Disclaimer from the far-off future of 2017: BioShock Infinite has some more…troubling implications that I didn’t really get when I wrote this piece three years back. The implication that violent, systemic racism and violent rebellion against systemic racism are equally evil is a frankly ridiculous one, and while I don’t think it’s one the game makes intentionally, it is pretty steeped in the text. Ken Levine, the game’s creative director has commented on this, and I think I agree with most of what he says, but it requires much more criticism than I gave it in this piece. I’ll probably go back one day and write a piece on Bioshock Infinite and it’s shaky attempts at an interesting take on systemic racism, but that would require beating the game again, and thus require replaying the Lady Comstock boss fight on 1999 mode, a task I plan to avoid for as long as I am able.
Anyways, here’s the piece.
“My Booker DeWitt was a hero to the cause! A story to tell your children! You—you just complicate the narrative!”
-Daisy Fitzroy, Bioshock Infinite
Spoiler Content: Complete, comprehensive, game-ruining spoilers. Please do not read this unless you have played the game or plan never to play the game. Bioshock Infinite is a game that thrives on the player slowly figuring out the nuances of the plot, do not rob yourself of one of the greatest pleasures the medium has to offer.
Irrational Games’ Bioshock (2007) is tied for the top rated first person shooter of all time, tackling topics as diverse as Ryndian Objectivism and the nature of choice in games. It was a smash hit in both sales and reviews, and is widely regarded as one of the most successful games of all time that still tackles tough philosophical issues. After a lackluster sequel that was given to another developer, anticipation for a true sequel was at an all-time high. So, to say that Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games’ return to the franchise, had high expectations, would be a drastic understatement. Bioshock had its strengths, to be sure. It told a story through a beautiful environment of the underwater city of Rapture, with very few human characters actually appearing before the player. The player fights endless hoards of deranged, mutated humans, but they serve more as gameplay objectives than actual people. The player only comes face-to-face with a single character in the entire game. The rest of the time, however, the player see human characters on the other side of a glass wall, just out of reach. This soon became a hallmark of the franchise, with even the abysmal sequel trying to continue the trend. This is primarily because, in 2007, the team at Irrational Games didn’t have the resources they needed to create humans in as lifelike and believable a way as they wanted. The technology simply wasn’t there. However, by the time Infinite was created, they did. So, instead of telling a story purely through the environment, the team began to use human characters. The primary example of this is Elizabeth, who is painstakingly animated with amazing detail. She is widely regarded as the most realistic rendering of a human being in a video game, not in terms of art style, but animations, actions, and interactions with the environment. Through characters like Elizabeth, the game could truly tell a human story, and explore human ideas. The two ideas it chose to focus on were self-mythologizing and choice, not a binary, good-evil moral choice, but the choices we make as a people and as a person, that define us on a daily basis. The regular, seemingly inconsequential choices. In this paper, I will trace these themes through four characters: Daisy Fitzroy, Zachary Comstock, Booker DeWitt and finally, the player themselves. This is the story that Bioshock couldn’t have told.
Set in 1912, Infinite follows ex-Pinkerton Booker DeWitt in his journey to rescue Elizabeth, heir of the flying city of Columbia. They are constantly perused by the city’s prophet-leader, Zachary Comstock, and his giant, mechanical Songbird. Elizabeth has the ability to move between universes, which the two use for the Vox Populi, a minority-lead revolutionary group, in exchange for passage out of the city. However, they enter a world where Booker has died as a martyr for the revolution, and the revolution’s leader, Daisy Fitzroy, views him as a threat to the story she constructed. She is killed by Elizabeth in her attempts to kill the pair, but before they can escape, Elizabeth is captured by Songbird, and Booker is pulled into the future by an older Elizabeth. She gives Booker the information he needs to rescue Elizabeth: a song that will control Songbird. Armed with this knowledge, Booker returns to rescue Elizabeth, and the two kill Comstock and destroy the siphon, a device blocking Elizabeth’s powers from reaching their full potential. This gives Elizabeth unfathomable power, through which she learns that Booker and Comstock are actually the same person but from different universes. Comstock is a version of Booker that chose to be baptized and cleansed of his past sins, and took up a new name to signify this. He built Columbia, and kidnapped Booker’s daughter, Anna, because he could not have an heir of his own. He renamed Anna to Elizabeth. However, part of Elizabeth’s finger was cut off during the jump between universes, and because she existed in two universes, gave her her abilities. Elizabeth explains that Comstock exists in an infinite number of universes, and the only way to destroy him is to kill Booker before he could make the choice that created Comstock. Booker accepts his fate, and allows Elizabeth to drown him.
