr. Jules here.

  1. Portal: “Still Alive” – GLADOS (Jonathan Coulton)

Where to rank a comedy song? Well what if it is an exquisitely made comedy song that captures the humour of the game while being peppered by inside jokes, fan service and cake? Some may disagree but #7 works for Glados. The song itself is hilarious and remains superior to its sequel “Want You Gone” in Portal 2. It is also a part of gaming culture at this point. I have to dock it some points though because I often find myself skipping it when it comes on my iPod. The song works in context but requires a certain mood to be appreciated. I am making a note here: huge success.

  1. Jet Set Radio: “Improvise” – Jurassic 5

I am somewhat breaking my own rules here a bit here as by including this, I am opening the flood gates to sports games and Tony Hawk games in particular. To that I say, the Jet Set games are not traditional sports games. They are experiences that are intrinsically attached to the music being played. Most of that music was done by Hideki Naganuma but I am going to go with the one track by Jurassic 5 as the one I turn up whenever it is on.

  1. The Witcher 3: “Oats in the Water” – Ben Howard

The newest entry on the list comes from the launch trailer for the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (which I wrote about last week). Paired with the visuals, the song creates a strong sense of mood and builds to a climax reflecting the story and action in the game. This trailer sold me on a game I had been on the fence about playing and I am glad that I did. Also, unlike some of the music on this list, while it works well in the trailer, it can also stand alone.

  1. Grand Theft Auto V: “Sleepwalking” – The Chain Gang of 1974

Ever since Grand Theft Auto III popularized the in-game radio station format, there have been a lot of songs included in Grand Theft Auto games. Unfortunately, while everyone has a favourite, few ever rise above the crop. In my mind, Vice City had the best overall soundtrack and was also the first game in the series to feature popular licensed music. By GTAIV and V, there was so much content, it is almost ridiculously difficult to pick a standout song. That is why I am glad that Rockstar did it for us, highlighting “Sleepwalking” in the trailer for GTA V. That song represents the three protagonists of the game quite well and is the one that I now most associate with GTA.

  1. Bioshock Infinite: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker

Here we are in the top 3 and honestly, all of these songs could top the list. They all are actually notably featured in the end credits of their respective games. Of the three, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” ups the ante further by being performed by the game’s voice actors Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker. While the full live-action version of the song in the credits is really fun to watch, it is the short but poignant moment in the game where your character Booker DeWitt picks up a guitar and performs the traditional hymn with Elizabeth that really pushes this one up the charts. It helps that the song provides an important clue to understanding the game’s plot as well.

  1. Metal Gear Solid 3: “Way to Fall” – Starsailor

Metal Gear Solid 3 is often looked at as the high water mark was the Metal Gear franchise. Part of this is the music. Many will point to the game’s main James Bond-esque theme “Snake Eater” as the standout track. For my money though, nothing hits harder than Way to Fall as the credits rolls to conclude the game. In a series that it is mostly known for ridiculousness, it captured a pretty awesome human moment. In narrative-heavy games, much like in movies, a strong end credits song can put an exclamation mark (double pun intended) on the whole package. So with that build up out of the way, let’s get to number one…

  1. Red Dead Redemption: “Dead Man’s Gun” – Ashtar Command

Whenever people talk about the music of Red Dead Redemption, and believe me, they do it often, they rightfully talk about “Far Away” by José González. The song, an original composition for the game, plays as your character, John Marston, arrives in Mexico for the first time. That moment, as your horse gallops away from the border, is a powerful one, as is the later moment when you finally return home to the sounds of Jamie Lidell’s “Compass”. Both songs play during actual gameplay and I found myself slowing my progress so I could hear the pieces in their entirety. For me, however, the most powerful song of Red Dead plays during the end credits following the game’s epilogue. Spoilers aside, Ashtar Command’s “Dead Man’s Gun” doubles down on ending a game, drawing from the mood and themes of the countless hours that came before to cap a helluva journey.

Just buy the soundtrack already.

Agree? Disagree? What are some of your favourite videogame songs? Tell us below or email at exmpodcast@gmail.com

 

The Question Mark: Bewitched by the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

As I am getting used to writing this blog, I don’t want to fall into the trap of reviewing and recommending games. There are sites for that. What I do want, however, is to sometimes take a moment and dissect a game I am playing – especially if it is leaving an impression. This provides the dual function of expanding on any thoughts that I have during the Exclamation Mark podcast as well as giving my poor wife’s ears a break. So, after about four podcasts of gushing, it is a surprise to nobody that the first game I want to look at is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother... Watch your mouth! Im talking bout Geralt!
Geralt of Rivia is a bad mother… Watch your mouth! I’m talking ’bout Geralt!

