2013 in Review: The Tragic Fatalism of BioShock Infinite

One of 2013's most spectacular games was also one of its most disappointing for its failure to heed its predecessor's pivotal philosophy.

Article by Jeremy Parish, .

"A man chooses -- a slave obeys."

If people remember anything about 2007's BioShock, it's almost certainly the pivotal confrontation with eccentric tycoon Andrew Ryan. Though he's presented as the villain of the piece until that moment, your showdown with Ryan doesn't take the form of a grand battle; on the contrary, the game -- through Ryan -- wrests control of the action away from the player, who is then forced to watch as his on-screen avatar clutches a golf club and, at the industrial's own command, bludgeons Ryan to death.

It's a powerful moment that works on many levels. On the most fundamental level, it's a plot twist, forcing the player to come to terms with the fact that the man they've been helping in the fight against Ryan is the true villain of BioShock. It also speaks volumes about Ryan, a man so determined to maintain control of his own destiny (his city Rapture has been founded on the maxim, "No gods or kings, only men") that he would choose effective suicide by the hand of his brainwashed son simply to deny his enemies the satisfaction of determining the nature of his demise.

But Ryan's oft-repeated philosophy -- "A man chooses, a slave obeys" -- speaks volumes about the player's role in events. On one level, it offers a level of justification for the game's plot that video games rarely bother with. Why would someone simply accept their role as a stranger's instrument of destruction upon crash-landing in a setting they'd never before seen if not for the fact that he had no control over his own actions? The player becomes a tool because he assumes the role of a character conditioned to be nothing more than a tool.

"A man chooses heads. A slave picks tails."

In the process, it forces the player to consider the nature of video games as a whole. The player is a slave, it says. We "take control" in a first-person shooter only to mutely follow instructions, to shoot our way from point A to point B in service of a voice in our ear barking instructions that few games allows us to stray from. In some ways, it was practically prophetic; BioShock launched a couple of months before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the game that redefined the mainstream first-person shooter as a linear march through environments comprised of narrow corridors dressed up to look as though they could belong to an open world of free choice if only there weren't this urgent mission to attend to. No; choice and agency in video games, BioShock posits, are nothing more than an illusion.

This powerful and prescient statement made BioShock Infinite all the more intriguing for me. I loved what I saw of Infinite in the years leading up to its debut; steeped in American history, its fantastic spirit seemed a brightly colored (and very welcome) alternative to the grim drabness of other shooters. If BioShock presented players with an Art Deco nightmare, Infinite promised to give us a joyful turn-of-the-century summer carnival daydream. More importantly, though, both Infinite's title and the glimpses we saw of its story and game mechanics -- the strange alternate futures, the ability to summon impossible mechanisms through rifts in space -- looked to build thematically on the original BioShock's underlying concepts of choice and control.

In the end, Infinite did indeed have much to say about agency and self-determination. But it wasn't the statement I was hoping to hear, or in fact one I agree with at all: It utterly denies their existence.

Despite the frequent signs that warn you not to steal from shops, there's no penalty for looting Columbia and no benefit to abstaining.

Maybe my mistake in approaching Infinite was in reading Ryan's proclamation as a philosophy BioShock developer Irrational actually stands behind. After all, consider the fallout from that sequence in the original game; even the original BioShock didn't uphold Ryan's beliefs. The confrontation seems like a liberating moment, confronting the player with the truth of their limitations and treating Ryan's death as a brutal exclamation point, but in truth you're never actually allowed to choose anything even after your limitations are revealed. Frank Fontaine, exposed as the true villain of the piece, is simply replaced as the voice dictating your actions by a different but equally domineering voice, and the remainder of the game remains every bit as structured and linear as what's come before. Worse, actually, as you're forced to undertake a compulsory (and almost universally hated) escort mission whose tedium truly hammers home how much you're simply going through someone else's motions. Ryan's dying words may goad you to take control and become a man, but you can't. BioShock shackles you into slavery from start to finish.

