Having completed Bioshock: Infinite a few nights ago, I was surprised by the incredible sense of disappointment that I was left with. And with more time put into analysing the game, that sense of disappointment has only grown.
I’m a fan of the Bioshock series – I spent a long time pulling apart the game narrative of the original game, believe that Bioshock 2 doesn’t get the respect it deserves and Bioshock 2’s Minerva’s Den DLC is fantastic. I’d planned to do some detailed analysis on Bioshock: Infinite.
But now… apart from thinking about finishing that Bioshock plot guide, I’m not sure I have the motivation. I still think that an overall Bioshock-focused analysis of consistent themes and symbols is on the cards, but Bioshock: Infinite has killed my interest in analysing these things as a stand-alones.
Here’s why. (Oh yeah: ***SPOILERS*** FOR THE NARRATIVE OF BIOSHOCK INFINITE. AND BIOSHOCK. AND BIOSHOCK 2.)
The Bird or The Cage? Doesn’t Matter – They Both Lead to the Pet Store
It used to be that I’d cite STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl for the worst last level exposition vomit, where the game “throws up” all key narrative points at the player at the same time. Not anymore – Bioshock: Infinite is the new champion. After spending the vast majority of the game working with Elizabeth to free her from Comstock’s grasp, the post big battle ending reveals that:
- DeWitt is Comstock, depending on whether or not he accepted the baptism following the events at Wounded Knee
- Constants and variables rule the million million dimensions
- Comstock may or may not accept the baptism, which suggests that this is a variable
- Anna was the baby daughter that DeWitt sold to Robert Lutece in order to have his debts cleared
- DeWitt wanted his daughter back, so he chased Robert Lutece only to see Anna passed to Comstock (with Rosalind Lutece looking on) in another dimension
- The rapid closing of the dimensional portal ends up cutting off Anna’s little finger on her right hand
- The ‘AD’ that DeWitt has carved into his hand stands for Anna DeWitt
- There’s always a man, a city and a lighthouse
- DeWitt and Elizabeth arrive in Rapture, Elizabeth drowns Songbird and both leave in a bathysphere that takes them to a lighthouse
- The lighthouses link the infinite worlds together
- Twenty years after selling Anna, DeWitt is dragged through into Columbia’s reality by the Lutece’s in order for him to reclaim Elizabeth and stop Comstock’s long-term plan of destroying the United States
- But DeWitt forgets all this because of the effects of transdimensional travel
- And the only way for DeWitt to save every dimensions’ version of Elizabeth is to let her drown him before his baptism, therefor ensuring there is no Comstock
- So the multiple Elizabeths drown DeWitt and wink out of existence (or do they all… ?) which makes two drowned protectors for Elizabeth in the same 15 minutes
I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but the final sequence is a machine gun of PLOT POINT! PLOT POINT! PLOT POINT! that feels incredibly unfocused and rushed.
There’s just not enough linkage between the ending and the rest of the game narrative that it feels connected. Bioshock’s twist – that you were Jack, the cloned offspring of Andrew Ryan who had been created by his enemy Frank Fontaine / Atlas as a controllable assassin to murder Ryan – was completely connected to the narrative. You could go back and find the puzzle pieces that meant this reveal made sense. “Would you kindly… ?” went from an antiquated turn of phrase to key game statement (and meta-narrative comment on the nature of FPS game objectives – the words make it sound like you have a choice, but the player really doesn’t.)
There are some minor signs in-game that DeWitt and Comstock share some kind of bond – the first time DeWitt sees Comstock he gets a blood nose, while zipping around the Hand of the Prophet airship DeWitt finds himself finishing Comstock’s sentences – but most of the above is completely out of left field. DeWitt also mentions the name “Anna” a few times when in a flashback or coming out of unconsciousness, but there’s no evidence of who she is up to it’s revealed that she was DeWitt’s daughter AND he sold her AND she was taken to another dimension at the cost of her little finger AND she’s Elizabeth AND AND AND. It’s a poor ending that feels tacked on because that’s where the author wanted to end up rather than where the narrative naturally flows to.
There’s also no player agency at all. Once you get to the ending sequence, the only choice the player has is around how long they wait before moving onto the next section, or which path they take (that leads to the same point anyway). It’s deeply ironic that a game with the pedigree of Bioshock: Infinite seems to relish making player action feel so restricted.
