MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
Consider yourself warned!
When Bioshock Infinite hit last March, I was floored. The gameplay was fun, Columbia was an interesting and vibrant world to explore, but more than anything, I was impressed with the storytelling. Here was a game that could be discussed, analyzed, and debated all while being a blast to play. Much has been said of Infinite’s storytelling prowess, but I want to focus on an aspect that doesn’t get as much attention. Infinite made superb use of anachronistic music, songs from an era different (say 1960) than the time period the story is set in. (1912 in the case of Bioshock Infinite)
I had just entered Columbia for the first time. I marveled as I walked through a fantastic square teeming with live and color, with the impressive image of Zachary Comstock standing tall in front of me. As I left the square, I heard a familiar tune coming from somewhere nearby. I had to think for a second, “Wait, is that the Beach Boys?” No sooner does this thought enter my head, when a floating stage appears before me carrying a barbershop quartet singing Brian Wilson’s classic “God Only Knows”. While initially jarring, it soon felt completely natural to hear this song as I walked through Columbia, overhearing phrases such as “…following the Prophet” and “Beware the False Shepherd.”
You are slammed with overtly religious imagery as soon as you enter Columbia; in fact, you have to be baptized before you can even enter Columbia proper. So, despite not coming out for another 50 plus years after the game’s 1912 setting, it made sense to hear God Only Knows. Why wouldn’t these people be singing a song with God in the title? Looking at the title alone, the song seemed to perfectly signify what the people of Columbia believed. “God Only Knows” the proper way to act, think, and behave. On this level, the song serves the purpose of helping to further cement the religious overtones found in Columbia, but it also works on a different level that only became apparent once I had completed the game (and thanks to a random message board user, whose name I don’t remember).
The line in the chorus is “God only knows what I’d be without you”, which upon reflection, condenses all of the complexities of Booker DeWitt/Zachary Comstock, and their respective relationships with Elizabeth/Anna, into one perfect line. You can imagine Booker uttering this into his whiskey bottle, reflecting on the shambles his life has fallen into without Anna. It could apply to Future Elizabeth, staring down at a New York City aflame, wondering how her life could be different if Booker had managed to save her. And it certainly applies to Comstock, who became a tyrannical zealot, without Anna ever being a part of his timeline. The theme of constants and variables, of the decisions and actions that define who a person becomes, is perfectly encapsulated in this song that appears within the first ten minutes of the game.
This is just one example of Bioshock Infinite’s unparalleled use of anachronistic music to help tell its story. The use of “Fortunate Son” during the revolt, or “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as Elizabeth takes in the beach, free for the first time in her life, are equally effective. And of course, there is “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, repeated many times throughout the story, succinctly summing up the overall theme of the game. It isn’t just a gimmick; in fact, the anachronistic nature is what makes the songs work so well. Being popular songs from a different era draws attention to them, but covering them a style of music prevalent in 1912, helps them fit in with the world of the game. I sincerely hope more game devs take the care in their music choices that Ken Levine has made here.
* Fun Fact: “God Only Knows” was the first pop song to prominently feature the word “God”. There’s your rock history lesson of the week.