A Quick and Dirty BioShock Infinite Analysis

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.

Comments

Malor wrote:
It was never a real place

*Gasp*

You mean

Spoiler:
It was a story all along?


there was never a real rules system, it was all bullsh*t, all the time.

The retconning just made that even more obvious.

B:I reminds me of that a lot. I find it much less frustrating, nowhere near the epic-scale failure of the ME storyline, but it's fairly similar in that there was never any coherent reality underneath what was going on, no rules system that Levine had to follow.

Spoiler:
After a certain stage in the story, anything could happen, and there was no particular reason why any particular happening would be more or less likely. All logic was broken, all ability to predict anything was broken, it was just off the rails completely.

Rules and logic aren't the most important thing in storytelling. It's true that you can't have omnipotent protagonists, because then when character A wants B, there is absolutely nothing to stop A getting it, but it's also true that drama is more important than logic. Regarding BInfinite:

Spoiler:
After Elizabeth and Booker start going through the tears, even if the specific rules are fuzzy, it's also clear that Elizabeth can't really control the consequences of changing one specific thing, so using it for wish-fulfillment is a bit like wishing to the Monkey's Paw. That's enough of a limitation.

If the characters and themes hung together better, the fuzzy logic around the tears wouldn't matter.

wordsmythe wrote:
Broke your belief, or just made you not want to believe it anymore because it didn't go a way you wanted?

That strikes me as very passive-aggressive and nasty, and I don't care for that comment at all.

More ME spoilers:

Spoiler:
I expected Shepard to die. I always did. But the single biggest theme of the whole game was other people coming up with ugly choices for him/her, and then Shepard finding a third way, by being clever or patient or aggressive or whatever. And then the ending completely violated that fundamental plot mechanic, and further invalidated everything you'd done. It was cheap, and pulled out of their ass, and it was far too obviously Lost territory, where they had no idea what to do or how to wrap things up.

They never knew where they were going in the first place, they were just pretending, and that's why my belief broke.

but it's also true that drama is more important than logic.

I couldn't disagree more. Drama comes from logic, understanding the world and how it will react to you, and then trying to achieve a goal in spite of or because of that logic.

The great stories, the ones we repeat to our kids, are the ones that are internally self-consistent, the ones with real rules that have consequences, even if they aren't the rules and consequences of the regular world.

I can't imagine telling a kid the B:I tale, and it's hardly something I'd look forward to exposing them to when they got old enough. It's flash, not true substance, and it won't last.

Malor wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Broke your belief, or just made you not want to believe it anymore because it didn't go a way you wanted?

That strikes me as very passive-aggressive and nasty, and I don't care for that comment at all.

I don't find anything especially unbelievable about the ending to the Mass Effect series. The ending was not positive, but I don't take that as necessarily wrong.

Edit: But it was a real question. I have my take, but I want to know if you disagree.

Malor wrote:
but it's also true that drama is more important than logic.

I couldn't disagree more. Drama comes from logic, understanding the world and how it will react to you, and then trying to achieve a goal in spite of or because of that logic.

The great stories, the ones we repeat to our kids, are the ones that are internally self-consistent, the ones with real rules that have consequences, even if they aren't the rules and consequences of the regular world.

I can't imagine telling a kid the B:I tale, and it's hardly something I'd look forward to exposing them to when they got old enough. It's flash, not true substance, and it won't last.

No. Drama comes from conflict. Having some rules is important, sure, because if there's no limitations, it defuses the drama, but that doesn't mean logic is *paramount*. You can cheat logic if it heightens the drama.

Here's a loaded question for you: would you show your kids Jurassic Park? Or are you going to be the pedantic, joyless f*ck who thinks putting together videos like this is clever?

Would it be neat if the T-Rex attack obeyed real world rules and had consistent geography instead of cheating like a motherf*cker? Sure. But that doesn't stop it from being a classic bit of cinema, because the drama of the scene works so well that it sweeps you along with it.

I don't disagree when you say that BInfinate story isn't going to last, but I also don't think Ken Levine drawing up the rules for how the tears work and diagramming everything out would have fixed what's wrong with it.

wordsmythe wrote:
Edit: But it was a real question. I have my take, but I want to know if you disagree.

I thought I answered it. My belief broke because the ending violated the entire theme of the game. It was obviously just pulled out of their ass, it wasn't something that was being built toward. I didn't think Shepard would leave that place, I thought he was a dead man, but I certainly didn't expect the 'good' choice to be galactic rape and then death. (and the bit of letting Shepard wake up if and only if you'd played multiplayer was COLOSSAL BULLsh*t.)

It should have been like Tuchanka, where it looked totally like that was where they were heading the entire time. ME3's Tuchanka may be the finest storytelling ever done in computer gaming. It's just such a damn shame it didn't hold up through the end.

