Good Writing in Video Games: Bioshock Infinite

This follows on from my first post about the previous two games. Firstly, would you kindly watch the opening video? It is just as dramatic as the opening of the first Bioshock and about a hundred times more surreal. By the way, the phrase does not feature… but I thought I would drop it in for the sake of posterity… or did I have another reason…? Please read on!

WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS POST AND A VIDEO EXPLAINING THE ABSTRACT ENDING

The third game in the series is a surprise departure from the impossible underwater city of Rapture: by 50 years and several vertical miles. It is 1912 and this impossible city is in the sky. Built in the 1890s to host the World’s Fair (which in our world was held in Chicago), it was founded by religious icon Zachary Comstock and became a symbol of the rise of American Exceptionalism at the end of the 19th century. Suspended in the air through a combination of giant blimps, balloons and “quantum levitation” it could go anywhere in the world. However, it soon seceded from The Union (The USA) when, against the direct order of Congress, it brutally and single-handedly ended The Boxer Rebellion. In real life, the uprising was defeated through an eight nation alliance (UK, USA, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary).

The city was called home to answer for its action but Comstock refused and declared it an independent state. The system of government changed radically from a free city under control of the USA to a theocratic Police State and highly segregated city. Comstock set himself up as The Great Prophet and worshipped the USA’s Founding Fathers as modern Saints.

Similarly to Rapture, tensions in the city are on the verge of boiling over into civil war between the “Founders” (effectively WASPs) and the “Vox Populi” – a ragtag group who want equal rights for women and ethnic minorities (of course blacks, Chinese, and Irish workers). They are quasi- Civil Rights, quasi 19th century Social Liberals. Their leader is Daisy Fitzroy, a popular and charismatic leader who can be compared in many ways to Rapture’s Frank Fontaine – in fact, most of the people and situations can be compared similarly to Rapture and there is good reason for that… all will be revealed. Fitzroy had been a housemaid at Comstock’s house until he framed her for the murder of his wife.

videogamer.com

Booker Dewitt

Enter our game’s protagonist – a Private Detective who has massive debts and a reputation in tatters – he is offered a chance to clear his name and his debts: go to Colombia and rescue a girl. He is emotionally scarred from the events of the Battle of Wounded Knee and really needs to clean up and get his life back on track. This he is offered by Robert Lutece – one of a pair of apparent twins who are responsible for all of the advanced technology of Columbia. Dewitt arrives in Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, a young woman trapped inside monument island – a giant statue of the mythical figure of Columbia. What’s more, she is protected there by a giant steampunk robotic bird-like creature.

He quickly realises that the Prophet had foretold of his coming and labelled Dewitt as the “False Prophet”. This is where the combat element begins – Dewitt is chosen in a special raffle to punish an inter-racial couple. Only, before he can throw the baseball – either at the couple of the announcer telling him to punish the couple – the AD tattoo on the back of his hand is recognised as the mark of the False Prophet.

Elizabeth

After shooting his way through a few levels, Dewitt arrives at monument island to rescue Elizabeth. Curiously, she has an ability to open “tears” – transdimensional portals to other worlds. During the combat, this can be used to collect weapons or bring through defensive blimps, or sky hooks. It is well integrated into the game system and fundamental to much of the plot. At several points the pair must cross into other dimensions to reach people or places inaccessible to them from the previous one. I think, in all, about three crossing are made (leaving out the final surprising one which I will come to).

She is responsible for the tears appearing across the city, windows into bizarre worlds and sometimes our own. At one point she opens a window into 1980s Paris and we hear Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears. Anachronistic music features heavily throughout the game courtesy of various music acts (my favourite is a Barbershop Quartet version of “God Only Knows”). This music gets to Columbia through the tears that Elizabeth is causing and are produced by Albert and Jeremiah Fink – the city’s two most prominent musicians.

Civil War

The first trans-dimensional crossing leads them to a parallel universe where a civil war is under way. The Vox Populi have risen up and are proving just as brutal in the extermination of their enemies. In this universe, Booker Dewitt has become a symbol of resistance – but he is dead there. The presence of a living Booker Dewitt undermines her coup and she turns her forces against the new arrival. Oh great, so now not only do the Founders want to kill you, the Vox Populi do too!

