The BioShock remasters look new. BioShock 1 & 2 were not a bad looking contemporaneously, but many of the textures have been changed, there’s more particle effects, and the darks spookier. The remasters look more modern than ever. They should, they’re running on a PC which is superior to the Xbox 360 in CPU, memory, graphics, and video output. But they sound like garbage.
For all the smoke effects and improved lighting, it seems like no amount of attention was paid to how the game sounded. Gunshots sound hollow, lacking the weight and berth of what I imagine a revolver should sound like. Reloading lacks the satisfying clicks and whirs of the original. Water sounds like toilets endlessly flushing. Something is critically wrong here.
Sound design matters and is everywhere. The sound your phone makes when it unlocks was painstakingly crafted. The clicks as you cycle through a menu reinforce visual stimuli. Even car doors are engineered so that they close with a solid, satisfying thuds. None of that craftsmanship is apparent in BioShock Remastered. It sounds different. It sounds worse.
Good sound design and editing is almost totally invisible. It’s hard to consciously realize that what a sound should, be but it’s easy to tell when something is wrong. I have no idea what the guns of BioShock should sound like (many of them are fictional) but I know these guns sound wrong. They don’t have the weight I expect them to for the damage they’re doing. They sound like peashooters.
In terms of a “remaster” this is especially troubling. The word itself originates from the music industry practice of creating a new, definitive version that will be copied for the end user. This happens when the definitive version ceases to be definitive either due to degradation from use, age, or an inability to stand up to modern standards. In this way, BioShock has not been “remastered,” it’s been “reskinned”. “Retextured.”
Remasters can be a force for good. They give us an opportunity to reexamine games with the new lenses of retrospection. They can show us parts of a game that were simply not possible in the original release or that went unrealized.
Or they can remove Sebastian Shaw’s force ghost from Endor. They can tinker with games in ways that are not useful, and also, worse than the original. BioShock’s audio issues are proof that this was not a careful, loving remaster the same way that Grim Fandango was.
Sound editing may not be the first thing that leaps out at players but it is a lasting thing. BioShock always looked good. It was always spooky and, with the exception of its pacing, has aged well. But its remaster is a reminder that some things belong in the past. That is, of course, unless they’re done well.