This will contain BioShock Infinite, System Shock 2, and BioShock spoilers. If you haven’t finished the games, and/or don’t want spoilers, go away.
BioShock Infinite is perhaps the most complicated method of saying absolutely nothing I’ve ever encountered. I enjoyed its audio direction, music, voice acting and art. Its moment-to-moment writing and dialogue was pretty good. Level design and pacing wasn’t bad either. But as a story? As a cohesive whole?
The issue I have is that nothing is ever really explained. Well, it kind-of is, in a pseudo-science sort of way, but it’s that same kind of explanation that causes you to ask further questions like: …and? So what? Why? What does that mean? This is important how?
I feel as I write this, that I may just be re-hashing Clint Hocking’s Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock piece, just with a new *Shock game. The thing is I never experienced that dissonance when I played BioShock. It felt like a wonderful, and almost meta, explanation for why we as players follow the requests and instructions of those in the game. It’s easy to say “because the game is linear, and developers made it that way”, but BioShock took that and turned it upside-down by making it a narrative device. It was an exquisite development I never would have seen coming.
The small bits of dissonance I suppose I felt were mainly in the opening scenes; I’d never randomly inject myself with a syringe I found lying around, and I’d be very unlikely to put myself in a bathysphere when my best chance of rescue following a plane crash, would be to remain in the building that casts light for hundreds of kilometres across the ocean. Maybe I’d consider modifying its output to include some kind of morse-coded message. S O S perhaps. Once I was in Rapture proper however, I felt the progression and justifications wholly believable, and unlike Clint, was never broken from the telling within.
Similarly in System Shock 2 the progression thanks to, and then betrayal by, Shodan, felt completely justified. The war against the biological menace consuming the ship took an unexpected turn when it became clear that I had simply been a tool for the malevolent AI, and all of a sudden my enemy was not who I thought it was.
In Infinite, I was on the back foot straight away because religion is something I have strong negative feelings for, and the idea of accepting a baptism would never fly with me. Then the justifications for the happenings in Columbia go so far beyond the possible as to be unbelievable. Like one of those horrendous Star Trek episodes where the away team beams down to a planet that developed exactly like Earth, with the same evolution, timelines, historical figures, exact down to a tee, only NAZIS WON THE WAR; and all the writers need to justify this stupidity is “it’s an infinite universe”.
Time and spatial paradoxes give Irrational an excuse for anything, but it’s frustrating in the extreme to be presented with a bunch of half-baked ideas and stories that are torn away with the fabric of reality. I spent the entirety of the game playing in a sort of anticipatory glee. “I can’t WAIT for the twist that explains this and makes me feel stupid for not realising it while simultaneously amazing me with its simplicity.” – is what I thought right up to the end. I continued thinking it through the credits, through the scene at the end of the credits and right up to the reappearance of the game menu.
The twist never came. It was exactly what the game said it was all along. The fabric of time and space, blah blah blah.
The problem with this kind paradoxical story-telling is that it’s stupid. and here are a bunch of reasons why:
Booker/Comstock: I’d worked out the protagonist and antagonist were the same person in the scene where Comstock starts ranting for Booker to tell Elizabeth what happened to her finger, and Booker then opens Comstock’s skull on the pedestal bowl of what I presume was holy water. The ending baptism scene that implies refusing baptism leads to the creation of Booker, and accepting it rebirths him at Comstock might have been kind-of clever had it been at the start of the game, and now we were receiving this explanation. But no, we’re just told that this is something that happened before, and this is why things are the way the are.
Why are those the two options, by the way? Why is that on one hand, you’ve got a guilt-ridden ex-Pinkerton, and on the other an evangelical zealot? Where is the version of Booker that just goes and has a wife and kids, living on a farm in the countryside?
Is/was Booker even a Pinkerton? We’re told that he is – he admits to doing terrible things – but we’re also told by Lutece(s) when they bring him into the Columbia reality, that his mind is inventing stories in this universe. Is any of his guilt real, or is it invented? Was he really at the Battle of Wounded Knee?
What debt did Booker have? To whom was it owed? Was this real? Why did he need to pay it with a child as opposed to money? Why did he need to pay it to himself (Comstock)?
Why did Comstock need booker to give the child over? He can create tears in time and space – just open one next to the crib. The child would be gone in a matter of seconds and Booker would never know how.
