An Italian plumber once changed the world by traversing a two-dimensional landscape full of bricks, tubes, and mushrooms. It’s full of something else though, and that something, is music. Mario’s iconic theme song, along with red hat and overalls, helped bring him into the limelight as a harbinger of the industry’s revitalization. Games have come a long way since Mario stepped onto the screen, and their music is no exception. Video game music has evolved into a quintessential component of the gaming experience, even producing its own genre of games.
Soundtracks are notable in their ability to build atmosphere and shape the tone of a game. In some cases, however, music is used to build player-character relationships and foster empathy through the power of song. How can both the player and character hear the song, you ask? Fortunately, a term was created to solve that very conundrum. Diegetic music is a special style of music that originates within the story’s world, so both the audience and the characters are aware of it. It’s like sharing earbuds with someone but without the perpetual threat of earwax residue. From time to time, video game characters have produced their own music, which often leads to some very powerful moments. Here are 10 of the most meaningful performances by characters in a video game.
Qualifying entries must provide both an audio and visual component to some degree, be considered canon in their respective universes, and may not originate from a rhythm or music game.
“Scientist Salarian” – Mordin Solus
Michael Beattie; Mass Effect 2
“You performed Gilbert and Sullivan?”
I’m impressed that not only did someone at BioWare dig back to 19th century and repurpose the tune to “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” from The Pirates of Penzance, but also that Commander Shepard is apparently familiar with the Victorian-era duo. It’s nice to know the classics are still relevant in the 22nd century. Mordin’s performance derives its potency from humor and functions specifically to develop his character. It says a lot about a person, or in this case a salarian, that they’re willing to burst into song in the middle of a lab. Mordin underscores his logic-centric view of art, stating that “Cultural artistic expression reflects philosophical evolution, interest in growth, perspective, observation, interpretation.” Although, this really shouldn’t come as a surprise for someone whose spacesuit has giant built-in headphones.
Note: Mordin is the only solo male on the list.
“1,000 Words” – Yuna and Lenne
Final Fantasy X-2; Jade Villalon
“Aid allies by singing and dancing your way to victory.”
The song “1,000 Words” only has 377 words. Trust me, I counted. Still, Yuna and Lenne play into the idea that music is a tool that can be used to manipulate its corresponding visual component. During her performance, Yuna summons Lenne’s spirit, whose memory of her final moments with Shuyin is broadcast to the audience. It’s a fantastical moment that would come across as obnoxiously cheesy if not for the musical background. This is an instance of an in-game performance allowing for exposition that wouldn’t be plausible otherwise. Yuna and Lenne would have thrived in the ‘80s music scene.
“We All Become” – Red
Transistor; Ashley Barrett
“Hey…” – Red’s only spoken line in the whole game
Transistor has been lauded for its atmospheric, post-rock soundtrack. Red’s warm, dulcet hums can be heard throughout the game, although lyrics make appearances intermittently, most notably at the credits when she regains the use of her voice. The songs from Transistor’s soundtrack are attributed to Red in-universe, although the in-game source of her voice is unclear. The music is a cornerstone of the game’s narrative, and the theft of Red’s voice is a major plot point. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “If she didn’t have a voice, why is this on the list?” Well, her voice is trapped inside the Transistor, so technically it’s the one singing. Listen, it’s all very vague, and if we dig too deep into this, we’re never coming back out.
“The Dawn Will Come” – The Inquisition feat. Mother Giselle
Corinne Kempa, Greg Ellis, et al; Dragon Age: Inquisition
“Faith may have yet to find you, but it has already found them.”
One of the only group performances making the list, “The Dawn Will Come” is an examination of faith in spite of overwhelming odds. After the invasion and destruction of Haven, the Herald returns to the Inquisition after being thought dead. The song is an exceptionally powerful display of faith and loyalty in the aftermath of such a tragic event, serving as a reminder to the Herald that the Inquisition still holds hope, despite the Herald’s apparent lack of it. Nothing like everyone coming together in song to revitalize the ol’ spirit. And hey, if the whole saving the world thing doesn’t work out, the Inquisition could always become troubadours.
“The Wolven Storm” – Priscilla the Callonetta
Emma Hiddleston; The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
“Wanna hear a limerick?”
Unfortunately, not every character can be Beyoncé, and since Geralt was too busy at witching school to become a member of Destiny’s Child, he relies on “The Wolven Storm” to serve as a proxy for his love of Yennefer. The song’s lyrics depict distinctive characteristics of Yennefer, namely “raven locks” and “violet eyes,” although we’ll have to wait until CD Projekt Red releases an olfactory patch to know if lilac and gooseberries are accurate descriptors. Geralt’s apathetic nature makes him incapable of expressing his feelings about Yennefer’s absence. Thankfully, Priscilla is there to perfectly encapsulate his internal monologue, encouraging us to empathize with Geralt.
“Aria di Mezzo Carattere” – Celes as Maria
Nobuo Uematsa and Yoshinori Kitase; Final Fantasy VI
“I’m a general, not some opera floozy!”
