VGM Review #9: 'BioShock' OST


Numbering only 12 tracks and totaling just 18 minutes, Garry Schyman’s compositions for 2K Games’ now-classic 2007 release BioShock, while not expansive in length, has an immense amount of originality and depth that shatters common video game music conventions and, by doing so, has allowed itself to be rooted within the memories of gamers.

Like a handful of other soundtracks that I have reviewed on this blog, I have yet to play a significant amount of BioShock. However, the soundtrack is so strong that I feel like I have absorbed the essence of Rapture through Schyman’s compositions alone. As most of the greats tend to be, where the graphical environment and story may be water and syrup, it is the carbonation of each musical track that permeates this game and makes it fizz and pop.

Listeners need to look no further than the game’s main theme, “The Ocean on His Shoulders,” to know the quality and type of work that they are about to experience. Even the first few seconds makes an important impact, providing a dark foreshadowing that lingers in the ear as the premiere instruments of the soundtrack – the strings – bleed a hauntingly stunning and tragic melody that, at 1:10, is padded by a sinister atmospheric dissonance. It is that dissonance that allows the tune to come full circle as it consumes and dissolves the consonance of the strings, forcing the tune back into the obscurity highlighted in the beginning.

Though this tune prepares the listener for the world of Rapture and sets him or her up for the rest of the soundtrack, Schyman’s work is so dynamic that the listener continuously gains fresh perspective within his cohesive musical setting—each piece carries its own momentum and has its own identity within a soundtrack is decidedly BioShock. Take, for instance, the unconventional second track of OST, “Welcome to Rapture,” a tune that sounds as if were in a world dreamt up by Tim Burton. In possibly my favorite instance of the whole soundtrack, the violin that subtlety screams onto the scene on the first beat of this piece breaks apart from the main theme and from any other game soundtrack of which I’m aware. In literally two seconds the listener is fully engulfed by a new melodic direction, and then in the spirit of cohesiveness is starkly reminded nine seconds later that s/he is still playing the game that also features the devices of “The Ocean on His Shoulders.”

Pieces such as “Welcome to Rapture” also break the soundtrack from the ranks of the ever-popular “epic” sound that is so popular today. Sure, “Welcome to Rapture” has an instance of a bigger sound (0:35), but it quickly gives way to delicate melodic content that makes the listener shutter beneath its swirling emotional complexities (0:45 onwards). Even the pieces that sound like they may lean towards “epicness” are thankfully void of that quality’s soullessness. “The Dash” keeps listeners off balance by shifting meter (from 5/4 to 4/4 to 6/8), and “The Engine City,” while entrenching itself in a lumbering brassy romp, is accentuated by string parts that – while not all unmelodic – feel wholly erratic.

Carrying the soundtrack’s originality even further, at times the listener may feel as if s/he were actually doing something other than playing a game. That feature doesn’t stop with the opening measures of “Welcome to Rapture”—in fact, “Dancers of a String” and “Cohen’s Masterpiece” can make one feel as if s/he were doing some as discordant from gaming as watching a ballet. In the modern gaming world, oftentimes one may feel that a video game score is equivalent to a film score, therefore achieving an effect of removing the player’s senses from a direct association with a “game” (albeit that feeling has become a bit watered down now that so many try to achieve that film-like quality). However, Schyman’s works are unique in that they don’t come across as simply something that could be applied to a film. One would be hard pressed to transplant this music and stick it in another game, unlike those soundtracks that sound a bit too film-y. This music is that of BioShock and none other.

Even “Empty Houses,” a tune that one may feel simply sounds like a lamentation that may be found in a film, fits very well into the context of the soundtrack. The obvious factor is the emotional string element, but Schyman is crafty and once again uses subtlety to his advantage. The feeling of unease that one gets while listening to these pieces does not dissipate with the intake of this tune. For most of the piece, things feel fine, but at 1:25 the cello bends down out of tune and slides up with a high-pitched note from a violin, which continues to waver in and out of tune. Of course, the vibrato technique does this naturally; however, at the tail end of this piece, the note bends dip just a little too far. That extra bit of bend becomes extremely unsettling—almost maniacal. Though it’s easy to overlook specifically why things are still creepy while listening to that piece, the effect of the strings embeds itself into the subconscious, proving that Schyman’s execution is nothing short of masterful.

The pieces that rely on more atmospheric elements have instances like the one mentioned above, yet in more apparent fashion. In general, these pieces employ horrifying elements to churn the mind of the gamers as well as the melodies that accompany them. “The Docks” is an unpredictable work that makes use of indiscernible noises, random orchestral dissonances, and nautical sounds – such as the accordion melody and the ship bell – to keep the gamer on his or her toes; “This is Where They Sleep” takes a similar, yet more startling, approach, with the overlaying atop a bed of rising tones; and “Step Into My Gardens” has a beautiful cello feature that is surrounded by disturbing percussion, ghastly violin slides, and unearthly whale-like noises.

Schyman deserves all of the praise that he received for this soundtrack—it is truly one of great caliber. From the melodic arrangements to the psychological twists of the horrific atmospheric elements, its originality outdoes itself with each track that passes, shoving aside the stale conventionality that pervades many modern game soundtracks. Without any other context, listening to these pieces makes one want to play the game itself, and if a soundtrack can push that feeling, the listener knows that s/he is experiencing something extraordinary.

This review is also featured on The Game Faces, a new collaborative video game review blog and podcast.