Still Playing: Bioshock Infinite
Firstly, as this is a recent release: spoilers. We’re not going to talk about the ending, but rather broad themes and specific gameplay incidents.
Games aren’t movies. They’re theatre. Each one an in-the-round performance with room for improvisation and that encourages audience participation. There’s a theatrical maxim that goes by the name of Chekov’s Gun, and what it boils down to is that if a rifle is hung on the wall of a set in the first act of a play, it must be taken down and fired in the second. It ties in to both efficient, lean design with no surplus ornamentation, and the old adage that you should show rather than tell. Games do this all the time, as you perhaps watch enemy soldiers in an FPS using heavy weapons you’ll surely be using against them later, or more specifically in BioShock Infinite when you meet the Handy Man at the fair.
So what kind of theatre is BioShock Infinite? Is there a hint of didactic Brecht in the ‘racism is bad’ message? If it’s Antonin Aurtaud’s theatre of cruelty then it’s from the perspective of the goons being smashed in the face with a triple-bladed spinning hook that sets them on fire. The theatre of cruelty was never about actual physical meanness, though. What Artaud wanted was something that stripped away the comforting false reality that we create to insulate ourselves from the realities of life. Just as you blast away the superficial beauty of Colombia to reveal a superstructure of hatred and violence underneath, Artaud’s cruelty was that of showing the audience something that they didn’t wish to see.
We, as 21st century players, certainly find the idea of a fully racist society shocking. The one we live in likes to hide its prejudices under a veneer of patriotism and euroscepticism. The wealthy people of Rapture have chosen to be there – they’re fully aware of the nature of the city, and presumably don’t mind too much as it benefits them. And we as the player are begging for more of this stuff, as it fuels our moral indignation and encourages us to blow away the defenders of this system. Even Booker, if he can be said to exist as anything other than a cypher, is from a version of early 20th century America. He must be familiar with prejudice. We’re killing the racists because they’re a novel baddie and it feels good. He’s doing it because they attack him.
What’s more shocking is that, despite the BioShock series’ tendency to toy with player agency, your decisions in Infinite don’t resonate long-term beyond an extra item or two. ‘Stealing may have consequences’ warns a message on screen at one point as I stuff my pockets with shotgun shells carelessly left in someone’s desk drawer. Given that everyone with a gun attacks me on sight anyway, what could be worse?
It’s no surprise to discover that whatever you do at the beginning of the game, throw a baseball at the couple at the fair or not, it makes no difference. You still end up fighting off guards and running for your life. It wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise. Are you an actor tied to a script, or a puppet? How much scope is there for meaningful decisions beyond whether to use a shotgun or rocket launcher to mow down goons? Are the civilians extras or audience?
Whatever their role in the play, those civilians don’t respond to guns. Booker kills a lot of men, but civilians seem to vanish when the shooting starts. Perhaps they dissolve like the bodies of the slaughtered. The game’s structure as a series of arena battles punctuated by gun-free bits in which you’re told a story is exposed – there’s even a musical flourish that tells you when the last bad guy is dead. Colombia’s design ties into this, whole blocks flying away to funnel you toward your objective, barriers preventing you from going where you shouldn’t. This also helps from a technical point of view, areas of the city that aren’t needed rendered at low resolution in the distance or not seen at all.
While we’re being exposed to these uncomfortable truths and arena battles, the floating city constantly surrounds us. It’s a difficult decision whether Elizabeth or Columbia is the game’s greater achievement. A hyper-real city disbelievably suspended, the player is required to suspend their disbelief that the place even exists. This proves easier than overlooking that the locals lock fruit in safes but apparently keep their money in litter bins, as it plays to the natural inclinations of gamers. I desperately want quantum-levitating cities in the sky to be real and I’m pretty sure slavery is a bad thing. Some players may just want to kill guards, but really this is the wrong game for them. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that if a story could contain “human interest and a semblance of truth” then readers would be more likely to overlook its fantastical nature, and this is just what Columbia provides.
Elizabeth is an enigma too. She seems drawn to overlooked coins, but won’t pick up lockpicks even though she’s the only one to use them. Perhaps she can’t be trusted with something so dangerous – in which case she better put down that machine gun rather than throw it across. That could have an eye out, which would be unfortunate in a firstperson game. It’s more likely her skirt simply doesn’t feature pockets, which seems like a missed opportunity to furnish her with a great melee weapon: a ten-ton quantum-levitating handbag.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could postpone that ball-throwing moment? Thrust Booker’s scarred hand into his pocket or his handbag and wander around Columbia observing its populace going about their daily lives. The flying city is a Chekov’s Gun itself – hung up in the sky just so it can be taken down in the second act.
Oh, and have you ever thrown that baseball at its intended targets? If you have, how do you feel about admitting it?