Infinite, though, actually manages to be even more bleak with its message. Not only does it offer fewer opportunities to make choices than its predecessor, in the end you learn those choices lack any real meaning. Early in the game you're given a chance to call a coin flip, but it turns out to be simply an exercise in intellectual curiosity; whatever you call, the coin always comes up the same across all realities. Later, the Lutesce "twins" (the scientists who sponsored the coin flip) let you choose between two pieces of jewelry, a bird and a cage, symbols seemingly fraught with narrative importance given your recent rescue of a young woman named Elizabeth from a locked tower guarded by a bird-like robot; yet your choice bears no significance on any in-game events, and either selection elicits the same cheerful response from the Lutesces.

The entirety of Infinite turns out to be a quest to rewrite the most important decision the protagonist ever made. It's a journey to destroy the entire concept of free will.

In the end, BioShock Infinite takes its name from the revelation of an infinite panoply of alternate realities created by the choices people make. The crux of the plot hangs on a pivotal decision made by the player's character, Booker DeWitt -- but it's one that happened decades prior, one in which the player has no say. On the contrary, the entirety of Infinite turns out to be a quest to undo that action; you're driven constantly forward to reach a point at which you can rewrite the most important decision the protagonist ever made. It's a journey to destroy the concept of free will. And the final, irrevocable decision of finite outcomes isn't even made by the player. The choice is made for him by DeWitt and Elizabeth. DeWitt, in the end, proves to be far more of a slave than BioShock's mind-controlled Jack Ryan -- and so too, by extension, does the player. Infinite entices the player with a multiverse of endless possibilities, yet it allows only a single outcome.

Oh, sure, the player gets to make choices in the course of BioShock Infinite. Do you fight this battle from the upper landing, or do you try to hold the lower choke point? Do you focus on Vigors in combat, or do you let Elizabeth do the dirty work by opening rifts? Gun down foes from rails or go in close for nasty melee kills? But if you're looking for meaningful choices that don't involve killing -- up to and including choosing not to fight in the first place -- Infinite has nothing to offer.

I think it's BioShock Infinite's pedigree and potential that make its relentless determinism so disappointing. Its DNA contains fragments of the legendary Looking Glass Studios, the same developer that spawned (or spun off into studios responsible for) System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, and Dishonored -- games with the same heady intellectual underpinnings as BioShock. But those games all aspired to offer more than mere lip service to player agency; they delivered. Of course, even they ultimately funneled the player to specific outcomes, but they offered far more flexibility in reaching those points than Infinite even pretends to provide. Even Deus Ex: Human Revolution's oft-derided finale, which consisted of choosing an ending by pressing one of several buttons, gave the player more determination over that story's outcome than Infinite.

Pictured: Irrational just totally nailing the fine art of trolling.

No, BioShock Infinite spits in the face of player choice. If BioShock stunned us by laying bare the illusion of agency in video games, Infinite in turn stunned us by making a mockery of it. And maybe that's all Irrational has ever aspired to do. Maybe it's not fair for me to judge the game based on what I perceive as its creative potential and narrative posturing; who am I to proclaim authorial intent? But everything about Infinite leading up to launch led me to expect Irrational to follow up BioShock's revelation of gaming's illusory nature with an equally revelatory look at alternatives, ways that games could allow players to rise up from video game slavery and choose their own outcome. Instead, Infinite literally concludes by saying, "There can be no alternatives."

I guess I expected something more hopeful from Irrational, which employs some of the smartest guys in the games industry. I look at the medium's other thought leaders and see Will Wright talking breathlessly about universes of possibilities. I see Peter Molyneux dreaming so big he can't help but fail spectacularly as he grasps at his aspirations. With Infinite, though, Irrational has funneled a tremendous amount of time, energy, labor, and money into towing the line. The results are beautiful, intriguing, and often fun -- but they make a lie of the BioShock legacy, or at least the legacy that I took away.

