Skip to main content

About A Girl: Assorted Thoughts On Bioshock Infinite

Booker T and his Machine-Guns

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.

Read this next