Tragic Possibilities: A Conversation About Bioshock Infinite

The score for Bioshock Infinite currently hovers around 95%. Some have loved it, others not so much. Everyone though, including those in the middle, have had plenty to say about it.

Below Jaybird and I discuss our thoughts on the game in full–that means SPOILERS, everywhere, without mercy. So if you haven’t yet played the game and don’t want to know anything about what it includes and how the story unfolds: Do not read on!

The rest of you please follow me.

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Jaybird: As I mentioned in the front page post, the discussion in Bioshock provided an interesting, if strawmanny, discussion of Objectivist Philosophy in a fascinating city that is hitting the skids.

So… what’s the first thing that happens in Bioshock Infinite? Well, the first thing that happens is that you walk through a (rather lovely, to be honest) group of rooms decked out in obvious religious imagery dedicated to a living man (your “cult! cult! cult!” klaxons ought to be flashing) before you are given a fairly violent baptism. The baptism is full immersion (insert discussion about the difference between Baptists and Presbyterians here… if they were Presbyterians it’s not like they could do a violent sprinkling…) and, when you come up sputtering the first time, the minister says that he’s going to dunk you *AGAIN*.

For the record, there *ARE* “baptism gone wrong” videos out there and, yes, you can see some pretty messed up baptisms. So it’s not like there are *NEVER* baptisms like this… but, immediately, they’re putting (at least me!) on the defensive because I’m immediately saying “oh, they’re going to be critiquing American Religion and they’re going to do it ham-handedly.” (Oh, and The Prophet in question looks quite a bit like Brigham Young.)

Shortly thereafter, we find ourselves in an absolutely amazing, gorgeous city… You walk past statues of the founding fathers on your way to finding out that you are surrounded by white supremacists. You go to a little fair that they’re having and, yep, you’re the winner of a raffle and find yourself presented with a couple of negroes for everybody to throw baseballs at and YOU’RE THE WINNER OF THE FIRST PITCH!!! (The choice offered: do you throw at the couple or at the MC who is asking why you’re not throwing yet and if it’s because you “take your coffee black these days”.)

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So, like, before a single shot is fired, you know that your opponent in this game is someone who is really religious and really, really racist.

As far as the discussion of racism we’re about to have, it’d be like the discussion of racism we had in The Help.

Now, I kept playing past that (and I’m glad I did because the game did do some interesting things, even if it didn’t inspire any interesting thoughts until the very end) but, seriously, the game got off on the wrong foot with me.

The grace the game offers is pretty cheap grace.

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Gach:  The game definitely ratchets it all the way up to 11 from the get-go.

I can only compare it to being asked over to dinner at the Cleaver’s. You walk up past the old-timey white picket fence, down the walkway along the perfectly cut, watermelon green grass, and up to the front door where Judy greets you with a pie in one hand and a cross in the other, and Ward offers to fix you a low ball before going on loudly about those “Coloreds that just moved in down the street.”

The game gleefully slaps you across the face with the “good’ole days were actually super racist and backwardly theocratic” commentary within minutes of encountering the city of Columbia. But with so little context and in such over-the-top fashion that you’re more likely to giggle than feel genuinely unnerved. I needed more space and time (and subtlety) for this part of the game’s commentary to brew. As it was, the game’s aspirations to be “about” nationalism, racism, and religion, felt under-cooked and spread too thin.

After the raffle scene you spend 80% of the remaining time gunning down anons without much time to explore the rest of Columbia, or consider the ideology which powers it. (Also, is it just me or was that first chase battle incredibly difficult?) From there on the game’s parody of religion and racism provide a guiding aesthetic and the occasional plot device, but little else.

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By the time I found Elizabeth at the top of Monument Island I was as ready to leave Columbia as Booker. Oh, that giant mechanical man-bird that just knocked Elizabeth and Booker into Battleship Bay? Yea, don’t care. And as I followed my new companion along the boardwalk pier, I couldn’t help but be reminded of every theme park I never wanted to go to. Elizabeth was running every which way, delighted to explore this world she’d always been hidden from, while I followed half-heartedly from behind, looking instead for the nearest exit like Jim Carey at the end of The Truman Show.

