Back in March, I began playing Grand Theft Auto V for the first time ever. I somehow missed it in 2013, and as the years went by, I realized maybe I just wasn’t that interested in it. However, I couldn’t shake the idea that I had a GTA-sized gap in my gaming knowledge, especially as I write news stories seemingly every month about its massive sales numbers, which somehow keep increasing, the continuous flow of GTAV Online content, and more.
GTA V is as prevalent today as it was in 2013, so when the new-gen editions on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S were released in March, I decided to finally give it a go. And, unsurprisingly to most reading this probably, it lived up to the hype. So much so that I’m still playing it today, more than two months later. I love playing through the game’s main campaign and the Strangers and Freaks missions, but I’ve found that my absolute favorite thing to do is just drive around while listening to music.
After hopping on to do just that the other night, I realized something: the radio in GTA V makes it more immersive than most open-world games for me. I think that’s why I spend so much of my time in-game driving around, listening to Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, and Chakra Attack’s Dr. Ray De Angelo Harris, voiced by J.B. Smoove.
When I hop into a vehicle in GTA V, the first thing I do is pull up the radio. I scroll through my usual favorites – blonded Los Santos, Channel X, Vinewood Boulevard Radio, and of course, Non-Stop-Pop FM. Is a favorite tune on like Ocean’s “Chanel” or Koffee’s “W”? Have I heard this segment of Chakra Attack? Searching usually takes me about a minute, and I refuse to get on the road until I find exactly what I’m in the mood for, which is exactly what I do when I get in my car in real life.
And then I drive.
Sometimes I’m heading toward my next mission, but often, I’m just driving long enough to reach the end of a song and see what pops up next. I’m obsessed with this, and I’m pretty surprised by how much more immersive listening to real-world music makes GTA V’s open world. Of course, I don’t feel like Franklin or Michael or Trevor (not sure I’d even want to, given the events of the game), but the radio does a lot of heavy lifting to make it seem like I’m living somebody’s life in GTA V.
I’m obviously very aware I’m playing a video game, but there’s something special about hearing a song I listen to while driving in real life come on the radio in GTA V. It influences how I drive – when Ace Hood’s “Bugatti” comes on, yeah, I’m probably going to be speeding, launching off of ramps, and drifting through intersections because it’s hype as hell. When “Glamorous” by Fergie starts, maybe I trade in the truck for a sleeker two-door and cruise through downtown Los Santos. And when Chakra Attack begins, I’m probably just laughing to myself, a lot.
Much like how I try to match music to my mood in real life, or sometimes even set my attitude based on whatever I end up listening to, the same happens in GTA V, and I wish more games would cater to that because I don’t think I’m alone. Sure, some games use real-world artists in their soundtrack – Cyberpunk 2077 did it in 2020 – but I’m not sure any focus as much on music as Rockstar Games does, going so far as to actually update soundtracks with new songs and radio stations.
There’s undoubtedly a litany of copyright hurdles to jump over to do this, and many companies don’t have Rockstar Games money to do that, so I understand why most soundtracks aren’t living. But imagine if they were – I know my immersion in open-world games would increase, and that’s important because it keeps me playing. And that’s something I think every developer wants for its game.
In this medium, hundreds of employees spend thousands of hours perfecting in-game brush, the way a knife stabs into an enemy, or how glass breaks when a brick is thrown into it – all to ensure the experience is as life-like as possible (which, mind you, is awesome and something I appreciate assuming that’s done under healthy conditions). I’d just like that kind of energy put into music more often.
What’s your favorite use of real-world music in a video game? Let me know in the comments below!