Earworm, Jim: Unforgettable game trailer/music combos

Sounds and sights

Game trailers are an art form in and of themselves. With only 180 seconds or less to impress their audience, they need to tell an immediately arresting story that gives a snapshot of what an hours-long game will make you feel. One way to tie it all together is with a recognizable piece of licensed music, a familiar, melodic thread to guide you to the highlights of this virtual world.

E3 is gaming's trailer season, and you can bet that you'll be seeing plenty of trailers using licensed music to promote the many E3 2015 games. With that in mind, we wanted to look back the trailers that were made more distinctive, more memorable, and (most importantly) more effective because they chose to revolve around familiar songs. Hey, all you E3 2015 trailer-smiths: these are the ones to beat.

BioShock Infinite - 'Beast of America'

Not all pulse-pounding rock songs are created equal. While banking on the power of screaming lyrics and throbbing rhythm usually gets a game some attention, about a million other trailers are doing the exact same thing. To be heard over all that noise, a trailer's musical accompaniment has to be distinguishable from generic beats and connected to the game in a way that makes the two feel inseparable. That's what folksy thrasher song 'Beast of America' does for the BioShock Infinite trailer of the same name.

It's difficult to envision this trailer with any other song, since the game and the tune seem tailor-made for each other. You have rustic humming and drumming at the beginning that drips with Americana. You have the obvious nods to a broken American dystopia that's everywhere in BioShock Infinite. You have vicious vocals and guitar riffs that highlight the violent, angry, and enormous visuals that fill the trailer. And you have a unique sound that stands out in your mind and makes the game do the same. Now you can't think of either the song or game without the other, which is exactly the point.

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Grand Theft Auto 5 - 'Radio Ga Ga'

"What do you want, Michael?" asks a psychiatrist as a drum machine begins marching and keyboard strains slowly lift in the background. Michael is conflicted. He has the dream; the big house, the family, the money. But he also has nothing; his family hates him, and his days are filled with a crushing sense of self-loathing and worthlessness. As Michael begins to question what he really wants, Queen's 'Radio Ga Ga' forms the backdrop for one man's quest for meaning in a town full of fleeting opportunities to find it, and I honestly can't think of a better fit for this spectacular, explosive trailer.

The lyrics are a perfect metaphor for Michael's existential plight - a grasp at nostalgia for days gone by, when listening to the radio was something that mattered, not just 'some background noise'. Michael is a man attempting to regain the feeling of the glory days of his youth, when a big score was around every corner, but finds nothing beyond the regrets that come with mid-life crisis. Even the melody evokes strains of melancholy in its immensely danceable beat, punctuated by scenes showing exactly how Michael's life is falling apart around him. Rockstar is good at a lot of things, but ever since Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, it's been an expert at creating the perfect soundtrack, and Michael's trailer is its ultimate masterwork.

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Gears of War - 'Mad World'

The most memorable trailers can strike a chord with people who have no intention of playing video games in general, let alone the one that's being advertised. And juxtaposing soft, melancholy piano melodies with Marcus Fenix's alleyway encounter against the Locust hordes creates the kind of attention-demanding scene that can enrapture anyone. You've got to appreciate just how big of a gamble it was for Microsoft and Epic to advertise their new red-blooded, M-rated shooter - packed with guns-blazing violence and chainsaw bayonets - by giving a brief, perfectly-scored glimpse into the forlorn desolation of the post-Emergence Day apocalypse. That gamble paid off, big time.

It's all anchored to Gary Jules' somber cover of 'Mad World', which puts the sadness of Tears for Fears' original lyrics into focus. The song was certainly memorable in Donnie Darko, but the Gears of War launch trailer makes it absolutely unforgettable for an entire generation of gamers. I still get chills when Jules croons the chorus just as Marcus is desperately firing on a gargantuan Locust he can't possibly defeat.

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Borderlands 2 - 'Doomsday'

Ok, yes, it's dubstep. Go ahead and get all the hate for that particular overused musical style out of your system, because Nero's 'Doomsday' is the perfect backdrop for the delightfully bombastic, cheerfully ridonkulous action of Borderlands 2. Really, what other kind of tune are you going to put behind a trailer that tells you to "Get ready to joy puke your face off"? Jazz? Stop.