When the authorities finally discovered her and Booker, my headshots were remorseless. I wasn’t killing citizens of a corrupt utopia–I was nailing cardboard cutouts in the back of a carnival tent. Is that how the game wanted me to feel? Is there something more interesting to be drawn out of the game’s commentary regarding the limits of its form, and especially of the FPS genre?

Is Bioshock Infinite possibly making a point about the forms of dissociation that make racism and nationalism possible? I’m sure, if allowed to go down that road long enough, I could come away with some interpretations of these parts of the game that engage these issues in far more interesting and complex ways. But those will be things I say–not that the game says.

I’m curious then Jaybird, when did the game start to win you over (if ever it did), and did you at least find the carnage in-between entertainingly salacious and challenging? In other words, were the amusement rides still fun, no matter how hokey and garish the rest of the theme park was?

Jaybird: The game won me over…ish… because of little things like the music. When you’re walking around at the beginning of the game and you encounter a barbershop quartet singing “God Only Knows”? When you hear the gospel version of “American Son”? A good song, done well, allows me to forgive a lot.

There’s also how much I enjoyed just walking around the city, even after the shooting began. The set design was brilliant and, as you pointed out, there really wasn’t any compunction against shooting most of the folks who were shooting at you… and, when you add into that the fact that the Vigors you throw around are really quite interesting, it becomes a fun (if competent) game in and of its own right. Swooping around on the skylines, trying to master moving head-shots (I failed, mostly), all that was just *FUN*.

The monologues you got to hear were interesting, for the most part, if not particularly full of surprises… but the problem was that the bad guy in the game was a bad guy that most people who are even barely conversational in American History know is a bad guy and already know that his followers must be bad guys too. So you hear a monologue from a person who talks about the Yellow Threat and why it was important for us to help put down the Boxer Rebellion or why it was necessary for the massacre at Wounded Knee… and it’s a cartoon that makes John Wayne movies look nuanced.

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In the first game, we had Andrew Ryan talking about “his forest” in the first Bioshock… when he got to the end of his monologue, my eyes were wide and I was thinking “this guy is insane” but, also, “I’ve never fought against someone like this.” In Infinite? When someone gives a screed about White Supremacy? You’ve already been trained to have a violent emotional reaction to this sort of thing. You can then go on and, tah-dah, kill the people who give them.

And feel better.

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Gach: Once the Vox Populi began their revolution, and the other residents of Columbia and law enforcement were brought literally to their knees, I made a point of resisting the urge kill them all. It felt to easy, too reductive, and I needed some way of protesting the game’s caricature of political extremism.The game rewarded this show of non-violence later on when it had Booker brutally asphyxiate Comstock. I was doubly disappointed—Booker did the most predictable thing he could, and the game was satisfied to let him do it, silencing what could otherwise have been a much more tense, drawn-out, and complex encounter.

So when did the game win me over? In the very beginning. And then it lost me sometime during the second fight with Elizabeth’s ghost stepmother, and never quite won me back, even by the very end when the game bursts apart at the seams with fascinating sci-fi possibilities. The music, as you point out, is phenomenal. I think it’s up there with the best of any movie’s use of licensed music, and the original score is quietly harrowing, proof of what Bioshock Infinite can do when it’s willing to be more subtle.

The art direction too is wonderful. I’ve been looking through the game’s art book which Dark Horse published last week, and that, more than anything else I’ve seen or read, is what has made me consider jumping back into the game. Again, I think Bioshock Infinite hints at much more interesting ideas through its steam-punk meets-early-20th-century-Americana than through the script or first half of the plot. At the risk of sounding like a broken voxophone then, I’ll reiterate how awesome it would have been to spend more time exploring Columbia as it was, rather than as we were suppose to see it.

