Warning: This analysis contains spoilers for the endings of Bioshock Infinite and the original Bioshock, as well as minor spoilers regarding Mass Effect 3 and the film Looper. You’ve been warned.
As I write this, I am still reeling from the experience of just having beaten Bioshock Infinite about an hour ago. Very rarely am I comfortable with instant labels, but I can already tell that it’s one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. Not just because it’s ludicrously fun or because it’s got an incredibly well-told story with great characters with wonderful interactions. The thing that truly transcended it was its ending, which turned this narrative that hinted at the ramifications of free will and choice into a wholly profound and beautiful statement that celebrated the very nature of choices and possibilities, as well as the medium as a whole.
Part 1: Celebrating Choice
At the closing sequence of the game, which is a virtuosic series of scenes that weave in and out from one reality to another, we are treated to one of the most indelible and gorgeous images I’ve ever seen in a video game: An infinite series of lighthouses piercing from the ocean, with the stars in the sky shining as brightly and as numerously as ever. Elizabeth explains that each star is a tear into another world where our actions have new meanings; billions of variables and variations of the same history floating around each other, their light shining and bouncing off to one another.
It reminded me of a larger-scale version of the recent indie-drama Another Earth, which was about the discovery of a second earth in the sky and a woman who believed that a version of her that didn’t make the same mistakes she did lived in peace. Only in Bioshock Infinite, it’s not just one possibility representing thousands of variations. This is billions of possibilities representing an infinite number of variations, each one differing from either the smallest detail or the most dire of consequences.
The game concludes with the ultimate choice, which forces me to go off on an off-topic tangent: One problem I’ve had with numerous time-travel movies was that a lot of them were all about “fate” and choice didn’t mean dick because they all lead to some sort of Oedipal conclusion no matter how much the characters attempted to avoid it (See La Jetee/12 Monkeys, both of which are great, great movies, but they’re not particularly life-affirming either). Then recently, along came a movie called Looper, which is perhaps a rare time-travel film in which its main character literally sees the path that fate has carved out for him and decides “No way, motherfucker” and does his own thing. Whereas previous time-travel films had a cynical view of choice, Looper was a story of hope that our choices can leave an impact.
Bioshock Infinite, while not strictly about time-travel, certainly falls under this same category. When you see the pattern laid out, which (simplified version because there’s so many layers to this story it can be nosebleedingly convoluted) is Booker chasing after every conceivable version of Comstock in every reality in order to make sure he never begins his reign of terror, instead Booker is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Comstock. Elizabeth reveals to Booker that he is just another variation of Comstock, the two just halves of a whole, and so long as he exists, Comstock will continue to exist as well. So Booker, instead of beginning what could’ve been an infinite pattern, ends it all with a willing sacrifice of his own life to ensure that Comstock himself is destroyed.
But here’s the contradictory thing about this notion of free-will defeating pre-determined paths: Even though Booker does make the ultimate choice in that final moment, it’s still considered the ending everything naturally lead up to, at least under the game’s philosophy. In that sense, fate still triumphs over free-will. And yet it is the power of choice that is celebrated in the game. What makes these two contradictory elements two halves of a whole, much like the completely different Booker and Comstock?
Badass Digest critic “Film Crit Hulk” came up with the best term for what I’m trying to say here, and it’s this: “The core truth of Fatalism.” Fatalism is, in a manner of speaking, a mixture of the belief that free-will conquers all, and the belief of predeterminism. Even though our actions are free, they all lead to an inevitable end. This is what makes Bioshock Infinite a true celebration of choice: Even when we see the end coming, and we know that the end is all there is, we will still act by our own devices, because we have the freedom to do so. Instead of saying “All of our choices lead to this one thing and that sucks“, the game instead implies “The fact that we can have control over our lives in spite of the powers of inevitability is awesome.”
Elizabeth had a line that essentially described this concept of Fatalism in the ending of the game, as she took Booker from lighthouse to lighthouse: “We swim in different oceans, but land on the same shore.”
I know I’m in the minority on this (And any of you guys who follow me on Twitter know that I keep rattling on about it to annoying degrees), but this is also what made Mass Effect 3‘s brilliant ending so misunderstood. Because that game set up so many great choices, people were greatly disappointed by the fact that the three endings you got were the same in content (Though they were subtly different in both context and in interpretation, though they were still more or less the same thing), when that was, in fact, the entire flipping point: Different oceans leading to the same shore. It’s interesting to compare in that sense because Bioshock Infinite is much less ambiguous than Mass Effect 3‘s decidedly elusive approach to its conclusion. The entire closing sequence is all done entirely through expository dialogue, but you never notice because it’s being executed with gorgeous visuals, thrillingly inventive science fiction ideas, and interesting, beautiful cuts from different scenes and locations.
