(This article contains massive spoilers for Bioshock Infinite and the Mass Effect Trilogy)
Since its release in late March, Bioshock Infinite has been the topic of many gamers’ conversations, editorials, podcasts and so on. What is it about the game that has been able to tap the intangible consciousness of gamers the world over? For me it was the confluence of story and gameplay, the way the game used the First Person Shooter genre as a Trojan Horse to infiltrate the mass market with its ambition of themes and concepts – a thinking man’s shooter that is at once visceral, cerebral, fun, and challenging.
I was immersed in the final moments of the game as its themes and concepts were explained to not only Booker DeWitt but also to me as the vessel through which Booker was guided. I was totally enamored with the ideas of the story, but not the telling of the story. While I could very easily articulate what I liked and didn’t like, it wasn’t until playing through the game again for all of the achievements that I realized how brilliantly flawed the game is. Bioshock Infinite is just that. A brilliantly flawed game that sometimes gets lost amongst its own ambitions in story and gameplay.
This is not a review of the game. Ted did a wonderful job of that here. I’m also not going to explain the ending as that has been done, at length, in other places. Instead, my intentions are to reconcile the aspects of the game I loved with the nagging portions I didn’t. To the game’s many champions, this may seem like picking nits, but so it goes when one makes something this worthy of dissection.
Tear ‘Em a New Shooter
Bioshock Infinite immediately impressed me with its approach to religion and its setting. Upon arrival to this Utopian society Booker and the player are inundated with swaths of religious imagery and set design. Pews, candles, statues and stained glass – all evoking a churchlike atmosphere. Only the statues aren’t of the typical Judeo-Christian iconography like Jesus and Mary. Because we’re new here, we don’t quite know who these people are, but something immediately feels “off.” After wading through waste high water in a seemingly flooded church – before you can even enter Columbia proper – the player is forced into baptism and “nearly” drowned.
Strolling through the streets of Columbia, it’s easy to be fooled into believing the world is alive. Families gather at carnival games, barbershop quartets sing to spectators, couples flirt with each other on the benches aligning the streets while vendors sell their wares – all serving the illusion that Columbia is a great place to live. Sure, it seems overly religious and that forced baptism was weird, but hey, it’s a floating city!
It’s not long before the veneer is shattered in a dark, disconcerting and ultimately violent way. And it’s here that one of Bioshock Infinite‘s many dark themes come rushing to the surface. The religion in this floating nation begets horrible racism and the “haves” have severely oppressed the “have-nots” and the citizens of this city are at violent odds over how they want life to be on Columbia.
These concepts and themes are not new amongst literature, film, television, comics or even video games. Mass Effect deals with racism as one of its many cultural themes throughout its video game universe. The difference here is that there are no metaphors for racism. No disguising it behind a fictional alien species. These are human beings being shunned, chastised, humiliated and being generally treated worse than animals. It changes things for video games and for the player.
Never before has a mainstream, AAA video game dealt with these issues seriously and so directly. The fact that you can see these themes between aiming down the sights and exploding heads make it all the more interesting because this game is making people talk.
The Choices That Matter Don’t And That’s Okay
Bioshock Infinite‘s narrative is seemingly straight forward sci-fi involving inter-dimensional and time travel, but it offers a much more meta narrative about the illusion of choice in video games. In 2012, two games that revolved around choice were met with polarizing praise and criticism. First, Bioware’s epic Mass Effect trilogy came to a close and left an unfortunate wake of misunderstanding of the game’s overall achievements. Yes, the actual ending wound up being nothing more than 4 choices, seemingly undoing all the player had done prior, but if one follows the three act structure of storytelling, Mass Effect 3 was the entire last act and climax of the story being told over three games. As such, all of the player’s choices are present and accounted for within the entire campaign. I had Ashley kill Wrex in Mass Effect, and in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, there was no Wrex. In Mass Effect 2 I managed to save all of my crew members. Lo and behold, they were all alive and well in Mass Effect 3. Stories and characters throughout my journey had callbacks, big and small, in the final chapter of the game.