How versed in modern shooters are you Jaybird? Did the game’s combat keep you wanting more, or were you (like me) skim-shooting by the end just to get on with the story? And what about that story?! Did you see it coming? Does it make sense? Do you think it matters if it makes sense?

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Jaybird: The Vox Populi thing was kinda interesting insofar as they specifically mentioned Les Miserables a couple of times and then, next thing you know, they’ve got a reign of terror on their hands. Which might have been interesting if we had spent the last hours talking about “class” (or “the importance of maintaining caste systems”) but, instead, we spent it talking about race and talking about race in the most ham-handed way. There are some seriously creepy quotations out there from Robespierre and Saint-Just that would be very easy to run with, here… but, instead of looking at it through that lens, we’re looking at it through the lens of race.

There’s a fine line between preaching “violence doesn’t solve anything” and preaching “social order is better than violence” and I don’t know that Infinite knows that it was dancing on that particular line.

The death of Comstock was a perfect opportunity to offer the viewer a choice. And, if it didn’t offer the viewer a choice, it was the perfect opportunity to give a monologue as paradigm-shifting as Andrew Ryan’s. An opportunity to tell the player “no… you haven’t been playing the game you thought you were… *THIS* is the game you’ve been playing.”

Instead it just felt like beating up an old man.

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See, the ghostly stepmother was part of the game that stood out for me. The fact that she was technically beaten by a speech in which forgiveness was discussed (granted, this is *AFTER* we do sufficient damage to make her listen to reason) struck me as an interesting decision and I thought it would go somewhere. Instead it felt like one of the directors said “we should include this lesson”, they included it, and s/he was happy that his/her lesson was included.

When it comes to modern shooters, I’m afraid that Mass Effect 2 represents the height of the shooter genre for me. I tried to play one of the Calls of Duty and found it vaguely pornographic.It felt weird to be running over hills in Europe, for entertainment, recreating a war that my grandfather went to and came home from and immediately started drinking. As such, my shooter experience tends to be highly stylized. Borderlands was a hoot, for example.

It wasn’t until the double punch of Far Cry 3 and Spec Ops: The Line that I sat down to play a shooter that was pretty much a straightforward shooter. I thought that Far Cry 3 was a hot mess of tropes used poorly (and then, it comes out, they were *DELIBERATELY* used poorly which was the point, which makes me scratch my head) and Spec Ops: The Line was one of the most interesting discussions of violence as entertainment we’ve seen in a long, long time.

I just figured that Bioshock Infinite would be another stylized shooter and playing it as one allowed me to jump from fascinating moment to fascinating moment to get to the ending.

Now… about that ending…

Well, what did *YOU* think about it?

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Gach: Oh boy. So…the ending. I’ve never been a trans-dimensional traveler (as far as I know) but the following still applies: “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…”

I’ve read so much about the ending of the game, and watched it a couple times now, that I can’t for the life of me remember how my mind actually processed it when everything unfolded the first time.

But I will come clean and admit to not fully understanding the implications of everything Elizabeth did and said, at least not at first. It took some time, and some reading, to grasp the depth of what Bioshock Infinite opens up in its closing moments. I was and am sold on the idea–but not on its execution.

I’ll be upfront about some things that still bother me:

  • The game never makes it sufficiently clear how the little we know about Booker explains why half of all iterations of him become Comstock (or someone just as fanatical).

  • The 90% of the tears in the game are employed as cheap environmental mechanics (making ammunition, medkits, or turrets appear).

  • There is a difference between amnesia and mis-remembering, and Bioshock Infinite relies more on the former which, for me at least, ultimately weakened the impact of Booker’s final revelation (Booker was so poorly defined that redefining him left me on the wrong side of disinterested).

That said, walking along the lighthouses, the water splashing as paths magically appeared,  the star filled sky somehow feeling more expansive than anything in Columbia–that was beautiful and intimately affecting.

