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Bioshock Infinite: Opportunities Lost
by Elizabeth Goins on 01/08/14 01:57:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Bioshock Infinite: Opportunities Lost

Alert: this article contains major spoilers

The latest installment of the Bioshock games, Bioshock Infinite, is a sprawling first person shooter set in 1912 of an alternate American history. Embodying the character of Booker Dewitt, an ex-Pinkerton agent with an ignoble past, players embark on a linear narrative to uncover Dewitt’s backstory with NPC sidekick, Elizabeth. The gameplay is a journey of violent discovery as players travel the beautifully detailed world of Columbia in order to escape Father Comstock, the story’s rigid, ideological antagonist. As an alternate history, the game narrative and world draw extensively on turn of the century American history. According to Ken Levine, the creative director at Irrational Games: 

“We wanted to use everything from the period – the politics of the time, the clothes of the time, the music and specifically what was going on in science. Specifically, with BioShock we thought of Crick and Watson and other scientists working in the 40s and 50s starting to understand the double helix and the modern fundamentals of genetics.  In the same way, around 1905 you have Einstein coming up with the theory of special relativity, and you have Max Planck, and Heisenberg – all these people around this time, some a little earlier, some a little later, starting to understand that the Newtonian view of the universe was not comprehensive.” [1]

The mechanics and the sheer beauty of the artwork make Bioshock Infinite a fun game to play and it has been a huge success, both critically and financially.[2] However, the historical and thematic underpinnings of the narrative components are problematic. The lack of thematic integration, not only with the mechanics but also within the narrative itself, presents the player with a set of disconnected ideas which make it impossible to connect to the game emotionally or intellectually. Had the creators thought more critically about the historic roots of the game, Bioshock Infinite could have been much more than simply entertaining, it could have been deeply thought provoking.

One of the biggest problems with Bioshock Infinite is that the writers did not develop a thematically focused narrative. This moves beyond an editing issue and really gets to the heart of good design and writing. Strong narratives have a central, core concept. All other aspects of the narrative, from motifs to characters, should support that concept in order to give a structural unity to the story. In order to analyze Bioshock Infinite and its narrative, we have to consider: 

  1. American nationalism/patriotism
  2.  Racism
  3.  Quantum mechanics and the Many Worlds theory
  4.   Social unrest and the underclass
  5. The corruption of power
  6.   Religion and religious fundamentalism 

It is obvious that there is too much going on for a single narrative, even in a 16 hour game, to make coherent. However, add to that the fact that the main story is the personal history of Dewitt and Elizabeth and yes, you have narrative mayhem. Creating narrative driven games is difficult, and I fully realize the enormity of the undertaking, so the team of Bioshock Infinite deserves a lot of credit for even daring to include some of these issues in a major title. The criticism in this essay is undertaken in an effort to improve my understanding of game design and perhaps the field itself.

Welcome to Columbia

Games have traditionally used assets and art to build a sense of place, to create a game world. However, the use of these objects has become increasingly sophisticated. Environmental objects such as texts, cell phones, voice recorders and ephemera are now being used to help convey narrative as well. Bioshock Infinite does a masterful job of incorporating historical elements to express the narrative and its themes beginning with the start of the game (see Figure 1). Players move through this world, absorbing narrative elements indirectly through video and audio “clips,” ephemera such as posters, and overheard snippets of NPC dialogue. Using objects to convey story elements like this requires the players to participate in meaning making by assembling the fragments into a coherent narrative. The result is greater immersion and buy-in for the player.

 

Figure 1: Screenshot from Bioshock Infinite showing use of game objects

The game takes place in Columbia, a floating city off the shore of northeastern America, an immense and beautifully realized game world. The Columbia of Bioshock Infinite is modeled on the Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, which is used in the game to convey ideas of American nationalism and racism. [3] The game takes an exaggerated view of these themes, presumably to explore a scenario – “what if America did not have a separation of church and state?” However, the game presents these ideas without nuance or complexity (see Figure 1and Figure 2) thus missing real opportunity for exploring these issues, their history and our own complicity.

Figure 2: Screenshot from Bioshock Infinite (top) and an image from an 1893 Columbian Exposition book (bottom) illustrating the historically correct face of racism. Non-European cultures were portrayed as barbaric, exotic, uncivilized and childlike.

