Sunday, September 07, 2014

Soundtrack September: Grand Theft Auto III

Game: Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Composers: Craig Conner, Stuart Ross et al

Licensed soundtracks in video games are generally ear poison. One minute you're playing a game with an EA Trax soundtrack, and the next minute your brother is the King of Denmark, he's married to your widow and your son is losing his mind! (Get it? Ear poison humor.)

Rockstar found a way to make completely licensed soundtracks work in the GTA series, gradually reducing the games' dependence on original music as time went on. The first time I played Vice City and heard Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" in one of the opening cutscenes, I cried tears of 80s nostalgia-induced joy. Hearing REM's "Turn You Inside Out" in GTAIV was similarly energizing. I'm highlighting Grand Theft Auto III here because it best represents the transitional period between the predominantly hyperobscure and/or written-for-the-game music of GTA2, and the mostly licensed soundtrack for Vice City.

Grand Theft Auto III features a soundtrack using up-and-coming artists and original songs in approximately equal parts. Liberty City's hip hop radio station (called Game Radio FM) plays tracks from lesser-known "real" artists. The 80s station, Flashback 95.6 plays existing songs from the Scarface soundtrack. On the other hand, Head Radio and Lips 106 each play a collection of "fake" (believable, however absurd) top-40 hits. On their own, these original songs range in quality from not great to highly infectious, but they all sound so at home on the in-game radio that the developers' desired effect is achieved with room to spare. Thanks to realistic radio-style sound production and DJ banter, every radio station in the game sounds like something you might actually hear upon hotwiring your escape vehicle of choice.

The single greatest track in the entire game is the opening theme, which may or may not be the greatest video game title theme I've ever heard. In an era when video games hadn't yet set foot in the arena of mainstream entertainment they occupy today, Grand Theft Auto III's slick, moody intro cinematic and theme song slackened my jaw and had me saying, "Shit, this is better than The Sopranos."

Come for the theme song. Stay for the radio.

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