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Game Studies - Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams: Popular Music, Narrative, and Dystopia in Bioshock

William Gibbons

William Gibbons is Assistant Professor of Musicology at Texas Christian University. His primary research interests are opera studies, music in video games, and musical nationalism, and has published on these topics in journals including 19th-Century Music, The Journal of the Society for American Music, Music and the Moving Image, Eighteenth-Century Life, and American Music. He is currently completing a book on opera culture in belle époque Paris and co-editing a collection of essays on music in video games.


Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams: Popular Music, Narrative, and Dystopia in Bioshock

by William Gibbons


The science-fiction world of the video game Bioshock (2K Games, 2007) presents a dystopian vision of mid-century America. The game explores the creation and ultimate destruction of the underwater city of Rapture, an Ayn-Rand-inspired capitalist Utopia. Though the game features an award-winning original score, its soundtrack also borrows extensively from the popular music of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, including tracks by The Inkspots, Django Reinhardt, and Noël Coward, among numerous others. On one level, this borrowed music signifies the time period evoked by the game, grounding the action in the mid-century despite the presence of futuristic technology, acting as a constant reminder of the aesthetic and cultural values of the predystopian American culture, creating a dichotomy between its optimism and the dystopian environment of Bioshock. This juxtaposition renders the songs deeply ironic, and highlights the tragedy of the grim "reality" that the protagonist experiences. More significantly, atypically for games, the music is allowed to assume a crucial narrative function. The careful selection of songs frequently allows the lyrics to be "misread" as commenting on the game's action in the manner of a voiceover, spurring players to reflection without removing them from control.

Keywords: Game Music, Popular Music, Bioshock, Dystopia, Irony, Intertextuality


Bioshock (2K Games, 2007) presents an ominous vision of mid-twentieth-century culture gone awry.1 Critically acclaimed for its complex and engaging narrative-game theorist Grant Tavinor (2009, p. 91) has described it as “the masterpiece of recent gaming”-the video game puts players in the role of Jack, a plane-crash survivor whose attempt to take shelter in a mysterious lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean quickly leads him to a vast undersea metropolis.2 The remainder of the game's action takes place in this city-Rapture-a submerged utopia created in the late 1940s by ultra-capitalist Andrew Ryan. A thinly veiled personification of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, Ryan created Rapture as a free-market paradise, unfettered by governmental regulation of economics, morality, or scientific progress.3 Its citizens were for the most part disillusioned Americans, lured under the waves by the siren song of fame and fortune. Not surprisingly, Ryan's anarchic society ultimately collapses under the weight of unbounded greed and hubris. By 1960, when Bioshock takes place, Rapture has become a dystopian wasteland, its remaining residents reduced to madness and its very foundations gradually giving way to the ocean's relentless attempts to claim it (see Tavinor 2009 for a thorough synopsis). 

The soundscape that accompanies the player's trek through this desolate cityscape consists of two distinct elements: a largely symphonic original score composed by Garry Schyman and licensed popular music. It is with this second element that I am primarily concerned in this study, despite the high quality of Schyman's score. Bioshock features about 20 songs from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, including popular tunes from The Inkspots, Django Reinhardt, Billie Holiday, and others (see Table 1 for a complete list). I argue that this game's nuanced use of popular music as a narrative element represents a step in a new direction for the inclusion of pre-existing music in games, and highlights the possibilities for such inclusion in the future. By a “narrative element,” I mean to suggest that Bioshock is more an “interactive fiction” (Tavinor 2005) than a pure game in the ludological sense-in the manner of, say, Tetris or The Sims.4 In discussing game narratives, Eric Zimmerman (2004, p. 157) has pointed out that “the commercial game industry is suffering from a peculiar case of cinema envy at the moment, trying to recreate the pleasures of another media [sic].”5 In Bioshock the popular music allows the game to approach the cinematic ideal for which many narrative-based games strive while still maintaining the level of player autonomy necessary for engaging and immersive gaming. Academic interest in video-game music has increased dramatically in recent years (see Munday 2007 for an early overview), resulting in publications with a variety of methodological frameworks. At the risk of gross oversimplification, these studies have tended to focus on either fairly empirical research into historical and/or technological aspects (e.g., Collins 2008), ethnographic approaches such as Kiri Miller’s (2007, 2008a, 2008b, 2009) work on the Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Grand Theft Auto games, or theoretical/ludological perspectives (e.g., van Elferen 2011).6 Studies that highlight the deep connections between music for games and films are surprisingly uncommon, often emphasizing-often fruitfully-the differences between the two rather than the similarities (e.g., Whalen 2004, 2007; Reale 2011) or treating several games in more superficial fashion to lay a groundwork (e.g., Gibbons 2009). This article thus illustrates the possibilities for in-depth analysis of game music from a film-music perspective, and hopefully opens the door for similar studies in the future. 

