There is a lot of amazing music in games. From the early 8bit days until now some of the best music written on this planet has been written in the service of games. The particular repetitive nature of game music has made it memorable both by circumstance and design. We have roughly 50 years worth of game music available to us. It would be pretty easy to argue that only since the 8bit era has game music been really great. Let's call it 35 years. Since the NES and the 8bit computers, music for games has been increasingly spectacular. From the bouncy notes of Super Mario Bros. to the choral soundscapes of Halo to the surging metal power of Doom Eternal, music is an integral part of the video game experience. So why then do almost no game soundtracks have lyrics?
I was thinking about this recently. There are only a few successful examples of game music that include singing. There are lots with choral vocalizations, but only a handful of game soundtracks actually use music with lyrics. I think I might know why, but here is a bit of rambling exploration of that thought.
For quite a long time, the only way to get music out of a video game was to synthesize it. Computer memory limits meant that storing or playing back digitally recorded music was simply impossible. When it was no longer impossible, it was outlandishly expensive. When it was finally cheap enough, the technology wasn’t really in place to make it work.
Eventually, the CDROM disc emerged as the standard for storing and distributing video games. Before that, the only reasonable way to store music was to encode it as a sequence that could be played back in realtime by a synthesizer chip. This led to a lot of game soundtracks having very distinct sound signatures depending on the particular synth chip being used. NES music sounds different from C64 music which sounds different from Sega Genesis music. In concept these synth soundtracks are more like reading sheet music and playing it through a particular instrument than like playing back a recording of a performance. The distinctiveness of each tune helped to make older game music memorable. The music to Super Mario Bros. only sounds like that when it comes out of a real NES. Or at least it did until fairly recently.
Old video game cartridges and diskettes are very cramped spaces. Music had to fight for room alongside graphics and code so storing hours of a full orchestral arrangement was absolutely out of the realm of possibility. This meant that a lot of older game soundtracks had to be very tightly looped. Short segments of music playing again and again and again while the player attempts to defeat a given stage. Bad music became grating very quickly. Good music burrowed itself inside your head and wrapped around your nostalgia centers waiting to be reactivated with the remembrance of a few notes.
There is some wonderful music scattered throughout the 8 and 16 bit eras, but none of it has lyrics. By the time it was possible to weave a soundtrack containing recorded vocal performances into a video game, the pattern of short catchy loops with occasional changups and stings had become the established style. This sort of music worked for games and the gameplay fed into the music. Habits and expectations are tough to break.
Of course there is also the timing problem. While a music loop can be played over and over indefinitely, a song with verse and chorus sort of has a built in running length. Hearing someone sing the same thing many times in a row can get monotonous quickly. Making sure that a particular section of your game can be played through by a majority of the players in a certain span of time without putting the experience on rails sounds incredibly difficult. If you want the music to rise just as a player is doing something very cool, using a pre-recorded song might not cut it.
Since the advent of the CDROM there have been a lot of examples of games trying to incorporate music with lyrics with varying degrees of success. Here are a few of the better examples and why I think they worked.
The Metal Gear solid franchise has had some incredible music. Some of that music features great vocal performances. They hit at just the right times for maximum impact, but they almost always do it at the expense of game control. The sequence containing the track will be on rails or pre timed to match with the music.
The Microwave hall in Metal Gear 4:Guns of the Patriots
Matches an operatic piece with a gut wrenching gameplay sequence, but it is entirely scripted and timed out. There isn’t much that the player can do to change the pace of this segment.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain includes the song Sins of the Father
Where the scene is again, preplanned and largely out of the players control.
Sonic Adventure 2 Sort of kicks off with a banger Escape From the City
The song is on loop but there is enough here for most players to only hear it a couple of times during the level. The song isn’t around long enough to overstay its welcome, but it adds some punch to an already fast and fun area of the game.
Super Mario Odyssey’s jazzy Jump Up, Super Star!
Likewise plays on loop, but the area has been timed out pretty tightly so you are unlikely to hear the 4 or so minute song more than once. When you do reach the end, you can listen to it again for as long as you want.
Also in Super Mario Odyssey, sounding like a lost The Bangles song Honeylune Ridge:Escape
Loops but doesn’t wear on the player due to how tightly timed the underlying level is.
Then you have Supergiant Games. Every one of their games include songs with lyrics that kick off and accentuate gameplay, but the reason these work is a little different.
From Supergiants first game, Bastion, a folk song that is heard as two solos during the game comes together as a duet in the finale.
This song isn’t a soundtrack to the game, it exists in world and characters can be found singing it. When you come across them it is extremely moving as the words have meaning in the world of the game, and it makes sense for the characters to be singing them. The songs not only feed into the story, but having them repeat makes perfect sense in a folk song tradition. These are characters Idly singing the songs of their respective cultures, that happen to be part of a fractured whole. In one sequence the player is under no threat, and in the other you can do nothing but walk forward.
Good Riddance from Hades is great for setting mood and is primarily sung by two characters, also in world.
Again when the song plays, there will be no pressure on the player so focussing on the lyrics and the meaning behind them is possible.
We All Become from Transistor
There are a couple of great songs with lyrics in this game about a singer. In the world of the game these are her songs. They feel connected and natural. They are also largely played during sequences when you have limited or no control over the character so timing isn’t much of an issue.
This sequence has it all. A long but looping song, segments of action gameplay, segments of very linear movement, and timed progression. They also adjust the playback of the song on the fly so that the parts that need to rise and fall during the sequence can do so dynamically. When they want you to feel like an awesome, powerful superhero, metal music and growly vocals kick in at just the right moments. This might honestly be the current high water mark for using music with lyrics in a game, during gameplay, to reinforce gameplay.
Here is the Director of Control talking about how the sequence was accomplished.
So it seems like if you want to have lyrics in your game music, and you don’t want it to be jarring, you have to either have to run it over a cut scene or a limited interaction sequence, time it out impeccably and don’t be concerned with possible looping, or do what Remedy did with Control and layer every part of that sequence in a way that you can dial it up and down dynamically. Music playback technology has come far enough that it is possible to sequence pre-recorded vocals and music just like they did on the synth chips of the 8 bit era. That last option seems the most difficult to pull off, but now that a few game creators have proved that it is possible maybe we will hear a lot more music with lyrics in future games.