Gaming Reflections · Narrative in Games

Infinite Regress

I know I probably shouldn’t but I’m going to write a thing on Bioshock Infinite since I played it all the way through, and a theme in the game has been gnawing at me. It doesn’t hurt that the theme now has echoes/resonances in other arguments going on among the beautiful people of gaming criticism, who thankfully will never know this post exists. ANYHOW.

Since there are obvious spoilers for the game (and a few for Tomb Raider, FYI), out of courtesy the rest of this post is behind the cut.

Right. So I’m not here to give my Extensive Breakdown™ of the game because that’s not really helpful or needed. I will say that my general impression is that Leigh Alexander and I came to roughly the same conclusion: Columbia is in many ways a themepark (the phrase Leigh and I batted back and forth on Twitter was “racist Disneyland”). It’s brightly colored, fantastically designed, intricate and wonderful and primarily experienced on rails. Everything about it is caricature; larger-than-life, big and bright and about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

As a secondary point, I want to emphasize another opinion I have on that game (which you can also hear in an upcoming episode of GaymeProbe) — the idea that racism is basically a red herring, in Infinite. That doesn’t mean it’s any less problematic; I think Courtney Stanton’s breakdown of that issue, among others, is pretty spot-on so do some reading there. But I mean, in terms of the plot structure and overarching narrative of B:I, racism isn’t interesting, important, or even necessary — it’s there to push the cart along the It’s A Jingoistic Racist Eminent Domain World After All ride to its inevitable, Star Trek science-y conclusion.

But it’s that major plot device — the multiple worlds, the predestination paradox ending, the time loop that has claimed the lives of 120+ Booker DeWitts — that actually interests me, even if the game waits a little too long to get into the meat of it.

Lemme start with voxophones.

I didn’t have the energy to collect them all — I had Redbox’ed the game and to be honest at about the same time you start fighting the Siren and the game becomes Resident Evil I really just didn’t want to shoot anything anymore — but the few I heard did interest me. More to the point, afterwards I made an effort to hunt down recordings/transcripts of the voxophones of Rosalinde Lutece in particular. I felt like they’d give me some insight into the events of the ending.

Through these, and some reading of in-game events, we know this about Rosalinde and Robert Lutece:

  • They’re effectively two different versions of the same person from different dimensions
  • They’re “unstuck in time and space” thanks to Fink sabotaging their Tear-producing machine. Instead of killing them (as Fink intended) it basically de-anchors them. Thus they can appear and disappear at will across the timeline and across the “probability space,” as Rosalinde puts it.
  • Once upon a time they aided Comstock together, but after seeing what will happen if his plans for Elizabeth come true, Robert makes a demand of his sister: they fix this, or he and she will part ways forever. Not wanting to lose his company, she reluctantly agrees.
  • Rosalinde believes that certain events will occur the same way across dimensions and timelines regardless: “There are constants and variables.” She is against the ‘experiment’ of using Booker (or, more accurately, multiple Bookers) to resolve their situation.
  • Robert, on the other hand, is less fatalistic and believes things can change — as his sister puts it, “He sees a blank page where I see King Lear.”
  • Blah blah Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, blah.

In summary, Booker is their catspaw in an attempt to stop all this before it even starts, which — presuming you make it through the game — he actually manages. Your deaths and game overs when Elizabeth aren’t around are even resolved by their auspice: pulling yet another Booker into the appropriate reality (note Booker’s confusion on your first game over to find himself in his office once again).

Now I’m regretting that I don’t like to fav tweets, because someone in my feed made the comment that they couldn’t enjoy Infinite as a multiple-realities story because in the end, the game presented an intensely fatalistic view of things: trying to change events in one universe doesn’t feel like it matters because there will always be an endless number of universes where it does. And I thought that was a really fascinating statement and it got me thinking about the nature of choice and causality in this game.

If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite then you know that the game gives you a very small number of “X or Y?” choices that are barely choices at all —

The first one is the “Racist/Not Racist/Indifferent” non-decision, as you can see (there’s some nasty violence in this video, be warned), though I noticed if you spare the couple they appear later to thank you. Warm fuzzies you’re not a cartoon racist!

The Bird or the Cage, which slightly changes Elizabeth’s character model for a time but other than some foreshadowing is irrelevant

There’s the question of whether or not you kill Slate, which seems pretty irrelevant since if you don’t kill him, he gets dragged down to Finkton and, I believe, trepanned as part of either torture, interrogation, or both.

But as you can tell the “choices” here are non-choices. Their results are cosmetic, not meaningful. And as for the rest of the game, your choices are amazingly limited: shoot, or… uh that’s basically it, since using Vigors is just “shoot” with pretty lights instead of bullets. The result is, as I said, a theme park ride… or maybe like a Mario Kart track. Taking a sharp left or right at branch X will show you option Y or option Z, but then they converge again onto the main road.