Figure 3: Sculptures of the founding fathers in Bioshock Infinite are shown dressed in ancient robes and labeled Father Franklin, Father Washington and Father Jefferson. When placed in the context of the prior baptism and church cloister-like setting complete with robed religious NPCs, these figures are perhaps trying to place the historic figures within a biblical context as depicted in classical religious art.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893

To briefly review, the Columbian Exposition was international in scope and Chicago had to beat out fierce competition within the United States in order to host the event. These expositions began with the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations held in London in 1851. However, America was responding to a later exposition, held in Paris during 1889, in which the Americans put up a poor showing and were upstaged by the French display of superior engineering prowess of which the Eiffel Tower was the pinnacle. The 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of the new world would mark the chance for America to show the world that she had come of age. The exposition would be named to honor Columbus and no expense would be spared to create a spectacular show. Indeed, it was none other than Frederick Law Olmstead, designer of New York’s Central Park, who laid out the fairground design. The fair was divided into two main sections: the exposition itself, containing the “White City” and the Midway Plaisance. White City comprised immense Beaux Arts style buildings clad in white stucco thus linking to classical European greatness. The name “White City” referred not just to the color of the building, however, it primarily referred to the new electric lighting used to illuminate the area at night. This choice of the European based Beaux Arts style was hotly contested by a number of American artists, such as the great architect Louis Sullivan, who felt that America should not show this type of deference to Europe but instead should highlight the new American styles. The Midway Plaisance had a less formal air and was home to the first Ferris wheel as well as a number of international exhibitions. [5]

To be sure, racism ran rampant during turn of the century America but much of racism is ingrained, expressed more subtly and thus harder to identify and eradicate.[6] Since the Civil War, the African American community had made great strides, even against impossible circumstances, to develop an educated elite middle and upper-class. It was the educated and active sections of the African American community that had expected equal treatment in the design and implementation of the Columbian Exposition but was almost entirely shut out by the white majority. Humiliated, outspoken leaders like Ida Wells, advocated a boycott of the exposition [7] but others, such as Frederick Douglass, favored using the fair as an opportunity to showcase the advances in education of African Americans; a chance to show the world that they were the intellectual equals of any European or white American. African Americans were well represented at the exposition and, “From August 14, 1893, to August 21, 1893 probably the largest number of African American participants in a world's fair event assembled as part of the Congress on Africa, or as it was sometimes referred to, the Congress on African Ethnology, or the Congress on the Negro.”[8]

African Americans were restricted as to the type of jobs they could hold at the exposition, an example of blatant racism. But more insidious and much more difficult to eradicate, or to even confront, were ways of thinking and interpreting the world and its cultures. One example that comes in to play at the Columbian Exposition is so-called “scientific racism” which interprets objective, scientific data in a way to support cultural prejudice. From the Victorian era on, this meant that the more “civilized” white European societies were considered more highly evolved than other more barbaric cultures such as those of Africa, China, Native American and Japan and they used cultural objects and science to “prove” it. International exhibits in the Midway Plaisance recreated cultural snapshots for visitors to experience (see Figure 4) and, to many white Americans, the so called primitive cultures were viewed as exotic and inferior to civilized cultures.

Figure 4: Exhibits from many different countries were built in the Midway Plaisance. Native African exhibits like those of the Dahomey (bottom image) were problematic for educated and professional African Americans who were trying to distance themselves from cultural prejudice towards the “primitive Negro.”

Bioshock and the Columbian Exposition

The real ephemera associated with the Columbian exposition re-enforced scientific racism through a constant referencing of cultural hierarchy. As an example, the trade cards for the Singer Sewing company are illuminating. [11] These trade cards were given out to visitors of the Singer building at the Columbian Exposition (see Figure 5). Singer promoted itself as “The Great Civilizer” and these cards played on inherent sensibilities of white middle and upper class women. The cards showed groups of families from different geographic locations in traditional dress with a Singer sewing machine. The back of the card gave educational information about the country. The idea was that Singer was bringing civilization and progress to these backwards peoples and American women, could “buy in” by being models of domestic behavior – and purchasing Singer products. The Singer exhibit also re- directed public perception as to the actual use of the machines. The exhibit showed the Singer sewing products in displays of upper class homes and focused on domestic use. The truth however, was these machines were mainly used by women and children in factories under sweatshop conditions.

Figure 5: Singer trade card showing the people of Zululand around a Singer sewing machine

The expressions of racism found in Bioshock Infinite are first directly introduced in the raffle area of the fair through dialogue snippets such as Fink’s, “Isn’t she the prettiest white girl…” and within the fair games (see Figure 6 and Figure 7). Bioshock Infinite uses the theme of racism primarily as a backdrop, the white racist culture is simply part of the setting for which to better define the fanatical machinations of Father Comstock and the fantastical time and universe bending of the main story arc. The main story focuses on the characters of Dewitt, Elizabeth and Comstock. Their relationship is the mystery that the player will eventually unravel.

