Here we go, Push to Smart’s debut episode! This is the first of our two-part discussion of Bioshock Infinite, in which we discuss Elizabeth, the quantum physics twist, and how it fits into the de facto videogame canon. Spoilers ahead!
Transcript below the cut.
This episode contains spoilers for Bioshock, Bioshock 2, Bioshock Infinite, Silent Hill 2, and TellTale’s The Walking Dead.
You are watching the very first episode of Push to Smart in which we discuss Bioshock Infinite, one of 2013’s biggest games. It recently reemerged in the public conscious thanks to its Burial at Sea DLC, so we thought this would be the perfect time to revisit it.
As the first sequel to be developed by Irrational Games, Bioshock Infinite shares a lot of Bioshock’s DNA, such as its horrifying ideology of the week and its third act twist that brushes against the fourth wall. We’ll discuss Bioshock Infinite’s ideology next episode. In this episode, we’re looking at its hero, its heroine, and its big, fat twist.
Bioshock Infinite is the third game in the franchise.Where the first two games took place in the underwater city of Rapture during the 1960s, Infinite takes place in the floating city of Columbia in the early 1900s.
You play as Booker Dewitt, a private investigator who is tasked with bringing back the girl to wipe out a personal debt. What follows is an adventure that traverses multiple realities through tears in time and space that can be manipulated by Elizabeth, the aforementioned girl Booker is tasked with rescuing.
“I have a better idea.”
“What are you doing?”
“I’m opening a tear!”
“What is that?”
“It’s a tear. I used to open them all the time in my tower.”
“What is a tear?”
“It’s like a-a… a window. A window to another world.”
When the game first started to let me in on to the multiple timeline thing, it reminded me of a theory about Silent Hill 2 which is another game about a man grappling with a great deal of guilt he doesn’t understand that uses the very nature of the game itself to represent that cycle of guilt. Silent Hill 2 doesn’t have an opaque, quantum physics subplot, but it does have branching endings, some of which can only be achieved by playing through the game a second time with a new game plus, which basically means starting a new game with an old save file, something quite common in games.
The theory is that all of these endings save maybe for some joke endings can all occur in the same narrative timeframe through the use of the new game plus. It presents a situation where you spur forth the narrative and engage with it by continually replaying the game in different ways until you finally achieve the ending where the main character kills himself, ending the cycle.
The reason I was reminded of this was Bioshock Infinite’s fascinating treatment of the failure state from the beginning of the game. Before encountering Elizabeth and whenever you are separated from her dying in the game results in not a continue screen, but an appearance in Booker’s office. The insinuation is that the Booker you were previously playing as has actually died, and you are now playing as a new Booker in a new timeline.
“Come on, let me through.”
“told you. I never find that as satisfying as I’d imagine.”
“Chin up. There’s always next time.”
“I suppose there is.”
This has the potential to be very affecting and powerful in that you as the player are complicit in this tragedy simply by continuing to play the game. However, outside of the failure state, the timelines are never effectively integrated into player performance again. Instead they primarily serve to drive forward the plot, so you no longer have that ludic nor any dramatic satisfaction from it.
The consequences of multiple timelines are arguably explored more effectively in the board game in which you don’t actually play as Booker, but as factions trying to control Columbia and deal with the unknown as Booker and Elizabeth swing in and out of timelines and wreck havoc on all of your carefully laid plans. It seems like a missed opportunity not to explore the ramifications of Booker and Liz’s timeline jumping in the game proper.
Dead is dead.
What? How the hell did–
I see heads.
and i see tails
it’s all a matter of perspective.
Why are you following us? Who sent you? Comstock?
What do you see here, from this angle?
Dead. And that angle?
Booker! Chen Lin!
The body’s gone
It was never here.
It’s another Columbia
A different Columbia
THe same coin
A different perspective
As far as the gameplay mechanics with tears and multiple timelines, I was most frustrated with, as you discussed, the way choice doesn’t affect the narrative and doesn’t result in narrative or dramatic payoff. To drive home this idea that your choices don’t matter the very end of the game sets up this huge crossroads that lead you to inevitably be Booker or Comstock and, ultimately, your choice is taken away by your sidekick/daughter, Elizabeth.
This plays with the journey of the father figure trope that has seen a rather recent surge in popularity in video game narratives. We had The Walking Dead, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us all within the span a year. A huge aspect of these narratives is the redemption of the father for the sake of the child.
You see this most clearly in The Walking Dead with Lee and Clem, it’s an extremely emotional journey throughout the five chapters that results in Clem being left without her post-apocalyptic father figure while still clinging to the lessons he taught her throughout the game.