If only it had come sooner, and lasted longer!

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Jaybird: When I beat the game, I beat it just after midnight… so I admit to having been fuzzy. My thoughts were, at the time, “whoa… whoa. Whoa! WHOA!” as there was one big reveal after big reveal. The meaning of “give us the girl, pay off the debt”, The reason behind the scar on the hand. The reason behind the thimble. The Twins.

Whoa.

The scene where the twins see the scar on his hand and explain “that must be his hair shirt, as he is ours” made a *LOT* of sense at half-past. The idea that there will always be a lighthouse and a man and a city gave me goosebumps. The walking along the docks that came out of the water to meet your feet then split off into paths then the realization that it didn’t matter which path you took, you’d end up in the same place (!) had me slack-jawed.

Then I went to sleep.

Then I woke up.

I understand that Comstock and Booker were supposed to be alternate universes of each other, but the reasons behind the age differences given by the game were… well, incomplete. It felt sloppy and hashed together. I certainly didn’t understand why killing this particular Booker would result in changing things when, seriously, we’d done this 122 times before (or, at least, that’s the number of times the twins asked you to flip the coin). It felt like a mishmash of misdirection… When Andrew Ryan told you that you misunderstood the game you were playing, it felt like a revelation (it *STILL* feels like a revelation). When the Elizabeths told me that I misunderstood the game I was playing, I can only say “yeah, I still don’t understand it.”

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Gach: So the problem with infinity is that there’s no going back. Once you open up the quantum multiverse, and allow transportation throughout it, things get hairy. You need either a deft and precise hand, or for the details to ultimately not matter at all. I’m not sure Bioshock Infinite can squeak by on either count.

So “There’s always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.”

If that’s true then there’s no use in trying to change any of it. “Always” means always. As often as we see Elizabeth opening up tears, the game is really about closing down possibilities. The possibility that things might be different, that things won’t repeat–that people and the cities they create are not doomed to be circumscribed by their flawed natures.

Or that a first-person-shooter might be something more than a game about shooting things. Bioshock Infinite is the figurative scorpion from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Despite its grander aspirations and aesthetic commitment it can’t stop being what it was all along. But is being (potentially) a metaphor for how the creator feels confined, or the limitations inherent to the genre, enough to be interesting? Interesting beyond the same momentary “Aha!” that accompanies the end of the game’s story?

The only thing that can save Bioshock Infinite from that strain of fatalism is the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker. Even if nothing’s changed, their time spent together trying still matters, right? Even if the game can’t make us think, at least it can make us feel, even if doing that means both characters need to die.

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15 thoughts on “Tragic Possibilities: A Conversation About Bioshock Infinite

    • At least listen to the song.

      The videogame, just as a straight-up videogame, never gets worse than “competent” and manages, at times, to be quite fun.

      It’s the message of the game that makes me say “well… I hope that Bioshock Aleph does a better job of saying what it wants to say.”

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      • it’s a lot better than 2, and the combat is a lot better than one. the rails are a lot of fun to use in particular. and hard is really the only mode to play on.

        though nothing will ever top the first game’s intro, and the forest speech. after the forest speech i had my own “i wish we didn’t have to shoot people in shooters” moment because andrew ryan had hella style.

        i do think there’s a bit of silliness to the general theme of “why does a shooter have to involve shooting” that’s been coming through in essays across los internetos. i kind of understand where it’s coming from (the environments in this game are its biggest strength) but i also feel like there’s a certain amount of world-weariness that’s only aimed at the fps genre. you never see anyone asking why platformers don’t have more branching dialogue trees. and i’m presuming most of them have played dear esther? or amnesia?

        the plot of bioshock infinite is not really that good, though the experience of it certainly is, and i thought it’s seemingly stuck-on explanation of why these worlds exist was actually pretty decent. i would defend it as being pretty clever, and the idea of branching realities only connected because of the weird time tear quirks of a few mutants was fairly easy to swallow. and the post-credits end was suitably up in the air. second chances are rare, after all.

        i do wish they hadn’t tried to scientize it. and crazed ghosts was a bit much.

        comstock was not sinister enough for a floating sky war machine hyperchristian hitler, though. that much is true. perhaps his resignation came from knowing his reality was merely one of so very many realities, and in this one he was merely a foil rather than a savior.

