He Said/She Said: Narrative in ‘BioShock Infinite’

SONGBIRD
May
07

He Said/She Said: Narrative in ‘BioShock Infinite’

In our second installment of He Said/She Said, Jen and Max Parker from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette weigh in on BioShock Infinite‘s story. It should go without saying there are heavy spoilers within, so please read no further if you haven’t finished the game or if you don’t want the end spoiled. Consider yourself warned.

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Jen: BioShock Infinite has come and gone for both of us and I think we both agree it’s clearly a GoTY candidate, right?

Max: I can understand if people and outlets don’t choose it for GotY, but I can’t see anyone excluding it from the running completely. Ken Levine and company carried out a grandiose plan that aims higher than 99% of games that see the light of day. Is it a perfect game? It’s far from it (and what is?), but it transcends the typical gaming narrative, and for that it deserves gaming’s highest honor of GotY. You think it should be at least a candidate, right?

Jen: Yes, I do. I mean, despite my misgivings with it, I have to admit that it’s still a solid game with fun mechanics. I’m sure we’ll go into this more in depth later, but the mechanics are basically BioShock 3 and that’s not a totally bad thing. I giggled like a crazy person with the Murder of Crows vigor and the sky hook mechanic was out of this world fun. The game was fun and the story did attempt some lofty things. In fact, if pushed right now, I’m not sure it wouldn’t be my GoTY from what we’ve seen in 2013.

Max: That’s kind of funny because the gameplay is generally the biggest complaint I’ve seen, from reviews and impressions anyway. I enjoyed the gameplay, too. It was odd having an aim-down-sight mechanic in a BioShock game, but mixing up vigors and gunplay was a lot of fun for me.

I didn’t like the size of the arsenal in Infinite compared to the earlier BioShocks. A large arsenal, especially when the game only lets you carry two weapons, makes it difficult for me to find a weapon combo I’m comfortable with.

At least we agree on the glee that the sky hook brings. I saw a writer complain about its controls. I don’t know how Irrational could’ve made them any more intuitive.

Jen: Well, let’s say that I’m quite puzzled about the gameplay complaints. I’ve seen everything from people complaining that it was a shooter to abhorring the violence. To which I say: Did you play the first BioShock? Really? I mean, it wasn’t revolutionary, but it was fun and that was good enough for me when discussing a sequel. I can’t understand complaints about the sky hook. It was occasionally irksome to have to find a good point to grab onto the line, but that’s not a huge complaint.

Most of my complaints really lay with the story and characters (this extends to enemies). Let’s start with the enemies. Pre-release, a lot was made about the heavy hitters: the Handymen, Sirens, Boys of Silence and Mechanical George Washington. We saw the George Washington/Abraham Lincolns a lot and the Handymen appeared a decent amount of time, but the Siren was contained down to one character and the Boys of Silence were not quite as was initially described. It felt like a lot of missed opportunity to me.

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Max: The shooting mechanics weren’t revolutionary, but the mechanics of Elizabeth as a partner were. This is probably the first time in my semi-long life of gaming where an escort mission didn’t end in frustration. She got out of the way when she needed to, and lent a hand when I needed her. That was some impressive tech and was worth the delays.

I agree with you about the enemies to a point. The Boys of Silence were haphazardly thrown in there with virtually no explanation. The only reason I knew about them was because of the early marketing materials. They weren’t explained, and I’m not sure how they expected someone who went into the game blind to understand who they were and what their purpose was. They could’ve even added some dialog from Elizabeth about them. Instead, they just appear without any explanation in the final chapter. It was just bizarre to me.

Washingtons and Lincolns were minor inconveniences throughout my journey and Handymen weren’t much more menacing. Infinite really lacked a Big Daddy substitute. The build-up to facing a Big Daddy was nerve racking in BioShock. You could see it lumbering along with the prize of the little sister at his side. I remember making sure all of my weapons were reloaded and that I had plenty of hypos at the ready before taking the initial shot. That was a big part of my BioShock experience. I’m not saying I wanted a carbon copy of that in Infinite, but something in its place would have been nice.

This discussion is still in its early stages and I’ve already rattled off a list of complaints. The fact that I cited these complaints and still think Infinite is a GotY front-runner says a lot about my opinion of the game’s story.

Jen: Elizabeth’s mechanics were quite lovely. She ducked, she provided commentary without going overboard and more importantly, she was useful. When she threw me a sniper rifle in one fight, I wanted to propose to her. Having a useful companion like that was such a breath of fresh air. In fact, I hope future games which decide to force a companion on us take a note from Elizabeth.

