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Ad Infinitum

By (May 1, 2013) One Comment

BioShock Infinite

2K Games, 2013


A brief (but important) caveat:

As a reviewer, I’m tasked with conveying and ultimately recommending an experience.  To this end I’ve always aimed to translate what I find most interesting about a game into terms that even someone who doesn’t play as many or as often as I do can understand and enjoy.  I try to demonstrate the possibilities of these remarkable works even to those who might not otherwise take real notice of them, who don’t feel welcomed in their distinct and often caustic culture, or hailed by their often flashy, all-too-targeted marketing campaigns.

The trouble is that games, by definition an interactive medium, are simply impossible to convey as an experience, because they are that experience. You’d have to play to really know, to really have the experience I’m trying to recommend, and such experiences are ideally had in a state of ignorance, such that any statement beyond a ‘yes, you should play this’ is a plundering of the game’s potential impact.

So, in the spirit of the reviewer – the person who recommends an experience – I will say about Bioshock Infinite only this: go play this game.  I unequivocally exhort you to skip this review until you’ve already finished the game, or if you truly intend never to play it.

That’s because much of what follows involve spoilers, ones that – no matter how carefully I handle them – will rob any playthrough of its full impact.  As a critic, this is a simple necessity – I must have free range of reference over the text.  As a reviewer, however, I can’t in good conscience deprive you of the experience without a substantial caveat.

That said, if you’re ready to talk about BioShock Infinite, I’ve been dying to get some things off my chest.


The year is 1912, and Booker DeWitt has unpaid debts.  Gambling debts for one – it seems Mr. DeWitt has a knack for picking the wrong horse – but it’s a spiritual debt that weighs heaviest upon him.  Formerly of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency – that bloody scourge of organized labor – he’s also a veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee, was even dubbed ‘the White Injun’ by his own men due to a propensity for taking scalps.

Booker is, in short, a man with a history; the many sins of the United States weigh heavily upon his shoulders.  Then one evening, through a drunken haze, Booker DeWitt recalls that he was offered a job – a reprieve:

‘Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.’

This much he remembers, at least – this much returns to him as he sits in a rowboat, borne slowly but steadily through a rainstorm, towards the looming shape of a lighthouse.  His nautical chauffeurs, a mysterious pair that bicker like only close siblings can, hand him a box emblazoned with his name and rank.  Inside are further instructions and tools of the trade – a gun, a key, a code, and a picture of the girl, a young woman named Elizabeth, upon whom the success of the whole mission depends.

BioShock Infinite begins with a man and a lighthouse just like its predecessor, the first BioShock, about which I have raved ad infinitum.  The most recent brainchild of Ken Levine – whose vision has endured across System Shock, System Shock 2, BioShock and now this newest title – BioShock Infinite. It functions as kind of mirror to its predecessor, and the games must be read alongside one another – that much is made explicit within the text itself.

Thus, when Booker arrives at the lighthouse, no bathysphere awaits him, ready to carry him down into a sunken city.  Instead he is rocketed upwards, above the clouds, where he is met with the dazzling sight of a city suspended in thin air, suffused with sunlight, overseen by a massive statue of an angel.  A voice on the radio crackles ‘Hallelujah’.

This is the player’s – and Booker’s – first encounter with Columbia, a steampunk dream city, all sun-bathed whitewash and baked brick and neoclassical grandeur.  Completed in 1894 according to the purportedly divine vision of the self-styled prophet, Father Zachary Hale Comstock, but kept afloat thanks to the brilliance of quantum physicist Rosalind Lutece, Columbia is a monument to American exceptionalism, wherein the founders of the United States are quite literally deified – e.g. one invokes George Washington in prayer as ‘he who crossed the Delaware with flaming sword and wings of angels.’  Indeed, Levine credits the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair for much of Columbia’s visual and philosophical inspiration, and if the original BioShock’s bugbear is Randian Objectivism, then Infinite’s is American exceptionalism, along with an ideological honor guard of jingoism, racism and religious fanaticism.

The game’s opening segments, wherein Booker strolls through a fair held on the anniversary Columbia’s succession from ‘The Sodom below’ in general and the United States in particular, is a rich portrait of just how these mentalities are normalized, worked into the fabric of everyday life.  Couples walk along bridges in the sky, watching fireworks burst amidst the clouds.  A woman sits with her son on a picnic ground, at the feet of a towering statue of Father Comstock.  ‘Like does not matter to a Liberty Scout,’ she tells the boy, ‘there’s no room for preference, only duty.’ On the steps leading to a haberdashery, a man advocates a political candidate to his friends: ‘Says he’s for faith, family and fatherland.  Who could be against all that?’  Two police officers block your path to the city square, for your own protection.  The pyrotechnicians are still preparing tonight’s fireworks and ‘…there’s enough TNT back there to blow Peking to kingdom come – again!’