This restriction is immensely frustrating, particularly when it comes to the drowning of DeWitt. The drowning of DeWitt prior to his baptism is forced on the player – it is predestined. Is there no alternative, such as DeWitt being so profoundly changed by his experience with Elizabeth / Anna in Colombia that across all multiverses all versions of him refuse to be Comstock? It makes just as much sense as suggesting that drowning DeWitt in one dimension kills all Comstocks across all of time and space. And it creates the paradox of DeWitt being drowned by Elizabeth / Anna who can’t exist because DeWitt now dies before having ever having conceived a daughter.
Even if you put aside the paradox issue, the drowning of DeWitt actually violates the rules of time / space travel as indicated by the game. Bioshock: Infinite shows that 1) if you enter a dimension where you are dead, you are bombarded by the memories of your ‘other’ self and 2) if you enter a dimension where you are alive, the brain creates memories to deal with the dimension jump, but both ‘selves’ now in that dimension remain separate (although their personal traits may be eroded according to one voxophone recording). So at the end of Bioshock: Infinite where the older DeWitt-who-saved-Elizabeth first rejects the baptism and is later drowned by Elizabeth / Anne, it should make no difference to the younger DeWitt-on-his-way-back-from-Wounded-Knee.
Rosalind and Robert Lutece can exist in the same dimension. Comstock and DeWitt can exist in the same dimension. But this rule apparently doesn’t hold true for the climax – instead DeWitt is meant to have been slid back down his own timeline to the point before his own baptism and thus be the One and True DeWitt, which doesn’t happen anywhere else in-game. It really feels that Bioshock: Infinite threw away its own rule set for cheap narrative convenience. You could make the argument that now that Elizabeth / Anna is super-charged she can do this kind of thing, but if she can break the rules then it throws everything up for grabs.
For some games, these kind of large narrative flops don’t matter. The Bioshock series has always stood out for offering a strong narrative, so when Bioshock: Infinite’s plot collapses in on itself during the last fifteen or so minutes, it really shows.
Colombia: The World’s A Stage
Setting as character has also been a big part of the Bioshock series. Rapture, with its leaking glass, claustrophobic dampness and general signs of this-place-has-gone-horribly-wrong was critical to setting the atmosphere for the first two games. Pretty much everyone inside Rapture had gone insane thanks to ADAM and the societal war being fought out – the player was a day late and several dollars short to that party, but part of the narrative was a journey of discovery about why things went wrong and then how badly.
Colombia lacks that atmosphere. DeWitt arrives in a fantastic setting in the clouds that looks pretty, but fails to ever feel like a city. There’s not enough attention given to the details of Colombia compared to life in Rapture. For instance, Rapture contained a lot of audio diary commentary about how individuals felt about Little Sisters and Big Daddies; Colombia makes do with two voxophone entries about the Handyman from the wife of one. How do the ordinary folk of Colombia feel about the Handymen? About Songbird? About Comstock?
Rapture’s world was fleshed out by letting ordinary characters talk about their lives and provide exposition to the player. For instance, in Bioshock 2 three audio diaries are provided by school teacher Nina Carnegie that show the popularity of Ryan Amusements as an attraction, what happens when Rapture starts to riot on New Year’s Even 1959 and her final concerns about what happens to the children in her care after she starves to death. It’s a sad, human story in a place of misery and it builds the world.
This isn’t the case with Colombia – outside of the few exceptions like Hattie Gerst’s Handyman statements above and Constance Field’s search for a female role model, the focus is almost entirely on the main characters. This may help to drive the main narrative forward, but it doesn’t tell us what it is like to live in a fantastic floating city. Without that explanation, Colombia ends up a moving stage for the mobile murder cloud that is Booker DeWitt.
A History of Violence
A lot has been written about the amount of violence and blood in Bioshock: Infinite. Unlike a lot of other people, I don’t see much of an issue with it given that the Bioshock series has always contained similar things – the burning corpses thanks to your plasmids, the flying blood from the Big Daddy’s drills, the atrocities that you uncover as you journey through the setting. Perhaps it stands out more because Colombia seems so clean compared to the rotting damp of Rapture, and maybe the close range executions brought it home to players more, but the Bioshock world is a violent, nasty place.
