“Whose Hands Are These”: Some Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite

t(Spoilers for the game in the images and text below. And minor spoilers for Life is Strange)
One of the interesting things about videogames as cultural activity is that there’s a lot of different ways to experience them. I have some friends who like to try a little bit of everything, and move from game to game depending on what’s talked about. I think there’s a lot to recommend this approach–it’s probably the best way to stay current in what’s being most played, it means you become aware of a lot of different types of games, and it gives you the freedom to circle back to the games that you wind up liking the most.

It’s not, however, the way that feels most comfortable to me. Setting aside the financial investment that method entails, I have a hard time playing something concurrently with others–I feel pressured to push ahead to that Big Event, and stop really enjoying what I’m doing. I used to be especially awful with this as a kid, where I played RPGs incredibly conservatively and still got upset when my younger brother surged past me. I got so upset that he completed Shining Force before me that I issued a fiat and refused to let him play the sequel at all until I got a good way through it.

It’s not a moment I’m particularly proud of, and I’ve outgrown it to a large extent (my brother may disagree), but there’s still a part of me that both needs to play a game through to its completion and needs to do it at my own pace. The result isn’t playing fewer total hours than other people, but it does generally mean playing fewer games. Consequently when I do get around to a “major” game, it’s generally long after everyone else, and I feel obligated to write about it, to justify the time investment. Hence my bind at playing BioShock Infinite three years after its release: what could I possibly say about it that hasn’t already been said?

bioshockinfinite_boxart_12012012

It feels odd to me that the box art features Booker, since you spend so much of the game NOT looking at him, but from him. Given the game’s focus, it would have made so much more sense to feature Elizabeth. But box art has its own gender history separate from the reality of the games it portrays.

The upside to being last to the party is that it gives opportunity to reflect on what has been said, and in that sense, playing Infinite was very interesting–I’ve been reading secondary and tertiary accounts of this game for years, and playing it for the time was like writing over a palimpsest of impressions I’d already formed. Game culture–even when you’re not playing with everyone, you’re playing with everyone. So in that vein, what follows is less an detailed account of the game (ie, if you, like me, missed out on BI, you’re not going to find a detailed intro here), and more a pointform exploration of what I felt playing it, alongside responses to what I’ve read about it too, with a full list of links at the post’s end. Some of it may come down to little more than “boy, did Writer X get it right the first time,” but, well, there’s worse conclusions than being reminded of really good older game writing.

  • As documentation suggests, videogames have a history of reducing noncombat actions to a simple button push, but BI seems to take that to extremes. Press X to pull a lever or push a button is fine; press X to comfort Elizabeth or intervene with Comstock seems silly. I get why the interaction was put in–it offers a sense of agency on the player’s part, and ties them to Booker’s actions. But since the only other choice in most cases is “do nothing and stand around forever while the plot waits for you to comply,” it mostly just highlights how it’s just the illusion of agency. At points, I was yearning for the sophistication of the Bioware morality wheel.Screenshot 2016-03-21 11.25.32
There, there. Put down the scissors. There, there.

Robert Yang argues along similar lines on the subject (which is to say, I may accidentally have stolen the entire sentiment from him), delving into the history of contextual prompts.

“Feel these emotions, dummy! Don’t you understand that this is the climax?

“Here, in a single crystallized moment, was a game with Ambitions of Meaning which suddenly demanded an emotional reaction that it didn’t earn at all and never had a chance of earning, strained through the exact same controls and impulses used to dig through countless trash cans.

“BioShock Infinite is a profound failure in storytelling and a landmark moment in the Use Key Genre.”

His conclusion is a little extreme, but not unwarranted. Too bad the same can’t be said for BioShock Infinite. Zing.

  • I think if there’s one thing I truly loved about this game, it’s the music, and the reason for that is the notion of the remix, on a number of levels. BioShock pioneered the ironic deployment of music, through the juxtaposition of 30s, 40s, and 50s real world tunes with Rapture’s dystopian ruins. While BioShock Infinite‘s approach is more outlandish–use its alternative reality premise to justify remixing songs from much later time periods but in early 20th century styles–it can also be seen as an extension of what the first game set up. So you get “Tainted Love,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and my favorite:

There’s a few reasons why it’s my favorite: it gives more sympathy to the Vox Populi movement than the game seems to do; it’s a live performance, as opposed to a phonograph recording, like much of the game’s music (I like the earlier “Shake Shugaree” too, for similar reasons); there’s the mix of fighting alongside the song–which is why I went with the above clip as opposed to the first I found, which stripped out the other sound; and, most of all, I had the advantage of hearing it after I attended the Canadian Game Studies Association in 2015.

