In Which I Am Infinitely Bioshocked (Beware: Spoiler Jelly Within)
This is not going to be a particularly cogent post.
It will, however, be a spoiler-filled one.
So, warning: when you bite into this donut, SPOILER JELLY GONNA COME OUT.
That’s also what I call my semen, by the way. Spoiler Jelly. When we conceived of our son, I yelled to my wife, “Spoiler Alert: YOU’RE PREGNANT!” Then I did the Konami Contra Code and flew away on a rocketship made of Pac-Man corpses.
I’m lying about all that.
Still, I think I’ve given enough space, but once more for good measure:
Let’s get into it.
So, you know by now there’s this game. Bioshock: Infinite. It’s a sequel (not really, which will soon be apparent) to what is certainly one of my favorite games of all time: Bioshock.
I finished it last night.
My head’s still twerkin’ it against the walls of my skull.
I mean, I think I know what happened. The game ends up being a lot more about quantum mechanics and alternate realities and — in a way, the very nature of experiencing story and narrative through the particular and peculiar lens of playing a game — than you’d think. On the surface it seems like a game that’s about racism and nationalism, about prejudice and religious zealotry. And it is. In part.
But all that’s just a ruse.
It’s a game about choices.
Those choices are expressed by the obvious decisions you make as a player inhabiting a character and also as the myriad realities (which are just a shift from the reality you begin with) opened and explored by Elizabeth, your “ward” through the story.
For a long time I played the game looking for what I hoped were literal connections to the narrative of Bioshock: you find all these little moments and aspects reminiscent of that first game, and to a degree, the second. Elizabeth has the vibe of a Little Sister, and of course has her own version of the Big Daddy in the form of the very fucking big Songbird until you soon start to realize that in a sense you’re her Big Daddy (B.D. = Booker DeWitt), a thought evoked even more during moments like when you help Elizabeth scamper up into a vent (in that case to kill Daisy). Further, it becomes all the more clear when you realize hey, you’re her real Daddy, not just her protector (but give it a minute, we’ll get into that).
You’ll find other things, too: the falling/fallen city above the world instead of below it. Tonics and automated security and vigors and Plasmids and on and on. Plus, the protagonist of Bioshock is a child seemingly created out of Andrew Ryan’s genetic structure and Elizabeth is seemingly a child created from the genetic structure of Comstock and both are “special” and are potentially secretly controlled at the outset. Further, in Bioshock 2 Sofia Lamb has a daughter, Eleanor Lamb, who helps the Big Daddy protagonist of that game (albeit at a distance), not unlike how Elizabeth (also called The Lamb) helps Booker DeWitt inside Infinite.
So, my head was spinning: is Elizabeth somehow connected to the Big Daddy program? Does she change her name and go on to be a part of Rapture? Is she Sofia? How does it connect?
Then you find out: it doesn’t connect. Not in a straight narrative line.
You get to the end and realize not only is Elizabeth your daughter but that all these narrative hooks you’re finding aren’t literal connections but rather thematic bridges — constants in the quantum game of “constants and variables” — that show you these games are connected not so much by plot chronology so much as by the abstraction of multiple realities. Realities expressed by choices. Realities where things change less than you’d think, even though the trappings are different. Where the constants outweigh the variables.
And that’s what’s fucked up. That’s what’s got my head all goofy like a kinked-up garden hose. Bioshock is about choice: the Ayn Randian individualist genius-fed ethic versus the collectivist altruism of, say, Sofia Lamb. The protagonist, Jack, has the choice of how to deal with the Little Sisters (which is admittedly a little blunt and obvious, one of those classic videogame moral choices of “Feed the orphan or kick him to death”), and those choices add up to a different ending depending on how you played.
Infinite has no alternate endings.
And it has no real choice.
