Bioshock Infinite and player agency
[Note: This is an article primarily about the ending of Bioshock Infinite, and as such it contains numerous spoilers, as well as spoilers for the original Bioshock. Probably you shouldn’t read it if you haven’t finished these games. There are also some references to other games–the new Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Red Dead Redemption–but they’re less explicit. Nevertheless, fair warning.]
There have been a number of essays written recently about the strengths and weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite. It is a hugely significant game for a number of reasons, and it deserves most of the praise (and most of the criticism!) that it’s receiving from the gaming press. I can certainly go on record to say that I enjoyed my time with the game thoroughly, and despite a few criticisms, I’d easily call it one of the best games I’ve played in the last couple years. But the final half-hour of the game, after the final battle has been fought, in which all of the game’s secrets are laid bare before the player, left something of a sour taste in my mouth.
Bioshock Infinite has one of the most frustrating endings of any game that I can recall. It gains much of its emotional impact by being deliberately dissatisfying to the player, and it thwarts a player’s sense of agency in a way that few other games dare to–for better or worse.
Inevitability is at the heart of Bioshock Infinite’s narrative. It’s a theme that is brought up frequently throughout the game, most often by Robert and Rosalind Lutece, who show up periodically to remind Booker of how little choice he has in the events of the story–and, simultaneously, to remind the player of how little choice THEY have in influencing the narrative. None of the minor choices present throughout the game have any significant effect on the events of the plot, and indeed, some of them are even decided for the player.
An early scene in which the Luteces ask Booker to call a coin toss always comes up heads, but Booker can actually call it either heads or tails. Importantly, however, it is Booker, and not the player, who makes this decision. This scene accomplishes a couple different things: first, it reinforces the overarching theme of the game, that the events of the world will play out in a certain way no matter what the player does; second, it creates dissonance between the player and their avatar, Booker–”why,” the player must ask themselves, “does the game not offer me input on this binary choice, when I have already been asked to decide between two courses of action earlier in the game?” (The scene is also, as Kevin Wong points out at Gamasutra, a nice little hat tip to Tom Stoppard.)
Booker tells Elizabeth, on a number of different occasions throughout the game, that there’s nothing he can do to wipe away his past. Ultimately, of course, that turns out not to be true–not only is Booker able to atone for his sins, but he is able to literally prevent them from ever having occurred–and all it takes is allowing himself to be murdered.
This is an exceptionally powerful ending to the story, but at the same time it’s very frustrating to the player–neither Booker nor the player have a complete picture of the situation until the final moments of the game, and by that point it’s too late. Once all of the pieces are in place, there’s nothing left to do but watch yourself be killed and watch the credits roll. The inevitability of the narrative hits you hard, and you have to sit by yourself on the couch for a while and sort things out in your head.
The question that was left ringing in my head, for days afterwards, was: “If the whole point of the exercise was that there was nothing I could do, why did I play the game?”
Bioshock Infinite’s comment on player agency in games seems to be that, at least narratively, it’s an illusion. None of the choices that you make have any real consequences. There is nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the story. Just like Booker, you are brought into the world of the game in order to play your part in events over which you have no control. Even death can’t stop you from playing your part: die outside the company of Elizabeth (who would otherwise resurrect you), and you reappear inside Booker’s apartment, only one door away from picking up where you left off. (And is it the same Booker? Does it matter?)
Like everything else in the game’s story, Booker’s ultimate demise (or is it a willing sacrifice?) is thrust upon the player without ever allowing them to take ownership of it. It’s not clear that it’s a choice Booker is making, and it’s not at all something that the player can make the decision to undertake–we don’t even really know it’s coming until a moment or two before it happens.
In no other medium could you so powerfully confront the player with their own narrative impotence, and that makes Bioshock Infinite very potent! In some ways, however, it makes me wonder whether the plot of the game wouldn’t be more satisfying in a different medium. Someone’s edited every story sequence in the game into a 3.5 hour film. Would the same messages about inevitability be just as compelling if the story weren’t interactive? Is the impact of the game’s ending dependent on the player’s belief that they might have some agency, or is it weakened by the player’s expectation to take ownership of the actions of their avatar?
“Nobody tells me where to go,” Booker says, close to the end of the game, and it’s an ironic statement on a number of levels. On the one hand, we as the player are telling him where to go. And on the other hand, there’s really no choice in the matter. As Elizabeth points out, the game brings us to the same place no matter how we try to fight it. And in the end, what happens to us? We are, as the many Elizabeths so appropriately echo, “smothered.” Frustrating! There’s nothing we can do. There was never anything we could do.
