Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Playing Games: BioShock's Source Music

I'm playing three or four games at once right now, which is a bit crazy for me, but I've got the time to do some research right now, so....  I finally broke down and got BioShock a few days ago.  I first heard about it from doing the G4's Top 100 games when they mention BioShock as having great audio and finally decided to play it.  Despite the fact that FPS games are the best sellers, I've not really played many of them; I think Wolfenstein 3D was the last I played to give you a taste of how long it's been.  Thank god for easy mode!

One of the things I've noticed right away is that there isn't too much "music" in the game-- at least not like a platform game, adventure, or RPG would have.  I suppose the music suitable for those genres could pull the player out of a FPS.  Part of the scariness of BioShock's atmosphere is when splicers suddenly throw bombs at you or yell at you.  At most musically, in terms of composed music I've encountered so far, I've only noticed a sustained bass drone or something else that almost blends in to the background atmosphere.  Nothing really melodic or singable.  I'm also not sure yet of how interactive the audio with BioShock is...  if it's very tailored to individual gameplay, this minimalist music I'm hearing could also be a result of my slow, methodical playing.  I'm not a charge through the level kind of guy (not yet, at least).

In Stevens/Raybould's The Game Audio Tutorial, I recently encountered the idea that diegetic music (music that your gaming avatar hears as part of gameplay-- think from a radio in Grand Theft Auto) is different from extra-diegetic music (music that only you hear as the player-- think Super Mario Ground Theme) in what it conveys about the characters in the gaming world.  For instance, we don't actually think Mario is hearing the music we hear as he jumps around the world (although, I wonder if he would hear sound effects-- question blocks, fireballs, and jumping sounds?).  But we would expect a character in a game to hear music played through an onscreen radio-- particularly more so when the audio has a directional component: as our avatar moves toward the radio, the music sounds louder and clearer; as we move away, its volume decreases.  While both music only we as the player hear (extra-diegetic) and music we and the avatar hear (diegetic) inform us about the gaming atmosphere, according to Stevens and Raybould, diegetic music "carries a strong cultural message about the time, place, and people listening to it."

What is immediately noticeable about BioShock's music is that there's a large amount of diegetic music, and so far, most of that has been source music.  By source music, I mean music that exists outside of the game world and has been licensed and put into it.  What's striking me as odd is the choice of source music.  Take a look at the soundtrack listing.  If you notice, these tracks are from the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.  BioShock is set in 1960.  Thus, this music has a disconnect for me between the game setting and the musical setting.  This "Great American Songbook" repertoire that the game uses was popular music that played on the radio-- but decades earlier than 1960!  By the mid 50s, the top Billboard hits had songs creeping in like "Rock around the Clock" as Rock and Roll grew in popularity.  Elvis has a number of hits in the late 50s and 60s, and by the mid 1960s, The Beetles appear regularly on the top songs list.  That should give you a flavor of the popular music of the day around 1960.

Granted, most players probably didn't do dissertation research on The Great American Songbook.  Most players probably hear this music and think: older era, earlier time, American sound.  I hear it and think: 1920-1950.  As a history lover, the 20s-40s are some of the most interesting decades of both American history, world history, and American music history for me.  As a person with specialized knowledge in this realm, this music doesn't evoke 1960.  It gives me a disconnect between the setting and the music!  This reminds me of helping a director friend plan some music to play before and during a play in a 17th century French setting.  I did some research and presented her with a variety of informed options by French 17th century composers.  At the end of my suggested tracks, I gave her some throwaways-- think Mozart Turkish Rondo-- tracks that were over 100 years too late, but well-known.  Now guess which music she picked to use during the play......

Questions for another day: Why did the audio team decide to go with music this early?  Could the designers have actually put in popular music closer to the 60s, some of the beginnings of Rock and Roll?  How would that have affected the setting?  Do you have any thoughts?

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