  • "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," The Andrews Sisters, 1937
  • "The Best Things in Life are Free," The Ink Spots, 1947 
  • "Beyond the Sea," Bobby Darin, 1959
  • "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," Bing Crosby, 1933 
  • "Danny Boy," Mario Lanza, 1952
  • "God Bless the Child," Billie Holiday, 1939
  • "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window," Patti Page, 1952 
  • "If I Didn't Care," The Ink Spots, 1939 
  • "It Had to be You," Django Reinhardt, 1938
  • "It's Bad for Me," Rosemary Clooney, 1955 
  • "Jitterbug Waltz," Fats Waller, 1942
  • "Liza (All the Clouds'll Roll Away)," Django Reinhardt, Date Unknown 
  • "La Mer," Django Reinhardt, 1949
  • "Night and Day," Billie Holiday, 1939
  • "Papa Loves Mambo," Perry Como, 1954
  • "The Party's Over Now," Noël Coward, 1931
  • "Please be Kind," Django Reinhardt, Date Unknown
  • "Twentieth-Century Blues," Noël Coward, 1932 
  • "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," Bing Crosby, 1931
  • "You're the Top," Cole Porter, 1934
  • Table 1: Licensed Popular Music in Bioshock (Xbox 360 version)

    Welcome to Rapture

    Before we continue with this analysis of Bioshock, let me offer an example of how popular music is woven into the game’s narrative. After a brief introductory cutscene (a non-interactive "movie" within the game), in the game's opening moments the player guides Jack from the watery wreckage of his plane to the seeming safety of a lighthouse, perched improbably on a small rocky island. No music accompanies this desperate struggle for survival or the arrival at the lighthouse, leaving players off-balance. An epic score would suggest a sense of triumph at Jack's providential (if fleeting) return to terra firma, or a menacing non-tonal soundtrack lifted from a horror film might incite a sense of trepidation at entering the lighthouse. The lack of music provides players with no help in assessing their situation, leaving them adrift in a strange environment. Regardless, the only way to go is forward-through the welcoming (or ominous) doors into the darkness of the lighthouse. 

    Figure 1: Bioshock's First Moments

    Once inside, the doors swing shut, trapping Jack (and the player) inside. With an audible series of clicks, long-dormant power breakers are switched on and the room is illuminated, revealing an enormous art-deco statue of Ryan holding a banner that bears a simple message: "No gods or kings. Only Man." Almost imperceptibly, music sneaks into the scene, and players gradually become aware of the quiet sound of a violin and a guitar. The music is "active onscreen sound"-it is acousmatic sound, to use Michel Chion's (1994, p. 85) term for music or sounds that can be aurally located in an unseen, offscreen space (e.g., in the next room, upstairs, behind a screen). As is usual with acousmatic sound, in these early moments of Bioshock it asks viewers or players a question, beckoning them down a flight of stairs to find its source: a radio in an antique-style bathysphere drawn straight from the pages of Jules Verne. (Indeed, the lighthouse itself seems to be an oblique reference to Verne’s novel The Lighthouse at the End of the World.) Here the music serves a practical purpose, giving the player a reason to move along with the narrative by descending the stairs and entering the bathysphere. 

    Aside from this function, however, the piece also creates a mood, conveying a sense of optimism with its spry violin and jazz-inflected guitar chords, performed in this case by Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, respectively. Although the game never tells us so, the name of this song is "La Mer," a French standard better known to American audiences as "Beyond the Sea," popularized by Bobby Darin in 1959. The lyrics (see Table 2), assuming the player knows them, reinforce the idea of travel to a better place; a life filled with love and happiness awaits the narrator "somewhere beyond the sea." The song seems to speak directly to the heart of the situation at hand, suggesting that should Jack only take a trip through the bathysphere, passing beyond the sea-though a vertical route was probably not what the songwriter intended-he will reach the end of his journey: Rapture. This optimism, however, soon reveals itself to be painfully ironic, as the utopian promises made by the song have long since dissipated.  

    Somewhere beyond the sea
    Somewhere waiting for me
    My lover stands on golden sands
    And watches the ships that go sailin'

    Somewhere beyond the sea
    She's there watching for me
    If I could fly like birds on high
    Then straight to her arms 
    I'd go sailin'

    It's far beyond the stars
    It's near beyond the moon
    I know beyond a doubt
    My heart will lead me there soon

    We'll meet beyond the shore
    We'll kiss just as before
    Happy we'll be beyond the sea
    And never again I'll go sailin'

    I know beyond a doubt
    My heart will lead me there soon
    We'll meet (I know we'll meet) beyond the shore
    We'll kiss just as before
    Happy we'll be beyond the sea
    And never again I'll go sailin'

