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Bioshock Infinite is a Metacommentary on Game Narrative
by Kevin Wong on 04/10/13 01:01:00 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.

 

This article was originally posted to my blog at kevinjameswong.com

Bioshock Infinite 
is a game about a lot of things.

Religious zealotry, American Exceptionalism, theories of space-time and interdimensionality, patriotic jingoism, the inevitability of economic disparity, Occupy Wall Street, postcolonial theory, and problems faced by political radicalism. It's a beautifully sophisticated game on many thematic levels,  and while not every strand is followed to a conclusion, it piques interest, causes uncanny discomfort, and provokes conversation and interpretation within its colorful fan community.

However, my view on the meaning of Bioshock Infinite, which has conflicted with the interpretations of the many friends that I have discussed the game with, involves a subtle level of self-reflexivity that I saw pervading the game's entirety. Bioshock Infinite is about the nature of narrative in games and the conflicts between emergent and fixed narrative, returning to the conflicts between ludology and narratology that had died down years ago.

Before we begin, let's go over some key terms necessary to understanding this argument, not everyone is a game designer. 
Emergent narrativesare unscripted stories that come out of a game's play, they may include dramatic character arcs inThe Sims, and alternate histories created by Civilization V matches. Fixed narratives are stories determined by the game designer, and are most prominent in single-player narrative games such asBioshock Infinite  

Constants and Variables: Emergent and Fixed Narrative

Single-player games like Jak and Daxter are comprised of both fixed and emergent narrative elements. Fixed narrative in these games amounts to preset moments that occur between or during moments of gameplay, and may manifest themselves as cutscenes, background chatter, or narration. Games like these are also comprised of emergent scenes, which can vary wildly depending on player choice. Game narrative is not entirely dictated by the author, and exists as a strange amalgam of both embedded and emergent narrative. Game writers do not have complete control over how a game's story will play out due to the nature of interactivity and player behavior. Even a single-player narrative game like Half-Life 2 can have an infinite number of narrative permutations dependent on how players approach combat and exploration sequences

Which is a topic Bioshock Infinite addresses in its brilliant, mind-bending ending. Booker and Elizabeth escape Columbia through an interdimensional portal into the Sea of Lighthouses, a mysterious world beyond the constraints of time and space where every possible permutation of the universe at any possible time in history can be accessed through an infinite number of doors. "There are a million, million worlds. All different and all similar. Constants and variables. There's always a lighthouse, there's always a man, there's always a city... Sometimes something's different... yet... the same." says Elizabeth.

This scene is soaked with metacommentary about the distinction and conflicts between embedded and emergent narrative. Everyone who plays Bioshock Infinite will be telling a different story in their playthrough. Combat situations will play out differently depending on player strategies, Booker may or may not find all the collectible upgrades in Columbia, he may spend hours playing carnival games at the fair, he may ride the carousel in Soldier's Field, and he may scour every trash can in Columbia for food. These are the "variables" that Elizabeth is talking about, the "million, million worlds" that are all different and the same, Bioshock Infinite's story is comprised of an infinite number of permutations coming out of the game's emergent nature.

And yet, the rich range of narrative permutations that come out of interactivity is mooted by authorial intent and traditional narrative. Bird or Cage, ride the carousel or ignore it, fight with guns or Vigors, Bioshock Infinite's overarching narrative will always play out the same way regardless of player choice. All this is reinforced by the game's single ending. While many games try to make player choice meaningful by providing a variety of outcomes based on player's participation in the story, Infinite mocks the idea by making players powerless over the progression and ultimate outcome of the game's plot. These are "constants", the elements of a game narrative that are "always the same". 

The Illusion of Meaningful Choice

Bioshock Infinite is peppered with moments where players have to make a split-second binary choice, such as a decision to threaten or press a ticket seller, and the decision between two different brooches for Elizabeth. While most games like Mass Effect and Heavy Rain hinge upon these moments as an integral part of their branching storytelling, these moments in Bioshock Infinite make no meaningful difference to the overall outcome of the plot.

