Roots Music Becomes a Major Player in Video Games
Screenshot from "Red Dead Redemption 2" (courtesy of Rockstar Games)
Red Dead Redemption 2, the hit Western-inspired video game from Rockstar Games, is easily the most beautiful video game I’ve ever played. I stop to look at vast mountain vistas, then ride off to explore them on horseback. I ford storming rivers, worrying that I might lose my horse, or myself, over the rapids. I hunt elk in damp forests as sunbeams ripple through the trees. I swat mosquitos in fetid Southern swamps, I track beaver in the foothills of vast mountains, and I fish wherever I damn well please. It’s a game that is single-mindedly dedicated to bringing the American West to life in every painstakingly crafted detail, including music.
Trotting along the outskirts of Saint Denis (the game’s version of New Orleans), you might hear a banjo off in a back alley, only to come across a neighborhood hoedown in someone’s backyard. Ragtime piano pounds out of most every saloon in the game. And the members of your outlaw crew sing together around the campfire each night. Music has become one of the more powerful cues helping gamers immerse themselves in a historical or cultural setting, from the old-timey American roots music in Red Dead Redemption 2 to the rowdy sea chanties of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the culturally accurate ethnic folk musics of Civilization VI, or the creepy Christian cult songs of Far Cry 5. To create this music, video game companies are turning to real roots musicians, looking to record music that’s accurate to the time period in question and reflective of the culture each game is portraying. And they’re integrating this music into video games in the most interactive ways possible.
From the start, music was integral to video games, and in many cases a source of deep nostalgia years later. Hum the opening bars of any theme from the original Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo, and people of my generation start to get a little misty-eyed. My wife learned the underwater theme from this video game on her ukulele and used it as a lullaby for our kids when they were younger. The first raft of games on the Nintendo redefined how we think about video games and music, and much of this is tied to one composer’s vision. That composer, Koji Kondo, pioneered video game music composition with his work on seminal games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Part of his success came through his incredibly catchy melodies, but also from their structure, which was designed to be endlessly repeatable in short segments for players, like myself, who had the whole weekend to grind through levels and burn up hours and hours of time.
Today, video game music composition is big business, with high-profile scores, international symphonies putting on performances of video game classics, and high-budget projects on major releases. Rockstar Games (which created Red Dead Redemption) has been at the forefront of this with their work in the Grand Theft Auto series, and this is really where I first got back into video game music. While their video games feature long compositions of music that run throughout the game, like most others, what made 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V so fun was their use of licensed music and the players’ interactions with it. I spent hours driving around their faithfully rendered version of Los Angeles, cranking tunes on the radio and just enjoying how beautiful the game looked. Each radio station was curated by a different music celebrity, from the afrofuturist weirdness of Flying Lotus’ station to Jamaican dancehall from Lee “Scratch” Perry and crazy redneck trucker country via Jesco White. I wrote about this game for No Depression in 2013, and it remains one of my favorite examples of how much fun it can be for players when designers integrate music into the actual playability of a video game, rather than keeping it in the background.
With the release of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games has moved from 21st century LA to a faithful recreation of the American West at the turn of the 20th century. Historically accurate and rendered with an almost insane level of detail, the game puts the player into the role of outlaw Arthur Morgan, a character coming to terms with both the violence of his lifestyle and its coming irrelevance as America moves away from its frontier past. From a story perspective, Arthur Morgan is easily one of the best characters I’ve ever played. I and many other players have come to love his quirks and idiosyncrasies, whether we choose to play him as a vicious outlaw as liable to gun you down as say howdy or a criminal with a heart of gold, apt to stop on the trail and help out a woman in need. A key part of this relationship that players build with the character comes from how he interacts with the rest of his outlaw gang. Music is very key to this process. In fact, most of the interactive music, and the best music in the game, is found around the campfire at your gang’s camp. Certain characters in your gang are better musicians than others, and there’s plenty of time in camp for them to strike up impromptu jam sessions or singalongs. And when the song gets going, you can opt to sing along by hitting a button. Arthur will then sing lustily, but quite out of tune and off-beat with the rest of the gang, often forgetting the words but chiming in on the chorus. It’s a charming detail and a fun way to interact with the game’s music. Arthur can also later be found whistling, humming, or softly singing these songs as he rides around the game’s huge map on horseback.