    Table 2: Lyrics to "Beyond the Sea"

    This use of "Beyond the Sea" in the game's first minutes illustrates the multiple roles that popular music plays in Bioshock. On the most basic level, these songs help situate the game chronologically. As the bathysphere's service radio begins to reveal, all the popular music heard in Bioshock is diegetic (i.e., it emanates from a source in the fictional world and can be heard by the characters as well as the player), emerging from visible sources such as jukeboxes, speakers, and Victrolas strategically placed throughout Rapture.7 In the face of the science-fiction technology seen all around the player, this music serves as a reminder that Rapture is very much a product of mid-century American aesthetics and cultural values, and helps make the player as "present" as possible in that world.8 Although using music in this manner is common in historical films, video games have been slower to make such use of popular music, perhaps because comparably few games are set in the past.9 But the importance of Bioshock's music goes much deeper. "Beyond the Sea" and other songs like it comment on the atmosphere of dystopia that permeates Rapture and actually refer obliquely to the situations in which players find themselves. This second function in particular represents an innovative step forward in the inclusion of popular music into video-game narratives.

    Popular Music and Games

    The effective use of popular music in video games has been a sort of holy grail for sound designers since the early 1990s, when technology advanced to the point that instrument sounds could be replicated with some degree of fidelity.10 When CD- and later DVD-based games first allowed soundtracks to include popular tracks precisely as they would sound on a CD, game designers leapt at the opportunity to include a song or two (though seldom much more, due to space restrictions). This new technology, however, proved problematic for more than simply technical reasons. Game music of the 1980s and most of the 1990s had been composed with flexibility in mind. Unlike in films, of course, the timings in video games are seldom precise, since one player may take significantly more or less time to complete a certain level or task than another. Composers compensated in often ingenious ways, creating repeating loops or music that could rapidly switch between multiple layers or transition to different music depending on a player's actions. Adaptive music has become a standard goal for game-music composers seeking to make the experience ever more cinematic.11 Popular songs simply did not allow for this degree of variation; altering them to correspond adaptively to a player's actions was essentially impossible.12

    And so gradually popular music in games became mostly non-narrative, but rather ludologically based.13 The rise of music-based games in the 2000s-most prominently the Guitar Hero and Rock Band series-created a model in which music is not only removed from the narrative, it is in effect a replacement for it-the music is the game, and no (or almost no) overarching narrative exists outside of it. Alternatively, many developers use popular music as a way to mask the "boring" elements of a title; EA Sports-a division of software monolith Electronic Arts, which actually owns its own music label, Next Level Records-features licensed popular music while players select options from menus, during loading screens, while the game is paused, and so on.14 Music fills in the gaps, sustaining the sense of excitement as much as possible until the "real" game begins again. This latter type has even prompted some industry officials to describe video games as "the new MTV," a somewhat grandiose designation that nonetheless accurately situates the music outside any overarching narrative. Music is peripheral, something that slips into focus intermittently when players take their attention away from the primary attraction. 

    For game designers seeking to incorporate popular music in a more direct way, a third option has appeared in recent years. In this scenario, the game features a large number of pop tracks, often presented diegetically, that players adapt to their own purposes. In the more recent installments in the Grand Theft Auto series of games, for instance, when a player hijacks (or "borrows," if you prefer) a car, the radio begins to play one of many themed stations, including music, commercials, and DJs.15 Likewise, recent games such as Fallout 3 (Bethesda, 2008) and Fallout: New Vegas (Bethesda, 2010)-similar to Bioshock in both their dystopian (in this case, postnuclear) themes and in the use of mid-century American pop tunes-allow players to choose various radio stations from an arm-mounted personal computer. This clever strategy relieves game designers from the onus of relating the music to the onscreen action. A radio, after all, can hardly be expected to change its tune to fit individual circumstances.  A significant downside, however, is that although players can customize the soundscape of their own experiences, the songs cannot function in a narrative way. In other words, the music can contribute to the general mood of the game environment, but it cannot comment directly on specific actions or events. This approach, while in many ways effective, is fundamentally at odds with a "cinematic" approach to games, depriving the game designers of a way for music to perform such essential functions as signifying emotion or narrative cueing, to borrow two of Gorbman’s (1987) principles of film music.

     Bioshock breaks away from this model by incorporating specific popular songs at key moments throughout the game, while the player is controlling the action. Players lose the sense of a customizable aural experience found in the Grand Theft Auto or Fallout games, but the soundtrack attains a much more cinematic quality than is usually possible with popular music in interactive media. For the remainder of this study, we can turn our attention towards the integration of these tunes into both the overarching narrative of Bioshock and the moment-to-moment situations in which players find themselves. I place the popular music in Bioshock along something of a continuum, with those that embody or reflect on the general dystopian environment (mostly ironically) on the one end, and those that zoom in to focus more directly on the action at hand at the other. 

