Bioshock Infinite - Having It Both Ways
In the The Simpsons episode Natural Born Kissers, Bart and Lisa uncover a mysterious canister of film buried in a vacant lot while their parents are off screwing in public. (That's immaterial to my point, but I feel it bears mentioning.) The film proves to be the secret, “happy” ending to Casablanca, where Sam saves Rick from a duplicitous Captain Louis and Ilsa Lund returns to marry our hero, defeating a piano-dwelling Hitler in the process. It's funny, provided you're familiar with the source material; a charming interlude inserted in an episode of The Simpsons that was otherwise sub-par, at least by 1998 standards. Casablanca's secret happy ending is funny because it's perverting what has become an icon of American film, a movie that's such a distinctive and familiar feature of the cultural landscape that it's essentially part of the national language, something that was also true of The Simpsons themselves before they started to suck. Casablanca is full of indelible images. An inconsolable Rick drinking himself into oblivion at his own bar, Rick entreating the love of his life to leave him and Casablanca forever, Rick and Captain Louis walking off in the fog together. (That famous Moroccan fog!) All are scenes cemented in the imaginations of moviegoers, but why? What makes them so exceptional? The answer is that they're distinctive, and distinction comes from decisions—artistic choices made by actors, writers, and a director.
But what if the choices that shaped Casablanca weren't definitive? What if Louis and Rick walked out of the fog and into another universe, another Casablanca, where Rick decided to stay with Ilsa, war effort be damned? Then they walk through that into another movie where Rick never got the visas that allowed Ilsa and Laszlo to leave, and another movie where France already won the war, and another movie where Casablanca is a British colony, and another movie where Rick's Café Américain isn't in Morocco but in the commissary on the Death Star between a Chipotle and a Cinnabon. The End. Credits roll. Include a post-credits sequence where Nick Fury recruits Peter Lorre to join the Avengers. Would that film have the same impact as its original?
Good authors make choices, not because they want to, but because they have to. Making choices is scary, making choices eliminates possibilities, reduces room to maneuver, and makes the storyteller that much more likely to paint him or herself into a corner, but any author worthy of the name makes choices because that's what a story is, and the new(ish) science fiction conceit of a multiverse with branching timelines is wide open to abuse from writers who are unwilling or unable to actually say something.
Bioshock Infinite's story is already constrained by the immutable dogma of sequels, which demands that it be exactly like the original, only moreso. The original Bioshock took place in a city in exile from mainstream society with a strange & vigorously enforced dogma, it was set in a distinctive period in the past, and its plot was seeded with clues that bore fruit in a major third act reveal. Bioshock Infinite makes a point of reproducing all these elements in a new package, similar to the way musical Variations offer different interpretations of the same theme, however the sheer determination of Ken Levine & Co. to trap the player in a prison of repetition doesn't become apparent until the final act. If the original Bioshock was about undermining whatever illusion of agency its designers had managed to cultivate in the player, Bioshock Infinite is about destroying the player's will to take any action whatsoever. That Levine & Co. succeed so well shows an undaunting commitment to futility and meaningless action on their part that's worthy of Camus, but it doesn't make for a satisfying video game experience.
Playing a video game in the first place is already a clearly pointless activity, just like playing sports, creating art, writing stuff about video games on the internet, and life in general(spoiler alert) but Bioshock Infinite is determined to articulate this meaninglessness as never before, bending the universe itself to expose the emptiness and futility of all action to such a radical extent that when the narrative turned the gun on itself I felt nothing but a bland relief, though even that was hoping for too much, according to the post-credits sequence.