Borderlands is a game that rejoices in its absurdity, revels in its violence, and reminds us that shooting things is a really, really fun thing to do. Borderlands 2 cranks up the volume in every way possible. The 87 bazillion guns get bazillionder, there are more skills (for the payment of bigger bills), and its 1,000 degrees hotter. Mostly, though, it's a colorful departure from typical gritty shooters and it simply wants you to have a good time doing violence on Pandora. The thumping beat of 'Doomsday' accentuates the quick shots of Borderlands 2's gameplay, accelerating your pulse until the volume plummets and Handsome Jack makes his appearance. We're gonna need a lot of guns...and 96.5% more wub wub.

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Prince of Persia - 'Sglpur'

When it comes to Prince of Persia trailers, Ubisoft has a format they like to stick to: footage of the Prince beating up enemies and using time-travel acrobatics, while a Moviefone narrator talks very seriously about destiny. The point is to make the Prince look like a proper action hero, but it pushes a simplistic view of who he really is. That's what makes the E3 trailer for the 2008 Prince of Persia reboot so interesting: it presents the Prince in a more thoughtful light, and the accompanying song - Sigur Ros' dreamy ballad 'Sglpur' - shows just how different this Prince of Persia is meant to be.

Avoiding the quick transitions between fight scenes that you might expect to see, Sglpur's gentle rhythm slows the trailer down, honing in on the way the characters move together and the world they're moving through. It also strengthens the mystical nature of their combat, and it feels like the music is given form through the Prince and Elika's colorful explosions of magic. The crescendo of the song comes just as Elika turns their battlefield into a lush, sunlit landscape, showing this is what the game is meant to be about: these two rebuilding the world. This new Prince feels different from his generically impressive former self, because Sglpur has given him a different tone. One that sticks with you well after the trailer is over.

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Metal Gear Solid 5 - 'Nuclear'

This trailer is all fire and rage and hate; a descent into madness stretched across five minutes that feel like an eternity. Leading the charge is its title track 'Nuclear' by English prog rocker Mike Oldfield, which I wrongly assumed had been written specifically for the trailer. This song perfectly encapsulates what's going on with Big Boss' character, while also invoking the overall tone of this game. The lines 'I'm nuclear / I'm wild / I'm breaking up inside' sum up the game's protagonist in a nutshell: a broken soldier whose life has been going to hell ever since the events of Metal Gear Solid 3.

Layered on top of these lyrics are images of violence that are extreme even by Metal Gear standards. This creates a striking contrast between Metal Gear Solid 5 and rest of the series. Sure, Snake's exploits have explored torture and other dark themes, but they've always been tempered with the levity of giant robots and people with superpowers. None of that is on display here. Instead it's all stabbing and torture and dismemberment, which together set a powerful (if not grisly) expectation for how this adventure will play out.

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Dead Island 2 - 'The Bomb'

A lot of the trailers on this list take a solemn, serious tone, amplified by a poignant piece of music. And when it comes to melancholic drama, there's really no topping the original Dead Island trailer. So I was delighted to see the Dead Island 2 reveal go in the complete opposite direction, with its bright, light-hearted, and comically chaotic tone. Ignoring the fact that this sequel takes place in California - which, last I checked, is not an island - this trailer perfectly captures the fun side of a sunny zombie apocalypse.

Pigeon John's 'The Bomb' is irresistibly catchy, making you want to clap along to the poppy rhythm which, like a zombie's diet, is organ-centric. And John's jovial, self-congratulatory chorus of "I'm the bomb and I'm 'bout to blow up" perfectly matches the vanity of this tanned, teeth-whitened male model even as he slowly decomposes, as well as the impending explosion of undead pandemonium that's erupting right behind him. Even with the gazillion other trailers shown off during E3 2014, the song - and the accompanying scene of morning cardio gone to hell - kept running through my mind all week long.

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Dishonored - 'Drunken Whaler'

If you're a fan of 19th century sea shanties, you've probably heard What do we do with a drunken sailor?, a tune best suited to the soundtrack of a charming sea-faring adventure. Apocalyptic gas-punk stealth game Dishonored doesn't match that description at all, and the rendition of 'Drunken Sailor' used in its E3 debut trailer (changed to 'Drunken Whaler' to fit the game's environment better) becomes a whole lot darker to match.

The visuals in this trailer gracefully lay out the basics of Dishonored: where you'll go, who you'll run into, and the violent methods you have to dispose of most of them. However, it's the song that really lodges the whole thing in your brain. The music alternates between unsettling wisps of sound and pounding industrial cacophony; add that to a creepy child singing 'slice his throat with a rusty cleaver', and the music drives home that there's something deeply wrong with this place and everything you're seeing in it. Where the images could easily have been a dull catalog of whos and whats, 'Drunken Whaler' brings Dunwall to disturbing life, and makes you want to experience its horrors for yourself.

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