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.” 
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. 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:
- American nationalism/patriotism
- Quantum mechanics and the Many Worlds theory
- Social unrest and the underclass
- The corruption of power
- 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.  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. 
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. 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  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.”
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.  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. 
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.
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 . 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  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  for richer game experiences and Bioshock Infinite does link game play to the main, “Many Worlds”, narrative . 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.  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.
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