In the end you don’t even get to make meaningful choices about whether Comstock lives or dies (Booker beats him to death with his bare hands) or if you accept Elizabeth’s judgment about how to fix all this and let her drown you in the “baptismal.” There are many moments where Elizabeth is about to open a Tear that will shift reality and she goes “I’m not sure,” and we hear her tell Booker to be really sure he wants to do this, but as players we have one option: “Open Tear.”

Part of me wonders, though, if this lack of choice is part of the game’s ultimate message, or at the very least an idea we need to consider about games in genreal. Because so much of the game’s thematic material really drives home the point that choice is often irrelevant. Comstock makes different choices than Booker — their divergence as people symbolized by the rhetoric of being born anew via baptism — but those choices don’t actually make a meaningful difference between the two individuals. Both are goal-driven men, willing to kill to get what they want, and certain that their path is the right(eous) one. Perhaps we see Booker in a more favorable light because he is “us,” our agent in the world, and because he helps Elizabeth, who is intended to be the focus of our empathy and our compassion, but he is not that different from Comstock in the end.

The evocation of Rapture — and thus, of the original Bioshock — in multiple ways suggests that the flavor may be different but ultimately the choices will be the same. The Tears that Fink and Comstock exploit to create the very structures of Columbia, everything from Vigors to Songbird, are proof positive of that. The ideological content is different, but the result is the same, right down to Elizabeth’s oft-cited line, “There will always be a man, his city, and a lighthouse.” To quote the Battlestar Galactica remake, “all this has happened before and will happen again.” Perhaps somewhat hilariously, in what feels like an attempt to evoke the “feel” of Rapture in Columbia — an establishment of the “Bioshock aesthetic” — we get proof that nobody’s learned anything. Infinite doors to infinite worlds all making the same critical mistakes.

And honestly, I think that’s why Bioshock Infinite is a marvelous commentary on the state of (parts of) the industry right now. It’s is a living testimonial to the phantom of choice and the homogenizing effect of constant iteration on mass-market game titles, especially in the FPS genre.

Some of us are Robert Lutece: we think things can change, we want things to change, and so we enter the experiment “knowing it can fail.” Maybe this time the constants will change. Maybe this time, maybe in this world, things will work out differently. On the other hand some of us are Rosalinde Lutece: we don’t think things can change. Where everyone else sees the blank page of possibility, we see King Lear. But as long as we have what we want, we’re content. We don’t experiment because, as she says, “One does not undergo an experiment knowing one has failed.”

All that being said: almost all of us are Booker, invited to wipe away our sins by hurling ourselves again and again into the proverbial meat grinder. We play these games over and over, either hoping things will change or safe in the knowledge that they won’t. And the result is an endless array of “[x]ist Disneylands,” vaguely steerable themepark rides, minor iterations on each other.

I had a longer argument about the irrelevance of “meaningful choice” as an ontological rubric for “game-ness,” to tie into the current debate raging among the elites about formalism, but I think I’ve made the right choice in getting rid of it for now. Certainly, Bioshock Infinite is one of the better pieces of evidence in that regard because not only are its literal choices entirely irrelevant, but the game itself hinges on questions of if any choice can really have meaning in the end. Certainly, if Bioshock Infinite, with its almost total lack of player agency, is a game, then any product of the Twine Revolution is a game as well, if that’s a label they even want at this point… the label being shorthand for legitimacy, and I imagine the counterpublic working in that space has little need for the blessing of their detractors in that regard.

Part of me wonders, in the end, if the minds behind Infinite are Roberts or Rosalindes. Is the endless amount of shooting a weary adherence to an established norm that cannot be questioned, or is it an earnest attempt to present it in a way that will somehow elevate it out of the mire of orthodoxy? Maybe it’s a little of both? Bioshock as a universe, after all, is a cosmos in love with ambiguity — a universe where the line between angel and devil, between good and evil, is a matter of perspective… or at least this is what I believe we’re supposed to think. And, like I think Leigh gets at toward the end of her review, I see the shadows cast by Infinite’s ambitions and I am thankful for them. But I wonder if we’ll be content to stay in those shadows or step out and make new decisions.

As a closer, let me make this observation: I enjoyed Bioshock Infinite at first, but as time wore on I became fatigued, not energized. I was never really worried about having “meaningful choices,” per se; after all, I am a huge fan of JRPGs, which are about the most choiceless genre in the history of gamedom. As a point of comparison, however, I want to point at Tomb Raider, another game I recently played. Like Bioshock, it’s really another themepark game, the Lara Croft ride at Disneyland. And in many ways I had the same fatigue, by the end of both games: I was tired of, every time I was just about to engage some other element of the game, a horde of faceless jerkwads dropping out of the sky, standing between me and engagement. Because while combat can engage me, Bioshock‘s never did and TR‘s only did briefly, and when I could engage it cleverly, like taking out a bunch of guys with a stealth arrow and listening as they verbally started to flip their shit about this killer 23-year-old who, less than a day ago, had a tank top and a cell phone to her name.

