Songbird in the Cage: Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite – SPOILERS!

by Kristin Bezio

First and foremost, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!! If you haven’t played the game and want to know if you should, my answer is YES! Go buy it, go play it. It’s totally worth it.

But from this point on, there will be nothing held back for the sake of those who have not finished the game. So if you don’t want me to wreck the ending (and there is definitely and ending to wreck, if that’s your thing), stop reading now. Seriously.

Okay. Here we go.

THE GOOD
There’s a LOT of good in this game. First, the art. The game is gorgeous. The details – if not the resolution on the Xbox – are meticulous and create a sense of reality to the world of Columbia. There are even hummingbirds. One thing that I have to give Irrational credit for – in both Infinite and in the original Bioshock – is that the worlds they create are unbelievably rich. No level repeats the same map as any other level, each space feels like a real, genuine space that could BE somewhere and have purpose.

Some examples. There’s an ice cream parlor, in which people sit and eat ice cream. There are coins on the floor, just as though someone dropped one while paying for a cone. And after nightfall, it closes. The carnival games are playable – you can learn to shoot by shooting at cardboard cutouts, and you can win prizes. The “propaganda” impressed me in Bioshock, and it manages to create the same feel of imposed censorship that people tolerate and accept simply because it’s always been there, like the ads on a bus or the flyers people tape to telephone poles.

And then… the light. Light and shadow in this game have been elevated to a fine art. The first thing you encounter in Columbia is what amounts to a church – resplendent with both candles and sunlight. For those who have played Bioshock, the light is one of the most shocking parts about Infinite. We come in expecting the dark and gloom of a survival horror game, and instead we are bathed, literally and figuratively, in light. And it WORKS. The horrific contrast of Columbia is its beauty – the spaces, the colors, the light, the vividness of the whole world is overwhelming, and the ugliness of the acts, attitudes, and people present a stark contrast to it.

And then there’s the music. This game has the most appropriate, beautiful, haunting, and inspiring soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a game. It is definitely the only game that I have sung along with while playing. The foley art, the ambient noise, and the vocal tracks are like aural light that permeate the entire experience. I want this soundtrack. It made me feel warm and fuzzy and choked up at the same time, especially with the spirituals (and I’m generally a profoundly anti-religious person).

Aesthetics aside – and it’s very hard to put them aside, as they’re quite possibly the best part of the game – there is also Elizabeth. Now there are a couple of things I found fault with in her characterization (to which I will get later), but in terms of her personality and her mechanical function, Elizabeth represents a huge leap forward in terms of companion characters.

One of the worst parts of Bioshock was the Little Sister escort mission at the end, in which you as the player have to keep a Little Sister safe through a maze of angry splicers. And I wanted to shoot her myself less than a quarter of the way through. But Elizabeth can take care of herself. And not only can she take care of herself, she can take care of YOU. In combat, she finds ammo and health and salts (which are like your “magic”), and at other points in the game, she finds coins and gives them to you. She will also draw your attention to loot and other interactive or interesting things. In other words, she requires no maintenance from a gameplay perspective whatsoever. And she’s also narratively interesting – she comments on things, gives her opinion on plot points, and is the fundamental source of the entire plot.

And there are other characters I like, too. The Luteces, for instance. They are interdimensional beings (sort of…), and they’re hilarious. They’re also taken straight out of absurdist theater, specifically, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so I kicked myself when I didn’t realize that they – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – are dead. Pretty much the whole time. At least in some of the universes. I got the reference pretty much right away, since their ridiculous speech pattern (which is awesome) and their scene in the carnival are straight from the play – they’re playing a game of coin-toss, in which the coin (against all odds) is always heads. Of course, there must be some universe where that is the case, and in each coin flip, they are creating a new, parallel world in which that specific coin actually comes up tails. Great, great stuff.