Games are characterized by having quantifiable and variable outcomes, and player choice in gameplay dictates these outcomes, leading to meaningful play. Bioshock Infinite challenges the notion that binary choice is meaningful by making its choices meaningless, that is, if meaningful choice is to be defined as a choice that influences the game's outcome. The first Bioshock had a rudimentary morality system where player's choices in dealing with Little Sisters influenced the plot's variable conclusion and marketed this system as an integral part of the game's appeal. Infinitesubverts player expectations by making these "moral choice" moments irrelevant to the outcome of the campaign, at most, leading to a minor cosmetic difference on a character or two.

The artificiality and insignificance of these moments reinforces the notion that Bioshock Infinite is about the conflicts between player-generated and designer-dictated narrative and the diametrical opposition between ludology and narratology. Players are led by prior experiences with similar games to think that these binary choices matter with respect to the game's narrative, and by subverting these expectations by making these choices almost irrelevant to the game's conclusion, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about whether or not truly meaningful choice can really exist within a designer-driven narrative. 

Does Autonomy Exist in Narrative Games?

The Lutece "twins", the memorable and quirky duo of scientists lost everywhere in spacetime,  provide perhaps the most thought provoking insight on game narrative in Bioshock Infinite. The Luteces are fourth-dimensional beings, and simultaneously exist in all places, at all times, in every possible universe. Adam Sessler of the fantastic Rev3Games YouTube channel likened them to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for their self-referential nature on the nature of fate and free will. This is fitting given their role in the game's narrative.

Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead retells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of minor characters. The play deals with whether or not free will can exist within the world of a play, amongst other meta-things. The titular characters, doomed to die in the original Shakespeare play, attempt to defy their fate by escaping to England in one scene, but are rendered incapable of doing so by virtue of existing in a world dictated by an omniscient, godlike playwright. Video games are said to break from this problem by having the player enact the narrative by assuming the role of a character, thereby imposing free will into a universe traditionally thought to be dictated by an author. Bioshock Infinite challenges this idea in an early scene.

Upon arriving in Columbia, Booker encounters the twins blocking a doorway. They walk up to him and give him a coin, "heads, or tails", they ask. Booker flips it, calling heads, and it lands on heads, like it did for the last 122 times.

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a similar scene occurs where a coin lands on heads 92 times in a row. This leads the characters to wonder if they are under the control of a supernatural force. In real life, coin flips are determined entirely by random chance, and exist as a fair and impartial way of making binary decisions. This cannot exist within the constraints of a work of fiction, even computers at a machine level are incapable of simulating randomness. The coin-flip scene in Bioshock Infinite is not determined by random chance, and is scripted by the developers to always land on heads.

What this means is that autonomy and procedurally generated narrative cannot exist within a narrative game like Bioshock Infinite no matter how hard developers attempt to give the illusion of an open-ended narrative. The coin-flip scene represented an ideal point to give the player the decision of calling heads or tails, but Booker is scripted to always call heads. This is done purposefully, as removing player autonomy from this scene tells us it is impossible for a game with scripted elements to be truly player-driven.

This notion of the impossibility of autonomy in single-player narrative games is reinforced immediately after the player regains control over Booker. The Luteces walk to the side and open the doorway for Booker to proceed and stand there. If the player stays near them, Rosalind will tell the player to leave several times before saying "If you don't go, I'll be forced to start repeating myself.", after which, she does.

This interactive scene is a prod at the artificiality of NPC's in video games, and despite attempts at creating rich and realistic characters in fiction, characters are ultimately fictional constructs created by authors devoid of autonomy and drive. Lutece is scripted to repeat the same limited number of prerecorded lines until the player inevitably leaves the area and continues the game. Despite the fact that players regain control Booker in this scene, it is impossible for players to do anything but proceed down Infinite's linear narrative path.

