Garry Schyman's Music Sounds Like Hell (and Rapture)

How the Dante's Inferno and BioShock 2 composer brings tone, terror and tension to some of our favorite games.

March 30, 2010 - Garry Schyman is an award-winning composer whose work in videogames like BioShock 1 & 2 and the Destroy All Humans series is instantly recognizable to fans. His latest work can be heard in Dante's Inferno, an action-packed descent into Hell from Electronic Arts.

We recently sat down with Schyman to find out how his music fits in to the game design process, and how a game's soundtracks can help set the tone for the entire experience. You can check out some of Schyman's music at his official web site.

IGN: Did you pay attention to the reception for the original BioShock?

Garry Schyman: To the reception to the entire game?

IGN: Critically, there was a particular sort of reaction to the first game.

GS: Yeah, you know, I always look and see what the reviews are saying, the general feel of the reception. It seemed to be, obviously, very positive, a great deal of support, a really high [critical average]. It seems to be that that magic number turned out well.

IGN: I think many of us in the press would argue it's not the greatest way to look at the merit of a game, but yeah, as someone who played the original BioShock, I was pretty happy with it, and I did feel that the score in particular was a pretty big part of that.

GS: So yeah, I was aware of it. I mean, look, it's no secret, if you have a great score with a game that tanks, I think to a great extent you go down with the ship. So the best is if you've done a good job and you have a commercially and critically well-received game. That's the best of all worlds for a composer, because your reputation is how you continue to work and make a living. So you hope for a trifecta there.

IGN: Have there been games in the past that you worked on where you were a little less thrilled with the way they were received, or where you felt like it was a missed opportunity?

GS: Yeah... Well, I don't want to whine about stuff, I've been very lucky and have done a lot of great games. Destroy All Humans 3, I don't know if anybody cares about those games, but for me they were a blast, because they were all about re-creating these scores from these different eras, and I thought my best score for the three of them was the third game. But it was absolutely released before it was done, so it was a mess. Nobody cared about the score at all. So there's a perfect example, something where the score completely disappears.

IGN: Throughout the BioShock 2 score, and I think to a lesser extent the original, the solo violin seems to be a sort of recurring character, as it were.

GS: It was the ghost of Ayn Rand! [chuckles] To some extent, it was just an intuitive... "Wow, that just feels right." It just felt like that was cool, that it was really interesting. The audio director, Emily Ridgway, agreed that that was a great sound for the project. Strings in particular evoke a sense of emotion because of their flowing nature and the way strings are typically written. The solo instrument just seemed to have that flowing water quality, but also this sort of intellectual quality. Early 20th century, mid-20th century classical music, it had this intellectual character to it. From the very beginning Rapture was described to as this place where these intellectual giants were invited. There were ordinary people as well, but there was this group of physicians, artists, writers and philosophers at the core.

Courtesy of GarrySchyman.com

IGN: The tone of BioShock 2's score seemed more... mournful, I think, than what we hear in BioShock. Why that tone?

GS: As I recall, Jordan Thomas, the creative director, said the direction for this was sort of... a child waiting for her father. It had a real sadness to it. So that was a simple description of what it was, but that also just seemed to be what came through, this sort of mournful, sad longing without fulfillment..

IGN: In that vein, how much of a game are you exposed to prior to beginning work on the score?

GS: Painfully little, unfortunately. I'm almost always hired in the middle of the process, not at the end like a television show where you see the finished product. In BioShock 1 and 2 they were able to show me, to some extent, what the levels would look like. They would make gameplay captures and send them to me as movie files.

I'm excited to play (BioShock 2), because I enjoyed BioShock a lot. I'm always interested in how my music gets implemented and how it feels in the end, because I never know until I play the game. It was intriguing how really different it was, not quite what I expected. (The music) had just changed so much. To some extent I'm in the dark, relying on the descriptions and the lead of the audio director, in this case Michael Kamper and of course Jordan Thomas, the creative director. I mock everything up with samples prior to recording it with live instruments, so I'm sending them stuff and they're approving it, or maybe they're making adjustments, or maybe they're even saying, "No, that's the wrong approach."

IGN: Has there been any piece you were particularly proud of that was eliminated before the game shipped?