Infinite’s ending is perhaps its most powerful aspect, dumping a great deal of plot twists on the player in the span of a few minutes, but the daring nature of the ending often leads players to ignore one of the more controversial characters in the game, Daisy Fitzroy. Fitzroy is a black freedom fighter by the time Booker and Elizabeth meet her, but she was originally Lady Comstock’s housemaid. Recordings scattered throughout the game world reveal that Fitzroy was, at first, content with her situation, and felt at home in “their world.” However, in a situation completely outside of her control, she was framed by Comstock for Lady Comstock’s murder. So Fitzroy was forced out of a world that she felt at home in despite having no control over, and into one where she had a choice, however limited. Infinite seems to espouse the idea that everyone only has two choices: the choice to begin and
the choice to end, and Daisy makes her choice to begin rather than die, and starts her revolution, the Vox Populi. However, she soon falls into the same path of self-mythologizing that Comstock is so brilliant in executing. Momentum is a key theme in Fitzroy’s story, and soon the Vox turn from a desperate revolutionary group into a bloodthirsty rebellion. When Fitzroy’s revolution is in its infancy, Elizabeth optimistically exclaims, “There’s going to be a revolution, just like Les Miserables!” But the Vox are not the good-hearted freedom fighters of that story, they choose red as the color for their revolution, invoking the iconography of the blood that quickly becomes symbolic for the results of their actions. Fitzroy does not try to stop the momentum of the violence, and instead embraces it. In the end, it becomes about power for Fitzroy, not justice. A question arises as to if she ever was genuine, or if she was always out for revenge against Comstock and used her revolution to acquire the power to do so. As her revolution continues, she stops making it about equality and instead about dominance. As she does this, she starts crafting a narrative of past events to justify this new direction. When the new Booker appears in her world, contradicting her story of the Martyr Dewitt, she explicitly tells him, “Booker Dewitt was a hero, a story to tell your kids. You just complicate the narrative.” Booker never did anything to wrong Fitzroy, much like Fitzroy never did anything to harm Comstock, but Booker’s presence threatens the narrative Fitzroy wants to tell about her revolution, and as soon as that challenge she reacts as viciously as Comstock did towards her. “Damned impostors.” She says to her soldiers. “Burn their bodies when you’re done.” Fitzroy wants nothing to exist to challenge her myth, the one she built up about Booker and his heroism. It doesn’t matter to her if that is how it really was, and recovered audio logs form alternate-universe Booker suggest that he wasn’t even the hero she thought he was then. But Fitzroy’s myth is ended as suddenly as it began, as Elizabeth drives a large pair of scissors through her chest to stop her from killing a white child. She made the choice to begin her revolution, but that became her only true choice, after that, according to Elizabeth, the Vox always turn from nobel revolution into bloody rebellion in every parallel universe. Their bloodlust is a constant, the only variable is how they get there. There are many variables in Fitzroy’s revolution, ones that change across universes, and Fitzroy needs to construct her myth in order to create the clean, bedtime story she wants. However her story fails, and all that it results in is her death.