Opera “Maria and Draco” stands amongst a myriad of more electronically advanced performances as one of the most iconic instances of character-generated music. Most notable as a forerunner for musical performances in games, this opera ushered in a new era for game music and pushed the bar for what was possible. Despite extreme technological limitations, the opera sequence conveys a sense of grandeur and serves as a plot device to heighten conflict and develop character relationships. Celes masquerades as the opera singer, Maria, hoping to take advantage of Setzer’s infatuation with her. Setzer kidnaps Celes, in accordance with the Returners’ plan, and they are able to procure his airship through a combination of ruses and Setzer’s good nature. Although, he kidnapped her in the first place, so “good” seems sort of arbitrary.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” – Elizabeth and Booker
Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker; BioShock Infinite
“A guitar. Wish I knew how to play… might dispel some of the gloom.”
In addition to being an experienced detective, solider, and Columbia’s pariah, Booker also had plenty of time to pick up a guitar. The popular Christian hymn, “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” was written in 1907, giving the protagonists ample time to learn it before the events of BioShock Infinite in 1912. In notable ironic fashion, the song asks, “Is a better home waiting in the sky, in the sky?” It’s undoubtedly a contradistinction between Heaven and the floating city of Columbia, which was originally established as a pseudo-Christian utopia by Father Comstock. Elizabeth’s rendition produces an exceptionally beautiful moment, especially in contrast to the tragic and sometimes gruesome events that take place over the course of the game.
“Cara Mia Addio” – Aperture Turrets
Mike Morasky feat. Ellen McLain; Portal 2
“It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”
Since Soprano Turret is singing, I guess it really is over. The turrets perform this engrossing Italian aria for Chell as she egresses the Aperture facilities. Part of what makes this performance so poignant is that every turret encountered throughout the game makes an appearance to bid you farewell. This is possibly the most interesting performance in any game to date because, while it’s obviously humorous to see all the turrets together singing for you, the song still manages to foster a sense of bittersweet nostalgia and forces you to reflect on your experience in the chambers. Freedom from the constant threat of robotic homicide is nice, but damn it if you didn’t have fun down there.
Note: Ellen McLain voiced each part of the chorus and improvised the lyrics in Italian.
“Lost Cause” – Jodie Holmes
Ellen Page; Beyond: Two Souls
“I was born with a strange gift, or what they called a gift.”
Is she referring to Aiden or her ability to play guitar? You tell me. While homeless, Jodie is given several options to obtain money for a meal, one of which is to busk on the street with a borrowed guitar. At this point in the game, Jodie is on the run from the CIA and has been broken down by the entities that torment her. Her cover of Beck’s “Lost Cause” is used as a reflection on these events, explicitly expressing “I’m tired of fighting” and “Baby, you’re a lost cause,” which refer to the collapse of her psychological well-being and subsequent suicidal thoughts and/or attempts. Jodie’s ultimate purpose is to acquire money, but the performance offers a momentary respite from her circumstances and an opportunity to externalize her rumination.
“The Parting Glass” – Anne Bonny
Sarah Greene; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
“You’re a good man Edward, and if you learn to keep settled in one place for more than a week, you’ll make a fine father, too.”
“The Parting Glass” is a Scottish traditional song from around 1600 and is notably popular amongst Irish communities, often used to conclude a gathering of friends. The context is appropriate given that Anne Bonny is Irish – one of the many historical nuances that the Assassin’s Creed series is famous for recognizing.
As the song begins, Edward is greeted by an apparition of his old friends sitting around a table. Consistent with the cultural intent of the song, Edward is given a moment to reflect on friendships lost, most to death or betrayal. Regardless of how attached you got to the characters, the song instills such melancholy that there’s really no choice but to feel the loss. In case the song wasn’t sad enough, it continues to play while Edward walks to the docks to meet his newfound daughter, who traveled to live with him after his wife’s death.
As a bonus, the winner of the “We’re Not Sure If This Counts Since It’s From A Trailer” Award:
“Through the Valley” – Ellie
Ashley Johnson; The Last of Us Part II trailer
“Once we’re done with this whole thing, I’m gonna teach you how to play guitar. Yeah, I reckon you’d like that.”
After the loss of his daughter, Joel’s devastation is diluted by the 20 years that separate her death and his introduction to Ellie. Through a series of unforeseeable circumstances, the pair unites, building a relationship in which Ellie supplants Joel’s late daughter despite initial addressment and mutual denial of this possibility. Toward the end of The Last of Us, Joel proposes teaching Ellie guitar, no doubt alluding to his daughter’s ability to play, likely thanks to Joel’s instruction.
This leads us to the moment in The Last of Us Part II trailer where we become aware Joel has made good on his promise. Ellie’s cover of Shawn James’s song is imbued with the events that begot her musical skill, and although she isn’t singing about Joel, she is playing as a testament to their relationship. This transference of musical knowledge is a metaphor for Ellie’s reliance on Joel, both in terms of survival and psychological need.
Understanding the inception of Ellie’s skill is only one half of what makes this one of the ultimate performances by any character in a video game (trailer). Despite the derivation of her guitar skill from Joel, she is appropriating the knowledge to serve a different purpose. While many instances of diegetic music serve to ingratiate the performer with another character, Ellie is singing for, and about, herself. In this moment, we witness the expression of complete vulnerability and raw emotion, luxuries that life no longer affords her. The final line repeats, “But I can’t walk on the path of the right because I’m wrong,” emphasizing the cognitive dissonance that plagues her perception of her past actions. Her introspection fades with the song, replaced with the iron vengeance that prompts the intention, “I’m gonna find, and I’m gonna kill every last one of them.”
How do you feel about this type of music in video games? Which performances would make your list? Let us know in the comments below!