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A rapturous refrain

James Carter harks at the importance of the use of sound in the BioShock games.

Listening to the gentle click-clack of my keyboard as I type this is hypnotic. A rhythm to write to… to type to. A self-fulfilling percussion that marshalls the pace of my words’ journey across the page.

If I listen closely I might hear the low rasp of my own breathing, or the paired couplet of my heartbeat even. Sounds that I carry with me, and that carry me, throughout every minute of every day. Reminders to keep moving forward. To do. To go.

My almost meditative concentration is ruptured by a shrill trill, and listening is now the cause of my distraction. The call of the Twitterbird demands attention, and I wonder who I’m about to listen to. Another gentle click-clack, but this time there’s no corresponding bounce of plastic keys in response. Nonetheless, a satisfying snap unlocks my phone’s screen.

The listening that currently has my fingers drumming an alphabetical beat onto black plastic is of the podcast variety. Before I spoke on Cane And Rinse, I listened. And I still do. At the start of every episode I am invited by a genial English accent, a friendly American one, or a droning Scottish grumble, to play along with the show. A call-to-arms, or fingers, that I often answer.

Recently, this asynchronous back-and-forth had me listening to the sounds of BioShock Infinite, as my fingers once again played upon an instrument of black plastic. I dashed from stall to stall, carried along by the whirr and swish of candy floss machines, and the harmonious lilt of ‘God Only Knows’ on the warm breeze. Afterwards, I wafted over towards the jeering, braying crowds at the raffle, and soon synthesised from them an endless ocean of blood-curdling screams.

Whether it’s the slow, repetitive thunk, thunk of ascending a skyline, or the deliberate, relentless clunk, clunk of being hunted by a Motorized Patriot, Infinite is a mechanical pleasure. A follows B. Elizabeth sings a chorus of ‘Salts, Health, Ammo, and Coins’, so I call back with an obedient ‘X’. Chen Lin quietly pleas for tools and his life, so I reply with them, through tears of sadness. Columbia’s citizens loudly yell for bullets and death, so I respond with those too.

Amongst the shiny sounds of Columbia, there are familiar refrains. The baptist’s “Is it someone new?” might be easy enough to miss, but Dollar Bill’s “Return when you’ve got some currency, fella!” punctuates the Columbia roller-coaster with a metered frequency. When Elizabeth raised it aloft, I hardly needed the signature sound of the wrench’s resounding thud to hit me in the face; Rapture’s reach isn’t merely thematic or narrative, it’s audible.

The sound of whistling wind that I heard as I roamed Columbia’s high-pitched locale was an ever-present reminder of where I stood; the swirling air had lifted me into a vast skyscape. But there was an emptiness at the centre of it, a vortex that the wind rushed around, but never filled. As the end of the game played out, I splashed back down into a more humid environment, the dull, muffled echo of being underwater should be every bit as void and alien as the vortex above, but then I hear the first metallic creak and know I’ve come home.

It’s ludicrous that damp, broken Rapture ought be any more of a home to me than false, hypocritical Columbia. It sounds ridiculous to say, but there it is, nonetheless. Just hearing the watery echoes and pressured groans evokes a dark claustrophobia that I should flee, but I don’t. Like hearing the heating come on in your own home, these are comforting background noises that tell me exactly where I am.

10 years ago, these sounds inspired in me a fearful tone. The stomp, stomp, stomp of a Big Daddy was once a herald for my nervous terror in the Medical Pavilion, but now it is the tattoo of my own military march through Point Prometheus, and beyond. Every plop, trickle, scrape, splash, screech, and scream has undergone a similar transformation. Slowly, but surely the soundtrack to my despair became the soundtrack to my escape.

These are the sounds that marshall the pace of my journey across Rapture. They root me in its fragile, menacing ecosystem. Like Dollar Bill, hearing the sinister call of Rapture’s vending clown sends me back to 2007; this time it’s not evoking a different place, but a different me.

Usually I think of game music and sound in the same vein as that of film: I’ll only notice if it’s absolutely pitch perfect or utterly tone deaf. But, where BioShock is concerned, its sounds are more like putting on an old favourite record, and summoning with it all the memories and smells and emotions that go hand-in-hand and beat-by-beat.

If I listen closely, as my mind wanders, I might hear the low rasp of Frank Fontaine, or the paired couplet of a Little Sister and her Big Daddy even. Sounds that I carry with me, and that carry me, throughout every minute of every day. Reminders to keep moving forward. To do. To go.

One Comment

  1. James Carter, thanks! And thanks for sharing your great posts every week!

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