Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ten Ways To Look At Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite is a great game. You'll be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees with that assessment. Ken Levine's tale of Booker DeWitt, the down on his luck Pinkerton detective and Elizabeth, the girl who can give him his life back had been winning awards left and right even before it came out, and now looks likely to take home Game of the Year more than a few times.

But if you had to sum up Bioshock Infinite in a sentence, what would you say, exactly? That's not an easy question for a game with a story this complex.

Here are ten possibilities. Note that from here on the SPOILER WARNING is very much in effect, because I'll be flat out summarizing the game's ending.

1. It's A Damsel In Distress Story

This is probably the easiest interpretation of Bioshock Infinite. Booker DeWitt is our not-so-shining knight, sent on a quest to rescue the fair Elizabeth from the tower she's been locked up in since she was a child. There's danger, excitement, fantastic locations, and a giant dragon (or at least a Songbird) waiting at the end of the quest.

But Bioshock Infinite also does a good job of subverting the damsel genre. Elizabeth wants to escape her confinement, but she's treated well enough by her captors and there's never an indication that DeWitt's employers are any less unsavory than Comstock, the master of the floating city of Columbia. (For good reason.) The actual rescue only lasts for the first quarter of the game; after that, you're effectively the kidnapper come to spirit Elizabeth off to your own tower. There's also a school of thought which states that it's Elizabeth escorting you through the game, rather than the other way around; after all, she's the one keeping you alive and stocked with ammo as you blunder into increasingly dangerous enemies. Finally, while Elizabeth meets all the qualities of a princess, Booker DeWitt is hardly anyone's ideal of a knight.

2. It's A Story About Redemption

Booker DeWitt is, simply put, not a nice man. His claim to fame is his participation in the Battle of Wounded Knee, where he took so many scalps and burned so many teepees that he became known as the White Indian. After that he drank and gambled his way through a stint of union-busting for the Pinkertons, up until the events of the game began.

For Booker, rescuing Elizabeth is his last shot at redeeming himself, both from his debts and his conscience. It's a theme that runs through the game: the protagonist and the people who help him (particularly the Luceses) seek redemption for their past mistakes, while the antagonists reject redemption, either for their own sins (Comstock) or the sins of others (the rebellious Vox Populi). Through it all Elizabeth acts as the redemptive force, as her attitudes toward the people around her change to reflect how far they've come - or not.

I haven't spoiled much yet, but if you ignored the warning above get yourself ready for some big ones.

3. It's A Battle Between Man's Two Halves

At the end of Bioshock Infinite we discover that Booker DeWitt, the hero, and Comstock, the villain, are quantum copies of each other, split off onto two timelines shortly after the Battle of Wounded Knee. Comstock accepted a baptism, became born again and descended into a self-righteous brand of evil and tyranny. DeWitt rejected the baptism and fell into a bottle. Neither man is a saint, but DeWitt feels remorse for his actions and wants to be a better man; Comstock takes pride in his sins, deems them righteous, and goes on to greater atrocities. The conflict between DeWitt and Comstock's forces make up the majority of Bioshock Infinite.

Duality runs through the rest of the cast as well. The Founders and citizens of Columbia, the game's setting, are genteel people on the surface, but a strain of racism and tyrannical oppression runs just under the surface. The Vox Populi are Columbia's dispossessed and downtrodden, with legitimate grievances against the Founders, but when roused to violence they become a fanatically violent mob that ends up burning the whole city down. Even Elizabeth has a dark side, one you're forced to confront literally during your efforts to keep Elizabeth from following in her father's footsteps.

4. It's A Story About Fatherhood

Elizabeth's father is, of course, Comstock. And given the revelations above, her father is also DeWitt. Booker's wife/lover gave birth to her and died, leaving Booker to raise the child alone. He ends up selling the infant to Comstock, who is sterile and uses Columbia's science to find "his" daughter in another timeline. Booker's mysterious employer is in fact himself, a fact he forgets because of the perils of jumping timelines; his goal in Columbia is to rescue his own daughter.