And at first, that’s frustrating. (From a gameplay perspective, it still is.) Narratively, though, it adds up: all the choices Booker DeWitt thinks he has — and you think you have as a player — are hollow. It all goes the same way. You always become Comstock in one reality and, as Comstock, always go to your other weaker self in another reality to buy your own daughter back so she can become the Lamb. And though there exists the razzle-dazzle of infinite lighthouses and myriad realities, you see that it always goes down the same way, a way expressed by Sofia Lamb way back in Bioshock 2:
“For every choice, there is an echo. With each act, we change the world. One man chose a city, free of law and God. But others chose corruption. And so the city fell. If the world were reborn in your image, would it be paradise, or perdition?“
Choices and echoes of choices. Choice and change still goes the same way: cities fall. Machine men still walk. Men still augment with tonics and Plasmids and Vigors. Paradise becomes perdition. Opposing forces still clash. Men are still revealed to be selfish and blood-thirsty.
Power corrupts. Mankind is lost.
And so choice is revealed to be an illusion.
At the end of the game you even have a scene where Elizabeth stands over her own crib as the Lutece “brother” (not actually a brother but an alternate world version of the Lutece “sister”) and tells you, essentially, that no matter what you think you’re going to do, at the end of the day you have no choice: like in nearly any video game you’re on rails, you poor motherfucker, and you’re going to hand the baby over because otherwise the game won’t progress.
(There’s even an earlier conversation with the Luteces at the start and the end of the game about how you, the protagonist, “doesn’t row,” which one wonders if that’s because you don’t have the ability as a video game character to row. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into it.)
The very, very end of the game is a knife in the ribs, really — as opposed to the ending of the first Bioshock, which literally had me cheering and tearing up — where you realize that there may be one last choice to make and that choice is to kill Comstock at the time of his birth, and that’s when you realize that his “birth” was the literal “born again” moment of a baptism where the persona Booker DeWitt is washed away and Comstock emerges. (This is one point of the game that I don’t quite understand — all the quantum dickery afoot tends to be explained by machines and theory and sci-fi wizardry, but the seemingly literal rebirth of the baptismal moment must be entirely mystical. Unless it’s less literal than I had imagined?)
So, there at the end the one choice is to kill yourself.
Or, to die by the hands of Many Elizabeths, all of whom drown you together and then disappear one by one until only one remains (and there I’m left to wonder if even that one Elizabeth flickers out of existence). It is again evocative of the endings of the previous two games: potential death, several Little Sisters, the culmination of a journey, the aspect of water. (There’s a scene after the credits that maybe confuses this a little, or maybe instead just suggests it’s all going to replay again and again and even death cannot stop the snake eating his own tail.)
Amazing story. Strong acting. Killer writing.
Art direction was profound and perhaps the prettiest I’d ever seen in a game. Though sometimes a lack of interactivity (can’t crack glass with your Sky Hook, if you step in front of a lit projector it shows no shadow, etc) were a bit puzzling surprising how incredible the scenery was.
Gameplay felt incredibly well balanced, if a little old-school. Greater variety in how to approach enemies would’ve been welcome, I think.
The “bad guy motivations” of racism and nationalism and religious zealotry got a little muddy and obvious — it’s on par with making the Nazis the bad guy, though then that gets appropriately and wonderfully more complicated as the downtrodden rise up and become as bad as the oppressors. (Though that may be making a controversial statement, one that could be interpreted poorly though it’s certainly bound up with the themes of the game.)
(Also a tiny part of me wonders what the game would look like without the violence. Still first-person, but driven more by mystery and adventure, not “kill these dudes.”)
The lack of choice is wildly appropriate given the story, but just the same I felt like Infinite was missing that kind of player assertion, if only from a “personal satisfaction” standpoint. As a player inhabiting a character, you want to feel like what you do matters, and the first two games had alternate endings and this one, ennh, didn’t. Again, appropriate to the story they’re telling and thematically on-point, but that’s not always satisfying. If we are to assume that there are constants and variables I would’ve liked to have seen these variables still be a… well, a constant. (The first two games focus on mercy as the choice and I miss that here.)
So, that’s that.
Love to hear your thoughts if you got ‘em.