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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Comments (9)

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  1. mbmarquis69says:

    Absolutely, hands down, one of the best write-ups on B:I I’ve seen so far. Great job.

  2. First, let me say that this is a fantastic article, and a thought provoking one at that. Ever since games started becoming more story-driven and “cinematic”, I’ve felt it necessary to have a certain amount of willful ignorance to experience the story as one portion, and the gameplay another; that that disconnect would be omnipresent so long as games were, well, games.

    This game has a disconnect, and it’s not as bad as I initially thought, with some rationalizing and comparison. While playing through this, I stopped to watch an episode of the show Revolution on NBC, and the primary (male) protagonist on that show isn’t dissimilar to Booker, and despite renouncing being on the side of authority and power for his own reasons, he still kills to defend himself and others. Booker seems to come to grips with his past as a soldier and a Pinkerton, and he seems not entirely full of remorse, but not entirely disaffected, either. He’s initially a man on a mission, then there’s a shift to being Elizabeth’s protector, both things I’m sure he’s willing to kill for, otherwise he wouldn’t have undertaken the mission in the first place. Also, most of the situations that involve killing others in the game are usually initiated by someone else taking a shot at Booker first, save for the instances you mention, in which it’s a consequence of you as the player choosing to do something immoral like steal. But this is a viewpoint issue

    1. as Booker never relishes any of the killing he does, ala Duke Nukem or Borderlands’ mercs when the player gets a critical hit or whatnot. I, too used to think that this is an irreconcilable disparity between the narrative and gameplay aspects of games, until I played Telltale’s Walking Dead game. The simple addition of the phrase “Clementine will remember that” when I struck that first zombie in her house 3 or 4 times with the hammer until their skull was smashed in (versus only until it was dead on a subsequent playthrough) made a powerful impact on me, as it gave me the impression that since I went overboard in front of Clem, that I frightened her or something, without any sort of contextual or tactile feedback from the game, save for that one sentence at the top of the screen. Your actions and words are being studied by the other characters to whom they’re visible, just like in real life, so that reaction, whether it be praise or revulsion, fear or love, it elicits a reaction from the player AND adds to the overall narrative. (Despite, as you said, the story being largely the same overall) It adds to the character development, which enriches the story’s development by making you care about the characters more and invest in them, particularly Lee and Clem. When I execute someone in cold blood or melt their face in front of Elizabeth and she says, “Here’s some money, Booker, catch!” I understand that the systems in the game are very complex, but it detracts from

      1. the overall experience. I followed every drop of info from the developer diaries and interviews, etc, up to the release of the game, and Ken Levine flat out said that that was what he didn’t want, and they strove to make Elizabeth act “in context” so it didn’t break the user experience. (ie – if she says something once about looking at a painting, or nags you about being in the bathroom too long, she won’t do so again the same way within a certain timeframe) A large problem with a lot of what they were trying to do in BI – and specifically with Elizabeth, I feel – is that they got too ambitious over what this generation’s hardware can accomplish/how well current AI can be programmed. He also said that a lot of the game had to be set up with “markers” (I forget what word he actually used) and that things were triggered to occur as preset events, which means that I knew (and figured) ahead of time that her reactions weren’t always truly contextual.

        It just seems to me that either a) they started down that road and abandoned it when they knew it’d never work that way, or b) they ran short of time getting the game out and gave up.

      2. There are certain giveaways about this. Like whenever you’re in “civilian areas” and can have your gun out, and you try to pull the trigger (the most famous, to me, being before the fanatic on the airship sets herself on fire), Booker says, “I’d better not,” or some such thing. I think they tried to rein this in, but ultimately gave up, because in an FPS – a genre that belies the nature this game was supposedly predicated on, but that Ken Levine said was necessary to let you experience being Booker firsthand – it’s sort of a hard sell that you’re trying not to kill; hell, the word “shooter” is in the genre.

        But, long winded though that was, my main beef was with how the narrative shifts halfway through the game. The way it was presented before release, it was interesting to see the alternate history angle played up so much, with a sci fi twist no less! And the first part of the story is rife with mystery, really pretty locales, a very well thought out, and obviously well researched aesthetic of just about everything, class struggles, action, adventure, and then there’s this crazy jumble and everything seems to go into entropy and lose its impact as the story loses focus on the larger overarching story and begins to focus on Elizabeth, Booker and Lady Comstock.

