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Thursday, January 17, 2019

Bioshock Infinite as Art: Your Argument is Invalid (Part 3-Human Condition? Subtext? It's in there.)

Two quick reminders:

1- This is Part 3 of a multi-part article, and I’m jumping right in from Part 2 without recap.

(Or go all the way back to part 1)

2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers.

A brief real-time caveat: this is a snippet of conversation I had with an artsy geek friend since beginning this article. But since I have to lay this out as me being awesome, I'm going to call him "Art Snob" and cut a slice out of our broader interaction so that the whole thing looks a lot more antagonistic than it really was it totally happened just like this.

Art Snob:  You know that a game can ever be real art. You’re wasting your time with that article.

Me: Dude, I haven't even finished. Wait until you see what's next.

Art Snob: The rules of games are too arbitrary. You have to have levels. You have to have a difficulty curve. You have to have random dudes with chocolate and ammo in their pockets. You have to have an epic end fight. It’s all these constraining artificial… “rules.” (“Art snob” is also kind of a geek, so he knows these things.)

Me: How is that any different from, say, an Elizabethan sonnet? 14 lines. Specific rhyme scheme. Iambic pentameter. Three quatrains. Shift in the 9th line. Ending couplet. How are those rules less constraining? You know as well as I do that when art colors inside the lines, it becomes even more creative. Especially if it bends the rules of the convention in a way that works with the themes.

Art Snob: (after a very long pause in which he—I shit you not—kind of picked his teeth with his tongue and I thought Duel of the Fates was going to start playing) Very well then, Christopher of the Brecheen clan. (As he said this, his body seemed to stretch and shadows filled the room like Gandalf in Fellowship of the Ring.) Finish your article. But mark my words and mark them well... (He extended a gnarled, bony finger directly at me.) Should you fail, the world of video game art fails with you, and there will be a reckoning such as never has been. No pressure, dude!

That's totally exactly just how it happened.

So we’ve established that Bioshock Infinite is excellent in its technical execution. From its eye-popping graphics, to its spectacular play experience, to the voice acting and facial expressions, to the intriguing 19th-century stylistic covers of modern songs (which actually have an in-game explanation), and even the mechanics of gameplay. Somewhere out there there might be a Comic Book Guy discussing the “clearly visible rogue pixel in the baptism scene” or something, but short of that, I think the quality seems pretty well verified by everyone who has played through.

What about the other three aspects we discussed that TEND to make for great art?

There are lots of artistic elements within B.I. that I could examine, but to avoid a thirty-five-part article and y'all force-choking me around Part 7, I will focus on one element in which we can hit two birds with one stone.

So first, let’s look at whether Bioshock Infinite deals with any fundamental (human condition) type philosophical questions.

Looking back on the 80s in hindsight,
I can sort see why this turned into a pregnancy joke.
Uh...yeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah. It's in there.

Perhaps Bioshock Infinite’s most prevalent thematic concern is free will, and the question of whether or not we really have any. (A case could be made that the overarching theme is redemption—“wipe away the debt”—but I believe that the redemptive aspects of the various character arcs are tangled in with their free will—can they, in fact, actually ever make the choices that will redeem them? Besides, it's not like redemption isn't a human conditiony thing.)

The nagging anxiety that Bioshock Infinite seems to slam into with more force than a Handyman on crack is that we may actually make no decisions more significant than whether we want coffee or tea. Our lives may be written for us and we are puppets just acting them out––whether we are Dimwit or Duke (the Goofus and Gallant of the Bioshock world), good or evil predetermined by forces outside our control.

Knowing what we knew, when we knew it, would we always do the same thing in the same set of circumstances? Or do we have the ability to make different choices? The entire unfolding plot reveals the idea that the characters may have indeed walked past whatever precious moments that their fates were sealed, and that the only way to make new choices lies in undoing previous ones. Booker’s past continually locks him into only one possible course of action, and the same thing ends up being true of Elizabeth’s dark future.

