Note: This article does contain spoilers for Bioshock Infinite. You have been warned!
Bioshock Infinite is god damn terrifying videogame. And it’s even more terrifying that no one identifies it as such.
Let’s hit the basics before we get into the abject horror. Bioshock Infinite is a story-based first person shooter from the creators of Bio/System Shock. As such, it is a ludicrously complicated videogame from multiple perspectives. Combat is conceptually simple (shoot man in head, move on, shoot other man in head) but multiple weapons of a mundane (all of the guns, forever) and magical (“Look, pa, I can shoot lightning”) nature allow for an amazing number of options. Is there water on the ground for conducting electricity? How about some nice, flammable oil? And is this a situation that would better warrant a sniper scope, or a shotgun? Or screw all those options to the sticking place, and ride some sky rails to channel death-from-above action. In a genre that often panders to the lowest common denominator with boring hallways and tedious, linearly graduating weaponry, Bioshock Infinite’s wide open Columbia and all the options it affords are a godsend.
But, as great as the gameplay is in Bioshock Infinite, memories of BI are not of battling crow cultists or the occasional ghost mom; no, Bioshock Infinite, like its Bioshock brothers before it, is all about the story. In this case, we have the tale of Booker DeWitt, a simple man with a simple task: raid a city flying in the sky, kidnap the princess of this kingdom, and book it on home to clear his massive booz debt. Unfortunately, things can’t be that unpretentious, as it is eventually revealed that Booker has traveled between dimensions, his new ward can tear reality a new one at a moment’s notice, and the scoundrel of the piece is secretly an alternate version of Booker himself. That last bit is singularly integral to the plot, as it creates a lovely schism wherein the hero and villain are one in the same, and one simple choice set one version to become a useless drunk, while the other went on to his own private kingdom in the sky. Wow, what really matters in this world are the choices you make, and the world could be a wildly different place depending on your opinion of religious ceremonies.
The world could be different because of choices you make. That’s the core of the problem, but the biggest issue here is not necessarily the protagonist, but dear Elizabeth, your nigh-constant companion, and a creature designed to manipulate you.
Booker comes to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth. She is his entire reason for this quest, and, as the plot is unfurled, practically his entire reason for existing. Elizabeth’s complete history involves cross-dimensional kidnapping, uxoricide, and a loose retelling of (disquietingly specifically) Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Elizabeth is the focus of Booker’s world (both of them!), and it is only appropriate that Elizabeth experiences much of the adventure with her savior/kidnapper. And her journey is one where she changes and matures with the world: she starts naïve and sheltered, and, by the finale, she’s grown stronger, colder, and maybe a little murder-y. She develops and matures in Booker’s shadow, and becomes a multi-dimensional badass just in time for the finale (and maybe a little DLC). Booker is an excellent, homicidal dad, and grants Elizabeth the kind of upbringing not available as the meager puppet of Booker (the other one).
But this is a videogame, and no mere novel or movie. Elizabeth joins Booker on this adventure, but let’s not pretend “Booker” is anyone but the player. There’s a reason this game is first person, and, despite the fact that he might be on a cover or two, Booker is practically never seen during gameplay. Maybe Columbia isn’t big on mirrors, but, more than likely, this is a focused effort to place the player in Booker’s head, to make “you” the protagonist. Booker has his own personality, friends, and quirks, but his unfamiliarity with this world, his general need to kill every dude with a hook for a hand, and an odd propensity toward eating cotton candy out of trash cans, is all in the hands of the player. Booker is a seasoned soldier forged in battlefields and bar fights, but he’s a schlub that is riddled with bullets every seven seconds during the start of his rescue mission because you are still getting used to the controls. So it’s not Booker raising Elizabeth, it’s you, that dork holding the controller. You are responsible for Elizabeth not only on a beat back that giant bird level, but you’re also her metaphorical parent and teacher, exposing this sheltered babe in the woods to the horrors of the real world and its mechanical monster men. Happy Father’s Day, player!
And, lest we think this happened by accident, let’s consider how Elizabeth “works” from a gameplay perspective. Right from the start, Elizabeth reveals her magical ability to produce loose change, thus granting you additional cash for purchasing any damn thing you want. Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth gains skills for providing health, ammo, and magic (I’m sorry, vigors) refills whenever you need a pick-me-up. And, once Elizabeth starts seeing fuzzy objects flickering about, she employs her cross-dimensional pinky to add an additional facet to combat, so you can materialize cover, health, or swingin’ skyhooks at your leisure. Give or take lock picks being one more damned thing you have to collect, Elizabeth is practically a walking vending machine that dispenses wishes and never requires a dime. Oh, excuse me, a walking vending machine in a tight corset. Let’s not mince words: action games tend to have a predominantly straight, male audience, and, if you’re not old enough to be her dad, don’t worry, this girl that acts like a teenager is very much an adult, so she’s legal, boys (if I were capable of using emojis in my writing, there would certainly be a lot of winking happening right now). Elizabeth is everything you could ever want, right down to her existence being a sort of escort mission with the important distinction that she’s completely invincible at all times. You will love Elizabeth, because she’s the best part of your Columbia experience.
Elizabeth is, obviously, thoughtfully designed to be the center of your world. You are rescuing this princess, but she’s a lot more useful than some elf summoning light arrows, so you feel a greater sense of familiarity than could be found in most videogames. And the plot orbits around her life and experiences literally from her birth, so it all feels very believable when Elizabeth finally attains godhood and explains that the whole of the universe actually does revolve around Booker and Elizabeth. “There’s always a lighthouse, a city, and a big burly guy with a shotgun,” we’re told, and, while the details might change, this is the story that unfurls over and over again. The details might change, the stars might be a little different, but, one way or another, it always comes down to the same tale, no matter what choices are made along the way.