Indeed, Bioshock Infinite is without a doubt a celebration of choice, but that’s just the story. What’s even more fascinating is how the gameplay ends up serving this theme. Bioshock Infinite may be the most choice-driven game I’ve ever played. And before everyone brings up Deus Ex and Mass Effect and so on and so forth, allow me to explain: The choices in Bioshock Infinite are all accomplished through the mechanics of the play. It’s not like Mass Effect where you decide dialogue options to set up the framework of your story experience, and it’s not like Deus Ex where your stats and skills are all handled in a series of menus before heading for the real game. There’s hardly any menu-browsing in Bioshock Infinite.
Instead, every single gameplay decision is done entirely through interaction and the game provides you with enough options to make each and every encounter so different; from the tears, to the expansive levels, to the skylines that allow you to maneuver easily throughout said levels, to the various combinations of powers and weapons. Adding to this is the pacing of the combat. Unlike most games, it’s all about going with the flow. Instead of predetermining your path and planning your strategy, you go at it, grab what’s necessary, experiment, mess up, try again, skyline from point A to point B with ease, possess a turret, lift group A of enemies in the air, stun group B with crows, shoot guys, and just do.
The combat is so flowing that a traditional game-over screen would only break that sense of flow, which is why you are immediately able to revive after dying, thus making the game slightly easier to beat on Normal mode (A common criticism in both this game and the original Bioshock).
The result is a game that is so free with its use of choice that you almost don’t even notice it at first because of how unrestrained and natural it feels as you play it. This is a game imbued with choices, all of which are built into both the world and the mechanics in a natural way. The gameplay essentially insures that players will never be playing the same way again; a concept I will expound upon later in this article…
Part 2: The American Dream
But choice isn’t all the game is about. The dystopian city in the sky that is Columbia is filled with direct criticisms towards the xenophobia, racism, and religious extremism of America’s past. Yet there’s a point in the game where that social commentary is, in a way, abandoned for the more heady material involving parallel realities and multiple lives from said realities melding together.
Instead of asking why one plot-point was taking the focus over the other, I instead considered what it was about “choice and parallel realities” that was inherently connected to this indictment of America’s past sins.
Whenever social commentary on the state of the United States comes up in art, one thing that always pops up is the idea of “The American Dream”. And in each piece of art, The American Dream means a different thing for the artist depicting it. Bioshock Infinite is more of an American Nightmare than an American Dream. Columbia is a place where the American Dream literally comes to life (Many people bring up the comparison between the art style of the game and that of Norman Rockwell). Yet when Elizabeth opens tears into alternate versions of Columbia, we see that it ends up representing different variations on that American Dream.
Thanks to the quantum-mechanics of this city in the sky, Columbia is now a place where every single conception of the American Dream is singing out to be realized, sometimes fighting for space and control, and in one instance is at war with each other. And this unrest with everyone’s perceptions of this American Dream is brought about by the very nature of choice itself. Because everyone has free-will, and because there is no real “destiny” or “fate” behind the American Dream, every single Dream ends up occupying the collective subconscious of Columbia until it becomes a schizophrenic mess.
Much like how there are infinite possibilities for where our lives could head, there were an infinite number of places the America of the past could have gone to, and a lot of it is as ugly as human nature can get. Each version of Columbia Booker and Elizabeth pass through is filled with its own prejudices and extremisms: Some are fueled by general intolerance, others are fueled by unbridled rage and vengeance. Regardless, they’re all absolutist views of the American Dream, where only the choices of one ideology conquer rather than the collective choices of all individuals.
It honestly made me somewhat grateful for the way our America has grown from that. Sure, we’re far from perfect, but the fact that we could’ve so easily become Columbia is a testament to the concept of freedom of choice that are ideals to live by in any country, not just exclusive to America. Bioshock Infinite states that the American Dream isn’t defined by one decision, but by the concept that we have the freedom to decide for ourselves from the Infinite amount of decisions that are known to us in the universe. Not only is choice imbued in the mechanics and the sci-fi concepts, but also in the social commentary: The American Dream is choice.
Part 3: The Ken Levine Connection
Of course, this should be expected from Ken Levine, who touched upon very similar material in his original Bioshock. If there’s one thing that Ken Levine has always been obsessed with, it’s the nature of choice and our perception of free-will. Indeed, Bioshock was a game that pulled the rug from under you claiming “See that? You have no free will!”, only to subvert that claim with a means of charting out your own destiny (Thanks in large part to two admittedly poorly executed multiple endings, but still an important part of its thematic statement). In that sense, the original Bioshock, with its “Would You Kindly” and pre-determined paths, is just as much a celebration of free-will as Bioshock Infinite is with its infinite variations and realities.
Bioshock was also a game with choice imbued in its mechanics and world, albeit on a different level. Instead of the flowing pace of combat in Infinite, Bioshock was more about careful planning about which plasmids would cause which affect in the environment and which weapons and traps can be combined for maximum effect.
That game, of course, also featured its own dystopia that was brought about through extreme idealism, only this time it was the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and its Rapture was less an American Dream and more of an Objectivist one as it became an almost literal representation of Atlas Shrugged‘s own “Atlantis”.
