Thursday, April 18, 2013

Will The Circle Be Unbroken? (A Bioshock Infinite Review)

"Columbian Blitzkrieg" (t-shirt) by FamousAfterDeth

I don't know that it's possible to review Bioshock Infinite in a traditional sense without giving away any of the major plot points. Since that's the last thing I want to do this early into a game's release, let me just say this straight out of the gate: there are many unexpected developments of consequence in Bioshock Infinite, and you should probably just go play the game yourself if you want to experience them.

Instead, what this review will primarily focus on is the role of music in Bioshock Infinite, which seems like a safe starting place, and how the game fits into the wider world of Bioshock (again, without giving too much away, hopefully.) One day, I do hope to delve much deeper into the actual story of Bioshock Infinite in the same way I did with the original Bioshock, but for the time being, we'll keep things nice and non-spoilery.

Take note: My definition of what might be a spoiler may differ from yours.  If you haven't played it yet and want to go into Bioshock Infinite a complete virgin, and have been studiously avoiding any and all references to it in gaming media for that purpose, you might want to give the rest of this article a pass.  I'll be going into detail regarding some of the basic stuff, back-of-the-box stuff, and the sort of early plot points that set up the remainder of the game, like where it takes place, who the major players are, and how the game plays.  Again, I don't consider these spoilers, but you might, so be warned.


"Fallen Lamb" by Emily Lemay

For those of you who don't know, Bioshock Infinite takes place in 1912 in the aerial, floating city of Columbia. Socially and politically, Columbia is split with a heavy dividing line between the haves and the have-nots; here, the racist, elitist Founders and the rebellious Vox Populi. You take on the role of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent hired to "bring us the girl and wipe away the debt" - in other words, travel to Columbia, rescue Elizabeth (a young woman being kept in a tower) and bring her to a specified set of co-ordinates. Elizabeth is guarded and protected by the monstrous Songbird, and was imprisoned in the first place by one Zachary Comstock, the hero and original Founder of Columbia.

Comstock, who calls himself "The Prophet", is a preacher, of sorts, in the "old-time-religion" mold. He is to religion, in fact, what Andrew Ryan was to capitalism: he has established this break-away state of Columbia as a way to take his beliefs to their most extreme apex, and the society he has founded has ascribed to his holy word with fervour (at least on the surface). He also idolizes the Founding Fathers of America, and aspires for Columbia to be more American than America itself. It's a fascinating exploration of the psyche of early 20th century America and the intersection of patriotism, God-fearin' religion, and class warfare, amplified to the Nth degree.

I won't get into why Comstock is keeping Elizabeth under lock and key, and why Booker has been hired to break her out, but I will say that Elizabeth has some unique abilities that make her invaluable to a nation like Columbia and a man like Comstock, amongst others.  Bioshock Infinite plays out, in main part, like the least annoying escort mission ever, with Elizabeth staying out of your way, avoiding injury (the game doesn't allow her to get hurt during combat, which was a brilliant decision) and locating ammo, health, salts and money for you at critical junctures.  Her (for the purposes of this review, unspecified) abilities also come in extremely handy, both in terms of gameplay and pushing the story along. 

"Bioshock Infinite" by Melissa Smith

There are a lot of deliberate parallels between Bioshock Infinite and its predecessors.  For example, where Bioshock and Bioshock 2 allowed the player to make use of ADAM-powered Plasmids, Infinite offers Salt-powered Vigors.  Where the first two games featured the now-iconic Big Daddys, Infinite boasts a number of massive, tank-like enemies, including Handymen, three varieties of Motorized Patriot (George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln), and the massive Songbird.  Voxaphones, the equivalent to Bioshock's Audio Diaries, are located throughout Columbia and fill in background details of the story.  And those are just the surface similarities.  Elizabeth's relationship with the Songbird recalls the one between Little Sisters and Big Daddys, though more naturalistic and less creepy, and the concept of a floating city is just as unlikely, and just as beautifully rendered, as an underwater one.

One of the most prominant parallels, however, is the use of music in the games.  In the original Bioshock, Django Reinhardt's 1949 recording of "La Mer (Beyond The Sea)" is a thematically appropriate touchstone for the entire game, and its signature repeated appearance becomes, over time, strongly associated with the environment.  Besides the fact that the song has an aquatic theme, it just feels right for the 1960s period of Bioshock, the sort of thing that might have played in a lounge or cabaret in Rapture before its undoing.  Post-collapse, it remains an eerie reminder of what once was and what could have been.