Already we are glimpsing the long shadow cast by Columbia’s bright light, but it’s not until the raffle that the city’s mask truly slips.  Past a cluster of tents where shooting galleries feature racial caricatures of political dissidents for target practice, a crowd gathers around a stage, singing round after round of “Goodnight, Irene.” Pretty girls in dresses hand out baseballs emblazoned with numbers.  And when the number comes, of course it’s yours.  You’re called up to the front of the crowd, and presented with the honor of the first throw.  Your target: an Irish man and a Black woman, bound side by side, begging for mercy.  Seems as if this unhappy pair got caught fraternizing.  Racial miscegenation is not tolerated in Columbia, you see.

[Warning – it gets grisly]
“Are you gonna throw it?” cajoles the top-hatted man who’s conducting the event, “or are you taking your coffee black these days?” It all goes downhill from here.  Whether or not you decide it’s best to play along, Booker’s wrist is seized before he can manage to even try and righteously concuss the master of ceremonies.  Someone’s recognized him, he’s been made; his arrival was foretold, you see.  This is the problem with trying to get the drop on a prophet.

The world of BioShock Infinite is perhaps best compared to the one found in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; it portrays a history alongside ours.  The chain of events leading to Columbia’s conception – it’s creation by ultranationalists, it’s colonial aggression on Peking and its eventual succession from the United States – represent a distinct alternate timeline, one that seems to diverge from our own starting with the fateful battle at Wounded Knee, much as that of High Castle diverges with the successful assassination of FDR in 1933.  And, as in Dick’s novel, friction between adjacent histories causes thinning and tears.  These tears – doorways between possible histories – are the science fiction conceit most central to Infinite’s plot, and its through their use – more even than Levine’s gift for creating what he calls ‘Rorschach tests’ for political orientations – that the real genius of the game expresses itself.

BioShock Infinite is beautiful.  So beautiful, and so taxing to my laptop’s modest video hardware, that without the aid of a special set of fans, any prolonged venture through Columbia causes my entire computer to overheat and shut down.  But the moments of purest, most uncanny beauty come from the immersive experience, one tinged with mysterious and uncanny occurrences.  As Booker strolls along the boulevard in 1912, he hears the sweet refrain of a barbershop quartet singing “God Only Knows,” a song that Brian Wilson won’t write until 1966. The sign behind the singers promises ‘Tomorrow’s Music …Today!’  Later, as Booker skulks along a beachside boardwalk – trying not to “get made” by the city’s paramilitary police – a calliope plays a tune that sounds unsettlingly like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

The songs constitute just a few of the cross-pollinations occurring between timelines, the effect of tears that appear either as a side-effect of the quantum probability fields that keep the city afloat, or due to the presence of ‘the Lamb,’ Comstock’s heir apparent, a young girl of seventeen named Elizabeth who lives – like a tower-bound princess – inside a great statue of an angel, vigilantly guarded by an enormous winged sentinel called the Songbird.

This is “the girl” that Booker must bring back to New York, so that he might wipe away his debt.  Sprung from her prison early in the game, Elizabeth is Booker’s companion and charge, ally and objective.  She is gifted with a strange power – not only can she interact with the tears, she can even create them, and eventually traverse them.  Much of the late game is spent plunging between timelines.  One moment a man is lying dead in an interrogation room, the next he’s back at his house, alive, if haunted by an impossible memory; in one world Booker DeWitt is a hunted man, in the next he’s the martyred hero of a revolution.  But while there are many roads and avenues, there’s one vision that’s hurtling closer and closer, one dire prophecy that adorns the walls of Columbia: “The Seed of the Prophet Shall Sit the Throne, and Drown in Fire the Mountains of Man.”  The culminating scene – that of a grey and haggard Elizabeth standing over New York of 1984, overseeing as Columbia rains fire down upon the Sodom below – is a vision of the total disaster the aversion of which becomes the game’s driving goal.

Elizabeth’s trouble is that she’s saddled with the sins of her father; here’s where the spoilers really kick in.  Elizabeth is, in fact, Booker’s biological daughter, kidnapped (more or less) out of Booker’s home timeline by Comstock and taken to Columbia through a tear.  Why go to all that trouble?  Because Comstock wants a true heir, and Comstock and Booker are different instances of the same person.