It's no secret that video games have grown more limited as they've become more elaborate; the further we move from the days of Infocom's humble-but-imaginative text-only adventures, the less latitude players are given to define their own paths. BioShock revealed the man behind curtain of games like Call of Duty before Call of Duty even hit its stride; six years later, I was heartbroken to see the series simply shrug and accept that this is the most video games can aspire to be: A selection of pretty skins on a fundamentally homogenous core.

But I'm not buying it, and neither are many others who invested their hopes in BioShock Infinite as an alternative to the stagnation of big-budget games rather than serving up more of the same. Not when there are more ambitious and inventive approaches being explored in works that aren't manacled by big budgets and enslaved to conservative publishers. We know we have the freedom to make choices; BioShock told us so.

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Comments 15

  • Avatar for Daedalus207 #1 Daedalus207 4 years ago
    Well written. You've managed to sum up my own thoughts about Infinite better than I've ever been able to.
    Enjoyed for what it is, it's a very good game, but I've thought that its game mechanics undermined it's story in an unfortunate way.
    It was also jarring to me how transparent it is that your choices don't matter. Developers like Bioware are seemingly experts at fooling you into thinking that your choices are important. Ultimately, there is relatively little difference in story between a Paragon Shepard and a Renegade Shepard, but Bioware has somehow managed to make it feel like the story and setting reflects my choices.
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  • Avatar for MapleSyrupMan #2 MapleSyrupMan 4 years ago
    Well written, but I disagree.

    I think there's a difference between player choice and character choice.

    Yes, the player cannot decide Booker's fate. But that's the same as any novel or movie or play.

    In Infinite, we experience Booker's actions and choices. We have some minor agency - the coin toss, the necklace, whether to attack the ticket taker - but Irrational is in full control of the major narrative.

    That's ok with me. Levine still has some incredibly powerful things to say about choice and consequences, failure and redemption, like any author. And that doesn't require the player to influence the narrative.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #3 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    @MapleSyrupMan Sure, but games aren't novels or movies or plays. They can be more.
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  • Avatar for sam-stephens #4 sam-stephens 4 years ago
    I think it's really difficult to make a statement about a lack of agency and choices in video games because they inherently have choices in them. There is no illusion, the choices are real. Infinite's biggest problem is that its gameplay has so many choices that are meaningless. Weapons, vigors, and other mechanicle actions have very limited functions, and often overlap in these functions. The fact that the enemy A.I. utilize little to no tactics and that the level design gives no context to use one vigor or weapon over the other compounds this problem. Like so many video games today, you can play it however you feel like without consequence. So the game is its own self fulfilling prophecy. Choices are meaningless because the options in the gameplay are meaningless.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #5 SatelliteOfLove 4 years ago
    I see this less as a damning of faux choice than a damning of BI's heightened expectations of dashing the scourge of faux choice only to deliver just that.

    With the cost, size, and number of moving parts in BI's gestation, that's all we can expect though.
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #6 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    But again, Jeremy, I have to mention that if the player makes the decisions of a fully fleshed-out character then that character will no longer feel like a real person, it's the player's pawn. (Hopefully I'll make a better argument this time.) You can't have a complex, thought provoking protagonist if the player steps on his foot every time a decision has to be made. It makes no sense to me having a character with a history, personality, and feelings only to let a participate holding a controller decide what the character thinks or feels. You're killing the character and turning it into a projection of you.

    It makes sense under certain conditions. In Planscape Torment, Black Isle placed the player in the shoes of an amnesiac, so having the player make his decisions made sense: He doesn't know how to feel. Making the decisions of a player made avatar in Baldur's Gate or Skyrim or whatever makes sense because it's an empty slate created by the player. Now take The Walking Dead, the game doesn't ask who Lee likes, what Lee feels, it asks who you want to save, who you want to survive with. Lee can be replaced with anything and it wouldn't matter at the slightest, his history and personality goes down the toilet. Player made decisions kill protagonists.

