I devoured BioShock Infinite in what, for all intents and purposes, could be called one sitting. I did get up about halfway through and drive down the street for some fast food takeout that I ate while watching Archer — you know, just for a massive palate-cleansing dose of cognitive dissonance — but otherwise it was an early-morning-through-late-evening furious run of 13 hours.
There are no shortages of BioShock Infinite reviews, so I will spare the world yet another one that tells you what you already know. Infinite is phenomenal, and you should buy it and play it. What I do want to talk about, and only briefly at this point, is what the game made me think about on a higher, conceptual level as I played and finished it.
This is a land of what I call the “gray spoiler,” the sort of spoiler that isn’t an explicit recounting of key story beats, but an area where if you think hard enough on the subject you might glean the shape of the story and as a result the directions it might go during its many twists and turns. For example, knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s father is an explicit spoiler, however knowing that the story of Star Wars is, at least in part, about a son’s fight to redeem his father, might lead you to guess in the right directions. This discussion will lean to the latter part of that example, and thus should be avoided entirely by those who have not played or do not wish to risk spoiling the terrific overall story of Bioshock Infinite.
Do we understand one another? Good.
To me, what is genuinely impressive about the nature of Infinite’s story is how wide the net is cast, and how full the bounty it ultimately catches. There is no way to encapsulate a definitive statement on what Infinite is about, certainly not in the same way that you could haphazardly reduce down many of the themes of the first BioShock to being about Objectivism, though I actually think that is overly reduced, because Objectivism itself holds so many ideas within its confines.
In fact, I’d say where BioShock is a look at the tenets of a philosophy described and encapsulated within a story (specifically Objectivism within the stories of Ayn Rand), Infinite is Irrational’s stab at creating its own philosophy within its own story. In other words, instead of trying to deconstruct what Rand did, it is trying to replicate it with its own philosophical ideas, though it's probably not as concerned as Rand was with whether you agree with those philosophies.
I say this because Infinite contains a multitude of ideas or inferences about everything from race, to religion, to the metaphysical, to free will in the multiverse.
Where a lot of people, I think, have gotten hung up on the setting and the idea that Infinite is a criticism on American exceptionalism, I actually just see that as a context to create an isolated playground to explore broader ideas. After all, the America of Atlas Shrugged is there to serve the ideas contained within the Objectivist agenda.
I feel it necessary at this point to offer a brief word on authorial intent; specifically that I don’t care much about it. It could entirely be that anyone associated with actually making the game may look at the above and the content to come, and to think, “We didn’t mean to do any of that stuff.” That’s the beauty of art to me, that authorial intent is completely isolated and separate from the way media is received. So, to me, the question of what Ken Levine and his team meant to say with their story is far less interesting than what I and other players in the narrative interpret it to say. After all, a word is irrelevant in a speaker’s mouth. It only gains value in what the listener hears.
Anyway, I’m not ready to start the Cult of Irrational and proclaim Infinitism some new philosophy to which I should subscribe. But I do think there’s a very interesting way that Infinite ends up talking about not only our place in the world, but the agency we have over that place. I’m going to tread close to the spoiler line here, so beware for a few sentences — but in the very first scene, Infinite lays out an interesting question that you only realize much later. Booker DeWitt does not row. Why? Because he doesn’t.
The language of that segment is both very simple and very complex. There is an underlying question that I think isn’t clearly answered, which is whether he does not row because he chooses, or because the universe chooses him not to.
I think this is the part where religion comes in, and there’s a very good reason that the City of Columbia is so devout. If you look at religion in Infinite, it is not specifically any one religion — though it squares with the general trends of 1912 America, which is to say Protestant leaning. Infinite almost has its own independent religion, where the Prophet is a sort of deific figurehead protecting the Lamb and his followers from evil as manifest in the form of the False Prophet, or specifically, the player.
But ultimately Infinite resolves itself in a way that removes the mystery and divinity of that religion, which is interesting, because I think that by taking that approach, Infinite’s critique of religion as an ideology is defanged. After all, you can only understand that which seems divine in the game with extraordinary knowledge that, while not explicitly unknowable, for all purposes is unattainable by almost anyone. It does not paint the followers of the Columbia mystical vision as stupid, though it does cast them as unwittingly manipulated, which still could be seen to indict the institution of religion in a way, because in the end the foundation that the religion is built on has nothing to do with any kind of god. It has to do with very, very complex science, and people who manipulated that science to make it seem mystical.
That is not to say that the game is anti-religious. In fact, I don’t know in the end whether Infinite really says anything about capital-G-God, or whether he exists or doesn’t. It speaks only to the finite construction of religion within the terms of the one created in the game, and which is a knowable, finite thing. Infinite doesn’t really say, if you believe in God then you are misled, but that these people who believe in this god have been fooled.
In the end, Irrational's creation walks the fascinatingly fine line of critiquing corrupted institutions while not blaming the often innocent or at least misled followers of those institutions. After all, the thing about The Prophet in Infinite is that, by any reasonable measure to a citizen of Columbia, he is one in what seems every legitimate way.
So in the final quick and dirty analysis, I think if I were to distill Infinite down to a few words, the most obvious would be redemption. The game oozes redemption at every corner, though I think the corollary to that is equally true, which is that Infinite is also very much about corruption. It is manifest in the very deterioration of the city around you, as well as some of the institutions that slide from one role to another. Even within the way Elizabeth discovers her own abilities, it is evident that imparting a singular will upon the world, even with seemingly pure intent, ultimately corrupts and undermines the very things she wants to preserve.
It doesn't simply leave it at that, a surface statement that sounds suspiciously like "power corrupts, and absolute power ..." yada, yada, yada. Without diving too much into the ending, I think what it really is saying is that ignorant or cynical power naturally corrupts. There is this undercurrent, in the story of redemption, in the story of corruption, in the story of the religion, that knowledge unbinds us. It does so often with unflinching and uncompromising results, but power throughout this game lies in those who "know," and the way to undermine or co-opt their power is to also know, or even know more.
Or, perhaps, that is simply me projecting my desire onto the story I've been told. There's a lot of meat to gnaw at, but in truth not a very clear message to take away without unpacking Infinite's substantial baggage. That's good, though, I think. If nothing else it warms my heart to have a game worth thinking about, even if Ken and his team ultimately do hold the trump cards, because they are the ones who know.