Some of the biggest pieces of news this week have been all about Rockstar Games’ upcoming Grand Theft Auto V. It started with the opening of pre-orders and culminated in the massive dump of tidbits in the Game Informer cover story. You’ve surely heard by now all the juiciest chunks regarding the map’s size and the three male protagonists (they’re pretty much all over every single video game news website), so let’s talk about something else.
Let’s talk, actually, about something possibly more interesting. One of the big changes is that GTA V will have an original musical score. You’re probably asking yourself, “so what? That’s nothing new.” Fair point; that is nothing new for Rockstar. It is, however, totally new for the GTA series.
It may surprise you to know that Rockstar has made other games besides irregular entries into the GTA, Red Dead, and Max Payne series. Even before the Manhunt and Midnight Club franchises, they were busy with a serious string of one-off titles like Body Harvest and Wild Metal Country (both as DMA Designs) and a couple of Smuggler’s Run games. They showed a knack of coming up with original ideas and then shelving them for unknown reasons in The Warriors, Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis, and Bully (just kidding; they mostly didn’t sell all that well despite solid critical reception).
And of those, you could only really call Bully‘s original music a soundtrack. The rest, for the most part, have composed bits and pieces used for menus and stinger moments surrounding missions and the like but nothing substantial enough to take the form of a soundtrack. But Bully was more than a singular adventure in game design and premise for Rockstar. It was also an experiment in original music, and it was immensely successful. To this day, it is widely regarded as one of the best video game soundtracks out there.
That seemed to have sparked something of a fire under the developers. Since then, the need for commissioned or composed music has grown. Red Dead Redemption got Billy Elm and Woody Jackson (along with the stellar “Far Away” from Jose Gonzalez) while Max Payne 3 got LA-based HEALTH to provide the game’s dirty, throbbing beats for your shooting shenanigans. You could even include L.A. Noire considering a good chuck of development could be owed to Rockstar in addition to Team Bondi. Rockstar’s biggest and best titles were being invaded by composers and original, unlicensed music.
Save for Grand Theft Auto. Prior to GTA III, the series had its music composed by Craig Conner (and a bit of Colin Anderson and Grant Middleton). But after that, Rockstar utilized a curated soundtrack of relevant hits (the 80s, genre stations, etc.). There were still bits and pieces of original music—probably still from the aforementioned Conner—but they were little cameos of non-licensed music. They were bookends to the story and used as filler between screens of text but they were never meaty enough to qualify as an aural meal.
That’s why this is a big deal. GTA V is the first of the series to feature an original soundtrack and yet it is simply following in the steps of Rockstar’s previous triple-A offerings, but more importantly their tastes in music have been extraordinarily impeccable. Gameplay aside, the music of Rockstar games almost always merits praise and at least some mention in any sufficiently thorough review.
This makes GTA V exciting. The extra protagonists seem largely dependent on both execution and integration with the story and the ridiculously gigantic land mass harkens back to the divisive landscape of GTA: San Andreas, but music stands on its own. Not only is it exciting to know players will be getting a soundtrack of original music that has never hit their ears before, but it itches the mind thinking about how Rockstar will integrate that with the unconfirmed-but-come-on-you-know-it’s-there licensed radio station music.
Of course the screenshots are interesting and the setting is inviting, but the music is such an unknown. We know how the game will play and we know that there will be a lot of it, but discovering the soundtrack will be more akin to exploring the wild and energetic streets of Los Santos than Rockstar may even know. I’m excited.