Wanting to know more about the songs and the music in the game, I talked with renowned old-time musician Eli Smith of the Down Hill Strugglers, who worked with Rockstar Games as a traditional music consultant and arranger. Smith recruited traditional musicians with a deep knowledge of the music’s historical roots to bring authentic styles of music to the game. He himself plays guitar, mandolin, and jaw harp (there’s one character in the game’s town of Rhodes who just sits around in a park all day playing the jaw harp). He also whistles (it surprised the heck out of me to hear this amazing whistling coming from another character riding along the trail behind me). He brought on bandmate Walker Shepard for the fiddling in the game, and also recruited renowned ragtime pianist Terry Waldo for the inevitable saloon piano scenes. Blues harmonica player Ernie Vega’s sounds can be heard all around the game’s world, and one of the characters in the gang, Pearson, plays concertina, as rendered by old-time concertina player Jody Kruskal. Smith says Rockstar Games “cared about the music and they wanted it to be authentic and to be good. I was happy to be able to help them and be in the position to send them musicians who I think are among the best out there and to play some real folk music for them in their video game, to play some real authentic folk music for this fictional world.”
Though Smith also contributed music to the composed parts of the game, usually the somewhat ambient and unstructured melodies that play as you navigate the open world, the game’s interaction with music really shines in the many NPC musicians that dot the world. NPC refers to “non-player characters,” basically the computer-controlled characters that are bystanders, or in the background, or with whom you can interact but not control. Some of these characters are programmed to play music. You’ll hear this music wandering around a town, maybe the strain of a distant fiddle. You can go looking for it, trying to find the player. I did this and ended up in someone’s backyard watching a woman fiddling away for her neighbors. Or maybe you’ll pass a banjo player on a front porch when heading into town, or you’ll hear ragtime piano from one of the saloons, or a bit of harmonica. The music used is authentic to the time period, so I heard “Soldier’s Joy,” which was a common tune of that time, and the playing has a kind of roughness to it that you’d expect from folk musicians of the time. Some tunes have little mistakes, or rough bowings, or improvised sections. It feels more alive than I’ve ever heard from a video game and is intended to show what feels like the real life of an NPC, rather than creating easy-listening background music.
Perhaps most surprisingly of all, if you look closely at the NPC musician, you’ll see their fingers actually tracking the music, so it looks like they’re really playing. This blew me away when I first saw it, never having imagined that a game studio would use motion capture technology on folk musicians playing banjo, fiddle, concertina, and other folk instruments. Smith confirmed that the studio filmed him and others while recording to get the fingerings right, and he and others donned motion capture suits for specific scenes as well.
The songs used in Red Dead Redemption 2 are surprisingly ribald, and have quickly garnered fan groups online, where you can find amateur covers of them on YouTube. The most popular song is the “Ring Dang Doo,” a bawdy number using strange euphemisms for female body parts (the chorus is “The ring dang doo, now what is that? / Soft and round like a pussy cat / Got a hole in the middle and split in two / Now that’s what you call a ring dang doo”). Smith worked on many of the songs in the soundtrack, either pulling them from his own research into early American folk music or from period sheet music that the game studio’s researchers sent over. Writers at the studio rewrote some of the lyrics of the song to tie into the game’s storyline, so that the songs were a more integral part of the narrative. Smith worked with the voice actors as well while they recorded, coaching them on the music. And he arranged “Ring Dang Doo” — “that friggin’ song,” he says laughing during our phone call. Other songs include cowboy classics like “Buffalo Gals” and the “Old Chisolm Trail,” or “Cielito Lindo.”
