BioShock Infinite anachronistic music barbershop
Search Menu

Westworld, BioShock Infinite, and anachronistic music in video games

Dark Light

Like the video games it resembles, Westworld is a form of immersive escapism for its players. How important is historically accurate music to this feeling of immersion?

Where video games are determined that their realism remains as unbroken as possible, Westworld is keen to remind us that it’s not real. There are overt elements to this – the behind-the-scenes looks at the production of Westworld is obvious – but also some more subtle aspects.

The feeling we’re focusing more on the robotic ‘hosts’ as the protagonists is certainly noticeable to anyone who has seen the original movie, while the human visitors are often visibly trying to work out the format or boundaries of the ‘game’. Ed Harris, on the other hand, is playing an open-world game the way most people do –  he’s Trevor Phillips from Grand Theft Auto V, and that’s fine. As long as the game world doesn’t break its fiction around the player, they can basically do whatever they want and the overall package of realism remains intact.

The music of Westworld is also an integral part of this meta experience, but we’ll come back to that. First, some background on the role of music in building immersive video game worlds.

Historically accurate music in video games

Music is an active component in the overall tapestry of immersion, particularly with a historical setting like Westworld. The recently-released Mafia III has a near-perfect 1960s soundtrack to match up with the game’s setting, while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’ radio stations are an integral component of that rich environmental tapestry. While I probably spent more time listening to the likes of Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots on Radio X – my genre, my favourite era – it’s hard to argue that the presence of Dr Dre and N.W.A on Radio Los Santos perfectly evokes the feeling of South Central Los Angeles in 1992.

That’s not to say video games are relentlessly po-faced with their music, however. The Fallout series is a great example of creative use of historical music to capture a feeling, not necessarily a specific time or place.

The Fallout extended universe takes place in the future, but the timeline is one that forked from our own in the 1950s, at a time when America was obsessed with nuclear technology and anti-Communist tensions ran high. In a world ravaged by nuclear war, only music that existed prior to the cataclysmic events is available; this is why the seemingly futuristic Fallout universe is chock full of your grandmother’s 1930s jams.

Fallout 4 takes it a step further with its Diamond City Radio playlist, by steering the thematic content of a good portion of the songs towards this nuclear fixation. Tunes like Atom Bomb Baby, Crawl Out Through the Fallout and Uranium Fever sound like they were created specifically for the Fallout universe, but they’re actually real songs from the first half of the 20th Century. By picking out a few choice cuts that gently enhance their fiction, Bethesda have turned the game’s soundtrack from background music to subtle exposition. After all, America was a little obsessed with nuclear technology; Fallout’s world-building means to persuade us what could have happened had they run with it, and the music is critical to achieving that aim.

Anachronistic music in Westworld

The first episode of Westworld was filled with dramatic, stirring original compositions, befitting any high-quality HBO drama. It also featured two songs that were anachronistic for its setting, but you may only have noticed one.

Towards the end of the first episode, where the action and violence ramp up as the writers push events forward apace, a gunfight breaks out in the town square. A band of outlaws ride into town, intent on murder, destruction, and robbing a big old safe. Strains of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones drift into the scene, but this isn’t the standard arrangement; this is Paint It Black fed through an Ennio Morricone filter, the famed composer behind the greatest Western soundtracks.

It’s an effective device, but it isn’t exactly subtle. I’m sure almost everyone watching will have recognised the song – brilliantly arranged and thematically appropriate as it was – and hearing it in that context, as a backdrop to a building action sequence, is especially familiar to gamers. Paint It Black was used in the Call of Duty: Black Ops III reveal trailer and that’s little more than what this action sequence amounts to: a trailer for what is to come. Call of Duty trailers may be as formulaic and cookie-cutter as the games they advertise, but they’re bloody effective. Imitating the real-world presentation of action-oriented games in this way is a brutally simple (but extremely potent) method of reinforcing that this is just a game. An impressive, impossibly immersive one, but still just a game.

The second piece of anachronistic music in Westworld was more subtle, and you might just have missed it.

During an earlier sequence – again, one in which we’re focusing on the robotic ‘hosts’ going about their daily business, unaware that their lives are a fantasy – a saloon scene is accompanied by the twinkly strains of a pianola (a self-playing piano, popular before the advent of widely-available recorded music). Again this seems little more than a thematically appropriate background tune, but is actually a pianola arrangement of Black Hole Sun, by grunge pioneers Soundgarden.

Black Hole Sun is one of my all-time favourite songs, but I’ll concede that it is far less well-known than Paint It Black. It’s probably only familiar to those of you who meet me at the intersection of Seattle and 1992, listening to the tunes from Radio X in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in real life, but that’s exactly the point.