In the original Bioshock, one of the greatest twists in gaming plays heavily off the fact that you can’t progress in the game without following its prescribed, linear set of objectives. “A man chooses. A slave obeys.” And you have, of course, been unwittingly obeying the entire time. One of the great elements of thematic dissonance in that game, however, is the fact that the second act involves ridding your avatar from another character’s mind control, and yet the linear progression of objectives remains–you’re just taking orders from a different character, and though you’re no longer under the influence of “mind control,” you cannot deviate from the narrative’s path without bringing the wheels of the game to a screeching halt. You are, essentially, still a slave, and not a man. Players ask themselves: what have I really freed myself from, in the end?
I was always fundamentally disappointed with this element of Bioshock, and I think that I’m not alone in that assessment–the game’s ending is generally considered to be less compelling than its mid-game climax. I’m re-evaluating that assessment in the wake of Bioshock Infinite, however. My dissatisfaction with Bioshock’s second act was only retrospective–in examining the themes of the game once I’d finished it, I felt like there was a bit of hypocrisy there. While I had the controller in my hand, I didn’t feel any of that dissonance, because the narrative was aligned with my interests as a player: Tenenbaum wanted me to take down Fontaine, and she gave me instructions as to how I might do so. That was fine. After the betrayal I’d just experienced, I wanted to take down Fontaine, and I was willing to follow her “suggestions” as to how I might proceed, “would you kindly” or no.
Instead of asserting the player’s narrative impotence halfway through the narrative and then falsely “freeing” them from that impotence, Bioshock Infinite uses the last thirty minutes of the game to show us just how much of a pawn we really are, and then drive it home by murdering us and letting us watch the credits with slack jaws and a vague sense of betrayal.
As gamers, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief about how much agency we have in a linear narrative in order to see that narrative through to the end–as long as the game gives us a compelling reason to do so. Playing through the Tomb Raider reboot, I didn’t care that I was helping to turn Lara into a mass-murderer, or that so much of the narrative (and indeed, the gameplay!) was “on rails.” The premise of the game is that Lara’s in a terrible situation and that she and her friends will all die if she doesn’t resort to some extreme measures. (Kirk Hamilton calling out the game’s homages to The Descent over at Kotaku underscores this pretty well.) Tomb Raider isn’t a game that’s particularly concerned with issues of player agency, and so players don’t feel too compelled to consider moral culpability as they play it. I think that’s just fine.
There’s a reason, however, that there have been some good arguments raised about whether or not Bioshock Infinite’s ultraviolence undermines its narrative (and, of course, its accessibility to non-gamers or casual gamers). When a game strives to remind us, throughout its story, both that our character cannot wash the blood off his hands and that we may or may not have any choice in the actions that we’re taking, we start to look a little more critically at the slaughter that we’re perpetrating. This isn’t Yamatai–we’re not forced to choose between helping Lara slaughter thousands of men or watching her die. This isn’t even Rapture, where we’re forced to put down scores of Splicers that want to harvest us for our ADAM.
In Columbia, we kill hundreds of men because… Booker’s a bad guy already, and that makes it okay? Because we’ve been brought here by fate (or the Luteces) and because we have no choice? Because if we let them kill us, we’ll wake up back in our apartment and step out the door and… keep on killing? That’s a sort of WarGames scenario, right there. The only way to win is not to play. In Tomb Raider or the original Bioshock, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel–kill all the bad men, and eventually the killing will stop, and you’ll be safe. In Bioshock Infinite, if you kill enough bad men, then… none of it will ever have happened? Well, that’s cool. I’ll tell you how else that could happen, though: don’t play the game in the first place.
Obviously this isn’t a course of action I suggest anybody take. The game is awesome. If you don’t play it, you’ll be missing out on all sorts of wonders. I only mean to highlight the ways in which the game’s ending makes you reflect on your experience throughout the narrative and ask yourself, “why?” This isn’t Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption, games which also involve inevitable final sacrifices but allow the player to internalize, come to terms with, and follow through with those sacrifices as though they were their own decisions. Nor is it Shadow of the Colossus, which telegraphs its protagonist’s fate within the first hour of the game and dares the player to continue anyway.
Bioshock Infinite, by keeping the player’s blinders on until the final sequence, never allows players to understand the full import of their situation until they’re waist deep in the river and the only thing left to do is drown.
It’s a bold, powerful choice. Is it a good one? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. Maybe the fact that I’m still sorting through it in my head means it was a good decision. Not all art needs to be cathartic, and sometimes brilliant pieces are deliberately dissatisfying. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to Columbia anytime soon. The game aims to frustrate, and it succeeds! I will go and play some other things, and perhaps when my frustration has subsided, I will return. I’ll let you know how long that takes.