The Auditory Experience of Rapture and Columbia: Sound Effects and Dialogue
Welcome to the second part of “The Auditory Experience of Rapture and Columbia” Bioshock miniseries! In this three-part investigation, Paige Sammartino will sound out why this 2K Games series is music to our ears. This article contains spoilers for the Bioshock series.
For video games, sound and dialogue are key components in communicating narrative elements, such as plot or characterization. The Bioshock franchise, first-person shooter games that dabble in the horror genre, doesn’t always have the opportunity to incorporate interaction between characters. However, much as with the games’ use of music, Bioshock titles make the most of sound effects and dialogue to build what information they need to share with players.
Notable sound effects include indicators of unusual enemies. Bioshock’s Big Daddies have distinct sounds, similar to whales, that alert players to their presence: nonthreatening hums when at peace and blaring groans when protecting the Little Sisters from harm. Once the player learns that Big Daddies were once human, heavily spliced, and then grafted into diving suits, Bioshock again integrates horror into its setting through sound with the knowledge that these groans are the only vocalizations Big Daddies are capable of.
Plasmids and vigors, the supernatural powers the player characters develop in addition to their weapons, also incorporate sound effects. Much as switching to a new weapon includes the sound effect of a gun clicking into place or iron being brandished, plasmids and vigors have sounds of their own. Occasionally, we see the player character’s hand crackle with electricity or sizzle with fire. Despite the powers’ being a less realistic detail than man-made weapons, the use of sound effects equalizes the two options of attack. Just as loading and firing weapons make noise, sounds accompany each power. Effects of note include those of siccing bees and crows on enemies, and the bell of hypnotizing Big Daddies into protecting Jack. When new plasmids and vigors enter the rotation, the game demonstrates their use through old-fashioned picture shows and voiceover that coincide with the time period.
In Infinite, the concept of the Big Daddy is recreated through Firemen and Handymen, both once human, though these enemies are capable of some speech. Players will hear Firemen screaming hysterically, which in early appearances seems like villain/jump scare behavior, but it is later revealed that Firemen are former citizens of Columbia facing punishment by being locked into their suits and continuously burned alive. The Handymen, grafted to mechanical suits like Big Daddies, were men too old or weak to serve Columbia, and so new able bodies were forced upon them. The suits hurt, however; if players listen to Handyman dialogue during their chaotic battle sequences, they wail in pain and lament that the sound of their lungs and teeth keep them from sleeping, and that their bodies are cold as ice. This is some of the most horrifying dialogue in the game.
Dialogue is key in establishing story and characters. Players on their second playthrough may notice new meaning in lines. Atlas’s ever-present “Would you kindly” may seem to first-time players to be a quirk congruent with his Irish politeness, but is really a key phrase used to manipulate Jack. The exchanges between Rosalind and Robert Lutece, infuriatingly roundabout and riddlesome in the first playthrough, carry more weight once the player realizes that the two are not only alternate universe versions of the same person but have followed Booker and Elizabeth through infinite cycles of trying to set right what once went wrong.
Familial love, particularly that between father and daughter, is perhaps the Bioshock franchise’s most prominent theme. In the original game, Jack overhears the one-sided dialogues between Little Sisters and their Big Daddies. While Big Daddy can only hum in reply, Little Sisters chatter on and carry entire conversations with “Mr. Bubbles” by themselves. They also speak to Jack, at first refusing his salvation, but then expressing gratitude once rescued. Such childlike scripts establish Little Sisters as innocents and humanizes them through speech. Jack experiences two snippets of dialogue with other characters over and over throughout the game: “Would you kindly” prefacing each self-serving request from the villain, and “Thank you” from the little girls he saves of his own volition. Jack’s individualism as a human being comes from his choice to save the Little Sisters, rewarded with gratitude, while his pain connects to words he’s been trained to follow without thought. This ties into Jack’s father Andrew Ryan’s belief that “A man chooses, a slave obeys.”