Already, Ken Levine is an auteur with some very clear, connective themes in his work, much like Truffaut or Malick had throughout their filmographies. This connective tissue of common, “Levine-ian” themes includes the following: Dystopias brought about by extreme idealism, genetic modifications, free-will, choice, and more. Each of these themes are fairly obvious to spot, but one that I haven’t heard many people point out (And this might just be because not everyone’s finished the game yet) is that both games end up subverting their idea of free-will by “changing the past.”
In both the original Bioshock and Infinite, our protagonists are revealed to have entirely different backstories than what we initially believed in the beginning. Jack was just a pseudo-clone of sorts whose sole purpose was to set about his predetermined decisions for Andrew Ryan and then Frank Fontaine. Booker DeWitt meanwhile is revealed to be the alternate Comstock from another dimension, and had actually sold his infant daughter Anna to Robert Lutece, who gave her to Comstock in the alternate dimension to raise her as Elizabeth. Booker was more than just a former Pinkerton agent, he was destined to defeat his other half.
Interesting to note considering the game opens with a quote from Robert Lutece’s sister Rosalind: “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…,” a sentence that can easily be applied to the original Bioshock as much as this new incarnation.
This idea of “new memories replacing the old” always felt to me like the protagonist is assuming a role that isn’t inherently theirs’. This concept not only questions whether we have free-will if our free decisions are based on a predetermined mindset, but also comments on the player itself, assuming the role of its protagonist and inserting his/her own experience into that character regardless of whether it fits or not.
All of these elements collide to make a singular, auteuristic statement from Ken Levine and Irrational Games as a whole. I was unsure at first whether Infinite really needed to remain attached to the Bioshock name, but it is clear upon finishing it that they are both companion pieces. They are just as much two halves of a whole as Booker and Comstock are. And when we see Booker and Elizabeth in the underwater city of Rapture, and they ascend to the surface in the Bathysphere much like Bioshock‘s Jack descended into Rapture, the two games become one palindrome.
It ends, in a way, where it all began.
Part 4: Gaming is Infinity
“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.”
Now let’s go back to that image I described in the beginning of this ramble: Of all the lighthouses and the stars each representing tears into new realities, representing a universe of infinite possibility. Elizabeth even states that “They’re doors to…everywhere. All that’s left is the choosing.” There’s doorways with all kinds of different Columbias each existing simultaneously together. Same realm, different dimensions, or realities, or whatever you prefer to call them.
And as I looked up at all those stars, at all those variations just waiting to happen, I contemplated what my next playthrough with the game would be like and then remembered something…
With the nature of choice imbued in its mechanics and gameplay, I remembered that saying that “No one playthrough will be similar to the other”. Each time you play the game, you will defeat enemies in a different order, use different powers in different successions and combinations, sometimes you’ll even discover new areas in the game that you hadn’t accessed or noticed in your first playthrough.
Bioshock Infinite becomes more than just a celebration of free-will’s effect on the individual (Booker’s path), or its effect on the society (Columbia and its various alternate American Dreams). Instead, Infinite is a celebration of the only medium that allows this level of choice and free-will: Video games.
In one reality, a player will possess a vending machine for more money. In another reality, a player will accidentally shoot a cashier in that bar in Shantytown. The reality you play in is the reality where you complete the game. The reality your friend plays in will be very different. And all of these realities exist simultaneously together in harmony. Even the inclusion of the original Bioshock shows that this applies not just to Infinite, but all video games in general. In that sense, every time you died in Super Mario Bros. 3, you were creating a new reality; a new possibility as you started over from the checkpoint and tried again.
Each variation of Columbia, Hyrule, the Mushroom Kingdom, Rapture, and City 17 is another variation of playing the game. An infinite number of ways to play. An infinite number of ways to experience. An infinite number of ways the player can use its greatest tool: Choice. And video games are the only medium that provides it on that grand scope.
And yet, they all lead to that same end. Because that’s the core denominator of Fatalism. The possibilities are infinite. But all stories must come to an end. It’s what we do in between that makes the game worth playing, and life worth living. Different oceans. Same shore.
Part 5: So Which Is It?
So what exactly is Bioshock Infinite? A comment on the power of free-will in the individual? An examination of the power of free-will in a society or a dystopia? Or a meta-celebration of the power of free-will in the interactive medium of video games and the player itself?
Well, if we were to accept Infinite‘s philosophy, it’s all three at once, obviously. And this also applies to interpretations of its ending. Has Booker really defeated Comstock? Is he instead continuing a cycle over and over? Or was the entire game just a fever dream of Booker’s American Dream? Or is there some other interpretation that I haven’t thought of yet that someone on the internet will theorize? It doesn’t matter in the long run: They’re all the right interpretation.
The possibilities are Infinite. All that’s left, as Elizabeth would say, is the choosing. Infinite realities waiting to be realized, discussed, interpreted, experienced, played. Until they all collapse into each other, and become one singular idea.
Infinite possibilities. One whole experience.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8toGQq46tA]