This should be our final piece wholly about Bioshock Infinite. Today, our spoiler-heavy delving is going to examine characterisation – an area where we know the developers can do excellently well – before we crack on to talk about holes in the plot and the inevitable discussion of the conclusion. Spoilers will abound, and I may try to stop saying Bioshock Infinite again and again because fuck I’m sick of typing the html for it.
Rapture was a city populated by a host of characters, most of whom were dead when you got to know them, and therefore, who had to convey to you much about who they were in a small window of time. Even when you returned there, in big metal boots, you encounter characters like Grace Holloway, or Gilbert Alexander, who both transition from one characterisation to another. They have motivations and the events of the story before your arrival, and after your involvement in their lives are changed. Basically, they seem real, and they make you seem real. They change over time, and they change in reaction to things that you are doing, and in pursuing their own goals.
Then we travel to Columbia to meet the major secondary characters, Slate, Daisy Fitzroy and Jeremiah Fink. Daisy is an oppressed worker, whose backstory reveals the mystery of Lady Comstock, and Jeremiah Fink is like a miniaturised Andrew Ryan, extolling robber baron economics, and advocating the exploitation of the poor underclass. There is nothing you ever say or do that changes how he behaves; nothing that changes his path or alters his demeanour at all. He is as robust and unchanging as the linearity of the plot itself, and I might have, in a more nuanced piece overall, been inclined to think of this as deliberate. The problem is that as clever and detailed as Bioshock Infinite can be, the notion that Fink is so simplistic on purpose feels to me more like an oversight. I almost expect there to be some story arc around the character that had to be aborted, and that’s just what had to happen to get the game out the door.
Daisy Fitzroy suffers from something similar, but it’s more the simplicity of how other people regard her. In the first world, she’s a poor scullery maid who witnesses the murder of Lady Comstock, and then leads the Vox Populi opposing Comstock. Okay, a simple path, and it’s a good start, right? You meet her in the first Columbia; then you move to the second Columbia, where things are worse, then to a third Columbia where, amongst other things, Booker has become a martyr for the Vox, and the Vox Populi have broken into outright assaults on the establishment. She kills Fink (and nobody feels bad), then makes to kill a child (and we all feel bad) before Elizabeth stabs her through the heart from behind with a pair of scissors (mixed emotional response). The thing is, this is treated as the inevitable byproduct of Daisy’s revolution. An oppressed slave uprising (remember, the people of Finktown work eighteen hour days) isn’t very nice, and somehow, this is seen as dreadful. Elizabeth even sadly claims this is all their – hers and Booker’s – fault.
What gets me about this is that you’re comparing two totally different Daisies. One Daisy worked with Booker, and lost him as a friend, eventually rallied a revolution, and all that. But we don’t know the point of divergence. Do we go back to that universe when Elizabeth-the-old sends us back? Are we opposing the First world’s Vox, or the third’s? Nonetheless, while the story clearly wants you to regard the different Daisies as the same person, it doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that they are literally different people from different universes who share a name. Ken Levine seems to want to make a point about extremism – the same point he made in Bioshock, Bioshock 2, and seemingly every other place – but he has to literally turn an existing character into a strawman example in her own world. You’re not advancing your own world’s time: You are explicitly jumping to a world where things are different, twice, then being shocked at things as if they are the same. And Daisy herself doesn’t even go through a character arc either! She has every reason to change, but the personality and outlook she has is the same from maid to monster – she shows no regret or sadness, she references nothing to indicate the severity of her outlook at the end.
To summarise these two points: Fink and Daisy, as presented to the player, are static.
The Luteces play with dualities, and they do so reasonably well. There’s a host of them – active/passive, cold/caring, optimistic/pessimistic, but it feels, after the madness of Sander Cohen, the tortured doubts of Andrew Ryan and even the strange duality of Sofia Lamb, very basic. I like the Luteces a lot – I find them charmingly memetic, and I’m very fond of the playful way they interact with the player in the non-forced sections. The thing is, Ken Levine in the past has made me care this much about people I never met, and to find in a game with as much aesthetic work and fine detail as Bioshock Infinite, in a game with Elizabeth and Booker, to find the characters ranging from likable background elements to static cutout seems a marked drop-off.
It’s not even like these characters being simple is a problem, per se, but it just follows that same meme I’ve had to repeat many times in my consideration of this game. It’s shallower than it thinks is. That shallowness comes out in how these characters express themselves, and what they like – the Luteces reference the first ten minutes of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead, but they reference the first ten minutes. The ‘Quantum Physics’ of the game name scientists, but never mention nor explain the actual science. Elizabeth references a number of sources – particularly, the Bible, but it’s a Sunday School reference. The references come from a wide variety of sources, but I never have any impression that the people who made the references really understood the topics they’re mentioning. The single best and most clever reference the game uses is the use of the song Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which uses its archaic lyrics, and simultaneously gets to reference the time-travel elements, the notion of family connection, and the hopeful aspirational tone that defines Elizabeth’s existing character. Honestly, I hope that Ken had the whole story of the game mapped out, and some sound guy came to him and said ‘Hey, can we put this thing in the game? Because holy shit this song is perfect.’
