Uncanny tunes: The music of Bioshock Infinite

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Requisite spoiler disclaimer: Unlike much of what I write about here at the blog, video games do benefit from not knowing certain details. That said, it’s impossible to discuss the Bioshock series without going into at least a few particulars. While I avoid discussing Bioshock Infinite’s plot in much detail, and even keep my discussion of the first Bioshock’s ending a bit vague, those who wish to go into the games totally blind would be best to read this piece after you’ve fully explored Rapture and Colombia.

“Is that…The Beach Boys?”

It’s weird, considering all the wondrous sights in the first 10 minutes of Bioshock Infinite, that it was a song that gave me pause. After all, in that short timeframe, I’d been rocketed through the air to a beautiful, mysterious city in the sky that seemed to be a utopian (dystopian?) vision of American exceptionalism mixed with religious dogma. There were towering statues, strange religious shrines and countless other rare sights — oh yeah, and the fact that it’s 1912 and yet I was in A FLOATING CITY IN THE SKY.

None of that seemed remotely strange or out of place until, walking through the city’s bustling courtyard, I heard the familiar harmonies of “God Only Knows” wafting through the digital air. Turning the corner, I saw a barbershop quartet performing a beautiful rendition of a song that (in the game’s timeline) was not supposed to have been written for another 50-plus years. The sign in front of the quarted read “Albert Fink presents ‘God Only Knows,’ Colombia’s gayest quartet ­– the music of tomorrow, today!” A couple was slowdancing in front of the singers, transfixed. When the quartet finished, its members flew away on the jet-powered floating airship they were standing on.

I didn’t think a second thought about why there was a jet-powered floating airship in this universe. All I could think about was why “God Only Knows” was in this universe.

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Bioshock Infinite, released late last month, is a spiritual sequel to 2007’s Bioshock, one of the most acclaimed video games of the past 10 years. It’s a “spiritual” sequel because it follows Bioshock not in plot — the semi-underwhelming Bioshock 2 did that — but in gameplay mechanics and themes. (And because it returns the original game’s auteur figure, director Ken Levine, to the franchise.)

Both Bioshock games are first-person shooters that combine traditional weapons with projectile superpowers, like the ability to zap enemies with lightning or other more elaborate powers (my Infinite favourite is “undertow,” which allows you to blast away enemies with water or use a watery lasso to reel them in). From a gameplay point of view, if you played Bioshock, you’d feel right at home in the world of Infinite. But their real connection between the games is their magnificently realized worlds, both ruled by charismatic male leaders: Bioshock’s Rapture, a collapsed society based around Ayn Randian individualism, and Infinite’s Colombia, a seceded American dream/nightmare that’s still thriving when you arrive, though you quickly find signs of unrest under its shiny surface.

Upon its release, the first Bioshock earned a great deal of praise for its emotional weight, mostly based on the moral choice it presented the player: whether or not to harvest essential skill-providing energy from the abused “Little Sisters” that wandered through Rapture. Eventually, though, most players realized that the game gave you extra gifts for saving the Sisters that made up for the sacrifice, rendering the choice rather meaningless.

Fittingly, this only reinforced the game’s main conceit: a meta-critique on the illusion of choice within video games. At the game’s emotional climax, you finally confront Rapture’s dominant superman, Andrew Ryan, and find out that much of what you’ve been told for the past 10-12 hours has been a lie — that following the game’s orders has made you not an autonomous agent, but a pawn in someone else’s endgame. It’s a remarkable moment because it’s so antithetical to videogaming in general: why would you question what the game is telling you to do? Isn’t the game being helpful?

It is, of course — in the sense that the game’s job is to bring you, inevitably, to that very point. But as Andrew Ryan confronts your faceless protagonist with the full scope of his powerlessness, he’s speaking to you there, holding the controller, as much as he is your avatar. You thought you had control. You thought you had choice. You never did.