You’re right about the Boys of Silence. They really expected you to understand what was going on and as much as I’d like to give the developers the benefit of the doubt and say they trusted us as gamers, it felt more like a hasty rewrite. Marketing — not just early marketing, we’re talking about public trailers — showed them as the alarms of the city, deafening all around them with terrible sound. Now they’re, like, summoners?

You are correct the game did lack a Big Daddy-type enemy which was a shame. The Big Daddy was a constant presence that represented real danger throughout the first game and I didn’t feel that here in this game. I think the Songbird was supposed to be that, but this brings me to my first major gripe

I guess I expected him to be this lurking foe, kind of like Nemesis from Resident Evil (Oh, God, Irrational, I promise I will never make comparisons to RE ever again). I expected Songbird to be a real danger from whom Booker and Elizabeth would need to hide and evade. I thought this because all promotional materials and trailers told us this. Instead, he is woefully underused. We see him when you bust Elizabeth out of hoc, once later when it’s convenient, and then at the end. We are constantly told that he and Elizabeth have a complex relationship, but we’re never shown that.

In BioShock we are constantly shown the strong, dynamic relationship between Big Daddy and the Little Sisters. In fact, we’re only told once about the relationship, everything else is shown to us. It makes it so powerful, I was disappointed that Elizabeth and the Songbird is handled like a footnote. When Elizabeth kills him at the end, it felt so callous and casual that I actually found it upsetting as a story enthusiast. I know I was supposed to be moved and saddened, but instead, it made me question her character and the point of his.

Max: Now we start to disagree! I had no problem with how Songbird was used. In fact, I’ll even say I loved it! He didn’t hijack the narrative. He was the looming danger in the world, which made the player think that the game was building towards a final boss battle. Then, the devs destroyed that classic gaming trope, and the Songbird becomes your friend. I prefered being surprised rather than getting what I expected.

You felt nothing at Songbird’s death?! Heartless! The relationship between Elizabeth and Songbird was vague, but I prefered it that way. It allows the player to fill in some of the blanks there. I’ve said this before: ambiguity is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling.

To me, the Songbird was a combination of father figure and best buddy. They really only had each other in Columbia. Songbird’s whole life was taking orders from Comstock and watching over Elizabeth. They genuinely trusted each other. Elizabeth was never really afraid of the wrath of Songbird. She just didn’t want him to take her back to the tower. Even as he’s about to obliterate Booker with his claw-fist, he listens to Elizabeth’s request to spare him. Booker is literally destroying Columbia in the events leading to that point, and Songbird has the opportunity to end it He stops because Elizabeth asks him to. Then she kills him! What was his crime? It makes me misty as I type this. It’s a heartbreaking betrayal from a generally innocent character. I was moved.

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Jen: Ah but you’re just taking all of that at face value. Elizabeth tells you, so it must be so? Exposition fairies never equal our own experiences. And he was never a looming danger. He appears twice before the end. Once as a genuine danger, and then as a plot convenience. I don’t like people telling me I should feel scared of a character without validating that fear. There’s a difference between ambiguity and leaving shit on the cutting room floor, hoping your audience will just take your word for it.

What was his crime, indeed? Again, since we never saw this unique relationship and were just told about it, when he dies it’s like “Why the %$#@?” It’s sad, but it’s not that heart wrenching moment I think they intended it to be. Which brings me to missed opportunity with Elizabeth…

Before I played the game, I was worried I already knew the end because they referred to Elizabeth as the Lamb of Columbia and we all know our bible enough to get that, right? Indeed, in the beginning, we see all of these precautions surrounding her such as quarantines and other hints that she is a dangerous creature. Later in the game, when Booker says he won’t allow her to kill Comstock, she opens a tear with a tornado nearby and asks Booker if he thought he could stop her. This is very telling about her character and lends a dangerous edge to her.

When she kills Songbird, it comes across as very callous. I think gamers can try to infer that perhaps Elizabeth really did become the lion — that she was something to be feared after all, but it’s quickly cast aside so we can throw out some self-congratulating fan service. See what we did? See what we did? IT’S CONNECTED TO BIOSHOCK, Y’ALL!

Max: But Songbird did validate that fear just by reducing structures to rubbles, and producing that wretched screech. It’s possible to be fearful of something in a game even if it doesn’t inflict damage to your character. I sure was frightened!

