myEXP: Bioshock: Infinite

Bioshock: Infinite's treatment of race is often as heavy-handed and smashing an elevator button with your fist.

Originally posted 02 April 2014.

Spoiler warnings for:

  • major themes in the game
  • major character developments
Table of Contents

I

In a way in keeping with the game's nod to quantum mechanics, I'd like to propose the following principle that riffs off of the holographic universe principle:

Booker's Law: Everything you could ever want to know about Bioshock: Infinite can be found or inferred in the way Booker DeWitt hits elevator buttons.

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It's a forceful, vigorous maneuver that seems overly-aggressive considering the button itself says, “PUSH”, not “PUNCH”. And the action never changes – about two hours into the game, there's a moment where, depending on what action you choose, Booker may be stabbed through the hand with a knife. He soon gets the wound covered up with a blue rag, but even then, he carries that blood-soaked dressing all the way through the game – and, despite his injury, he still mashes elevator buttons with his fist with as much machismo as possible. This tiny game element can provide insight into any inquiry you may have about Bioshock: Infinite.

II

One of the biggest discussions around Bioshock: Infinite is its treatment of race, class, religion, and oppression; the game broaches topics of race and class oppression, which seems, on the surface, a very timely move by Irrational Games; over the five years of Infinite's development, games journalism and criticism has slowly seen more and more discussion of social-political issues such as oppression, power dynamics, representation and discriminatory practices than ever before. Alas, surface is all it really is; Infinite gives a very brief entry-level nod to race and class dynamics, before ultimately making it just another piece of the background scenery. Booker seems skeptical of Daisy Fitzroy from the get-go, which seems strange, considering he knows nothing about her other than she's the leader of the resistance against an explicitly white supremacist state; the fact that Booker voices his suspicion of Daisy before we're given any evidence to doubt her feels jarring, and, while it makes sense that, in this game where morality is (intended to be) complex and ambiguous, our freedom fighter would also be morally complex and ambiguous, the fact is that Booker's suspicion of Daisy – and his comparison of her to Comstock – felt like a forgone conclusion. Booker has decided that Daisy was as bad as Comstock long before seeing any evidence to back it up – in effect becoming a stand in for the white Moderate that looks at the brutal, systematic and violent oppression enforced by the state versus a comparatively small uprising by disempowered, disenfranchised and marginalised groups, and can say something as uncritical as “I'm sure there are two sides to this story.”

Sure, there's an interesting story to be told in the idea that the people involved in a bloody uprising may turn out to commit atrocities that cannot be pardoned in any context; there's a compelling discussion to be had in the idea that the issue is not who has power-over whom, but that anybody can have power-over others; there's a crucial truth to be understood in the idea that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”- but we didn't get any of that. We got a get-out clause – a shoehorned-in strawman substitute, the revelation that Daisy Fitzroy's politics apparently includes abusing and killing children – that seemed to exist only so that Booker's skepticism seemed well-founded.

Conversations around race and class often require a deft touch and a precise aim to properly pick apart the multiple axes of power intersecting and informing one another to create an interlocking network; unfortunately, Bioshock: Infinite's treatment of race and class dynamics is as deft and precise as the ham-fisted way Booker slams the elevator button.

Much of Bioshock: Infinite's narrative includes references to quantum mechanics and weird science, and, accordingly, there are mechanics that ostensibly resonate with that theme: we have the reminder of probability in the way Elizabeth tosses a coin to Booker, and the Lutece's heads-or-tails game when Booker first arrives in Columbia; we have tears in reality that bring with them boons such as health packs, allies or additional hazards for our enemies, and we must “choose” which is the “right” thing to bring in at the “right” time. The Boys of Silence, which we must “choose” whether to engage directly or sneak around.

But in the end, we really just have a series of events along a pre-defined, linear path that asks us to push a given button to advance the story in a way pre-destined from the start. We have hallways that branch into two, and, rather than choosing one or the other, we pick one, then double-back to the other, to make sure there's nothing vital on the other path. We have a button that shows us the direction of the next task, and we always walk in the opposite direction until we're absolutely sure we've checked every room, every branching corridor, before moving on to the next step in the pre-set list of objectives we must meet in order (in order) to finish the game. The illusion of choice is really just that – an illusion. The game doesn't so much comment on or create discussion about the nature of player choice, branching narrative structure, narrative ambiguity or alternate interpretation so much as it uses these ideas as set-dressing in the elaborate, 2-dimensional fairground that is Columbia. Where the game may have given us a dense, rich examination of these concepts, we instead get a large, brass button that simply says “PUSH” - accompanied by the on-screen interface repeating the command, “PUSH”, with a helpful reminder of the button on the controller we're to PUSH - and we always do, at the required moment, when prompted, so we can unlock the next fight, the next fragment of the story, the following fight, the following fragment, and so on ad infinitum.

The game's mechanics themselves are fairly simple – perhaps even simplistic, to some extent. Although one of the game's loading screens state outright that not all the conflicts in the game have to be reduced to a shootout… they really, really do. All the ways you could imagine conflict resolution taking place without a firefight – from negotiation, to running away, to hiding, to disguises, to bribery, to changing allegiances – none of these are present in any way. Similarly, there are a number of game elements – the skyrail, the tears, the locks and lockpicking - that, while technically functional, feel like the lumpy, misshapen remnants of bigger, more complex systems that had to be beaten down to be able to fit into the final iteration. As is noted in this retrospective video, there are more than a few characters, level designs, gameplay mechanics, and story elements – that are significantly altered or even missing entirely from the version of the game we're playing, leaving behind a dent, which can definitely be felt, if not seen or directly pointed to.

There's also the fact that the player is encouraged to get Booker to rifle through every corpse's pockets (for boxes of cereal?!), search every bin (for money?!), open every dresser (for RPG ammo?!), just to continually accumulate resources in the downtime between fights – in essence, getting the player to continually mash that big ol' PUSH button as they move through each level over and over and over.

III

None of this is to say that Bioshock: Infinite is a categorically bad game – on the contrary, the environments are beautiful, many of the character and creature designs are amazing, and the story, while a little jumbled, is still nonetheless very compelling – it's definitely worth picking up and playing. Also, the Sea of Doors and the commentary on the Bioshock franchise itself was just sublime: any game that is ostensibly grounded and logical but appeals to a transcendental, numinous and/or metafictional deus-ex-machina near the end (such as LOST, Mass Effect, or the final Harry Potter movie) automatically usually gets a free pass in my book. It's just that, considering the lofty heights Irrational designed the game to rise its hands to, Bioshock: Infinite's reach exceeded its grasp.

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