BioShock Infinite

BioShockCover2K Games released BioShock Infinite to acclaim and mild controversy a little over a month ago.  In development for five years, the game was much-anticipated by fans of the series, but the subject matter raised some eyebrows in the gaming community and beyond.

An internet friend tweeting about his excitement over the game upon its release piqued my own curiosity.  I made an impulse buy on the PlayStation Network a couple of weeks back, and powered through it over the course of a few evenings and a weekend.

There’s a lot I want to say about the game, but, before I do, I feel obligated to mention that this commentary will naturally contain loads of spoilers.  Anyone considering playing this game in the future, or anyone who hasn’t yet finished the game, should probably stop reading here.

Now, then—the game itself is a first-person shooter set in a massive city in the sky called “Columbia.”  The city is run by a religious zealot named Zachary Hale Comstock, and the society that lives in Columbia is based on an extreme vision of turn-of-the-century American exceptionalism with a healthy infusion of religious zealotry and white supremacy.  Players control Booker DeWitt, who is charged by an unknown party with finding a mysterious girl named Elizabeth in Columbia and returning her to New York City in order to pay off a debt of indeterminate character.  DeWitt must fight through various diverse locales within Columbia in a mostly-standard “move to an area, kill everyone in the area, search for stuff in the area, move to the next area” format in an effort to find, rescue, and escort the girl to the designated coordinates.

I found that the game occupied an unremarkable “middle ground” of sorts.  BioShock Infinite was pretty, and it played fine.  The atmosphere of the game is terrific.  The mechanics all worked well, and I have no major complaints about the gameplay.  Yet, it had neither the pure technical achievement of Skyrim (which wasn’t my cup of tea, but whose technical aspects I respected totally), nor the tight story of something like Red Dead Redemption (a game I absolutely loved).  Granted, BioShock Infinite is a more traditional FPS, and, therefore, is linear to a much greater degree than those two titles.  I just didn’t think there was anything particularly unique about it, aside from the plot.

Were I rating it on a 0-10 scale, I would give it a seven.  It was worthwhile, I don’t regret playing it at all, but I needn’t revisit it ever again.  I’m also surprised at the massive acclaim the game has received.  BioShock Infinite reminded me of Resistance, another first-person shooter with an “alternate history” flavor that had the makings of a classic.  Like BioShock InfiniteResistance lost some luster when the historical-fiction-heavy story spiraled out of control, veering too far into pure sci-fi.

I’m a sucker for historical fiction, but when the “fiction” part overwhelms the “history” portion, we start to have story problems.

About that story . . .

BioShock Infinite caught some flak from commentators of varying political stripes (or none at all) for its depiction of racist and xenophobic concepts within Columbia, as well as for over-the-top violence.  The game, which is set primarily in 1912, includes many images and lines of dialogue devoted to white supremacy, anti-miscegenation, and theocratic zealotry.  For instance, the player is first identified as a threat at a public shaming ceremony for an interracial couple.  Not long after, the player finds himself in the headquarters of the Columbian equivalent of the KKK.  Left-leaning critics objected under the theory that “racism is racism,” with the idea being that depicting these things is per se bad, regardless of intent or whether the racists, as here, happen to be villains.  Right-leaning folks pointed out that a lot of ideas they hold dear were not only lampooned, but deemed inherently perverse and evil, directly associated with the game’s antagonists.

In this scene, the player witnesses the public shaming and abuse toward an interracial couple, complete with simian-based racist imagery.

In this scene, the player witnesses the public shaming and abuse of an interracial couple, complete with simian-based racist imagery.

Naturally, the press reaction was to hold up the most extreme (read: racist) examples of objections to the story and dismiss them as absurd and bigoted.  I personally find the complaint that the game is a “white-killing” simulator to be silly, especially considering that (trust me on this) you can—and do—kill just about everyone in the game on both sides of the conflict.  Not to mention the fact that Booker DeWitt is himself white.

For some in the media, the distinction between “racist” and “conservative” is a thin one, which is unfortunate for a number of reasons.  Most pertinent here is that I do believe there is a legitimate if subtle point to be made regarding the game’s treatment of conservative ideas.

Here’s what the early part of the game is like:  Imagine a Martian visited Earth, looking for information about our political culture.  Now imagine that the first person he stumbles across is a progressive “true believer.”  The true believer explains mainstream American conservative values to the Martian based on how she herself perceives the validity and motivation of those ideas.

Her explanation would sound a lot like life in the floating city of Columbia.

In other words, just as the denizens of a racist website view the game as a piece of white-person-killing wish-fulfillment, the in-game presentation of Columbia would be like a strident Democratic Underground member’s dim view of the GOP come to life.

BioShockGeorgeWashingtonSpecifically, religion is depicted as the refuge of fools or those who wish to control fools.  Patriotism and notions of American exceptionalism come off as merely the expression of a form of bigotry.  And honoring the accomplishments and ideas of  America’s Founding Fathers (specifically—Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) is treated as an indulgence of weak-minded revisionists.  In fact, to drive home the point, the members of the political movement assembled by the treacherous Comstock are known as “The Founders.”

Naturally, I don’t personally agree with any of that.  But, in fairness to the folks who put BioShock Infinite together, I don’t read too much into the “message” contained in the game, either.  And that’s assuming such a message definitively exists.  In fact, that pastiche of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American culture was the most interesting thing about the game for me.  My complaints about the story don’t stem from that element of the title at all.

