Having recently completed Bioshock Infinite, I have a lot of thoughts concerning the Inception-like mechanics of the ending, but its myriad possibilities have been covered by the internet at large. And I think the game deserves a few accolades that I haven’t read yet. Light Spoilers
Bioshock Infinite isn’t a perfect game. It’s hurting for a stealth mechanic a la Dishonored and, for me, it has almost no replay value. As a shooter, it’s ok, but not great. And I tend to agree with others that the violence and perhaps even first person shooter style clashes with the setting. Part of me wonders if player interaction should have been more like a combination of L.A. Noir and Myst. And someone needs to add a mechanic for when you get uncomfortably close to NPC’s. It’s just weird that they don’t act like they are uncomfortable.
Still, Infinite is visually stunning in a way that captures the magic and wonder of a floating city set in 1912. The masterful world-building is a perfect example of using a setting to explore ideas from history and their modern analogues.
The Labor Movement
Infinite stays faithful to a lot of the common themes at the dawn of the twentieth century. This era was nearing the peak of industrialization and the close of the American frontier. Abuse was all-too common and fights about the boundaries of corporate rights were ubiquitous. Teddy Roosevelt spent the years immediately before the game starts breaking up monopolies; the man made it rain regulations on corporations. This is the same era that saw years of on-again-off-again conflict between Henry Ford and labor groups. Questions about child workers, dangerous work environments, and 16-hour work days would later culminate into national pro-union legislation during the New Deal. It’s a huge part of our history that still shapes our politics today, and Infinite was good enough to make it a central plot point.
Segregation, Political Thinking And Religious Ideology
I’m especially pleased that Infinite embraced such an honest accounting of segregation in the post-Civil War period. The early 1900s are an interesting time because of their proximity to Reconstruction. For anyone who’s ever read The Great Gatsby or other books in the period, WWI into the 1920s still had its fair share of Civil War veterans. The conflict was fresh in a lot of minds the same way 9/11 is still fresh in our minds today. Like every other political struggle, it didn’t exist in a vacuum. Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine a mere 16 years before the game’s protagonist, Booker DeWitt, travels to Columbia.
These ideas about race played a big part in justifying American isolationism. The foreigner, the savage, and his analysis were central components of political philosophy, national defense, and religious ideology in a way that’s difficult to understand today. People often believe The Holocaust was the worst genocide in modern history, missing that of the 19 million Native Americans estimated to reside in America during its colonization, only 275,000 live today. The massacre at Wounded Knee, a sore subject in the game, was one of the last battles of this era.
And Bioshock Infinite sums it all up so simply. The recently released Elizabeth asks Booker why some men are treated like men while others are treated as dogs. To which Booker replies “That’s just the way it is.”
Parallel Universes And Prophecy
Infinite gets pretty twisty with tangent universes and parallel timelines, earning its name. I have to say that I love that this central, super-important plot point wasn’t a throw-away part of the story. I can’t stress this enough, because it’s brilliant
It kind of turns Bioshock Infinite into Sliders.
As a player, it’s easy to overlook the huge philosophical implications of a protagonist who can’t solve a problem deciding to go to an alternate universe where it’s already fixed.
Um… that’s crazy.
In the game, when people jump to parallel universes, their old memories are reconciled against the events from that universe. Meaning that they suddenly remember what the version of them from that world did. Which explains SO MUCH of the foreknowledge used to move the game along. Normally, this would just go unexplained.
In point of fact, it was used to creatively explain prophecy in a way that doesn’t just ignore the inherent mysticism of forecasting the future. Video games are reluctant to have God as an active component of a game and rightly so. It’s way too easy to offend non-practitioners for seeming “preachy” and way too easy to offend the faithful by misrepresenting their faith. And unlike tons of games and movies that just have a prophecy and don’t explain why, the time-loop plot allows for a plausible explanation that avoids uncomfortable questions.
The Devil In The Details
At some point, you may notice that Infinite contains a lot of musical “easter eggs” such as this rendition of Tears For Fears’ Everybody Wants To Rule The World.
Anyone that finishes the game knows these aren’t actually easter eggs, because it is revealed that some of the founders of Columbia have been tapping into alternate timelines to steal ideas. These songs aren’t fan service; they are a consequence of the main plot. As a matter of fact, almost everything is!
The reason Infinite is so like its predecessors (with magical vigors, machine men and an isolated city state) is because its characters have been spying on the city of Rapture. That is almost certainly how they created Songbird, a Big Daddy copy.
Stuff isn’t just there. Everything from Comstock’s lies about the 7th Cavalry to a simple coin toss informs what’s going on. It gets a little heavy-handed towards the end, but pretty much everything has a new meaning when the size of that plot device starts being understood. We have to rethink what we knew about Columbia and its cast of characters.
It pisses me off to no end when nigh-invulnerable antagonists spout off nonsensical metaphors about what’s going on in the game. Halo 4 had a bad case of this: the Didact wouldn’t shut up while not actually saying anything. This extolling at length about destiny via ridiculous analogy is becoming too common. Compare the ending for Halo 4 against even a few of Zachary Comstock’s quotes:
There is simply no comparison. Comstock speaks about faith, grace, and prophecy with the kind of wonder and humility that would be truly moving if it didn’t so perfectly juxtapose his monstrous intent.
Bioshock Infinite‘s brilliance is manifold. It taps into a spiritual curiosity that doesn’t end with a specific faith. And, unlike the Didact, Comstock is speaking from experiences that inform the ending. Everything he says makes perfect sense in the context of Bioshock Infinite‘s mind-blowing conclusion.
Evan Narcisse at Kotaku points out that Booker Dewitt, like one Commander Shepard, is not a blank cipher for you to become. His history helps the player experience the feel of the setting. Elizabeth is even more of a joy. Instead of being the prize Booker wins/loses at the end of the game, she’s the thing that keeps him going and, in truth, is stronger than him. Having Elizabeth help supply in combat, find items out of combat, and be the primary lock-picker adds to the effect. Columbia is not a lonely place.
Again, Bioshock Infinite is not the perfect game, but it got a lot of my pet peeves right: it succeeded in addressing racism where FarCry 3 perpetuated stereotyping; it explored history via setting in a way that outclassed Fallout 3; and it did parallel universes and time paradox better than most movies of the same genre.