Deeper In The Pile: Bioshock Infinite, Part I

Bioshock Infinite is a game with a lot in it, and it’s worth talking about. I think it would be foolish for anyone to say that the game wasn’t a worthy topic of discussion, or didn’t hold up to being analysed. Whether or not the game is perfect, that’s another issue, and while I criticised the game as a game, but praised it for what it tried to do with its story, any astute reader will note that that’s not the same thing as praising the story.

There are some ideas Bioshock Infinite inspired that I want to express, but I also don’t want to damage the experience for other players who want to avoid it. After the fold, I’m going to try and put these thoughts out there. These thoughts will be spoilery, but I will try and write them to help explain them to those of you who do not intend to play Bioshock Infinite.

The other thing is, when in outline form, this article was six pages long, originally. With that in mind, I’ve broken it into three large pieces. Part one, I’m going to discuss some deeper, spoilery stuff that I thought was really excellent and a quick discussion of the style of universe that Bioshock Infinite uses.

Things Done Right

First of all, the world that Infinite posits is not a scientific one. It’s a narrative one. This is not a science-fiction story, because if it was, it would depict any science at all. Instead, what we’re shown are things that are more about evoking a feel than it is about using scientific principles to change the world and then writing a story with those different elements. I don’t draw this distinction to criticise the game. I do this because when a science fiction story makes an error in the science upon which it relies, it diminishes the story. In this kind of story, it doesn’t matter – the science is not a reason, the science is an excuse. If science actually mattered to the world of Bioshock, there would be no city on the ocean floor. There would be no Big Daddies trundling around on the ocean floor, no ADAM that somehow suspiciously needed only little girls, and so on and so forth. No – these story elements are there because of how they make us feel and react. I don’t therefore feel there’s any reason to criticise Bioshock Infinite because of its science. That would be like criticising a pumpkin for its panties.

I mean, the tears are black-and-white and grainy not because that’s what real interdmiensional tears would be, but because they want them to look like old footage.

Bioshock Infinite presents you in multiple places with some very subtle choices. They’re semi-fake: some reviewers have referred to them as being not real choices at all, but in each case, they do impact something later in the game. The choices are utterly obvious: Join a lynch mob, or oppose a lynch mob? Kill a dying man, or don’t kill a dying man? Draw fast, or keep your head down? Do you give Elizabeth the symbol of a cage, or the symbol of a bird? These are the only four choices I found, and to my surprise, they all do change something later on. What they change is positively banal, but it is a change. That it doesn’t change the greater elements of the plot, or the plot’s conclusion doesn’t change the fact that they do effect changes that are present beyond the initial moment they happened.

When I reviewed Dishonored, I said that the character of Corvo was never yours to shape, just yours to experience. Corvo had it in him to take a range of reactions to his problems, and we’re not very privy to just what his motivation was. Did he take the non-lethal routes because it was expedient? Did he have some moral sense to it? Or was he just possessed of a very dickish sense of humour (trust me, all the ‘alternative’ kills are pretty horrible). The point is, you can play Corvo as a neck-stabbing omnicidal maniac, but you can also play him as a sadist and a utilitarian in a bad position, gifted with a set of skills that cannot repair problems, but can achieve dark, bloody ends. The story Corvo plays does not need to be written for Corvo the Machievellan manipulator and Corvo the Glazier. The same is true in Bioshock Infinite, where Booker DeWitt is a man who will fit the situations he’s been found in excellently.

In many videogames, when a character gives a speech, you’ll usually have to endure the speech, or maybe press the special button that lets you skip it. It takes a certain kind of man to interrupt a speech by shooting someone in the face – and that is the man that Booker DeWitt is. He’s decisive in the extremes, to the point where a mass murder in the name of getting ‘the girl’ is no object. He doesn’t accord the righteousness or meaning of his actions – he just does it. There are multiple points where Booker can ignore or interrupt plot dumps, and just go on to the important task of shooting things, and not once is the solution to his problems not achieved, in some form or another, by shooting things. It’s a swashbuckler’s life in Columbia, and he’s our modern day pirate. It’s possibly subtle, but in most videogames when the player character is the sort of person who can interrupt conversations, or engage in extensive firefights without any emotional shifts or reactions, it makes them come across as downright psychotic – and that’s who Booker is! Booker is a man who committed war crimes to defy claims of racism, he’s a man kicked out of the Pinkertons for excessive and unbecoming behaviour, which is insane – it’s like being kicked out of Genghis Kahn’s mongol horde for too enthusiastic a murderer of foreigners!

