A Magical Mystery Tour of Video Game Music

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club 'Rock Band' soon to be a reality

Well it’s about damn time. Last Thursday, MTV and Cambridge’s own Harmonix announced plans for a Beatles video game in the vein of the tremendously popular “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” games, and I couldn’t be more excited. Not only does this give me a chance to quit trying to five-star “Message in a Bottle” and “My Name is Jonas” on Expert, but the digital premiere of the greatest band ever (don’t try to argue) could be the best thing to happen to video game music since the Ocarina of Time.

The relationship between video games and contemporary music—both popular and original—has been marked by intriguing highs and disastrous lows. Those looking for a successful fusion of these media need look no further than last weekend, when Sunday Night Football played host to the premiere of the “Gears of War 2” trailer. The trailer, entitled “Last Day,” features cinematic shots of thoughtful computer-rendered soldiers as they cast their final glances at an idyllic landscape before embarking on a subterranean mission against an unseen alien foe. Much like the first “Gears of War” commercial, which was set to Gary Jules’s haunting cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” this preview relies heavily on a song—DeVotchKa’s “How It Ends,” which is perhaps best known for serving as the main motif of the “Little Miss Sunshine” soundtrack. It’s an unexpected juxtaposition of music and content that works surprisingly well, conveying the upcoming game’s supposedly epic scale.

Similar triumphs can be observed in recent Xbox 360 games “Fallout 3” and “BioShock,” which used songs by pioneering doo-wop group The Ink Spots to emphasize each game’s 1950s-indebted setting and the irony of contrasting saccharine songs with gruesomely violent images.

Producers of other games, however, have been much less successful at choosing an enticing soundtrack, both in advertisements and in the games themselves. Commercials for Electronic Arts’ “Mercenaries 2: World in Flames” featured the Wojahn Brothers’ “Oh No You Didn’t!,” an original piano-driven song about the game. Its slightly amusing but ultimately embarrassing lyrics—like “Sucka tried to play me / But he never paid me / Never”—compound the obnoxious drinking-song chorus: “Oh no you didn’t!” “Mercenaries 2,” of course, makes no claim to be a serious and artistic venture like “Gears of War,” but this doesn’t change the fact that the song represents a low point in video game music, similar to the often intolerable, sugary-sweet pop that comprised the soundtracks to Sega’s “Sonic Adventure” games back in the late 90s and early 00s.

The rise of guitar- and rhythm-based games was similarly hampered by awful music. “Elite Beat Agents,” a 2006 Nintendo DS game that involved tapping and dragging a stylus on the screen in rhythm with pop songs, had surprisingly addictive gameplay but suffered from both awful musical selections and the fact that only cover versions were used. (Trust me, “Sk8er Boi” was bad enough when just Avril was singing it.) The first “Guitar Hero” games were similarly plagued by their inability to use officially licensed recordings.

More recent music-related games like “Guitar Hero III” and “Rock Band” have had more passable soundtracks, chock-full of 70s hard rock and 90s alternative, but the newly announced Beatles game has the potential to bring the genre to new heights, at least for those who, like me, worship the Fab Four. One can’t help but wonder, though, what could have been if the Beatles had entered the video game scene earlier: exploring Princess Peach’s castle to the tune of “When I’m (Super Mario) Sixty-Four,” hearing “I’m Looking Through You” when the x-ray visor was used in Metroid Prime, watching Dr. Robotnik of “Sonic” fame sing “I am the Eggman / Goo goo g’joob!” Surely that stupid pink dinosaur in “Mario Tennis 64” would have been more likeable if her theme song was “And Your Birdo Can Sing.” The possibilities are endless, people!

Alright, so maybe custodians of The Beatles catalog made the right decision in staying out of the video game business this long. But in a medium where music selections have ranged from decent to downright awful, the inclusion of The Beatles is a sign that it’s getting better all the time.

—Columnist Jeff W. Feldman can be reached at jfeldman@fas.harvard.edu.