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:

SPOILER.

WARNING.

Okay.

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.)

Tricky stuff.

Great game.

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.

20 comments

    • I’d completely forgotten about the early-stage “throw a baseball” choice. Good call-out. Sadly doesn’t add up to much except to magnify the horror of what’s going on in the city — more choices that matter, that add up to game/story changes, would’ve been very welcome.

      — c.

      • I had the same thought and thematically, I get it. But then I felt like I was trying to rationalize the game for itself. It’s a small point, and I still really enjoyed it. And I loved the story and the ending, but that small point has continued to stick in my craw. Which really says more about how much I invested and bought into the game.

        • Oh, it’s not a rationalization — I actually think it was a literal transformation, some kind of quantum shift. I just don’t know why (and that’s why it defies rationality for me — I fear the answer is actually more complicated and even less explainable).

          • Interesting. I’ll have to think about that. Something’s bothering me about that in terms of Comstock remembers things that Booker did, like Peking and the 7th Cavalry.

            But yeah, I suspect there’s something more complicated going on there. For example, when you first run into Comstock, when he tells all of his followers to stand down, Booker does that weird phase shift thing and his nose starts bleeding. It’s really quick and the only time you see that phase effect before then is when the Lutece statue appears in the city as you’re walking toward the Raffle.

            So did he have that affect because he just ran into himself and is experiencing a different part of his life like when he becomes a living martyr? Or is there something else going on? Or are the writers just fucking with us? You know, as writers do.

        • Couldn’t reply to your comment below, but I think his nose starts bleeding then because in a different reality, Comstock doesn’t tell his followers to stand down and Booker dies in that reality – which causes our Booker to bleed.

    • That was the one plot hole that stood out to me. Slate recognized DeWitt but for some reason didn’t recognize Comstock? Unless Comstock only dealt with Slate through intermediaries. But I can only assume that would explain it, there was no evidence proving it otherwise.

      • The difference in appearance (and apparent age) seems a function of extended rift fiddling (which also rendered Comstock infertile, probably gave him cancer, and generally aged him prematurely).

  • IIRC, the reason for vigors and the Songbird was the same reason for the anachronistic music: Comstock and the Lutences were peeking through tears, some of which showed the future (or “a” future). Songbird was very clearly based on the Big Daddy template.

    I also like the implication (the coin toss) that the Lutences had tried hiring DeWitt many, many times before.

  • Less literal then you imagined. He underwent a psychological shift in that reality and buried the DeWitt personality, becoming a new man who either hides his delusions of grandeur behind religion or became so fanatical his delusions of religion became grand.

  • Gorgeous storytelling, but I thought the ending went off the rails a bit. I loved the first two games (with the obvious thumbs-down to the super-videogamey boss battle at the end of 1). But now it’s too cosmic. And dialogue like, “Why is it this way? Because it is.” (I’m paraphrasing only slightly) doesn’t feel profound to me. It feels like a cryptic way of admitting “Don’t make me try to make sense of this. I’m pulling it all out of my arse.”

    On the other hand, the meta-level story is BRILLIANT from a business perspective. 2K wants to put out a Bioshock every year. That means two to three separate dev teams working on separate projects simultaneously. And in a story-driven franchise like this, that would make continuity a nightmare. NOT ANYMORE! Now that we’ve established there are Infinite worlds in the Bioshock franchise, they don’t have to worry about continuity AT ALL. Something doesn’t match with last year’s game? Or the year before? Must’ve been a different parallel universe. Oh, okay, carry on. It really gives them carte blanche to do whatever they want in each game.

    Love this series, though. It’s the best ongoing storyline in games, now that Mass Effect 3 committed plot suicide.

  • ARRRGGGHH!!!

    I cannot read this post, because I convinced myself that if I bought Bioshock, I would do less writing. So I no have Bioshock :(…But if what you’re saying Chuck, is that I’ll be enhancing my story-telling education – which I will assume, because I have not read the post – then I shall march immediately to a video game emporium, and demand satisfaction. I can only hope this will not be misconstrued and land me in a cell…again.

  • As someone who has no interest in shooters, in any voice, I would go berserk for a mystery/adventure version of this game. It’s not that I hate the violence, I just hate all the anxiety caused by trying to stay alive. However, this game has me considering purchase, thanks to all the spoilers I’ve read. It almost sounds worth it.

  • Had not made the B.D. connection, nor the lifting her to the vent one until you’d mentioned it. Definitely an ‘Ohhhh’ moment for me in reading that.

    You’re right in that there’s not much in the way of choice – not in ways that matter anyway. That’s clearly telegraphed by the Lutece’s mention of Constants and Variables, plus the differences between the realities (such as Chen Lin’s wife). It’s still very much on-rails, just you get to do it with a skyhook.

  • I sat around for about an hour following the game ending trying to fully re-hashing what everything meant. I entirely feel you on the choices thing. There’s remarkably few. I’m thinking about playing it again just to hear all the stuff Comstock said during the game to see how much more sense it’ll make. That was one of the things that I talked about with my friends, after finishing, before most of them have even gotten to playing, that during the game, I was uneasy about the things that didn’t have an explanation, felt like plot holes, and shaky unplanned dialog, that turned out to be explainable in the end.

    2 things, and links for them. One, the guy from forbes that I read, which you highlighted the high points in your article, The bathyespheres being DNA encoded matters, When Elizabeth puts on the blue dress, I went wait a second why do you look familiar, and then she said that she looked like her mother and my mind was fooled into saying that must be it. http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2013/03/29/the-one-twist-in-bioshock-infinite-you-might-have-missed-completely/

    Second, Bioshock infinite the movie. Basically, it has the gameplay removed, but the story kept. It’s 3.5 hours, so beware.
    https://twitter.com/4colorrebellion/status/319933355393179648

    Maybe that’s what I’ll do

  • I’m so glad that other writers love this game as well. While there are bunch videogames that treat story as an afterthought, there are some who are on the level of really good novels and movies.
    Bioshock infinite is one of them. The story is absolutely gorgeous.

    Oh, and I’m surprised that controversy still hadn’t started. Point of the game is that extremism is bad, but I can see how people could confuse it with criticism of the basic ideas. Still, it’s better this way.
    Cheers,
    Johnny.

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