Elizabeth: “Do you ever get used to it? The killing?”
Booker: “Faster than you can imagine.”
I’ve chosen Bioshock Infinite as LudoCrit’s inaugural Game Study for a few related reasons. For one, it’s a high-profile AAA game that at its release was both generically derivative (as a linear FPS) and unprecedented in its use of production value to execute its artistic ambitions. Secondly, it’s a game that people with any degree of interest in gaming will likely have some familiarity with or stake in. Finally, its legacy has become extremely divisive: while fans clamor for its legitimacy as an example of “games as art,” detractors note its propensity for “ludonarrative dissonance.” Personally, I believe both sides have a fair claim.
As we mentioned in our theory on immersion, ludonarrative dissonance is a lingering potentiality in all gameplay, albeit to radically different extents. The notion that a game’s story and its gameplay can ever cohere perfectly throughout the entire experience is virtually impossible to uphold in a medium where authorial control is divided between developer and user. However, the prominence of this dissonance does not mean that a game’s ludic and narrative components should not be interpreted as a whole – for it is only through consideration of this unity that a game can be contemplated philosophically as such. In this study I will consider how Infinite’s violence-centric gameplay loop works to inform our understanding of its main narrative themes surrounding American exceptionalism and the nature of choice, whether positively or negatively, intentionally or unintentionally.
When playing Bioshock: Infinite it is impossible to ignore what a gruesomely violent game it is. While depicting violence with morbid realism in a videogame is not a problem in itself – and can certainly even be used to inform a provocative commentary on violence – it becomes a meaningless exercise when the bulk of the violence occurs in gameplay segments that exist primarily for the purpose of ludic enjoyment. More often than not, videogames want to be fun. There’s of course nothing inherently wrong with this; virtual interaction is primed for giving pleasure without repercussions and this takes a violent turn in countless videogames. And, most of the time, Infinite’s shootouts are fun – with their high-octane gunplay, use of superpower-bestowing ‘vigors,’ and literal roller coaster mobility through the skyline system. However, the entertainment-focused detachment with which we, as our protagonist Booker DeWitt, engage in these exciting, empowering, and repetitive violent sequences becomes a tiring exercise from a storytelling standpoint. We become informed that Booker used to be a decorated solider and has developed a cynical worldview from his war trauma, which serves as an explanation for why we can kill so effortlessly while playing as him, yet this manifests as his sole defining characteristic through the majority of the gameplay. After the brutal viscerality of the first few firefights the violence loses its thematic resonance and becomes second-nature ludic pleasure. The Booker that Infinite forces us to play soon begins to conflict with the more complex Booker that the game’s narrative attempts to develop. It’s a tension that interferes with our immersion in our avatar and makes some of his behavior incoherent with the more human, character-driven depiction that the game seems to be striving for.
Violence also operates at the centre of Infinite’s embedded narrative, which surrounds a violent conflict between two factions. The war between the xenophobic Founders of Columbia (commanded by the city’s religious figurehead, Zachary Comstock) and the exploited-turned-revolutionary Vox (led by the racialized Daisy Fitzroy) is painted as one steeped in ideological hypocrisy and violent savagery on both sides. Booker and Elizabeth’s (our AI companion) banter throughout the game positions them as decidedly impartial to the conflict, adhering to the notion that “the only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is the name.” Our main characters’ apolitical detachment is reflected in the gameplay primarily by the fact that, by the end, Booker has killed over a hundred members of both factions. In contrast, the opening hours of the game present the Vox as horribly oppressed underdogs working to gather the manpower and weaponry to begin a revolution against their racist, elitist oppressors. The villainization of the Vox begins after Booker and Elizabeth enter an alternate reality where the Vox have successfully begun their violent revolution. After a sequence where Booker fights alongside the Vox in a raid that moves from the slums where they are segregated to its wealthy upper sections, we see Fitzroy about to murder a Founder child. We are led to press the action button to get Booker to help Elizabeth reach Fitzroy and we proceed to watch as she murders the Vox’s leader. Whether Booker and Elizabeth’s actions here were justified will depend entirely on the player’s own morals, of course, but what the sequence makes apparently clear is that Booker and Elizabeth are as hypocritical as any of the villainized figures. To moralize about the life of a single anonymous child in the wake of having committed hundreds of brutal murders (of human enemies we can imagine must have families of their own) should serve as a testament to the importance of ludonarrative cohesion for a game with prominent ethical concerns.