This makes Bioshock Infinite a story about two fathers: one, DeWitt, a well-meaning but failed father who seeks to make good with his child; the other, Comstock, a hideously insane and controlling father who sincerely wants the best for his child, even if his idea of "best" is thoroughly demented.

5. It's A Story About Abusive Relationships

And not just father-daughter relationships. Comstock is, of course, a thoroughly abusive father, both physically and mentally, to Elizabeth. Most of this happens in a bad future that Booker averts, but even at his kindest Comstock has his daughter locked up in a tower for the vast majority of her life. Her only companion, the Songbird, is also abusive, flying into a betrayed rage whenever Elizabeth attempts an escape. Despite that Elizabeth remains fond of the Songbird, which is the only company she's ever known.

Elizabeth's "mother", Lady Comstock, is practically a pastiche of abusive relationships. Her husband is implied to have killed her, and Elizabeth loathes her memory - a fact that becomes very important when Elizabeth inadvertently resurrects her mother's ghost as a monstrous, hateful specter. Lady Comstock's ghost is only defeated when Elizabeth accepts that her mother did not hate her, as she believed.

Much of Elizabeth's character arc is about her desire to escape from these relationships, and Columbia itself. At her worst, she accepts the abuse, and becomes far more dangerous than any of the people abusing her. But even then, she recognizes in the end that her pain isn't a desirable condition, and uses Booker to change her past and help her escape.

6. It's An Existential Science Horror Story

While we're discussing Elizabeth, let me state that she is the most dangerous, terrifying character in the game. She has the ability to open Tears, doorways into other places and other times. At first it's a pretty tame power, hampered by Elizabeth's lack of control; the first time she demonstrates it, she nearly gets herself run over by an ambulance from 1983 Paris. Then, in one memorable sequence, Elizabeth is captured and tortured by Comstock's scientists, until Booker frees her. As Booker runs to her cell the scientists suffer a horrific fate offscreen. Booker tries to talk an angry Elizabeth out of hunting down Comstock, and Elizabeth just looks at him as a Tear opens behind her, revealing a massive tornado from the Midwest. "How do you propose to stop me, Mr. DeWitt?" she says, with icy calm.

It gets even worse when you consider the implications of Elizabeth's existence. At her most powerful she's capable of opening Tears to anywhere and anywhen, has godlike perception of the timelines she can reach, and has a city full of violent xenophobic lunatics at her beck and call. In the bad future sequence Elizabeth is in the middle of using Columbia to burn New York City to the ground, and this is after she's pretty much given up on Comstock's violent rhetoric.

The only thing that keeps Elizabeth from ending the multiverse is that at her core, even after everything Comstock does to her, she's a good person. But there might be an Elizabeth that isn't. And for all we know she's on her way here with infinite Columbias in tow, right now.

"Columbia doesn't exist," you say. And you're right. But it didn't exist in Booker DeWitt's timeline either.

Add to that the more mundane horrors of Columbia: the cripples and elderly reengineered into bone-breaking giants, the Vigor-enhanced Klan members, the quantum-tossed Luceses moving sideways through time and space, the Brotherhood of Silence and the horrible things they watch over... consider all of it, and you're looking at a very scary game.

7. It's A Thought Experiment Rendered In Fiction

Most of the mind-screwing events of the game come about through an application of the Multiple Worlds Theory to Schroedinger's famous mind experiment. Booker DeWitt is, for all intents and purposes, Schroedinger's cat. The pool where he accepts|rejects his baptism is his box. If he rejects the baptism, DeWitt "lives" and becomes the game's protagonist; if he accepts the baptism, DeWitt "dies" and is reborn as Comstock, the antagonist. The choice creates two timelines, and the conflict between them over Elizabeth (who is born in one timeline and taken to another) is the central conflict of the game, even if that's not revealed until the very end.