Her character absolutely has a dangerous edge, which brings us nicely to the subject of alternate timelines. She should be feared, but that level of danger depends on which timeline we’re talking about. There’s the timeline where Booker fails to rescue her, and she rains hell on New York City. There’s a lion for ya. Looking back on that timeline after the fact shows that Elizabeth really can become the true evil of Columbia, but it doesn’t have to turn out like that.

I love the Songbird death/Rapture scene just because there is so much stuff going on at that point. I was just staring at the screen, trying to process what Elizabeth was saying, and trying to digest what the hell was going on. That last 20 minutes is a  rollercoaster ride. It doesn’t spoonfeed. It reveals its remaining hand on the table whether you’re keeping up or not..

I’ll admit, in Rapture when Booker says, “A city at the bottom of the ocean? Ridiculous,” my eyes rolled so far back in my head I could see my skull.

While we’re on the topic of digesting stuff, I’ll readily admit that after careful examination I still have no idea what was going on with Lady Comstock.

Jen: Lady Comstock also felt like missed opportunity. When Comstock was unable to produce a child on his own, he had the Luteces bring forth Elizabeth from an alternate timeline. It was interesting to hear her anger and hatred toward the child — that’d definitely be an affront to a woman. I get that she was angry because of the whole “my husband had me murdered” thing, but I felt as though they wanted to show more of her vs. Elizabeth and either didn’t have the desire or the time.

And thus you run into my biggest gripe with the game. By and large, I have never been a fan of alternate timelines. Never. Comics have been doing them for decades and they always feel cheap to me because you can say or do whatever you want because, hey, alternate timeline!

Through the early stages of the game, Elizabeth appeared to be altering the current timeline to achieve her goals, rather than an alternate timeline. For instance: in the beginning you need to rescue Chun, but he’s dead, right? So she tears them to an alternate timeline where he’s alive, but several details have changed to make it so. He’s now married to a white woman, and there are other minor tweaks for him to be alive. Okay, that’s interesting and makes sense in a “self-correcting timeline” kind of way.

Then they go to get his tools which are locked up, right? So Elizabeth opens a tear and boom! The tools are where they need to be! Pump the effing brakes. How did she know the tools weren’t there because they had gone back to the original timeline where Chun was dead? How did she know they weren’t there because in this timeline, Chun is loyal to Comstock and refuses to help the Vox Populi? How does she know they weren’t there because in this timeline, Chun decided to be a baker?

There are too many leaps of faith there for me. In a self-correcting timeline, it would make sense that they merely changed things to ensure their needed outcome, but alternate timelines? No. You’re asking me to suspend disbelief way too much. I will always say that if you need to resort to alternate timelines to explain your plot, you need to turn the ship around.

Also, with alternate timelines, it’s physically impossible to drown Booker and erase all of the timelines because it’s impossible to draw a single starting point. That’s not how alternate timelines work. I mean, we see that at the end when we see a Booker at his desk that this shit’s not over, but all the dramatic disappearing Elizabeths? No.

Max: In response to your first paragraph about the Lady Comstock: I understand that part, but why/how is she a ghost and how did Comstock know that she’d be a ghost/fly off the handle? Does everyone become a ghost in this universe, and if so, why should I care if anyone dies?

Yes, alternate timelines always cause either glaring plot holes or cop-out answers to explain those glaring plot holes. Either way, its an act in futility to accurately try to explain anything that happens within a story that allows alternate timelines. It always ends up with someone saying, “It’s best not to think about it too hard.” I wouldn’t say I hate them for that reason. Oddly enough, I actually enjoy the conversations stories of that ilk spark. Hey, it brought us here, didn’t it?

To answer your Chun question, that’s explained in a few lines of dialogue. The jist of it says that the timelines don’t have major differences. It just has small variations, like having tea for breakfast instead of toast. For example, in our alternate timeline I’m still writing a debate about BioShock Infinite, but maybe I hate the game in that universe, or maybe I didn’t even finish the game and I’m just acting like I did. Is it a cop out? Yeah sure, but that’s the nature of the story. Just like using “the force” as an excuse for everything that happens in the Star Wars universe.

Now to answer your “Booker” point… I don’t have an answer because you’re absolutely right, and that went through my mind as it was happening. There are an infinite (hey, that’s the name of the game) number of timelines, and therefore an infinite number of Bookers. If you’re telling me that somehow all of those Bookers decided to drown themselves at the same time, well you’re crazier than a plot with alternate timelines. The main Booker, our Booker, wouldn’t erase all of the Elizabeths (Elizabi?). He’s just one Booker and since he was is the father of Elizabeth, he wouldn’t even erase his own Elizabeth from his own timeline. A suicide doesn’t erase the existence of that person’s child!

