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Bioshock: Infinite and the Anachronistic Reinvention
by Michael Heron on 10/31/16 11:04:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online.  You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University. This section was originally a part of a paper published in the Computer Games Journal, but was removed to tighten the focus of the paper.

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While remixes and reinventions of staple classics are not unknown in movies there are no other games of which this author is aware that accomplish quite the same thing as this particular title. Leaving aside the instrumental score and adaptive flourishes that accompany the action, there are numerous diegetic incidents where the player encounters completely anachronistic music. The game is set in 1912, and the player is transported to a cloud city steeped in institutional racism and religious fundamentalism. To begin with, the player simply explores the city of Columbia and drinks in the atmosphere – aesthetically it is an outstanding achievement and simply wandering around the world is entertainment enough until the action begins.

While exploring Columbia, the player is greeted with the soft, subdued tones of a distant barbershop quartet. This is entirely in keeping with the thematics of the world, and we largely simply accept it as a thing that is completely harmonious with the environment. We pass a billboard advertising ‘Columbia’s Gayest Quartet!’ and promising ‘the music of the future, today!’.  An airship passes, bringing the quartet closer. We can simply walk past, not paying much mind except that the mind insists that there is something strange happening here. And indeed there is – the quartet aren’t singing a standard staple of early Americana. Instead, they are singing a beautifully arranged version of ‘God Only Knows’ from the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ album (1966). It’s both disorienting as a result of temporal incompatibility and mesmerising as a consequence of its existence as a reinvention and subversion of a well-known sixties classic.  We know the song is not of this time, but we know the arrangement is completely appropriate for 1912.

It’s only one of a number of songs that are incorporated in this manner. As we go through the game we encounter a wistful version of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ arranged for calliope. Again, it’s easy to miss what’s playing at first but it just ‘feels’ off.  The impact is hard to fully explain, but the author of this paper found it intensely absorbing.  Our companion, Elizabeth, with whom we have been linked at this point, is dancing on a beach pier to the song and largely unaware of our presence.  It is both anachronistic mystery and commentary on Elizabeth’s predicament – we have just rescued her from her prison tower, and she is revelling in her freedom blissfully unaware of the player’s role in trading her for the clearing of a substantial debt.  If we know the lyrics, they have a haunting, although apparently unintentional, relevance:

Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world.  Oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one – but girls just want to have fun. 

As with the choice of music in the original Bioshock, there is a significant annotation to the game both in the choice of song and the way in which we encounter it within the game.  Sometimes these annotations are present even if they were not consciously identified by the designer – such is the way when popular music is co-opted into another context; it comes with its own baggage.

Similarly, we later encounter a kind of honky-tonk version of Tears for Fears’ ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’. Despite its lack of subtlety, it has a deeper resonance in connecting the world of Bioshock: Infinite to that of Bioshock the original, creating a kind of seamless thematic and philosophical link between them. Both games, in the end, are about what happens when charismatic fundamentalists are given the opportunity to rule the world, or at least a subset of it.

The piano and jazz cover of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love is a song that neatly manages to tie together both the main theme of the game and provide a series of clues or keys to deciphering the ending. We encounter it once again dietetically in the game, being emitted with the requisite hiss and crackle from an in-game phonograph.  This makes it all the more compelling – we find out where the music comes from before too long, but for a considerable period of the game each delightful reinterpretation is another reminder of the mysteries that define the city of Columbia.

Others may disagree but BioShock: Infinite itself can be regarded as little more than a competent shooter with a narrative reach that somewhat exceeds its grasp. Where it does truly excel though is in creating an immersive environment using a tool that no other game, of which I am aware, has even attempted to make effective use of beyond those imposed by technical limitation. That latter point is significant – Bioshock: Infinite was released at a time where technical considerations are simply not a barrier to incorporating any degree of musical sophistication. Titles such as LucasArts Loom, as discussed above, made use of elements of Swan Lake to provide its mesmerising musical backdrop.  The fact that these were 16 bit simplifications of orchestral pieces is not a conscious, artistic choice but simply the consequence of nothing else being available and compensations having to be made. Outside of video games there is a vibrant scene where pop staples are reinterpreted as, for example, 8-bit chiptunes (Tomczak, 2009) but these primarily focus on replication within limitations rather than genuine reinterpretation. Bioshock: Infinite does something that is either unique or vanishingly rare by creating radically transformative works for the purpose of game narrative through audio. Given the highly positive critical and popular response to the title it’s clear that the effort has not gone unnoticed.

One of the few games which does something even approximate is Electronic Arts ‘The Sims 3’ in which vertical integration is leveraged to create a platform for artists to translate their works into ‘Simlish’, the abstract nonsense language used by characters within the game (Ferreday, 2012). Katy Perry’s Sweet Treats for example was converted into a Simlish representation and made available for digital download. Lilly Allen’s Smile and Natasha Beddingfield’s Pocket Full of Sunshine are other tracks that have received similar treatment. However, it is again important to note the main difference – these are, at best, transpositions rather than reinventions. They take that which is familiar and change only those elements that are required for compatibility with the context. The explanation given in Bioshock: Infinite would permit direct versions of the songs to be included, but the effect would be unarguably less impressive.  The extra time invested in the reinventions is as much a conscious choice of game design as the mechanics themselves.


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