The Alpha Primitive

Film reviews, essays, commentary and sundry writings

The Metatext of Bioshock Infinite

There will be spoilers within this bad boy. Not just for Bioshock Infinite, but for the original Bioshock as well. If you would like to hear my thoughts about the game sans spoilers, you can see them here.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

 

Currently, I am approximately halfway through my second play through of Bioshock Infinite, Irrational Games’ blockbuster new entrant to the Bioshock series that has had much of the gaming world (myself included) enraptured (snicker) for the better part of a week since its release.

I have a feeling we’re going to be talking about this one for a long time.

 

Much like other pieces of media with a redefining twist ending, the second time you play Bioshock Infinite is basically one gigantic case of dramatic irony. Normally, dramatic irony plays out in such a way that the viewer is entirely aware of what’s going on, and gets to enjoy the proceedings with a chuckle, a knowing wink or an air of the tragic because you know what’s really going on. In the case of Bioshock, or Bioshock Infinite, or Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, this information is given to you, but deliberately left obtuse, but then unpacks itself for all to see once you know the central conceit of the twist. In the case of Bioshock, the bombshell that your character was in fact the quick-grown son of central antagonist and Rapture ruler Andrew Ryan, and were being mind-controlled by Atlas/Frank Fontaine (the actual antagonist) via the infamous phrase “Would you kindly” makes you replay the game with a whole new set of eyes. You pick up on audio diaries from Jasmine Jolene, Fontaine and Ryan himself that take on new dimensions of meaning. You can see first-hand just how often Atlas uses that phrase. The dramatic irony becomes plain, for now you hold the key to the plot of the story. You know your purpose in Rapture. You know that the plane crash was the exact opposite of blind happenstance. The second time through Rapture is an entirely different experience; not necessarily better or worse, but simply different. You are no longer surprised by anything that happens, but now you have this whole new perspective through which to view the game. The same happens with Fight Club and The Sixth Sense, and you can suddenly see all these nods to the real truth. They aren’t clues. This isn’t a puzzle you are expected to solve. The plot is too deliberately opaque for that, and the game or film is not designed in such a way to be a puzzle to be solved. It is simply an experience that is fundamentally altered when given a key piece of information.

Bioshock Infinte takes this concept and decides to not only apply it to the story of Bioshock Infinite, but also to the entire concept of repetitive video gaming itself. During our initial experience of the game, we take at face value that Booker was indeed sent to Columbia in order to rescue/kidnap Elizabeth, bring her to New York and be cleansed of his gambling debts. Of course, things are notably odd from the beginning thanks to the mystifying conversation between your two rain slicker bedecked pilots who row you toward the lighthouse that hides the entrance to Columbia. I personally realized about halfway through my first play through the game that the two people who rowed me to the lighthouse were Robert and Rosalind Lutece, those two timeline traveling crazy cats who are not actually siblings, but two versions of the same person from different timelines. The Luteces are the linchpin that holds the entire story together, constantly providing hints and perspectives that only make sense once you have all the knowledge. They evolve from a curiosity to an annoyance to a font of wisdom to a tragedy (the tragedy is a little harder to pick up on because of their delightfully British aloofness), and when you come to understand the point they are making, the concept of constants and variables and how important it is to them, the world starts to crack open like and egg and you can step back and see it for what it is. There’s a reason why Robert’s chalkboard shows 122 straight flips of heads the first time you (officially) meet them at the fair early in the game. Booker always flips heads. It’s a constant. Every time Booker is sent to Columbia, every time he must “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt,” he always goes to Columbia, meets the Luteces by the entrance to the fair and flips heads. This means, among other things, that our Booker, the Booker we play throughout the course of Bioshock Infinite, is the 123rd Booker that the Luteces plucked from a different timeline in an attempt to stop Comstock. We also know why Robert Lutece never expects Booker to help him row to the lighthouse at the beginning of the game (leading to the conversation we hear at the beginning of the game: “He doesn’t row?” “No, he doesn’t row”).

The lighthouse is a constant. The man is a constant. The city is a constant (“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city”). These are, in their own way, meta-constants. This is what defines Bioshock as a game and as a series. Every Irrational-made Ken Levine led Bioshock game we ever see from now until the end will begin with a man entering a lighthouse en route to a city. Sometimes that man is Booker DeWitt heading up to Columbia. Sometimes it’s Jack Ryan heading down to Rapture. The man himself, the specific lighthouse and the exact city are variables, but their existence is a constant. These constants continue within the specific game itself. Flipping heads is a constant. Booker never rowing is a constant. Nearly everything else is a variable. Choosing either the bird or the cage. That’s a variable. Whether you draw your weapon or demand tickets. Also a variable. Both of these decisions have a cosmetic effect on the game (Elizabeth will wear the chosen brooch for the rest of the game, and Booker will either have a bandaged knife wound on his hand or no wound at all), but they also represent, even if fleetingly, the existence of choice. Variables.