Elizabeth: It’s not really clear what Elizabeth being harvested for. Lutece(s) create the distortions in reality, the rips and tears that allow them access to anywhere through time and space, so why do they need Elizabeth? Assuming they do, how did they know she could do it? She’s a baby and there is no indication her infantile mind created these phenomena sub/unconsciously.
Assuming that whatever the Elizabeth-harvesting is doing is necessary from Comstock’s point of view, why would Comstock take only one Elizabeth into his reality? He has access to all of them. Build a thousand towers, a million, each with an Elizabeth inside.
Why does future Elizabeth rain fire and brimstone down on the New York/Earth? Yeah yeah, she was tortured/brainwashed. But she has the wherewithal to know it’s wrong, to bring Booker to the future, to write her past-self a note to ensure it doesn’t happen, and then send Booker back with it, but she can’t feasibly stop murdering hundreds/thousands of people because “it’s too late”?
But we already know that there are multiple realities and paths of the past/future – who says the same thing isn’t happening in a thousand other realities? Why is only important to stop this happening in this one? There’ll be others where everything is fine. Surely if you fix one you need to fix them all?
Other really stupid stuff:
Okay, so we WILL fix them all. The way to do that is to kill Comstock/Booker. Drown him at the initial baptism that causes the split. So why are we killing the Booker who has been through all the events of the game? It’s too late – killing that guy has absolutely no impact on past events. You need to go back in time and kill THAT Booker. Okay maybe we can assume it is in fact that Booker, and having his brain mashed with memories of the game events explains why we know everything we just experienced. Why is this the only turning point? Why is killing him in only one reality, saving all the others? Surely there are other dimensions where he’s still undergoing the baptism? It’s an infinite universe, remember? Everything, in every form, is occurring right now, somewhere in it. It is not possible to end him in all universes, because they’re all happening, all the time.
I heard “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” fairly early on, and was waiting for the twist that explained it. Oh, some guy was stealing music from the future or something. Yay, I suppose? I guess he was profiting from it?
Heads? Tails? Bird? Cage? Throw at announcer? Throw at couple? Mercy-kill? Let live? None of these mean anything. Okay the Throw option is player morality on display, as is the mercy killing. But the others? Here are two things with no explanation, choose between them for no discernible reason or impact.
There’s a huge amount of racism in the first half and then it goes away. The game never says anything about it other than: here it is. It doesn’t say why it exists (period/setting perhaps?) and whether we should be approving or repulsed by it. My reaction is the latter, but there’s no reason a racist playing this game would question his/her moral values here, which is deeply troubling.
Justifications like “Because it does”, spoken by Elizabeth in the final scenes. Extremely lazy writing to try and get around the issues caused by time-paradox stories.
Perhaps for an American audience, founded on “ZOMG FREEDOMZ” (this phrase is in the US constitution, look it up), the game is thematically relevant to something. For someone living outside that country, it comes across as trite. Perhaps this game is indeed targeted toward an audience of frat-guys.
Rapture for some reason. I’m guessing this is this *Shock game’s attempt at driving home a meta-meaning. You, the player, go through these gaming motions time and time again. You do the same things, for the same reasons, no matter how its dressed up by developers. In comparison to the rest of the game’s story, this is brilliance, but compared to BioShock I find it lacking. In all honesty, my favourite part of Infinite was seeing Rapture again even though it made no sense whatsoever.
Ultimately, Infinite says nothing. At the end of its 10 or however-many hours BioShock had a morality, it had an outcome that aligned to that morality. Infinite on the other hand had nothing. Its twist was that “yes, the thing we told that was actually happening throughout the game, was the thing that was happening at the end.”
An infinite universe, of infinite possibilities means that one could never possibly hope to have an effect on enough of the others for those changes to matter, and therefore, ultimately your actions are meaningless. Is this the story, the great meta-lesson? That we’re infinitely small, unimportant? That our actions, played out on a cosmic stage, have less impact than a drop of water in the ocean?
If so, I have to now take back everything I’ve said above, because this is a masterful telling. Causing a player to divine this meaning by presenting them with none is nothing short of genius.
But this is just me reading something into it, it wasn’t your intent, was it Irrational?
You magnificent bastards.