Bioshock Infinite is rich with varied, complex themes, but it doesn't know what to do besides channel them into ever grander spectacles. The game portrays racism, it portrays the living hell out of it, but it doesn't have anything in particular to say about what it does to the discriminated or the discriminators. It comes close to saying something when the player uncovers a Voxophone recording where Z.H. Comstock laments how there was rumor that he had an Indian ancestor, and he had to be particularly brutal during the Indian Wars to verify his Caucasian credentials, but the topic is never raised again. Besides that it's bad, the only decisive thing the game has to say about racism is that it can be easily incorporated into a theme park attraction, something anyone who's been on the It's a Small World ride already knows. It's a pattern that's repeated throughout the game. Bioshock Infinite's story touches on themes of culture, exceptionalism, religion, commerce, science, history, jingoism and feminism, but that's all it does: touch on them, like an obsessive compulsive who feels obligated to touch each parking meter as they walk down the street, making note of all of them, doing nothing with any of them. Instead of adding to the story, all these topics are used to raise the city of Columbia to ever greater heights of empty spectacle, but as grand as those displays are, the lingering absence of any underlying message grows more and more conspicuous as the game goes on. It's like listening to someone speaking in a booming, rapturous, grandiloquent voice about how they had an okay sandwich one time. Stranger still is the game's main story, which portrays a scenario so unremittingly bleak and hopeless it's amazing it found its way into any mainstream video game, let alone one as prestigious and beloved as Bioshock.
Bioshock Infinite's story is driven by the hunt for super-powered ingénue Elizabeth, a young woman who, through the machinations of quantum physicists Rosalind & Robert Lutece, can open portals in time and space and, when her full powers are unleashed, through different universes and timelines. The player takes the role of all purpose scoundrel Booker DeWitt, Indian massacrer, strikebreaker, gambler, drunkard, and hired gun who's charged with infiltrating the floating city of Columbia and extracting Elizabeth from the clutches of theocratic dictator and beard aficionado Zachary Hale Comstock. In their struggle to escape the the floating city Booker and Elizabeth slip into another timeline parallel to their own, and the results are catastrophic. The people Booker killed in the old timeline are walking ghosts in the new one, jabbering invalids awash in quantum static, tortured by the memory of their own deaths, halved by their spectral doppelganger's lingering nonexistence. Fates worse than death will turn out to be something in of a theme in Bioshock Infinite, its surname becoming a sentence. While the timeline Booker and Elizabeth escape from is crushed in the iron grip of Z.H. Comstock's absolute rule, the one they escape to is awash in a wave of chaos surfed by populist rebel and impromptu execution fan Daisy Fitzroy.
I'm not averse to grim storylines. I think the story in Spec Ops The Line was incredible, a revelation in mainstream video game storytelling. The events portrayed in Spec Ops The Line were very bleak, but they were in service to a message, the designers had something to say. By contrast, the narrative of failure and carnage in Bioshock Infinite isn't there to create a message but preempt one. By portraying Zachary Hale Comstock's theocratic dictatorship and Daisy Fitzroy's populist rebellion as two sides of the same shitty coin, the designers are using cynicism to hedge their bets. There are many instances in history of a repressed group gaining power only to use said power to repress another group, something similar is happening right now in Myanmar, but Bioshock Infinite makes no effort to comment on the irony and tragedy of the events it portrays, and in the absence of any narrative purpose, a sense of futility and despair comes to pervade events. I can understand why the designers needed to turn the rebelling Vox Populi into crazed mass murders from a practical standpoint: the gameplay demanded that Booker DeWitt not run out of people to shoot, and the intensity of the game would've waned considerably if the Vox had seized power without turning against Booker and Elizabeth, but the turn is managed hamfistedly. Like everything else in the story it comes draped in an aura of inevitability. Since the writers know that the architecture of perverted timelines demands events in Bioshock Infinite take place as they do, character motivation isn't needed to drive the plot forward, and characters like Daisy Fitzroy and Jeremiah Fink feel like cardboard cutouts. They're fleshed out somewhat by voxophone recordings, but since picking them up is optional voxophone entries are by definition disposable, and they seldom contain anything telling. The only character that gets any depth in Bioshock Infinite is Elizabeth, and she's a character we've seen before. As a naïve girl with superpowers, she has nothing to do but get increasingly powerful and disillusioned. I would have a lot less of a problem with the Super-Ingénue stock character if the people portraying them didn't take such apparent glee in systematically stripping them of their innocence, but Bioshock Infinite does nothing to buck this trend. The asylum level in particular is unabashedly, bafflingly sadistic, while serving little to no narrative function. The only consolation is that due to the obscure geometry of fixed and averted timelines, the events portrayed on the asylum level never really happened, which is another way of saying it doesn't really matter; a sentiment echoed throughout Bioshock Infinite, and hammered home by the QTE “choices” offered in its first quarter.