Comstock made his choice to begin at his baptism after Wounded Knee, and from that point on he began crafting a story about himself of which no one could get in the way of. When he was baptized, he believes that Booker Dewitt died, and Zachary Comstock is a new man without any of Booker’s sins and with a new story, written by Comstock, not reality. He adopts patriotism and American Exceptionalism as the foundation of his myth, as America already has a great history of concocting myth for power and comfort. Columbia itself is modeled after The White City amusement park in early-1900s Chicago. The architecture is, in the words of game journalist Adam Sessler, “A fetishization of an American that never existed.” And this theme permeates every aspect of Columbia. When Booker first regains consciousness in Columbia, he is greeted by godlike statues of three of the founding fathers, Jefferson, Washington and Franklin. All three have been deified, and are worshiped not as men but as gods. As Booker wanders through a Columbian garden, he hears whispers of prayers to each of the founders, with their own deep religious iconography. Founder Worship is a theme that Comstock adopts wholeheartedly, and like America removed the flaws from its founders, so to did Comstock remove his own. He no longer was a simple soldier at Wounded Knee, instead he was commander of the 7th Cavalry. No longer was he the ruler of Columbia who ordered his men to quell the Boxer Rebellion, now he was leading the charge. No longer was he a sterile old man without an heir, now he was given a Miracle Child with unimaginable powers, destine to take the throne and rain fire on the “mountains of man.” When Lady Comstock would not support his myth, he killed her. When Elizabeth would not support his myth, he tortured and brainwashed her for decades. Every time something contradicted his myth, Comstock would torture, kill and lie his way to creating his true version of the story. He was not ex-Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt, he was The Prophet, Zachary Comstock. Comstock believed that he could completely abandon the sins of his past through baptism, and spent the rest of his life trying to bring this about. In an early audio log the player finds, the true meaning of which is not fully recognized until a second playthrough, Comstock says the following
“One man goes into the waters of baptism. A different man comes out, born again. But who is that man who lies submerged? Perhaps the swimmer is both sinner and saint, until he is revealed unto the eyes of man” -Zachary Comstock
This log deliberately invokes the uncertainty of quantum mechanics, specifically the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment (which wouldn’t be the first time), but also highlights how Comstock never could completely abandon his past. Booker’s appearance in Infinite is Comstock’s past coming back to haunt him. Comstock knew Booker would return, despite his best efforts to stop him, and created the myth of the False Shepherd, making his old self a demonic figure of pure evil. The irony of the situation is that Booker did lead Elizabeth away from Comstock’s plan, and did overthrow him, and even killed him. Comstock made the choice to begin, but Booker, another version of himself, made the choice to end him.
Booker is perhaps the only character in the game who has done things he isn’t proud of, but doesn’t try to pretend he hasn’t. Booker is a broken man, who has brutally murdered hundreds. Booker’s existence basically revolves around him hurting people, and the majority of the gameplay focuses on this as well. However, Booker does not try to deny this. This Booker did not accept the baptism after Wounded Knee, believing that a ritual could not redeem the things he has done. In fact, his distrust of redemption is one of the first things the player learns about Booker. When the player first enters the lighthouse at the beginning of the game, Booker scoffs at a bowl of water with the words “Of Thy Sins I Shall Wash Thee” printed above. Booker acknowledges and accepts the bad he has done, and doesn’t try to remove it. However, he did try once before, when he gave up Anna in exchange for the removal of his gambling debts. Instead of redeeming him, the decision racked Booker with guilt, destroying his life. Had the Comstock not tried to take Anna from him, Booker never would have been forced into Columbia where he ultimately does redeem himself, but not through the false methods that Comstock took. When Booker realizes who he is, that he is Comstock and that he sold Elizabeth to pay for his debts, he does not try to deny it, he accepts the responsibility for his actions and sacrifices his life to right his wrong. He does this without question, acknowledging his own brokenness and sins, and surrenders himself in an act of disempowerment that is utterly uncharacteristic of the first person shooter genre. Instead of making a choice to end his own life, he surrender’s that choice to Elizabeth. He doesn’t make the choice to begin or end. Throughout Infinite, Booker continually tries to take responsibility and make up for what he has done, not through erasing it but through his own action. However, this is not enough. According to Elizabeth, Booker will always fail when he tries to save Elizabeth on his own. He is trapped in a cycle of trying by failing. This idea is emphasized over and over through the song, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” The song appears numerous times throughout the game, first in a choral rendition when Booker enters Columbia, again and again when Elizabeth hums it to herself in the game and in flashbacks, in a touching moment where Booker plays guitar while Elizabeth sings the song, and once more over the end credits. The game practically beats the player over the head with the song, showing how trapped Booker is by his own guilt but internal goodness that keeps compelling him to help the people he has hurt. Booker doesn’t make any substantive choices in the game, and every choice he makes is predetermined and ineffectual. The only way Booker breaks the circle is by surrendering his own agency to Elizabeth, by giving her his life, challenging genre conventions, and ending his cycle of trying to choose.