However, going on around them, is the collapse of Columbia as the underclass, the Vox Populi, eventually revolts and both sides turn against Dewitt. The player, however, can’t really participate in this social chaos as they are locked into a relentless linear narrative focused on the Dewitt story thread. There is a half-hearted attempt to bring in some moral choice and the tiniest bit of agency at the very beginning when the PC wins a lottery. The prize is to throw a baseball and the player has a choice to throw at an interracial couple or the racist caricature of an announcer, Fink (see Figure 7). It isn’t much of a choice, who really wants to throw a ball at a stripped and bound couple begging for mercy? In addition, player actions at this juncture have very minimal impact on the game:

If Booker chooses to throw the ball at Fink instead of the couple, they are later seen in the employees' section of Battleship Bay just before the entrance to the Arcade. The two managed to escape in the commotion at the Raffle. They thank Booker for his mercy and offer him a piece of Gear as a measure of their gratitude. If Booker chooses to throw the ball at the duo, Flambeau appears instead and will offer Booker the piece of Gear with Fink's compliments. If Booker chooses not to throw it before the timer runs out, neither will appear and the Gear will be inaccessible. [12]

Figure 6: The games in the raffle area of the fairground have games like "Hunt the Vox Populi" and "Hit the Devil". "Hit the Devil requires you to save the white woman and child by hunting out and killing the (Asian) devil. Screenshots from Bioshock Infinite.

Figure 7: Winning the raffle allows the winner to get first shot at throwing a baseball at the interracial couple who were kept in cages (shown bottom) prior to being placed on the stage.

Many Worlds

Moving on from this point, the player must continue on to try to find Elizabeth and progress along the main story - which seems to be a confused amalgamation of classic science fiction tropes and themes as explored first by H.G. Wells [13][14][15]. The ending of Infinite, clearly references the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum mechanics proposed by physicist Hugh Everett III in 1957. The main narrative somehow relates the ideas of rebirth associated with baptism to the many worlds of Columbia (and perhaps Rapture). Just how this works is not at all clear. However, my main issue lies with the fact that Decker is in fact Comstock and Elizabeth his daughter originally called Anna. This can all be explained by the plot [16] but it is incredibly contrived. To make matters worse, there is absolutely no foreshadowing within the narrative thus making the ending feel unbelievable and tacked on.

Game play, mechanics and narrative should link to and support one another [17] for richer game experiences and Bioshock Infinite does link game play to the main, “Many Worlds”, narrative [18]. However, why put the “Many Worlds” narrative into the game in the first place? It just doesn’t make much sense. Levine has justified it with a reference to Einstein’s discovery of relativity but, historically, this just doesn’t fit. It also doesn’t fit thematically. Symbolically, the “Many Worlds” theory evokes ideas of endless possibilities but more importantly, for writers of fiction, it gives a way to defamiliarize contemporary problems so that they can be evaluated more objectively.

What is Infinite trying to defamiliarize so that we may evaluate with fresh perspective? I think it must be the other thematic elements of racism, nationalism, religion and patriotism. However, it falls far short from delivering on this. The picture of turn of the century America as summarized by Columbia is too black and white, where are the shades of gray and subtlety? The main message that one walks away with is that Americans used to be bigots and isn’t racism awful, gee, glad we’re not like that now. However, as Levine rightly says about Washington and other American historical figures, they were men of their time. Well, we are of our time as well. So how do we participate in racism or sexism? How does our understanding of religion or nationalism contribute to the problems of today? This is what Bioshock Infinite missed. 

Men of Our Time

Much has been made about Dewitt’s partner, the AI character, Elizabeth. [19][20][21] It is clear that the designers and developers at Irrational spent a lot of time and effort to bring her to life. And she is helpful. She looks for things in the environment, reacts to events to warn you and help you. She also does not get in the way during battle sequences so there is none of that tedious babysitting often encountered with sidekicks. Elizabeth also, fairly obviously, exists to help move the narrative forward as she runs away at just the right moments and you, as Dewitt, have to go in search of her. However, her character never really develops and, given the ending, her interactions with Dewitt seem entirely unsatisfactory. Elizabeth is fantastic for an AI but she really never develops into anything more than a characterized tool. The fact that she alone can open locks and solve puzzles, which only amounts to the pressing of a key, seems false. The justification is that she had a lot of time in the tower alone and so she read a lot. It is not even remotely believable that this character would come out of isolation able to pick locks and roam around completely unafraid of her surroundings, after getting over her initial obligatory revulsion at the violence. 

Bioshock misses a nice opportunity in this game to explore sexism and how it is very much prevalent in our world, along with racism. In the real world of the Columbian exposition, much of the underclass were women, who did not have the right to vote and had only recently gained the ability to own property. The leader of the Vox Populi was a dark skinned woman but all images of the working underclass showed men, presumably Irish and African American (see Figure 8).