GS: If it doesn't end up being used where originally intended, it gets re-used somewhere else in the game. In the BioShock, there was this piece of music I called "The Bathysphere Ride," but the piece was released as a digital, free release called, well, "Rapture." It's one of the signature pieces. Originally, they said, "We want this to be very scary, like you're heading into this really frightening world," so I wrote a pretty scary piece of music for that. They came back and said, "You know, we gave you the wrong direction. This should be more ambivalent, more interesting and more intriguing, with a hint of what's coming, but not necessarily, 'Oh, it's gonna be scary here!'" And I agreed with them, and that piece of music that I had written was re-used elsewhere in the game. I'm glad they made me write it, because it certainly was very well received, and became one of the signature pieces from the game.

I'm very respectful of those decisions. It's rare that I feel I'm working with someone who's doesn't know what they're doing. They're closest to the project and have a good sense of what the project needs. But once I clue in on a project, generally my music is accepted, because I move quickly.

Can't you just hear the music?

IGN: Were there any particular classical pieces that you found influential, as a jumping-off point for BioShock or Dante's?

GS: Well, for BioShock, there's the whole of early 20th and mid-20th century music. From Stravinsky and Shostakovich, Prokofiev, I could go on. There's a lot of composers. Alban Berg, a lot of the solo violin stuff, his violin concerto, that was in my mind when I was writing the solo lines and things. Not specific notes, but sort of the whole gestalt of that really beautiful composition. And then of course all the mid-20th century aleatoric music from, you know, Penderecki and Xenakis, people like that. I wouldn't say there's a specific piece of music, more the composers of that era. Part of the idea was to use the style of music from the early and mid-20th century, because it felt right for this city. This artistic place would have that the art music of that era.

With Dante's Inferno, Paul Gorman, the audio director, suggested right away that I listen to Penderecki's the Passion of Saint Luke. I was familiar with that piece, I think it was written in the '60s. Because it's a religious work, but it has this eerie (quality), it's a combination of the two. George Crumb as well, I don't know if you're familiar with him, but he's like a mid-, late-20th century composer. He did really interesting stuff. Some of his weird vocal stuff was influential to me, it's really eerie, weird vocals, without playing it for you I can't really... I didn't copy it by any means, but it was like, "Oh, yeah." It was a really good starting place. I listened to a lot of Crumb, Penderecki.

GN: In general, your scores for Dante's or BioShock go a long way in defining them.

GS: Thanks. I work really hard to make that distinctive. I've never said I invented those forms, but I have said in other interviews that I combined them in ways that I'd never heard before.

IGN: Were there any film scores that you feel had an influence on BioShock? Listening to those scores, I there were certain moments that felt evocative of Horner's score in Aliens, or Morricone's work on The Thing. And there was a point that reminded me of some of the moments in Goldenthal's stuff on Interview with the Vampire. Has anything in the film realm been an influence, or are those just sort of happy coincidences?

GS: I think I'm familiar with the music in those projects. And I guess in a way, the whole zeitgeist of music that I've ever heard gets filtered into you when you write something new. If I had to suggest any one composer, that would be Jerry Goldsmith. For combat music, I don't feel like I copied him, but his unexpected turns of music, how it will abruptly change and do something without any expectation, I think he influenced me.

IGN: You mentioned before that BioShock and Dante's weren't necessarily a struggle to compose. Have there been projects in the past that felt particularly difficult to get done, to get through?

GS: I wouldn't say they weren't a struggle. Dante's was a struggle, more than BioShock 2. I felt like I knew what the (BioShock 2) score should sound like. With Dante's Inferno I didn't really know, and I had to work really hard to keep it original and to keep thinking in fresh ways for the different levels of Hell. Plus, there's a lot of combat music in Dante's.

IGN: Yes there is.

GS: It's really complex music, it was a lot of work.

IGN: Having played through all of Dante's, the soundtrack is one of the better parts of the game. That's actually one of the few things that I think people commented on, when they heard me playing it, other than the gore and the disturbing imagery, that the soundtrack was very epic and very heroic and evocative of this sort of descent into hell, in a very classical way. It felt reminiscent of dark orchestral scores in a way that not a lot of games are, or can get away with now.

GS: Thank you, I'm really glad to hear that.

IGN: Going from BioShock to BioShock 2, there are a lot of new elements, like a saxophone, which I don't recall hearing in the original BioShock score...

GS: Yeah, Pauper's Drop. It was called "Ghetto" when I was working on it. It's where the poor people of Rapture hung out, so we wanted to capture a little bit of that element. It had some jazzy, bluesy elements in it, and I used clarinet, because I didn't want to do it on the saxophone. There's also some muted trumpet.