To participate in all of Infinite’s violent sequences isn’t so much to act dynamically in the realization of its narrative’s primary philosophical themes but to tap into what the plot leads us to believe is Booker’s problematic burden: his capability and willingness to kill masses of other people. The traditional FPS firefights that make up the majority of the play time come to have an unusual resonance when juxtaposed with the narrative’s more sophisticated ambitions. Booker’s mass murder is rationalized in the narrative initially as acting in self-interest (to “wipe away the debt,” that seems to be intended as both a literal gambling debt and a metaphor for his sins) and later to fight for Elizabeth’s freedom. It successfully thematizes violence as an important aspect of Booker’s history, yet the nearly constant repetition of impersonal firefights against anonymous and interchangeable Columbians makes the action aesthetically and emotionally numb. It comes to feel both weirdly self-righteous and vapid.
When the gameplay isn’t following traditional FPS conventions, it gives us slower, pacifist sequences that are similar in their contemplative simplicity to the ‘walking simulators’ that have since become a prominent genre for narrative-heavy indie games. Oscillating between these two generic varieties, a large portion of the game proceeds with the following gameplay loop:
- We enter a new area of Columbia, which reveals a different aspect of its culture and a different segment of its population.
- We explore the area peacefully, drinking in its staged set-pieces and piecing together how it all fits into the rest of the game’s world.
- We intentionally or unintentionally trigger a firefight where we are forced to kill for survival.
- We scavenge the remnants of the area for recovery items, cash, lore-revealing audio recordings (voxophones), and ability/character upgrades.
- We progress to the next area.
Every area is impressively staged and reveals new aspects of Columbian citizenry and culture. Even though we are simultaneously being presented with the fundamental problems of the city, it is a joy to explore environments brought to life with so much detail through their art direction. However, these environments quickly lose their immersive lustre when the area dissolves into yet another battleground. Is this jarring dichotomy part of the point? Perhaps to experience the game thematically proper is, in fact, to feel the tug-and-push of becoming enthralled by the imaginative and spectacular construction of a politically problematic world, only to face its hostility in every corner and be prompted to participate in its destruction. Ultimately, Infinite’s gameplay loop boils down to a merciless purge of Columbian life. This is further accentuated in the latter portion of the game, where the quieter explorative moments become absent in favor of a more urgent momentum between violent sequences. Even the environments’ aesthetic consistency can become ruined in the simple (and necessary) act of scouring for resources, which sometimes allows for inexplicably awkward interactions, such as looting resources from morbidly posed corpse displays.
By the end of Infinite the politics heavy focus of the game’s opening hours becomes undermined by the dense multiverse theorizing of its concluding sections. In an ambitious plot twist, it is revealed that Columbia’s creation was made possible by a choice Booker made prior to the game’s events: The antagonist, Comstock, is actually a reborn version of our protagonist in a myriad of alternate universes, where Booker’s remorse following his murderous participation in the Battle of Wounded Knee lead him to seek Christian salvation through baptism instead of indulge in alcoholism and gambling. This revelation retroactively steeps the entire game in a clever irony. As the aged Booker we effectively enact the destruction of a creation he made in parallel timelines as Comstock. Infinite’s gameplay loop then, arguably, reaches its culmination in the game’s final moment: Booker surrendering to his own murder at his baptism – the site of his pivotal choice – so that Comstock, and in turn Columbia, never come to exist in any universe. This ultimate act of violence, of which we (DeWitt) are the recipient rather than the actor, becomes a metaphysical annihilation of the rest of the game’s events and, in turn, the rest of its violence that we had witnessed and participated in.
The metaphysical conundrum of Booker and Columbia’s co-dependency therefore turn the scathing focus on historical satire and revolution politics in Columbia’s representation to virtual irrelevance. Infinite’s handling of its political themes isn’t so much tasteless but ineffectual. At best, I suppose it can prompt players to briefly meditate on some serious sociopolitical issues, and America’s historical complacency in them, when they aren’t distracted by another gunfight. I’d like to be able to say that the game’s careful attention to worldbuilding and ambitious storytelling turns outshine the derivative shootouts in my impression and memory of the experience. Unfortunately, they stand on equal footing. To play Infinite is to become invested in its world’s imaginative realization and to play Infinite is to shoot a lot of people, equally so and often in spite of each other.
Although the focus of this reading is on the violence that makes up the core sum of the gameplay and story, it seems necessary to now turn to the more subtle and ambiguous theme regarding the correlation between fate and choice – or, as the Luteces (Infinite’s interdimensional deux-ex machina scientist philosopher twins) call it, “constants and variables” – that briefly surfaces throughout the game but becomes the principle focus in the conclusion. Does the game’s infamous ending support the game proper or mush its thematic totality into total incoherence?