After limited interaction with other characters in the earlier Bioshock games, one of the notable divergences in Infinite was the presence of a companion character in Elizabeth. Booker regularly engages with her throughout the game, from frantic exchanges in battle to private jokes in moments of peace. Like the Little Sisters, Elizabeth demonstrates her innocence through dialogue, observing the world around her with naivety and insisting Booker join her to dance and explore; in place of the Big Daddies’ hums of approval, the player gets Booker’s snark, though over time he mellows into gruff affection. By the final arc, Booker expresses wanting nothing more than to take Elizabeth away to Paris or wherever she wants to go. The father-daughter relationship, revealed to be literally so due to the existence of multiple universes, is the core of Infinite’s entire plot, and simply through offhand dialogue and interaction, players glean a full understanding of both characters and the weight of their conflict.
In Rapture, it is critical that players feel alone, achieved through silence, and that Little Sisters be a symbol of hope for the future, achieved through dialogue. In Columbia, it is critical that Booker no longer feels alone with Elizabeth, achieved through dialogue, and that his life without his daughter be empty, achieved through silence.
Dialogue in these games also communicates villain duplicity, acknowledging the influence as well as the dangers of well-spoken individuals. Fontaine and Comstock both opt to use kinder, gentler tones as tools for manipulation, invoking congeniality for their own agendas.
In Bioshock, the auditory experience is key to the reveal that Atlas, Jack’s only friend, is truly Frank Fontaine, the game’s big bad. Atlas’s gentle voice and articulate language characterize him as a likable ally. The player doesn’t see him in person, but everything about his Irish brogue is soft and cordial, especially his verbal tic of prefacing his requests for aid with “would you kindly.” Players are happy to help and distraught when they believe his family has been killed; rushing to Atlas’s aid is done without a second thought.
His transformation to Fontaine comes through dialogue, where he ditches the polite speech and switches over to his natural voice, rougher, hardened by a Brooklyn accent and increased use of slang and profanity. Fontaine’s condescension towards Jack is audible, especially in his no-longer-charming deliveries of “would you kindly.” His arrogance extends to a meta level, where the player realizes that they’ve followed every “would you kindly” instruction without question, simply thinking it guidance through the plot. The old-fashioned courteousness feels so natural coming from Atlas that players never question its repetition, but in Fontaine’s smirking drawl, “would you kindly” is a constant reminder that the players themselves got played. Simply by changing a character’s voice, the game drives home the fact that it exploited the standard gameplay of its own genre to upend its narrative.
Continuing its trend of doing the exact opposite of Bioshock to accomplish the same narrative feat, Infinite gives us Father Comstock and Booker DeWitt. Where Comstock is an alternate universe version of Booker, players again get an identity reveal of the villain’s true identity. Unlike the difference between Atlas and Fontaine, antagonist Comstock’s is the more articulate voice, paternal and polished versus Booker’s gruff, often one-word answers. Comstock and other timelines’ Bookers who’ve gone down villainous paths seem to have a knack for public speaking and rallying large groups of people, while Booker himself doesn’t bother much with communication skills.
As a man of God, albeit a corrupt one, Comstock keeps his language clean, while Booker doesn’t shy away from profanity in stressful situations or casual dialogue; he does dial it back when in earshot of Elizabeth, but even she picks up on his rougher speech patterns. After a few hours together, Elizabeth responds to an unusual interaction with another character by asking Booker, “What the hell was that?” with both a tone and smile that suggest she’s unaccustomed to using profanity and may even consider herself daring for saying “hell.” The exchange comes off as a surprisingly endearing example of father-daughter bonding.
Dialogue and sound effects are essential to building characterization in the Bioshock games, especially for the protagonists who have little speaking time. Additionally, they are key elements in world and plot construction. While adhering to gameplay mechanics of FPS and horror titles—playing as a point-of-view character, small casts, focus on atmosphere and isolation—Bioshock titles make the most of audio to build a complete narrative experience. From music to dialogue, and even details as simple as sound effects create games that stand apart both in the eyes of critics and players.