Last year, I had the opportunity to speak on panel on Interface and Culture (my paper was on narrative structures in match 3 games), and one of the speakers on the panel was Andréane Morin-Simard, with her paper “‘I Ain’t No Fortunate One’: Popular Music, Circulation and Cultural Value in Video Games.” I’ll apologize now, because I’m sure that I’ve got some of the details wrong, but essentially, Morin-Simrad went through the cultural history of the song, and how it’s frequently used in videogames. The use is almost always ironic, although usually unintentionally so. It’s John Fogerty’s (written for his band, Creedance Clearwater revival) anti-war song about Vietnam, deriding those who call for war but won’t pay the price of that war themselves, but in videogames–mostly FPS war-based games–it’s almost always used to glorify the spectacle of a digitized war.

Morin-Simard spent the most time on BioShock Infinite because (as my imperfect memory recalls) it’s more complicated in the song’s use, and arguably closer to its original creators’ intentions. By turning the song into a gospel-like version, by putting it in the mouth of a black woman on the eve of a revolution, Ken Levine and the other designers change its meaning towards their own intentions. What that new meaning is depends, I think, on your opinion of BioShock Infinite’s use of the Vox Populi, which we’ll talk about next. I might change on this, but my preliminary thought is that is that the “silver spooned” of the song has to be Comstock and the elite of Columbia, who have forced the people they’ve taken advantage of (enslaved) into a war they didn’t want.

My point, though, is that I might never have noticed the song at at all if Morin-Simard hadn’t argued for its significance. So to me, in addition to all its other meanings, it offers a chance to reflect on and be grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a scholar, the people I’ve been privileged to meet and listen to.

Screenshot 2016-03-22 20.53.19

Yes, she’s smearing the blood of the man she just killed on her face.
This is a gross scene on a number of levels.
  • All right, let’s talk about the game’s handling of race. From everything I heard and read about Bioshock Infinite’s failings, three things kept coming up: its approach to race, its violence, and its nihilism. So I came in expecting the handling of the Vox Populi and Daisy Fitzroy to be bad. And it was. But what really surprised me is how little Fitzroy is in the game at all. You hear her voice in a few places, but as a physical presence, she has only two scenes in the entire game. Granted, that’s a BioShock hallmark–it seems a tenet of the series that NPCs should be heard and not seen, which is part of what makes Elizabeth’s presence so central. But Fitzroy’s rarity seems more important than most because of how she’s the face of the people repressed by Comstock (as opposed to Slate, who’s the face of those betrayed by him) and because those scenes are so diametrically opposed.In the first, she entreats Booker to join the Vox, and when that doesn’t work, makes a deal to trade the airship for a gun shipment. The next time she appears, she shoots a man, rubs his blood on her face, and attempts to murder a child. In between those two appearances, one exchange has her coldly tell Booker that his being alive “complicates the narrative,” bringing to mind the extensive revisions Comstock made to his own narrative at the Hall of Heroes.

In that light, the message appears to be that Fitzroy’s rebellion is going to be bloody, violent, and really not that different from Comstock’s approach. And if I squint, I can see where the developers were perhaps going with this. (And, I’ll toss this out there, you can also make the argument that Fitzroy’s change in leadership approach is because technically, the Fitzroy in the first scene is from a different universe  than the one in the second. But honestly, that’s kind of a cheat too; see the next point.)  There is a global history of rebellions that started with high ideals, but descended into tremendous amounts of bloodshed–the French Revolution and the October Revolution come to mind. But that interpretation doesn’t work, because those aren’t the cultural references BioShock Infinite touches on. Instead, it’s chain gangs, it’s Comstock comparing “coloured” people to dogs, and it’s the blackness of Daisy Fitzroy.

