Level Up: BioShock Infinite
[WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS CHOCK-FULL OF SPOILERS]
This column has, thus far, reflected upon old games that proved to be influential or unique to the medium. BioShock Infinite isn’t old at all — in fact, it’s very new. But discussing it gives us an opportunity to comment on video game history as it’s happening, rather than constructing a narrative with the advantage of hindsight.
Ken Levine and Irrational Games’ BioShock series has always taken a stand against ideological-extremism, but with Infinite, they weren’t afraid to hit close to home. American exceptionalism is put under the lens. But Infinite does more than show the downfalls of extreme ideologies. Using the string-theory notion of infinite realities, it makes a cry for human empathy. For in a world of such infinite realities, your worst enemy might just be you in a different life.
Let’s get this out of the way: this isn’t a review. If you need a breakdown of the graphics, sound, controls, etc., to warrant your purchase, go to IGN like everyone else. This is a discussion meant for people who have already played through the game, or don’t mind the plot being spoiled. I’d recommend coming back to this article after completion. I went in with little knowledge beyond the basic premise and I’m glad I did.
With that said, take it as a given that Infinite is an excellent game in every regard. It’s obvious that the long development time paid off. From a mechanical standpoint Infinite is at the top of the heap. Unlike other mainstream developers, Irrational isn’t satisfied with just refined mechanics. Every element of the game colors the world and the message of Infinite.
The game’s setup echoes the original BioShock. But rather than plunging into the underwater dystopia of Rapture, we take to the sky in the airborne city of Columbia. Modeled after 1893’s World’s Fair, Columbia takes American exceptionalism — the idea that America is qualitatively different from other nations in its mission to spread liberty and Democracy — to an extreme. The politics of Columbia combine exceptionalism with religious zealotry. People of Columbia pray before statues that portray the Founding Fathers as god-like figures, and their leader, Zachary Comstock, is believed to be a true prophet. The society is hell-bent on maintaining the purity of an idealized America. Racism and socio-economic inequality run rampant as those with differing views or cultures are dehumanized.
These plot-points will doubtlessly agitate those indoctrinated into a Christian or “‘Merica is Number 1” world-view. The imagery alone has drummed up reactionary press claiming the game to be anti-American. Yet it’s clear that the game isn’t demonizing these ideologies as much as it’s attacking extremism in any form. It’s not the United States or Christianity you’re up against, but a caricature of extremist values. Furthermore, the Vox Populi, a leftist, protest group that eventually wage war on the city, is equally condemned for going too far down their ideological path.
Even if Infinite’s narrative centered wholly on the dangers of ideology, it would be an important milestone for storytelling in gaming. It takes serious balls to attack these issues in any medium, let alone one as controversial as video games. The original BioShock had a similar message against Randian objectivism. Andrew Ryan (who’s name couldn’t be much closer to an anagram of Ayn Rand) was responsible for the dystopia of Rapture. Although there are a disturbing number of Randians lurking among us, this dystopia is quite removed from our reality. Giving American Exceptionalism “its day in court,” as Levine himself has stated, is going to push more of the audience’s buttons and thus spark more thought and discussion. But it’s not Infinite’s social commentary with which the internet is truly abuzz.
In an interview with Wired, Ken Levine says of the final stage, “…there’s nothing like it that’s ever been in a video-game,” and that it would either have a profound effect on gamers, or go right over their heads. Judging by the search results for “BioShock Infinite ending,” he was right on all accounts. A lot of people are asking “WTF?” But even more are engaging in interesting discussions and interpretations.
Central to the understanding of Infinite is the notion of the multi-verse. There are infinite universes created to account for all variables, but also constants that remain the same in all universes. This is an apt metaphor for game design. Everyone plays a game a bit differently, but they all run into the same basic scenarios. In the case of Infinite, one player might be running and gunning while another takes advantage of the psychokinetic ‘vigors’ for combat. Further, each player has a different aptitude for shooters; one’s curiosity to explore the world, story, and extras will also vary. Yet, if we’re all playing the same game, there are certain constants that are unavoidable. Infinite plays on this idea, forcing us to make heart-breaking decisions because there is no other option. Hesitate as much as you like, the one way to progress is often the most regrettable. In most games, the main character murders countless people, yet the plot tries to paint this sociopathic killer as a pillar of morality. By putting the story of Infinite in accordance with its game-design, Irrational manages to avoid most of the dissonances between story and gameplay that plague the medium.
This clever commentary on game design is thought-provoking in and of itself, but the way it plays into Infinite’s ending brings it to a whole new level. Throughout the game ,Zachary Comstock is the main antagonist. It’s hard to imagine this megalomaniacal bigot being painted in a more negative light. When traveling through different cogs of the multiverse, it becomes clear that the only way to really defeat Comstock is to prevent him from being born. And here’s where it gets heavy. Comstock, it turns out, is you in another universe. Booker Dewitt, the player-character, is guilt-ridden and cynical throughout the game. He’s haunted by memories of the atrocities he committed at war. This guilt leads to a bifurcation in his character as he either accepts a baptism and is born again as the self-righteous Comstock, or denies the baptism to remain the down-trodden Dewitt. The only way to prevent Comstock from being born is for Dewitt to allow himself to be drowned at this baptism. Love thy enemy indeed. In the world of Infinite, your enemy is literally you.
Besides being one of the trippiest game-endings of all time, this revelation ties the themes of Infinite together in a truly affecting way. Since the “hero” is also the “villain,” no one ideology is portrayed as evil. It is the people that follow them without sympathy for those who think differently that are destructive. Man is capable of great evils under the guise of any ideology. The propensity toward extremism is part of the human character. Ultimately, it seems as though it’s only sympathy that can save us. Understanding that those who differ in ideology have simply chosen a different window through which to view reality is key to the sympathetic response.
I’d challenge anyone to come up with more than a handful of pieces in any medium that comment on issues as far-reaching as BioShock Infinite without simply becoming a demonization of a particular social paradigm. Even those examples would likely be obscure, independent works. This is a mainstream game that’s expected to sell millions of copies to young adults worldwide. If even a small percentage of the people who play Infinite are struck by its message, that’s a hell of a job-well-done for Levine and the crew at Irrational. Infinite isn’t just further proof that interactive entertainment is capable of attaining art-status, it’s one of the most poignant pieces of art to see mainstream release in recent memory. Play it, talk about it, and enjoy being around for this moment in time. If there was ever any doubt, there is none now. Videogames have come of age.