Figure 8: Members of the underclass working under guard

As the game progresses, Elizabeth rips her dress and goes to change. She comes out in a low cut corset (see Figure 9) because, as she professes somewhat apologetically, “it was all that I could find.” Not only is this a gratuitous display of bosom and caricaturization of the female form, but it is utterly impracticable and historically incorrect. This dress decision undermines the idea that Elizabeth is an equal partner because, as everyone knows, you can’t breathe or move, let alone run and fight, in a corset. No sensible lock-picking, puzzle solving partner would make that mistake.

Figure 9: Elizabeth and her costume change. During the game, Elizabeth changes from her demure but ripped historically correct outfit (bottom) into a strapless, low cut corset topped ensemble (top) which, later in the game, Dewitt actually has to lace her back into.

Ok, so Bioshock designers missed the opportunity to explore sexism and media complicity both then and now. But what about player agency or freedom? Although the Big Daddy/Little Sister model of the original Bioshock is far from perfect, it did serve to connect the player to their destiny at least a little. The complete lack of agency  in this game puts the player on rails, moving through the narrative with the world simply acting as a beautiful but superficial stage. This was all intentional from the design standpoint and yes, linear narratives can be very powerful. However, in order for the player to care about the story or characters in an interactive experience, the narrative must be, first of all, interesting with a strong central concept. Secondly, game mechanics must absolutely support that central concept.

The game mechanic of the tears that Elizabeth could create did ultimately support the Dewitt “Many Worlds” narrative; however, players couldn’t know this until the end so, during the game, it simply made no sense. In addition, there were no consequences or strategy involved to using the tears, other than activating them. There should have been some type of cost that had immediate consequences to the use of the tears. Also, players should understand the significance of the mechanics while playing the game. I would argue that the primary mechanic of this game, though, is looting, closely followed by fighting. Escaping from Columbia, and Comstock, is the justification for the mechanic but it is a weak one and does not support any narrative themes.

What might the thought provoking version of Bioshock Infinite look like in some alternate universe? Well, it would look the same, with skyrails and a city in the clouds, but there would be no Many Worlds narrative. Instead, Columbia would be in the midst of an epic struggle to secede from the continental US. The player could take on the role of Dewitt but would have to choose, who would they support? The Union? The rebels? It would not be a black and white choice, as the face of racism and religious nationalism would be believable, something the player could recognize and understand. The people on each side would be real people; men of their time, and the player would be able to identify with aspects of both factions. Both sides would have leaders that the player could actually believe in following. There would still be tears, but instead of warping universes, the tears would connect space and perhaps even time. This would allow Dewitt to move back and forth between Columbia and Maine or Washington. There could still be a linear narrative with one ending, but it would make sense and the player would have had some freedom to play the game from their own perspective. Elizabeth would be there but sensibly dressed. And instead of pointing out lockpicks, she would point out interesting NPC characters that the player could interact with. Looting would be minimized, as players would earn through reaching objectives and interactions with NPCs. 

In this universe, however, Bioshock Infinite was fun to play but it lacked depth. To elevate the game to the level of great, designers should have come to grips with the narrative and its thematic elements first and foremost. The gameplay should then have supported those central thematic elements. A deeper understanding of the history they had referenced would have allowed the designers and writers to create more nuanced narrative and gameplay. Engaging the player insome sort of choice with real consequences would have allowed a richer player experience, not just in the understanding of history, but in simply playing the game. At the very least, they should have thought of history as more than simply a backdrop because, as we are all aware, those that do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. And sadly, Bioshock Infinite is the same old thing, refurbished with some shiny, very expensive, new trappings.

References

[1] “In Retrospect: Ken Levine On ‘BioShock Infinite’ And Many Worlds,” Forbes, 31-Jul-2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnyegriffiths/2013/07/31/ken-levine-interview-bioshock-infinite-many-worlds/. [Accessed: 02-Jan-2014].

[2] “BioShock Infinite,” Metacritic. [Online]. Available: http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/bioshock-infinite. [Accessed: 28-Dec-2013].

[3] H. Goldberg, “Ken Levine Talks About His New Video Game,” ArtsBeat, 21-Mar-2013. [Online]. Available: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/bioshock-infinite-ken-levine-talks-about-his-new-video-game/. [Accessed: 02-Jan-2014].

[4]  American Engraving Co and Lawrence J. Gutter Collection of Chicagoana (University of Illinois at Chicago) ICIU, World’s Columbian exposition portfolio of Midway types. Chicago : American Eng. Co., c1893.

[5]  B. C. Truman, History of the World’s Fair: Being a Complete Description of the World’s Columbian Exposition from Its Inception. Mammoth Publishing Company, 1898.

[6]  K. Eisenstein, “Racism at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,” prezi.com, 2010. [Online]. Available: http://prezi.com/3rhkx_ns5zst/racism-at-the-1893-chicago-worlds-fair/. [Accessed: 01-Jan-2014].

