The lights are on
The unforgettable string-heavy score of the original BioShock was dark, eerie and violent, and at times emoted despair, sadness and fear. Any of these adjectives could easily be used to characterize the underwater dystopia itself. The hauntingly beautiful score composed by Garry Schyman won Best Original Score from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences, a VGA for Best Score and many other awards, putting Schyman on the map as one of the industry’s leading composers. Schyman has just completed work on the score for BioShock 2 and shares with us the process of creating a captivating soundtrack for Rapture, and how his past work and musical influences have played a role.
Schyman began his career composing for films and television, and while he scored a few Voyeur games for Philips Interactive in the mid-90s, his focus remained on other mediums. It wasn’t until 2004 that Schyman’s agent passed his demo tape along to THQ that he made his way back into games. The company thought he would be perfect to work on their next project, Destroy All Humans!. THQ was looking for sound a similar to the work of Bernard Herrmann, a composer known for film scores in the sci-fi and horror/suspense genres. They knew after hearing his demo that Schyman would deliver. After several award nominations for his score in Destroy All Humans!, he decided to focus on composing for the video game industry. Following his work on this title, he began work on BioShock, another game that was a perfect fit.
“The interesting thing about it is the type of music we settled on as the style of the game is the type of music I naturally would write if someone were to just say: 'Write whatever you want to write,’” says Schyman on BioShock. “I love that period of music, the early 20th, mid-20th century…so it was very natural to me. It was like if someone asked the Beatles to write a Beatles song. They were asking me to do something I was made for.”
Still, finding the perfect sound for the world of BioShock wasn’t easy. Schyman says as part of composing the score, there were many creative meetings to discuss the style and needs for different parts of the game (he was only involved with the original score, not the licensed music). He recalls mock ups that were created with samples and synthesizers that were not approved by creative director Ken Levine and audio director Emily Ridgeway, or were simply used in parts of the game for which they weren’t originally intended. Schyman recalls a few of these approaches he took for the perfect sound that weren’t quite right.
“The polka approach was really wrong,” Schyman jokes. “We still knew we wanted early 20th century, we just weren’t coming up with the right uniqueness. At the time I had never seen a game like BioShock. It felt groundbreaking to me and Emily felt the same way. This was really an opportunity to do something really unusual. It was really hard to find, it’s easy to describe now looking backwards at the process, but at the time I went through about three or four different themes for the game, and the audio director kept saying: ‘No, that’s not right.’ She was more polite than that, actually, more like: ‘Yeah maybe, but let’s try something different.’”
So he did.