Apr 122013

“You’re a monster!” Elizabeth says, and Booker doesn’t refute her. What would be the point? She’s right.

BioShock Infinite is a violent game, and it has to be. That’s a contrast to BioShock, an equally violent game where combat conveyed nothing about its main character and had little to do with the game’s themes other than spurring the player to engage in its various economies. Any stimulus — using plasmids to solve environmental puzzles, for instance — would have sufficed. That’s not so in Columbia. Violence is essential to who Booker DeWitt is, and what Columbia is. Their story cannot be told without it.

The first moments of Booker’s journey through Columbia seem to reveal an idyllic city in the sky, but these scenes only thinly disguise the brutality at the core of its society. Within moments of emerging from his rocket capsule, Booker sees a sign proclaiming that “The seed of the prophet shall sit the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man.” Flickering candles, trickling water, and angelic singing soften the blow of the words, but Booker’s journey through this chapel culminates with his being drowned in a rather vicious “baptism”.

When Booker gets out into the city it seems again a peaceful and welcoming place. The city is having a fair, and everyone is out and about. Yet the statue of the prophet holds a sword, hardly a shepherd’s implement, and some of the posters show children armed with guns, an image that will be even more disturbingly recapitulated later at Soldier’s Field. Chatting cops show off a vicious-looking device and boast of how they wish they could “bust some Vox skull”. Carnival attractions based on shooting the Vox are well-attended, but the high striker and the juggler have no audience. The raffle itself is a contest for the right to be first to pelt an interracial couple with baseballs.

Once that’s revealed, violence seemingly explodes out of nowhere, but really it has been present all along, bound up in the fabric of the city. Columbia is a gun pointed at the head of the world, meant to burn that “Sodom below” clean of sin. The man wielding the weapon is Zachary Comstock, whose own wife judges him a “monster”. His solution to the problem of worldly sin is very telling. He does not minister; he does not witness. He takes those who will follow him up into the sky and plans to slaughter the rest.

If BioShock is a universe of constants and variables, then one constant is what kind of man walks away from the river in 1890. As Elizabeth and her “mother” both attest, he is a monster. The only difference between them is that Booker sees what he really is, a truth that Comstock rejects.

For Comstock, the waters of baptism transform his past and future atrocities into heroism. The Hall of Heroes explicitly frames the massacre of women and children at Wounded Knee as a triumph over bloodthirsty savages. He also heaps praise on himself for Columbia’s intervention in the Boxer Rebellion, a justified punishment for the lies of wicked Chinese nationalists. The propaganda here matches classic American distortions of such events, but it is telling that the Columbians who object to this display do not complain about their false depiction of Comstock’s victims. Rather, Cornelius Slate and his compatriots denounce the display because it does not award the real perpetrators of these acts their due credit. They don’t contest the righteousness of these murders.

Booker, in contrast, knows the immorality of his deeds, but this hardly makes him an admirable person. Recognizing his sins, he continued to commit them. He left the army to break strikes for the Pinkertons, then found work as a heavy in New York. Killing became his business, so when Elizabeth tries to thank him for saving her, he merely growls, “Job’s a job.” Booker doesn’t fight to protect others, or promote his beliefs. He murders scores of people because he believes that will wipe away his debts. If acknowledging his own evil makes Booker a better man than Comstock, refusing to change it makes him a worse one. The monster is the constant.

Booker has to be this way for BioShock Infinite to earn its closing moments. This is a game that ends with the main character, the player’s avatar, getting ingloriously killed by his own daughter. Booker doesn’t go out a hero, he dies like a chump, and the measure of how well Infinite‘s story works on an emotional level is that this seems so natural and right. Part of the reason it goes so well is because the player instinctively understands that there is no third-road alternative. There is no “good” Booker hiding in some corner of the BioShock multiverse. He is always a monster. The player has seen the monster in Comstock, and played the monster in Booker — either way, it always ends in blood.