Bioshock Infinite and its reliance on multiversal timeline jumping alliows Levine and co. to play around with the concept even more. We see that even the plot of the game is a variable depending on which timeline we follow. Things start to get really crazy once you reach Finkton, as Booker and Elizabeth begin jumping to different timelines in order to see if they can track down the gunsmith Chen Lin to provide weapons to the Vox Populi. In Booker’s home universe (which, to be fair, isn’t actually his home universe at all as we find out during the game’s bravura end sequence), Chen Lin has been tortured to death by Comstock’s men. A second universe finds Lin in the sort of broken state that can happen when a man lives in one timeline and dies in another. Another jump finds another dead Chen Lin, but also provides us with a completely different Columbia. In this world, Elizabeth was taken away from Monument Park before Booker could get to her, and Booker (presumably representing one of the 122 head flips prior to our Booker’s arrival in Columbia) joins up with Cornelius Slate and the Vox Populi, only to die during the revolution and be heralded as a martyr. This means that even Elizabeth being rescued from the tower is not a constant. It’s a variable. A variable you won’t even actually know about unless you take the time to listen to the voxophones Booker recorded in this third (technically fourth) timeline. But, when you really think about it, everything you do in a video game is a variable. Sometimes you shoot that opponent with the Carbine. Sometimes you’re focused on making sure you use the machine gun because you want to unlock an achievement/trophy. Sometimes you turn left when the last time you played you turned right. All of this is, in the eyes of Ken Levine, post-enlightenment Elizabeth and the Luteces, a variable that makes your next play-through of the same game ever so slightly different.

The mechanics of video gaming reinforces the central conceit of Bioshock Infinite. Sure, you’re playing the same Booker every time. And you’re going to hit the same plot points every time. And you’re still going to sacrifice yourself to the gang of Elizabeths at the end of the game every time. But the journey you take will be different. That’s what Elizabeth means when you see the other Booker and Elizabeth walking the paths of the lighthouses:

Booker: It’s us.
Elizabeth: Not exactly. We swim in different oceans but land on the same shore. It always starts with a lighthouse.
Booker: I-I don’t understand.
Elizabeth: You don’t need to. It’ll happen all the same.
Booker: Why?
Elizabeth: Because it does. Because it has. Because it will.
Booker: There’s so many choices.
Elizabeth: And they all lead us to the same place. Where it started.
Booker: No one tells me where to go.
Elizabeth: Booker, you’ve already been.

It’s all meticulously worded to reinforce this concept of video gaming as a series of constants and variables. Bioshock Infinite could not tell its story in any other way. It couldn’t be a book, or a movie, or a TV show or any other unchanging, static media. That takes away the variables. The entire story becomes a constant, and the theme is lost. A lot of content creators will often say that their creation can only exist due to the medium they chose to use. And often, that case is true. But it’s rare that a book, TV show, film or video game so entirely embodies the media in which it exists to the point that it relies on the structure of that media to reinforce its themes. House of Leaves is a good example of this in book form. There are certainly films that follow a similar pattern. But I can’t personally think of a video game that takes advantage of the medium the way Bioshock Infinite does. This is, in part, why it’s such a game changer (pardon the unfortunate use of words). Every time you replay it, it reinforces itself. It’s an endless feedback loop.

One remaining question that comes up now concerns the ending, but more specifically the last scene of the ending. Everything basically tracks up until then. Elizabeth, upon the destruction of the siphon achieves the sort of omniscience that the Luteces have, with the added bonus of being able to create her own tears (this is, presumably, due to her losing her finger while being stolen away to Comstock’s timeline, and the aspect of existing in both timelines at once had some surprise consequences). She can see what the Luteces were trying to pull off with all these Bookers, and she can see all the steps that led them to where they are. After a quick detour to Rapture to give all of us Irrational fans a heart attack (and also give us an incredibly sad and heartfelt moment as Songbird drowns), Elizabeth explains the conceit of constants and variables, and proceeds to take us through the origins of the story in roughly chronological order. We start at the baptism, move through to Robert Lutece coming to collect payment on the deal with Comstock (this is also the moment we discover the existence of Anna), through to Booker’s attempt to stop the deal from going off and Anna’s loss of her finger. Finally, we see Booker cross over to the Comstock timeline into the rowboat that essentially represents the beginning of the game. Then, we are taken back to the baptism, at which point Booker has the Elizabeths drown him in order to cut off the entire plurality of Comstock timelines from ever coming to fruition.