[7]  I. B. Wells, The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition. .

[8]  C. R. Reed, “The Black Presence at ‘White City’: African and African American Participation at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, May 1, 1893 - October 31, 1893,” The World’s Columbian Exposition: Paul V. Galvin Digital History Collection, 1999. [Online]. Available: http://columbus.iit.edu/reed2.html. [Accessed: 01-Jan-2014].

[9]   Glimpses of the World’s fair. A selection of ge... Laird and Lee, 1893.

[10] F. Smith, Art, history, midway plaisance and World’s Colu... 1893.

[11] “Singer Advertisment,” prezi.com. [Online]. Available: http://prezi.com/brl0cnxddl4i/singer-advertisment/. [Accessed: 01-Jan-2014].

[12]  “Interracial Couple,” BioShock Wiki. [Online]. Available: http://bioshock.wikia.com/wiki/Interracial_Couple. [Accessed: 02-Jan-2014].

[13]  H. G. (Herbert G. Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes. 1910.

[14]  H. G. (Herbert G. Wells, Tales of Space and Time. 2008.

[15] H. G. Wells, Men Like Gods. 1923.

[16]  S. Young, “Explaining BioShock Infinite,” The Escapist, 09-Apr-2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/columns/experienced-points/10278-Explaining-BioShock-Infinite. [Accessed: 28-Dec-2013].

[17]  K. Hudson, “GDC Vault - Player-Driven Stories: How Do We Get There?”

[18]  B. Gardner, “Interview: Interview: BioShock Infinite designer on utopias and dystopias - CVG US,” 03-Mar-2013.

[19] W. Benedetti, “‘BioShock Infinite’ takes the artificial out of artificial intelligence - NBC News.com,” NBC News, 18-Mar-2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.nbcnews.com/technology/bioshock-infinite-takes-artificial-out-artificial-intelligence-1C8884902. [Accessed: 03-Jan-2014].

[20] K. Wallace, “How BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth Makes Her Mark,” www.GameInformer.com, 08-Apr-2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2013/04/08/how-bioshock-infinite-s-elizabeth-makes-her-mark.aspx. [Accessed: 03-Jan-2014].

[21]  W. Yin-Poole, “BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth: Ken Levine on creating the best AI companion since Half-Life 2’s Alyx Vance,” Eurogamer.net, 17-Dec-2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2012-12-17-bioshock-infinites-elizabeth-ken-levine-on-creating-the-best-ai-companion-since-half-life-2s-alyx-vance. [Accessed: 03-Jan-2014].


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Comments


Haris Orkin
profile image
An excellent article. I think you absolutely nailed it. I had all those same issues with Infinite. The game play mechanics didn't really jive with the narrative and then the narrative completely fell apart for me. The world was breathtaking, but in the end felt pretty hollow. I would love to have played the game you're suggesting. I thought the plasmids actually made sense and had a thematic point in the first Bioshock set in Rapture where the narrative, game play and theme were much more integrated. In Infinite the "plasmids" made no sense and had no point (other than for game play) and created a strong narrative dissonance.

Christopher Corey
profile image
I'd argue that Plasmids made no sense in the first Bioshock either. In what reality would selling people superpowers be a good idea? Even Andrew Ryan would surely recognize the potentially ruinous threat that Plasmids would pose to Rapture. Despite his proclaimed ideology, Ryan was ultimately obsessed with control and there's no way he'd allow his citizens to empower themselves like that.

Andreas Ahlborn
profile image
An excellent article.

Which I -sadly- almost completely disagree with.

One of the minor complaints I could make is your criticism about Elizabeth`s unrealistic skills, she developed in isolation:

"...justification is that she had a lot of time in the tower alone and so she read a lot. It is not even remotely believable that this character would come out of isolation able to pick locks and roam around completely unafraid of her surroundings, after getting over her initial obligatory revulsion at the violence. "

It is a widely accepted trope in any fictional media, that you can develop exceptional skills without ever practising "the real thing". Examples are legion: Zweigs Chess novel, Chan woo-parks Oldboy, Dumas`Count, The Matrix etc. With recent neurological studies ( http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/m/mirror_neuron.htm ) it`s certainly not as impossible as you suggest.

It´s also ironically, that you want to take out one of the -for me the main- core subjects (Multiverse) and introduce it with this sentence:

"What might the thought provoking version of Bioshock Infinite look like in some alternate universe?" (without the concept of alternate universes in the first place)

Its analog to saying: Lets abolish the concept of Gravity and think about making something in space.

That BS:I already is indeed "the thought provoking version of Bioshock Infinite" itself that you want it to be is easily proven by articles like yours that almost a year after its release keep popping up on the internet (which measures thematic relevance in days, not months).