      3. I will admit, I’ve always felt that when interdimensional travel or time travel as a plot device, when not properly executed, always seems like a cop out, or shoehorned in, and I think that in BI, using it as an ending (no matter how legitimate) it feels disingenuous. Suddenly, in the middle of the story, you get all caught up in the metaphysical ramifications of Asian gun dealers caught between dimensions, and the whole Columbia vs the Vox clash falls by the wayside. In fact, I felt cheated that you get to see about 4 seconds of real conflict between the Vox and Comstock’s men. By the time you jump around dimensions or whatever, they’ve already been marauding through Columbia, which also kinda doesn’t make sense. I guess Daisy Fitzroy doesn’t have a sense of hypocrisy? And, also as you mention, Comstock becomes so minor, despite orchestrating the misery of so many people, chiefly Elizabeth and BEING Booker, that there’s not a fight, nor do you even have control when Booker kills him.

      4. I thought there’d be more background, more exposition, too. We’re never told where Lutece comes from, or when, any kind of origination explanation there would’ve fleshed things out. And while we’re at it, somewhere along the way, supposedly Columbia was a real US flying city, built under the US government, under US control? How did Comstock come to possess and control it? For as much background as the voxophones provided, and as touted as the game was story-driven from when it was first shown, there’s certainly a lot left to puzzle over after the credits roll. Maybe it’ll be a DLC thing, but I doubt it.

        Lastly, again, due to hype I was expecting so much more, I was disappointed in the last part with the songbird. This thing spends 3/4 of the game chasing you at various points, and while I didn’t expect a direct confrontation, I did expect something more than controlling it to nuke Zeppelins and then for my AI partner to drown it in the setting of a previous title in the series.

        Don’t get me wrong, all in all I love the hell out of this game, but there are a few key things that are broken, and the lack of a confrontation between either protagonist and the main antagonists (You never directly battle either Fink or Comstock, I was expecting a steam powered mech or something for Fink, and some fanatic machine or occult powers for Comstock) and just transmissions from them to taunt you, is sort of hollow. And the dystopian, nuclear winter, totalitarian psych ward after Elizabeth gets kidnapped, with interdimensional voice overs gets too far removed from battleship bay, victrola Tears For Fears and Cyndi Lauper and jingoistic pseudo American exceptionalism for me.

    2. Sam Woolfsays:

      Holy cow, thank you so much for A) liking the article, and B) making such good points about the game (particularly with Songbird, something I wanted to mention, but forgot to. Exploring its relationship with Elizabeth is one of the game’s greatest missed opportunities.)

      You have no idea how happy I am to see people are still really breaking down and analyzing this game for more than just its twist (and also how secretly envious I am for not thinking of some of the ideas you brought up).

      1. Spirollisays:

        Thanks for writing this article.

        I’ll just say that I played the game the day after release and loved it at first, but as I thought about more things, plot and story-wise (and even gameplay), I began to just really hate it. It didn’t help though that so many people swooned over the game without really having any problems with the game and would praise it for things that I felt were poorly done or wrong-headed (in the sense that they put so much effort into things based on wrong presumptions).

        Your article pretty much encapsulates my own feelings of the game’s story and, to me, it feels like everyone on the development side tried to shoot for the stars but missed the target terribly. The emphasis on story and the story’s unnatural and awkward juxtaposition with the gameplay is part of the reason of my incredible disappointment with the game. I had many others, big and small, but I’m not going to name them here.

        I’ll just say that your article at least makes me a little bit relieved that someone who is in the population of those who enjoyed the game (or maybe I misread you, I apologize if I did) could step back and see the mistakes that a game has. I’m not saying this acknowledgement makes the person any worse or dumb for liking the game but potentially smarter. Knowing what does or does not make a game work, or at least searching for the knowledge of such a thing, is, often, a good thing. And I don’t have any probably with someone liking a game for one reason and playing it for that reason and also understanding the problems it has. I have a problem who sink their very identity into games and are unwilling to accept -or even think about – major, or even minor, problems with a game because it is so tied to the very idea of themselves (this could be flipped toward those who hate games as well).

        I feel I’m ranting so I’ll end here. I’ll just say that I don’t hate or wish ill of those that enjoy the game. I just think that gamer culture (players and designers) could stand to analyze games without presumptions or preconceived notions.

        PS: I think that your article also brings to mind the idea related to tone in videogame storytelling and how it so much harder to maintain a directed, or at least constant, tone in a game because of all the things game must try to recreate to fool the audience (or player’s) perceptions.

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