Bioshock Infinite's themes of the illusion of free will extend from the artificiality of NPCs to the very nature of interactivity later on in the game. In the game's final sequence, Booker finds himself reliving the moment he sold his daughter to repay his debt. Booker tries to resist, and players, disgusted at this grim realization, will too.  "You can wait as long as you want, eventually you're going to give him what he wants. You don't leave this room until you do." says Elizabeth. At this point, the only option available to the player is to pick up the baby and hand it over to the man at the door, players cannot fight back or escape the room. Players will inevitably surrender the baby, since they cannot progress until they do. Both Booker, and the player, are rendered incapable of making any other decision by the very nature of Bioshock Infinite's method of storytelling. Aside from surrendering the baby after waiting for an indefinite time, the only other option available to the player is to quit the game.

So is Booker an autonomous being, or is he controlled by an omniscient force called the Player? Perhaps the question being raised here is whether players are autonomous beings or simply actors controlled by the invisible hand of game design. The interactive nature of the medium would suggest that players are truly autonomous and capable of making rational decisions that influence the world of the game, but all this is an illusion. It is impossible for true, meaningful autonomy to exist in a single-player narrative game because the authored nature of fiction prohibits players from making choices outside of the ones that a game's system allows.

Heavy Meta

Its totally possible that I'm reading way too deep into Bioshock Infinite. However, even if my interpretation of the game strays far from predominant interpretations of Infinite, the questions raised by multiverse theory, the illusion of meaningful choice, and the myth of autonomy in single-player games raises interesting questions about the nature of video game storytelling. Just like how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern raises questions about the nature of fictional worlds dictated by authors, Bioshock Infinite raises questions about universes collaboratively authored by both designers and players.


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Comments


Alfe Clemencio
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I've given players meaningful choices in designer-driven narrative before. You just have a significant different consequences. Don't know why people have to have every choice a "whole world" affecting choice or small cosmetic choice. There is room for in-between like a "town-affecting" choice.

Adrian Chmielarz
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Great article, but I find it hard to agree with its conclusion.

First, personally I cannot decide whether Infinite is not really a "commentary" (introducing themes is not enough for something to be called "commentary"), or if it is a really bad commentary (proving that a choice does not matter by not giving me any meaningful choice to make is just silly).

Second, and more importantly, there's nothing wrong with "illusion". Take ...life, for example. In theory, we can do whatever we want. I can run naked through the streets, set my video game collection on fire, or sell everything and go to Mauritius. But I don't do that, and you don't do that, and 99.99% of the world does not do that. The "infinite choices" in life are merely an illusion, and they are not needed in video games.

The latest findings in game design (which are, in a very odd way, something that some designers have been using since 80s just because of their intuition) say that in order to offer the feeling of autonomy and freedom we actually have to limit the player's vocabulary and provide a tight focus on the experience. A great example is the difference in outcome when you tell someone to draw anything, or tell someone to draw a murder weapon. The first person will often stumble or even suffer from the writer's block, while the other will immediately come up with a dozen of different ideas.

In an odd slip up, Infinite actually offers a very meaningful choice at one point of the game. There is this shop near the beginning, and you can take its items at will, as there is no one there to catch you red handed. There is also a "Pay Here" basket, and you can either steal all the coins from it, or throw in your own. What do you do? Steal everything and leave? Reload checkpoint and leave everything as it was, realizing you're a thief? Grab everything, but drop some money into the basket?

This was the moment when I started building the character in my head (who I wanted to be in this world), and it offered everything, the Holy Grail of game design: narrative through gameplay, autonomy, engagement, immersion, and agency.

Seconds later, of course, it was all taken away from me and never returned. However, that one little moment shows that yes, we can do it. It just takes a lot of hard work and design discipline.

