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Bioshock

January 9, 2011

As I stated in an earlier post, I wanted to see how much of a game’s soundtrack could tell us about the game before we actually played it. The game in question was Bioshock.

After playing Bioshock, I can firmly say that the answer to this questions is a resounding: a great deal.

I’d like to take you through some examples in the game to see where and how music is used in them to see if they matched up with my earlier expectations of the how I thought the music would be used in-game.

The first thing we see and hear, after starting up the game (after the company logos) is the main menu, which is accompanied by the main theme music. This serves to set the tone of the game. When I clicked on play for the first time I was greeted by a loading screen, which was accompanied by some (licensed) music from the 1950s with a visual of an old radio player. This immediately set the context of the era the game was set in. Using actual music from the era was a great way to do this as it didn’t need to be explained to the player beforehand. (All though, after this, at the begging of the cinematic, it states that the date is 1958)

After the loading screen had finished, I was in the game proper, which began with a cinematic (short film sequence), which we witness as if we were looking through the eyes of the player character (which is known as the ‘first person view’):

The opening cinematic:

As I had already surmised from my post on the Bioshock soundtrack, I thought the game would have some kind of ‘horror’ vibe to it. This cinematic, the first introduction to the game we have, confirms this. The whole film is quite macabre, with a small girl removing something from a corpse and preceding to drink it. A violent fight, with the main character using a drill to kill people culminating in the apparent shooting in the head of the main character. These all speak of a grim and dark content of the game, which I predicted from hearing the soundtrack.

The scoring for this is, as I thought of the soundtrack before I had played the game, very cinematic. The film opens with soft strings and then a solo violin as the girl leads us through the corridors. It is all very calm and serene up until when the girl screams for help, where the music dramatically changes with discordant harmonies highlighting that something is wrong. When the main character jumps down to fight the men, the brass enters for the first time and the music underscores the battle appropriately.  Then when the battle is over, we have silence until the woman says: ‘take the pistol’ in which discordant strings enter again, building up until the character apparently shoots himself.
That the scoring was very cinematic and narrative based was another point I picked up from the score alone, and this opening scene confirms that fact.

After the cinematic, it is ten years later and when we wake up, we can move around. Now we are actually playing the game as opposed to watching a cinematic sequence. The first thing that struck me when I had control of the character, as well as the striking visuals, was the incredible sound design. There was absolutely no music, but there didn’t need to be. There was the sound of creaking pipes, dripping and running water, lights flickering on and off and the sound of a girl talking from some way off.

Having this atmospheric introduction to the game was more effective, in my opinion, in creating an unsettling atmosphere than using music. Again, this is another thing that I had guessed correctly about the game, from the shortness of the soundtrack. And as I played through it more and more it became apparent that sound design had a big role in this game, perhaps as important as the sparse sections of music.

And the music was sparse, which I knew it would be, judging from some of the running times of the tracks on the soundtrack. But it didn’t matter that it was spares, because when it did come in it had a dramatic effect because there were long periods without music and when it did start to come in, like the gentle swelling of strings, you knew something was about to happen. Which is something the music did in this game, it helped give the player forewarning of situations a head.

As well as forewarning, the music also happened at important events in the game, like entering new areas of the game world; there was a section were the player is forced to swim underwater through the ruined city, which was accompanied by the game’s main theme music. Music also came in for ‘boss’ battles, challenging battles with other characters.

As effective and striking as the use of music was throughout this game was, I think this game in particular, opened my awareness to the importance of sound design to a video game. Sound design on Bioshock definitely played a more prominent role than it does in other games. Here the context of the game was a horror game, set in an under water city in the 19050s and 60s. While the music could convey almost all of that, the sound design really helped bring to life the context of being in an under water city, with all the dripping water, flashing lights, malfunctioning radios etc. It also helped in conveying that the character was wearing a massive old diving suit, from the stomping of his metal boots to the way the water sounded if you stood under a dripping pipe. All of this sound design and more helped in bringing this game’s particular context to life as much as the music did.

Here’s what audio designer Emily Ridgway had to say on the inspiration for the ambient sound design in Bioshock:

“System Shock 2  was a strong inspiration with its use of dissonance and tones in the ambient bed. It’s relentless psychological effect on players was a huge contributor to the cult success of SS2, and that’s definitely something we wanted to replicate in BioShock.”

Michael Kamper, audio lead, had this to say:

“I really wanted the ambiance to sell the fact that Rapture was constantly falling apart around the player. We put a lot of creaking and groaning throughout the backgrounds.”

In evaluation, I think that a game’s score can indeed tell us a lot about the game it was scored for. I think this is important in gauging just how much a game’s music brings to the game in terms of creating atmosphere and tension, as well as the part it plays in foreshadowing important things and, in-turn, giving the player chance to prepare for them.

In the case of Bioshock, sound design played an important, if not more important role, as music did. Granted, all games have sound design and sound effects, but in this particular case it played a much more prominent role in the game experience and creating the sense that this underwater city really was slowly falling into ruin.

In this particular case the music and sound design worked together in bringing to life a fictional underwater city. Bioshock was also a really good example in showing that not all video games need music playing all the time (which a lot of games rely on) and sometimes it can be more effective in having periods of silence balanced by subtle use of music to create, in this case, a sense of tension in the player.

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