The argument could be made that this is a lot to make out of two scenes, that those complaining about the Vox Populi’s representation and Fitzroy in particular are blowing out of proportion what’s really a minor part of the game. But that’s the whole problem: Irrational Games made a choice to bring up race, then minimize it. Essentially, they’re trying to have their narrative cake and eat it too. They chose to instill the social structure of Columbia with this massively powerful cultural reference of how black people were treated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But rather than deal with the consequences of that choice, they choose to minimize it. The Vox Populi troops you fight are nearly entirely masked, so you don’t have to think too hard about shooting black people. Their ranks are made up of about an equal number of Irish people too so Irrational Games can still have the general excuse that it’s not about skin color. And Daisy Fitzroy is a bloodthirsty savage who paints herself with the blood of her enemies, because she’s “just as bad” as Comstock.

I don’t want to totally dismiss Irrational Games’ efforts (though I wouldn’t argue against those who would)–they make some interesting points about sympathizers who don’t want to go too far out of their way, for example, and I can’t deny that moments like the “Fortunate Son” singer mattered to me. But you don’t get to draw on something like racism and brutal systemic oppression and use them as little more than narrative flavour.

  • That was pretty heavy, so let’s interject with a positive point. This is a beautiful game.
  • Seriously, look at this stuff.
  • I’ll give Infinite one thing–its approach to time travel and alternate universes helped me put into words exactly what I felt was so unsatisfying about the similar ending to Life is Strange. (Warning: LiS spoilers to follow.)

life-is-strange-lighthouse

There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a city. But who the needs the man, amiright?

I think there’s an inherent appeal to time travel stories in fiction. In your standard story, cause-and-effect is easy to trace (easy at least in comparison to real life), and playing around with how things can happen differently can be very satisfying. How many regrets start with “If only I had…”? And videogames double down on that pleasure, as it gives you room to go back to a point in the story, and, sometimes, actually do things differently. Your average Bioware game, for example, excels in granting you at least the appearance of choice. A time travel story, however, can go the other way as well, and remove any potential of choice

What bugs me, though, is when time travel is used essentially as plot armour, and both of these games are guilty of that to some degree. The similarity between their final moments is striking, as they’re basically the same choice in reverse: in BI, Elizabeth reveals that Booker is Comstock, and in order to rid the multiverse of Comstock, she has to kill Booker. In true BioShock manner, you don’t get a choice in this, but Life is Strange wrenches out the full drama by giving you the option to rescue either your bae-loved or the town Arcadia Bay. (Joke stolen wholecloth from First Person Scholar and probaaably didn’t originate there; and while she may not be your beloved, that’s my canon and I’m sticking to it), the idea being that the freak storm ravishing the town is a result of Max’s fiddling with one crucial moment in time.

The whole “sacrifice your loved one/sacrifice yourself for you loved one” felt false to me, though, because in both cases, the games take a tell don’t show approach to arguing how this choice comes into being. The only assurance that their actions are necessary is that NPCs tell them it is, rather than being a reinforcement of how time travel has been shown to work in the games themselves. In both cases, it feels very much like the writers decided on the ending they felt wrenched out maximum emotion, and then used time travel as a way of hand-waving to get there with minimal explanation.

In Life is Strange, what reason is there to believe that meddling in time again to prevent an earlier meddling won’t just fracture things further? In BioShock Infinite, why would drowning a Booker DeWitt who didn’t become Comstock destroy Comstock? The answer seems to be because that’s how we’re telling you, in this scene, time travel works. Life is Strange did it better than Bioshock Infinite, I think, and both have the excuse of plot resonance if not exactly plot logic (Chloe’s apparent death wish, and Booker’s continual encounters with water) but in keeping the rules so deliberately vague, they make their endings overtly emotionally manipulative. And given that this is what the game chooses to focus on over a focus on the Vox Populi or other aspects of Columbia, it’s disappointing.

I do have other points, but given that I’m 2500+ words in, I’ll keep them brief, and if anyone wants me to elaborate, I can do that in future posts.

