Welcome to Painting with Pixels! Each week, I’ll be picking apart exceptional games to show you why this newborn storytelling medium has evolved from a trivial pursuit to a legitimate art form much like the film or the novel. This week is all about the subversive and utterly mind bending shooter, Bioshock Infinite. This is the tale of a city in the sky where a furious and brutal civil war brews beneath the calm, cloud lined exterior. But is it art? Let’s find out. WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE FOLLOW
WELCOME TO COLUMBIA
Bioshock Infinite takes revisionist history to a whole new level as they thrust you into the midst of colonial America. But it is an America very different to the one we know from the history books. You play Booker DeWitt, a gruff gun for hire desperate to pay his debt. To do this, he must venture to the floating city of Columbia, a civilisation isolated from the ground bound America by its religious and fanatical leader, Zachary Comstock. Booker is tasked with finding a girl named Elizabeth and together, they must try to escape Columbia as it is torn apart from the inside out by a war between the white upper class and the Vox Populi, a revolutionist civil rights movement so zealous that even Malcolm X might have taken pause. There are a hundred things I can talk about that make Bioshock Infinite great. The stunning, hauntingly beautiful setting. The multilayered, emotionally nuanced and morally ambiguous characters. The fast paced, frantic and exhilarating gameplay. But what I want to focus on is what makes the game stand out: The way Biotic Infinite makes full use of the medium of gaming to tell its story in a way that simply cannot be done through any other medium.
Constants and Variables
At several points in the game, an odd couple will appear, seemingly out of nowhere and will offer you a series of choices. Heads or tails – the bird or the cage. Bioshock Infinite is more than anything about choice. This is where the BIG spoilers start, so read ahead if you dare.
Elizabeth has the ability to open “tears”. These are portals into parallel universes – some, almost exactly the same while others radically different. For every choice one makes, there exists a different universe – an endless number of variations – an “infinite” number of universes. In each universe, there exists variables. For example, a man being dead in one or alive in another. But there also exists constants. Things that must happen and will always happen within each universe. Early in the game, the Luteces wonder whether Booker will row a boat. He doesn’t and they remark that “He doesn’t row”. After a pause, they realise that “He doesn’t row“. It’s a puzzling line but comes together once the parallel universes are revealed. In that instance, across all universes, Booker will never choose to row.
This is a commentary on gaming as a medium. Even in games, that give you the option of variables – choices you can make, things you can change each time you play through it – there will always be constants. More often than not, whatever choices you make will lead to the same outcome.The Luteces approach you again and present you with a choice – heads or tails. No matter which one you pick, the outcome will be the same. No matter which outcome you pick, the game will end in the same way.
On this same vein, they give you the opportunity to choose between two pendants: a bird which represents wild, unrestricted freedom and a cage which represents control, safety and security. It doesn’t make a difference which you choose and there’s no real impact on the story or the ending. There’s a reason for that. These represent the two conflicting ideologies presented by the extreme political leaders of Columbia: The all powerful, all controlling dictator, Zachary Comstock and the violent militia leader, Daisy Fitzroy. You clash horns with both sides as they vie for control of Columbia, cutting a bloody swathe through the populace as they do so.
As both groups commit seemingly try to outdo one another with the atrocities they commit, Booker, Elizabeth and the player themselves finally come to the realisation that it doesn’t matter which side is chosen: they’re both as and as the other. The dictatorship of Comstock was cruel, racist and made life a living hell for those who he deemed as unworthy of God’s grace. But Fitzroy’s revolution resulted in total anarchy, bringing out the worst in people as they revelled in the violence they were free to commit. The bird or the cage, it didn’t matter which one because both resulted in death and misery.
It’s an illusion of choice, an illusion of freedom. You control the characters, but really, you don’t. They will always end up in the same place, no matter how many times you play. The game asks the question of the player: Are we bound to our fate? Do choices matter in the long run if we all end up in the same place? It’s heavy stuff and more than a little morbid.
But after playing the game through, one may realise that even if they’re bound to the same track – it’s still one hell of a ride.
Have you guys played Bioshock Infinite? What did you guys think? Are there any other games you want me to take a look at? Let me know in the comments below!