And that’s horrifying.
The idea that nothing changes no matter your choices is fairly nihilistic on its own, but the scary part is how it ignores everything else along the way. Here’s an easy example: Booker, while exploring much of Columbia, may occasionally enter “peaceful” areas. Yes, these locations inevitably become battlegrounds when the fuzz shows up, but places like the opening fair or the boardwalk may be explored without a single shot fired. The player has the choice of exploring a soothing town without ever drawing that hookarm, or starting fight after fight in the name of stealing some brand-new gun. Yes, whether you’re an asshole or not changes the immediate gameplay of the area, but the finale argues that no one gives a damn about your choices in-between because, inevitably, you still wind up at the same endpoint with Elizabeth opening a bunch of magical doors and changing history at her will.
Which… kind of ignores all those people you murdered.
Yes, it’s a videogame. Yes, it’s all pixels on a screen, and, technically, none of it matters anyway. But if you choose to have Booker murder the entire pacifist population of Columbia, and then Elizabeth tells you none of your choices matter, then… What the hell is that? People are dead because of your decisions. Some poor wage slave working at a children’s toy store is deceased because you decided to play Grand Theft Auto for a few minutes. A man is dead. A wife is now a widow. Children will never know their father. But don’t worry! It doesn’t matter if that guy is dead or not, because you and Elizabeth are cool! Murder everybody you want! Or don’t! Doesn’t matter! In the end, Elizabeth told you it’s okay, and she’s your best buddy! She’s the only person in the world that matters!
And we, as a society, do not need to see that moral. Ever.
If our current government is any indicator, empathy levels are at an all-time low. People in power have learned that they can consolidate wealth and power to obscene levels, and they’ll get away with it every time, because the public at large will soon be distracted by the next new shiny. Sure, children are dying in school shootings. Yes, toddlers are literally being held in cages. Wow, you can’t throw a stone in the halls of power without hitting a rapist. But, wait! Taylor Swift said something about someone somewhere! Now we care about that! And, all the while, gun manufacturers are getting fat off death, the government is actively pursuing a racist agenda, and women are still being sexually assaulted by old men pretending to purchase used dryers. And why is this allowed to continue? Because we’ve got ours. We, as a nation, are generally fat and comfortable, so as long as my water isn’t poisonous, I don’t care about what’s happening in Flint. I’ve got my own life, my own lighthouse, and my own Elizabeth. What do I care about all those… extra people?
And that is insidious.
The moral of Bioshock Infinite is horrendous. It was true in 2013, and it’s true now: we need more empathy in the world. We need people that care about the “NPCs” of the world, and we need men and women that don’t simply focus on their own fortunes and family. We need people that look past their Elizabeths, and see every other character as equally important. It’s not about the thing that is constantly granting you unearned bonuses, it’s about every other living person on this planet, and how they’re likewise worthy of food, love, and housing (that, incidentally, isn’t going to be destroyed by rising tides in another decade). People matter. Other people matter. And your choices are important, because every day you have the choice to help or hurt people. You might wind up at the same destination regardless of whether or not you call a grocery teller fat and useless, but it matters to that clerk. That person. You can change the world, and not just through saving one person who happens to be useful to you anyway.
Bioshock Infinite is a fun, exciting videogame, but its ultimate lesson is sinister. You are not the main character of this real world, and you should do everything in your power to help the world at large, not just someone close to you.
There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city. They’ll always be there, now do something about everybody else.
FGC #416 Bioshock Infinite
- System: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC were the biggies, but it also resurfaced on Xbox One and Playstation 4 as part of a slightly upgraded collection. For the record, this “review” was based on the rerelease, but all my special memories of the title were based on an original playthrough on the Playstation 3.
- Number of players: No shoehorned multiplayer mode, so just one Booker.
- Favorite Vigor: Ah, the Bioshock tradition of your first skill is always the best. Possession is so useful and fun that it is a wonder other vigors even bothered to show up. Take that, telekinetic shield that should be so much more valuable.
- A Certain Skillset: I swear, there might be something to this whole “games shouldn’t have easy modes” thing. My first time through BI, I abused the infinite lives/instant revive thing liberally, and Booker was dead practically every other second. This came to a head during the final gauntlet, where it took me something like an hour to complete the one part of the game that didn’t feature instant respawns. During that hour, I really learned the combat of the game, because, if I didn’t, I’d be stuck playing this damn sequence for the rest of time. Upon my second playthrough (for this article), I apparently retained those skills, and Booker was a nonstop murder machine that fell in battle maybe twice. Needless to say, this time, the finale took me all of five minutes. Funny how that works out.
- Downloadable Content: I played seven seconds of the Burial at Sea DLC on this collection, and then checked out immediately. Look, I like Rapture, I enjoy these characters, and I’m all about noir, but the narrative was already riling up the blood with the thought of going through another too clever for its own good story about how Booker is not Booker but other Booker and Elizabeth is a fem fatale now and… Yeah, I’m just going to go ahead and call it a day on that one.
- Did you know? Original plans for the game seem to include “vigor junkies” that are much more reminiscent of the mutated splicer of the original Bioshock. Claiming vigors are not that popular in Columbia and dropping the junkies not only made Infinite more distinct from its forbearer, but also created a world where the population has access to magical fire powers, but don’t use them because they are the most boring people to ever exist.
- Would I play again: Honestly? Probably. The moral might be repugnant, but the rest of the game is immersive and interesting, and there always seems to be something new to find around Columbia. It will be a good long while from now, but I’m sure I will return to those floating shores again in the future.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mega Man 11! Geez, buddy, are you broken? That doesn’t sound very random. Suppose I let the lil’ bot sit inert for too long… Oh well, guess the Blue Bomber is back in action. Please look forward to it!