About A Girl: Assorted Thoughts On Bioshock Infinite

By Kieron Gillen on April 6th, 2013 at 8:31 pm.


Heavy Spoilers, obv.

As the credits rolled and Bioshock Infinite’s re-arrangement of God Only Knows reprised, I starred at the screen and a question formed.

Does Ken Levine have kids?

He’s talked about his wife in Interviews but not kids, as far as I’m aware. Absence doesn’t really prove anything to my satisfaction. If I had kids, I wouldn’t necessarily want to talk about them in the games press either.

Assuming that the core idea actually came from him – and that’s a big assumption – it’s an interesting question. It doesn’t change what the game argues, but what was the way in? Was Ken primarily thinking like Booker, and wondering what he would do to get his kid back after losing her from his terrible weakness , or was Ken thinking like Comstock, and wondering what a guy who had left it late to have a kid may do to make ensure he has one?

In other words, where did Bioshock Infinite come from?

(The wonders of writing is that the answer doesn’t matter. Comstock and Booker are the same man. They’d be the same man even if they weren’t the same man, because that’s how writing works.)

I mean, a Bioshock game about parenthood? It’s not exactly a surprise. As Rab argues, the Bioshock games have always been about parenthood in one way or another, Infinite takes it further than even the explicitly they-(could)-fuck-you-up-your-mum-and-dad-’em-up of Bioshock 2.

It’s not really about Columbia. Because for all the splendour of the city above the hills, it’s a backdrop to the story of a man and his daughter. Columbia is both the setting and the ultimate threat to be averted at all costs. Not that Columbia doesn’t try its hardest to be the star. As a game whose setting can be summarised as “The 1893 Chicago world fair takes off and becomes an American Exceptionalism Death Star.” it shouldn’t even have to try that hard. Still, she tries, but she fails. And that “she” feels important – I couldn’t help note that rather than the conceptually named Rapture, this city is called the name of the goddess of America. Columbia is literally the other woman.

(In passing, among the many things I like about Bioshock Infinite is its refusal to treat its players as ignorant. It plays outrageous games with the period, and relies on you having paid attention enough to history to at least get the basic gist, or failing that, trusting your curiosity to do the research. And there’s no shame in the latter. I’ve always loved work of art that are doors to other worlds, and Infinite fits comfortably among them.)

Columbia rarely feels real. It feels a damn sight better than real. It feels like a stage, because that’s exactly what it is, and what it’s designed to be. Arguments in favour of naturalism fail to understand exactly what Infinite has achieved, and how a more Assassin’s Creed city would break that. Columbia isn’t a place, it’s a bunch of ideas housed inside a videogame level. Even before Alec explained the undeniable links, it was always harking back to that cinematic ur-city, Oz. It’s a game that seems as equally influenced by those two bastions of videogame anti-realism, Dear Esther and Super Mario Galaxy. It reminds me of Brazil, in that I have a similar baffled “they tricked an international corporation giving them millions upon millions of dollars to make this” response to its existence. Often times Bioshock’s studied videogame formalism, love of set-design and visual showpiece reminds me of how musicals operate, but with painful hyperviolence in place of vocal histrionics. Why has the set been cleared of extras? Why is there a big fight here? Because it’s a first-person shooter, silly.

It’s fine with that.

The first Bioshock was bitter at videogames, that angry j’accuse aimed at the whole mainstream, gamers and developers both (including Irrational). You spend your entire life doing these tasks just because someone in power tells you? What are you? What are we? A man chooses, a slave obeys.

Infinite’s metacritical point is softer, both in terms of its overall importance in the game, and towards the medium (and specifically genre) it utilises. Throughout by its chosen action and made explicit in its last twenty minutes, it says it’s okay to be a classical videogame. Videogames are about their programmed boundaries placed by its designers and populated by our actions. And every single game, even the most linear, is different – is fundamentally and absolutely yours. Those choices, those tweaking of experience, that killing of an enemy, that head-flick of the camera or pause in step makes a whole different world, and it’s wonderful, boundless and infinite.

