In theatrical and television production, a ‘needle drop’ is industry jargon for the insertion of licensed music into a scene on a specific cue. In the narrative process it works as audio shorthand to instantly set a mood or tone for a specific scene or moment of action. The goal is for it to evoke the kind of feeling (scary, mysterious, aggressive) one gets when they hear a particular song, or by recalling in the views mind the historical frame of reference around the time the song was originally released.This type of mnemonic trigger is most commonly found in trailers, particularly those airing on television, where the product’s original score or soundtrack isn’t sufficient to get the message across in its brief running time, like the use of The Heavy’s Short Change Hero in the latest Batman: Arkham City trailer. Outside of the rhythm/music genre, instances of needle drops in gaming have grown steady as the technology to tell larger and more complex stories has lead to mimicking of such established production shorthands to sell the ‘reality’ of a specific moment or set the perfect mood.
Song: (Don't Fear) the Reaper, Blue Oyster Cult (1976)
Moment: In one of gaming greatest opening sequences, a night drinking and brawling takes a strange turn when a brief blackout makes the jukebox skip over to the Blue Oyster Cult hit right as the entire bar is gradually and impressively sucked into space by an alien intelligence piece by piece and person by person. Although it’s unknown to the player at that point, the song perfectly encapsulates the oppressively fatalistic feel of the ensuing adventure and even plays on the true meaning of the word ‘reaper.’ While the teaser trailer for the recently announced sequel captures a similar moment, it lacks the awesome soundtrack.
Call of Duty: Black Ops (2010)
Song: Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones (1968)
Moment: It is the year 1968 and in your role as SOG operative Alex Mason you are headed up river, in force, into Laos to recover a crashed Soviet cargo plane. Stealth and subtlety are not among the mission specs and as your PBR leaves the dock, a comrade switches on the radio and out comes Sympathy for the Devil. Counter intelligence meets counter culture as your mounted machine gun blazes pitilessly into the enemy while Mick Jagger screams, “What’s my name?” Here the song placement works perfectly, save for the uncanny timing of the broadcast starting at just the right moment, there is no question that the newest single from an already legendary band would be in heavy rotation at an allied radio station at that time.
Kingdom Hearts (2002)
Song: Night on Bald Mountain, Modest Mussorgsky (1886)
Moment: In what amounts to the climax of Disney’s contribution to the original Kingdom Hearts, the path to the end game runs though Chernabog, the enormous black demon who appears as foreboding and powerful as he was depicted in the 1940 animated film Fantasia. This 21st century game’s aerial boss battle is accompanied by that 20th century film’s version of Mussorgsky’s 19th century classical composition that was unique to that scene in the film, bringing three different centuries together in such an epic fashion that even the game’s sequels have yet to match.
Brutal Legend (2009)
Song: Through the Fire and Flames, DragonForce (2006)
Moment: Things were looking up for displaced uber-roadie Eddie Riggs and his team of freedom fighting heavy metal rockers when Doviculus, the real big bad, finally shows up. After a shocking cut-scene he summons a shower of flaming meteors and misshapen beasts to destroy the heroes. Doviculus’ power is too much for Eddie to handle so he and his allies flee the conflagration in a hectic chase sequence to the tune of Through the Fire and Flames. Thought to be played out after its notorious appearance in the denouement sequence of Guitar Hero 3, it was given new life as an appropriate soundtrack to a thrilling action sequence one that stays exciting no matter how many tries it takes to complete.
Goonies 2 (1987)
Song: The Goonies 'R' Good Enough, Cyndi Lauper (1985)
Moment: Broaching certain regions in this early example of Metroidvania style gameplay will treat the player to a string of bleeps and bloops arranged in a facsimile of a familiar tune. It was a rudimentary version of eighties pop-icon Cyndi Lauper’s theme song to the 1985 movie The Goonies. Decades later, this and other 8-bit versions of contemporary music would help inspire a generation of musicians to develop the Chiptunes genre of music.