    Irony and Dystopia

    Of the songs I place in the first category only Noël Coward's "Twentieth-Century Blues" (1932) addresses Rapture's dystopia in anything like a straightforward manner. The ominous lyrics, heard as the player explores a dilapidated farmer's market, encapsulate the game's dark tone (see Table 3). "Civilized humanity," the song maintains, has made this world "so wrong." Modern society, far from being a paradise, has lost its way. The relevance of these words to the world of Bioshock could not be clearer: despite the lofty utopian goals Andrew Ryan established for Rapture, the metropolis is nothing now if not a den of "insanity," "chaos," and "confusion."And yet, in typical Noël Coward fashion, the song's tragic lyrics are underscored by a light, playful musical style. His voice, ever so British with its delicately flipped "R"s ("dreary twentieth-century din"), perfectly pure vowels, and tasteful vibrato, suggest a refinement that his words claim no longer exists. There is an intractable incongruity to the song, a fundamental tension between delicacy and destruction, beauty and barbarity. These same tensions are found throughout Rapture and its residents, as we will see.

    Blues, Twentieth-century blues, they're gettin' me down.
    Blues, escape those weary twentieth-century blues.
    Why, if there's a god in the sky, why shouldn't he grin
    High above this dreary twentieth-century din?

    In this strange illusion, chaos and confusion,
    People seem to lose their way.
    What is there to strive for, love or keep alive for?
    Say hey hey, call it a day.

    Blues, nothing to win or to lose, it's getting me down.
    Blues, escape those weary twentieth-century blues.

    Why is it that civilized humanity can make this world so wrong?
    In this hurly-burly of insanity, our dreams cannot last long.
    We've reached a deadline, a press headline, every sorrow;
    Blues value is news value tomorrow.

    Table 3: Lyrics to "Twentieth-Century Blues"(1932)

    Though the lyrics, if not the tone, of "Twentieth-Century Blues" address Rapture's collapse in a fairly direct fashion, most songs in Bioshock function instead jar the player by deliberately running counter to the action.16 Patti Page's iconic 1952 hit "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window?" provides a clear example. This tune, with its lush orchestration and determinedly domestic lyrics, epitomizes the candy-coated veneer of normalcy that surrounded the internal anxieties of postwar American culture. It reeks of consumerism, reminding us that the atomic-family ideal was a construction designed to separate American society from both the barbarities of the war and the perceived threat of communism. As May (2008, p. 8) has pointed out, the "Post-World War II America presented itself as a unified nation, politically harmonious and blessed with widespread affluence. ... American leaders promoted the American way of life as the triumph of capitalism, allegedly available to all who believed in its values."

    Significantly, in Bioshock "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window" emerges from a jukebox as the player explores Fort Frolic, a shopping and entertainment district that is basically Rapture's equivalent of a suburban shopping mall. Shops purveying the latest in fashionable clothes or gadgets designed to make life simpler lay in ruins, the formerly vibrant area now filled only with smashed storefronts and wandering lunatics. To find such a saccharine tune juxtaposed with the scenes of destruction the player encounters here and elsewhere in Rapture highlights both the naïveté of the utopian ideal and the grotesqueness of its dystopian inversion. 

    The remainder of the songs seem no less out of place in Rapture's desolate hallways, and continue to comment on its dystopia in highly ironic fashion. The Andrews Sisters' "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," for example, expresses the same syrupy optimism found in "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window." Even Bing Crosby's "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" (1931), a depression-era standard about coming to terms with the loss of material wealth, seems to advocate simply shrugging off any worries-an infuriatingly trite sentiment when faced with large-scale collapse of a society and the constant threat of death to the protagonist (and, by extension, to the player). The irony inherent in these optimistic songs effectively underscores not only the literal destruction of Rapture, but also the gradual erosion and eventual collapse of the ideological framework that created the city. The city and its citizens, we infer, were as naïve as the music they listened to. 

    When skies are cloudy and grey,
    They're only grey for a day,
    So wrap your troubles in dreams
    And dream your troubles away.

    Until that sunshine peeps through
    There's only one thing to do,
    Just wrap your troubles in dreams
    And dream all your troubles away.

    Your castles may tumble (that's fate after all)
    Life's really funny that way.
    No use to grumble, smile as they fall;
    Weren't you king for a day?

    Just remember that sunshine
    Always follows the rain,
    So wrap your troubles in dreams
    And dream your troubles away.