Infinite’s ending encourages us to consider Booker’s choices throughout the game, and apparent lack thereof, in a new light. Unlike the silent avatars of previous Bioshock games, Booker is a dynamic, fleshed out character that the player mostly passively inhabits. The representation of Booker’s own agency can only ever come at the expense of player agency. However, there are four decision trees in the game where the player is allowed to influence Booker’s will:
- throwing the ball at the interracial couple or Fink at the ‘raffle’;
- choosing the bird or cage broach for Elizabeth;
- a violent or verbal confrontation at the ticket counter;
- killing or sparing Slate;
Notably, none of them have any impact on the overarching story but are only echoed in very minor plot deviations depicted sometime afterwards. Our ontological passivity as players, then, takes the form of an explicitly denied sense of player agency, or at least an undermined agency that affects nothing if not just a brief moment of reflection on our decision. Further consideration of the conclusion’s ‘lighthouse’ scene, where we are presented with spatially divergent paths that progress the narrative in the exact same way, reinforce that this is intentional. Countless games present the player with these sorts of inconsequential choices because they realize that the mere pretense of agency is enough to feed immersion or perhaps even spur self-reflection.
Considered in terms of their roleplaying value, these choices present some intriguing divergences for our protagonist. Is our Booker a complicit racist or disturbed to act against what he sees at the raffle? – an event he helped facilitate in another reality as Comstock. Does he find greater aesthetic or symbolic meaning in the image of the cage or bird? At the end of perhaps the game’s most peaceful segment, does he incite violence or try to avoid it? And finally, does he want to give Slate, his problematic yet sympathetic old war captain, a ‘hero’s’ death or deny him the satisfaction? Personally, I decided against executing Slate just to seize one of a very few opportunities not to shoot a person in the face but Booker apparently had another reason in mind: stating that this was “not mercy” and that “Comstock’s men will take care of him.” And he was right – later in the game I found a lobotomized Slate sitting motionlessly in a prison cell. Disturbed by his fate and moved by the game’s cynicism, I decided to shoot him then. All roads in Infinite end in violence.
In retrospect, the ending gives the lack of meaningful player agency thematic poignancy. In Infinite we can ultimately only play as a Booker with a single predetermined destiny, despite the near infinite alternate versions of himself that Elizabeth tells us had made different choices (such as the Vox martyr we see in one alternate reality). The Luteces frame this as a matter of quantum physics: events get “set in motion” after key life choices and the player, as Booker, is merely there to see it all through. And yet, a select few choices are left for the player to make. This is a bit of an awkward discrepancy. The player barely glimpses the metaphysical significance of these infinite realities in the gameplay. Mathematically speaking, the 4 binary choices that the player is left to make as Booker open up a mere 16 potential versions of himself for us to play as. Otherwise, in narrative sequences presented as ‘choices’ for Booker the player is simply left to press the action button to complicitly execute his predetermined will – a will that serves the interest of the game’s narrative design. We are brought closer to Booker by acting as the catalyst of his will without influencing it.
The game opens up a manner of interpreting these two types of choices diegetically as Constants (Booker’s fixed choices) and Variables (player-influenced variations). The predetermined narrative serves as the one constant of Infinite while the four choices serve as the variables. While this marks a clear attempt to tie the narrative’s thematic interest in alternate realities into the gameplay, its execution is hardly palpable. Personally, I barely even remembered the ‘broach’ and ‘ticket counter’ decisions by the end of the game despite their continuous visual representation on Elizabeth (the image on the broach she wears) and Booker (whether he receives a wound on his hand), respectively. It may also be worth noting that all these choices are presented in the first few hours of the game, an oddly unbalanced implementation that makes their inclusion feel underdeveloped. The narrative’s theoretically provocative meditation on the nature of choice is undercut by its limited and self-undermining ludic application. While the rhetoric of Infinte’s conclusion about the relationship between fate and agency as constants and variables works well as a metacommentary on the tension between player agency and game design (especially narrative design) it struggles to complement the core of the gameplay experience. The more actively recurrent variables in the game are made in relation to the combat (e.g. what gun to use; what vigor to upgrade) or environmental discoveries (e.g. finding a new voxophone; noticing a new environmental detail). Of course it should be noted that, as in every game, each minute interaction ultimately does contribute to the uniqueness of the individual player’s current playthrough, but these variations hardly feel consequential to Infinite’s metaphysical posturing.
Infinite’s legacy should serve as a testament to both the spectacular multimedial storytelling potential and generic pitfalls of AAA games from the past decade. In Infinite we can see the traditional linear FPS pushed to a blood-drenched thematic limit in some creative yet dissonant ways. On the other hand, the game’s interspersal of walking simulator-like segments show dynamic deviations from its apparent genre that demonstrate the aesthetic value of simply taking a gun off the player’s screen and implementing interactions that expand the scope of the gameplay. Examined holistically through consideration of its ludonarrative gaps and consistencies we can understand the game philosophically as one whose identity, much like Booker’s, becomes the victim of its own paradoxical fixation on violence.