Infinite has to walk a fine line with this approach, however. The goal is to keep Booker sympathetic enough that the player wants him to succeed, yet unpleasant enough that the player accepts the necessity of his death. In part, the game achieves this by posing his enemies to the player in much the same way that Comstock framed is own opponents. Booker kills the Columbians, but that’s okay because they are wicked American racists. Booker kills the Vox, but that’s okay because they are bloodthirsty savages. Lest you think I’m stretching the comparison too far, let me remind you that the Vox literally nail the scalps of Columbia’s elite to a board.

The player may be taken in by this trick, but Booker is not. When Elizabeth accuses him of being a monster, he doesn’t protest that the Columbians are really awful people who deserved what they got. He merely points out that they will fight to recapture her. There’s no moral dimension to his killing; a job’s a job, is all. His only concern is getting Elizabeth safely out of the city — in which regard making her invulnerable in battle is a shortcoming of the system.

What’s unfortunate about Infinite‘s combat is that it delivers its culminating point in the Hall of Heroes, with about 2/3 of the game left to go. The painted dioramas of Comstock’s propaganda, recalling the earlier encounter with the carnival attractions, and the revelations embedded in Slate’s ravings provide the last ideas we need in order to understand the game’s protagonist and antagonist. It’s telling that the fight between the remnants of Slate’s men and the founders as Booker emerges from the Hall of Heroes is one of the last times that an encounter structure has any narrative dimension. From here on, the combat has no story to tell, and feels like it’s there merely to pass the time while other aspects of the plot wind their way through the game’s quantum babble.

The narrative problem with BioShock Infinite‘s combat, then, is not its existence, or even its degree, but its volume and timing. Violence lies at the heart of Columbia, in both the sharp explosion of its genocidal mission and the slow, grinding brutality of its racial and class oppression. That came to the city through its founder, Comstock. It must find its reflection in his counterpart, Booker. That said, it is not wrong to wish that Infinite were less violent. Recoiling at Booker’s deeds is the best possible response to have to them. The player should not be comfortable with the things Booker does, but he needs to understand Booker. He needs to know that Booker is the kind of man for whom bloodshed is the only solution. The violence of BioShock Infinite successfully shows that the monster cannot be washed away. It can only be drowned.

  4 Responses to “The Constant Monster”

  1. I like this! Some thoughts.

    You say “There is no ‘good’ Booker hiding in some corner of the BioShock multiverse” but I felt like this was left unclear by the game’s storytelling and the ways it stepped on its own fiction. It was made clear that there were multiple copies of every other character, based on how you watch other Bookers at other lighthouses, and how you’re drowned by all the copies of Elizabeth. And yet somehow, you were the One True Booker, the one that by erasing him, Elizabeth could get rid of all of them? How does that work? The multiverse existed well before Booker and Elizabeth, right?

    And then there’s the bit after the credits, which while ambiguous, led me to believe they were suggesting that in yet another universe, Booker finally gets some sort of fresh start with Elizabeth.

    The game wanted me to identify with and like Booker throughout, and I didn’t feel as though it was condemning him (me) and his (my) actions. Only Comstock. (This was exacerbated by the fact that I kept jumping to new dimensions where god only knew what had happened, and what I was responsible for.)

    Consider the way Booker is written, and the performance Baker gives. I actually thought that while gruff, he was written so we’d find him winning and likable, for the most part. We’re meant to empathize with him, seeing as how we’re both strangers in a strange land – his wonderment at Columbia is our wonderment, and his understanding of how awful it really is mirrors our own trajectory.

    You say that his only focus was on getting Elizabeth out of the city, as though he doesn’t care for her and only ever cared about the job, but there was more of an arc to it than that–he was initially going to take her and deliver her to some unknown person in New York, but eventually changed his mind and decided to truly rescue her and take her to Paris. In other words, he redeems himself of his “job’s a job” past by deciding that this time, it was worth reneging on his deal and helping her. It was actually a classic romantic comedy arc–the whole, “I started dating you as a dare from my friends, but then I developed real feelings for you!” second act thing that sets up the third act reunion. In a selfless act, as he was willing to give up his chance at having his debts wiped away in order to save Elizabeth. That (clichéd) arc felt designed to show us that Booker was a sympathetic, dynamic character.