The second game to really drive the mechanic of player choice home was Telltale’s The Walking Dead: The Game. A fantastic, dark, emotionally brutal story that kept track of every decision I made down to whom I shared food with. Ultimately though, the game funneled me into two choices that would have played out no matter what else I had done. Yet, it seems like nothing much was made about the execution of the idea of choice as far as negative criticism.
I mention these games because, again, Bioshock Infinite comments on the banality and illusory concept of player choice. Throughout the game, Booker is given choices. Some the player has agency in, like the cage or the bird necklace for Elizabeth and the choice to draw your gun or demand your ticket. Others, not so much, like calling “heads” or “tails” in a coin toss. All have absolutely no impact on the narrative overall because that’s the point. In the end, it’s always the same. The lighthouse, the man, the city. The setup is the same, the result is the same. The choices made during the game only really affect how the player enjoys the game in a purely visceral, chemical way. Choosing what Vigors to use, what weapons to upgrade; these are the choices that affect the gameplay, not the narrative and ultimately, that’s all there is with any video game. The fact that Mass Effect and The Walking Dead manage to even convey the illusion of choice in a meaningful way should be seen as nothing less than a resounding success.
Why Am I Here, Exactly?
Bioshock Infinite is about duality, divergence, left and right choices and how they can splinter off into infinite variables with infinite conclusions. The game does an extremely good job of being entertaining as well as thought-provoking, making it all the more disappointing when the game’s narrative fumbles some of the more important beats in the game.
For example, what are the Vigors? Why do they exist? Why does no one else use them despite the fact that a woman is literally giving them away and vending machines supply not only upgrades but the Salts that fuel them? In the original Bioshock, Plasmids were justified within the context of the narrative and played an integral part of the overall story. From their inception to creation, as well their use and abuse. Plasmids are the reason for the destruction of Rapture, for the existence of the little Sisters and ultimately the reason for Big Daddies. Even the ending the player received tied into Plasmids and what the player did for the power to use them. In Bioshock Infinite, Vigors merely exist and the cynical part me says they exist because they existed in the first game and that’s what player’s expect. Very little–if any–explanation or justification was given for them being included in the game beyond it being a combat mechanic designed into the game. The way Booker finds them throughout the game is even worse. He actually finds the Undertow Vigor on the ground, next to a dead soldier. Uh, OK.
When I first arrived at Columbia and walked the charming streets, I immediately started trying to interact with the citizens and I immediately discovered that I couldn’t. My mind started filling in blanks, wondering if this all played into the overall narrative, much like Plasmids did in the first game. Thinking that maybe there was a reason why I couldn’t affect their behaviors or why they rarely acknowledged me. Unfortunately, like the Vigors, it was not to be. The more I ventured into the world, the more I realized that the citizens were merely window dressing; that they were akin to the animatronic characters on display at Disneyland. Merely to be observed and not interacted with.
Booker’s task is to bring Elizabeth to New York, or so he thinks. Upon meeting Elizabeth, Booker “convinces” her that he is going to take her to Paris and they’ll be doing it by airship. Let’s ignore the fact that moments earlier we saw Elizabeth open a tear to not only Paris but also Paris in 1983 in which a movie marquee bears the title “La Revanche Du Jedi,” which is French for “The Revenge of the Jedi.” She frantically closes the tear as an oncoming vehicle careens towards her. This moment establishes quite a bit of information. First it establishes that Elizabeth can open tears to other times and an alternate dimensions, as evident with the movie marquee shown in the Parisian tear. It also shows that Elizabeth is interested to some extent in Paris. Lastly, it shows that these tears aren’t merely windows, but things can pass through from one dimension and time to the next. Which begs the question, if Elizabeth wants to go to Paris, why doesn’t she just step into the tear and be in Paris? Yes, I know that later they show Songbird coming through a tear indicating that her frightening protector/captor can follow her through the tears. That’s fine, but why then would she even bother following Booker to the airship, since Songbird can follow her anywhere and ultimately take her back to the tower? Also, if the Siphon in the Tower kept her power at a minimum, why was she able to completely open a tear that altered the reality of Columbia, not once but twice?