    Table 4: Lyrics to "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams" (1931)

    Songs as Commentary 

    The songs we have examined thus far contribute greatly to establishing the dystopian atmosphere of Bioshock, but they function by and large as popular music does in the recent Grand Theft Auto and Fallout games, despite the lack of player input into the song selection. They are tied less to a specific event in the game's narrative than to a general sense of its environment, although some-like "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window"--seem more relevant to some areas of the sunken city more than others. A number of the popular songs featured in Bioshock, however, also function on another level. While still serving as ironic foils for the general environment, they are able also to comment in a meaningful way on the narrative events that occur while they are heard in the game.17 In discussing Handel’s opera Agrippina, John Sawyer (1999, p. 532) provides a useful framework for some possibilities of musical irony, including:

    1. a duality of meaning in an utterance or a situation;

    2. a contradiction, dilemma or incongruity between the two meanings, with one meaning undermined, corrected or superseded by the second, often more veiled, meaning;

    3. a duality of comprehension whereby one party understands only the ostensible meaning while a second party is aware of both the ostensible and veiled meanings. ... A third layer of comprehension may reside with astute readers or audience members whose understanding, being more distanced from the action and perhaps more informed than that of the participants, may be on a still broader level.

    Each of these three possibilities exists to some extent in Bioshock, although we may focus on the third point. As the game never indicates that Jack (or any other character) recognizes the musical irony, it is the “astute...audience members” only who recognize it. In terms of a simple “duality of meaning,” some songs, through some combination of their titles or lyrics, ambiguously refer to events in the game or to some location within Rapture. A fairly straightforward example occurs near the end of the game, when players finally make their way to Olympus Heights, the wealthiest part of Rapture--a den of luxury that literally overlooks the rest of the city. Almost immediately upon entering the area, we hear Cole Porter's "You're the Top," a clear allusion to both the geographical and socio-cultural height of this portion of the city. 

    But other songs are clearly more complex in their significations. Fairly near the beginning of Bioshock, players encounter their first seriously challenging "boss": Dr. Steinman, a plastic surgeon whose obsession with physical perfection has gradually transformed him into a psychopath bent on becoming the "Picasso of surgery," a goal every bit as horrifying as it sounds. After players "dispose" of the good doctor, the voice of Atlas-your Virgil-like guide through the hellish Rapture-offers his congratulations: "It's about time somebody took care of that bastard!" Just as Atlas finishes, Django Reinhardt's instrumental version of "It Had to be You" begins, playing quietly over what is apparently an intercom system. Here we see Sawyer’s second point: the veiled meaning superseding the ostensible one. The lyrics of this love song seem highly inappropriate to the current situation, but the title slyly suggests that only "you" (i.e., Jack, the player, or both) were capable of delivering the city from this menace. One other phrase from the lyrics also emerges as salient to the situation (assuming, once again, that the listener knows them-an added wink at the well-informed spectator): the narrator's claim that "With all your faults/I love you still." This sentiment obviously runs counter to Steinman's extreme perfectionism, and the song's appearance in the doctor's "domain" immediately after his demise implies that the area is somehow cleansed of his influence. In this way the songs can “maintain a kind of discursive/moral authority within the overall process of narration,” as Joe Tompkins (2010, p. 99) has noted about the non-diegetic popular music in Wes Craven’s horror film The Last House on the Left (1972). 

    Figure 2: Advertising poster for Dr. Steinman seen across Rapture

    Other such references abound in Bioshock. Near the end of the game, the protagonist encounters a seemingly insurmountable barrier. He is instructed that he must construct a bomb that will short circuit the main power center of Rapture-described as the "core" or "heart" of the city-despite the considerable danger such an act poses to the already unstable Rapture. As the bomb is completed and installed, we again hear Reinhardt's unmistakably melancholy music, this time playing a version of the Saul Chaplin/Sammy Cahn tune "Please be Kind" (1938).  As with the other examples of Reinhardt's instrumental music, players familiar with the lyrics of the song are rewarded for being "in the know," catching subtle musical commentary that other gamers might miss. In this case. the lyrics to "Please be Kind" include several references to the heart: "Handle my heart with care, please be kind" and "if you leave me, dear, I know my heart will lose its mind." The irony here stems, of course, from the fact that even as the song pleads for Jack (and the player) to "handle my heart with care," he is in fact preparing to short circuit the heart of the city (effectively making it "lose its mind").18

    If it seems that I am reading too much into the musical selections of Bioshock, other examples of musical commentary are less ambiguous. Near the beginning of the game, the player enters the Kashmir Restaurant (accompanied by the ironically optimistic song "If I Didn't Care"), still set up for a 1959 New Year's Party. Shortly after leaving the Kashmir, Jack unexpectedly witnesses the brutal killing of a rapture citizen, and glimpses for the first time a major antagonist. After this brief and shocking encounter, the 1931 Noël Coward song "The Party's Over Now" begins, referring to the action of the game on multiple levels. Most literally, the song's title slyly refers to the New Year's Eve party at the restaurant, the beginning of the end for Andrew Ryan's undersea paradise. This style of title-based musical "pun" evokes the silent-film era practices of cinema pianists, who could quickly choose tunes with titles that corresponded (at least tangentially) with the action on screen-something that carried over into the sound era, particularly in the animated shorts scored by figures like Carl Stalling (see Goldmark 2005, Ch. 1).

