“For a Tear is an Intellectual thing” – William Blake, Jerusalem
Bioshock Infinite, like its predecessor Bioshock – we’ll not be talking about the vapid interpolation that is Bioshock 2 – toys with our concept of narrative and mechanical linearity. This much is apparent in both the game’s plot twist, and in the many reviews of the game written back in March and early April. As has been discussed before, the artificiality of the central mechanic of the entire shooter genre – start here, go there, kill things along the way – is made devastatingly clear in the first game when the control the player thought he or she had is shown to be nothing but an illusion. But, controversially, after being brought up for air, the player plunges back into a willing suspension of disbelief, and the narrative rolls along its rails towards the confrontation with Fontaigne.
It is fair to say that Ken Levine has damned himself with his own previous success, in that whatever he produced after Bioshock would be judged, fairly or not, in relation to that game. And so he produced a game very similar to Bioshock, from combat mechanics to narrative structure. And of course critics picked up on this similitude – see John Teti’s review of the game for an example of this kind: “is BioShock fated to be a series of sparkling Disneylands, ad infinitum? – and used this not as a condemnation of the game per se, but as a sobering element in their treatment of the game’s ending. And yet I can’t but feel that, in noting the similarity between the two games, these critics have their order reversed. While it is not out of the realm of possibility that Irrational Studios set out to create a game, and in the process made something similar to Bioshock, my suspicion (and this is merely supposition) is that Levine conceived of the ending first – specifically, perhaps, the triptych “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.” – or at least had the idea for a game that dealt with linearity and repetition in a similar manner to Bioshock, and then worked backwards. Again, the facticity of the idea is merely supposition – and yet the thematic implications of this emphasis on repetition and linearity are integral to the game’s sense of itself.
Bioshock Infinite is self-reflective when it comes to its status as a piece of narrative fiction, insofar as it seems to be actively mimicking the process of storytelling. Take, for example, the very beginning of the story – though only once you’ve played it through, and are able to comprehend the full reality of Booker’s situation. Thrust into a new world, as Rosalind Lutece puts it, “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist.” That is, the mind will create a narrative out of either whole cloth or fragmented and initially disparate details in order to situate itself in a new context. Simply put, the mind, upon passing through a tear, creates a story to tell to itself. It’s an echo of the twist in the original Bioshock, where the snapshots and their fragmentary, implied narrative is revealed to merely the artifice of two scientists and a con-man. Before the meeting with Ryan, the player will take details like the note, the present, and the sudden flashes of a farmhouse and a family and draw the lines between them to create a pattern. Regardless of how your suspicions develop as you play the game the act of story-creation is present, even if only subconsciously.
There are other similarities – the similar combinatory combat mechanics of Vigors/Adam and weapons – which reinforce the grander parallels: parallel worlds, parallel games, parallel stories. But at the same time, there are elements in Bioshock Infinite which go beyond a ‘separate-but-equal’ comparison and reveal the way in which the game piggy-backs on the previous one. Almost all the main characters – Songbird, Comstock, and Booker – die by water in a more-than-tacit reference to Rapture. In this vein, the force of the ending is dependant on the game’s predecessor for both its evocative quality and in order to ease the player into understanding the particulars of how the game uses the many-worlds interpretation. This piggy-backing continues into more thematic territory. The grand reveal that Elizabeth is Booker’s daughter evokes Bioshock‘s concern with the appropriation of the family. Though Comstock is not Ryan – who uses familial labels as a combination of advertising and propaganda – the prophet’s understanding of family as a basis for political and religious control engages with the same kind of perversion of the ideal.
But this is not to reduce Bioshock Infinite to Bioshock – to be fair, the former has elements the latter lacks. The exploration of Finkton, and the associated parsing of oppression and revolution is hardly to be seen as a retreading of the story of Atlas and his group in Bioshock. My own take on this part of the game is to view it as a portrayal of the complicity between political, religious, and social authority in societal control. It’s an old theme, and goes as far back as William Blake and his poem “The Chimney Sweeper,” in which the titular boy’s parents have “gone to praise God & his Priest & King / Who make up a heaven of our misery.” For lack of a better word, the Finkton chapter’s concern with this archetype is adapted to fit early-twentieth century racial prejudices, as opposed to the orchestrated tyranny of Ryan’s philosopher-king:
I told you, Comstock – you sell ’em paradise, and the customers expect cherubs for every chore! No menials in God’s kingdom! Well, I’ve a man in Georgia who’ll lease us as many Negro convicts as you can board! Why, you can say they’re simple souls, in penance for rising above their station. Whatever eases your conscience, I suppose.
Here we get the added necessity of a city built upon suffering for the sake of creating a religious utopia. Amusingly, Blake fits in here, too: “Pity would be no more / If we did not make somebody poor[.]” My point here has not been to analyze a particular segment of the game, or to talk about Blake and Bioshock. I am simply trying to avoid the argument that Bioshock Infinite is merely derivative of Bioshock. It does and has much that the previous game does not. But, at the same time, it is dependent on the previous game for a crutch.