In fact, body horror is a core feature of the Bioshock franchise. Plasmids / vigors corrupt the body, giving it immense new powers in exchange for grotesque deformity and eventual loss of humanity. As such, it’s never going to be a group of titles that you can show to the squeamish, even if it contains some philosophical issues they might find interesting.
BUT… the combat of Bioshock: Infinite is incredibly ordinary. It gets dull very quickly, with it becoming difficult to track where damage is coming from within some of the open spaces where fights occur. Combat within Rapture was much more self-contained due to the smaller environments, making fights more intense and over more quickly because the Splicer was almost always nearby. Colombia sees you repeatedly placed in longer range combat that’s just soulless. The fact that dead enemies turn into lockboxes containing loot on death means the end of battle isn’t viewing your slaughter but more like raiding a bunch of lunchboxes someone left lying around.
Flying around on a skyhook is fun. Pity it’s so abuseable – either as a get out of range free-card, or as an easy way to rack up kills through on-rail attacks (see an enemy coming towards you on the rail, just keep mashing the melee button) or through drop-down attacks.
Also gone from Bioshock: Infinite is the longer-term strategic battle planning seen in Bioshock and Bioshock 2. Within these older games it was a strategic decision to hack turrets and cameras so that you could turn the environment to your side. Placing traps in Bioshock 2 was a way of stacking a fight in your favour – the small environments in Rapture meant you could guide attacking enemies down a certain path, or at least deal some damage to the bigger enemies who are rushing you.
Bioshock: Infinite’s larger areas means that there are often too many areas to try to trap, while any enemy with a ranged weapon tends to stand back and shoot from cover. The Possession vigor and opening allied machine Tears replaces hacking as a way of gaining environmental aid, but Possession wears off very quickly while the Tears are completely spammable (since they recharge after destruction) and / or useless (such as the mechanical George Washingtons that were placed too far from the combat and took forever to get in position to do something).
On top of this, Handyman fights are exercises in panic. They appear generally without warning and are on you quickly, so the strategic planning and preparation that went into attacking previous Big Daddies is out the door. It’s pretty much hit-and-run the entire time, which doesn’t work out that great given the Handyman’s speed and melee attack range combined with how slowly DeWitt moves.
For a much more detailed look at why Bioshock: Infinite’s combat is often a step backwards from its predecessors, Critical Missive has an excellent evaluation.
Race To The Finish Line
Prior to launch, a lot was made about how Colombia was a racist, filled with ugly stereotypes of African-Americans, Chinese, Native American, the Irish and the like and that players would have to confront that racism. Those attitudes are certainly there, mixed in with a big healthy dose of economic classism as well. But as pointed out by others, the impact of these abhorrent images is quickly muted whem the underclass driven Vox Populi becoming a murderous mob that is indistinguishable from the Colombia forces thrown against DeWitt previously.
Daisy Fitzroy is someone that the narrative of Bioshock: Infinite wants to make as sympathetic – or to at least have a justifiable viewpoint – but fails miserably. She is an African-American brought to Colombia to work as a servant, but is framed for the murder of Lady Comstock and is forced to run. Recognising that there are seeds of discord in Colombia that could be cultivated, she becomes the leader of the Vox Populi and works to overthrow Comstock and the Founders.
Which is all understandable, right up to the point that Fitzroy kills greedy captain of industry Jeremiah Fink (justified within Bioshock: Infinite’s world, given his treatment of his workers) and then smears Fink’s blood on her face and makes moves to shoot a white child for being white (… what?). In one fell swoop Bioshock: Infinite plays the “everyone’s a racist” card and sweeps aside whatever genuine grievances the Vox Populi might have had aside. There’s a big step between “riot at a factory due to poor working conditions” and “leave no Caucasians alive in Colombia”.
I’ve read the arguments that such things only reflect what US society was like back in the 1910s. Sure, there’s an element of that, but the ‘nuanced’ message ends up being, “US white society might be racist, but the poor will murder you all if just given a chance!”. By having an African-American separatist – and that’s exactly what Fitzroy is by the time DeWitt deals with her – as the voice of the Vox Populi, there’s little reason to try to find justification in either side’s ideology. Both are just ugly ideas that lead to ugly behaviour. (Andrew Ryan’s Objectivist leanings may have led to ugly behaviour, but Objectivism isn’t of itself an ugly idea, just incompatible with actual human nature.)
Fortunately DeWitt is an egalitarian – he puts bullets into people at the same rate regardless of their age, skin colour or gender.