These moments are rare and far between, and I think much like characterisation, level design, gameplay and narrative, it serves to highlight the greater problems of Bioshock Infinite in that the best stuff, as great as it is, is separated on long, thin, tedious wires of nothing that serve to make the good stuff feel more like a fluke than anything deliberate.
There’s also the plot holes, or rather, the discarded possibilities the plot had that weren’t deemed important enough to consider as the game ran through its narrative. With one last dig at the way the story was structured, I will say that while Bioshock started out from a tight, linear place, and branched out into a large, sprawling story full of possibilities and exploring multiple different characters, Bioshock Infinite introduces you to something full of potential and then spends the whole game narrowing its focus. On the one hand you could praise this sort of focus, but it’s done too fast, and it forces the game into that shallowness I’ve mentioned.
- What the fuck is Songbird? They spend a ton of story time on this guy as a focus, but they never explain what he is. Oh, Fink made it, and Fink maybe, maybe had some implication that he was based on a Big Daddy, but it’s a sixty foot tall fucking humanoid bird. It’s not explained. There was a person in that, there was a story – but these guys made Mark Meltzer. They made Sander Cohen. They made characters I could care about – so why did this whole character angle, one of the possible parallels to Booker, just vanish?
- The Founders kept a slave population, who then rose up, but needed guns to do it. Why the hell weren’t they using the Vigors? The Vigors that were lying in the street?
- How is it that the Vox Populi are meant to seem the bad guys when they’ve been made the slaves of a population so powerful and decadent that they can import electrochemical robot technology?
- Why when they can warp in stuff from any location do the people of Columbia warp in rocks for the slaves to break?
- The rifts are responsible for everything in the story – they’re the first cause of the story – but there’s no reason they exist. They feel like an odd Deus Ex Machina that’s necessary for the story to happen, but who have no cause themselves. A wasted opportunity, I suppose.
And now we have the big problem. The finale of the story of Elizabeth, Comstock, Booker and Columbia. Ignoring for a moment the way the ‘infinite’ universe deflates my feeling of connection to the character, what happens at the end of Bioshock Infinite is a Christian allegory, where a character is redeemed from their sins by the death of someone else. In a twist, the person who dies is Booker, but Booker is also saved from his sins – and the person who shoulders the death is Elizabeth. In the same way the story fails to connect to me because of its use of infinite universe ideas, the finale falls flat for me because a character sacrificing their life to save someone else is a story conclusion that I think I grew tired of when I was a teenager. It often smacks of the story getting out of hand – a feeling that the writer has no means to resolve things, so instead, they kill off a major character and make that death the meaningful conclusion.
What’s extra confusing is that post-conclusion, we’re treated to a jump backwards in time to the point in the story before it ever happened, with a Booker who seems to know what had happened, or has some reason to hope for Anna to still be in her crib. It’s one of the worst kind of stingers, though, because while it’s deliberately ambiguous, that ambiguity doesn’t create in my mind any story conclusions I would find satisfactory.
But what the fuck ever, right? I mean, the conclusion to Bioshock was astoundingly simple, but I didn’t care because the experience surrounding it was fantastic. Well, there is our problem. Infinite’s conclusion is both a near-Biblical story – a father’s failings lead to a child sacrificing herself to satisfy the father’s need for sin, death, and vengeance over his failure, but not phrased that way – and doesn’t matter, because infinity, and the story that surrounds the game is weaker overall.
Finally, Ken Levine can’t resist a few minutes out of the whole exchange, though, to take you aside, and explain to you how deep a writer he is, because he wants to write about how sequels are a thing that have to be written a certain way. The irony is that the meme of this sequence – There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a city – translates, so well, to the truth of it: Ken Levine can only really write one story.
I liked Bioshock Infinite. It was a pretty good game, and I played it wanting to reach the next minute where I could get to know Elizabeth. I wanted to free her, I wanted to help her escape. I was even willing to endure what I was sure would be an inevitable conclusion with Booker dying in order to save her, to play with Comstock’s christological imagery. Yet, what happened was far worse, to my tastes: Elizabeth sacrifices herself to free Booker of his sins, to un-make the worst thing that ever happened to him, which downplays her importance and brings the focus of the story back onto Booker in a way I feel serves it ill.
What’s more interesting is the way that people have regarded this game as perfect, as excellent, as standing out and above everything else. That, to me, is more telling: There is a crying need for games with some narrative depth to them, that this somewhat shallow game is seen as a high water mark. I hope that it succeeds, and I hope that its success leads to more beautiful, visually interesting games that try to tell an interesting story, even if it falls short.