[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.
A few days ago, 2K and Irrational Games released the official cover art for the upcoming Bioshock Infinite, a game over which I (and a considerable portion of the gaming populace) have been salivating for some time.
The general reaction to the cover has been one of disappointment, with complaints that the cover is “too generic” or “exactly the same as the cover for Uncharted from a different angle.” Many folks have pointed to the fact that the cover seems to be the very embodiment of Mega 64’s “Chin Down Eyes Up” sketch.
These complaints have merit, but I’ve also seen a fair amount of resigned shrugs from my fellow internet denizens. “Of course they’re putting a grizzled white guy with a gun on the cover,” people say. “It’s what sells.” 2K is obviously interested in their bottom line, and if they think they can get an extra couple hundred thousand copies sold by making the game look like Call of Duty or Uncharted, then they’re going to go for it. We recognize this as symptomatic of a systemic problem with the gaming industry and gaming culture in general, and so while we don’t especially like it, we at least understand it. It doesn’t surprise us.
But it might worry us.
The fundamental reason that Bioshock Infinite’s cover causes concern among gamers is that in advance of the game’s release, we cannot say for sure how much this move toward appealing to the broadest possible audience (read: white, male) is purely a shift in marketing tactics, or whether it actually represents a step away from what made the original Bioshock such a unique and compelling experience.
Perhaps the best way to examine this is to take a look at what (and who) we’re looking forward to seeing in the game–and why we’re disappointed they haven’t been given box art status.
Most obvious is the absence of Elizabeth, a character who compels many of us based only on what we’ve seen of her in trailers. The moment in this trailer in which Elizabeth takes Booker’s hand and places it around her own throat as she makes him promise not to let the Songbird take her back into captivity is extremely compelling. We haven’t been told very much about her origin, and we’ve gotten a glimpse of her mysterious (and really, if we’re being serious, totally wicked) powers, so we’re ready for her to be a big part of the game.
(As an aside: though Bioshock 2 did little to create much in the way of essential narrative, one of the things it did really well was build a relationship between the player’s character, Subject Delta, and the non-playable Eleanor Lamb. Creating an emotional bond between the player and an NPC is no easy task, and even though the team that created Bioshock 2 isn’t the same one that’s working on Infinite, the chances of us caring deeply about Elizabeth by the end of the game’s narrative seem pretty high. I care about her already. Did you hear her voice faltering in that trailer? Man.)
So Elizabeth’s not on the cover, and that worries us. It shouldn’t. Why? Elizabeth’s on the back of the box, for starters, which shows that 2K isn’t willing to hide her away entirely. It seems to be common practice in games marketing to de-emphasize female characters, which is kind of despicable but seems to be based on market data, even if it may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Does this make keeping Elizabeth off the cover a good idea, or even excusable? Absolutely not–but it makes it explicable, at least. At least they didn’t stuff her in the bottom corner like they did Farah from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. (She doesn’t quite get the spread that Yuna does in FFX, either, but hey.)
Another thing that could well be on the cover but isn’t is the city itself: Columbia. Both the original Bioshock and its immediate successor found success in no small part because of the world they built, Rapture, which remains one of the most detailed and haunting virtual environments a player can explore. Journeying through Rapture for the first (and to a lesser extent, the second) time was awesome–in the original sense of the word. It inspired awe in the player. At times, it was downright gut-wrenching.
The city of Columbia is immediately compelling to us because it appears at once wholly different from, and yet at the same time similar to, Rapture. Where Rapture is dark, Columbia is bright and dazzling. Where Rapture is close and confined, Columbia is open and enormous. And yet they are both obviously beautiful experiments that have been plunged into violence and grotesquerie. That’s a part of the Bioshock formula–a part that we, as gamers, are anxious to return to. So why isn’t it on the cover?
Well, it is. Sort of. There’s an airship up in the left corner. It’s kind of hard to see: there’s a grizzled white man with a gun in the way, as well as some J.J. Abrams-style lens flare. Does this convey the sullied beauty and grandeur of Columbia? I don’t think so.
And yet I don’t think we need to worry about this. You could see Rapture in the background of the original Bioshock’s cover, but not very clearly, and certainly not in a way that conveyed the epic scope of the ruined Utopia beneath the waves. It turns out that a setting isn’t a great way to sell a game–and it certainly isn’t the most logical choice for the cover. There’s an argument to be made here for aping the covers of Bioshock and its sequel by making Songbird or one of the Heavy Hitters the center of attention, but I’m under the impression that 2K and Irrational are deliberately trying to separate themselves from that tradition to create a new identity for Infinite, and they’re walking a fine line between trading on the Bioshock name and trying not to rehash too much of the formula that made the original(s) brilliant.
There’s another part of the formula that’s obviously present in Infinite, and that’s the idea of anchoring the conflict within a particular philosophy–in the original Bioshock, this was Objectivism; in Infinite, it’s American Exceptionalism. This is alluded to on the cover (the bit with the flag burning? Yeah, that’s the allusion).