But Bioshock Infinite goes beyond that, and shows us the timelines branching still further as more choices are made in each. Columbia, Comstock's flying city, exists in multiple iterations, all accessible by Elizabeth, each one containing its own Elizabeth, who under Comstock's thrall could become a threat to every timeline. In the end, Elizabeth has to put an end to Comstock (and herself), not by stopping him from being "born", but by erasing even the potential of his birth... by drowning Booker DeWitt before he has a chance to accept or reject his baptism. In essence, her solution to Schroedinger's thought experiment is to prevent the cat from entering the box in the first place.

8. It's A Metatextual Story About Video Games

One of the most beautiful, mind-damaging moments in the game comes when Elizabeth gains full power over her ability to open Tears between worlds. She takes Booker to a world of infinite lighthouses, each one including a man and a girl who inevitably enter. Elizabeth describes these as constant features in a universe of infinite variables.

The original Bioshock opened with the player crashing into the ocean and washing up on the shore of a lighthouse, which led to the underwater city of Rapture. Bioshock Infinite opens with Booker entering a lighthouse that leads to Columbia. The man entering a lighthouse acts as a thematic bridge between the two games, and the world of infinite lighthouses is a message to the player of what to expect from the franchise, assuming it continues.

Bioshock Infinite also waxes philosophical about the role of choice in video games. The first game featured multiple endings, depending on how you responded to a set of moral choices presented during gameplay. Bioshock Infinite retains a few choices, but their impact on the story is minimized, and there is only one ending possible. Elizabeth discusses this outright in a time-travel sequence where Booker is again confronted with the choice of selling his infant daughter. Elizabeth tells him that he can take all the time he wants, but he will give the child over to Comstock in the end. And she's right: there is no other way for the player to progress. In the end Booker can make choices, but his story and his ultimate fate are still set in stone.

9. It's A Warning Against Violence

A tough sell, I know, in a game where almost every solution to every problem involves shooting someone with a gun or a fireball. But Booker DeWitt is no saint. He's a sinner with a violent past thrust into a city where everyone wants him dead, and he reacts accordingly.

As a broader theme, though, violence in Bioshock Infinite is a sin that stains everyone it touches. Booker's violent past is the cause of the ruin his life has become. Elizabeth is his chance at redemption, but the violence he uses to save her repeatedly threatens to drive her away. The antagonists all embrace violence as the solution to their problems, which ultimately results in the destruction of Columbia and a Pyrrhic victory for whoever comes out on top.

Even Elizabeth, generally a pacifist throughout the game, is responsible for two murders. The first, of Vox Populi leader Daisy Fitzroy, is committed to save the life of an innocent child. Booker forgives her quickly, but Elizabeth is badly shaken by the act for some time. Her second murder is of the scientists torturing her. It's done out of revenge, and nearly drives Elizabeth into a godly level of rage towards her ultimate tormentor, Comstock. Booker only calms her by assuring Elizabeth that he'll take on the burden of Comstock's death himself. And by taking on this burden, he allows Elizabeth to remain an ultimately redemptive figure.

10. It's A Video Game

Ultimately, of course, Bioshock Infinite is a video game, regardless of your interpretation of its story. You run around a vast world, kill enemies for items or to stop them killing you, and make your way through predefined objectives until you reach a definitive conclusion: The game is over, unless you play through it again.

Could Bioshock Infinite have been, say, a movie, or a book? Maybe. Almost certainly, in fact. There's nothing in the game that structurally prevents such an adaptation. But it inevitably would have lost something in the translation. There's an emotional resonance video games allow the player that movies and books still haven't been able to duplicate.

One small example springs to mind. Elizabeth and I encountered the Luceses playing a piano in the middle of a hallway. They dispense some helpful, if cryptic information, as usual, and then vanish. They leave the piano behind, blocking the hallway. Booker mutters "At least they left the piano," and I look to my right and catch Elizabeth looking at me with an expression that perfectly expressed how bad she thought the joke was. It was a small detail, but it was also a private moment between myself and Elizabeth... and she's not a person! Barely an A.I.! But it was touching to me in a way a movie couldn't match.

So those are my takes on Bioshock Infinite. What other ways are there to look at it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant. You have summed up the entirety of my feels for this game. THANK YOU.