Now that the dust has settled and BioShock Infinite’s honeymoon stage is over, I’m not sure I think it’s better than the first BioShock. I went back and revisited the original to jog my memory and it has held up so very well. The opening ten minutes of that game will be in my memory hopefully forever. It’s utter perfection.

The jury is still out on the final decision of BioShock superiority. You’ll have to ask me in a year. The comparison gets difficult because of how different they are. They’re barely sequels. I give Infinite credit for swinging for the fences and giving us something that is still very special regardless of the Dr. Steinman-esque surgery we’ve performed on it in this piece. It executed a story about alternate timelines that is as airtight as that kind of story can be, while being a social commentary about American history, and getting very meta about the games industry. It’s still a smart game created by smart people.

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Jen: Well, now, see, they “explained” Lady Comstock in a few lines of dialog, too. They were able to bring a version of her through to their timeline via Elizabeth. (I’d say she may not be dead in an alternate timeline, but it’s clear she’s pissed about Comstock having her killed so… best suspend that disbelief!) Remember they say that the reason she is going crazy and is angry is because many of her emotions are as Elizabeth would imagine them. I took it kind of like that book, Solaris, where people “return” but they return as their loved ones remember them. In BioShock, that entire thing is head scratching and requires a lot of trust on the player’s part.

And NO. I refuse to accept the lines of dialog about Chun. You have to think of what tiny differences can have huge impacts on your life, no matter your timeline. It’s called the Butterfly Effect (no, not the sh***y Ashton Kutcher movie) or Chaos Theory. BioShock Infinite failed to captivate me enough that I was willing to to accept cop-out answers because I expected far better of Irrational.

I don’t want to sound like I didn’t like the game. I did. I enjoyed it and it was fun. But it wasn’t as great as it could have been. (If you want proof of this, check out the art book. All of the cast-aside ideas make for a sad read)  For me, the game’s just not as good as BioShock, by any measure. Maybe that’s unfair because we’re talking about a game that is, almost unarguably, considered to be one of the greatest games of this generation, if not the past decade.

For me, this was a game best played, enjoyed, and then cast from mind because now I’ve picked it apart to where I sound like I didn’t enjoy it at all. Now that I really think about it, I might even be okay saying I enjoyed the gameplay but the story left me very cold. This me. Maybe me in an alternate timeline never stopped reading X-Men and Batman comics and that me loooooves alternate timelines and thinks this game is a-friggin’-mazing. Who knows?

Max: Yep, that pretty much encapsulates the BioShock Infinite experience. It’s a great game, but putting it under the microscope like so many have, and like we’re doing right now, exposes clear problems with the story and gameplay structure. If it were given the same treatment as 99.9% of games that come out, e.g. game gets released -> game gets reviewed -> game gets forgotten, it would’ve been better off. It was treated a tad unfairly in that regard.

So at the end of it all, do I still like the game? Of course. I’ll go as far to say that I love it. It’s still a special game to me, but it’s far from perfect. But what game is?

About Jen Bosier

Jen lives with her husband, daughter and super-villain cats. If she's not reading comics or engrossed in a WH40k novel, she's probably telling you which horror games you should be playing. She's a recovering member of the PC Master Race, and a reluctant Xbox fangirl. You can also find her on the Furious Fourcast.

3 Comments

  • May 7, 2013 @ 18:43 pm

    You guys touched on my exact thoughts.

    I chugged through the game, loving the alternate timeline things and letting some things (the chun stuff) go. The last 10 minutes though, they unraveled everything the game had taught us up until that point. The Elizabeth’s disappearing makes no sense at all when, only minutes before, it’s explained that you CAN’T do that. UGH.’

    Also, I hated Songbird, and was glad he died. He was creepy mcgee.

    Reply
    • Max Parker
      May 7, 2013 @ 19:33 pm

      Thanks, sir. Did you hate Songbird because he was scary or because he was worthless? I liked him, but I can understand the gripes many had with him.

      Alternate timelines….they never really make much sense. Still, the alternate timelines made more sense than Lady Comstock’s ghost.

      Reply
      • May 7, 2013 @ 21:51 pm

        I hated him because he was one of the only legitimately creepy elements in the game. I hate the feeling of being chased.

        Alternate timelines are tough, but doable. There are comics/movies/etc that handle them well, in a way that seems plausible in the world they created (HEROES, The Butterfly Effect, 2009′s Star Trek). This just seemed lazy; as if they didn’t read the ending they wrote.

        Also, yeah, the ghost made no sense whatsoever.

        Reply

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