Is this part of the formula going to work as strongly in this outing? Is it possible to have an analogue to the exploration of player choice, morality, and agency that the first game employed? Are we going to get another “A man chooses; a slave obeys”? Call me naive, but I’m betting probably not. The first Bioshock dealt with matters that were implicitly intertwined with issues of control, freedom, and choice–perfect subjects to explore in an interactive medium like video games. The story, by necessity, required the protagonist to be an extension of the player–a silent protagonist was the obvious choice.
Booker DeWitt isn’t a silent protagonist, and it’s obvious that Irrational knows that if it’s going to have a philosophically complex narrative, it’s going to have to deal with different issues. I don’t think we’ll be able to know whether the narrative is as compelling or evocative as the first game’s until we see the credits roll for ourselves.
And it’s pretty hard to sell a video game by advertising its treatment of American Exceptionalism, anyway.
Which leaves us with Booker himself. Yes, he is definitely another grizzled white guy. With a gun.
To a certain extent, it makes sense to plaster his mug on the cover of the game, even if it’s not a likeness that distinguishes him from Mr. Drake, or Mr. McGrath, or even Mr. Bellic or Mr. Miles. As the protagonist of a first-person shooter, we need to be able to envision Mr. DeWitt if we are to care about him as a character separate from us, the player. After all, in most first-person shooters, the character we’re controlling is really more of a disembodied gun. Can a series go from having the protagonist be a non-entity to having them be an integral part of a compelling narrative?
Well, maybe. Jak II had a go at it, and it seemed to go over pretty well.
In my head, I am envisioning a conversation with the developers of the game that I hope (perhaps naively) is the reason we are getting the cover that we are. “We want the player to be familiar with Booker,” says an individual in this hypothetical conversation. “Booker is such an integral part of this narrative, and it’s important that we emphasize that.”
I tell myself that this is the conversation that happened, because my initial reaction upon seeing the cover was quite the opposite. “Have you seen the numbers on this stuff?” someone says, in this version of the imaginary brainstorming session. “We’ll sell ten million copies if we put a gruff white guy with a gun on the cover. Have you seen the numbers on Call of Duty?” (The numbers are very high.)
We cynical internet-goers immediately went here as soon as we saw the cover, and this is at the heart of our concern for this game we’re anticipating so intensely. We think back to what we know of 2K Games and the rumors that have swirled around Infinite”s development, and we wonder: “If this cover is a calculated, low-risk stratagem meant to maximize sales… has this philosophy influenced the game design, and if so, to what extent?”
We bite our nails in anxiety because of what we’ve heard about the game’s development: it’s been pushed back several months (from October 2012 to February 2013), it has lost key developers (and gained others) toward the end of its development cycle, and we’ve been in a state of confusion about the game’s multiplayer offering, which was going to exist, maybe, until it wasn’t. A six-month delay and some staff turnover doesn’t equate to “development hell,” exactly, but it has certainly raised some eyebrows. Can a huge, high-profile game with an enormous development staff remain true to a unified vision when pressured by a publisher to appeal to the broadest possible audience and thus sell the maximum number of copies? Are these development hiccups indicative of a team struggling to find that unified vision?
Maybe. Maybe not. From the perspective of someone outside the gaming press, it’s a little difficult to tell.
The multiplayer question, in particular, is tied to the issue of the developer’s (and, more than likely, the publisher’s) perception of its audience. On occasion, a series with a strong single-player offering will introduce a novel and worthwhile multiplayer conceit (as was the case with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, which introduced a kind of cat-and-mouse multiplayer that most players didn’t even know they wanted, and is still pretty unique to the series). More often than not, however, a game with a strong single-player narrative will have multiplayer shoehorned into it in an attempt to boost sales. Sometimes this process is merely inoffensive, as was the case in Bioshock 2, a game whose multiplayer was not particularly compelling–but whose single-player campaign was neither hampered nor contradicted by it.
That wasn’t the case with Spec Ops: The Line, whose multiplayer was not only tacked on but actively degraded the experience of the single-player campaign–and that’s according to the guys who developed it! Spec Ops, a game with a dark, subversive narrative, was undermined by its publisher telling its developers that they needed multiplayer or they wouldn’t sell as many copies. That publisher, by the way, was 2K Games.
So should we worry about this? Ultimately, I don’t think we need to. As of a couple days ago, Ken Levine has confirmed that the game won’t have multiplayer. That says a lot, actually–it says that Irrational Games has convinced 2K that the strength of the single-player experience will be enough to sell units. Levine is confident in his campaign. (Heck, the situation with Spec Ops might have convinced some folks at 2K that a bullet point on the back of the box isn’t worth compromising their developers’ vision–but maybe that’s being a little optimistic.)
It’s not just the willingness to go without multiplayer, however, that suggests that Irrational isn’t compromising its vision. Levine’s insistence on the inclusion of a “1999 Mode” indicates that the game is very much attuned to the kind of players who have been with him and his team since System Shock 2 (or at the very least, my friends who have insisted on playing the new XCOM on “Classic Ironman” mode in their first playthrough).
I don’t know whether Bioshock Infinite is going to live up to the high standard set by its progenitor. I don’t know if it will be able to create that lightning-in-a-bottle magic a second time. I think that, by virtue of the original’s high pedigree, the odds are significant that we might be in for a minor–or even a major–letdown.
But for the moment, I’m not going to judge a game by its cover.