    Every narrative can have choices (and games aren't alone with the option, a blu-ray film can stop and ask the viewer where to go, novels have been doing the "choose your own adventure" shtick for decades), but having a choice can result in a convoluted narrative. You love Mad Men (I always read and really enjoy your insights on the show), imagine it as a game where the player decides what Don wants, what Don feels, who he cheats with, how he handles his past, how good he is at his job. What sense does that make? Don will no longer be Don. It's the same for Breaking Bad, it won't be Breaking Bad, it'll be Breaking Bad: Pending Player Approval. If I had a choice, I'd dump Jesse as soon as I could, but Walt loves him like a son (at times, at least), I didn't care for Skyler, but Walt adores her, me and Walt clash, Walt is now broken. It's his story, his life not mine, and I broke it because I don't approve.

    I don't think choices are the answer for video game narrative. unconventional thinking and originality with a well written and dramatized narrative that makes sense with the game design is what I want to see. Much easier said than done, that's for sure. I probably like Bioshock Infinite more than Bioshock mostly because the adventure and aesthetics are more to my liking. The "choose your own adventure" format can work only if Booker is a completely blank slate, but Infinite's twists and turns can't work that way.

    I never wanted a narrative choice when I played it, and in some ways, I'm glad it said what it said. I honestly think that decisions in game design will result in a richer game, but in a story it will result in a poorer narrative.

    ...Video games are kinda weird, huh? Neat!Edited December 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for Dogislander #7 Dogislander 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish But "more" is such a subjective term. "Different" yes, but the "more" a game gives in terms of options for play and presentation, the "less" a game can present a clear vision of what the designer wants to create.

    Fallout and Skyrim are HUGE games, but they lack the narrative flow and pacing offered by sacred cows like Super Metroid or, one of my personal favorites of the past few years, The Last Story. Are the latter necessarily better than the former, or vice versa? No, just "different". I'd think an article based on the necessity of choice would acknowledge the possibility of different FORMS of games having equal potential for merit.

    Where Bioshock Infinite falls flat is that it lost the personality and atmosphere that was loved in the previous game. The sense of tension was COMPLETELY removed with the "wide-open" spaces, unlimited ammo, and lack of consequence.

    Both games have philosophical claims that are trite as hell, but Infinite could not be MORE heavy-handed with it's political allegories. Stunning visual aesthetic, lazy and generic game design.Edited December 2013 by Dogislander
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #8 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    I don't expect everyone to agree with my perspective! These end-of-year pieces aren't absolute statements, they're personal perspectives seasoned with hindsight. But given Infinite's pedigree and themes, I really wanted something more thoughtful than an essentially by-the-numbers shooter with a cool setting and moderately convoluted plot.
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #9 Windwhale 4 years ago
    My thoughts exactly. Bioshock Infinite is only smoke and mirrors, a diversion without substance. I must confess that I have not played it. But I have read many articles and watched trailers and parts of playthroughs (including the ending) to know that I never would want to play such a thing. It glorifies violence for the sake of it and uses a seemingly complex story to justify this. But you cannot make Shakespeare out of Doom, at least not without heavily changing its core mechanics (although a Shakespeare mod for Doom does sound kind of intriguing). If developers really need to make a game about aestheticized massmurder, they should at least be honest about it.Edited 2 times. Last edited December 2013 by Windwhale
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  • Avatar for Blackcompany #10 Blackcompany 4 years ago
    Fresh_Paprika: Your entire premise is based on the flawed belief that narrative delivery should be the central facet - the focus, if you will - of video games. You don't believe video game players should be allowed choice, as that kills the narrative.

    Based on that premise, Bioshock would make a far better movie than a game. Because games are intended to be PLAYED, not WATCHED. Player agency is THE defining characteristic of the medium. Take that away and you have a movie with an "interact" button.