Infinite is much more of a classical first person than either of the first two games. Alec was especially right to nod towards Doom’s arenas, its space and exploration… and Infinite feels comfortable with that. Its confidence in itself even shows in stepping away from once radical elements that are now closer to standard, like the heavy internal story choices and multiple endings. No, believes Infinite, the fact it has a single end doesn’t change the multiversity it contains.

I’d suggest a careful examination of the two most artificial levels in the games hints towards that larger point. Compare and contrast the mocking grotesqueries of Bioshock’s Fort Frolic (whose critique is aimed towards the artificial nature of videogames) to the mocking grotesqueries of Infinite’s Hall of Heroes (which uses the artificial nature of these videogames to aim towards its larger socio-political targets). Fort Frolic despairingly laments that this is all we do. The Hall of Heroes says this is what we can do with what we do. In fact, thiis is what we can do with what we do, is Infinite’s refrain throughout. Whether it chooses to be beautiful or horrific, it pushes to the extremes. Whether it chooses to awe or horrify, it succeeded. I can’t think of a game that made me want to drag other people over to the monitor to share.

As much as I’m excited by radical rejectionists and year-zero approaches, Bioshock Infinite’s design is a careful small-c conservative counterpoint. The problems are not necessarily problems. It’s possible that some of the problems are merely the form. While it’s true that poetry does not and should not have to be a sonnet, it doesn’t follow that a sonnet cannot still be profoundly beautiful.

Heh. Both formally and explicitly in the narrative we hit the same point: “Don’t throw the baby out.”

That Columbia is the setting rather than the story does mean that it’s actually a little less of a political game than I was expecting, more about people and less about ideas. For a left leaning guy, I’m surprised to find myself okay with the presentation of the Vox Populi’s rebellion as a murderous rampage. The period Infinite charts starts with the French Revolution and ends with the Russian one, and both had their associated capital-T Terrors. Both are clearly referenced with the visual motifs and even explicitly. I’d also say Fitzroy’s most striking literary forebear is the proletariat-angel-of-vengeance Madame DeFarge of A Tale Of Two Cities. Yes, Fitzroy’s a monster, but what turned her into one?

A corrupt and abusive system ferments dissent, and when that’s sufficient to cross into open revolt, what follows isn’t pretty. It’s less “Everyone’s as bad as each other” than “this is another side-effect of a truly broken dystopia”. Bioshock Infinite states that an obscene system that makes no attempt to reform will lead to an equally obscene revolution, and you’re a naïve romantic to think that the walls aren’t going to be painted in blood when it snaps (Elizabeth’s initial reference to Les Miserables souring into a realisation of what it really means). That said, I’d be more comfortable with more of an authorial nod towards the fact the violence is a product of the system Comstock put into motion, because it is arguable the game comes close to a shrug heavenswards rather than a firm conviction.

Well, it’d say what stops it being just the aforementioned shrug is the actual Booker/Elizabeth/Comstock story. The point is to stop this world from ever happening. Given the choice, better to prevent a world that leads to violent revolution or brutal conquest because anything afterwards is going to be choices between devils. Don’t let it start and make a better world.

There’s been considerable debate around whether Bioshock Infinite’s ending lines up, and while I’ve followed it, I’d immediately decided I didn’t really care. Even if it didn’t all make sense (and I’ve seen explanations that convince me) I’d file that sort of criticism into the over-literalism of the Columbia-isn’t-a-city. Like a musical, the emotional is the foremost thing, and Infinite makes striking, chest thumping emotional sense, coming into sharp focus with the aforementioned return of God Only Knows. As far as endings go, it’s paradoxical knot on the hangman’s noose around all the characters’ necks that they’ve finally worked out how to cut in appropriately Gordian style. Cue primal drowning, sad piano notes and the gut-punch of one of the most beautiful love songs of all time, warped to Infinite’s remit, using the prism of a muliverse to make the simple question of what would I be without you​ sing louder than ever. It’s a vertigous rush of the body-fear of parenthood and not-parenthood and life.

(In passing, the sound design is astounding throughout. There’s another article in there. I found myself thinking about how amazed we all were with Vice City’s use of pop music, and thinking how long we’ve come from there. Once again, Infinite excellence within a tradition.)

