Gary Schyman Talks To Us About Scoring ‘BioShock Infinite’

Bioshock Infinite is unique in many, many ways, not least its score. String-heavy and written as ensemble pieces, the score is the work of veteran game composer Gary Schyman. We got a chance to talk with Gary about his past career on ’80s action shows, how he approaches a game, and what makes BioShock Infinite so unique.

Gamma Squad: You got your start as a composer in a surprising place: Working on ’80s action shows like ‘The A-Team’ and ‘Magnum P.I.’. What was it like and how did it inform your future work?

Schyman: It was a great opportunity for a composer starting out. I was working on classic American television shows from that period. I was working for the composing team of Mike Post and Peter Carpenter and we did television shows like The Great American Hero, Magnum P.I. and The A-Team. It was an opportunity to write lots of music for television, to have it recorded with live orchestra every week, and it was just a really good experience cranking out lots of interesting music in a style that wasn’t necessarily natural to me but one which I ended up mastering. It expanded my vocabulary so it was all-around a very lucky and useful experience for a young composer starting out.

Gamma Squad: How do you approach scoring a game?

Schyman: You are hired to write a lot of very specific music. Very often you’re given an asset list and each and every piece of music you write has a very specific purpose in the game so basically you’re giving the developer the music they need. Obviously you’re creating a style and unique approach for each and every project. The development team is responsible for telling me what kind of specific music they need in the game and they give me information about how it’s being used. They will give me visual assets in terms of capturing videos of gameplay and then they’ll provide that to me and say the music is going here and this is what’s going on while the music is being triggered.

Gamma Squad: What we’ve heard of BioShock Infinite so far is very, very different from your previous work. What elements of the game put you towards that stylistic choice?

Schyman: BioShock Infinite involved the use of very small string ensembles. It was recorded with small groups of players, as few as three instruments and as many as ten at a time. It’s a different sound from the orchestra and it really seemed to feel right for the game. I tried an orchestral approach and it didn’t seem to work so when I tried this, it had this simpler times kind of vibe to it perhaps. It just felt right to the whole team when they heard it. Once I found that sound, I sent it off and Ken liked it, then the score really started to take shape in many ways.

Gamma Squad: How was scoring for a location like Columbia different from scoring a place like Rapture?

Schyman: In some ways they’re similar because they’re very dysfunctional, scary places but they’re almost polar opposite in some respects because one is a dark, wet place under the sea, very claustrophobic. Columbia is just the opposite – it’s wide open, bright sunlight everywhere and fresh air, so they’re a very different vibe. They are also different time periods with completely unique characters. In many respects BioShock Infinite is a completely different game and because of that it demands a different approach, and it received a different approach.

Gamma Squad: The game’s marketing materials have used a lot of early twentieth century American folk songs. Did you build your score around music from that period?

Schyman: I wouldn’t say that I developed the score around music of the period. The music of the period influenced me and I was aware of it. There is at least one piece of music that I was very conscious of, the music of the great 19th century American songwriter Stephen Foster, where he was in my mind when I wrote that cue. But I was not really asked to write music that complemented any of the in-game source music or licensed music. To a great extent I was isolated from that and was just asked to respond and score to very specific parts of the game.

BioShock Infinite is out tomorrow