When word got out a couple of months ago that The National had composed an original song — “Exile Vilify” — for the video game Portal 2, a lot of people familiar with the band were shocked due to the fact that they rarely agree to license their music, much less compose songs for other commercial ventures. This is, we’re told, what’s known on the street as “keepin’ it real” by not “sellin’ out.” Or something like that.
So fans of the band and the game have been a little curious as to how this creative/commerical partnership came to be. The Daily’s Foster Kamer got to the bottom of it.
The project wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the persistence of Julia Betley of Bug Music, the band’s publishing company. Chet Faliszek, one of the game’s writers, had plans for a “fake” ending in the middle of the game, which needed a song to go with it. Coulton was already working on a song for the “real” ending, and to convince players of the “fake” ending, Faliszek needed a different song. He explained over email: “I had been a big fan of the National for years, and when their name came up, our search was over. I played some music for anyone in the meeting (who hadn’t heard of them), and everyone agreed with the choice.”
With the sole exception of drummer Bryan Devendorf (who plays “a little bit,” said Berninger), the National weren’t really interested as hobbyists. “None of us are big gamers. There are always game systems on our buses, but they don’t get used too much. Then we found out that Stephen Merchant was involved, and thought ‘This could be fun.’” The band’s decision to write the song for Portal 2 was given a huge assist from an occasional video game player close to the band. “It was my brother Tom who was like: ‘You don’t understand.’” Tom helped convince Matt and the band to look into it further.
“The lyrics aren’t super-specific to the game, but they’re meant to capture the space that Chell or GLaDOS would be in,” (lead singer Matt) Berninger explained. “The game is hilarious, but it’s such a immersive, weird zone. It’s sad and desolate, too. It’s a creepy, lonely space,” he laughed.
The National’s song “Exile Vilify” can be heard in the game only when players pick up radios left behind in the dens. The nihilistic, teasing lyrics — “You’ve got suckers’ luck/Have you given up?/Does it feel like a trial?” — are scrawled on the rooms’ walls.
Berninger’s more than pleased with the result of the whole experience. “In some ways,” he admits, “we had more fun writing that than we did our own songs, without the pressure of working for our own record. We needed a break from the creative bottom-ground. This was a perfect way to write without moving forward.”
And here’s the semi-haunting song set to a video of a few of the trailers for the game…