Warning: If you have not finished BioShock Infinite, do NOT read this article.
No matter how many times you play Bioshock Infinite, you will always drown.
Infinite is a game that we are going to be talking about for a long time. I applaud it, first of all, for not always assuming the player is stupid, that they need to be handfed. Infinite never gives too much away about its overall plot, and some have argued whether it truly explores many of the issues it raises. Overall, Infinite never forces understanding on you. You can blow through the game, throwing enemies into the air and shotgunning Motorized Patriots until your heart’s content. But Infinite does allow you to learn, so it operates often as a teacher, a guide – it gives you all the pieces of the puzzle and asks you to put them together yourself. After reading pages of theories about What It All Means, I am constantly fascinated by the way players piece it together differently. The truth is the puzzle never changes. It always has 1000 pieces and a final image of Booker DeWitt, lungs deprived of air, blacking out – dying – in a clear, blue stream.
Infinite discusses the ideas of ‘constants and variables’ – the fact that, in each reality, some things will remain the same and some things will be different. If we step outside of the game world, we find that every single playthrough begins and ends at the same point: from baptismal waters upon entering Columbia to the baptismal waters you finally drown in. In much the same way Bioshock commented on the single-player experience in video games, Infinite takes an even more meta approach. Dan Harmon would love this game. Infinite comments on the nature of video games. It always presents the same game world and the same set of events. There is no escaping that loop. You can consider the video game world the constant and the player the variable, as each time they play, they progress slightly differently.
However, the story never changes. Even the ‘choices’ that you, as Booker DeWitt, make in game have no bearing on how the story unfolds. There is no copy of Infinite where you are not drowned by Elizabeth, no copy where you can walk into Elizabeth’s cage and shoot her point blank through the skull thus completely overhauling the storyline. There’s no copy where you don’t win the raffle and don’t get found out by a policeman as you decide whether or not to throw a ball at an interracial couple. More than a commentary on the nature of video games, Infinite is a commentary on the nature of storytelling and human beings. Stories, by their nature, have to be constant otherwise they’re not stories at all.
A story exists, once written or told, forever in a straight line. There is always the same beginning, middle and ending. Harry Potter is always The Boy Who Lived, Ender will always be the most gifted student in the Battle Room, Ripley will always survive her first encounter with the Xenomorphs, hell, even Jay-Z will always have 99 problems. You may wish to change the story, but you do so only in your own head. These forms of art – our consumable media – are realities that we cannot change. They are the constants. We exist as the variables. Humans, and our interpretations of these art forms, are the variables.
You only need to Google “Bioshock Infinite Ending” to be swimming in a sea of theories and justifications for Infinite’s plot. The fact is, the story always plays out the same way but each and every person finds a different meaning, a different explanation behind it. Each person feels a different connection with it. Each person constructs their own world outside Columbia, outside the events we play through in Infinite. There is a world beyond that digital curtain, perhaps, but it is not a reality that we are privy to. We can only assume the stories that are being told outside of Columbia, and we are likely to assume that many different stories are being told endogenous to the closed system we know as Bioshock Infinite.
Simply by writing these thoughts myself, I have opened up another ‘reality’, another variable interpretation of the same story that was presented to you, your friends, to IGN, to the people I follow on Twitter and to the millions of people who have played and finished Infinite. I believe that this is where the idea of video games as art begins and ends.
The end of Infinite sees you standing with Elizabeth on a wooden pier, just outside a lighthouse. The sun is setting, and a dim yellow glow falls across her face. Elizabeth is trying to explain the concepts that build the story – the concepts that the video game is based on. Booker, amazed by the water stretching to the horizon and the amount of lighthouses that stand motionless against the calm ocean, states
“There are so many choices.”
“They all lead us to the same place, where it started.”
Booker, headstrong as he is, snaps from amazement to disgust
“No one tells me where to go”
The entire game is based on being told where to go. Booker DeWitt himself is a constant. Elizabeth is a constant. Unfortunately for Booker, you tell him where to go and you are yourself told where to go by the story. It’s heavy stuff, right? I mean, the further you distance yourself from the story, the more and more constant it becomes. There are no variables at all, except for the ones you take away, in your own mind, when the credits disappear into the roof of your television screen or your computer monitor.
I remember reading through Ender’s Game, a sci-fi story about a young boy with so much talent that he is recruited to an intergalactic army before he is even 10 years old. He is such a genius that he never ever loses a single battle in his life – whether that be in computer simulated battles, fist fights with much stronger students or in the zero gravity arena known as the Battle Room. He always wins. Winning is constant.
In this way, Ender’s Game is telling you where to go. You may not be an active participant in its events, but you are there, in each passage. Watching. You cannot take a left or right turn (or in this case, an up or down) away from this story unless you do so yourself. Unless you let your imagination guide you. Ender’s story exists in a straight line, like Mario Bros., from left to right and never backward, sideways, or up and down.
I often wondered how the story would have changed if Ender had lost just a single battle. Instead of seeming like this God-like entity, incapable of defeat, the entire story would have changed to reveal how that loss affected him and the people around him. Is that a reality that exists? Is there an Ender’s Game where he loses? Of course not. Not in print. Not in anywhere but my own mind. The story exists in a straight line, forever, but I act as a variable attached to that constant and I can imagine that story play out however I like.
Infinite is not about our interaction with a fictional character and his or her game world. It’s not about how we talk to NPC’s or how our real-world sense of morality affects who we throw a ball at. Infinite isn’t even about all that cusp-of-human-knowledge science. Infinite is about how human thought, emotion, imagination are required to interact with a story. It’s a game about how those of us who play video games create our own stories, our own constants, in our mind. It’s a game about how we, as variables, can ourselves be storytellers.
You may put the pieces of the puzzle together differently than I, but in the end, we will always drown.
That’s the real beauty behind Bioshock Infinite.