Licensed Music and the Empty Sandbox

Radio stations are incredibly important – even on a broom

Open world games always leave a lasting impression on me. They’re great for when you want to play a game but don’t particularly want to do anything – just drive around a virtual city for a while and relax. There’s always a compulsion to go back to the game after the story is over, to traverse the sandbox unhindered by anyone or anything. But it occurs to me recently that I’m selective about which games I return to, and the biggest draw that pulls me in appears to be licensed music and the use of sound.

This generation I’ve played a great deal of sandbox games: Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Sleeping Dogs, Just Cause, The Saboteur, etc. And while I’ve enjoyed all of them, it’s the ones with the best sound design, the best use of music, that are still being played today. I need to stress that most of this comes down to radio stations in these games. That completely singles out and dismisses a game like Red Dead Redemption which by its nature doesn’t have anything of the sort but is still a fantastic game (that I haven’t finished). But for everything else, that music is integral to the experience.

The absence of music is particularly noticeable in a game like Just Cause 2. The sandbox world is huge. There’s a lot of traveling to do. But there’s no music while you travel. Something is missing from the sound and all that conveys to me is a deep sense of emptiness. That prevailing feeling turns me away from the game – I could play my own music in the background, sure, but it wouldn’t feel right. The game itself just appears to be lacking an engaging feeling when it comes to just driving around and exploring the world.

Licensed music – heck, any music really – simply gives personality to the world. Those genre-specific radio stations in Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row bring familiarity. In Saints Row you can even customise a mix tape of your favourite tracks to personalise the experience. In these games, every time I jump into a car I switch the station to something I like. Driving around with those accompanying songs simply feels right. And it doesn’t feel empty.

Grand Theft Auto is the king of radio stations in video games. I can spend hours on end driving around Liberty City just switching channels to find music I like. But the strengths it has over something like Saints Row (at least, the third one) are all the talking points in between, the channels that are solely dedicated to radio talkshows.

They’re all political parodies and shameless references to real world people and they go completely overboard in their lunacy at times. But they work because they give so much personality to the world. You’ll never see any of these people  in-game but you know that they live in this city. Whether it’s a misogynistic judge feeding plaintiff and defendant to a lion in the middle of a radio court show or a crappy fortuneteller directing someone to try online dating and sleeping around for money, these people feel like residents of Liberty City. They’re just a joy to listen to.

It’s these talkshows that make Grand Theft Auto IV something worth coming back to. Often you’ll only hear these stations in chunks. Your car might catch fire, so you jump out and steal another one a minute later. But the radio doesn’t wait for you. It keeps going. Because it’s bigger than you, and the world doesn’t just revolve around you. And it’s that feeling that stops the world from feeling so empty. Apparently I just like feeling like an insignificant player in a world that encompasses more than just me.

But it’s also the musical choices in these games that carry a lot of weight. They become sounds to associate with the game. I can’t hear Evil Woman or Edge of Seventeen without thinking about Liberty Rock Radio and just driving around for fun in Grand Theft Auto IV. The lyric ‘don’t you…forget about me’ instantly reminds me of the time that song played while my car exploded and killed me in Saints Row 2 – the lyric was a perfect fit.

Saints Row the Third uses licensed music to perfection with the placement of a few songs as a backing soundtrack throughout actual missions, regardless of whether you’re in a vehicle or not. Listening to Kanye West’s Power while skydiving into a penthouse apartment and forcefully taking it from a rival gang just has, well, power behind it. It’s an extra ‘oomph’ to make things more exciting. And Holding Out for a Hero has never had more energy or felt more involved than it did in the final mission of the game. Those two moments are the most memorable parts of the game for me and it all lies in that music and sound design.

Boil it down and it’s really simple: when I pick up an open world game just to drive around the sandbox and make my own fun, what makes me choose one game over another is the music. Because it’s no fun driving around if all you can hear is the sound of your own car. That’s just an empty feeling. Give me a radio station, give me a stupid fortuneteller trying to guess people’s names and swiftly dismissing her own errors – ‘I knew it was not Rosa. This was the name of the peasant woman who stole my first child’. Give me personality! What most excites me about Grand Theft Auto V is seeing how they can entertain me again with new radio stations, update talkshows set to parody current events.

I’m excited about driving around in the world and just listening.

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