And, no, I wouldn`t prefer "your" version of BS:I to Levines. Instead I would be interested in your version of your own game ;-)

Some aspects of why BS:I ticks like it does, I described in this blog:
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AndreasAhlborn/20130407/190006/THE
_ART_OF_THE_FUGUE__Bioshock_Infintites_narrative_interpreted_as_a
_contrapuntal_Composition.php

Thiago Conceicao
profile image
Articles like this exist because of the excess of praise this game get from blogs like yours and some reviews. It is not because of some inherent quality of the game.

We aren't discussing ideas presented by the game, but the game itself and how it was built. It would be analogous to argue over the quality of the printing of some book instead of the ideas in it.

The analysis made by this article is very through and closer to reality. I took a look at your blog and although it is very imaginative, it doesn't really break the different elements apart in a logical manner. Therefore it can't be considered an analysis.

RJ McManus
profile image
This is probably the most comprehensive and well-reasoned criticism yet of Bioshock: Infinite that I have read. To sum things up, neither the narrative nor the mechanics are particularly coherent or nuanced in their own right, and furthermore they aren't exactly coherent with each other either. Otherwise, the game mostly succeeds and I suppose Irrational deserves credit for that, but... well, greater opportunities lost, as you say.

Matt Jahns
profile image
I'm not sure this is a fair criticism. The game's goal is to make claims about idealism in general, and not any one ideal in particular. Racism, nationalism, and scientific mysticism are merely the ideals chosen for the narrative's backdrop. That does not mean the game aims to tackle any of those issues.

The real point is given away in the ending: the protagonist and the antagonist are the same person. How could that be? The protagonist, DeWitt, is the archetype of a pragmatist and the antagonist, Comstock, is the archetype of an idealist. The game claims that, all else literally equal, pragmatism is the difference between a hero and a villain.

The game lives or dies on how well it refutes idealism, since that is its main concern. It would destroy the game to spend any time embracing modern ideals. Doing so would undercut its core argument: that idealism is the disease and pragmatism is the cure. Sure, our modern ideals might be better than those of Columbia's citizens. But no ideals at all is the best option. Therefore, the game presents no ideals of its own.

This is all a familiar discussion in philosophy. The game essentially takes sides with Nietzsche. So it's not surprising this game has been misunderstood in all the ways Nietzsche tends to be.

Michael Joseph
profile image
I hope perhaps you meant ideology instead of idealism. I also get the impression that by "pragmatism" you do not mean "reasonableness."

Idealists are very reasonable. It is what distinguishes them from ideologues. Accordingly, the ideals of the idealist are open to change whereas those of the ideologue are not. And because they don't (nor anyone else) live in an ideal reality, idealists by definition are guided by reason as well as their ideals. In contrast the ideologue reserves the unreasonable faith that one day their fascist vision can become reality.

No philosophy (not even "pragmatism") can exist without ideals. Even a philosophy based on reason ends up defining an idealistic philosophy. Otherwise what you wind up with is pure selfishness where everything is rationalized by how well it serves the individual and to me that makes the "ideal-less pragmatism" an ideology.

Idealism tends to produce inclusive social goals. Ideology tends to produce exclusionary anti-social ones.

If Bioshock Infinite is really arguing that pragmatism is ideal, then it's not siding with Nietzsche, it's siding with Ayn Rand who has perverted Nietzsche' concepts of the Übermensch (an idealist) into John Galt (an ideologue).

Amir Barak
profile image
@Michael
Are you referring to idealists in terms of ethical ideals or the philosophical aspect? Some of your points come off as confusing the two concepts.

Also, I find it interesting that you've chosen to group ideologues under fascism where you could find ideologues of all ideologies, why is that?

"Idealism tends to produce inclusive social goals. Ideology tends to produce exclusionary anti-social ones."
Can you give examples of how you mean this? I'm not sure I quite understand your reasons behind this statement. Also it seems to me that you've associated the term 'ideology' with either 'fascism' or 'religious fanaticism' which are of course some ideologies but not 'ideology' itself.

Matt Jahns
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@Michael

No, I very definitely meant "idealism" and not "ideology". I am not sure you've gotten the point of Nietzsche, since you're calling his Übermensch an idealist. In fact, Nietzsche was one of the most radical pragmatists you can find outside of American philosophy. (I would have cited the American pragmatists instead of Nietzsche, but they are not as well known. Although they are better examples of pragmatism.)

You say that idealists are reasonable because they are idealists, to which a pragmatist would disagree. Certainly, most idealists tend to be reasonable, their idealism notwithstanding. These are reasonable people who are mistakenly idealists, not unreasonable people made reasonable by idealism.