In many cases I’ve joked about the protaganist of various videogames being a lunatic, because videogames still have, for the most part, problems of making the agent in the story an actual person. I’ll go into it more another time, but basically: Videogame protaganists rarely have a backstory and a tone that justifies the actions the player can take in any extreme case. Booker does.

That’s the stuff that’s really meaningfully good. There are some other neat things – like the use of sounds from earlier games, the odd low grinding effect that is a song that’s literally impossible to hear, or the ways that the religiosity is kept deliberately distaff to real-world religiosity. I also liked the way the game used anachronistic music that I didn’t quite notice – I knew something was wrong, but I had no idea how wrong until I heard a phonograph playing ‘Tainted Love.’ All these discordant parts fit together to make obvious cracks and seams – and believe it or not, when you know how the city came together, this makes a lot of sense. Now, don’t get me wrong, the explanation is sort of bullshit to explain a non-cohesive setting, but it’s a pretty good bit of bullshit!

One criticism that Yahtzee voiced was that while Andrew Ryan may have been an extremist and a bit loony, his concepts were sound, and the whole idea of Rapture was based in a ridiculous but believable ideology, while Comstock’s Columbia was clearly just ridiculous bullshit that held no weight. The thing is, both ideals are based on real things that actually happened, with Comstock all-but-quoting McKinley and Herbert Hoover. They even happened around the same time – it’s just that we have as a culture moved on from Comstock’s racism, but not on from Ryan’s objectivism.

Now that I’ve purged myself with these wholly honest admissions of things I found interesting, good, or outright excellent, let’s talk shittiness.

Multiverse Theory

First things first, Bioshock Infinite is set in a multiverse, which is to say, it’s set in a universe where there are lots of subdivided universes that are mostly the same, but plot elements are different one to another. This is a storytelling device that’s very old, mainly espoused by comic books, and mainly employed by people who want to eat their cake and have it too. I’m not going to say it’s a dreadful thing in and of itself, but it’s never made a story better for me. In most cases, such as City of Heroes and Sliders, the values involved are enormous, too enormous to mean anything, and are usually handled very poorly – if there are an infinite number of universes, than there are an infinite number of universes where the actions of the protaganist don’t matter at all, and there’s no special reason to consider this protaganist as better than any other version of themselves. Basically, you’ve told me there are a host of other stories playing out, and the story you’re showing me is not necessarily the best of them. That’s really not a good idea.

Sometimes, a storyteller – for example, Terry Fucking Pratchett – will handle multiple universes well, often with the idea of changes being few and rare – that is to say, the exact opposite of infinite – and instead a focus on a small number of distinct possibilities. Bioshock Infinite tells you that there is a near-infinite range of universes in which these or similar events are transpiring, it tells you that there are certain fixed possibilities you cannot change – the coin flip, the raffle ticket – and then it says off you go to enjoy this strange and inelegant hybrid of Infinite and Not Quite That Infinite. It’s not like the idea of differently sized infinites is mathematically unsound. It’s practically old hat to the big boy scientists, it’s just the sort of thing that when you try to explain it to real human beings makes them wonder why we let mathemeticians out at night.

You have an infinite number of universes from which Elizabeth can pull things. She never pulls anything that doesn’t fit the visual themes of the other universe. On a mechanical level, Elizabeth’s powers work well, since they’re basically letting you pick how you want to treat a battlefield, which particular playstyle you want to work with. Yet that every single item she pulls through is Columbian. Okay, art assets are hard, and if you’re going to scrimp anywhere, I suppose you can scrimp there, but all that serves to reinforce is that when presented with an infinite range of universal possibility, Bioshock Infinite just wants to pop down to the corner and go somewhere you’ve seen before.

I hate multiverses. I hate feeling like everything a character’s worked for or done is somehow not important (and when the example is 1/infinity, it really fucking is). This isn’t a complaint about Bioshock Infinite‘s story – it’s a complaint about how they have chosen to structure the world in which that story is set. It is an ‘infinite multiverse’ with a limit on that infinity. Some things are fixed, some things are unchangeable, and we have a sample of 122/infinity. If you’re aware, that’s infinitely small, but thankfully, Elizabeth tells us that no, this is our only option.

That is to say, Bioshock Infinite manages to make the smallest, most poky infinity I’ve ever seen.

We’re out, I’ll come back to this topic later. None of my friends in real life have played this game, so this is where a lot of my thoughts are coming out.