The war comes to a tragic end and Dewitt drowns Comstock aboard his zeppelin… but that is not the end of the story because he is about to find out that he is Comstock. There are so many twists here they will make your head spin so I am going to list them. I advise you to watch the video afterwards for a full explanation.

  • Comstock and Dewitt are the same person from different realities
  • Dewitt must die at the point he becomes Comstock – in all realities – to prevent the tragedies that happen in the worlds where Columbia exists
  • Elizabeth is Dewitt’s daughter and he gave her up as a baby – to the Luteces for Comstock. Comstock could not have a child so he sought to travel to another universe to find one where he had a daughter
  • It is never clear why the Luteces urge Dewitt to get Elizabeth back
  • Her original name was Anna Dewitt (hence the AD tattoo)
  • The Luteces are not twins. They too are the same person – albeit from different realities. Their combined genius led to the development of quantum mechanics and the tears
  • It is not clear how and why Elizabeth developed the ability to “tear” – though it is possible the Luteces experiments caused it

The Bioshock Universe

So what does any of this have to do with Rapture? or with either of the first two games? You might have guessed that all this talk of tears into other worlds might have something to do with it. This is what happens after the final battle when Dewitt sends Songbird to destroy Monument Island for good…

Hey, that place looks familiar!

Multiple Universe Theory is at the core of the game, so a visit to Rapture would not have been out of the question… but it is what happens afterwards where it goes from bizarre to abstract. Remember that lighthouse from the very beginning of the first game? When Dewitt and Elizabeth leave the bathysphere and enter a similar looking lighthouse, they end up in a place where there are thousands of walkways leading to millions and millions of alternate realities.

Similarities with Rapture

By now you are probably growing a bit weary so I am going to list it in bullet points

  • Charismatic leader – a capitalist fanatic under the water, and a religious fanatic in the sky
  • Charismatic challengers to the status quo who are just as bad  – Frank Fontaine in the first game, Daisy Fitzroy in Infinite. Both pretend to represent the common people
  • Blood relatives – Jack of the first game is the son of Andrew Ryan, Dewitt is Comstock
  • Genius inventors inadvertently responsible for the tragedies of the city – Brigid Tennenbaum in the first game, the Luteces in Infinite
  • I will add more as I think of them

A DL game was released last year. Entitled Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea, it features Booker Dewitt in Rapture in 1958 – mere weeks before the outbreak of the civil war. A young woman named Elizabeth comes to visit this Dewitt – she is looking for a missing girl. This version of Booker Dewitt is also a PI but it is very doubtful that this is the same Dewitt or Elizabeth, and there is some debate whether it is even the same city of Rapture. I haven’t played it but I have watched the opening moments. It was interesting seeing the city of Rapture alive thriving.

Last week, Irrational Games closed but Ken Levine promised the franchise would continue. I am looking forward to what the future of Bioshock might bring.

Slightly on topic, but this post is relevant to The Daily Post for 28/2/14

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3 thoughts on “Good Writing in Video Games: Bioshock Infinite

  1. Great analysis of the game, Matt. My brother got me the second Bioshock for my Christmas, but because of time constraints and editing New Salem Chronicles: The 13 Reapers, I haven’t been able to play much. I love the game, though. It’s one of my favorites of the year. I hadn’t thought anything about Bioshock: Infinite because I preferred Rapture underwater, but I’m definitely going to be picking this up. Some of the best stories are coming from video games and Mathair and I can see that the mainstream media is picking up on that as well because there are a lot of movie adaptations. Awesome post!

    1. I too prefer the original first two games. I much prefer the first game for story and the second for gameplay – the problems of the first were ironed out.

      Infinite is a good game and with the new direction I’m looking forward to what the future of the series might bring. I’m sorely tempted to download the Burial at Sea as a birthday treat for myself at the end of the month.

  2. Pingback: Video Game Review: Bioshock The Collection – Random Review Site

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