    I think those kinds of things demonstrate that the game is more of a muddle than what you’re describing. I liked the story and thought it was interestingly crafted, but I also don’t give it as much credit. With all the divergent directions they could’ve gone – dealing with childhood trauma, lost parents, the emotional ties between a father and a daughter, metaphorical rebirth, past sin, religious and ethnic persecution, etc… It’s potentially about a TON of things, and it’s frustrating that after potentially being about all of those things, in the end… the best argument for what it was about is that it was about violence. It was yet another game that condemns its protagonist after forcing players to kill a thousand people. (And furthermore, I really just did think some of the violence was silly – exploding heads, goofy decapitation animations, etc.)

    Spec Ops felt like the definitive “violent video game that’s about violence,” particularly in how it tackled that goal with single-mindedness that felt clear and deliberate in a way that Infinite didn’t. Infinite itself didn’t convince me that it was built with the intention of making me recoil at its violence. It feels like it includes, and even celebrates violence in a much less thoughtful way.

  2. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. The game’s treatment of its quantum reality makes exactly what’s going on with Booker a bit of a question. If we take the story at face value, though, and accept that there are some elements that can’t be changed, then Booker being evil seems to be one of them. I don’t fully agree with your point about the post-credits scene – I would be more comfortable with that interpretation if the calendar on the desk said October 9 rather than October 8 (the same date as giving Anna to Robert).

    That’s not to say that I think Infinite wants us to hate Booker (or ourselves). I think Booker’s unpleasant nature has to be there to give some distance from him, though. Otherwise the ending is too much of a downer. Too, most of the moments that make Booker seem less awful (including the whole reversal of behavior arc) come after the Hall of Heroes, and I can only agree that the violence does nothing for the story after that point.

    As for games being “violent commentaries on violence”, I agree that Spec Ops did this better, and frankly Hotline Miami covered Infinite‘s commentaries on violence and on the nature of choices in games with considerably more verve and efficiency. This strikes me as a spot where about everything that needs to be said, and perhaps everything that can be said at the AAA level, has already been said.

    Infinite actually strikes me as a rather poor commentary on violence per se, and you’re right that if we look at it this way it has a serious Far Cry 3 problem. Thematically Infinite rambles over a lot of ground without ever really putting together a coherent idea that goes with it. I do think the violence works, however, when Infinite is viewed as a pessimistic character study of an intrinsically monstrous person. And, I think this is the only way to look at the game as a narrative success. Its study of Columbia is not compelling, its relationship arc is (as you mention) clichéd, and the gears of its direct plot, obviously intended to be a clockwork beauty, grind constantly. As an exploration of two sides of a monster it’s at least emotionally effective, although any larger thematic points (and indeed practically all my interest in its world) evaporate when it finally cuts to black.

    • Yeah, and having gone back and read your previous two posts (jeez Kirk, go read Sparky’s blog why don’t you), I see we’re on the same page regarding a lot of this stuff. I hadn’t realized that about October 8 – (I was distracted because that’s my birthday!) – that changes things a bit.

      What’s funny is, you mention how it was emotionally effective, and I agree – the game really struck me in a way that few games do, purely on emotional impact. It was a lot like LOST in that way, though it certainly lacked that wonderful humanity that LOST could have when it was at its (rare) best – that show gave up on trying to explain all its mysteries, but I personally thought the finale worked anyway, because I was happy to get emotional payoff from the relationships I was invested in (i.e. Juliet and Sawyer at the vending machine).

      But yeah, “rambles over a lot of ground without ever really putting together a coherent idea” is a good way of summing it up. To me that feels like the ultimate problem with the game, and possibly with the idea of putting together a game this ambitious in the AAA space. It sidles up to all these ideas but in the end, it never commits to any of them. (And the shooting is about 1/5th as enjoyable as Far Cry 3, so it doesn’t even have that going for it.) That’s the source of a lot of my disappointment in the game, I think, on top of the nuts and bolts design stuff and the other surface-level problems – that it walked up to so many doors and then never really opened them. It peered into the tears, but it never went through.

  3. […] murder of Andrew Ryan — the game simply does it in a cutscene, because this is a murder Booker wants to commit.  But Comstock was on the verge of revealing something — something Booker doesn’t want […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.