People have brushed against it a couple of times, but here's my far less erudite take:

Spoiler:
The original Bioshock's great revelation was that the character had no agency, just like the player of a video game. In the closing moments of Infinite, Elizabeth as much as says it's all just constants and variables, a precise definition of software. When we run the game code, we each have our "own" lighthouse, but there is always a Booker, always a Comstock, always an Elizabeth. Any freedom in the game is an illusion, an illusion that has been coded into it. The only choice you can make is to play or not. The only way to escape the hard-coded plot(s) in the game is to never let the game exist for you in the first place.

I'm basically seeing Bioshock's meta-theme turned up to eleven.


The obvious caveat: I am a programmer, and I see through that lens. There's certainly enough going on in Infinite to make it worthy of some pretty deep discussions. And that alone is pretty notable in the game genre that Doom defined for so many. Yes, you can count me in the list that wished, as fun as it was, this had been a proper CRPG.

consciousness wrote:
The obvious caveat: I am a programmer, and I see through that lens. There's certainly enough going on in Infinite to make it worthy of some pretty deep discussions. And that alone is pretty notable in the game genre that Doom defined for so many. Yes, you can count me in the list that wished, as fun as it was, this had been a proper CRPG.

I'm not a programmer (literature undergrad, digital humanities masters), and I see it that way, too.

I think its the programmer in me that lead me to not have the disconnect some felt near the end...

Spoiler:
I didn't see the lighthouses and tears as multiple parallel dimensions, more branching timelines, with the lighthouses representing decision points where the timelines branch. As such, going back through the tree to the branching point that resulted in the one thing that caused Comstock to be or not to be seemed the natural solution to the problem ... and then everyone brought up the standard scifi parallel universes meme and blew it for me!

ShynDarkly wrote:
I think its the programmer in me that lead me to not have the disconnect some felt near the end...

Spoiler:
I didn't see the lighthouses and tears as multiple parallel dimensions, more branching timelines, with the lighthouses representing decision points where the timelines branch. As such, going back through the tree to the branching point that resulted in the one thing that caused Comstock to be or not to be seemed the natural solution to the problem ... and then everyone brought up the standard scifi parallel universes meme and blew it for me!

Spoiler:
Well sure, except that there should be infinite parallel branches that have a similar decision point, having been previously branched by decisions that don't affect this particular issue.

I'm a programmer too but for whatever reason I didn't make the parallel with game design. It just seemed too meta for me. But then I never liked that implication in Bioshock 1 either--it cheapened the whole experience for me.

complexmath wrote:
ShynDarkly wrote:
I think its the programmer in me that lead me to not have the disconnect some felt near the end...

Spoiler:
I didn't see the lighthouses and tears as multiple parallel dimensions, more branching timelines, with the lighthouses representing decision points where the timelines branch. As such, going back through the tree to the branching point that resulted in the one thing that caused Comstock to be or not to be seemed the natural solution to the problem ... and then everyone brought up the standard scifi parallel universes meme and blew it for me!

Spoiler:
Well sure, except that there should be infinite parallel branches that have a similar decision point, having been previously branched by decisions that don't affect this particular issue.

I'm a programmer too but for whatever reason I didn't make the parallel with game design. It just seemed too meta for me. But then I never liked that implication in Bioshock 1 either--it cheapened the whole experience for me.

I want to point out that just because there are other ways to understand a game, those understandings aren't necessarily exclusive. A wise academic once wandered into a conference and dropped the term "quantum poetics" and then left without any real explanation (he might not have had one), but I think the term could apply to this phenomenon.

I would describe it as "relativistic quantum semiotics."

IMAGE(http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/2/20/Bioshock_infinite_lutece_twins.jpg)

Spoiler:
Does anyone else see Elizabeth's final speech to Booker/the baptism as an act of mercy? This guy's been haunted by his past for decades; has sold the one thing he loved; realized his alternate self was a mass murderer, etc.

After all the events of Bioshock Infinite, he's finally ready to accept a true baptism, rather than the surface baptism of Comstock, or the rejection of one in his main timeline. This couldn't happen without the journey that he and Elizabeth go on.

I also think that it's telling that the only religious iconography in the game other than Comstock's flavor of Evangelism is Chen Lin's Buddha. Booker choosing to either die, or accept true redemption (why is everyone *assuming* that the fade to black = death? The true redemption might also just close off the timelines where Booker makes the worst decisions) breaks the cycle of engagement with the world of illusion; Elizabeth, in a way, is his Bodhisattva, coming back from the point of enlightenment to help him end the cycles of destruction.

Luke 3:16 wrote:
John [the Baptist] answered them all, saying, "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Just something to chew on.