The Magic of Licensed Music in Saints Row IV

Be it the Tony Hawk series or the good ol’ days of DDR, over the years we’ve seen countless video games use licensed music as a means for enhancing (and sometimes making up the bulk of) their experience.

And while it’s great to be sliding along a half-pipe in the virtual world and hearing a song you’ve actually sung to yourself in reality, it’s hard to argue that, outside of music and rhythm games, licensed music has rarely been implemented in a game as anything much more than an accompanying soundtrack that plays while your character runs around on screen.

Enter Saints Row, a series that has made a name for itself over the years thanks to its GTA-like gameplay and use of utter craziness to make it into one of the most unique and beloved open world games in our modern day. A series known for their bold jokes and witty writing, there’s also something to be said for how well the game uses licensed music as an audible gag alongside the rest of the series’ craziness.

**Warning: Minor Spoilers for Both Saints Row: The Third and Saints Row IV Ahead**

This phenomenon first struck me in Saints Row: The Third, when your character is driving around with Pierce Washington and the two start singing along with Sublime’s “What I Got” while on their way to a mission waypoint. There’s no big, extravagant set piece or gag that takes  place here, but, despite the fact that the game is so on-the-nose crazy, you still get a real sense of relatable friendship between both your character and Pierce as they sing along. After all, you and I both know that you’ve been guilty of this with your friends at one point or another. Therefore, when it takes place, it suddenly becomes endearing and connects you to the characters in a small, but undeniably important way.

This is seen again in Saints Row IV, when your character is running around the digital world in which Zinyak has imprisoned you. While communicating with Kinzie, “Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul begins playing, and your character tries to tease Kinzie into singing along. Being that she’s a bit stuffy and straight-faced, Kenzie refuses to engage, resulting in a great moment that not only gives you some insight into the characters, but also leaves you with a great callback and a hilariously awkward moment that, once again, we can all relate to.

But the game’s great use of licensed music doesn’t stop there. In fact, it uses a classic Aerosmith song in the beginning that left me laughing out loud thanks to its perfect timing and tongue-in-cheek jest. As your character leaps onto a launched nuclear missile and attempts to disarm the bomb in midair,  your gang members suddenly realize you’re attempting to sacrifice yourself to save them and all begin to reminisce about what a great friend you were and how much you mean to them, all while “Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” plays in the background. Just the crew talking about you would have been amusing enough, but it was the timing and notoriety of the song itself that enhanced the moment and turned it into a great gag.

And never in my life would have thought that Haddaway’s “What is Love” would make a meaningful appearance in a video game, much less have made me laugh as hard as it did. After breaking free of the simulation and fighting your way buck naked through an alien compound, you reach Kinzie and Keith David and start shooting at alien spacecraft while navigating the tunnel-like interior of the Zin ship in a great Starfox-like callback that is both fun and referential. During this moment, your character asks about the radio, and just as Kinzie starts to explain that there’s no radio reception, “What is Love” starts playing in the background. Like the Aerosmith moment, it’s perfectly timed and executed and serves to make the moment a great one.

Really, Saints Row manages to use licensed music in way that not only adds to the experience, but also helps to define it tonally and keeps us from taking things a bit too seriously. In a game series that thrives on such a premise, their use of licensed music is not only executed well, it serves as a master example of how recognizable music can be used to make a good game even better.