BioShock, created by many of the same team members behind the seminal action/RPG/shooter hybrid System Shock 2, proved an enormous hit upon its release, sparking rumors of not only a sequel but a theatrical adaptation as well. One member of the System Shock team that did not return was the composer; the straightforward electronica that accompanied that game would be inappropriate to the retro-futuristic look of the new game. Instead, composer Garry Schyman was called in.
No stranger to period games thanks to his work on Destroy All Humans, Schyman nevertheless took the score to BioShock in a different direction. While period music would be heard in-game on radios and jukeboxes, the game’s original score was grounded in Schyman’s more avant-garde approach which incorporated a series of string figures throughout many of the important tracks, with the mournful timbre of the instruments representing the myriad tragedies in the game world. First heard in “Welcome to Rapture,” these string figures recur often, usually as a somber conclusion to a piece of action music or during a cutscene. “Cohen’s Masterpiece” is strictly piano-led, but nevertheless deserves note as a stunning bit of virtuoso keyboarding, easily the most impressive and traditionally melodic piece in the game.
Suspense music like “The Science Deck” makes up the lion’s share of what’s heard in-game. Like the more romantic pieces it tends to be string-led, with ascending and descending figures writhing over a low brass hum — not entirely unlike Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho at times. The writing is in a very modernistic vein, mimicking some of the experimental compositions that were in concert-hall vogue during the game’s 1960 setting.
The really impressive music, though, is reserved for action sequences. Here, Schyman raises a cacophony of percussion and brass, together with high-pitched strings, to create some monstrously impressive bits of dissonant horror. “All Spliced Up” is typical of this approach, with Goldenthal-style trills matched by insistent percussion and strings, while few modern pieces of game action music can match the brief but powerful “The Dash.”
BioShock boasts music that’s incredibly effective in the game; it’s a sad shame that getting your hands on the best parts is rather hard. The soundtrack pack-in with the game bizzarely only contained source songs, and none of Schyman’s score. This was rectified after fan outcry by a 17-minute free release of some score highlights. Even this was disappointing; Schyman’s music was streamed live to the game, which meant that many short snippets were combined on the fly into continuous music. The digital release simply provided 12 of the longest cuts out of context and completely overlooking some of the best action material.
A more complete album was later released with the expensive limited edition of BioShock 2 with 37 minutes of music but, perversely, was only available as a vinyl LP. So, in addition to the $99 package price, there is no way to transfer the music to a digital format without the pops and snaps of a vinyl transfer. And the later release is indeed the definitive BioShock score, adding fantastic cues like the ferocious and absolutely necessary “Combat Medley.” Even hobbyists have been stymied, with dozens of amateur gamerips combining the tiny building blocks of Schyman’s work into dozens of different arrangements. Sadly, the best way to experience Schyman’s music is still to simply play the game.