It’s conceived of as a quantum event, like the decay of an atom, or the flipping of a coin – a point of divergence.  At first there is a single reality, in which the bloody-handed Booker DeWitt, ravaged by guilt over the massacre at Wounded Knee, is offered baptism by a preacher.  Here, worlds divide.  In one timeline, heads, Booker rejects the baptism – he cannot dare to believe that all the blood on his hands can ever be washed away.  In another, tails, he accepts it – he imagines that righteousness can redeem even his atrocities – and is reborn as Zachary Hale Comstock, the man who dreams Columbia.  Subject to rapid aging, rendered sterile and delusional by the Lutece tear-generation machine, he hastens to acquire a daughter who can carry on his legacy in the tales timeline.  He finds her in the heads timeline, plucks her out, leaving behind only her pinky finger – severed by the closing tear – a time-lost fragment that may account for her uncanny gifts.

Armored with a belief in divine Providence, one coupled with a fiercely avowed racist sentiment, Comstock sets himself for more and greater atrocities as he directs Columbia to bomb Peking in 1900.  Black, Chinese and Irish workers are brutally exploited, serving as second class citizens under the rule of the fascist Founders, led by the Prophet.  Theme parks acquaint children with national service, with jaunty tunes exhorting them to defend racial purity.  Through brutal indoctrination, Comstock intends to groom his daughter to take up his mantle, so she might some day fall like the fury of God upon the unsuspecting world below.  All this – if Father Comstock isn’t stopped.

But how to stop him?  When Elizabeth is unchained – once the techno-prison called the Siphon that was leashing her is destroyed – she is able to sift through the infinite instances of her existence, she is able to see the big picture, and she sees that – indeed – the story always begins the same way, with a man and a lighthouse – and it always seems to end the same way, too.  She sees the narrative in which they are trapped, repeated in its endless possible instances, up to and including the events of the first BioShock in the underwater city of Rapture.

In every history, some ideological disaster swallows a city, and then spills over into the rest of the world – we should recall that the ‘bad’ ending of BioShock features a presumed invasion of the surface world by Rapture’s splicers.  In each instance cycles of violence spin out of control, a concern is thematized in one of the game’s recurring songs, the hymn Will the Circle Be Unbroken.  Narrative and history are here transposed, made essentially equivalent – both appear as an inevitable course, the constant around which the variables fluctuate.  A man, a lighthouse, an impossible city.

And what core narrative predominates BioShock, in all its iterations?  Like a bad penny, the Oedipal drama turns up again – a mortal struggle between father and son over a woman. So, in the first BioShock Andrew Ryan – founder of Rapture – was brought low by his clone-son, Jack, in a battle fought in some great part over the fate of the Little Sisters.  In Infinite we have, instead, Father Comstock and Booker DeWitt – alternate reality versions of each other, the former wearing a paternal title and a white beard to match – both vying for Elizabeth, their common daughter.

It’s so neat it’s banal, which is part of what makes Freudian analysis so frustrating: how inevitable it ends up feeling. Time and time again its formulae can make themselves applicable, the Oedipal formula most commonly and depressingly of all.  Yet, upon reflection, that very desire to get away from Oedipus would seem to mirror the longing of the characters in Infinite to escape their own fate, a history that always ends in brutal oppression and bloody revolution, tyrant fathers and rebel sons, leaving a legacy of blood that, as Father Comstock himself puts it, can only be redeemed with more blood.  Diagnosis of a complex is only the first step, after all – some cure must follow; while one can forecast a fascist future, avoiding it is the real challenge.

Ken Levine has stated clearly in an interview with the Washington Post that he “[doesn’t] want to be making games that are expressing a political or philosophical view,” but I’d feel remiss not mentioning – as is my critic’s prerogative – that this association of ideas, this link between a fascist history and an Oedipal narrative, was outlined by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their seminal work Anti-Oedipus.  Published in 1972, the book is what Michel Foucault dubs “an Introduction to the non-Fascist life.”  The question of BioShock Infinite is thus the same as that which Deleuze and Guattari pose: how can we wake up from the recurring Oedipal nightmare?  Will the circle be unbroken?

In the ending of BioShock Infinite, we find a consensus answer.  When the many Elizabeths from the many timelines converge, they do not hesitate and they do not disagree.  Together, all of Booker’s daughters end the story before it even has a chance to begin, drowning their father in the waters of baptism that would transform him into the riven monster he is.  The Oedipal drama, like the fascist dream is sustains, must be smothered in the crib.

Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.