Ignoring these obvious plot holes, because the story dictates that we follow its intended progression, once we finally get on the airship Elizabeth knocks out Booker for his deception. When Booker comes to, we are introduced to Daisy Fitzroy, leader of the “Vox Populi,” an insurgent group bent on bringing down the upper echelon of Columbia, and ultimately Zachary Hale Comstock, the founder and leader of Columbia – both politically and spiritually. These details are seemingly important because the player will spend the next few hours on a giant fetch quest that, quite honestly, drags the mid-section of the game and could quite possibly be the biggest narrative copout I have ever seen. You see, the Vox need guns for their insurrection and for reasons that only Ken Levine knows, Booker and Elizabeth are the only ones who can get them. What follows is a very long series of events that end with Elizabeth opening tears and having Booker and herself step through them until they get to a reality in which the gunsmith they were trying to reach has supplied the Vox with the guns they need.
With only two scenes and some Voxophone recordings, Daisy Fitzroy goes from leader fighting for her people to vicious attempted child murderer without an ounce of progression. Yes, again, it’s understood that by going through the tears, this is a different Daisy Fitzroy which is meant to set up the twist at the end, but in doing so this portion of the story seems ultimately pointless. Not only does helping the Vox lead to them turning against you, but the whole reason why you’re helping them is to get the airship, which crashes moments after you reach it anyway. So those hours you spent fighting and back tracking were merely to serve the twist.
A Twist of Fate
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village begins with a funeral. We see a fresh grave, a child’s coffin and on the tombstone we see the year of death as 1864. This serves one purpose -to show the audience that they are watching a period piece. The dialogue, the fashion, the entire way of life on display is meant to convey the period and the world these characters live in: 1864 Pennsylvania. Only it’s actually present day and the entire premise is hinged on the idea that because the founders were tired of modern day crime they unlearned modern English and colloquialisms in favor of speaking in 1864 old English – with accents – recreating period clothing, only reading books of the time, all to maintain the illusion that it was 1864 Pennsylvania. Why? For whose benefit was this ruse? Allow me to answer that question; for the audience, and for said audience to be fooled by the twist. There is no good reason other than to serve the twist that the characters in this movie look, talk and dress this way.
My reason for this mild digression is to point out that not only is this poor writing, but it’s also a very similar to the twist in Bioshock Infinite. As it so happens, Zachary Comstock and Booker DeWitt are one and the same. After the atrocities of Wounded Knee, Booker sought forgiveness for his sins, and was baptized. This baptism was viewed by Booker as absolution from his sins, and thus instead of changing his life for the better, he somehow saw to the creation of Columbia and in turn gave genesis to a utopia founded on racism and religious fanaticism. In another reality, Booker rejected the baptism, became a gambler and a drunk and sold his daughter, Anna, to repay a debt. If you’re this far into reading this, you know all about how Elizabeth and Anna are the same as well and that Comstock raised Elizabeth on Columbia.
Yes, we all know the plot and the twist. Here is my issue though: Why on Earth would Booker change his entire name? What is the significance of the name Zachary Comstock? We never find out, so what we are left with is that the man we have been chasing down to kill for the last third of the game turns out to be the same man as our avatar only in another dimension. Again, for whose benefit did Booker DeWitt become Zachary Comstock? The game never tells us because, like the Village, this only exists in service of the twist.
Now, this might seem like picking serious nits for those who love the story of the game, but I assure you they are not. These are legitimate issues with the story of Bioshock Infinite. And they are all the more glaring to me because I love so much of what the game does right. I adore this game for its ambition and heady writing. I love that this game has given me something to write over 2500 words about and that I can have deep, meaningful conversations about a video game. Sure, it suffers some glaring flaws, but the mere fact that Bioshock Infinite exists as it does is a triumph for storytelling in games, as well as a showpiece for what shooters can be.