The Quantum Reality of Bioshock Infinite
Ken Levine is, without question, one of the best storytellers in the gaming industry today, and his latest masterpiece, BioShock Infinite, lives up to his impossibly high standards of creativity and gameplay. But there are definite detractors to the game. Most reviews harp on the lack of new superpowers, or lack of depth in the new game mechanics.
The philosophies presented therein, however, are impervious to these criticisms.
Yes, in Bioshock, it might be old hat to shoot a swarm of angry bees at a guy whose face looks like swiss cheese -- or, as it was in so many cases throughout the game, a murder of crows at a bigoted Klansman. Yes, the rail system might’ve been a shallow mechanical distraction (even though it played on my personal childhood bogeyman -- heights). But all of these are superficial details, and don’t hold a candle to the Infinite’s careful handling and unique approach to a subject rarely seen in gaming:
If you haven’t played the game, turn back here. Come back in a week after you’ve finished it, so you can fully understand understand what lay ahead. We are about to go off the edge of the BioShock map, and into the land of spoilers and crackpot theories.
"I like to call this crazy town"
The Pillars of BioShock
After the success of the original BioShock, the consuming public figured the game’s universe was built on several major pillars: dystopian societies, libertarian principles, Big Daddies, and Little Sisters. The latter two, especially. These horror-movie-tropes-brought-to-virtual-life were worthy of every second of gut-wrenching discomfort the player experienced when caught in their sodium-glow headlamps or vacant yellow eyes. They made Bioshock what it was, some argued.
Levine disagreed. No, they didn’t. When developing Infinite, Levine broke down what made the BioShock games so great, and what he came up with wasn’t ADAM, or Big Daddies, or Little Sisters. The core of the BioShock realm was built on people seeking redemption. Humans going up against superpowered freaks, corrupt ideologies, and their own personal demons for the sake of survival. For a chance at happiness.
So to make his vision a reality -- to really develop a pure successor to his first masterwork -- Levine maintained that redemptive theme despite stripping away most other points of relevance for the series.
And curiously, he set the sequel in the past, in the fictional floating city of Columbia.
"Is this like Titanic...?"
Elizabeth, Booker, and the Nature of Reality
Without getting too far into the story of the game, the main character -- Booker DeWitt -- is assigned to smuggle a young girl out of Columbia. His target, Elizabeth, has an unusual ability: she can tear holes in the fabric of reality to bring forth items to aid DeWitt in his mission. Not bad, for a sidekick.
The ability to rip reality comes straight out of the multiverse theory of quantum mechanics. The basic theory, as retold in my own limited understanding, goes something like this: every decision you make creates a new universe. So, in one universe, DeWitt may flip a coin and have it land on heads. But at the same time, by doing so, DeWitt simultaneously creates a universe where it lands on tails. And, outside of either outcome, there’s yet another universe where DeWitt says, “To hell with the coin, I have better things to do,” and never flips at all.
So Elizabeth’s power, essentially, is to reach into the next universe and steal the heads coin, the tails coin, and spend them, should she choose, in the universe in which the coin flip originated. It all gets confusing very quickly. Levine takes full advantage of this confusion by employing Elizabeth’s ability to alter the fabric of reality around her, but he incorporates a devastating narrative cost: every time she does so -- every time she introduces a foreign element into a new existence, or rips one out of an old existence -- she runs the risk of rendering all timelines unlivable and changing everything around her.
A black hole-ish, mixed reality version of the Butterfly Effect.
So, of all possible narrative elements, why did Levine focus on quantum physics to tell his story? Why did he so boldly decide to challenge us intellectually?
Levine took this route because it was the most direct and effective way to link the Bioshock series together.
He struck gold when he introduced the quantum wizardry of Elizabeth, and put her in a world that existed before the rest of the series. A multiverse theory -- a theory where Elizabeth has the potential to create any reality by borrowing from the ones around her -- explains away the incontinuities between BioShock and (the separately developed) BioShock 2. It interconnects worlds, characters, settings, mythologies, and beliefs between all three games in the series.
Rapture, the forsaken underwater metropolis, is one strand of the web spun with infinite possibilities. It’s Andrew Ryan’s crippled empire. But it’s also Columbia. And it’s a metaphor for the impossible concept of paradise. It’s all those things, and because of Elizabeth’s prying hands -- changing and kneading and destroying realities -- it’s none of them, too.
She’s the first Little Sister. And yet she’s not. DeWitt’s the original Big Daddy, or maybe he’s Frank Fontaine, or J.S. Steinman, or anyone in the BioShock universe. Andrew Ryan’s the savior, Jack’s the antagonist, and the lines between villain and hero are twisted, warped, reversed.
With the power to alter existence, the possibilities are literally endless -- bound only by the imaginations of the games’ developers.
Levine’s Realities vs. Schrodinger’s Cat
"See, we can safely say that Dewitt is both in and out of trouble here."
What makes the concept of dual existence even more amazing is how it indirectly ties in with the optional endings in the first and second BioShock games. In both titles, protagonists Jack and Delta’s choices throughout affect the entire outcome of the game.
As some of you may recall, Jack’s actions toward the creepy street urchins of Rapture -- the Little Sisters -- changed the conclusion of the original BioShock game. And likewise, Delta’s actions and decisions changed the ending of the second game as well. This, when it first came out, was a great piece of replay value that added to the games’ mechanics and stories; however, if the ending of Infinite is to be believed -- as DeWitt saunters down the endless ramps of possibility that Elizabeth conjures for his road to redemption -- then all of Jack and Delta’s choices simultaneously happened in the BioShock universe.
Jack’s actions toward the Little Sisters created two of the many worlds that Elizabeth sees, and in one of those existences, he is just a little more heroic and endearing (naturally) than the other. Delta’s compassion and potential heroic sacrifice also bears branching outcomes: his choices either create a monster or a messiah, designed to either condemn or save the world around him. All of these men -- all of their decisions -- are valid paths, just as DeWitt’s shared identity with Comstock is valid. DeWitt, in his odd way, is the hero, the villain, and a random bystander in Infinite -- courtesy of Elizabeth, that reality-bending powerhouse of a sidekick.
So congratulations to Ken Levine. He has officially designed a game where we simultaneously play every character and none of them. A game where ethics are a matter of perception, and the lines between good and evil, ambition and greed, compassion and malevolence aren’t just blurred.
Welcome back to the web of Bioshock, spun from the same moral ambiguity that we fell in love with the first time we laid eyes on that Atlantic lighthouse.
I mean the second time.
… I think.
"I love it when a story comes together"