As I climbed the mountain to save Sam and as I headed toward the top of Comstock House, every time a horde of enemies appeared I groaned. I put my hands to my head. I literally started saying “Enough!” and “Come on guys, REALLY?!” out loud, to myself. My frustration and anger mounted. Yet I feel good about finishing Tomb Raider because I was able to tune out the themepark ride part of the game — the Himiko plot, which is as much a red herring as Infinite‘s racism plot, just there to push the cart along — and focus on the personal growth of Lara Croft into the amazing, smart, powerful badass we know she will become. Her triumphs are my triumphs. But I didn’t feel that in Bioshock and I think that, perhaps, is where Irrational’s efforts fell short. I’m supposed to care about Booker and Elizabeth and their choices but I don’t. I really don’t.

And to put that in perspective, I offer Doubt, a Twine game from the recent QUILTBAG Jam. Your “choices” in Doubt are, speaking solely as a game mechanic, no more effective or “meaningful” than they are in Bioshock Infinite. Yet Doubt, as a powerfully personal narrative with which I felt a great deal of empathy, drew me in and wrapped me up and, if I may, chewed me up and spit me out at the end. It was a highly powerful 10 mnutes, playing that game, and I recommend you give it a go. It lacks the polished, painted marvel of racist Disneyland, but what it’s able to create — this powerful connection between player and text — is worth that price.

Bioshock Infinite is fundamentally about accomplishing a goal. Doubt — and maybe Tomb Raider, in its own way — is about becoming something through play. I think, in the end, I vastly prefer the latter.

10 thoughts on “Infinite Regress

  1. I don’t think the game is about Racism at all, it’s just present.
    Your choices don’t matter and that I feel is the point, like it was in Bioshock.
    The wheels are firmly in motion before Booker wakes on the shore and builds himself memories to function in that universe. I feel that Infinite should be praised for being something more, for asking users bold questions, for being imperfect and unapologetically imperfect. Perfection is unattainable.
    What I love about the game is that even the haters are talking about it and dissecting it, surely if it was as bad as Leigh and yourself believe then it would be forgotten.

  2. It asks many question, about hypocrisy, conformation, imprisonment and subservience to name but a few. Obviously religion. That’s what I took from it, I do believe that perception plays a big part. I don’t think everyone has the same experience, which is another plus.

  3. Would just like to say that I really loved the article, it seems I forgot to iterate that in my last two comments lol. Would like to apologise for the generalisation on the ‘haters’ comments. Wa not actually referring to the author and Leigh Alexander on that one, just the retractors in general. I can tell you don’t hate the game. I’m not a millennial, was born in the late 70’s! I enjoy your writing!

  4. While I agree that the racism is certainly unpleasant window dressing (it is more meant IMO to provide *ahem* color to the world than to be discussed and dissected within the main plot line), it is definitely there for a very specific reason beyond the “it’s 1912 and that’s how people were then” argument. By the end, when you have a truer understanding of Comstock, his motivations and what he actually did in the creation of Columbia, the racism theme felt like it was a piece that completed the overall picture of this story. The idea that when Booker was originally baptized and became Comstock, he felt like, with his past sins absolved, it doesn’t matter how terrible he is, or what measures he has to take in order to make his will into a reality, God is on his side. In order to create the vast city in the sky and keep it running for those he is creating it for, he needed a working underclass that wouldn’t or couldn’t fight back fight back, and in that need he went to the poorest, most oppressed and uneducated groups of the time.

    The end is pretty fatalistic, but when you are looking through the eyes of a man who has done so many terrible things and lived a thoroughly miserable existence, a fatalistic viewpoint is understandable. But if you are of the opinion that “sure I fixed my dimension’s problem but there are so many where the issue isn’t fixed and that makes me feel bad,” I feel like you may be taking too much onto yourself. If I made the difficult choice that lead to these events never taking place, then why should I feel responsible for the alternate version of me who was unwilling to take that step. He made his bed…

    When I read Leigh Alexander’s description of the game being a “racist Disneyland” I was unsure whether she felt like it was a good or bad thing. That is certainly a pretty perfect distillation of the game, as it will immediately give some on e who has not played it, a very strong idea of what they will see in the game, but I feel like it deliberately plays very much into the commentary on the “American Exceptionalism” experience. Much like that idea is supposed to present you with a portrait of a perfect existence built upon the ideals that we as a people hold so dear, only to be revealed as a paper thin veneer meant to gloss over the incredibly ugly truths that those ideals were sacrificed in order to build this so called paradise, the “Disneyland ride” nature of this game world is meant to give you a sense that it is all artifice that would collapse if it were breathed on to hard.

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