And it’s all about a girl.

I suspect of the things I disagree with in Alec’s What I Think, him noting that she’s the best companion since Alyx is the one that most raised my eyebrow. For all Half-life 2′s character charmed, she was one wonderful part of Half-Life 2, and Elizabeth is Bioshock Infinite. She’s not the best companion since Alyx. She’s the best companion.

At least since Another World, anyway.

You can write multidimensional stories like the clockwork puzzle. It’s one valid approach. But Bioshock Infinite is in the tradition of those that are primarily interested in questions of how people could be, and the road untravelled and what’s worth living for anyway. It made me feel a half dozen things at once, which is the entirely point of the best of anything.

Infinite does require the sort of intellectual buy-in you make any time you’d go to a theatre and see a character doing a monologue. If you wish, you can sit and critique it for that. And I don’t mean that sarcastically. If that doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. Some people just hate musicals because nobody goes and bursts into song.

But that’s not a problem with musicals.

I’d happily swap a lot of reality in games for much more of Infinite’s poetry.

It’s a fascinating game. The more you give to it, in terms of your thought and attention, the more it gives back. I’ve rarely been more happy simply watching and thinking in a game. I’m more amazed I felt I explored so much of it, and still missed so many of the audio diaries. And as I haven’t mentioned it in this cheery download, I also liked shooting dudes a lot.

If there are infinite dimensions, then inevitably in one something like Bioshock Infinite would exist. I think we’re lucky that one happened to be ours.

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289 Comments »

  1. Deviija says:

    It is disappointing that, for as large a part that Elizabeth plays in this game and plot, she doesn’t even get to be on the cover. At all. Because, you know, that whole ‘women on covers don’t sell games’ thing the industry loves to say.

  2. Totally heterosexual says:

    RPS comments always seems to descend into clusterfucks with games like this.

    Just beat the game myself: It was very interesting, but im not sure if I can say I “liked it” just yet.

    I think my biggest problem was that it was just too short, which is just a massive problem I have with a lot of AAA games. I heard Ken Levine say that all of the dummied out content would have made for “5-6 six games of their own”. I think they could have spared in a few hours of those games into this one.

  3. elgonzo says:

    Having finished the game just yesterday, i wasn’t able to comment until now.
    (It seems, everybody else has more times at hand to play games ;) )

    Well, frankly, i just don’t understand all that rage about Bioshock Infinite’s excellence in the story department.
    I mean, it’s good, it is sometimes very good — production-wise, and as game. But not with regard to its narrative or the message(s) it wants to convey.

    For me, the bulk of the game versus its last stretch to the finish including the conclusion/ending felt like two totally disjunct parts. I like both parts as they are, but for me they don’t form a whole. They just don’t.

    The game’s main themes were about social matters (predominantly racism and fanatism with strong references to religion/sects).
    It succeeded in establishing them early on successfully, in a masterful way. Add to these themes the many hints regarding philosophical topics, with all the references to a multiverse and the relativity of time, etc.
    The mystery of the girl, which seemed to be profoundly relevant to this world, and which you, as the player, wanted to unravel.

    “And Now for Something Completely Different”

    The game’s main themes were about parenthood, choices you made and how they affect others around you, and how you deal with them (or don’t).
    It succeeded in establishing them later on successfully, in a masterful way. Add to these themes a story of regret and redemption, etc.
    The mystery of the girl, which seemed to be profoundly relevant to DeWitt, and which you, as the player, wanted to unravel.

    It is said, that Bioshock Infinity is good in creating mysteries like “Lost”. I find this to be true. And like “Lost”, the more B.I. progressed its story, the more it became lost in all its mysteries and stuff it established.
    So it decided to discard it all, quickly establishing another narrative and trying hard to ignore most of what has been before.

    Each of these disjunct parts were really, really good in their own way, but they don’t connect at all. The narrative of the game is not one, it is more akin to zapping to a different TV channel midway through a movie.
    It is bad because it makes me feel the sum of these parts is less than the parts themselves.