    Which makes Bioshock a mockery of itself. A parody of both its genre and its own design. "You're a slave," says the game. "Never questioning; just obeying."

    Um, hello, Mr. Game. You never ALLOWED me any choices. Except, of course, to NOT PLAY. And that isn't a choice within the game's own context. If I want to experience your story, I HAVE to play. But the rules you enact, no less.

    So to claim "You've been a slave this while time, just obeying," is to mock your own game design. You are making fun of your own creation by explicitly acknowledging the limitations and flaws of your own design methodology. Its stupid, idiotic behavior that cheapens the entire experience.

    Which is why games need to STOP trying to emulate movies and film. I cannot wait for a time when the majority of game developers are no longer old men who grew up watching movies, but people who grew up playing games. People who understand we watch a movie to WATCH, and play a game, to PLAY.

    Because this is one area where Bioshock games - all of them - fail miserably.
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  • Avatar for Blackcompany #11 Blackcompany 4 years ago
    @MapleSyrupMan If you want to make powerful statements about choices and consequences in a video game, you must - MUST - allow the player choices.

    Consider Spec Ops: The Line. A game full of horrible choices gone horribly wrong. A game that WANTED you to feel guilty for the things you, through your avatar, had done. A game that wanted the decisions the character made to weigh on you as the player.

    The game failed. Because as the player, I HAD NO choice. If I wanted to play the game, to experience the narrative, I was FORCED to do those things. I could not choose where to launch the phosphorous. I could not choose to turn back, or call in reinforcements. Or wait for intel. The game MADE me keep going, and it FORCED me to do those things.

    Ergo, I felt no guilt. No remorse. Because the choices were NOT MY choices. They were someone else's; I merely watched.

    As a movie, Spec Ops: The Line would have had a great deal of emotional impact. I know this from having watched the film adaptation of The Mist. The choices the character made in both "films" would have horrified rapt audiences.

    But as a game, The Line failed to affect me. It TRIED to convince me the choices were mine, but I was never presented with options. Only commands. And Bioshock makes the same mistake, only, it then goes on to actually LAMPOON - that is, parody - its OWN DESIGN.

    How abysmally STUPID do you have to be, to make a 10 -15hr long experience, only to end by MAKING FUN OF THE PLAYER FOR PARTICIPATING IN IT.

    Because that is, effectively, what you are doing.
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  • Avatar for Fresh_Paprika #12 Fresh_Paprika 4 years ago
    @Blackcompany You misunderstood me and put words in my mouth. It's okay, it happens.

    I don't want games to be like films, I even said that many times and complained about it. But if you want to tell a story and that story needs to have a protagonist with a personality and a history, a third-party can't be making that character's choices. Then it's not about the character, it's about you. I made the references to Mad Men and Breaking Bad because the writer is a big fan and wrote an article about how Breaking Bad can work as a video game with choice and consequence, I disagree with that.

    I think Heavy Rain proved that, and ironically, it's proud of being an interactive movie. That guy's (don't remember the name, don't want to) son was kidnapped and he needs to go through idiotic tests to save him, but the player decides how far that character goes to do so. What sense does that make? He's not you, that's not your kid, that's not your life. Your telling that character how much he loves his son and in doing so made him look like a he has multiple-personalities. There are so many holes created from its interactive-film nature that it's hard to count them all. It doesn't work. It's a bad game that hardly wants to be a game and a bad movie (when environment designers are credited as "set designers" you know you have a problem).

    But again. choices can work if the game acknowledge that the protagonist is the player's avatar. Now it makes sense. But that's not what Infinite was going for and it can look pretty bad: Look at Dragon Age 2, the player's avatar has 3 different personalities all tangled up. It looks silly. A writer with something to say doesn't need the audience to step on his/her ideas. There's nothing wrong with being linear.

