Vintage Elements In Video Games: The Gramophone

Friday 4 June 2021

Few things are creepier than the scratching sound of a needle running on vinyl while an enchanting melody echoes through dark, haunting halls and corridors. The very essence of a gramophone is embedded in the most charming and, at the same time, terrifying way in several horror games, where this specific object may be just a passive part of the environment, or it could play a crucial role in the plot, in its own distorted, usually twisted way.

The gramophone as an item is a beautiful thing to look at. Almost always decorated with a large, flower-like pavillion, a carefully crafted manivelle and a solid-looking, impressive base, it is not only an object to admire, but also one that is automatically connected to the old times with a good deal of nostalgia. The fact that it comes from years ago yet it is still a functional item that can be operated and work properly, adds a lot to its vintage charm, as does the several imperfections that its reproductions have in the sound. Once frowned upon, the scratchings and crackings that can be heard on the vinyl as the needle runs on the record, are now considered elements of great sentimental and aesthetic value. Any kind of music can emit a completely different feel when accompanied by those.

Many times gramophones are just part of a room's setting, possibly an object of heritage or maybe expressing the house owner's love for vintage items, like the one that appears in Dr Ramusskin's living room in Gray Matter. Such gramophones are peaceful, with no creepy aura about them, and they simply add a touch of retro charm to the environments where they are found.

In Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, Lara Croft spots a gramophone with a golden pavillion at the back of Renne's Pawnshop, while looking for information that will lead her to the mysterious Frenchman Bouchard. The pawnshop hosts several items that come from different eras and styles, like two old armchairs, a bicycle, or a washing machine. It is unclear whether the gramophone belongs to the owner of the store or is one of the many pawned items in there - although most likely it is the second case.

Similarly peaceful on first look, the gramophone which stands on the desk in the claustrophobic office of the Antarctica Facility in Resident Evil: Code Veronica plays no music but the overall setting of the room, which is tiny yet full of bizarre, scary details, like the bear trophy head or the framed vintage sword, makes it look rather ominous. The gramophone stands out in its bright colours, yet one more vintage object in a room where modern technology is also present in the form of a fax machine or a computer.

The setting is reproduced in "Game of Oblivion", the episode of The Darkside Chronicles which retells the Code Veronica story. The gramophone is again there, this time in the corner of the room, one more time positioned below the framed sword.

Gramophones seem to be an essential part of the environment in old villas and manors, so it is no surprise when we stumble upon one in the trap-filled yet enchanting Spencer mansion in the first Resident Evil game. Found in a small office, officially called "reading room" with several other vintage objects, said gramophone contributes to the already spooky, haunting atmosphere of the house. The record that sits on its turntable is "Jupiter", a symphony by Mozart, but we do not get a chance to listen to it.

In Thief Reboot, Garret comes across several steampunk-styled gramophones in the gloomy buildings rooms that he infiltrates. They are all identical, with a thin horn, pretty much like the one in the Spencer mansion.

In Resident Evil: Outbreak, one can be seen in the vintage-looking office which is on the upper floor of Jack's Bar. As the zombies swarm the bar and the other rooms below, the survivors start exploring the upper areas, looking for a way to escape. The gramophone is on a wooden stand, in front of a bookcase, and plays no music - it could very well be dysfunctional, used only for decoration purposes.

In the half-real - half-ghostly world of Murdered: Soul Suspect, gramophones look quite spooky, as they are reminders of older times by default and sometimes they are revealed as elements of past visions or parts of the real world that belong to their ghostly counterpart. They don't play any music, but this doesn't make them any less compelling.

Gramophones that play music on their own or that can be interacted with to do so are naturally much more interesting. In Tomb Raider: Reborn, the gramophone becomes an important element of the environment and its creepy atmosphere in what looks like a slaughter room filled with butchered meat and tons of garbage. The room is underground, and passing through it is unavoidable, as there seems to be no other way forward. There is a record playing on the gramophone, and the music that is heard is an eery chant that sounds like ritualistic vocals.

A much cozier and friendly gramophone can be found in Lara's library, in Rise of the Tomb Raider. Not only it is a more than fitting addition to Lara's mansion, it also plays the iconic "Venice Violins" tune from Tomb Raider 2.

One of the first scenes of The Evil Within includes a gramophone which plays Bach's "Air on a G String". Said gramophone sits on the bench of a horrifying butcher who wanders around his nightmarish "workshop", ready to slaughter and cut in pieces his potential victims. As Sebastian, the protagonist, attempts to grab the man's keys in order to escape, the melody becomes louder, and accompanies him as he stealthily makes his way to the exit door, only to stop abruptly as soon as he crosses a laser trap which alerts the butcher who immediately stops whatever he had been doing and runs after him. 

Similar gramophones can be found throughout the whole game, although the melody that can be heard from most of them is Debussy's "Claire de Lune". Strongly associated to the traumatized childhood of Ruvik, the game's antagonist, this beautiful yet haunting melody dominates most places that have somehow to do with Ruvik, both directly and indirectly. Portals leading to the safe haven, rooms in visions that reveal portions of his past, include gramophones in their space from which either of the two melodies is heard, usually distorted and broken. A few times they are just part of the decoration, sitting silently on a desk or a side-table.

Gramophones also appear in Juli Kidman's episodes, where they also convey their messages via distorted tunes.

Bach's emblematic melody through a gramophone is also present in a crucial moment in BioShock Infinite, as the hero, Booker DeWitt, begins to get deeper into his adventure in Emporia, as he enters the building of the Order of the Raven. Crow cries can be heard in the distance, as Booker approaches the exit door leading to an isolated terrace, while "Air on a G String" plays from an unidentifiable source. When Booker arrives at the terrace, ha can see a golden gramophone on the left side, from which Bach's melody plays. Moments later, a fierce type of enemy, the Crow, makes his first appearance.

Gramophones can be seen in several other places in the game, and they play various melodies as soon as you turn them on. Sometimes this music is contemporary, but recorded and heard in such a way as to sound like a vintage tune.

Set in a total-white, cold-looking environment, the white gramophone that Adam Jensen comes across in Megan Reed's private room in Omega Ranch in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, is in an unexpected way comforting. The whole room and its furniture look like reliefs, and the gramophone is no exception. Its solid, white pavillion is decorated with flower-like designs that seem like they are carved on it. When you interact with it, it plays a tune that resembles a familiar piece from the first games of the series.

Like almost all vintage objects in video games, the gramophones echo the past in their special way, evoking a great variety of feelings, depending on their setting and their use. It is notable that, although technology constantly evolves, and environments in video games become more and more modern and futuristic, retro items like gramophones still appear in various rooms, serving their own purpose, both for nostalgia and greatly contributing to the overall feel and atmosphere of the stories that they are part of.



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