By contrast, Bioshock Infinite’s conclusion reads like a corruption of the usual role of the father/daughter relationship in games.
In games like TellTale’s the Walking Dead and even 2K Marin’s Bioshock sequel, Bioshock 2, part of the player’s journey as the father is, as you mentioned, the education of the daughter about the world, teaching her how to survive both the physical and moral trials of places like zombie-ravaged Georgia or Rapture.
It serves the double-duty of allowing the player to explore a world as a character with the authority to do so, while still explaining its rules diegetically in conversations with the daughter. The game then ends with the death of the protagonist-father as a way of redemption and catharsis, having justified the violence that they committed by properly preparing their daughter for a cruel world and submitting to the player’s mastery of the game.
Bioshock Infinite puts a completely different spin on this trope through a sort of forced redemption instigated by the daughter.
He’s Booker DeWitt
No, I’m both.
Every Elizabeth from the various timelines comes together to sacrifice Booker. But the question that I’ve been unable to answer is: what if any lessons did Booker teach Elizabeth? I think Booker does have some lessons for Elizabeth, they just happen to be awful–in more ways than one. Booker is a terrible person, and he teaches Elizabeth terrible things. He teaches her that the world cruel and violent both through his words and his actions towards her, but he doesn’t necessarily give her the tools to deal with it.
She–for better or worse–comes up with that on her own.
“bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”
“there was no baby! the deal was i go to columbia to get you!”
“Booker, you’re bleeding.”
“no… I remember, I remember….”
“now we’ve upset him”
“I don’t expect this next bit will do much for his mood.”
Therefore, it’s fitting that she would make the final decision to end the cycle–both for Booker and the player. Which is such a 180 from the naive fairytale setting we find Elizabeth in, which features this creepy dose of voyeurism mixed in with many damsel in distress tropes. You have the girl locked in the tower, guarded by a mystical creature all the while being studied through two-way mirrors.
She knows the world through books, her knowledge being largely secondhand so when she finally leaves captivity, she experiences things in much the same way a child would with a sort of wide-eyed innocence that lends itself to some of the more beautiful and problematic moments in the game.
You have these great moments like her on the beach but then you also have her completely uneven response to violence. She spends most of the game enabling Booker and the player’s violence by phasing in ammo and destructive machines during battle with little to no reaction at all but when she finally ends a life directly instead of second-hand she completely changes.
This game is graphic and the hundreds of deaths Elizabeth would have witnessed up until this point should have at least notionally prepared her for the moment when she has to kill the revolutionist Daisy, especially when the life of an innocent child was being threatened, but this moment instead acts as the ultimate point of maturation for her.
Exactly. Elizabeth never really has to deal with the consequences of taking a life. Bioshock Infinite treats the death of Daisy as less of a moral predicament and more of a coming-of-age milestone for Elizabeth. She’s no longer the wide-eyed girl in the tower; she’s a woman now, as evident in her new haircut and corset.
Burial at Sea appears to be taking this further by recasting her as a femme fatale, now with the added autonomy of being a playable character. I’m excited to play as Elizabeth in Burial at Sea, but I’m both really interested and a little apprehensive to see how her continued sexualization and acceptance of a violent, scary world enables her to finally be an agent of her own adventure.
Burial at Sea is, of course, enabled by Bioshock Infinite’s big twist, which is also its franchise thesis statement: as it turns out, the disparate worlds of Columbia and Rapture are connected through the existence of a man and a lighthouse. Elizabeth’s tears serve the quasi-meta purpose of not just leaping into new timelines, but into new narrative spaces as well, as she is able to visit a, wait for it, infinite number of lighthouses–an infinite number of Bioshocks. There’s something to be said about a game that comes out and declares its raison d’etre diegetically, and it opens up the worlds of future games to limitless options–so long as they are accessed through a lighthouse andguided by the ideology of one man.
However, this big reveal comes at a cost. Specifically, it is at the cost of its man and the exploration of his horrifying ideology. Comstock’s ideology of American Exceptionalism and the character of Daisy Fitzroy will be more thoroughly discussed in the second half of our Bioshock Infinite analysis.
So stay tuned for episode two of Push to Smart where we delve into these important aspects of the game. If you enjoyed our discussion please like the video and subscribe to our youtube channel to stay on top of new episode releases.
I… sold you.
to your credit you did try to weasel out of the deal.
Written and Edited by Jaylee and Stacey
Music by DJ MapReduce
Footage from Bioshock Infinite, The Walking Dead, and Silent Hill 2