There are four points in the game when the player, i.e. Booker DeWitt, is allowed to make a binary choice: Throwing a baseball at an interracial couple or an announcer, choosing a bird or cage necklace for Elizabeth, drawing a weapon on a the man in the First Lady Airship ticket booth or just demanding tickets, and killing or sparing Captain Cornelius Slate. None of them make any difference. Whether you aim at the interracial couple or the announcer, someone grabs your arm before you can throw. The difference between the bird or the cage on Elizabeth's necklace is purely an aesthetic one. If you draw your gun on the man in the ticket booth you won't get a knife in your hand, but if you do it won't cause lasting damage and nothing of import happens when your hand is impaled on the desk. If you spare Cornelius Slate you'll just encounter him again in Comstock's prison, wheelchair bound and lobotomized, yet another fate worse than death. After four meaningless QTE choices the game abandons them for the remainder of its narrative, unambiguously telling the player that all choice is an illusion, an illusion the designers need not bother maintaining. The original Bioshock may have undermined the idea of choice with its 'would you kindly' routine but it wasn't so flagrantly nihilistic as to portray the difference between killing and sparing the Little Sisters as irrelevant. Then again, the original Bioshock actually had an ending. Bioshock Infinite does not. As the Lutece's coin toss indicates at the game's opening, this is the one hundred and twenty third time these events have played out.
The final act of Bioshock Infinite is in some ways a metaphor for the Bioshock franchise, as well as video games as a whole. Her powers restored, Elizabeth guides Booker through the labyrinthine paths of the multiverse, following the tangled web of intersecting timelines that led to this particular clusterfuck. In a more sincere age than our own, Time Machines would be called Dramatic Irony Machines, and that is precisely what Elizabeth and Booker's journey through the multiverse reveals. Comstock is Booker from a different universe, Elizabeth is Booker's daughter, and I'm sure someone in there is Keyser Söze. The whole thing was orchestrated by Robert and Rosalind Lutece to somehow avoid Columbia's dismal fate but, as Rosalind records in a voxophone, some events are fixed. The Luteces have replayed the scenario again and again—like a video game—and have developed a degree of scientific detachment from the city's doom, becoming largely concerned with deriving amusement from the events preceding its downfall—again, like someone playing a video game. Elizabeth reveals the point Booker split into Comstock to be when he did or did not accept baptism, then drowns him, i.e. us, the player, to keep the events of Bioshock Infinite from occurring. On the face of it this would seem to make no sense, since the man she's drowning is from the future, when the tragic events of Columbia have already transpired. The implication seems to be that, in addition to all her other powers, Elizabeth can transmit a person's consciousness to different points in their life, a power which you'd think would allow her to solve the problem of Z.H. Comstock & Columbia in a way that wasn't so father drowny, but again, some events are fixed, which is code for “That's how we wrote it.” which is fair enough, but it places the burden of making all this hullabaloo mean something squarely on the writer's shoulders, an obligation they flee from like a young Forrest Gump running out of his leg braces. I've never liked post-credit sequences in video games, which amount to the designers looking over the events of their game's last hour, shrugging, and saying “Eh, maybe not.” If a child in elementary school ended every story they wrote with “But that's maybe not what happened.” they'd find themselves in the special class with the paste eaters and the fire starters, yet we tolerate this narrative cowardice from a billion dollar industry. Strategic ambiguity is one thing, but the post-credit scene in Bioshock exists to place the already quasi-inscrutable plot beyond interpretation, and therefore criticism. You can't judge a story if it's up to each player to decide what it means, right? No, actually, I can. It sucks. No one is making you do this. If you don't want to come up with an actual story that's fine, write for Gears of War.
If a man chooses and a slave obeys, Bioshock Infinite's thesis is that there's no difference between the two, at least in video games. Infinite's story is engineered to strip video game mechanics of their familiarity and toss them in your face like the contents of a cocktail glass wielded by an irate aristocrat. “You want a video game? YOU WANT A VIDEO GAME? Here's your damn video game! A chronicle of repetition and despair, just like all video games! There! Are you happy now?”
No, no I am not. Mission accomplished, I guess.