    This musical pun functions on deeper levels, as well. As the player gradually begins to understand, that night the Kashmir Restaurant was the site of a workers' rebellion, quickly leading to the economic crash (and civil war) that ultimately destroyed the city; Jack and the player, then, inhabit an environment that came about immediately "after the party." Furthermore, the lyrics to the song underscore Jack's desire to escape Rapture and return to the surface world; his curiosity about the strange environment has given way to his fear. "The thrill has gone," the song maintains, "to linger on/would spoil it anyhow;/Let's creep away from the day,/for the party's over now." Less literally, the song sends a signal to the player that the beginning phase of Bioshock, which was essentially about learning the "rules" of the game, is over, and the more challenging elements lie ahead.  

    Figure 3: The Kashmir Restaurant

    Other songs follow this same path, providing context for and commenting on the game's narrative. The second time the player hears "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" (1931), for example, is while venturing into Fontaine's Home for the Poor. One of the most popular songs of the 1930s was "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," (famously recorded by Rudy Vallée in the same year as the Bing Crosby recording featured in Bioshock). This tune was an anthem for the disaffected American working class-Ruhlmann (2004, p. 66) describes it as "the virtual theme song of the Depression" in his survey of popular music hits. These sentiments were no doubt shared by those left behind by the unforgiving free-market policies of Rapture, their dreams of prosperity and a new life ending in the squalor of a boarding house. While this song would function in an atmospheric way nearly anywhere in Bioshock, its placement in the Home for the Poor is particularly effective and contributes to an understanding of Rapture's political situation in a semi-narrative fashion. By virtue of its association with the Great Depression, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" eloquently reveals the increasing tensions between the wealthy elite and the disenfranchised workers in an almost subconscious fashion. 

    We also learn in the course of Bioshock that this Home for the Poor was prime recruiting ground for the workers' rebellion, coloring the song in a more threatening fashion. The lyrics describe FDR's "forgotten man," abandoned by the society he helped build. Specifically, the lines "Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,/Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum,/Half a Million boots went slogging through Hell,/And I was the kid with the drum" makes clear that the speaker was a soldier in World War I, and feels he deserves more than disdain from society. As Furia (1992, pp. 204-205) points out, the subtext of the song is that this military imagery 

    carries a further implication-that the same soldiers might now band together in revolutionary protest, an implication that hangs fire between the powerful, active verbs that recount the past--"built a tower," "made it run," "went slogging through hell"-and the participles "standing" and "waiting" that uneasily mark time for the present. The suggestion of revolution grows stronger with the reference to "Yankee-Doodle-de-dum" and the allusion to the "Spirit of '76"-"I was the kid with the drum."

    The song then concludes with an "aggressive edge, capped in the last line when 'brother' is suddenly replaced by the military-and militant-'Buddy, can you spare a dime?'" This transition from destitute workers to organized rebels is precisely what took place in Rapture. The song presumably functioned in the Home for the Poor as a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) call to arms; in the action of Bioshock it comments on what has already transpired.

    They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
    When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
    They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
    Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?

    Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
    Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
    Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
    Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

    Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell,
    Full of that Yankee Doodle-de-dum,
    Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
    And I was the kid with the drum!

    Say, don't you remember, they called me Al; it was Al all the time.
    Say, don't you remember, I'm your pal! Buddy, can you spare a dime?

    Table 5: Lyrics, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" (1931)

    God Bless the Child

    Many, if not most, of the songs in Bioshock function in a clearly narrative fashion; at times the music seems to take on the role of a sarcastic, omniscient narrator  rather than serving as mere window dressing. Let me close this section with a final (and I believe particularly sophisticated) example. One of the most disturbing aspects of Rapture is the presence of the "Little Sisters," young girls who have been brainwashed and genetically modified. Jack requires access to resources that these Little Sisters hoard, and the player must choose how he deals with them: they can be "rescued," proving fewer short-term benefits (and fewer guilt pangs), or "harvest" their resources, which results in greater immediate gains, but also in the death of the Little Sister. Tavinor (2009) and other critics have noted the intense quandary these Little Sisters represent, as players are forced to choose between their own self-interest and the morally upstanding choice, mirroring the game’s overall Objectivist dilemma.

