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.
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.