Second amendment in action?
  • As with their approach to racism, the game designers manage to have their cake and eat it too with nationalism. By drenching Columbia in the imagery of the flag and almost worship of the Founding Fathers but also making clear Comstock seceded from the Union (heck, they even avoid the Confederate flag), you can explore the issue with plausible deniability that you’re critiquing actual America.
  • The book Elizabeth is reading when Booker finds her is The Odyssey. The book she subsequently throws at him is on quantum mechanics (and by the game’s female twin). Yes, I went back and checked.
  • Since you spend so much of the game seeing only Booker’s hands, and they’re usually wielding a weapon, every time they’re used for some other purpose, it seems imbued with meaning–tying Elizabeth’s corset, her bandaging of his hand, opening a door she can’t manage.It doesn’t always involve Elizabeth, and it’s not always moments where the player isn’t in control of Booker, but most of them seem to be both.
    Also, the respective difference in hand size is almost comical.
  • One part of the original BioShock I’ll always remember is the memorable villains–Andrew Ryan, certainly, and the crazy Sander Cohen, but even lesser figures like Fontaine and the master surgeon Steinman. They were all villains, but they had a consistency of style, at least. BioShock Infinite doesn’t have that. It’s very telling (and probably a lesson from BioShock‘s admittedly lackluster final battle) that it doesn’t end in a boss fight, but a massive “protect the ship” brawl. Comstock is a bundle of conflicting traits that never really coalesced into a whole and at best, he’s a reflection of Booker; I’ve already mentioned my distaste for what they did with Fitzroy. The only villain that really got a response from me was Slate, and that was because he really bothered me. He was convinced that the current system was corrupt, and the best he could think of doing with that knowledge was to commit suicide, and bring the people loyal to him to die too. That seems to be the message of the game–there’s no atonement but oblivion.
  • Shortly after playing this game, I read José Alanis’ essay on the Death of Superman (from his recent book), where he essentially argues that the entire affair can be read as the public/private conflict North Americans have in dealing with death and grief. It strikes me that you could do a similar with BioShock Infinite, especially with Lady Comstock, in both her funeral trappings and exhumation. And there’s a connection there to the game’s commentary on history and memory.
  • The cluster of Elizabeths at the game’s end standing over Booker reminded me very strongly of the cluster of grown Little Sisters’ hands (there’s the hand thing again) at the good ending of BioShock original. I suppose that’s fitting, given that BioShock Infinite is, when you get right down to it, a game-length metaphor of the Big Brother/Little Sister relationship.

 

It’s even got the same hand size disparity.

…And that’s the lot of it. Hopefully, there’s something of interest in there. I’ll close off with some lists–a compilation of the links in the post, and some critical readings on BioShock Infinite I’d recommend, but weren’t explicitly referenced here.

Links in post (in order of appearance):

List of Academic works (ie, published in a journal or academic book) addressing BioSchock Infinite that I haven’t mentioned yet:
(note–I, uh, haven’t had a chance to read all of these yet, but I vouch for the scholars behind them.)

More generally, Cameron Kunzelman has compiled a really great list of BioShock Infinite criticism that interested him.

The rest shares some overlap with Kunzelman’s, but it’s the pieces that I remember best, listed in vaguely alphabetical order:

  • Alex Austin’s Twine parody of BioShock Infinite, BioShoot Infinite + 1.
  • Alex Raymond’s “God Only Knows” talks about the game’s treatment of Fitzroy and its nihilism, which probably influenced my own take on those subjects.
  • Speaking of Fitzroy, Anjin Anhut’s “Infinite Privilege” takes Irrational Games to task for its treatment of race; this is an edited version of the original, which would have been the one I read.
  • Austin Walker wrote a trilogy of posts on the game, on its player agency, nostalgia, and use of Elizabeth.
  • And, to no surprise, Cameron Kunzelman’s own take is worth reading.
  • Claire Hoskings’ “Birds” does a nice job juxtaposing the game’s approach to gender and race.
  • I’m linking to “Hulk vs Devin vs BIOSHOCK INFINITE” because my 2013 notes say Hulk also noticed the French Revolution connection; did I have a single original thought about this game?
  • Kirk Hamilton’s “BioShock is Insanely, Ridiculously, Violent. It’s a Real Shame” is an article on–well, the title pretty much sums it up.
  • Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer has an in-depth look at the Hall of Heroes section, one of the game’s more interesting bits, where Comstock’s  revisions of history and Slate’s fate unfolds.

And if there’s any other article that you’ve liked about this most-written of  games, please,  share in the comments.

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