Bioshock: Infinite, Choice And The State Of Storytelling In Games

“There are too many ideas and things and people. Too many directions to go. I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something, is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.”

“I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.”

***Warning: spoilers for Bioshock: Infinite ahead***

Written by Charlie Kaufman, 2002’s Adaptation, from which the above quotes are pulled, is among the most trenchant and brutally accurate films ever made about the psychological horrors of the creative process. In the movie, Charlie Kaufman, a self-loathing screenwriter, is hired by Columbia Pictures to translate the poetic, but diffuse novel The Orchid Thief into a Hollywood script. Kaufman (the real one) drew from his own experience struggling to adapt the real Orchid Thief into a very real Hollywood picture for the also very real Columbia Pictures. You don’t even have to know that Nicholas Cage plays the lead to get the sense that Adaptation revels in layers of meta-parody and self-reflexivity that even the cast of Community would think is a bit much.

A medium learning to perceptively look inward can be a prime sign of its growing maturity. Once the playbook has been firmly established (and probably grown a little stale), it can be a breath of fresh air to see new works that appraise, skewer, or just ask why it is a genre, or concept has developed in the popular culture the way it has. But introspection is also the first step towards navel-gazing. Creative self-obsession can easily be mistaken for depth, so it doesn’t take much for a work’s “eat your heart out” awareness of convention to get winked and nudged over the line of insightful, and into a position where the whole work just becomes a masturbatory exercise in tail swallowing.

It’s a creatively dangerous diet, especially for those who stick with it for long periods. To bring back an example from TV’s most prominent genre, the sitcom, you could compare Community’s early years -which exuded boundless creativity when recognizing, and subverting the staples of its species-, with what the show has become lately: one of many post-modern, post-Friends comedies to mine laughs from biting the hand of sit/romcom tropes and cliches that feed it. For my money, Adaptation is, on aggregate, squarely between these two extremes (call it too clever by a quarter), as its all-encompassing quirk pushes into territory so far passed the baseline, that you’re not sure whether it’s being clever, self-indulgent, or both.

The same could be said of Bioshock: Infinite, the latest from Irrational Games that, depending on how you approach it, can look like a magnum opus, or an overreaching Ouroboros; the same coin, a different perspective, to borrow the game’s own words. Few video games have stoked quite the conflagration of textual dissection this one has, which is a rare, welcome sight for a medium where “how does it play” is usually the primary point of interest. Infinite scratches an itch that’s only grown more irritating with the medium’s evolution: the continued dearth of gaming experiences that hook into a user’s emotional, and intellectual centers, not just the adrenal gland. It asks the player to engage beyond the surface, default experience of gaming as entertainment, and offers itself up for careful consideration. Where most other triple-A titles want to be a rollercoaster, Bioshock says, “You must commit this much thought to really enjoy the ride.”

It’s not what you might expect from a first-person shooter that lets you zip around on aerial train tracks, and makes a major visual motif out of ol’ timey, big top carnival fairgrounds (the game’s initial tutorials are designed as midway games). Its premise is just as much of a throwback. Infinite’s classically inspired story is a tale as old as BurgerTime: play the hero, and rescue the princess. As is often the case, though, it’s the details that separate it from the mold. The protagonist is an alcoholic ex-Pinkerton, Booker DeWitt, and the princess’s tower is located in the mobile heart of the floating sky city, Columbia, an astounding achievement for the game’s time period, 1912. But, despite the rip-roaring, fantastical setting, the refrain heard from Booker’s mysterious benefactors underscores a simple drive at the center of the narrative: bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.

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