Creating a whole world of music to make the past come to life is the signature work of Red Dead Redemption 2, but other video games have been building to this moment. Swashbuckling pirate adventure game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) wove sea shanties cleverly into the game play itself. As you sailed your ship, your crew would strike up a rousing shanty, drawn from historical sources and often quite bawdy as well. Certain crew members sang better than others, and certain performances of the shanties were better than others. Interestingly, your gallant crew started the game with a repertoire of about four shanties, and throughout each town and village there were mini-games where you could chase sheets of music paper through the town, the wind blowing them all over. When you caught the sheet, your crew would have a new shanty to sing. Thirty-five shanties were available through these mini-games, and I grew to love the songs as I sailed all over the map.
The world-building game Civilization is another favorite of mine. Players build their civilizations from scratch, starting from the hunter-gatherer level and progressing ultimately to the space race. Starting off the game, players choose an existing civilization to play as, like British, American, Chinese, etc. With the newest edition of this game series, 2016’s Civilization VI, I was surprised to hear how accurate the musical compositions were for each civilization chosen. Here, unlike Red Dead Redemption 2, the music isn’t meant to be interactive, but rather to create an atmosphere based on instrumentals that loop for hours. But I loved the fiddle and banjo music I heard when I was playing as the Americans, and was pleasantly surprised to hear that Baltimore old-time musician Brad Kolodner had been tapped to create this part of the soundtrack (focusing primarily on a sublime recording of Kolodner playing the tune “Simple Gifts”). PC Gamer breaks down this theme specifically in a great piece of analysis, and also shows how each civilization’s themes evolve as you progress through different levels of civilization moving into the modern era, while still keeping the core, recognizable melodies. So Kolodner’s lovely banjo theme underwent layers of interpretation, bringing brass bands, orchestras, then finally electronics to the simple and subtle original. According to PC Gamer’s calculations, these evolving layers led to over 80 different compositions throughout the game!
For the popular open-world video game Far Cry 5 (2018), video game company Ubisoft (who also created Assassin’s Creed) brought the franchise to rural Montana, casting an evil doomsday cult as the villains. It was a controversial choice, though rooted in the very real world of white Christian radicalism in Montana and other parts of the West. Ubisoft tapped film composer Dan Romer, whose Louisiana Cajun-saturated score for the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild was spectacular, to not only create background music based in American roots music (featuring mellifluous banjo and fiddle compositions), but also to craft catchy hymns for the cult. Romer wrote original hymns in white Christian gospel styles that spoke to the doomsday cult’s unique perspective. Plenty of Southern gospel songs already have creepy undertones, so Romer was able to subvert this tradition to make beautiful music that makes your hair raise when you hear it in the game. The songs don’t just play randomly during the game; rather, you hear them after you steal one of the cult members’ vehicles. The songs are playing on their radios, and you can listen to this cultish Christian radio station as you drive along, blasting away at other cult members in pickup trucks. The songs are gorgeous, too, and eminently hummable. Speaking to NPR, Romer explained his idea behind the songs: “I wanted to make songs that make you want to join this cult and make you want to have this family. I wanted to make these songs relatable, and I wanted to make this cult feel realistic.”
Coming back to Red Dead Redemption 2, as I progressed through the game, I discovered that Rockstar Games had also added full songs, though only a very sparing few. For nearly a hundred hours of play (or more), the story only presented me with 3-4 full-length songs in the soundtrack, and it cleverly saved these reveals for the most powerful moments. At a critical moment in the epilogue that marks the start a beloved characters new arc, Willie Nelson’s voice soars over the gentle beat of the horse, singing “Cruel, Cruel World.” Other songs in the game feature big names like D’Angelo, Rhiannon Giddens, and Tim O’Brien, but Nelson’s grizzled drawl hit me hardest, and marked a turning point in the game that changed the whole narrative.
Gamers online have talked at length about how much that song and the characters’ stories affected them, and it’s key that the song fit so well into the story. As video games move forward in complexity and scope, with millions of dollars and manpower hours spent in their creation, music has moved alongside, becoming more integral and interactive. And when video game creators want to evoke the great outdoors or specific cultures, they turn often to folk and roots music for these key moments.