July 15, 2024


The Intersection of Information and Insight

Remedy’s Greatest Hits: The Music That Made The Games

6 min read

More than just the way they approach narrative, level design, and gunplay, there is one constant throughout every single one of Remedy’s titles: they will always have the perfect song for the perfect occasion. While Alan Wake 2 is certainly their magnum opus in that regard among several contenders, it’s about time we took a look back at the best needle drops in the studio’s long history.

Max Payne Theme РKärtsy Hatakka/Kimmo Kajasto (Max Payne)

The original Max Payne’s legacy is very much tied to the time of its release. It was the first video game to fully implement the slo-mo gunplay John Woo and the Wachowski Sisters had been trying to make into a Thing. But all that felt rather passe the more other games came and diluted the formula. The bullet-time may have been what got players in the door. But it was the neo-noir graphic novel vibes that have endured over the years. The constant leitmotif of those vibes is that theme, a grim piano undercurrent that gave even more depth and gravitas to James McCaffrey’s jagged, self-deprecating, hard-boiled detective narration, and would be the constant reminder of Max’s escalating failures as time went on, with the fully string-based rendition of the theme representing absolute rock bottom for our hero in the Rockstar-developed third game.

Late Goodbye – Poets of the Fall (Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne)

Even with all the other ways Max Payne 2 represents a massive jump in ambition above its predecessor, it still goes underappreciated for just how much Remedy managed to execute a big tragic love story in the middle of a third-person shooter crime drama, with hitwoman Mona Sax coming in like a wrecking ball through Max’s life, and reminding him that no, after all the bodies left in his wake, Max doesn’t get a happily-ever-after ending. That’s par for the course for pulpy noir, but was novel for games at the time. When Mona dies in his arms and Max decides to live on with the weight of it on his heart forever, it still hits hard. And then those first gentle guitar strums of Late Goodbye come in and twist the knife further.

The song itself plays throughout the game in several moments, with variouscharacters playing or singing the melody throughout, and yet, the full version underscoring the tragedy at the very end of the game is bittersweet and perfect in a way completely unexpected in 2003. It’s the first successful experiment in the ways Remedy would cinematically use music going forward, the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Poets of the Fall and Remedy’s games, and, even just on its own terms, a beautiful, melancholic rock tune that, if Max Payne 2 didn’t use it, probably would’ve found its way into a movie someday.

Space Oddity – David Bowie (Alan Wake)

The first Alan Wake is chock full of excellent, thematically rich needle drops, especially for its mid-chapter breaks–using Poe’s Haunted is a particularly meta stroke of genius–but the masterstroke was letting Bowie play us off into oblivion as Alan realizes Cauldron Lake isn’t a lake, but an ocean of a sort.

Given the wondrous, awestruck tone of the music, it’s easy to forget the subtle horror of the rest of the song. Space Oddity’s the story of a man being stranded in the pitch black of outer space, losing contact with ground control as his spacecraft drifts away from Earth. It was inspired by the terrifying bit of 2001 after HAL decides to go rogue, disconnect Frank Poole, and kill off the crew in their cryosleep. Alan Wake is maybe the first bit of media to restore the distressing power of Bowie’s song, letting it underline the eerie moment Alan Wake is disconnected from reality as we know it, trapped in unknowable perdition unless he can write his way out, and it’d be 13 years before we found out if he ever did. Major Tom got off light. At least he could still see Earth.

The Happy Song – Poets of the Fall (Alan Wake’s American Nightmare)

American Nightmare’s place in the Alan Wake canon is a bit tenuous post-Alan Wake 2. Aside from doing a better job at characterizing the abominable Mr. Scratch, it’s basically one of Alan’s lesser attempts to write himself out of Cauldron Lake. That’s a pretty important piece of what would come, however. Even though The Happy Song isn’t exactly Poets of the Fall’s most, well, poetic moment, it’s also such a deliberately disruptive, out-of-nowhere presence in the game, only appearing during Scratch’s commercials, in which he’s half Joker, half used car salesman, and all madness. Scratch isn’t the unknowable entity he becomes just yet, but there’s something about his American Nightmare iteration that’s equally unnerving.

Higgs Boson Blues – Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds (Quantum Break)

Remedy’s recent games all have their share of far-reaching cosmically terrifying stakes, but Quantum Break threatening us with breaking time’s ability to even function as a physical force, and thus completely crashing the universe is still maybe the apex of them all. The last third of the game is all breathless, stressful, and absolutely bewildering with its time travel shenanigans. While we still don’t know whether Jack Joyce takes that job with Monarch (though depending who you ask, Alan Wake 2 may have answered that question), at the end of that game, you get to exhale. And the soundtrack to that exhale is Nick Cave’s Higgs Boson Blues, an elegiac, wailing tribute to the entire strange expanse of human history, everything Jack Joyce saved by putting Paul Serene in the dirt. In context, it’s about as chill as you can hope to get from a game that begins with a time loop, and ends with our protagonist no longer seeing time as linear. But also, it’s just awesome that any video game is cool enough to end on a Nick Cave song.

Take Control – Old Gods of Asgard (Control)

The second this song kicks in is the moment Remedy levels up as a studio. Not only do they manage to break up the sterile, alien ambience of the Federal Bureau of Control with an absolute lightning bolt of energy, not only does it give us insight on everybody’s favorite janitor Ahti, but said song is the soundtrack to the Ashtray Maze, one of the most audacious bits of level design in recent memory. It’s just a perfect video game moment, held together with an absolute banger of an Old Gods of Asgard track that would be worthy of a spot on any metalhead’s playlist even without the context of the game.

Herald of Darkness – Old Gods of Asgard (Alan Wake II)

And of course, there’s Remedy’s magnum opus. It’s worth calling out Poe’s This Road, for no other reason than Sam Lake managed to pull her out of semi-retirement just to be a crucial part of this game. But there’s just no touching this one, a full blown 10+ minute interactive rock opera. For starters, it’s a technical marvel, with multiple stages, false finishes, and entrances appearing out of nowhere as the song requires. A full blown rock concert is being projected onto every wall of the studio, reminiscent of that incredible Radiohead Kid A Mnesia game from a few years back. It’s still giving us plenty of narrative and insight along the way, with the sets depicting Alan Wake’s entire life like a museum. It ends with our entire cast getting a full blown live-action dance number by the end. It all comes back to the song, though. There have been attempts to sneak actual musicals into games, from Celes finding her inner opera singer in Final Fantasy VI, up to most of the cast of Critical Role doing a musical RPG in Stray Gods this year. Few have been as successful, or unforgettable as this.

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