In Bioshock Infinite, the central song is the traditional hymn "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?", written in 1907 by Ada Habershon and Charles Gabriel and performed here by Maureen Murphy.  While there are superficial reasons why this song is perfect for Infinite - it fits into the time period of the game, and it dovetails nicely with the religious overtones that run throughout Columbia - it works as a somewhat more integral element to the story than "La Mer" did for the original Bioshock.  Saying anymore would bring us a little to close to spoiler territory.  Suffice to say, by the ending of the game, the song is fresh in your mind, and there's little doubt as to why it was chosen to play such a paramount role throughout.

Maureen Murphy, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" (arr. by Marc Lacuesta)

There's a moment, about halfway through, that is oddly affective when you first experience it and intensely emotional in retrospect.  Just after entering the Shanty Town - Columbia's dark, poverty-stricken underbelly - Booker and Elizabeth find themselves descending into the basement of a rundown hovel, where they encounter a terrified urchin.  The kid runs and hides under the stairs; not that surprising a reaction, considering that Booker is heavily armed and probably just shot up a bunch of guys topside.  Booker spots a guitar, and you have the option of sitting down and playing it, while Elizabeth takes up the refrain from "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" and attempts to coax the boy out with an orange.  It's a quiet and reflective couple of minutes: besides being remarkably well-performed, the vignette works to humanize both Elizabeth and Booker, to present them in a light where they aren't constantly running for their lives or towards some ultimate goal.  Instead, they're just hanging out, taking a breather from the relentless action, playing guitar and singing a song they both know.  It's the sort of thing a couple of people might actually do in that situation, and - from a storytelling perspective - it brands that particular song into your memory, to be called upon later.

"Bioshock: Lutece" by Coey Kuhn

Being a century out from the year that Bioshock Infinite is set in, there's enough of a gulf that we don't really identify 1912 as having a huge variety of musical styles and genres.  But the game's soundtrack offers a pretty diverse spectrum: there's barbershop, fairground music, gospel music, ragtime, folk music, Irish jigs, and the sort of Tin Pan Alley output that we now consider 'popular standards', amongst others.  One fascinating creative decision (and one that, as the game progresses, actually takes on more significance) was the featuring of 1912 covers of contemporary songs.  So, for example, you'll encounter a calliope version of "Girls Just Want To Have Fun", or a barbershop quartet singing the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows".  All of these songs are diagetic; they're incorporated into the narrative of the game rather than a disconnected, overlaid soundtrack.  How these individuals circa the 1910s are aware of songs which are nominally from the future is a question that is never directly addressed, although there are implied possibilities.

A Mighty Wind, "God Only Knows"

Whereas music in the original Bioshock games was well-integrated but largely existed to play to the creepy atmosphere, Bioshock Infinite makes use of its non-compositional (ie: traditional soundtrack) songs to not only build its world but also as part of its central narrative. This is used to great, even shocking, effect at times: witness the song that suddenly starts playing as you enter the composer Albert Fink's home, for example, or the strains of a very familiar melody that start to echo as things begin to unravel near the end. 

"Songbird" (t-shirt) by Adho1982

Garry Schyman's score for the game deserves a mention.  Schyman has been the composer for the series since the first Bioshock, and he raises the bar here, referencing his past cues while creating something entirely new for Infinite.  Cognizant of both the time period and the unique environment of the game, Schyman brings in everything from music boxes to tango to full-on bombastic orchestral blood-pumpers, and of course anchors everything with a strong turn-of-the-century choral gospel influence (both in "Welcome to Columbia" and "Baptism", the two framing songs for the game chronologically).  Schyman won a number of awards for the first Bioshock soundtrack and was nominated for his work on Bioshock 2; I have no doubt that his Bioshock Infinite score will garner the same sort of acclaim.

The officially-released soundtrack for Bioshock, which was included with the Premium and Songbird editions of the game, is focused largely on Schyman's score, supplemented by three versions of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?" (one arranged choral version, and both an abridged and full version of the song performed by Elizabeth and Booker) and only two of the non-score songs from the game: Scott Joplin's "Solace" performed by Duncan Watt and the Irish jig "Rory O’More/Saddle The Pony"performed by David Porter and Rodney and Elvie Miller.  None of the covers that make Infinite so unique make an appearance here, unfortunately - maybe as time goes by, these songs will see some sort of official light of day.

Stephin Merritt, "The Sun And The Sea And The Sky"

(The above song, incidentally, is in no way related to Bioshock Infinite, but I did want to share it here, given its content.  I came across this track, fortuitously enough, when I was about halfway through the game last week, and felt like it was thematically appropriate not just for Infinite but for the series as a whole.  Make of that what you will.)

"Bioshock Infinite Poster" by William Henry

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