Game of the Year

I think the collective feeling about last year is that it was a shit year for videogames. Most Game of the Year awards went to Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game that I still feel is genuinely good, bordering on great. The fact that Hearthstone, a collectible card game, was even in the running (and was probably my pick for Game of the Year) is a testament to what a weak year it was. Videogames take multiple years to develop and – as delays pile up – it is very possible to end up with a year like 2014. I would argue that with game like Ori and the Blind Forest, Heroes of the Storm, Batman: Arkham Knight, and Bloodborne on the table, 2015 may have surpassed it already. With The Witcher 3, 2015 has now blown 2014 out of the water. Upcoming games like Fallout 4 have their work cut out for them.

A Sequel in Name Only

The last game I felt this passionately about was Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. That game was mature, cinematic and impactful. It was also accessible. It had a short and powerful name with no colons or dashes in it. It wasn’t a sequel and it was exquisitely streamlined for console play. When people would ask me what I was playing, I could say “The Last of Us” and they generally wanted to know more. When they hear the name “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt” it sounds like I am talking about a B-movie I found in the Shoppers Drug Mart discount bin.

Dere be treasure in dem dere bins!
Dere be treasure in dem dere bins! Yes I am aware that this photo is of a CD bin. Ask your parents.

The harsh truth is that nobody really played the Witcher 1 and only a few more played the Witcher 2 and that was because it was on XBOX360. The games are adaptations of the work of a Polish author that – believe it or not – have not been completely translated to English. Yes, that’s right, this is a triple A game experience based on the written works of an international author. It would be like playing a game adaptation of the third part of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. How does this even happen much less get greenlit?

Who knows, maybe one day this third part of a foreign movie trilogy will make an excellent video game.
Who knows, maybe one day this third part of a foreign movie trilogy will make an excellent video game. Stranger things have happened.

Passion on Display

It happens due to the passion of a game developer, in this case CD Projeckt Red. The company successfully funds itself through revenue generated by their Good Old Games (GOG) online store. They can afford to make the games that they want to play and their small team decided that they want the Witcher (disclaimer: they are also Polish so it might be like if us Canadians made that Neil Young MMO I have been suggesting – first boss: Justin Bieber). A one hundred man (and women) team may not sound big, but compared to the Ubisofts and Bethesdas, it is tiny. Compared to what they realized in the creation of the world of the Witcher, it is flabbergasting.

In my MMO, you would play as a bard named "Neil" and have to shred to attack enemies. 15 minute version of Cowgirl in the Sand would be needed to beat the game.
In my MMO, you would play as a bard named “Neil” and have to shred to attack enemies. 15 minute version of Cowgirl in the Sand would be needed to beat the game.

A World of War and Monsters

Temeria, the world of the Witcher is ridiculously shitty. It would be near the bottom of my list of “videogame worlds to live in”, right after the hellscape that is Street Cleaning Simulator. War-torn and ravaged by monsters, it is beyond saving, you can only hope to survive it and maybe make a little coin on the side. A Witcher is a human that was genetically mutated and given powers that allow it to track and kill monsters – a true monster hunter for hire. Technically, the Witchers skill set, including magical spells and dual swords (one for the humans, one for the fiends) make him more like a Jedi than any fantasy character I have seen. He even has a Jedi Mind Trick type ability!

Hello darkness my old friend.
Hello darkness my old friend.

The monsters are amazingly designed and legitimately creepy. Not to offer any spoilers but there is one encounter in particularly that I felt was even emotionally challenging. The variety of creatures is huge and does an admirable job of mixing western and Slavic folk traditions to create a bestiary of epic fiends.

A World of Size and Density

It seems that in this post-Skyrim world, open world games are chasing the square footage. From the streets of San Andreas to the mountains of Kyrat to the wilds of Ferelden, bigger is the new better. By that metric, the Witcher 3 is the best yet but square footage seldom tells the whole tale. Think of an open-world game you have played, it could be an action adventure, an RPG, a shooter. What do they have in common? Fetch quests, meaningless collect-o-thons where you repeat the same actions over and over and over again. How many rifts can you close in Dragon Age? How many towers can you climb in Far Cry? How many gangs can you hack in Watchdogs? The Witcher 3 does away with this mentality entirely. It coats every significant collectable, every quest, every Witcher contract, every event with context, quality and personality. Each piece of extra content could be favourably compared to the core story content of any similar game. What is remarkable is not only that they were successfully able to do this but that they were successfully able to do it at the size and scale that they are doing it. It takes hours of gameplay to really understand this. At one point it will just hit you that everything there is to do in this world is satisfying and enjoyable with no filler and that is when the true appreciation of the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt begins.

