You’ll Notice Some Eerily Familiar Music in ‘BioShock Infinite’
The year is 1912, and you’re on a sandy beach. It’s a clear day and you’re surrounded by laughing, happy people. You’ve also just escaped a group of madmen who want to kill you…
As if the juxtaposition wasn’t jarring enough, a distant, lilting calliope adds an extra layer of bizarre. It’s playing something…familiar.
The tune is out of place for the time period, but lyrics unbidden rise to your mind.
Some folks take a beautiful girl
and hide her away from the rest of the world.
I wanna be the one to walk in the sun…
Why are you hearing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” on a beach in 1912? It’s one of the incredible musical feats of BioShock Infinite.
Jim Bonney, music director of Irrational Games, ensured players experience several such eerie moments while playing BioShock Infinite. Music factors hugely into the game’s setting and time period. It includes pieces you’d expect to hear in the far-gone era, but more interestingly, anachronistic songs from later in history, re-recorded to fit the time period.
These pieces scatter throughout the game when you least expected them, and while they’re never the direct focus, they’re hard to miss.
“I imagine they’d unconsciously pick up on the hook, or a phrase from the lyric would catch their ear… As soon as some aspect of the tune draws their interest, the player is actively listening, and it’s just a matter of time before they recognize the original song,” Bonney tells Mashable in an email interview.
As I walked through an idyllic fair setting very early in the game, I felt that same sensation. As I explored the floating city of Columbia — before it had become hostile to the game’s main character, Booker DeWitt — I heard the croons of a barbershop quartet. It blended with the background passing chatter, until all four verses perfectly harmonized: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”
That kind of anachronistic choice stopped me dead in my tracks. It wasn’t gimmicky, but I immediately wanted to know why these four gentleman sang a song that hadn’t actually been written until 50 years hence.
“It was important for the arrangements and the performances to stand on their own — they couldn’t just rest on the success of the original song. The last thing we wanted to present was a song that sounded like a cheap parody of the original,” Bonney says. “The arrangers and performers were all totally sincere in their approach, and a lot of research and effort was put into making these versions as period-authentic as possible.”
Bonney said the team found talent that could bring out notable elements in a particular song. For example, they had an older woman living in the game world’s slums sing Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” a capella. Singer Jessy Carolina captured so much angst and pain from lyrics we commonly associate with a steely guitar; a rally song protesting the Vietnam War achieves a different power when sung by a black woman confined to poverty by a racist ruling class.
Each tune was chosen carefully: Songs that related to the story, its themes or the setting were in the running, but “we also considered songs that were just really, really great, regardless of how it related to our story,” says Bonney.
“The songs also needed to be recognizable to a majority of players,” Bonney says. “Everybody in the studio had their pet favorites that they wanted to hear in the game: maybe some obscure B-side, or a song from a band that never made it as big as they should have. But we had to put a lot of our own favorites aside to make something that would have the desired effect for a majority of players.”
After the team picked songs, it tackled the challenging arranging and recording process. Some songs proved more tricky than others to get right. Bonney says the most difficult was “God Only Knows.” It was challenging to find a great arranger who really knew the barbershop idiom inside and out.
“The tradition of barbershop harmony has been evolving for the past hundred or so years, but we wanted Clay Hine to limit his harmonic bag of tricks to something that represented the style of the early 1900s, and not the current barbershop fashion,” Bonney explains. “We also had trouble deciding if the song should be jaunty and lively, or more sincere and heartfelt.”
After that, songs were digitally altered to make them sound older, to match the recording and broadcast technology available at the time.
“I did use some recordings of gramophones and phonographs to layer in the noise floor, but to get the final layer of tarnish, modern technology came into play. I used a variety of digital audio plugins,” Bonney says. “There was no strict recipe. The treatment depended on the base recording, and where it would play in the world, to determine the proper ‘antiqued’ sound.”
The result: several beautiful, musical in-game moments that make players stop and listen.
While an official BioShock Infinite soundtrack is available, it unfortunately includes none of these anachronistic songs, and 2K Games hasn’t commented on any plans to release them.
What’s your favorite song in BioShock Infinite? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image: 2K Games/Irrational Games