Elliot Sharma
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No, it's not trying to prove that choice is meaningless. Not at all. Maybe playing the game again will clear things up for you. There is a lot of subtle stuff embedded into the game that even on my third playthrough I'm discovering more about the game. The narrative is much more complex than you are willing to give it credit for. Also Infinite gives you ample amount of choices, just because it isn't marked doesn't mean you aren't making choices. You had a choice between using different types of Vigors, Guns, Exploration, Side-quests, Upgrades etc.

Steven Robinson
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I think this article represents the strongest "apologist" take on Infinite's rigidity. I think that there is an internally consistent logic to taking away freedom from players, and then demonstrating through metaphysical exegesis that see you never had a choice anyway, you never do." However, I think that this is a entirely flawed way to go about producing a gaming experience from a "fun" perspective as well as from a psychological one.

While I'm not a fan of the totally dispassionate open-ended nature of Skyrim, at least by the end of the game I had created a new person in that world, that was some derivation of me. Similarly, a related experience is that of Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider. While I don't get to make my own "Lara," I begin to identify with Lara as a human being, and I experience her fears, her pains, her journey. Her choices feel real to me, even if they aren't totally free.

I think Dark Souls offers a middle path between these two, as I traverse the world at my leisure, subject to repeated deaths, and subject to the limitations of fate (as it were, my being dead). This approach balances the self and the external world - you can move forward, subject to the caprice of your surrounding inhabitants. The Dark Souls self is then born of the raw combat,rendering a new undead-man.

Infinite, I think, fails under any of these three models principally because it offered my fake "gaming-self" very little room for engagement with the world, other than through Elizabeth's companionship. While I think this bond was very effective, Infinite feels alien to me, almost intentionally so. The inhabitants of the city were separate and apart from my interactions with the endless police-brigades who seemingly appear out of nowhere (reminiscent of the Borderlands 2 bandit-camps). This disconnect is only occasionally interrupted, with the most notable scene where Elizabeth sings along and I play the guitar. This moment is one of the few breathing spaces where I feel like I might become a person, but its quickly over.

Even the main characters are distant images. Comstock himself is a post-modern villain, encountered only via recordings and random artifacts. Similarly, the final Vox showdown is between me and a faceless series of ships, presumably under the command of...Daisy's successor? Even Elizabeth and Booker turn into just a copy of many.

I don't know if this is cynical game-making or what, but it doesn't seem to be moving forward. I think maybe the game should have been a short film, and not an interactive experience. The art design is obviously top notch, but it doesn't matter if the game feels like a museum.

Merc Hoffner
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I think the 'illusory choice' and quantum story is quite simply the maker's way of communicating the concepts of deterministic/non deterministic physics, non-linear feedback systems and convergence. Like a physics text book, only through the medium of games and with a compelling narrative. It isn't just about telling an 'interactive' story and the nature of play, it's about engaging us with 'real' logical conundrums. Like all good Scifi does. You know, because physics is fun! Humans love thought problems deeper than just sorting switches or portals - why not make a game out of them.

Actually I think the really marked 'choice' in the game where the makers are making a proper commentary on the nature of choice in games IS the nightingale/cage necklace. It's such an obviously marked out choice with forced participation that in gamer language this signals to you "oh wait, this is the bit where the binary choice you make has some significant outcome - better choose the right one for the right ending - this is 'obviously' designed to reflect on my morality". As stated the 'choice' has no influence on any outcome at all with no associated judgment unless we go out of our way to interpret one. EXCEPT a subtle little permanent aesthetic - one you will notice every once in a while. Which is practically the only type of choice we ever make, making it one of genuine personal preference. If we realise afterwards that the only effect is genuine preference, and that all other 'choices' in games are basically contrived to lead us towards the 'good ending' or the 'bad ending' or some other optimality, then are those other things ever really choices at all, and isn't aesthetic the only real choice in life?

Punching a guy I meet on the street or not punching them is not a real choice and a very easy one too - choosing to paint my walls blue or green is, and surprisingly difficult. At times like that I personally find the many worlds interpretation of quantum superposition momentarily reassuring, and then wholly depressing.


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