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        • “[T]he plot of bioshock infinite is not really that good, though the experience of it certainly is,” is pretty close to how I feel.

          I think that the tears could have provided a mechanic that would have helped balance out the shooty elements to make the experience feel more balanced, and help overall to compliment the story the game tried to tell, and the environment it tried to tell it in.

          Is there anything wrong with making a shooter? No. And we should critique the game that was made, not the one we would have wanted–but in this case I think Bioshock Infinite is itself split on how much it wanted to embrace its nature as a shooter (re: Booker) and comes off as schizophrenic to me as a result, and not in a good way.

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          • “Is there anything wrong with making a shooter? No. And we should critique the game that was made, not the one we would have wanted–but in this case I think Bioshock Infinite is itself split on how much it wanted to embrace its nature as a shooter (re: Booker) and comes off as schizophrenic to me as a result, and not in a good way.”

            i can see that a bit but i think some of this (in the larger sphere) is driven by notions of what a “shooter” is i.e. it’s call of duty, not call of pripyat. a shooter is not supposed to have a compelling story, etc, though we can find dozens of uses of the format to claim otherwise – deus ex, thief, crysis, etc etc and so on.

            heck even the first modern warfare at least tried, and i can defend no russian kinda sorta maybe.

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        • i do think there’s a bit of silliness to the general theme of “why does a shooter have to involve shooting” that’s been coming through in essays across los internetos.

          I think that most of this is due to the quality/experience of a lot of the stories being told by these first person shooters. I have a friend who is all thumbs. He can’t really play shooters on any level except the easy ones (and even *THAT* is frustrating). He really, really wanted to play Bioshock but… well, it was a mess for him. He ended up watching most of the big scenes on the youtube.

          Give him a Rogue-like? He’s a genius.

          Personally, I think that Fallout 3/NV did a great job with this. The addition of adding VATS turned an FPS into a Turn-Based Strategy Shooter. To *EVERYBODY’S* benefit.

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          • ROFL.
            A friend of mine designs games. His friends build games that he quite simply cannot play (bit of a klutz). Then they promise him awesome things that he really, really wants if he can win.

            I think i’d like a turnbased strategy shooter better, myself.

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          • “I think that most of this is due to the quality/experience of a lot of the stories being told by these first person shooters.”

            i kinda wonder, though, because most of these stories are really terrible. they’re certainly not literature. the play’s the thing, ya know? it’s what makes “my story” different from “the story”, though with something like b:i i guess it’s both moot and kind of the point.

            i feel his pain, as i suck at strategy games. i’m missing out, but no matter how hard i try crusader kings 2 eludes me.

            vats was an ok sort of solution (i really liked new vegas because obsidian are macks; fallblivion not so much) but it wasn’t particularly strategic, just slow.

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              • i feel “fantastic” is pushing it if you take the plot divorced from the experience of it. a book version of deus ex is basically a terrible story. the experience of deus ex is, however, something else entirely. a good experience is vastly more important than the narrative elements.

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                • Yeah. Gameplay first, as the devs say. But part of the strength of a video game is it puts you /right there/, inside the narrative.

                  School Days, Eidelweiss, heck, Hatoful Boyfriend, all do better as actual stories. But that’s no surprise, they’re basically textual games.

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  1. I don’t have the brain for video game plots. It all sounds very convoluted and disjointed to me.

    The same reaction happened when someone was trying to describe the plot of Injustice League as being dark, wicked awesome, and complex. It just sounded silly.

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