John Broomhall talks to composer Garry Schyman on why he chose small string ensembles for the game's music

Heard About: Shaping BioShock Infinite’s score

Earlier this year, amidst critical acclaim that the dialogue, sound and music of BioShock Infinite was already receiving, came the impressive double whammy of both a nomination for Audio Accomplishment and a coveted mask for Original Music at the video games BAFTAs.

Talking to Garry Schyman, it quickly becomes apparent this was a passion project, although the score’s immensely positive reception was still unexpected.

“Initially, I didn’t think it would get as strong a reception as the original BioShock score I wrote, but it’s gotten as much, if not more attention, which I’m overjoyed about,” he says. “It’s interesting in some ways, too – although there’s obviously some complex music in the game, there’s also a lot of very simple, very tonal content.”

That the overall aural experience of BioShock Infinite is something of atour-de-force is in no small measure due to a very distinct musical sound and ‘voice’. So how did that come about? According to Schyman, the crystallisation of the game’s musical signature can be pinpointed clearly.

“Originally, Elizabeth was not nearly as significant,” he explains. “At E3, when they were showing some early in-game stuff, there was so much reaction to this character that it began affecting how things were structured – a moving target from the composer’s standpoint – because things did change significantly.

“This was a seminal moment in how the score evolved. I remember specifically realising Elizabeth was very significant, and I said to music director Jim Bonney I had an idea for a theme for her and I thought it was important. I wanted to record it with live musicians before I presented it.”

Experimental music

Schyman knew that BioShock creator Ken Levine responded well to live players and the emotion they could bring to the table, so he didn’t want to use samples – especially as his ideas involved solo instruments. He was also aware there wasn’t any budget for his experiment, so he paid for it himself.

“It actually wasn’t terribly expensive as it was simply a viola and cello with overdubs to create a quartet kind of sound,” Schyman says. “When Ken heard it, he was very moved and it affected his view of how the music would work and how crucial it would be. The simplicity of that raw emotional music led us to realise that small string ensembles would be the direction for the score. They did reimburse me, by the way.”

For Schyman, one of the most important factors in BioShock’s music success lies in creative collaboration.
“In general, the most creative music I’ve ever been asked to write has been on games and I think what people like about this score is that it’s different from typical game music,” he says.

“Plus, it’s down to the fantastic creative partnerships I have with Ken Levine, Jim Bonney and Patrick Balthrop. They made a fascinating and super-creative world and then asked me to write some very unusual music. It’s a very creative process, not without pain and not without difficulties, as in every project, but because of that struggle and experimentation, it made us generate an interesting score – and I think that’s what people have reacted to.”

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