Interview with Garry Schyman

By • April 9, 2013

Subtlety and spareness aren’t the first words that come to mind when hearing the burgeoning genre of video game music, a realm that most often calls upon epic orchestras, electronics, thrashing guitars and choral hosannahs to create the kind of lavish sonic environments and rhythmically accelerating action that bring on the joystick adrenalin. But if that soundtrack gameplay seemed increasingly familiar, 2007’s “BioShock” burst onto the scene as a full-fathom dive into unique terrain. Co-creator Ken Levine sent the player into the undersea city of Rapture, a 30s style, Ayn Rand-esque fiefdom gone to horrible seed, its art deco corridors infested with crazed residents, life-sapping girls and their gigantic power-drilling diver friend.

One of the most striking elements of the original “BioShock,” and its more musically elaborate sequel was the spare, haunting score of Garry Schyman. Having risen from the Mike Post TV team to score such television and feature films as “Penitentiary III,” “Horseplayer” and “Revenge of the Nerds IV,” Schyman had found a new calling in video games with the “Destroy All Humans!” series. But “BioShock” was the true revelation of his talent. Taking its cue far more from modernistic classical music than metalhead power rock, Schyman created a palpable, unearthly atmosphere. Melodically haunted strings turned to frenzied dissonance, with lush orchestrations conveying an ironic sense of grandeur. Mournful violin solos became odes for paradise and innocence lost, while the chilling arrival of Big Daddy struck terror into the player with pounding, rusted percussion. A female voice blended with a jazzy horn to complete the throwback Twilight Zone effect, the final, full force of a swirling action orchestra finally escaping from a zealot’s waterlogged delusions of godhood.

Now well-seasoned in the myriad worlds of videogame scoring after going to full-blown hell and back with such works as “Resistance: Retribution,” “Dante’s Inferno” and “Minerva’s Den,” Garry Schyman ventures back even further through the “BioShock” saga’s twisted time line. Once again under the creative aegis of Ken Levine, his formula once again has us battling through a crazed, futuristic city – firepower in one hand, and mutant abilities in the other. But “Infinite’s” new spin is a city in the clouds, a false paradise called Colombia that takes Walt Disney’s Lilly White version of Main Street U.S.A. to darkly satirical, and troubling heights. For behind Colombia’s good living of steampunk science hides a zealot ruler’s rotten core of racial slavery. Out to take him down is a first-person man of action with a mysterious past, given a more grown-up female companion who wants out of her mad genius father’s gilded cage – one guarded by a gigantic Songbird.

Schyman’s stripped down his musical approach with equally impressive ruthlessness, and beauty. Trembling strings, saloon-ready pianos, melancholy bells, a tortured violin and a small, creeping orchestra casts a dark, fairy tale ambience over this realm of barbershop quartets, rocket-firing zeppelins and enraged tin men. It’s an eerie, melancholy chamber music intimacy that centers us on the emotional relationship between an ex-Pinkerton man and the young woman he’s out to bring to seeming safety, all the while knowing there will be no haven. Yet Schyman also doesn’t overlook the pokey humor of a pair of nattily-clad, English-accented devil-angels guiding us along, That of course isn’t when his music isn’t engaged in the ferociously exhilarating gameplay of swinging about aerial trams or pulverizing both villain and rebel alike with super-powered vigors, “action” music that uses crazed ensembles of experimental percussion to create a sense of terror as opposed to easy exhilaration. Like “BioShock Infinite,” Schyman’s thoroughly unexpected score delivers the innovative goods that mark this deservedly popular series, all while going against the typical FPS musical thrills to favor the kind of mad innovation it takes to build a city under the sea, or one in the deceptively blissful clouds.


You started out on such cult TV shows as “The A-Team” and “The Greatest American Hero.” What was that kind of musical training ground like?

It was a fantastic experience to score television shows on a weekly basis, to orchestrate my music, and to have an orchestra show up and record your music. Additionally it wasn’t a style that was necessarily natural to me. But one thing I learned from that process was you don’t always get to score what you want and I had to learn to write in the style of Mike Post and Pete Carpenter. That really broadened my technique, taught me something that I carry with me to this day, whatever hits you, you find a way to approach that style and it may involve a lot of research but in the end you grow as a composer. It was a great opportunity.