    At a certain point in the game, Jack must defeat one of the guardians that surround these Little Sisters and make a choice about rescuing the girl. The battle is a difficult one; players must make use of all the resources at their disposal to be successful, and it will likely take a significant amount of time. Underscoring this (rather epic) scene, sneaking quietly in amid the clamor of bullets and explosions, is the 1941 Billie Holiday song "God Bless the Child."  The juxtaposition of the song's mellow style-particularly Holiday's silky smooth voice-with an extended firefight is striking enough, and fits the "ironic" category we examined earlier. The combination of this scene with the player's subsequent decision regarding the fate of the Little Sister makes this choice inspired. The title to the song seems to be the most important element here, although I suppose one could make a case for reading the self-sufficiency lauded in the lyrics as a commentary on Rapture's economic policies, or on the recurring theme of dysfunctional family relationships in Bioshock (which I will avoid discussing here, not least to avoid ruining a plot twist). The recurring line "God Bless the Child," always just high enough and loud enough to be heard over any sound effects, seems to speak directly to the player, emphasizing the ethical dilemma and making it more difficult to disassociate from the game. 

    Whether a player chooses to rescue the Little Sister or not, "God Bless the Child" continues to play on the radio until the song is complete. If the player saves the girl, the song appears to comment on that action directly-even thankfully, a bit like "It Had to be You." On the other hand, should the player take the less magnanimous route, the song becomes darkly ironic, yet no less relevant (and, given the prevalence of irony in the Bioshock soundtrack, hardly unexpected). In either case, the unseen DJ of Rapture (or the city itself?) functions again as a de facto narrator, commenting on the events taking place in a fairly cinematic fashion. The trick here is that unlike in cinema, the player maintains an element of agency, but "God Bless the Child" gives the illusion of being tailored to the player's choice. Because the music begins during the combat before the actual moment of decision regarding the Little Sister takes place (but likely not before players have made up their mind), the music even implies a degree of narrative cueing typically impossible in video games. It appears as if the music were dramatically anticipating a predetermined conclusion, as if in a film, yet the actions seem anything but linear to the player, who maintains a sense of personal choice. This scenario is unsustainable for very long-few scenarios or songs lend themselves so readily to this treatment-and yet for a moment Bioshock seems to reach the "interactive cinema" ideal.

    Figure 4: A "Little Sister"


    The deck seems stacked against the use of popular music as a narrative element of video games, at least outside of non-interactive cutscenes. The technical limitations present one difficulty, since popular songs are much less flexible than newly composed music can be. But another obstacle comes from the licensing process itself. Tessler (2008, p. 22) has argued that in the eyes of the game industry "virtually all licensed video game music remains a substitutable quantity," which is to say that by and large developers feel they can choose less expensive options and still have music that fits reasonably well with a given scenario.  Tischler focuses on recently released (or previously unreleased) songs in games, but the point holds true for less current tracks. Even when money is less of a concern, as in the film American Graffiti, which popularized the use of popular music as a narrative soundtrack element, the song choice was evidently flexible; George Lucas (quoted in Smith, 2001, p. 410) has pointed out of the film that "the amazing thing ... was that we could take almost any song and put in on almost any scene and it would work. You'd put a song down on one scene, and you'd find all kinds of parallels. And you could take another song and put it down there, and it would still seem as if the song had been written for that scene."

    Despite a certain "substitutable" quality to the popular-music soundtrack, as a final product Bioshock uses licensed tunes to create both a palpable sense of irony in its atmosphere-one of the game's most-praised aspects-and a complex web of intertextual references, involving musical "puns" based on song titles and lyrics (both heard and unheard). As such, the game offers a glimpse into the possibilities of including popular music primarily as an atmospheric and narrative element of games, rather than as an example of market synergy or a way to ensnare the crucial youth market. Not surprisingly, the licensed music in Bioshock has been a major feature of the game for both critics and players alike. Many gamers, in fact, found the music to be one of the most memorable aspects of their experience, in particular the intense irony. On the well-known gaming website, a number of the registered reviewers commented on the experience. 

    In closing, allow me to offer two examples of comments on "(How Much is) That Doggie in the Window":

    You know, there's just something about hearing the stereo gently play 'How Much Is that Doggy In the Window?' [sic] while you're brutally slaughtering anything and everything around you that moves. This is one of the reasons Bioshock is so unique. …[W]hen you actually play the game you realize how much character [the music] adds to the whole experience. … And the music is all good, by the way-as misplaced as it may seem at first. (Archmonk Iga, 2008)
    Next, we have the music. HOLY COW. It's the sixties and - gasp - there's sixties jazz, easy listening, and much, much more! It's hilarious to enter a blood soaked room, only to hear "How much is that dog, In the windooooow?" And that's awesome! The theme and time is, again, perfectly portrayed. Eventually, you'll feel like you are in the city...and that's that biggest bonus of Bioshock.(9NineBreaker9, 2007)

    The ironic quality of the popular music allows it to create and maintain the dystopian atmosphere that permeates Bioshock. The juxtaposition of midcentury aesthetic ideals, given voice through the period music, with the visual evidence of the corruption and collapse of those ideals taken to their ultimate extreme, provides a powerful experience for gamers. Ultimately, Bioshock's success and influence suggest a new, more cinematic, approach to the incorporation of popular music into interactive media.


