For those of you who don’t know, I absolutely love Bioshock. It is my only favorite game. I’ve played several other games which I have enjoyed, but inevitably they all get compared to Bioshock in my mind. Even Bioshock 2 couldn’t escape this comparison. So, naturally when I saw William Gibbons article entitled: “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams: Popular Music, Narrative, and Dystopia in Bioshock” I ate that jank up. Not only am I an avid fan of the game, but even before I played it I was a fan of jazz and music from earlier generations. Bobby Darian, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford: these are all personal heros of mine.
So for a quick summary of Gibbons’ article before this blog post procedes. The article’s argument that in the narrative of Bioshock the music plays just as important a role as the action and dialogue itself. Gibbons says that this is accomplished in two ways. Firstly, they heighten the atmosphere of irony and dystopia. Hearing these calming and sometimes sprightly songs being played over crazed splicers, shoot outs, and Big Daddies makes the player’s actions seem ironic, as well as the situation of Rapture itself. Secondly, the music acts as a commentary on the plot. Not only the titles of the song, but the lyrics themselves. “Beyond the Sea,” “It Had to Be You,” and especially “God Bless the Child” all comment on the onscreen actions. Sometimes foreshadowing what will happen, but mostly on what has happened; e.g. after you kill Steinman “It Had to be You” plays suggesting that Jack was the only one capable of this task.
Perhaps it was my enjoyment of older music coming into the game that made this article’s thesis seem like reiteration. While Gibbons does point out some specifics to the songs that I had not noticed at the time of my playing–i.e. the intricacies of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?“–the idea of songs acting as ironic themes and commentary had already occurred to me. Even the trailers for Bioshock used this concept when marketing the game. They played Bobby Darin’s hugely popular “Beyond the Sea” over somewhat in-game footage, obviously setting up the musical irony of the song as well as commenting on the game’s plot. Several of the songs I had already known, a phenomenon which Gibbons addresses in his defense. The musically informed player, in Gibbons’ opinion, becomes someone on the “in” of an inside joke between him/her and the developers.
This is not to disregard Gibbons’ thesis, which I absolutely agree with. I only question wether or not this idea is already common knowledge. Gibbons does say that Bioshock is one of the first game to successfully incorporate popular, licensed music in an interactive way, which is a blod comment. Compared to a game like Fallout 3, says Gibbons, Bioshock music interacts with the player rather than simply blaring out of a Pip-Boy. This point, I agree is valid and changed the way in which I thought of the musical commentary. Originally I had just viewed the commentary as a more hodge-podge type. Yes I had know the “Doggy in the Window” was commentary, but it had not occurred to me that its placement in Fort Frolic was deliberately timed to comment on capitalism/Americanism in a conversational tone with the player.
All in all, I’m glad hat I read Gibbons article and I do think it will have some bearing on how I will replay Bioshock in the future. Next time I will certainly pay closer attention to the lyrics of the songs and the environment in which they are being played. However, as anyone whose played Bioshock will know, it neigh impossible to recreate the first time you hear one of those songs echoing out over the Rapture PA system. I still look out for Spider Splicers when I hear Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.”