Devils in the White City
In Rapture, you arrive in a city that’s torn itself apart due to its own internal stresses and discover the narrative that is behind that breakdown. When it comes to Colombia, the stresses might be there but the player is the one who leverages them open. The fall of Colombia is entirely DeWitt’s fault. Rather than finding a new flying ship when the Vox Populi co-opt his first one, he sets out to get a gun manufacturer to supply the Vox Populi with weapons and ends up triggering the revolution, ending in a lot of dead Colombia folk. Not bad for less than 24 hours in a city.
One often-cited source for Bioshock: Infinite is Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City about Daniel H. Burnham, architect and driving forces behind the 1893 World Far in Chicago and serial killer-come-hotelier Dr H. H. Holmes. If you draw the parallel between that book and the game, Comstock is the genius architect of a fantastic city which leaves DeWitt as murderer who kills people for their money and possessions.
Come to think about it, that’s scarily accurate. But there’s another link here as well.
When the Vox Populi become the new opponent group, it means your targets swap police uniforms for… devil outfits. Bioshock: Infinite literally ends up with devils in the whites’ city. SUBTLE.
Whenever any side puts on devil outfits – masks and everything – they’ve pretty much ceded all ability to keep popular support within a Christian society. Although Comstock may be the religious leader of one side, the underclass of Rapture is shown to still have its own Christian tenets, given the African-American preacher you see in Shantytown (plus it is extremely likely that the Irish in Colombia would be devoutly Catholic or Protestant given the era).
There’s obviously symbolism in having the Vox Populi red devils taking on Comstock’s white-and-blue religious forces. But it seems like an anachronistic aesthetic picked because it looks cool rather than because it actually fits the Vox Populi. Unless one of the points of Bioshock: Infinite is that rebelling poor people are actually the minions of Lucifer, that is. (There may be some actual historical precedent for such outfits, but I’ve been unable to find it.)
Going back to Bioshock 1 and 2, the Splicers wore masks and were overdressed in a shabby-chic-post-apocalyse way because 1) they were hiding their deformities caused by ADAM and 2) they were psychotic. In Bioshock: Infinite, a devil mask is one of the approved outfits of the revolution and worn voluntarily.
Elizabeth is the Best Damn Vending Machine a Boy Could Ever Have
A lot was made pre-release about how great the relationship would be between Elizabeth and DeWitt (and by extension, the player) and how Bioshock: Infinite would avoid the usual pitfalls of escort gameplay: bad AI and pathfinding, escort characters getting in the way of combat, players failing missions because the escort did something dumb / got killed, etc. To this end, Bioshock: Infinite is successful in avoiding escort problems, but unfortunately Elizabeth failed to connect with me.
This is partly my fault and partly game play driven – there’s so many containers to search through in Colombia that I spent my time rummaging even when Elizabeth spoke. Given the quick realisation that she’s always nearby and indestructible, there’s no need to worry about her at any point.
Elizabeth’s key role (outside of driving the game narrative objectives) is during combat, where she throws you ammunition, salts and health packs as well as opening up Tears for you to use. I’ve got a strong belief that for a lot of players this is the basis for any attachment they may have to the character – she’s a beneficial vending machine. If Elizabeth just stayed out of the way during combat but didn’t offer any in-combat help, there would be lengthy portions of the Bioshock: Infinite where she’d virtually disappear.
Elizabeth goes through a curious ‘growing up’ experience across the game narrative. When you meet her she’s dressed as a schoolgirl despite being 20 years old and is a bit naive after spending that time mostly cut off from people (but not socially awkward or an introvert or anything – years spent alone with only books and a Songbird don’t harm your communication skills at all, it seems). After seeing a lot of violence she is finally put in a situation where she kills someone (Daizy Fitzroy, as covered above) and runs off in reaction to what she’s done. Shortly after catching up to her, she hides and changes clothes, while also giving herself a perfectly trimmed haircut. The dress she chooses takes her from girl to woman – something any male players would undoubtedly notice given the amount of cleavage she’s now got on display.
It’s a dress that’s completely out of fit for the rest of the conservatively religious Rapture – looking around in-game, there are no other female characters or images that show off that amount of flesh. The game gives the excuse that it was there weren’t any other clothes to wear, but that’s more of a justification for Elizabeth to sexy up than anything else. There’s a hint that she’s dressed in Lady Comstock’s clothes (or similar), but Lady Comstock is never shown wearing anything so low cut.
