A solid soundtrack can often elevate a good game to a great or even spectacular experience - but with Bioshock Infinite, music can be both an important world building device and a metatextual commentary on the true natures of the game's main characters. I wanted to delve a little bit into some select songs from the game and expand on how important they are, in hindsight, as clues to Infinite's ending and as commentaries on the main characters - so there will be major spoilers throughout this post!
God Only Knows
Let's get the biggest one out of the way first - one of the first songs we witness is inevitably one of the most important as a clue to the game's ending. At face value, the impact of hearing Fink's "Bee" Sharps perform this just after Booker enters Columbia for the first time is the audio-visual gut punch that tells the attentive player that this world is distinctly not right, that something is clearly wrong. But lyrically, God Only Knows is a reflection of the relationship between Booker and his daughter, Anna:
If you should ever leave me,
Though life would still go on, believe me,
The World could show nothing to me,
So what good could living do me?
We see the loss of Anna in Booker's penance, the carving of his daughter's initials into his hand that serves as the mark of Columbia's 'False Shepard' - and we know that his life after giving her away to wipe his gambling debts is not a particularly pleasant one, as Elizabeth says during the ending sequence:
You shared this room with your regret for almost 20 years.
The Booker the Luteces end up drawing into the Columbiaverse to play out the events of the game is a man who may still be alive, but isn't actually living his life; a life where the horrors of Wounded Knee, the loss of his wife and the loss of his child still haunt him. In fact, the song's main chorus line, 'God only knows / What I'd be without you', could be seen as a personal reflection of Booker's (or at least the player character's Booker) refusal to receive the Baptism - that, quite literally only God knows the answers to his problems, that Baptism will answer none of his questions or give him back what he wants.
But by the ending, we know what Booker would be without Anna: Zachary Hale Comstock.
Comstock, the man Booker becomes by turning to God after Wounded Knee, the man that creates the Columbia universe, is literally the 'what [I'd] be without you' of the song - sterile and cancer-ridden after exposure to the Tears, and without a child of his own (for the purposes of the time line, which can get a little messy, it's best to clarify that Anna/Elizabeth is not born until after the multiverse split of the Baptism - hence why Comstock!Booker has to open a tear in the universe and take Anna from the Booker who lives in the 'Reject Baptism' parallel universe). If we look at the words of God Only Knows' second stanza and interpret them through the eyes of Comstock, a slightly more sinister twist comes into play:
I may not always love you,
But long as there are stars above you,
You never need to doubt it -
I'll make you so sure about it.
The original intent for the stanza is, of course, meant to be more uplifting - that although the singer will not always love the target of their affections, because they will eventually die, as long as there are stars in the sky their love will remain true - but through Comstock, the lyrics come off sounding like they're almost controlling. There's a recognition of the inevitability of his death ('I will not always love you'), as there is in the original context, but it's the line about stars that twists the meaning in hindsight of the ending:
ELIZABETH: Look at that... thousands of Doors! Opening all at once. My god, they're beautiful!
BOOKER: The stars?
If we take Omnipotent Elizabeth's meaning to be literal, that the stars are in fact representations of the different openings to the multiverse, 'I may not always love you / But long as there are stars above you', becomes something a little different through the lens of Comstock's perspective - almost like Comstock threatening Elizabeth. As long as there are doors, other multiverses for him to exploit through her powers, and power to feed of via the siphon, he will love her as if she was his own child. Consider then the almost veiled threat that 'I'll make you so sure about it' becomes in this context, as a reference not only to his desire to see Elizabeth take his place as ruler of Columbia, to tear down the world below, but to the lies that Comstock has weaved to ensure Elizabeth of his 'love' for her (the murders of Lady Comstock and - a failed one, in a way - of the Luteces).
It's interesting to interpret the two stanzas of God Only Knows we hear in Infinite as two reflections of Booker's self, DeWitt and Comstock, and their love for their daughter - one earnest, and one more sinister.
Girls Just Want To Have Fun
Or, in our case, Elizabeth just wants to have Fun!
Hearing this carnival-esque instrumental of Cyndi Lauper's hit pop song in Battleship Bay was one of my favourite parts of Bioshock Infinite. And whilst this delightful Calliope rendition certainly has meaning in the context of the story - in the way that it evokes the feelings of Elizabeth's childlike innocence as she explores the Bay, the first time she's been out of her tower on Monument Island - I want to turn to the lyrics of the 1979 original to see how it reflects on Elizabeth's character, what we learn of her upbringing in Columbia and her relationship with her 'parents'.
Some boys take a beautiful Girl,
And hide her away from the rest of the world.
I wanna be the one to walk in the Sun -
Oh, girls, they wanna have fun,
Oh, girls just wanna have...
Here we have perhaps the crux as to why the incredibly cool/clever people in Irrational Games' sound design team decided to put Girls Just Want To Have Fun into Infinite - it's the perfect definition of Elizabeth's situation. She's been taken (not just from her actual father, and from her own universe) away from her home, and hidden on Monument Island - 'from the rest of the World' - revered by Columbia but never to be seen as the Siphon draws power from her multiverse-tearing abilities. It gives the following line of the stanza an added poignancy when we reflect it as Elizabeth's own feelings: whilst the original is Lauper yearning for the figurative freedom of being away from the controlling grip of parents and 'the working day', to simply have fun, for Elizabeth it's yearning for the freedom of simply being free. She wants to walk in the Sun, see the world outside her tower, beyond Columbia.