It’s also clever. Very clever. (Maybe too clever.) The opening sequence parallels almost exactly (and includes some of the exact same lines, such as “Is it someone new?”) the opening and entry sequence from Bioshock. This is one of many examples of cycles in the game – the repetition of a sequence you already know, the fact that the first scene in Columbia contains circular spaces, the round candles, and the cannon in the background (“Let the Circle be Unbroken”). The lighthouse has a spinning light (like they do), and even the money is entirely circular. Circles are a thing in this game. In fact (SPOILER!!), the entire game itself is a circle, turning back upon itself in the end and eradicating its own synchronous existence.

THE BAD
So there are bad things about Infinite. Quite a few of them. That said, I LIKED the game. I enjoyed almost all of it (the end will be addressed in a little bit). I think it’s a great example of videogames as art, and of videogames trying to achieve the level of critical complexity that other media – like literature and film – have already achieved. I’m glad it exists. But – as I said to a friend of mine today – it’s a B+. It’s good, really good, but I wanted it to be better. And not only did I want it to be better, but I can see HOW it could be better.
Most of my complaints are thematic or narrative, but before I get to those, a few mechanical things. First, why do I (as Booker) keep eating food out of trash cans and off the street? Gross. Also, why do people keep throwing money in the trash? I understand the point of looting for health, salts, money, and ammo, but some of the places they put it are just silly.

Second, why are there different types of enemies? I’m not speaking in game-design terms – I know that having different AI to fight is part of what makes games interesting. What I don’t understand is where the diferent classes came from. There are Crows (who are, for the Bioshock players, essentially Houdini Splicers), Handy-Men (who make very little sense to me and are really annoying to kill), Patriots (which are hilarious on a variety of levels, including the fact that they announce “We hold these truths to be self-evident” before opening fire on you), and strange horn-headed things that act like security cameras in the asylum. And it’s really unclear where they came from or why they’re all quasi-mechanical or supernatural.

Which brings me to the other narrative issues in the game. First, I’m not convinced that string theory works the way this game seems to imply (also, lighthouses? Really?). I like that they’re playing around with temporal shifts, alternate dimensions and time-continuua, so I’m willing to forgive most of the glitches. The fact that the game destroys its own existence seems too extreme to be a paradox that’s just too impossible to be feasible. A lot of it is really neat – but some of it still doesn’t make sense, and I probably know more about particle physics than the average gamer (although not as much as someone who has a degree in physics, so you never know).

And then there’s the heavy-handedness of the symbolism in the game. This is not just a symbolism stick, this is a spiked exploding club with glitter that burns. And the game smacks you with it from the very beginning and doesn’t stop smacking you with it even when the credits are rolling. The game is profoundly anti-Exceptionalist (an attitude of which I wholeheartedly approve), and is trying to make use of a framework of racism to encourage a general attitude of tolerance and acceptance (and since the political issue of our day is gay marriage, I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re driving at here). It also vilifies both the conservative tendency to all but worship the Founding Fathers (who were hypocrites, as any studio based in Boston can’t help but knowing, especially one down the street from the burial place of John Adams) and born-again Christian fundamentalism. But I actually find myself missing subtlety. I want nuance and challenge, not a spiky stick whacking me across the face every five seconds.

Which brings me to…

THE UGLY
There are two things about this game that really, really bothered me. The first isn’t actually as big a deal as I just made it sound, but given the current context of gender-related concerns in gaming, irritates me because it seems like they could have avoided playing straight into the problematic stereotypes we’ve been talking about for the last year or so. Now I do understand that the game has been in development for about four years, which provides some excuse, but still.

Elizabeth. As much as I do really like her mechanically and enjoyed playing with her, she’s the kind of female victim that irks me – the damsel in distress that was the focus of Anita Sarkeesian’s first Tropes vs. Women in Videogames video. And Elizabeth is one. Now she’s no Princess Peach – Elizabeth is the most powerful thing in this game, and she’s got attitude and spunk, but she is constantly being victimized throughout the game. And because (REALLY BIG SPOILER!) Booker is also Comstock, not only does she need to constantly be rescued by Booker, but Booker is constantly having to rescue her FROM HIMSELF. It’s like the worst sort of abusive father-daughter relationship ever. (And was the cleavage-tastic costume change really necessary halfway through? I know the transition from the girlish outfit to the woman’s dress is symbolic of the fact that she just grew up because she killed Daisy, but does she have to be SO voluptuous in it?) In essence, while she’s better than many non-hero female characters, I’d have liked her to come out of it on her own at least once, without needing Booker’s help.
And then there’s the racism. Yes, I understand that the point of Columbia is to focus on the abject bigotry of the city’s idology, on the horrific racially-motivated things that happened in the past, such as at Wounded Knee and during the Jim Crow (is that why it’s Murder of Crows?) era. I get that. I understood it in Django Unchained, and I understand that Irrational is under no circumstances advocating for that sort of behavior. But.