No, the narrative problems come toward the end of the story, when the plot begins to fold in on itself and the sci-fi portions of the tale transitioned from being a plus to being a detriment.

As a huge Lost fan, I have a high tolerance for mythology-building, even if science-fiction aspects are part of that effort.  I wasn’t troubled by a city in the sky, discussions of quantum mechanics, a mysterious monster that serves as some kind of guardian, or parallel universes and shifting-related nosebleeds.  That was all fine.  I was totally on board.

Sometimes, though, less is more.  Coupling anachronistic science (and music!) with turn-of-the-century nationalism and history was enough to be compelling by itself.  But then the lily-gilding began.  The protagonist and antagonist turned out to be the same character(!!!).  The game took a weird left turn into a different genre for about an hour near the end.[1]  The entire story was premised on the idea that DeWitt is recruited to go after the girl by the Luteces, a pair of “twin” scientists who are actually two versions of the same person from different realities.  They’re responsible for the advanced technologies in Columbia, but Comstock has them killed when he suspects them of plotting to send Elizabeth back to her “home” reality (even though they helped Comstock get her in the first place about 20 years earlier).   Oh, and, because their assassination involved sabotaging the inter-dimensional equipment, they become (presumably immortal) beings capable of willing themselves across time and all realities.  They use this power to guide DeWitt on his journey.

Read all of that again.

That was a bit much.  In the early and middle portions of the game, I was continuing to play just to reveal more of the interesting story.  Toward the end, I became far less-invested in what was happening, which is the opposite of how a game (or film or television program or play) should work under ideal circumstances.

To wit, there’s a coda after the closing credits in which we see Booker DeWitt back in 1893 and hear an infant in the next room, which may indicate that things have somehow been “set right.”  As the player moves into the room with the crib, the screen goes black and the game ends ambiguously before we discover the outcome.

At that point in the proceedings, I honestly didn’t care either way.

I was ready to get back to playing MLB The Show or Tiger Woods 14.

The story left me feeling frustrated overall, because it ultimately didn’t mesh.  To pick just two issues:

1. If DeWitt gets baptized and becomes “born-again” as a result of guilt related to Wounded Knee and Pinkerton, then why does he repeat those same types of “mistakes” on a much larger scale after becoming Comstock?  If he has some sort of psychosis brought on by use of the Lutece contraption that allows travel between realities, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to become insane in the opposite “direction?”

2. What possible motivation does Rosalind Lutece have for helping Comstock effectuate this vision of “his” America?  If Comstock were a rich industrialist funding her experiments, it might make some sense.  But he meets her very early on, when he’s just a nobody circa 1893, and she inexplicably provides him with the technology and information he needs to create his new society.

I thought about these things for a few hours after I beat the game, then I went to bed.  Once I woke up, I didn’t care about them anymore.

BioShockComstock

A sterile DeWitt (Comstock) from “Reality B” steals the child of DeWitt from “Reality A.”

The game does many things well, and gets close to doing a lot of things very well, but comes up short of greatness in most of those areas.  It tries to say something about the nature of free will and destiny, but exactly what is muddied by what feels like an overzealous affinity for plot twists.  The protagonist of the story apparently made the right choice about the baptism, yet wound up being entangled in the life of a madman from another reality.  That’s probably about as unforeseen of a problem as  one can imagine.

So, what’s the lesson?  That making the right decisions is futile because an inter-dimensional version of yourself may suddenly enter your reality to ruin your life anyway?  Is there a lesson at all?

The “infinite” in the title relates to the game’s ending, wherein Elizabeth reveals to DeWitt (who turned out to be her father!) that there are infinite possible universes (or at least a million million) based on choices we make.  As it turns out, the only way that DeWitt can be sure that Comstock doesn’t rise to power and steal his (own) daughter is to let himself be killed by multiple versions of Elizabeth at the point at which some version of himself decided to be born again.

BioshockPatriotPosterOf course, this creates several paradoxes that I won’t get into here, not the least of which is that it erases Elizabeth from existence.

BioShock Infinite is ambitious, but its reach exceeds its grasp.[2]  While I think those who get offended over its political content are probably overreacting, I also don’t think the game quite measures up to the widespread praise it has received.

I think back to the experience I had playing another story-heavy, thought-provoking title, Metal Gear Solid 4.  Although that game is about five years older than BioShock Infinite, it does almost everything as well or better.  It also stays grounded enough in its own unreality not to leave players dumbstruck and indifferent to the ultimate outcome.  That indifference stems not only from the over-thought turns the story takes in its final act, but also from an ending that negates the story in a sense by traveling back in time and killing the character before the game begins.  This, I suppose, is the 2013 equivalent of the “it was all a dream” ending.

None of that sits quite right.  As such, a game with “infinite” in its title finds itself ironically limited in terms of storytelling and enduring resonance, doomed to be merely “good” when its constituent parts suggested that greatness was so utterly attainable.

_____

[1] For those who have played the game, this is the portion where you have multiple boss battles involving a ghost and reanimated dead people in cemeteries.
[2] To quote a different piece of IP that actually does a great job of melding history and sci-fi elements, The Prestige.
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