But perhaps most interestingly in the original lyrics, in terms of relevance to Bioshock Infinite, are the opening lines of the song:
I come home in the morning light,
My mother says "When you gonna live your life right?".
Oh mama dear,
We're not the fortunate ones...
Although Elizabeth is not really being chastised by her mother, as the line is meant to be interpreted - It's not even her mother at that, it's her 'surrogate', Lady Comstock - but more of a reflection on how both Elizabeth and Lady Comstock were horrifically abused by Comstock.
Lied to by, unloved by, and eventually murdered by Comstock, neither the First Lady of Columbia or indeed Elizabeth are the 'fortunate ones' of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. But it's the unity implied in the line, the use of the collective 'we', that makes it stand out, and is ultimately reflected in the shared suffering of Elizabeth and Lady Comstock - as it's explained at the end of the fight with The Siren outside Comstock House:
ELIZABETH: You're not... not in this world. But maybe this is you in another... a world where you never meet him.
THE SIREN: Or where I saved him?
ELIZABETH: I don't know. Is that possible?
THE SIREN: Find out, Child. Find out.
Will the Circle be Unbroken?
Finally, we come to perhaps the biggest - and certainly most poignant - song in the game. On multiple levels Will the Circle be Unbroken? reflects on the overarching elements of Bioshock Infinite, but let's start with the most obvious, the title.
The unbroken circle of the game is the inevitability of the plot's progression - Booker is baptised, Reborn as Comstock, Builds Columbia, Takes Anna/Elizabeth, Locks her up, Grooms her as his heir, and Elizabeth purges the world in holy fire in 1984. Whilst to us, this progression is not cyclical, it is to one set of characters: The Luteces.
Displaced out of time and space by Comstock's sabotage, they have been trying, since 1909, to break the cycle of events - testing the constants and variables of the universe as they go. If Robert Lutece's billboard is to go by, the events we actually play in the game are the 123rd cycle, the 123rd Booker to attempt to break the circle. So, with that in mind, it's touching to hear Elizabeth sing this hymn in the cellar of The Graveyard Shift - subconsciously hoping, as she's still restricted by the Siphon's grip and not fully omnipresent, that the Circle will no longer be unbroken, and that she'll be free.
Ultimately, Will the Circle be Unbroken? is a hymn about loss - and the belief that those lost have gone to a better place. But for Infinite, the chorus takes on a duality of meaning:
Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?
Not only is there the thematic imagery of the unbroken circle as the cycle of events in the game, but there is the ''home awaiting / In the sky'' itself, too: Columbia. Throughout the game, Columbia is presented by The Founders as something that is meant to be analogous of Heaven - that the believers of Father Comstock have already ascended to their better place, their supposedly-perfect society, whilst the 'here below' of stanza four is the earth (or Sodom, as the Founders call it) below. There are other parallels that can be drawn throughout the hymn, as well - 'the dying Saviour' as the cancer-riddled Comstock, the 'songs of earth' as Albert Fink's plagiarised 1912 versions of mid-to-late 20th Century pop songs like God Only Knows and Girls Just Want To Have Fun, and perhaps most obviously, the parallel between the penultimate stanza and Booker's own family:
You can picture happy gath'rings,
'Round the fireside, long ago.
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below.
Obviously there was a time between Wounded Knee and the giving away of Anna in 1893 that Booker would've been happy (at least momentarily), as he married and conceived a child, but then he is hit by two 'tearful partings' - the loss of his wife in childbirth, and then later the self inflicted loss of Anna to Robert Lutece, leaving him 'below' - both figuratively, in terms that his wife has been taken to Heaven, and literally, in that Anna has been taken to the skies of Columbia.
But, stepping away from the lyrics, the importance of this hymn in relationship to Infinite is that it is one Booker personally knows - well enough that he knows the tablature to it for guitar, and that it's sang at his Baptism (whether he goes through with it or not). Given that it's, as I said earlier, a hymn about dealing with loss... maybe it was sang at the funeral for Mrs. DeWitt, creating Booker's personal attachment to it? Idle speculation aside, given all of the parallels we can draw between the story of Infinite and Will the Circle be Unbroken?, it adds an extra layer of poignancy when we see Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper sing it together in credits. It's the song that opens the game, as Booker awakens in Columbia, and it's the song that closes it - with the family finally complete again, the experience is tied together and closed.
Ends, Ended, Will End
The music of Bioshock Infinite succeeds at being a fantastically designed soundtrack, both in its original score and its used of licensed work, and also as a carefully picked playlist that moves beyond enhancing the set dressing of a game's presentation and into offering a deeper look into its cast and story - whilst its anachronism can be jarring at first, eventually it opens up another layer of world building, and another layer of analysis into these characters and their motivations. In games like Infinite, hindsight can be a wonderful thing - and with it here, the music is allowed to tell a story of its own.