Heads or Tails
CAUTION: This article will contain spoilerific discussion of Bioshock: Infinite and Virtue's Last Reward.
Yesterday, I was Booker DeWitt. I found myself shuttled into the sky to a wonderfully happy and colorful land called Columbia. It's a nearly Utopian world filled with smiling faces and friendly strangers. Some peculiar ones, too. Found myself confronted by a man and woman, asking me to choose "heads or tails." They seemed less interested in the result of the coin as they were of my choice.
I quirked an eyebrow, watching as they wandered off, likely to ask some other person which side of the coin they'd choose.
Today, I am Sigma. I have been locked into some warehouse or facility with a bracelet stuck on my arm, forced by some sick computerized rabbit to go through colored doors and solve nonsensical puzzles. I had visions today — premonitions maybe — of a bomb, an explosion, and this girl I woke up beside. She was telling me now to make a choice as I stood in front of a voting machine. "Ally," it asked me, "or Betray?" I suddenly remembered how, last time, I had chosen "Ally," only to be betrayed by our previous companion, Alice. My finger hovered, ready to select "Betray," only...
...there had never been a last time.
Bioshock: Infinite and Virtue's Last Reward have many differences, but there is one thing that they share in common: They take the idea of replaying a game and fold that idea into narrative elements. Despite sharing that initial idea, however, the two games execute the idea in greatly divergent ways.
Just as with the original Bioshock, Infinite is a story that exists within its own universe while simultaneously acting as a commentary on video games. Booker DeWitt, the protagonist, is an avatar for the typical first-person-shooting player. In these games of bullets and peril, the player is typically tasked with little more than shooting at things — be they animal, vegetable, or even mineral. Booker is characterized as someone who cannot solve a problem without violence. From his history as a soldier to his status as a Pinkerton Agent, by the time Booker arrives in Columbia he has one method of settling disputes: by pointing a gun at another man and pulling the trigger.
Similarly, Booker and his cohort Elizabeth leap from parallel dimension to parallel dimension, right up until the end where Elizabeth explains the multiverse to Booker (and, simultaneously, the player). That moment in which the Lutece twins approach the player and ask "Heads or Tails," the moment when the player is given the option to throw a baseball at the interracial couple or the taunting showman, or even the moment when the player is given the option to be patient or have an outburst at the suspicious ticket salesman, the game makes a point to let the player know that there are a variety of small decisions that differentiate this Booker, this player, this playthrough, from another.
It can then be assumed that this question of choice and differentiation is the answer to why the player has a two-weapon limit and why there are a variety of outfits to provide different benefits to the myriad weapons or playstyles. These choices and limitations aren't just for mechanical reasons, but to put emphasis on this idea of choice, this notion of playing the game differently. It all lends to the notion that even one detail is enough to create a different Booker in a different universe.
Yet the game ends at the same lake, with Booker being drowned by every Elizabeth from every universe. The ultimate commentary from Ken Levine is not unlike the famous "Would You Kindly?" twist in the original Bioshock. No matter what choice you make, the destination is always the same.
Just as Infinite inherited the "Would You Kindly?" twist, Virtue's Last Reward inherits from its predecessor. 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors had a number of endings and required the player to complete the story multiple times with different decisions in order to unlock the "true" ending. The player's sudden possession of knowledge from a separate playthrough was explained narratively, a type of psychic connection to a friend that had experienced everything before.
Virtue's Last Reward then takes that idea from its precursor and builds upon it. Now the player can leap back to key moments on the timeline to particular key choices. Did you choose the Blue door? Hop back and choose the Red door, see where that leads. Did you Betray your friend in round one? Well, now you can Ally with them and see what happens.
At certain points, the game will say "To Be Continued," forcing the player to jump to an alternate timeline in order to play through a different variation of the story, gaining new experiences and information. The game even provides tools that store passwords and other solutions filed away for future reference, and a memo pad to remember key information.
The explanation, of course, is revealed at the end of the game. Sigma, the player character, is capable of leaping their consciousness throughout different moments in time, all for the sake of creating a brand new timeline to avoid one major disaster.
At the very end of Virtue's Last Reward, one character in particular asks a rather profound question. "Creating a new timeline is all well and good, but what happens to those of us in this timeline?"
That's a good question. What does happen? Are the other timelines erased? If that were the case, then how was I able to leap between them at different intervals? Does that mean those timelines still exist? Or were they wiped away as soon as I had leapt back early enough?
That question was a sudden and unexpected gut-punch, one that Infinite never bothers to address. "We must stop Comstock," the game declares, and continues to proceed towards that single goal. Tunnel vision at its finest — we are thus convinced that the only solution is to eliminate all possibilities of Comstock's war machine descending upon the world in a tumult of fire and storm. We are never stopped and asked to consider all the lives that are lost, that are harmed, or perhaps even see fruition due to our actions. As we hop from timeline to timeline, we see only one truth: the more Booker is involved, the more Columbia is torn and sundered apart by battle and conflict.
Each game has similar goals: to go back in time and prevent a disaster from occurring. Yet in Bioshock: Infinite, the disaster hasn't happened yet. We are trying to avoid a single possible timeline altogether. Most of all, the assumption is that this conclusion is inevitable. No matter how many different universes there are, they all converge when Columbia becomes a monstrous machine of aerial devastation. There is no peripheral vision here. Booker is the cause and solution to this horrific possibility.
That Virtue's Last Reward would suddenly ask the player "What about everyone else?" transcends what Infinite is discussing. It suddenly forces us to consider what is truly ethical. Does it serve the greater good to go back in time and change things? Is it for the greater good to force harm upon the innocent so you can find that perfect timeline? Do the alternate timelines even continue to exist?
Virtue's Last Reward is asking if it is worth the suffering of a small population of people in order to figure out how to go back in time and prevent atrocity. It asks the player to consider not only the horrific past action, but how such events resonated throughout the world and history into long-term and indirect effects. Tragedy can ultimately inspire greater humanity, ot can inspire and empower us to reach for new hights of glory and grace. Bioshock: Infinite, on the other hand, doesn't bother with these questions. Instead, it puts you in the body of a younger Hitler forced to confront an older version of yourself, all with the assumption that you would be horrified by what you've done. Infinite's is a self-confident tightening of focus in which the question is not asked.
Two sides of the same coin of alternate timelines and the changing of history. On one side, Bioshock: Infinite emphatically says that, yes, changing history can be an ethical and a moral good (perhaps maybe an ethical imperative, given the option), while on the other Virtue's Last Reward is indecisive. "Sounds nice, but what about all them peoples?" If it were you, which would you choose? Do you have the conviction to ignore all other suffering so that you might bring about your vision of good? Can you be so sure you're not just committing another disaster with misguided ideals? Or is the passive nature of the observer the biggest crime of all?
Know what? Screw it. The coin goes in the pocket. What say we just watch Back to the Future and play Chrono Trigger instead, eh?