Trading Drumsticks for Joysticks: A History of Artist Involvement in Games 829 words · 4 minute read

A lifetime of creative achievement, a network of hundreds to millions of loyal fans, and exclusive access to authentic music.

Video game developers can reap all these benefits and more if they involve musicians in the creation of their titles. The music industry provides creative outlets and outreach potential that video games don’t possess on their own. In fact, music has always been a copilot in advancing the game industry.

Check out this timeline of landmark cases of artist involvement in video games. Together, these titles illustrate the groundbreaking innovation that results when two industries collide.

Journey Escape (1982)

The 1980s rock icons in Journey were the first artists to star in their own licensed video game. Arcade and console versions of the game, entitled Journey Escape, were released in 1982. The player must guide band members to their “escape vehicle” after a concert while dodging obstacles like groupies and paparazzi.

According to the music magazine Hit Parader, the arcade game raked in an estimated $5 million in quarters during its first few months of operation. Journey Escape showed developers the captivating nature of the music industry, the influence of which had yet to be tapped by video games.

Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (1990)

The King of Pop got his own video game in 1990. Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was loosely based on Jackson’s movie, also called Moonwalker. U.S. Gold released the game for home computers, while Sega developed arcade and console versions.

The player controls MJ himself to rescue children from the evil Mr. Big, using fighting techniques that mimic Jackson’s signature dance moves. The game developers leveraged music’s ability to create a cult-like following and capitalized on the already-astronomical success of one of the industry’s biggest stars.

Rap Jam: Volume One (1995)

Motown Games reached a new level of artist involvement with their basketball video game Rap Jam: Volume One. The Super Nintendo game was released in 1995 and featured several artists as opposed to just one performer or group. Coolio, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, and Flavor Flav were among the hip-hop stars players could select for gameplay. Once selected, the artists were pitted against each other on an urban basketball court devoid of sportsmanship and foul calls. Rap Jam introduced the concept of artist involvement despite the absence of a musical game theme. This inspired video games like Wu-Tang: Shaolin Style and Def Jam Vendetta.

Year Zero (2007)

Trailblazers like Journey Escape and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker set new standards for artist involvement in video games, but in 2007 Trent Reznor obliterated those precedents with a remarkable innovation called Year Zero.

The Nine Inch Nails frontman partnered with 42 Entertainment to create the online game, which served as a promotional campaign for the band’s newest album, also called Year Zero. The immersive game included 17 websites and real life clues, including coded messages on tour merchandise and hidden trinkets in concert venues. Players slowly learned that they were receiving information from the year 2022, warning them of the terrors that awaited them in a dystopian America of the future.

According to 42 Entertainment, Year Zero attracted 3 million participants, all fervently trying to solve each puzzle Reznor threw their way. The game culminated with a secret show, where the band performed a song from their Year Zero album. Critics praised the game, which also won two Webby Awards in the “Branded Content” and “Interactive Campaigns” categories, according to 42 Entertainment’s site.


“Year Zero is a total marriage of the pop and gamer aesthetics that unlocks the rusty cages of the music industry and solves some key problems facing rock music as its cultural dominance dissolves into dust.” - Los Angeles Times, 2007

Hohokum (2014)

Hohokum is considered an “art game.” Created by Honeyslug, Sony Santa Monica, and British artist Richard Hogg, it runs on the PlayStation platform and has no set objectives, other than to relax and appreciate the featured art and music.

The player controls a snake-like character to explore 17 different worlds. Developers partnered with indie record label Ghostly International to create Hohokum’s soundtrack, which includes licensed songs and original compositions by Ghostly International artists. A vinyl version of the soundtrack was released and received fantastic reviews. In addition, a concert featuring artists from the soundtrack – the “Hohokum Music Spectacular” – aired online.

Hohokum’s unique concept highlights indie artists, while its vinyl and concert components transcend the video game world to engage players long after the end-game credits roll.

A symbiotic relationship of creative invention and marketing genius now exists between music and video games. Developers and artists co-create elaborate stories and settings for video games and connect with consumers through new efforts like exclusive content, live concerts, soundtracks, and more.

As consumer engagement with video game music grows, new ideas for artist involvement arise. Any developer could become the fifth milestone in this timeline of innovation. It all begins with answering the question, “What artist best suits your game?”

By: Alex Holder, Music Dealers