The Vox Populi who start the game are not the Vox who end it. The early-game Vox are the oppressed who have an underground network of information and sabotage. The late-game Vox are barbaric, violent, and bloodthirsty, dress up as devils, and scream in your face as they try to kill you. You feel sympathy for the early Vox. You want them to win. You want to do whatever you can to help them. At one point, Booker is confronted with an interracial couple about to be “stoned” with baseballs. He has the choice to throw the ball at the couple, at the barker, or not at all. If he throws it at the barker, the couple later finds him and thanks him. It’s clear that the game’s agenda is not racist.

But the late-game Vox turn on you, and their actions – especially Daisy’s, when she tries to murder a child (probably another throwback to Bioshock chiding the player for spending a game possibily killing children him/herself) – are the epitome of bigoted stereotypes. And yes, I do understand the logic that the Vox have only become violent and barbaric because they were treated by the citizens of Columbia as subhuman. However, the game never complicates this late-Vox image. It never returns us to humanity from barbarity. All it does, in the game’s final moments, is efface the whole thing in a highly problematic twist.

Because when Booker chooses to allow himself to be drowned, he is sacrificing himself as the white male sinner-savior (Jesus complex, anyone?) so that the racism of the world can be eliminated. A twist on the white-man’s-burden in which Booker literally dies to obliterate the racism of Columbia. And by erasing that racism, which in its historical context was very real, it implies that racism is gone, that it no longer exists. But it isn’t. We can’t just say “Oh, things used to be so bad, but thanks to white people, it’s all better now.” Because it isn’t, and that’s a point that Tarantino got but that seems absent from Infinite.

THE END

All that said, I like what Infinite is doing, and I hope they keep doing it, and keep improving their art (because they did make huge strides between Bioshock and Infinite). But as much fun as I had throughout the game itself, the ending left me feeling frustrated, mostly because of the issues I have with the way the game didn’t complicate its own depiction of race and gender. In part, too, I didn’t like that the game chose to undo itself, although I can respect its decision to do so. I also hate boss fights, and the last one in this game was confusing as hell – I didn’t actually know what i was supposed to do, so I lost it the first time simply because I didn’t know what was happening.

But ultimately what I think bothered me the most about the ending was that the game was too proud of itself. (The developers should be proud of themselves for a great job, but the game shouldn’t show that off.) It knew it was art and it wanted to show off how smart it was by explaining string theory (in a mediocre way), by dropping Booker and Elizabeth in Rapture for two minutes, and by holding out until the end of the credits to show you that Booker and Anna are still there, in another timeline. (Which itself is a problem, because, as my friend remarked, isn’t there also going to be a timeline in which Booker kills the Elizabi instead of letting them drown him?) Yes, Infinite is a really good game, but it isn’t quite what it thinks it is.

Comments

  1. I enjoyed thundering through it but have no desire to return to it to see if I missed anything, and a lot of that is just that it can’t shake off the ‘game-ness’ of it. Like for all of the interesting things in Colombia, the majority of it could be divided it up into weapons, consumables, and enemies. Elizabeth was an amazingly voiced and motion captured vending machine for the first two.

    I admired them going for a more emotionally interesting HBO-type ending, but the problem I had is that if they drown Booker at the moment of baptism, who is to say there aren’t a bunch of OTHER Elizabeths in the multiverse encouraging him to wash his sins clean so Comstock is still ascendant somewhere? It’s the problem with infinite possibility and choice – difficult to give a shit when there are no real consequences.

    Great review, BTW! :)

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