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What makes Infinite a bit different is that its protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is a seemingly much more fleshed-out character than Bioshock’s Jack. You know that he’s a private detective, headed out on a simple enough mission: “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” You know he had a gambling problem. As the game goes along, you learn about his military history. These pieces of DeWitt’s come in fragments, but given that DeWitt is a much more vocal character than Jack ever was, you have enough to go on that you easily fill in the rest yourself; he’s no blank slate.

All the same, though, Infinite ends up being a meta-critique about the power of videogames, in this case questioning not choice, but narrative. The streets and sounds of Colombia are filled with the story of Zachary Comstock, the floating city’s prophet leader. In one of the game’s most stirring, unsettling levels, you fight through a museum dedicated to Comstock’s military victories and his greatest personal tragedy — and it’s a story with many great horrors, to say the least. (Infinite is one of the rare cases where a game’s rating “M for mature” is warranted for more than violence and sex.)

As you venture through the city, soon with the mysteriously powerful Elizabeth by your side, you find plenty of evidence to suggest that much of Comstock’s story is misleading at best, an outright fabrication at worse. But as the truth begins to unfold, the game begins to throw hints into the mix suggesting that your own story may not quite be so clear either, leading to a game-ending epiphany that is every bit as compelling as the first game’s twist. It actually led me to completely replay the entire game within 72 hours of finishing it the first time, just so I could trace the twist back through its many clues.

But the fact that you’re a more robust character than in Bioshock makes the dialogue between the game and its player a bit trickier. After all, there’s no mistaking the fact that the characters are speaking to “Booker,” not you, this time around. (And because Colombia is an active society, not a collapsed one like Rapture, there is a lot more dialogue and discussion in this world.) So like most games, Bioshock relies on a number of traditional cues to bring important information to the player: on-screen text, button overlays and other HUD (heads-up display) methods. Music plays a key role in this: for example, astute gamers will quickly pick up on the musical cue signifying that all enemies in an area have been killed, as it’s a pretty clear signal to the player to finally exhale.

But these are all gameplay signifiers; they tell you what to do. What makes Bioshock Infinite’s musical soundtrack so impressive is the degree to which it doesn’t just suggest what to do, or even what to feel, but how it serves as a call to think.

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One reason why the Bioshock series’ plot twists work is that the development team knows that you don’t watch a videogame like you would a movie: constantly engaged in the plot, asking questions about the strange, unexplained details around you. In fact, replaying Infinite with my senses attuned, I was shocked by how many clues there actually were layered throughout Colombia, pointing towards what happens in the game’s final moments. But the same task-based game directions — do this, go there, unlock something, fight these guys — that made Bioshock’s twist effective also support Infinite’s narrative turns, leading you to forget to put the pieces together, forget to question the world around you.

Except when you hear a song.

“God Only Knows” isn’t the only seemingly anachronistic song that shows up within the game. Over time, depending on where you explore, you may come across old-timey versions of songs by everyone from R.E.M., to Tears for Fears, to Cyndi Lauper, to CCR. If you know where to look (or listen) you may even come across their original recordings in some cases, which beg even more questions about what exactly is going on in Colombia.

Why these songs? There are a number of thematic connections, certainly, with the moments they appear: for example, “Fortunate Son” appears as a class-based battle is breaking out, and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” speaks somewhat literally to the ambitions of several of the game’s supporting characters.

But the decision to use well-known songs serves more to grab your attention, to shake you out of your task-based gaming experience and scream “YOU KNOW THIS SONG AND IT SHOULDN’T BE HERE.” It’s an uncanny sensation that forces you to stop, take pause and consider your surroundings. And once you do that, you’re soon questioning those floating ships, or that mysterious duo that keeps popping up with bizarre, opaque statements and quickly vanishing, or those odd rips that sparkle right in the middle of thin air.

The world of Bioshock Infinite is a very strange one. But ironically, it’s often a familiar sound that makes you realize just how strange it really is.

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