The effect of the narrative twist in Bioshock still resonates like the tolling of some great bell. Take, for example, this article from Gameological. Sam Barsanti’s thesis is, simply put, that the game’s ending – though, I would argue, we could include the game after Ryan’s death as a segment of precisely what he is talking about – reinforces the theme of the illusion of choice. However, one of the comments pointed argued that, even when this reinforcement is accounted for, the ending is still unsatisfying:
My only critique of this is that the only choice you really have, when it comes down to it, is turning off the console and refusing to play the game. After the Andrew Ryan twist (which is brilliant, without a doubt), the game doesn’t allow you to exercise your newfound knowledge in any way…there’s no actual mechanism by which it matters. That’s the ending’s failure, I think: You’re given a powerful new way of viewing the game, and no way to apply it.
Though I’ve given my own take on the ending (which hardly needs to be repeated), the point here is that the implications of the original Bioshock remain contentious six years after it first came out. There is a depth of critical and argumentative ammunition centered around the way in which the player’s lack of choice has been revealed to them – a lack made especially powerful by the binary moral-choice system built into the game.
Bioshock Infinite does something similar – but in such an unsatisfying way – though it is only able to do so because of its reliance on the original game. As with Bioshock, there are instances of choice: do you choose the cage or the bird? When buying a ticket, do you ask questions or shoot first? But in Bioshock, these are moral choices, complete with all the weight and baggage that adjective entails. Regardless of the implications of the binary terms (are they effective, are they meaningful, are they cliché, etc.), they have a real effect in terms of gameplay, thematic value, and, at the end of the game, the narrative. But in Bioshock Infinite, these choices are merely concerned with the narrative – were you foolishly polite, and did you thus play the rest of the game with a bandaged Booker? What about Elizabeth’s choker?
That’s not to say there is no grand, compelling point to be made by giving players the illusion of choice. When, on another voxophone, Rosalind Lutece invokes King Lear, a point about a deterministic chronology is being made:
My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from whence we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see King Lear. But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.
While the invocation of Lear – a play about a man who sends away his daughter – is appropriate on a referential level, it goes farther by touching on the superposition of a text. When we open a book, the entire story is, in a sense, already complete as it has already been written – “It happens all the same,” says Elizabeth amidst the infinite lighthouses, “Because it does. Because it has. Because it will.” But it isn’t so for the reader, who is literally starting on page one and knows nothing about what is to come. To quote the Luteces, “It’s all a matter of perspective.” But, whether alive or dead, the cat is still in the box. The narrative exists, whether it is being started or finished; faced with a predestined plot, the characters have no real agency or will. Hence, this Lutece quote becomes another way in which the game signals its self-consciousness regarding its status as a narrative work, while stirring in a bit of Schrödinger for good measure.
But for all that predestination can give the game, choice becomes problematic when Bioshock Infinite is yoked to Bioshock. Whereas in the first game, all choices save moral ones are rendered illusory, in this game all choices are pointless. Especially so, since agency is removed from the player and given to Booker at the one point in the narrative where we are freed from the plot’s control: after Comstock and Songbird are dead, after Elizabeth is restored, and when the player is freed from the tyranny of each tear’s narrative. Up until this point, the plot has been driven by different goals: get the girl, get to Monument Island, escape with the girl, find the Shock Jockey at the Hall of Heroes, find the girl again, find the Vox Populi’s gunsmith, get to Comstock house, find the girl again, kill Comstock, and destroy Monument Island. When all these are accomplished, what is left? A complete renunciation of narrative choice: Booker chooses to die, as Elizabeth puts it, “Before the choice is made” to become either Booker or Comstock. But the freedom to make this decision is removed from the player.
What does it mean when a game at once repudiates choice while tying itself thematically to a game that emphasizes the permanence of our ability to make moral choices? If the choices in Bioshock Infinite are meant to be meaningless in the face of a deterministic universe, then why involve a game whose illusion of choice is related to the specific deception both Jack and the player are subject to, and not to a greater, metaphysical understanding of the universe’s momentum? Indeed, why spoil Bioshock‘s thematic coherence by turning it into “another ocean,” where events transpire differently than in that of Infinite? From the perspective of Bioshock, such an appropriation turns the events of the first game into a variation of the narrative of Bioshock Infinite – and then I can’t but view this new refashioning as merely pointing out the lackluster way in which Infinite treats the mechanisms of choice in contrast to its forbearer. Put another way, I can’t enjoy the connection when viewed from either perspective: if I compare Bioshock with Infinite, the attempt to link the two games thematically reduces the first; if I compare Infinite with Bioshock, the game appears to simply piggy-back onto its predecessor, hoping to hide the fact that it’s underweight when it comes to an examination of free will.
I recognize that this thesis is only tenable if you take my previous treatment of Bioshock for granted. I also recognize that this essay can come across as confusing. Put broadly, I find the link between the two Bioshocks that Infinite creates to be damaging to both games; the mazey specifics of the argument lie above. By no means does this make Bioshock Infinite a “bad game” – it’s simply a glaring flaw, like a long and lengthy crack along the side of a full-length mirror. The mirror may still function, and indeed be beautiful, but it’s an imperfect mirror regardless.
And, as a self-recriminatory post-script, it turns out I was incorrect about the lyrical treatment of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” in my previous post. As Ben Kuchera pointed out a year-and-a-half ago, the version Elizabeth sings is the original version of the song. While I don’t think that such a reveal damages my argument in any substantive way (the song doesn’t become a purposed reminder, but the point it makes still comes across so long as the “is there” is still present), it is humbling to have your incorrect assumptions brought to light – to see a flaw, running horizontally across your work.