Further, pragmatism absolutely exists without ideals. That is what characterizes the entire philosophy. If you don't believe me, you should take a look at American pragmatists like C.S. Pierce and William James.

All that said, we're arguing over pragmatism and idealism, which is missing the point. My point was that Bioshock Infinite's goal was to offer a case in favor of the former. It should be judged on the quality of its argument and the strength of the framing narrative. The game takes positions that historical pragmatists have taken, but how does its own argument fair?

Bart Stewart
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Idealism -- more specifically, idealism about what other people should think and do, combined with the power to enforce that vision on other people -- is precisely what both BioShock and BioShock Infinite took a stick to.

For that matter, SHODAN was an idealist.

Michael Joseph
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@Matt Jahns
Thanks for the reply. I definitely misunderstood the formal definitions of pragmatism and even idealism to a large degree. I had understood one's ideals as being derived from one's own reasoning and not derived from some sense or vision of what perfection would look like. But the formal definition of idealism says otherwise.

Matt Jahns
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Idealism is definitely one of the most misunderstood words in philosophy, and philosophers themselves get most of the blame.

During the Enlightenment, idealism (as it is formally defined) was extremely popular. We can thank Immanuel Kant, especially, for that. So everyone was trying to wrap up their thoughts in some version of idealism. It got watered down as a concept, until it became the anodyne version of idealism we're all familiar with.

It is why Nietzsche and the American pragmatists are so frequently misunderstood. In the Western world, you are supposed to wear your ideals on your sleeve. A pragmatist, having no ideals to wear, obviously cannot do this. So people interpret their silence in all sorts of unfair ways.

I think Bioshock Infinite is just bringing a century-old controversy to an entirely new field: gaming. I do think the game could have done better seeing some of these criticisms coming, whether or not they are fair. Cinema went through the same phase, when old philosophical debates were introduced to movies for the first time. Bioshock's developers could have looked at those movies for a glimpse at their own future.

Andrew Siercks
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I find it unfortunate that the focus of another Bioshock Infinite article is on its plot and themes instead of its game-play. For something that many felt was a game of the year in 2013, it provided dull game-play that only got worse as the difficulty was increased.

This is Infinite's greatest miss, and troubling especially considering the long development time, and the accolades it has received over the past several months.

Christopher Corey
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I have a few issues with this article.

1) There's plenty of foreshadowing of the game's "twist." Granted, most of it is conveyed through random audio logs (a fairly contrived means of exposition that hasn't been implemented well in any of Irrational's games) but it's definitely there if you pay attention. There are also many hints revealed in the dialogue you have with NPCs. Put the pieces together and the twist isn't really surprising at all.

2) The tears do have strategic value, though this value may only really become apparent on the higher difficulties where you actually need to play strategically. You can only have one tear open at a time which forces you to make meaningful choices during combat. Do you bring in a turret that will momentarily distract enemies so you can rush up and melee them? Do you bring in a tesla coil that will stun the enemies that you pull towards you using Undertow? Do you bring in a hook that will give you the higher ground and let you perform high-damage dive attacks? When you play in 1999 Mode, every choice you make in combat is significant and the choice of tears is no exception.

3) The claim that gameplay should exist in support of narrative is highly debatable. Gaming as a medium is defined by gameplay, not writing. Gameplay is what distinguishes it from other mediums. Bioshock Infinite is and never claimed to be anything but a shooter and the gameplay exists in support of that goal. The narrative elements are just a wrapping.

4) The corset that Elizabeth wears belonged to her "mother," the wife of Comstock. The extravagance and impracticality of the dress is therefore completely understandable, given that the mother was essentially treated as royalty and wouldn't wear the common attire of Columbia's citizens.

5) Making the game more grounded in reality would have undermined the entire spectacle. Columbia, like Rapture before it, serves as an exhibition of ideology taken to extremes. It isn't intended to be historically accurate and it's only believable enough to allow you to immerse yourself in the game's world. If you tone down the more excessive aspects of the narrative, you lose much of the world's impact.

Adam Bishop
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For point #3, you can just switch it around and say "the narrative should exist in support of the gameplay." Regardless of which way you word the sentence, it's pretty clear that the gameplay and the story in Bioshock Infinite are at odds.

A good example of a recent game in which the mechanics and story work to form a cohesive whole is Papers, Please. The gameplay is "check travellers' documents for discrepancies" and the narrative is "you're a border guard in an authoritarian state trying to keep your family from starving." There's no weird contradiction between the two like there is in Bioshock Infinite.

Sam Stephens
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It can be neat when the story and gameplay work together in some way, but story and gameplay are completely different with their own purposes that will always put them at odds. Papers Please may have compelling interactivity. Remove the gameplay elements from their context however, then what is left is a mediocre game that pales in comparison to the best gameplay experiences (Super Mario Bros., Ikaruga, etc...). That is, Papers Please does not feature or privilege well designed gameplay. It's narrative elements work because the gameplay is downplayed.

