Game soundtracks can’t really surprise me anymore. With GTA radio stations playing Terry Riley, Hasil Adkins and Nobunny, and Rock Band featuring songs by Lightning Bolt and Big Dipper, there’s clearly nothing too obscure, too lo-fi or too abrasive to wind up in a big budget videogame these days. Pretty much the only thing that would shock me at this point is if I heard something from one of the twenty-year-old four-track tapes buried down in my basement coming through my speakers as I fiddled my way through the latest AAA crime epic. Until then I fully expect to eventually hear every band I’ve ever liked or even just heard of in a videogame at some point.
Soundtracks maybe can’t surprise me with obscurity or originality anymore, but they can impress me with sheer quality. The best soundtracks deepen a game’s atmosphere and sense of place while also giving us hours of great music to listen to. They’re not just a bunch of great songs, but great songs that help us understand the game’s world, characters and themes. And yes, maybe they can introduce us to a forgotten old gem that becomes a new favorite song. It can be a tough balance to strike, and few games ever make it work, but the designers of Mafia III understand the formula.
Mafia III’s soundtrack doesn’t just feed our connection to the game—it also neatly explains how the popular music of 1968 came to sound the way it did. Heavy on classic rock appropriate to its 1968 setting, it dips further back throughout the ‘60s to highlight the blues, country, soul and R&B that all shared its breath with rock ‘n’ roll. Patsy Cline commiserates with Mercy Dee Walton and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding make multiple appearances, and rock royalty like Elvis and the Rolling Stones rub shoulders with the garage grunts in Count Five and ? and the Mysterians. It’s as thorough a survey of the pop music of the day as you’re likely to find in any soundtrack, whether it’s for a movie, TV show or videogame.
“The number one goal was to capture the feel of the era,” explains Haden Blackman, Mafia III’s creative director, and the head of the game studio Hangar 13. “We wanted the highlights from 1965 to 1968, roughly, but we also wanted to make sure we had signature songs that people strongly associate with the late ‘60s. Beyond that we wanted to capture a sense of place. The game is set in New Orleans so we wanted to make sure there was a representation of Southern music, blues and R&B.”
Beyond just the well-known hits of the day, Blackman and his team “wanted local artists, artists from the South and the time period, who maybe were popular in the South but never really broke out beyond that. ” Hence the appearances from zydeco master Clifton Chenier, Atlanta R&B / beach music group the Tams, and a handful of Stax Records artists. By including such lesser-known songs, Mafia III doesn’t just heighten its sense of history and verisimilitude; it highlights the ephemerality of pop music, how some songs that define a region remain unknown in others, and how some songs that were national hits when they were released, like the Tams’ “What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am),” became almost forgotten over time after failing to crack oldies radio playlists decades later.
It wasn’t just the game’s fictionalized version of New Orleans that had to be encapsulated by the soundtrack, though. Mafia III has a lead character that’s unique for games. Lincoln Clay is a biracial Vietnam vet who trades one war for another when he returns home and immediately gets involved in a violent struggle between rival mob families. It’d be easy to portray Clay as a stoic, stone-faced killing machine, like so many other videogame antiheroes, but Blackman and his team wanted to humanize Clay. They do that in part through music.
“We also wanted to capture Lincoln Clay, our main character, through the types of music we thought he would listen to,” Blackman says. “Here’s a guy who’s mixed race, he grew up in New Orleans, he’s part of the black mob but he’s just back from Vietnam. A lot of what we did with our final pass [on the soundtrack] was [to make sure] this was all music that we thought Lincoln would be listening to.
“Given his upbringing and that he was running with this guy Sammy Robinson, who’s an older black guy and mobster, he’d have an affinity for the music that Sammy might listen to, so we have Sam and Dave on the soundtrack, we have Aretha Franklin, we’ve got some older crooners that Sammy being in the mob might be interested in listening to,” Blackman elaborates. “But coming fresh back from Vietnam, and being a younger guy, we thought that he would be more into rock as well.” Hence the Hendrix and Stones, the Steppenwolf deep cut, the psychedelic sludge of Iron Butterfly and Status Quo. “We didn’t want to put Lincoln into too tight a box with his musical preferences,” Blackman emphasizes.
There are people who make a good living recommending songs for movie and game soundtracks. Essentially they get paid to make mix tapes that fit whatever project they’re working on. Blackman and his colleagues at Hangar 13 put in the work themselves, though, to craft the ideal soundtrack for their game. As Matt Bauer, Mafia III’s audio director, explains, “we went through the top 100s from I think about every year from 1930 to 1969 and tried to choose songs that would best represent the time and place we were creating. Originally our list was close to 1000 songs and we worked with [publisher 2K Games] to whittle that down to what we thought were the 100 best songs for Lincoln and the year 1968.”
Unlike a movie director, Blackman and Bauer aren’t looking for songs that will only appear in one specific context in one specific scene. Although Mafia III has many cinematic moments scored by particular songs, those songs will reoccur on the radio as you’re driving through the city. The nature of game design kept Hangar 13 mindful of the multiple instances in which these songs might appear. They had to be “reusable in a lot of different situations,” Blackman says. “We wanted music that would be fun to drive to, that would be fun to get into combat to, music that we knew we could use in certain cinematics.”
After all the work put into compiling these songs, and all the care that went into making them fit within the game, Blackman still sounds surprised by the scope and breadth of the end result. “If, at the beginning of this project, you told me that we were going to have a soundtrack that had Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Steppenwolf, Beach Boys, Creedence all on the same soundtrack, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” he admits. It just goes to show that the best way for a game soundtrack to surprise us is in the year 2016 is through its depth and quality.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.