How difficult was it to make the transition into becoming a video game composer, especially with its different notion of playing to picture?

When I started to work on “Destroy All Humans!” in 2004 I had a great creative partner in Emily Ridgway. She really made it very simple for me to score that game. Other than some early video games that I’d scored in the mid-‘90s I hadn’t really done a lot of work in that genre and she just took me by the hand and walked me through it and made it very easy for me. The interactive elements of that game were not all that complex. It wasn’t particularly difficult for me and that was because I had a sympathetic and creative audio director. But since then I have learned a lot about the process and have grown and learned a lot about interactive elements so obviously the point is there is a difference between scoring a film and scoring a video game. I was lucky to have somebody really walk me through the process on my first AAA video game.


Could you talk about your creative relationship with Ken Levine? What do you think it was about your music that made him think you’d be right for ““BioShock”” in the first place?

I was hired to score the original “BioShock” by Emily Ridgway who went from working on “Destroy All Humans!” straight to audio director for Irrational Games when they were making “BioShock”. At the time Ken was fine with that decision, he didn’t have any issues with it. I think he trusts his creative team and unless he has a concern, he lets them run with it. And then once Ken heard my music he was really pleased as I started mocking up cues and sending them to Emily. In the end he was very happy with my work on the original “BioShock”; he sent me a number of really wonderful emails stating that. He and I didn’t talk a lot during that process maybe a couple of times. He and I actually wrote a song together – the anthem for Rapture – he was the lyricist and I was the composer, so we had fun interacting on that particular song. We did spend more time together on Infinite; we spoke on the phone a few times and I went out to Boston from my home in LA to meet with the team, and Ken and I spent personal time talking about the project, his feelings about music etc. But day-to-day, similar to the original “BioShock”, most of my interaction was spent with the music director, Jim Bonney.


Did you think having “BioShock” creator Ken Levine out of the second game hurt it in any way? And do you think his return to “Infinite” makes this game all the better?

No, I’m very happy with the score for “BioShock 2.” I worked with 2K Marin’s audio director Michael Kemper, who’s a wonderful audio director and creative director Jordan Thomas. “BioShock 2” had a great creative team and I had already established the direction on the original “BioShock” so it was just a matter of taking that style and applying it to the new game so there was nothing negative about that. But definitely Ken Levine is a unique creative individual and he pushes everyone who works for him on the development team to do fantastic work. I mean that sincerely, he cares so deeply about everything, every detail. That has an impact on the people he works with. We all, I think, work better when we work with someone who cares that much about what we do.


How important was it to tie each ““BioShock”” score together, yet set them apart, especially with “BioShock” Infinite.”

The first two “BioShock” scores are intimately linked in style. I established the style in the first “BioShock” and basically took that style and applied it to the second game. I think they’re both unique and different scores but it wasn’t a matter of reinventing the wheel for “BioShock 2.” “BioShock Infinite” was completely different. Most things about it cried out for a completely fresh approach to the score, which both Ken and I wanted.

Videogames now tend to have very full scores, packed with orchestral players, synths, samples and rock guitars. Yet the musical landscape of “BioShock” remains very spare and violin-driven. What’s the challenge of that simplicity, and do you think “less is more” makes these scores stand out?

I experimented with an orchestral style when I first started working on the game and it didn’t feel right for the characters, it didn’t feel right for the time period, the 1912 American city in the clouds. So I started working with these small string ensembles, and that really started with a theme I wrote for Elizabeth, one of the main characters for the game. Once I developed that style, and it worked so perfectly for her, we decided that was a great feel for the entire game including the combat music which used small string ensembles playing very intense, hard-driving music but utilizing small groups of string players with percussion. It created a distinctive style for the game. There is a lot of simple, sparse music cues in the game but there’s actually some fairly complex music as well so it’s a mix. But once that sound, that sparse, small string ensemble sound felt right, it really drove the style and became the sound of the score for “BioShock Infinite.”


When you’ve got a relatively minimal approach, is it more difficult to create the “combat” music in that respect?

Certainly I experimented with some orchestral combat music but as soon as I tried writing combat music with small string ensembles and we put it into the game, everyone was like “That’s fantastic! That is just awesome!” People in the development team would hear that music in the builds of the game and we were literally getting feedback from them saying, “This is wonderful! This is amazing! We love this!” So it became clear with a real world audience, because as Jim Bonney told us, it was fairly rare that they would get any feedback from the development team, but as soon as they heard the combat music they immediately responded. So yes, it’s a challenge. But once I met that challenge. It felt totally right for the game and it created a unique style for the combat.

