The Sound of Music: The Importance of Choosing the Right Song

Taking sequels out of the equation, one of the most important things for the success of any game is the early trailers. While this is true for sequels to a smaller extent, it’s not nearly as important as with a new IP or a new entry in a non-sequential series such as Final Fantasy, Street Fighter, etc. Everything about these first trailers must be designed to make the maximum impact and more importantly stand out from the crowd. One of the most important single aspects, I think, is the use of music.

Whether it’s a licensed song or original music from the game, the right backing track to the action being shown can be vital to the success or failure of a game in capturing the public eye. The right choice can catch the eye of the most disinterested parties and the wrong decision can lead to an otherwise good game being ignored. 

Gears of War certainly didn’t need much help getting its name out there. It was a leading exclusive title for what was then still a new console and undoubtedly an incredible looking game. But it wasn’t until the trailer using Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” by Tears for Fears that the world truly took notice. Something about the jarring use of such a mellow and tragic song being used for what was clearly a big third-person action shooter full of macho manly men intrigued the world. I couldn’t tell you how many times I saw this trailer on TV, or more importantly how many games afterwards tried to emulate this success with similar songs.

This is a particularly interesting example as the song is actually featured in Gears of War 3 during a key moment in the game. While seeing the song itself return was nice it was the use of it that made the impact, combining nostalgia with the impact of the scene to create something special.

The trailers for the sequels actually emulated their own original success by using other mellow songs for their trailers, and while they all captured the right feel none held the strong impact that “Mad World” did all those years ago.

While the trailers for the Gears of War series were all great, they were most jarring because of the stark contrast between the soft tones of the song and the violence in the game itself. Fallout 3 took a similar tactic and actually used a song that nailed down the feeling of the world with “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by The Ink Spots. The music does a nice job of getting the post-apocalyptic feel down pat in the trailer, but more importantly it is actually representative of the game itself. The game of course takes place in an alternate-future where technology progressed as we envisioned it in the 50s and the entire world has a feel of that era to it with the dapper outfits and old school cars fitting in just fine alongside all the robots and lasers.

Getting a little more recent, we have one of the first trailers for Saints Row the Third featuring the incredibly over-used song “Power” by Kanye West. I personally am not much of a fan of Mr. West, but this particular song was “old” and outplayed even by real world standards far before this trailer came out. Yet because of the subject matter of the story and the way it was presented it was somehow not only the most appropriate song for the trailer, but the single best use of the song to date in my opinion.

The core concept of the game, as was known at this point, was that the Third Street Saints had basically taken over the game and were untouchable, having become celebrities of a sort. Of course as the song says, no one man should have all that power and somebody else wanted some of it. Not the deepest song or theme ever, but it worked and it worked damn well.

Picking out the appropriate song can be instrumental in the success of your game. But if all else fails, there’s always dubstep.

Ah yes… dubstep. Dubstep isn’t something I agree with on a personal level but that’s another story for another day and completely unrelated to the subject at hand. You don’t have to be a fan of a song or a music genre to appreciate the proper use of it, and at times even dubstep can be used properly. I feel like Battlefield 3 did a good job with the genre, incorporating the discordant sounds often found in the songs with static and glitches in the video. It got old fast, but it worked.

Modern Warfare 3 tried to emulate this, it seems (possibly on purpose to further fuel the “war” going on between the two games), and while it had less success it also wasn’t very offensive. However, can you think of a single Modern Warfare 3 trailer which grabbed your attention in any way outside of the reveal?

Armored Core V  came out featuring a dubstep song, joining The Amazing Spider-Man, Far Cry 3Syndicate and Borderlands 2, and that’s just this year.

Speaking of Borderlands 2, it actually seems to be mocking the constant use of the genre lately with the character claptrap appearing at the end and even shouting “Wub Wub”, which the game promises there will be 96.5% more of. In fact…doesn’t the song sound kind of familiar?

I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with dubstep, just pointing out that it’s the current “follow-the-leader” trend, and unfortunately I think it’s hurting a few games. While it’s not going to spell disaster for a good game, it is going to cause people to turn the trailer off immediately or mute it at the very least. Jumping on the bandwagon isn’t always the best idea and right now that bandwagon is dubstep.

Every piece of a game that we see pre-release are important to the success of that game. They may not all have the same impact, but together they can make or break a game. While I certainly didn’t buy Gears of War or Fallout 3 just because their trailer had a sweet song and (despite the above example) I will be buying Borderlands 2 this fall, their trailers still had an impact on how I viewed the game.

So while another dubstep trailer isn’t the end of the world, it’s certainly not helping. We should move on to the next big fad: might I suggest bringing disco back?

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John Colaw

John is what you might call something of a badass. When he's not writing about games or playing them, he's playing in the Kansas City band "Documentary" and drinking as many different beers as often as he can. He's a huge comic nerd in the best sense of the term, with a particular love for the Creator Owned movement.

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