(This post has spoilers. Not for the ending of BioShock Infinite, but for things that happen near the end. Proceed with high caution.) The first time you meet him is before you even see him. It’s the shrill call that grabs your attention, a striking pitch that you know can only mean imminent danger.
The first time you meet him, you know that this is an enemy. Your brain files this big, red-eyed mechanical bird as something to run away from. But as sure as you are that Songbird must be taken down given the chance, your more compassionate, human side might recognize an important distinction. Songbird is a lot more complex than your typical villain.
For what is basically a machine, Songbird carries a lot of emotions in his two-tone eyes. They are either red, meaning that he is on alert and prepared to attack, or a yellow/green, meaning that he is calm. Loving, even.
Songbird responds to music as command cues. He was built by inventor Fink—who manufactures a ton of other things the city Columbia relies on—to keep an imprisoned young woman named Elizabeth under harsh security, locked up in her tower. The inspiration for Songbird's design comes from the world of Rapture, an underwater world that Fink gained access to thanks to tears that step into alternate universes. Songbird shares more than just mechanical similarities to Rapture's Big Daddies—the brutish but also loving protectors who guarded the Little Sisters in the original games. The Big Daddies presided over the young girls' security, but in a protective, fatherly way (hence the name). Songbird's desire to protect Elizabeth comes from similar motivations.
As far as Songbird (and a Big Daddy) is concerned, he was built to protect a delicate, young girl. She is at danger, in need of protection. What Elizabeth comes to determine as her prison, Songbird sees as her home. What Elizabeth sees as a rescue, Songbird sees as kidnapping.
For you, playing as Booker DeWitt, Songbird is the enemy. He’ll kill you to get Elizabeth back. He's aggressive and asks no questions, shows no signs of backing down. That's what Songbird looks like to us, from the outside. But let's take a moment to consider Songbird's side of the fight. Stepping into his big, mechanical, clawed shoes—if you played as Songbird—you’d recognize Booker as the enemy, too.
Songbird doesn’t understand the context behind Elizabeth’s imprisonment in the tower. He only understands that he must care for her and protect her at all times. Songbird’s purpose, in Songbird’s eyes, is the equivalent of a parent or at least a guardian. And so like any wild animal would do for their child, Songbird protects Elizabeth at all costs. Or at least protects her in a way that he understands that obligation to mean. He sees intrusions on their territory as threats, and he does not hesitate to expel them.
Elizabeth mentioned something about halfway through the game that stuck with me. She noted that even she used to consider Songbird a close companion and protector. She said that his chirps were something that would excite her. Songbird is indeed a powerful enemy, but when he wasn't bursting into buildings somewhat more menacingly than the Kool-Aid man, he offered Elizabeth company. He cared for her. For a child, that basically equates to a loving relationship.
Eventually Elizabeth grew up and realized that Songbird was her warden, not her caretaker. But through that, I think Songbird maintained the perspective of a parent. Songbird isn’t capable of maturing like Elizabeth did. He may not understand that guarding Elizabeth and keeping her in the tower was actually hurting her, but he never guarded her out of malicious intent. To his knowledge, Elizabeth is only safe in the tower. He was programmed to think this way. But he also feels compassion, not just loyalty, to Elizabeth.
That’s why he responds to her cry to leave Booker alone. In this scene, she says she wants to go back home. That she never should have left. Songbird’s eyes soften to a yellowish hue. All he wants is his family back where they belong.
But Songbird is difficult to control if you don’t know the proper songs to summon him as your ally and not your enemy. And so Elizabeth is eventually forced to kill him.
But even as she does, she reaches out to him to console him. His panicked frustrations subside, the red glow brightens to a green, and he reaches back out for her. To the end Songbird’s loyalties are with Elizabeth. And whether or not he understood that she sent him to drown, he loves her unconditionally.Image by Reddit user SgtMuchacho.
This was an awful scene to experience. I couldn't help but empathize with Songbird. His entire life, and his entire existence was dedicated to keeping Elizabeth safe. And his last moments are spent looking at her from behind an unbreakable glass wall while his brain shatters from the inside out. He looks across at her with love in his eyes for as long as they can handle the water pressure before the green shatters into broken pieces. And then he dies.
I definitely choked up while watching this happen.
Is Songbird really such a villain? A misinterpreted one, maybe. As far as Booker DeWitt, the player, and video game tropes go, Songbird can effectively be categorized as a villain for most of the game. But the (virtual) reality of it is so much more complicated than that. Because Songbird is perhaps one of the more caring creatures in BioShock Infinite, and can someone who fights out of love and a desire to protect really be considered an evil character?
And in case you wanted a recap, here are all of Songbird's scenes in BioShock Infinite: