A Rapture Reminder: Keep Playin’ Them Jamz

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.”

  7 comments for “A Rapture Reminder: Keep Playin’ Them Jamz

  1. Haley
    January 25, 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Love your commentary here, and I agree completely! Just to quickly throw in my opinion: I think Gibbons’ article is valuable because while we as players may be aware of what a certain thematic element is accomplishing in the moment (we can tell that “Beyond the Sea” is ironic when played over a fight with a Big Daddy), it’s not something we often think about. Even though the effect of the music in BioShock is common knowledge, the intricacies behind why that effect occurs are worth exploring, as Gibbons does. In doing so we can delve more deeply not only into texts that we appreciate, but also learn more about the way we construct narratives as a whole, and why we’re constructing them the way we do.

  2. Savannah
    January 29, 2013 at 1:52 am

    I disagree with your point that BioShock’s musical input is more interactive than that of Fallout’s Pipboy. Though it is disappointing that the songs must be so repetitive in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, I believe that the old tunes create the same sense of irony that players hear in BioShock. The way I see it, the two soundtracks serve entirely different purposes. The placement of the music in BioShock conveys a movie-like feeling by engrossing its audience with the plot’s progression, while the use of the radio in Fallout illustrates how a resident of the Wastelands might actually go about their days, where one might choose either to listen to an eerily cheerful jig or to face the fact that they live in an era of desperation. Thus, the placement of the music does not make a game’s soundtrack more or less effective; it only defines what the purpose is.

  3. Guillermo
    January 30, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Loved this post and discussion. Music in video games deserves more air time in my opinion. While I have yet to play Bioshock, I can say that after watching the trailer and reading Gibbons’ article, I got a good sense of what you were talking about. What a beautiful juxtaposition of moods. If I’m allowed to make the connection, I found a similar juxtaposition in the movie The Descendants. While the movie content is rather dark, the music and soundtrack for the most part was up-beat Hawaiian-esque guitar ballads. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SRdcogfMLfA)Because of that odd contrast I found myself listening to the music more intently and found that it had more to say about the film than I had originally thought. It seems as though I will experience the same with Bioshock, and I look forward to that aspect of the game.

  4. nelsondee0085
    January 30, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I would have to agree that the musical soundtrack in a video game definetly affects game play. I just finished watching my husband play Devil May Cry the new version by Ninja Theory and Capcom…I have to say I was getting totally into the game just as a bystander. There was a lot of house music that was getting me pumped as I waited eagerly to see what situation Dante (the main character) would get into next.

  5. marnold
    January 30, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    I would have to agree with Gibbons and you, (I’m assuming after reading your article) on the difference between Fallout’s incorporation of licensed music versus Bioshock’s. While I enjoyed listening to the music that came out of my Pip-boy’s radio in Fallout, and while I felt it matched the settings of the weird future-50’s mash-up era; I never quite felt that any individual song was attached to what I was doing in the game.

    For instance, if my Pip-boy had been playing the song along the lines of “I just want to set the world on fire!” as I was blowing up Megaton (Yes I did in fact blow up megaton. Blowing up a shiny bomb was just too tempting to 10th grade me), it would have fit the situation perfectly. Instead, the majority of the songs that made up Three-Dog’s library were played at random, along with his commentary of what kind of morals you had after you had just reached some pivotal point in the game. The songs were merely being used as filler to help set the mood.

    After reading your article, and having played Bioshock many a time over, I’ve made sure to note that when I’m FORCED (I’ll use that word lightly. Very, very, lightly), to play Bioshock again later this semester, to make a point and listen to the songs in each area I’m in and to really listen to the music and how it coincides with the rest of the universe. However I will leave you with the question of which is better: Licensed music in games, or original scores?

  6. Isaac Whalen
    January 31, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    this is a heartfelt reply all comment in which I say thank you all for your comments.

  7. February 2, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    This is a great post. Music in games is something I’m quite interested in, as you may know. I like the way you work with and occasionally against the original article.

    A stray thought, though: does BioShock’s use of “Beyond the Sea” connect it intertextually to other media that use that song in highly visible ways? (I’m thinking of Lost.)

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