Could you talk about how you wanted to capture the music of 1912 that fills Columbia? Did you have to do a lot of musical research, or use specific instruments to bring that sense of time and place back?

I certainly listened to music of that time. As I saw it there was basically two styles of music from that era. There was the pop music, which was American songs, and then of course there was classical music. But neither of those styles felt like they were going to work for this score. There are one or two cues that I modeled after Stephen Foster’s songs, which had that19th century American vibe. There is a cue called “Lighter Than Air” that has this melody and accompaniment that sounds like a Stephen Foster song. But set against that I had these very eerie, crawling strings. So in that sense, I used some period music as an inspiration. But in general I didn’t feel like it was necessary to use the music of that era.

Songs have also been a vital part of ““BioShock”.” How did you want your score to complement, and contrast the tunes here?

I was not directly involved in choosing the songs for any of the games and I was never given that material and told that my music needed to fit with them. So I was blissfully unaware of what they were doing in terms of songs being part of the game.

How do the expectations for a hugely successful sequel to “BioShock,” and the secrecy involved in its creation, affect your work? And what were your biggest surprises in the new game, especially given the mystery that’s steadily revealed in the game?

Expectations were very high. I was aware of that. I knew I had to come up with something very unique for the score. It’s hard not to be aware of it. There were expectations on the original “BioShock,” as the game had no track record. However, there were certainly expectations that “Bioshock Infinite” would be huge. So yes it’s in the back of your mind that you want to do a fantastic job. The secrecy is always an aspect of games, and that’s true even in films. So that didn’t affect me in any new or surprising way. But the game itself was stunning. It was visually beautiful; the characters were interesting as much as they were unveiled to me. To be honest I did not know until the very last week or so of the game’s development how it would unfold and what were the secrets when you played to the very end of it. The creators were very secretive, even with the people within the development team. Only a very small number knew the game’s surprise ending. So I was kept in the dark until I had to score that scene.

How important is it to convey a sense of wonder in “BioShock’s” fantastical surroundings? And would you say there’s a difference in how you play a city under the sea, and one atop the clouds?

The surroundings of both are incredible but both required a different approach in terms of the score because they are so different. The original “BioShock” was dark, wet and claustrophobic whereas “BioShock Infinite” is almost the exact opposite, as you’re in wide-open spaces and the sunlight is bursting everywhere. The same sense of mystery and darkness was not there. So the settings really did affect the style of the music, sound and the feel of the game.

The “BioShock” series has an unusual amount of political and social subtext for a videogame. In the first two, it took off Ayn Rand-esque delusions of godhood. And while that’s here as well, there’s an even more disturbing element of murderous racism. How did that influence your score?

That’s an interesting question. I think what makes the “BioShock” games so interesting are the political and social subtexts for the worlds in which we find ourselves. So whenever you’re scoring that particular element that’s going to influence you. There are scenes in “BioShock Infinite” that I played where the racism was really a dark and nasty element of this world. So I played it as a very nasty and ugly aspect of the realm Columbia.

Children, especially young girls, have been a big part of the “BioShock”” storylines. How do you want to play the emotion of these kids who are exploited and horrifically abused in these supposed technological wonderlands, especially in “Infinite?”

In “Infinite,” the character Elizabeth is a young woman, I wouldn’t call her a girl. She has a mind of her own, a very strong personality and powers that the player can take advantage of. So I would say there’s a difference between the girls of the original “BioShock” and “BioShock” Infinite.” But playing Elizabeth’s character and finding a theme for her and aspects of the game that involve her, were absolutely critical to the score and how it unfolded.

In ““BioShock”” you had Big Daddy. Now you’ve got the “Songbird” as the most fearsome villain. How did you want to play this mechanical monster?

He’s an interesting character. Songbird is a villain but he’s not a villain of his own making, He’s not a human being who’s decided to be a monster, and yet he’s frightening. It really depends upon the context of what’s happening with Songbird. When he is a frightening, hideous creature the music is very dissonant and scary. But there are other times when he is actually sympathetic. You will have to play the game to find out when and how I played Songbird in a sympathetic way.