It turns out that free will is a major anxiety in our current society. B.I.’s writers didn’t just throw “philosophical conundrums” into a hat and pick out one at random. Predetermination looms larger and larger as social sciences have shown that more and more ideas of meritocracy and exceptionalism (usually weaponized to blame the poor and marginalized for their poverty and marginalization) are far from the truth. As we delve further and further into life science and behavioral psychology, we start to learn that so many decisions we think we are making consciously are products of genetics, early development, social acculturation, and environment, and that there may even be less free will involved in our existence than we ever imagined. Since the moment the Twinkie defense actually fucking worked, and liberal/conservative traits were found to have genetic proclivities, we’ve been questioning if we are truly capable of being anything greater than a composite of our DNA and environment.

This isn’t the first time that our society has struggled with the concept of free will. Before the rise of rationalism, the concept of divine predestination had people ill at ease about their free will. If God knew what everyone was going to do before they did it, and had the power to change anything…did we really exercise free will at all? But philosophies (at least the so-called "Western" philosophies) diverged from religious determinism in the 19th century, and focused on humanity's indomitable will. We conquered nature. We subjugated people who were not like us. Science won. We were walking examples of free will—gods of the universe.
And it was not until the late 20th century that we began to slip back into the uncomfortable realization that this might not be true. This time our anxieties came not from the omnipresence of God, but from the unfolding discoveries of science.

It is absolutely no coincidence, then, that Bioshock Infinite starts in a religiously laden 19th century filled with predestination within religious imagery, but also hybridizes in a futuristic world of quantum realities and multiverse dimensions without the 20/21th century science mucking up the middle. That determinism is taken from God and prophecy about halfway through the game and handed to quantum physics and science, but the main conceit of the game from its first moment remains the ability to definitively prove that in the same situation, the same person would make the same choice over and over (and over) again––be it to sell a baby or destroy a city.

Kind of like our growing cultural anxiety.

In fact, exactly like it.

Because of the bantering of the Lutece twins and a few other clues, we know that the player takes control of the 123rd Booker DeWitt to come to Columbia, and that New York has always ended in fire. We know he never rows. We know he always flips the coin the same way. He always picks 77 (despite the warning). There is even an implication in the dialogue that even though the player sitting at home gets to make a choice between cage and bird, Booker has made that same choice over and over again.

He helplessly plods along a path of determinism, unable to change his fate. Every choice the player makes (or thinks they make) is revealed to be just another illusion. It doesn’t matter at all to the ending. From decisions about whether to draw first at the ticket booth to decisions about whether to kill someone begging to die. They are all details that in DeWitt’s words, “wouldn’t change a goddamned thing.” One of the Lutece twins even says at several points where you must do something to progress in the game: “He will do it. Eventually.”

In this way B.I. weaves an element of video game storytelling into the broader themes that it’s exploring.

The characters in B.I. all do terrible things as their lives unfold, and each literally feels powerless to make different choices. At one point Elizabeth stands in front of a burning New York, and says she could not have done otherwise. Apparently convoluted plots involving time travel and the key to Songbird are doable but just saying “Why don’t we go to Disneyland and have a Coke instead?” when it’s time to wipe a city off the map is unfathomable.

But hey, who am I to judge? I like pineapple on my pizza. THAT'S the real crime.

And yet Bioshock Infinite does not leave us with such a bleak statement about free will being an illusion. Its final message is one of hope and choice. Even if it takes 123 quantum times to shine through, there is something above and beyond just our genetics and our upbringing. Because after 123 times, both father and daughter make the same choice. Maybe they cannot stop the railroad violence that has determined their lives, but they can go back—back to a moment before it became too late—and make a different choice.

In this way B.I. might even be said to have some undertones of a didactic lesson. Life has a way of locking us in. So perhaps we might be reminded to consider well those few choices we really do have.

And golly gee willikers, doesn’t it seem like maybe there’s a book or two that deals with the concept of young folks' choices making old folks' destinies? Yes, I’m certain a tweed-jacketed English teacher or two has assigned me JUST such a book.

Okay, so Bioshock Infinite has a theme that is important in the human condition. One of the age-old philosophical questions. But a deep theme doesn’t mean much by itself. Prometheus was a film that tackled several deep themes yet still managed to be one of the most poorly fucking written movies of the last decade.