    Like I said: Choices aren't exclusive to games, films can have choices, novels can have choices, plays can have choices. The purest way a video game can tell a story is by game design. Think Super Metroid, Dark Souls, or Shadow of the Colossus (which did have a lengthy non-interactive intro and ending, oh boo hoo). No choices, just game and world design. Give me DK Jungle Beat over a thousand Ratchet and Clanks any day. That should be the gold standard, now we're making a game and not a film. But I also have no problem with a game that uses cinematic for it's narrative as long that the narrative works with the design and the design is the main focus. I Love Panzer Dragoon Saga, it's one of the greatest and most unique RPGs in history, it also has a large amount of cut-scenes (beautifully dramatized and delivered, for the most part). What's wrong with that? Why should there only be one way to tell a story in games? It's a great game through-and-through even without the cut-scenes, just a linear one. So what?

    I don't agree that Bioshock Infinite would be better off as a movie. The star was Columbia, exploring it, feeling it, the narrative can take a back seat. It's aesthetics are unique and that's worth a lot. It is a shame that it relies so much on shooting and not exploration, but that was my problem with Bioshock as well. I don't think that either game is a masterpiece - much of Infinite's design and narrative clash with each other - but I do really like them. There is a pretty good game here, an actual game with goals and problems, not just choices and a puppet show.

    No offense, man, but relax. No need to get so angry about it. There should be plenty of ways a game can tell a story, but choices don't always fit, it's an easy solution to a hard problem. Ask yourself, do you want a choice just for the sake of having a choice, narrative consistency be damned? Or do you want something that's meticulously crafted?Edited December 2013 by Fresh_Paprika
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  • Avatar for Windwhale #13 Windwhale 4 years ago
    @Fresh_Paprika Just because Heavy Rain is not a good game and badly written that does not prove that interacive movies cannot work. Like visual novels they might not be games in a traditional sense, but they have a lot of potential. Nor does Heavy Rain prove that it is bad idea in general to assume the role of a fictional character, even if it is not an explicit "avatar" (which is only a distiction on a very superficial level), and to choose for that character. After all empathy (in a broader sense) and the ability to project ourselves onto others are parts of what makes video games work in the first place.Edited December 2013 by Windwhale
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  • Avatar for Bauul #14 Bauul 4 years ago
    I interpreted Bioshock Infinite's story as a commentary on linear game plots. That some things are variable (e.g. how you play the levels), some things are constant (e.g. how the game ends). On that angle, it worked very well. I get the impression Ken Levine has a lot to say, so I'm happy for him to take his time and release other games commentating on other things. For what it was, BioShock Infinite worked well in my opinion.

    On the subject of characters in games: there are PHD courses on the notion of reader agency, we'll never cover it all here.

    The fundamental point though, and this is not unique to games, is that characters are ALWAYS the result of the reader/player/viewer's input. Even outside of games, the reader will fill in the blanks of the character's personality . It's human nature, we do it automatically. Who a character is to us is unique whether we control where they walk or not. Saying it's an issue with only games just isn't accurate - it occurs in every medium.

    In literature analysis, it's known as Death of the Author. The idea is an author's creation is immediately no longer there's as soon as the reader reads the book. Player agency in games is just an expansion of this.

    In games where you literally "play as yourself" - the blank slate games mentioned above, the actions you take are a reflction of yourself, but it's within a fictional, confined world that your brain automatically accumulates too.

    In games where you play a character, you're just confined to a factional, confined character but your brain still automatically accumulates too.

    TL:DR: Even "fixed" characters in non-interaction fiction are still at the mercy of your interpretation, input and point of view. Games are not different to anything else in that regard.
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  • Avatar for Breadbitten #15 Breadbitten 4 years ago
    After finally having played the damn game myself I feel like I can finally add my own two cents into the whole "choice" debate. Much like Spec Ops: The Line proved nearly a year ago BioShock: Infinite proves that the only choice that videogames offer is to either play it or don't, everything else is an illusion as this piece so obviously points out.
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