Do you think it’s important for a videogame composer to actually play games, especially for the series they work on? And if that’s the case, how did the gameplay of the “BioShock”” games influence each succeeding score?

Yes, I do think it’s important for composers to play video games. I don’t think it’s important for a composer to become a gamer and spend hours every day playing games but I do think you need to understand what gameplay is like, and how the music is used and works in an interactive way with a game score. As I’ve told my students (I teach a class at USC), ‘Would you hire a composer to score your movie if they’d never seen a movie?’ Similarly, I don’t think you want to hire a composer who’d never played a video game. I do play the games I work on. I want to see how the music unfolds in them. So yes, it does affect how you write the music because you see how the sore is used, which gives you a deeper understanding of how your music might be valuable to the development team.

Do you prefer scoring the cut scenes within ““BioShock”,” or the actual gameplay?

I like both actually. There are really not too many movies in “BioShock,” but there are events that are locked to picture, which are the same as an in-game movie. I like doing both. I don’t have a preference. I think if I just did one or the other it would not be as interesting so it’s nice to have a contrast to score a scene in “BioShock,” or to create some combat music that could be used in a number of different circumstances.

Do you think there’s going to be a point where videogames need to radically transform the idea of a “first person shooter,” or do you think a derivation of that will always be the case?

I think that there is something very satisfying about first person shooters. The challenge, the ability of the people to experience combat without actually getting killed or wounded is a fantasy that I think a lot of people have. The excitement of that is why there are so many first person shooters. I’m sure it will evolve. As technology advances, it will permit more and more interesting interactive experiences for the player. I think the one thing about video games that has been true from their inception is that they need to constantly evolve and improve, unlike movies that don’t change technically very much at all. They might behind the scenes, but in terms of watching a movie in the theater, it unfolds in a linear fashion over two hours or so. That experience hasn’t changed since the 1930s. Video games need to constantly change and evolve and get better and make the player’s experience more interesting. We’re on a treadmill to constantly improve. I think it’s going to change. How it’s going to change, I don’t know.

Do you think video game scores are more innovative than film score at this point? And how do you think the advanced technology of the new Xbox and Sony systems will affect the music done for them?

I don’t think video game scores are better and I don’t think film scores are better. I think there is some great music being written for both media. How the advanced technology of the new systems will affect the music, I don’t know that it will. You can already do so much with the current generation games. So I don’t think it will change much. What will be important is the creative thinking about interactive music. As I’ve said before, I do not think that interactivity should be the enemy of creativity so that the music becomes too clever by half, as the old adage goes, that you lose the drama and excitement of writing great music. That’s my opinion anyways. I think that we ought to be cautious not to get so interactive that great music gets drained from the genre.

Are you happy with your newfound role as a star of the videogame scoring world? Or would you like to return to films and television with as much productivity as you’ve found in this genre? And do you think there’s any way to bridge that composing gap that will allow composers to move more easily between the two worlds?

Well, as it happens I’m scoring a movie right now. And I know a lot of film composers who are scoring games. So I don’t think there is such a gap any more that really prevents a composer from going between the two genres. Frankly I think they’re both fantastic. I love scoring video games, I love scoring films, and I’ve loved scoring television. For me what I’ve always wanted to do as a composer is to make a living being creative as a composer. All three mediums of film, television and video games offer really wonderful opportunities to do just that. So I don’t see a wall between them, I just see them as different aspects of the same opportunities I have as a composer. Some of the most incredible creative opportunities I’ve had have been scoring video games, so the walls that some people may perceive to me are not walls, but just doors. One thing that is very cool about scoring a video game is that you often have a lot of time to work on them, which gives you the opportunity to really think about the music in deep and creative ways that you might not have if you are rushed by a release deadline for a film or television show.

Where would you like to see the ““BioShock”” games go next, and how do you hope your music evolves along with them?

I have no idea! If I did then I would give up my job as composer and join the development team because I’m sure they’re thinking where the hell they’re going to go next. To be honest it’s not something I give a lot of thought to, because it’s not my job. If I did I might actually have some good ideas for them, or maybe not.

Garry Schyman’s music for “Bioshock Infinite” can be found on the “Bioshock Infinite” premium edition for PS3 and Xbox HERE.


Visit Garry Schyman’s website HERE

Leave a Comment