(Note: This post focuses on the video game Bioshock Infinite. There are MAJOR spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.)
I recently completed a playthrough of Bioshock Infinite after weeks of slowly chipping away at the game. Despite being initially underwhelmed by the game, days later, I find myself continuing to mull over the game’s themes. The ending left me with an uneasy, maybe even unpleasant, feeling. But, it’s a rare feeling that I’ve had after playing only a small handful of games. It’s that feeling that’s given me reason to reconsider—and I’m glad that’s the case. Bioshock Infinite may very well stand as a classic and one of the best games of this generation. It’s use of music is absolutely central to that, and totally unique in my experience. Amazingly, at the heart of it is a haunting rendition of the gospel and country classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
To explain: Bioshock Infinite took up the difficult task of being a true sequel to Bioshock, already considered a classic and known for using the medium’s lowest format—the first-person shooter (the kind of game where the player’s point of view is that of looking down the barrel of a gun)— to pick apart Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism by setting the game in a dystopian, art-deco inspired underwater city. Not an easy act to follow.
Bioshock Infinite is not a direct sequel. Instead, it takes the skeletal framework of its predecessor’s plot and builds a new narrative from the tropes of the original game. Instead of an art-deco city under the ocean, Bioshock Inifinite creates a city that floats on clouds, Columbia, steeped in a twisted version of Civil War-era American ideology defined by racism and religious zeal.
Before you go saying to yourself, “I dunno, that sounds a little pretentious” let me also add that the “Infinite” in Bioshock Infinite isn’t an arbitrary name. It’s infinite as in infinite universe theory. Throughout the game, the central non-playable character, Elizabeth, manages to open up “tears” in the space time continuum, allowing the playable character, Booker, to move backward and forward through time, to parallel versions of the current time, and interact with alternate versions of the game’s characters. Ok, now you can call the premise pretentious. It is, and it’s one of the reasons I struggled to enjoy the game early on. The original Bioshock was absolutely ambitious—but it felt more focused and a little more sophisticated. Infinite, on the other hand, seemed to be awash in ideas that were too big for it to handle. It felt like a fuzzy, bizzaro-world version of the original.
But, after completing the game (and using space time travel to briefly return to the world of the original) it hit me. That’s the point. The use of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in the opening moments of Bioshock Infinite is not just to give you the chills, but to set the stage for even bigger questions that artfully go unanswered.
Specifically, the plot of the game takes Booker (the player) on a journey to free Elizabeth from the city of Columbia where she is being held by Father Comstock, the self-styled “Prophet” and founder of the city. Ultimately, Booker confronts Comstock, killing him and ostensibly putting an end to his designs on destroying the “Sodom below,” and to the game itself. But, the game continues on through a series of sequences that flesh out who Booker is and why we he was brought to the city in the first place. To make a convoluted story short, it’s sorta like the movie Looper. Booker is Comstock and Elizabeth is the daughter of both. She’s used her ability to traverse time and space to bring a sympathetic, younger version of Comstock to the game’s universe so that he can “cut” the branching of space and time at the stem. Booker kills Comstock. Elizabeth then kills Booker (before he becomes Comstock). Elizabeth disappears. The “circle” is broken.
Or so it seems. After the credits roll, the player completes a final sequence where Booker is alive again, in the location where he’s depicted every time he loses consciousness. What, precisely, the game is attempting to say here, I cannot say. The symbolism of cities in the clouds and worlds below suggests religious leanings and the afterlife, but, infinite universes being what they are, it’s tough to say what reality the game might even be set in. Nothing seems clear or resolved at the end of the game—in fact, it’s almost completely unsatisfying. But it’s affecting and it does something that artistic works often do—leave the audience with questions to ponder. In that sense, despite its many misfires, Bioshock Infinite still achieves what it sets out to do. It makes you think.
It’s use of music is underneath all of it. Maureen Murphy’s rendition of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” serves as the de facto theme for the game, but the game is actually full of delightful moments that use music in a smart way. There’s a barbershop quartet singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (a sign behind them proclaims “Hear the music of the future today”), Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” heard through a space-time rift, and dozens of other examples. Mashed together, the songs and themes of the game open each other up to new interpretation, investing meaning, strangeness, and poignancy in equal measure. Great stuff.
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