    In a way it’s quite ironic that the only device i could notice, which attempted to join the game with its ending was only the tip of a little finger.

    I really like the game – as a game. It is obviously a product of love and of hard work. The design work and the execution of the game mechanics, it shines.
    It is worthwhile playing it. But don’t expect the game to even try making sense of its jumbled mess of a narrative.

  4. ohminus says:

    Sorry, but I have to yell “The Emperor has no clothes!”

    “Videogames are about their programmed boundaries placed by its designers and populated by our actions”

    Are they? If I realize that while playing, it’s annoying. Which is precisely what happened in BS-I. Time and time and time again, it placed boundaries on me that made no bloody sense. I have to jump onto a Zeppelin, kill all the guards and then CRASH IT? Despite the fact I’ve been trying to get my hand on one ever since I freed Elizabeth?
    I find the gunmaker dead and hop through a tear, just to get the Vox give me an airship when, right at the end, I tell Elizabeth that we might just use the little gunboat to escape? That gunboat dozens of which we have been liberating? I could have used them all along to escape – except the game didn’t let me?
    In BS 1, there were solid reasons why I couldn’t go where I pleased: The city was underwater and it was simply not possible to just step outside.

    But that’s nitpicking compared to the real problem with the quote. Let’s look at it once more:

    “Videogames are about their programmed boundaries placed by its designers and populated by our actions”

    Except that our actions matter zilch. They change nothing about the ending (unlike BS 1), after we rescue Elizabeth, they do not even advance the plot. But hey, it says just “populated by our actions”, it doesn’t say they matter, right? Yes, but the punch line of BS I is that our actions never happened. They are all made undone by the final twist.

    That’s a declaration of bankruptcy for an interactive medium, in my eyes. The story would have made a great novel, but for a game, it’s really a continuous series of futilities. The fact that unlike part 1, the decisive twist happens at the end, even relieves me of a lot of motivation to think it over. Hey, the game is over, shouldn’t I be doing something else?

    “Yes, Fitzroy’s a monster, but what made her one?”

    Nothing. Fitzroy never happened. All that talk about what turned her into a monster is really idle chatter. It might have been relevant with a different ending, but with the one we got, we can throw our hands up and say “Hey, no need to worry, without Comstock, things won’t turn out as badly”. This is exacerbated by the fact that Fink was such a cartoonistic figure that we can take solace in the fact that real world industry barons would never be like him.

    In the end, the ending fails not the least because it renders its own premise absurd: It claims that our choices create different worlds, but it shows us that the opposite is the case: It doesn’t matter what choices we make, the result is always the same. And that paradox is really not reconcilable by any degree of handwaving.

  5. UncagedGolem says:

    I’ve recently gone back to replay this on hard, having done normal my first time through. My first play through, I enjoyed Elizabeth’s personality, the setting, and the music. I largely ignored the gameplay and mechanical shortcomings.

    Having gone through once, its hard to ignore how much better the game could have been.
    1. Elizabeth should have been given A.I. Without it, her role is pretty much limited to advancing the story and throwing me coins.

    2. There should be more continuity between the universes. About half way through, “reality” got boring, so they decided to have a revolution in a different “reality.” Why would I be in shanty town in the first place if they had the guns for the revolution in this reality. Also, where did the Booker/Elizabeth from this new reality go? Are they peacefully delivering the guns and getting the airship back?

    I could go on and I wish the game was more like the E3 tech demo. What it boils down to, is that they could have created a game that surpassed Bioshock (which I still think is one of the best of the generation), and instead we got a game that feels like an above average shooter. IMHO, I think they were time limited and threw out devices such as A.I., condensed the plotting, etc.

    When compare it to a game like Last of Us, which suffers graphically due to being a console game, but has a decent friendly A.I. system, and a plot that may be simpler, but makes sense; I can’t help but feel a little cheated by Infinite. In LoU, you can step into Ellie’s shoes and it feels natural, because the AI was good enough to build her into he own character. Could you imagine if they tried giving us a level to play as Elizabeth?

    Its still a fun play, but its not the masterpiece it could have been. Except graphically, its a step backward from Bioshock.

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