However, when we're discussing art that is mostly considered GOOD most of the time (by most?), what is more important than the themes simply being THERE, is whether the discrete technical elements of the art form a cohesive vision that echoes this theme.

Does Bioshock Infinite do this?

Do its separate artistic elements reinforce the themes of free will vs. determinism?

Lana is taking this article into the....danger zone.

Bioshock Infinite is the story of the 123 “loops” of a repeating pattern. It’s basically like Groundhog Day or that déjà vu episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, except that the player is only playing through the final loop. Before you showed up, 122 Bookers have come to Columbia, fought Comstock, made decisions that didn’t end the cycle, and started all over again. The Luteces' banter can be analyzed to reveal that they have begun to realize they might be caught in a loop that will be infinite.

Hence the name of the game, if you didn’t realize.

So the plot and the dialogue already reflect the theme. Again, I'll just analyze ONE thing so you know it's there, but it's actually part of a list. (Seriously, I think someone could do their master's thesis on this game.)

Let us consider one of the game's most salient criticisms. In the modern era, most people want big sandbox games. Games like Bethesda makes (Skyrim or Fallout) where you can run around and explore gigantic landscapes full of all kinds of side quests and adventures. Many reviewers’ and critics’ main complaint about B.I. is that the game is FAR too linear. You can’t explore all the shops and stuff—you just grab the money and move on. It’s only a 15-hour game and that’s if you poke through every possible nook and cranny. You can’t really interact with people. There’s only one way to go. Even when it feels like you have a choice, it doesn’t matter. The alternate ways to explore turn out to be a bunch of dead ends with only one truly viable path. The entire game seems like you’re just acting out a predetermined course of actions instead of having any real control.

Sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, maybe this line from Elizabeth may help: “So many choices. They all lead us to the same place.”

And lest you think this was just a coincidence between thematic exploration and slapped-together game mechanics, I offer you this counterpoint. The first choice you get (between cage and bird) is also at the beginning of the first map where there are actually byways to explore beyond a straight shot to the next plot point. At each step beyond this, choices begin to grow almost exactly on par with map complexity. It is even possible to get lost in the run-up to Comstock house. In the final moments in the sea of lighthouses, Booker literally can choose any combination of rights, lefts, and straights the player wishes and go in infinitely different directions.

And each time the path is clear and straight, something happens (like a Songbird attack) to remind them of how few choices they really have.

The idea that it is a coincidence that with each successive map, Booker has more free will to move away from a nonlinear path is one of those absurdities of thinking the artist stumbled upon such a metaphor. It's not like the idea that maybe the curtains were just fucking blue, but actually patently ludicrous to imagine that this was all a big series of interlocking coincidences. This game design aspect perfectly reflects both the scope and urgency of Booker and Elizabeth struggling against their fates.

And yet, all choices end in the same place.

And yet, that is a place with a choice…a choice that actually does matter.

Still not convinced? There’s more….

I will leave you with one other artistic game-based aspect cleverly woven into the game that reflects the theme of destiny.  Consider for a moment the skylines that are so integral to the combat in so many areas. These are supposed to be for troop transport and cargo transportation. Right?

Did you notice that they don’t actually fucking GO anywhere?

Except for a couple in the cinematic sequences, all the skylines Booker can interact with are nothing more than loops. It is a design that would be preposterously inefficient for moving cargo or troop transport. No real tracks would ever be so poorly designed. They don’t go from one area to another. They don’t have connecting tracks. Most of them don’t even have multiple “stations” where they stop. They just go around in a circle. Like anyone would want to move their cargo down the block and back all day without actually building more tracks.

If you build a track system to help with transport, you want it to go, you know, maybe across town or at least to another station so they could unload it once it got where it was going. These are the worst fucking skyline designs in the history of anything, if they are looked at pragmatically. They just go around in a big circle and end up where they started. However, as a thematic reinforcement that most people probably didn’t notice, they are strokes of genius. These skylines are just like Booker and Elizabeth. They just go round and round on a predetermined track, unable to ever really leave. And even though they get more and more convoluted with each successive map, they always end up right back where they started.

So yes, the elements within Bioshock Infinite were reflections of the theme. For realsies.

On to Part 4

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