The use of an anachronistic song that is somewhat familiar (but the listener just can’t quite place it) is an incredibly subtle way of tearing gently at the edges of the constructed reality, while being careful not to yank so hard that the veil comes down. It’s like déjà vu in The Matrix or the drop of sweat on the Rekall doctor’s brow in Total Recall; a little piece of feedback from the real world that reminds you that everything is not quite as it seems.

Video games, as self-referential and quirky as the medium can be, usually strive to avoid these little ‘tells’. Some games (like Deadpool) make a point of breaking the fourth wall, but that sort of exterior user interaction is usually important to the specific title or experience. Generally speaking, this is an industry preoccupied with building the most realistic and immersive worlds. There is very little room for risky flirtations with anachronism.

There is one notable exception to this, however. There is one video game that – in spite of its historical setting and strive for deep immersion – is prepared to flirt with anachronistic music, to allow the gnawing feeling that something is not quite as it seems to get under the skin of players: BioShock Infinite.

Anachronistic music in BioShock Infinite

The events of BioShock Infinite take place in 1912. Admittedly this is a fictional 1912 with a city floating high above the clouds, but that doesn’t change the fact that immersion in the experience is key. For the experience to work the player needs to feel like he or she really is Booker DeWitt and that they truly care about Elizabeth. Other than the fact the city floats, the game is a wonderful analogy for America at the time, of a nation struggling with archaic religious oversight and racial divisions, desperate to remain important and relevant in the world. Who are we kidding? That’s America at any time, and no more so than right now.

But the music in BioShock Infinite, a crutch so heavily leant upon by other developers to cement the accuracy of their historical setting, is ever so slightly… off.

You notice it first with a beautiful barbershop rendition of God Only Knows by the Beach Boys, but the implication doesn’t really sink in. At this point, Columbia is still a joyful playground to explore, and the sweet, all-American rendition of a cheery classic – complete with candy-stripe blazers and a little airship spectacle – just feels right.

A few days later, this song was playing on my mind. I couldn’t stop singing it, for one thing – the trademark of a classic Beach Boys tune – but it was more than an irritating earworm.

I was 100% convinced in my own knowledge that Brian Wilson and Tony Asher had written God Only Knows back in 1966, but the fact that a barbershop quartet was singing it in a fictional 1912 was driving me crazy. I even Googled to make sure I wasn’t wrong, that the Beach Boys hadn’t actually covered an earlier song, but that wasn’t the case. I felt like an anachronistic song had made its way through quality control by mistake, probably because someone in the studio had become so in love with the idea of including it. It fits so beautifully with the scene, after all.

The edges of the fiction before me were starting to tear a little.

Later, strains of 1979’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, by Cyndi Lauper, can be heard in Battleship Bay. Like the pianola version of Black Hole Sun, this has been rearranged on an era-appropriate instrument – on a calliope, an organ-like instrument that uses steam pressure to produce sound – but unless you’re really paying attention, you don’t notice it on a conscious level.

But again, little by little, those edges are becoming more ragged.

The sharp-eared can also hear strains of other anachronistic songs floating around Columbia, including: Tainted Love, composed by Ed Cobb in 1964 but made famous by Soft Cell in 1982; 1985’s Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears; and REM’s Shiny Happy People, from 1991. These songs are always arranged in a thematically appropriate way, and unless you’re really paying attention to what you’re hearing, they just sound like another piece of background music.

In isolation, these musical anachronisms make precious little sense. If you notice any of them at all they feel like easter eggs or jokes, snuck in by the developers for their own amusement, and it’s easy enough to play through treating them as such. Most people won’t even give them a moment’s thought, but the subconscious seed has been planted that something isn’t quite right with the world we’re inhabiting.

The edges have been torn just enough that you’re aware something else is happening, even if you don’t quite realise it yet. Then you start hearing snippets of the originals, drifting through the static of Elizabeth’s inter-dimensional tears..

It’s only when you progress further on in the story (and realise both the significance of the Lutece twins’ babbling and the true power of Elizabeth’s abilities) that you understand how these musical anachronisms have come into being: through tears in space and time itself, ultimately to be plagiarised by Columbia’s pre-eminent composer, Albert Fink. It may not be a major plot point, but it’s a far more subtle realisation than the original BioShock’s big reveal montage. Importantly for a medium striving to be more than a childish plaything, it also places more confidence in the player than its peers, to understand the significance of what has happened without needing their hand held at every step.

BioShock Infinite ultimately treads a fine line between allowing its players to become subconsciously aware of those ragged edges, while not overtly spoiling the immersion of the experience. It’s a tough trick to master, but when performed well, the end result is sublime.

Here’s hoping that Westworld can do the same, and continues to riff on the best bits of the video games to which it owes so much – it’s certainly set off in the right direction.

Haven’t yet explored the dizzy heights of Columbia? Pick up BioShock: The Collection from Amazon.

Related Posts