IGN: And there's some jazz singing in there, I believe, some Billie Holiday-esque kind of singing...

GS: Yeah, exactly. We actually hired a singer to do that. There was more of that that, and I pulled some of (it) out. It was a little too much for them. But I thought that was a nice change. And to do that, with the eerie BioShock background, was a really interesting effect.

Schyman during the recording of BioShock 2.
IGN: How do you decide what jobs to take? Do you try to seek out jobs where you feel like your talents fit well artistically?

GS: Well, every now and then I'll hear about a project and I'll make an effort to contact them and see if I can get the gig. I usually don't [chuckles]. I've just been fortunate, I think, because most of the projects that come to me are really interesting. Every now and then something is not appropriate, or they don't have much of a budget, it's not worth my effort, really, to do it. With BioShock, I just sensed that that was going to be an awesome game. Some of the cues that became very prominent in the game, they didn't even ask for them. I told Emily, "You know, I think you're going to need these."

There's this one really beautiful piece I played for them, and she said, "This is really nice, but we're not going to need it." I said, "Oh, let me record it," and she used it all over the place. And "Dr. Steinman" was a piece I wanted to write, something really wild. And she ended up using it, and another piece as well. I do have a good intuitive sense about that, and that's true, also, of one of the cues for BioShock 2. They didn't ask for it, but I said, "Let me do something," and it worked out really nicely.

IGN: Looking back at your work in games, is there any project in particular where you wish you could do it over again, do it differently? Do it better or not do it at all, even?

GS: You mean, even before I was doing games?

IGN: How about one from games, if possible, and then just in general as well?

GS: There are certainly cues that I think I could make them better now. But, I would rather write new music than go back and rewrite something. There's nothing that's screaming at me, like "Oh, man, I wish I'd never done that." I did a project called Full Spectrum Warrior. I'm much better at writing combat music than I've ever been. It's still a lot of work writing combat music, because you have to create a lot of tension, and do it in a way that doesn't feel clichéd, you know what I mean?

IGN: Yeah, it repeats a lot, so you have to try to make it not boring after hearing it for the fourteenth time...

GS: Exactly. I do have an issue with combat, or any kind of music, that repeats over and over again. When I play games, I'm annoyed by music that loops for too long. I know it's a problem for audio directors, so I guess the only way to mitigate that is to write really, really long pieces of music. Or, there are ways to layer it so that you don't always have the layers playing at once, which keeps it fresh.

Hell is what this sounds like.

IGN: Are there composers working in games that you admire or whose work you enjoy?

GS: I really like Jason Graves, I think he's doing some really cool stuff right now. He's a friend of mine, but I say that unreservedly. He sent me some music he just recently recorded for something, which I thought was simply amazing. Whatchamacallit... Dead Space?

IGN: Yeah! His score for Dead Space was excellent.

GS: Yeah.

IGN: I was just curious, because other than BioShock, there are only a few games that have had scores that are so suggestive of the content, something like Jesper Kyd's score in Assassin's Creed, things like that.

GS: Jesper is another friend of mine. He has a very different style from mine.

IGN: He's very fixated on electronic music in particular.

GS: Yeah, I've been over to his studio, and he's got all these old synths from the '70s and '80s. He has his own unique sound. Jesper does really interesting music.

IGN: Are there any questions that you'd like to answer that you don't typically get asked in these interviews?

GS: Oh, gosh... My favorite food, or something? [chuckles]

IGN: Well, I could ask. I know that you get asked similar questions by a lot of people.

GS: Yeah, I do get asked a lot of the same questions. The difference between film music and game music, I get asked a lot. And it is actually a very interesting question, But I have answered it a lot, so it's kind of old from my standpoint. I will say this, I think that Dante's Inferno, at this moment, I'm really excited about that music. Just being asked to score Hell is such an interesting, wonderful assignment for a composer. I have just been super, super lucky with the assignments that I've gotten. And also, I feel good about the fact that I'm sort of turning on people to styles of music that they never would have listened to before. I think my music is intellectual on some levels, but you could also just appreciate it on a gut level.

IGN: The music in Dante's is particularly bombastic in that way.

GS: Yeah, and yet it's pretty complex. But that's what I had to do to create that sort of hellish intensity, you know? It was also a blast recording it, going to London and recording at Abbey Road with the Philharmonic orchestra and the Metro Voices, which is a fantastic choir. My engineer, Dan, just took an enormous amount of time to mix that music. I'm just very lucky.


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