Pedro Fonseca
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You misunderstood the gameplay-narrative relationship.

One is not subordinate of the other, instead, they both should walk in the same direction; the reason mechanical changes are mentioned instead of narrative ones might have to do with the writer's background or merely because he didn't have any narrative-focused insight.

Change the "remove X narrative" to "give a reason for X narrative to be valid" and the article stays mostly the same, just with the roles reversed.

Similarly, for point no.4, just because something has an explanation, doesn't mean it's a good or valid explanation.

Does it explain why the outfit looks like that? Yes.

Does it explain why she doesn't look for something better 10 minutes after the fact? No.

Jonathan Jones
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Great article, Elizabeth.

Ever since finishing the game, I have been through something of a "journey" to come to my present state of appreciation of the game. I've been wrestling with where it has gone wrong, and your article does a fantastic job of putting one perspective into words. This is the kind of constructive criticism that Irrational needs to hear, I think.

One quick note, though, there is one Autocorrect fail in the "Many Worlds" section of your treatise where Booker = Decker.

Rob B
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The biggest contradiction in this article is the fact it starts by saying the game 'could have been deeply thought provoking', before going on to present a view that was nothing like other interpretations Ive seen including my own and comes with a huge amount of research and thought put in to it...
Ironically the author formed a strong personal view as intended then attempt to decry the game for not living up to expectations.

This article isnt much of a criticism even if its trying to be. Its arguing with itself about a particular take on the story and mechanics rather than tearing down the story and mechanics in and of themselves, and if the game can both produce such an interpretation and the thought that went in to its rebuttal then Id say it was a spectacular success.

As for the many worlds part that seemed to get lost in this particular interpretation,
The many worlds allowed the same people to play wildly and disturbingly different roles because of a cascade of increasingly catastrophic events, and it brings in to question the morality of each of the characters involved, blurring who is a hero, villain, or victim at the same time the worlds are blurring together. Its from that that people have drawn so many different ideas and interpretations about the game.

Including this essay.

Kyle Jansen
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While this is a well-written and well-considered analysis, and I agree with a good amount of it, I think it misses much of the point.

I don't have time to try to collect all my thoughts into a neat, ordered essay, so forgive me if this rambles or jumps between topics.

The story is not intended to comment on the actual events and thinking of the 1910s, but to comment on the 2010s. The racism of Columbia is based on xenophobia and nationalism - things that are extremely relevant in a post-9/11 America. While the style of that racism is expressed in the style of older racism, the substance, as you noted, does not - but this is because they are linking the modern faces of racism to the older, which are seen as abhorrent to modern tastes.

This can also be seen in how the church of Columbia venerates the founding fathers - the Constitution is seen as an absolute set of rules and debate often focuses simply on how to interpret it in a way that supports one's opinion, rather than debating the actual issue (I really doubt Jefferson et al. had anything to say about copyright law and the internet, and even if they did have anything to say about it, why would they have any special insight into it?).

The Columbian church, with its near-total integration of church and state, also seems much more a commentary on modern fundamentalist movements than on those of the last century. This mirrors the first Bioshock's commentary on fanatical libertarianism - taking a contemporary political movement, putting it in a past setting, then taking its principles to an extreme so as to produce a dystopia.

Your article also seems a bit contradictory. You condemn Infinite for not having a single, unified point, for having something to say about multiple topics. But then you say that it would have been better if it had addressed sexism as well as racism.

As for the Many-Worlds thing, that's being used as a device to let the plot address concepts from multiple sides. You see the problems with having a large class divide, and then you see the problems with a class-based revolution. And the tears are not gameplay elements, but story elements - they are little more than doors between levels, in a gameplay sense.

I'm also a bit confused by your claims that the morality of Infinite was black and white - it seemed more, to me, like black and black, maybe black and grey. Nobody came across as the "good guys", both on the group level and on the individual level.

Carlos Garcia
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Though I enjoyed Bioshock Infinite, specially the plot-twist in the ending, I thought it was a little overvalued both for its gameplay and its narrative.

All the while I played I thought it was more a story about redemption than anything else, with not one, but two scenes where the player receives the baptism symbolizing what is to begin and what is to be the end. All other themes and subjects where there only for setting.

After reading your article I still think this is true (specially when you notice the subtle religious intones such as the one you mention with the founding fathers), but I can now see that the writers maybe tried to cram too many stuff into a narrative that simply didn't need it.

Perhaps there's the genius in the narrative: that you can make it be about any of the themes the game presents to the player by expanding upon them outside of the game. Any intention of doing so in the world of Columbia could be perceived as pretentious.


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