But there’s a problem. A few problems, really. The first is the standard grandfather paradox that pretty much every time travel story that involves changing the past is going to have to deal with. If Booker’s drowning himself stops Comstock from ever existing, he will have no reason to go to Columbia, find out the truth and eventually drown himself, which would then mean that nothing would stop Comstock from coming into being which would necessitate Booker having to go to Columbia and so on and so forth, creating an endless paradoxical logic loop. In general, your average story can either ignore the grandfather paradox out of convenience or find some other sort of workaround usually involving the future changing dynamically Back to the Future style or more alternate timelines being created. It’s a problem, but it’s not an unassailable one. The other problem is the fact that Booker doesn’t go back to the point of the original baptism. For one thing, a younger Booker about to be baptized isn’t there. For another, Elizabeth specifically points this out (“This isn’t the same place, Booker”). Only it’s not our Elizabeth. She’s not wearing the brooch. He doesn’t entirely recognize her. Then the other Elizabeths show up (one of which is a sly nod to her earlier design from the E3 2011 demo, by the way), Booker discovers that he is also Comstock, and he allows them to drown him. And we have our ending, as the other Elizabeths disappear from the river. But Booker didn’t drown his earlier self. This is not an earlier incarnation of Booker. He has all the knowledge. He’s been through the ordeals of Columbia. He knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. How, then, does his act succeed in wiping Comstock from the world?

Here’s what I think. It doesn’t. Booker hasn’t collapsed the timelines. Infinite Comstocks will still be created, and infinite Bookers will be sent to Columbia to stop him. Booker has succeeded in stopping the destruction of New York by an indoctrinated Elizabeth commanding the forces of a corrupt Columbia. That won’t happen anymore due to his actions. But what he has managed to do is create an infinite loop that traps him, Elizabeth, Comstock, Columbia and the Luteces into constantly playing out the same story over and over again. Every time Booker goes through this trial and drowns himself, he wakes again at the beginning. He comes to in his apartment the day he gives Anna away to Robert Lutece (this is the scene after the credits). The game cuts off here, but my contention is that shortly after the game cuts off, Robert shows up at the door and demands the child, and the whole thing starts all over again. Everyone is trapped in this one contiguous bubble of time that is doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum. This means that those 122 previous Bookers who flipped heads didn’t actually fail in their mission (which would mean that Vox Populi Booker wasn’t one of the coin flips, but his universe got caught up in the loop once our Booker and Elizabeth traveled there). They succeeded, freed Elizabeth and drowned themselves in the river by Wounded Knee. We’re simply seeing the 123rd iteration of the events play out over the course of the game. This understanding of the ending also thoroughly reinforces what I wrote about in the first half of this piece, as the story of Bioshock Infinite would itself have no real beginning or ending.

The entire motivation of this game is the Luteces attempts to break this circle. When they bring Booker over to the main timeline during the end sequence, Rosalind remarks that “we already know it works; the question is: will he?” We assume on first blush that this is meant to signify that they know they can bring him over to their timeline, but will he be able to stop Comstock. But what if what they’re actually saying is they know he can stop Comstock, but will he be the one who can actually succeed in breaking the loop and ending it once and for all? The Luteces can’t know the act is futile (same with the empowered Elizabeth), because while they can see across the timelines, that does not necessarily mean they can see beyond those that are tied to this specific series of events. They can see the variables of Columbia, but we don’t necessarily know if they can see everything. The Luteces refer to Booker as their hair shirt. Maybe this is a signal that their punishment for discovering the tears and manipulating them for their own selfish ends (and Comstock’s selfish ends, and the Finks’ selfish ends), for being complicit in the kidnapping of a man’s child, is to relive these events forever. We hear at least three different versions of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” over the course of the game. What if the answer to that question is no?

It’s a bit of a downer of an ending. It also has its own problems, namely the whole scene in Rapture, which should be completely outside the purview of this locked loop. It’s possible that it’s too reductive of an explanation, though it does seem to make some (quite a bit, really) thematic sense. It’s possible that it’s too much of a downer, and it’s possible that Elizabeth taking Booker to Rapture is too much of a problem for this to work. What I do know is that the concept of the final scene eradicating all traces of Comstock from history doesn’t quite fly. It’s possible that, on some mechanical level, the ending just doesn’t work. Personally, I cannot deny the emotional heft of the ending, nor the implications it makes about the storytelling medium and how it specifically pertains to video games. I have watched clips of the ending on Youtube since beating it, and the scenes are haunting. They stick with you. There’s a sort of otherworldly allure to it that cannot be denied. It doesn’t hurt that Songbird’s death scene and Comstock’s kidnapping of Anna while Booker screams at him hit me like several tons of bricks. Does the ending entirely work as some perfectly logical tie-up to the story? I’m not sure. I’m also not sure I care.

My expectation is that Ken Levine is a coy enough individual that we’ll probably never know the true answer to what the ending of Bioshock Infinite means. And even if we do, sometimes the interpretation of an individual still retains its own special meaning. But I know I’m going to keep thinking about it. That’s for damned sure.