Booker’s dilemma fits perfectly with the player’s role in the game, especially their lack of choice in the game world. Bioshock was famous for deconstructing player choice in video games by telling the player that they have never made a real choice in a game where every possible outcome was created by a developer. Infinite falls into the category of post-Bioshock games, or a game that acknowledges this lack of choice that the player has and tells a story that utilizes this concept. The first Bioshock was filled with choice in the level design, with sprawling levels with their own distinctive tone. Infinite, however, is fairly linear by comparison, with level design that has been poorly received. However, displaying their brilliance yet again, the developers at Irrational used this to their advantage. A consistent motif in the level design is too have two paths leading to the same place. This will irritate some gamers, who, being compulsive people by nature, will check both paths and realize that there is not difference between the two, but this emphasizes the core of the game’s approach to choice. The gameplay is much more tight and “cinematic” than its predecessor, and uses this to its advantage by furthering its metaphors into the mechanics. It uses the classic game advantage of increasing a player’s connection to an event by literally making them a part of it, which is allowed because of the tightness and focus of design they were allowed by their new direction. This is further increased by their decision to have Booker as a voiced character, instead of a mostly silent protagonist like Jack from Bioshock. Booker is wonderfully voiced by one of the best-known voice actors in the industry, Troy Baker, and as the player gets to walking the line between being and not being Booker, the decisions Booker makes can both bring the player closer and distance them farther when the designers want to. But Infinite’s greatest moment in using its role as a game is in the title itself: Infinite. Late in the game, Elizabeth reveals that there are an infinite amount of Bookers trying to save her, each one doing things slightly differently but all with the same beginning and ending. “There’s always man. Always a lighthouse. Always a city.” she tells him, encompassing both Bioshock Infinite as well as the original Bioshock with her description. This makes sense within the context of the narrative, but it also says a great deal about games as a whole. In the metaphor, those different Bookers are other people playing the game, or other playthroughs that a player may do, each with slight differences but all being carted along the same path. “We swim in different oceans but land on the same shore” she tells Booker, in another double line intended for both protagonist and player alike. The different oceans are the different playthroughs, and the same shore is the narrative that every player experiences, despite their differences. My favorite weapons were the shotgun and the volley gun, and I used the Charge and Undertow vigors every chance I got, but my roommate prefered the sniper rifle and machine gun, and applied the Possession vigor with tactical precision. We both played the game completely differently, swimming in different oceans with many hours of the core experience playing fundamentally differently, but we ended up on the same shore, that same ending where Booker is drowned by Elizabeth. The player isn’t simply watching Booker’s journey, she is experiencing the same thing through the mechanics as a metaphor, and Infinite is brilliant for precisely this reason: it only can work as a game. Booker and Elizabeth can only exist on the screen in front of the player with controller, mouse or keyboard in hand.
Debate still rages across the internet if Infinite was a greater game than its predecessor, and it seems as thought there will never be a consensus on the issue. However there is a clear difference between the two that cannot be denied: Infinite tells a human story, while Bioshock does not. This does not make one greater than the other, but human stories often carry more weight than ones that are less human. As Irrational brought its franchise out from behind the glass and into the realm of humanity, it opened up a whole range of powerful issues for games to explore, and it only focused on some of them. Elizabeth is, almost undoubtedly the most realistically acting character in a video game, and all of this was because Irrational took the risk to create something that hadn’t really been created before, and I believe that the medium is better for it. Through the new technology the game implemented, it was able to explore themes far beyond the scope of the medium thus far. Now that Irrational Games has closed down, it is unlikely we will ever see another Bioshock title from the minds behind the original. However the core team made the decision to leave the manpower and financial resources of the AAA giant that was Irrational and now is running a small, sixteen-man studio to focus even more on narrative and human elements. Technology has evolved to the point where they believe this is possible. In the years to come, and if their history is anything to go by, it will take years, we might see what they want to humanize next.
“Bioshock Infinite: Ken Levine Discusses Columbia, Elizabeth, and Religion – Part 1.”YouTube. YouTube, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VNrBxNqaA4E>.
“BioShock Infinite REVIEW! Adam Sessler Reviews.” YouTube. YouTube, 25 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jchIi-vR_js>.
“From Shock to Awe: System Shock, Bioshock, and Infinite.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 May 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7DVOw1lIcM>.
Hamilton, Kirk. “BioShock Infinite Is Insanely, Ridiculously Violent. It’s A Real Shame..” Kotaku. N.p., 4 Apr. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014. <http://kotaku.com/bioshock-infinite-is-insanely-ridiculously-violent-it-470524003>.