Oh sweet, another rift to close. Only 712 more to go! Are we having fun yet?
Oh sweet, another rift to close. Only 712 more to go! Are we having fun yet?

Finesse and Function

In the past I have felt like open-world games in general and RPGs in particular, have used their size and scope and sense of exploration to excuse subpar gameplay. Skyrim and Fallout offer somewhat mediocre first person shooter-type experiences. Dragon Age: Inquisition is essentially MMO-combat with hot keys and skills refreshing all the time. The Witcher offers full action, a system that offers a variety of ways of tackling a fight but makes you think before every move. We just saw For Honor revealed at E3 by Ubisoft, a game devoted entirely to melee combat, and as soon as I saw it, I remember thinking that the Witcher 3 was already offering a similar experience. Quality gameplay in a rich fantasy world. It seems like those two things should have been paired together a long time ago yet, here we are. This is the standard that future games will have to meet. They will no longer be able to coast on the size of their worlds.

Look guys, far be it for me to question your life choices but it may not be worth picking a fight with a Witcher known as the White Wolf. Just saying.
Look guys, far be it for me to question your life choices but it may not be worth picking a fight with a Witcher known as the White Wolf. Just saying.

A Few Issues

As much as I would like it to be so, the Witcher 3 is not a perfect game. What it does well, it does so magnificently well that it often overshadows the failings… but there are failings. In the end, it is not a game for everyone. You are playing a character with a pre-established personality in Geralt of Rivia. While you can make choices that impact both the world and the type of personality that Geralt exhibits, he is still who you are playing. In a way, it reminded me of Mass Effect games although here – despite some sections where you play as his ward Ciri – you are mostly limited to playing a white man with a gruff personality. I would say it is a bit akin to Red Dead Redemption: Fantasy Version.

I got a silver bullet with your name on it you werewolf freak.
I got a silver bullet with your name on it you werewolf freak.

Another sizable issue surrounds inventory management which, while improved over the previous two games, is still overly complicated and cumbersome, making it scary and inaccessible to many console players. It is an evolution of the game’s PC roots but could perhaps have been done more elegantly.

I am playing on PS4 and while there isn’t much loading (no loading screens in-game), there is a sizable load when you die. This can lead to frustrating situations when fighting a giant monster that seemingly has your number.

Tip #1: Play it Right You Noob!

Now I am sure you want to stop reading and run out and buy the game right now and while that is definitely a good idea, I would leave you with some tips. I am about a third of the way through which I realize doesn’t sound far but it will make more sense when you actually start playing the game. Here are a few recommendations that I would make for new players to get full enjoyment out of the game:

Skip Witcher 1 and 2! I really wish someone had told me this earlier as I was reluctant to buy the game having not completed either of Geralt’s previous two quests. The third game is so much better that I wouldn’t let not having played the first two limit you. If anything, they may put you off playing this one.

Watch a YouTube video first! While the story of Wild Hunt is fairly self-contained, you would get a better appreciation of the world, the books and the characters if you just watch a five minute YouTube video. There are a couple of decent ones out there. This is particularly helpful if this is your first Witcher game.

Play on a Hard Difficulty! I am playing on the second highest difficulty. To do any less, for a game like this, is to do yourself a disservice. There are game mechanics, namely identifying monsters’ weaknesses and preparing for them, that are much more relevant when the game is harder. You will still generally feel like a badass, but you have to gauge risk a lot more. Definitely worth playing on a harder level.

Don’t Quit on White Orchard! You begin the game in the village of White Orchard and, while a microcosm for the gameplay you will experience, it doesn’t give you an effective sense of scale or adventure. I could see people dropping before they even really get going.

More to Come

I have a lot left to experience in the Witcher and there are supposedly expansions packs (remember those?) coming later this year. Those expansions have now become my most anticipated games of 2015. CD Projeckt Red’s next game bears a title associated with one of my favourite genres of fiction: Cyberpunk 2077. Imagining the density and quality of narrative and gameplay of the Witcher 3 married to a new world set in my favourite genre is very exciting and I can’t wait to know more about that one.

Will this game be awesome? Only time will tell... I AM JUST KIDDING IT WILL BE AWESOME!
Will this game be awesome? Only time will tell… I AM JUST KIDDING IT WILL BE AWESOME!

Is there a game mentioned on the Exclamation Mark that you want to hear more about? Do you have comments on the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt? Let us know! Exmpodcast@gmail.com