    1 Throughout this article I will be referring to the version of Bioshock released in 2007 for the Microsoft Xbox 360. The game's popularity led to it being released on the Sony PlayStation 3 and the PC, as well; these later versions, however, do not differ significantly in terms of the music or gameplay, although a few additional licensed songs were added during loading screens and the like. 

    2 The reviewer for the popular gaming website summarizes the general opinion of the gaming press: "to call this game simply a first-person shooter, a game that successfully fuses gameplay and narrative, is really doing it a disservice. This game is a beacon. It's one of those monumental experiences you'll never forget, and the benchmark against which games for years to come will, and indeed must, be measured."  The review awards Bioshock an overall 9.7/10. "Bioshock Review: Welcome to Rapture," 16 August 2007. Available online at 

    3 Rand espoused the philosophy of Objectivism in both her fiction (Atlas Shrugged [1957], and The Fountainhead [1943], for example) and non-fiction works (including The Virtue of Selfishness [1964] and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal [1966]). For an overview of Objectivism, see Leonard Peikoff (1991). 

    4 For a brief summary of the debates between narratological and ludological approaches to game analysis, see Jenkins 2004. 

    5 As Cliff Bleszinski, the design director for Epic Games, writes in the introduction to the instruction manual for the popular game Gears of War 2 (2008): "This video game...was designed around the idea of cinematic action. We wanted the gameplay experience to feel like a summer blockbuster where you, the gamer, are the start."

    6 A useful and relatively complete (as of 2011) bibliography of studies of video-game audio is available online on the Ludomusicology blog at

    7 For a nuanced recent model of diegetic and non-diegetic functions in film, see Neumeyer (2009). 

    8 On the concept and goal of players' diegetic "presence" in the gaming world, see McMahan (2003). A number of scholars have drawn significant distinctions between the concepts of "immersion" and "presence," despite the frequent use of the terms as synonyms. 

    9 American Graffiti (1973) is the classic example for using popular music to place a film historically, as the compilation soundtrack features a number of popular songs from the 1950s and early 1960s. For a close examination of popular music in American Graffiti, see Smith (1998). 

    10 For a brief overview of popular music in games from the early 1980s to the present, see Collins (2008), pp. 111-17. 

    11 For an industry insider perspective, see van Geelen (2008). Collins (2008) offers a helpful overview in Chapter 8 of her Game Sound, as well. 

    12 As Collins (2008, p. 119) outlines the problem, "there is limited adaptability inherent in most popular music, whereas games require songs that may need to adapt to gameplay states or player interaction. Licensed songs are (for the most part) designed as linear music, and therefore the placement of this music in a game is generally is the genre of the game where such music may be appropriate...." Collins does find it possible that the recording industry could adapt itself to the needs of games, writing songs with the potential for adaptability, or that could at least be easily shortened or lengthened. 

    13 The exception to this rule is the use of a popular track during a lengthy cutscene. Because they function essentially as mini-films within the context of a larger interactive framework, cutscenes lend themselves to the use of a popular song. The introductory scenes to Final Fantasy X (2001) and Final Fantasy X-2 (2003) are prime examples of this trend (the latter featuring an unexpected J-Pop song performed diegetically by the game's main character, much to the chagrin of series fans). 

    14 On the role of popular music in Electronic Arts's economic and aesthetic models, see Tessler (2008).  

    15 Miller (2007, 2008) has discussed the use of popular music in the Grand Theft Auto series in some depth. Van Geelen (2008, p. 95) has also pointed out that the tactic of including diegetic music in games "provided the player with an easy way to make the music fit the game situation." 

    16 This kind of ironic use of popular music in film has been noted by, for example, Carey and Hannan (2003, p. 173) in regards to The Big Chill (1983). Smith (2001, pp. 407-408) calls attention to the ironic use of popular music in film, which "may be viewed as a particular configuration of postmodern culture, where a very self-conscious mode of textual address is situated within a larger network of intertextual references." 

    17 Powrie (2005) points to a similar situation in the film Tarantino film Reservoir Dogs (1992), in which a scene of graphic violence is juxtaposed with the optimistic Stealer's Wheel song "Stuck in the Middle with You" (1973). Powrie maintains that (like many songs in Bioshock) this portion of Reservoir Dogs may be read as both running counter to the action and commenting on it in this particular scene. 

    18 Smith (2001, pp. 421-22) points out similar examples of "juxtapositions of literal and figurative meanings of a term" in films such as Scream (1996) and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997), and The Big Lebowski (1998). 


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