Songbird really is irritating, isn’t he? And not in an impressive way. After seeming so important during the pre-promotions, it turns out Songbird is just a narrative convenience to stop you succeeding in rescuing Elizabeth until a certain point.
Songbird is the most literal Big Daddy analogue in Bioshock: Infinite, so it’s sad to see him treated so poorly. A large part of the Bioshock mythos has arisen from the Big Daddies – visually distinct and incredibly iconic in both sight and sound. Songbird doesn’t have anywhere near the same kind of impact in this title, and while Big Daddies get a lot of audio diary attention to flesh them out, Songbird gets a measily one or two.
Vim and Vigour
Vigors are – as revealed through the game – Colombia’s version of Plasmids, stolen through the Tears into Rapture by Fink. There’s just one problem here: a massive part of Bioshock’s back story is the discovery of ADAM from underwater sea slugs that gave Rapture’s scientists the ability to create Plasmids in the first place. Instead of EVE and Plasmids, Fink creates Salts and Vigors, but the question remains: where is the ADAM coming from?
Rapture society ripped itself apart to get more ADAM and eventually started planting sea slugs in little girls in order to keep up with demand (and then needed to create Big Daddies in order to protect the Little Sisters from being ‘harvested’). Vigors and salts might be newer in Colombia, but they are everywhere. That requires a lot of ADAM. It’s unlikely that Fink is stealing it from Rapture – it appears he can only observe through the Tears, because he never mentions going through one – which means it requires another source. Given that Colombia is a city in the sky, it’s a long, long way from the sea slugs it needs to fund the ADAM economy.
Perhaps the DLC will reveal where all this ADAM is coming from, but it’s another example of where Bioshock 1 and 2 tried to build a quasi-working world that explained itself, Bioshock: Infinite is happy to throw things at a player and say, “Why? Just because, that’s why!”.
The Reviews Are In
Despite the above, I don’t think that Bioshock: Infinite is a terrible game, just a remarkably ordinary one that was over-hyped and is the weakest title in the series thus far.
But I’m one of the few. Looking at the Metacritic scores for this game, 62 out of 62 reviews (PC), 29 out of 30 (X360) and 24 out of 24 (PS3) professional reviewers rate this game 80+ out of 100. They see the game as “a genre-defining game”, “as near perfect as a game can get”, a title that will be “left in the back of your mind for years to come”. Instead I see a title that is a step backwards in almost every way to the rest of the series.
Sometimes I think that games writers are so desperate for video games to be considered True Art that they latch onto anything that might fit that definition. The Bioshock franchise has a pedigree of being a thinking FPS and this was the return of Ken Levine as Bioshock lead, automatically giving the title extra bonuses to its “Art” credentials. Throw in a strong start, aspirations of nuance and an ending that can be argued over – even if it doesn’t really fit or make sense – and suddenly these reviewers appear wowed by the flash and afraid to look too much deeper in case going, “Hmm, still a lot of flaws here” would provide ammunition for those looking to deride all video games.
Even those who pick up on the numerous flaws of the title downplay them, still wanting to make Bioshock: Infinite something of a historic monument. I’ve read the arguments that Bioshock: Infinite is meta-narrative on player agency in video games, a meta-commentary on the illusion that DeWitt has free will in a fixed narrative structure which seems to put the title in a can’t-lose situation – if you didn’t like the lack of control you had in game, or that none of your decisions mattered, then it’s your own fault because that was the author’s intent! Of course Bioshock: Infinite is meant to be on rails – you travel via sky-rail in-game, don’t you? It seems that if only Aliens: Colonial Marines had pitched itself as a satire of licensed games that fail to deliver then that title would have been received a lot more positively.
On top of which the original Bioshock was a much better examination of player agency in games. “Would you kindly…” had a lot of impact for a reason and it was actually partly refuted by the multiple endings – players did have moral agency over how they behaved, even if the game itself set fixed objectives. Bioshock: Infinite replaces that with a pure Calvinistic Predestination model that suggests nothing changes regardless of what the player does.
Be good, be evil, be an angel, be a devil – doesn’t matter. Died, died, will die.
As I said before, it’s amazing that a game with “Infinite” in the title ends up being so damn fixed in place.