Schrödinger's Game

by Fapmaster5000, last updated 03 Apr 2013 06:42


Schrodinger's Game

I recently completed Bioshock: Infinite, and found myself contemplating what has been certainly the most interesting game of 2013, and perhaps since the Great Disaster of 2012. Upon completion, I found myself mostly satisfied, then, as I prodded it, increasingly irritated, and then, after a night's rest, relatively settled.

It is not a perfect game. None are. It is a good game, certainly, but does it live up to it's pedigree? No. Yes. Neither. Both. SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The game is immensely, impressively, aware of itself, and not in a funny way. Before I dig into the meat of this essay, whether it succeeds or fails at its most critical juncture, I must address the minor flaws1 that are relatively inarguable.

  1. Wave combat. - This little bastard of a game trope has pissed me off for years, with the most egregious offender being Dragon Age 2 a few years back. It plays out like this: go to door, door is locked, fight 785698568 dudes, door unlocks, repeat. There are a couple of points in Bioshock where this gets a bit much, and I found myself wondering if Columbia had a fountain that just shat out police officers. As Zacaj pointed out in his post, this peaks around the "Steal the Airship" part, but it also returns near the end, where it's more troubling as the player is being driven along my an increasing narrative tempo and detached mind-fuck, only to have the game's own metaphysical climax being derailed by "hey, look, another combat wave".
  2. Wonky Mouse Control - Hardly as grave a sin as the first, but its controls are not Modern Warfare levels of precise, which comes to be a problem for me, as the game is increasingly relying upon wave combat. Look, game, if you're going to throw ten bajillion gunmen at me? Give me a mouse control that lets me deal with it without "eh, fuck it, autoaim". Like many games of this generation, the PC controls seem sloppy, with console-style auto-correction being used to "bend" shots into the target, which for old school purists like myself, is doubly offensive. It busts my shins, then gives me the participation trophy, anyway. Still, not the game's fault as much as this hardware generation's focus on controllers over keyboard/mice. I knew this was coming the moment that "use iron sights" was bound to a key, not right-mouse, which was dedicated to dual wielding, like a second trigger. Right then, I just sighed, rebound, and got ready for rhythm based combat2.
  3. Go Back to the Beginning of the End of the Beginning, Again - Like Zac said, there's a fucking lot of recursive levels in this game, where you loop endlessly, before breaking the… uh… this might be a bigger issue than it looks, so I'll come back to it.

There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

The Cat is Dead: Why Bioshock: Infinite is a Brilliant Failure

Answering the Wrong Question

The ending of Infinite is, in many ways, a direct response to the ending of Bioshock3. At the climax of Bioshock, you confronted Andrew Ryan, the madman, the "tyrant", and found only a broken man, whose idealism and compromises had clashed to destroy his vision, who had failed to stop the destruction of Rapture, and who had built his own watery tomb. Ryan calls you out, gives the epic "A man chooses, a slave obeys!" speech, and then goes out with suicide-by-player, in one of the greatest moments in video game history.

That scene, in one go, calls into question our understanding of game mechanics, game story, and the plot of Bioshock, while also providing an awesome litmus test of Andrew Ryan himself: was this a redemptive moment, a tragic one, or a villainous one? It truly was an amazing climax.

The problem was, the game still had four hours or so to go. While what came after was fun, the "new" villain, Fontaine, was simply a mustache-twirling asshole, and the final boss fight was just so conventional and uninspired that it paled in comparison to Ryan's confrontation-philosophical-argument-death-statement that the bulk of the gaming world gave it a resounding "meh".

The ending to Infinite, then, is a direct reply to that halfhearted flailing (often held as Bioshock's sole major flaw). Instead of a boss battle, we get an hour of pure mind-fuck, as "tears" - holes in the fabric of reality - fling open with increasing tempo, and the game jumps from world to world as the player, as Booker DeWitt, tries again and again to rescue Elizabeth from her captors. The closer we get to the end, the more radical the tears in reality become, and the deeper down Booker and Elizabeth's personal rabbit-holes of tragedy we descend, until, after the final "battle", we simply plunge, face first, into the deepest waters of personal choice and responsibility, the tears now serving as doors into other worlds that may be or will be, both characters taking turns pushing onward towards a surely grim destination, or holding back for the sake of the other.

It's a truly beautiful moment, climaxing in real heart-stabber of an ending4.

It's the wrong ending, though.

Not that it doesn't work. It works, spectacularly well, at resolving the primary mystery of Elizabeth, and of Booker, and Comstock, and every other branch in this twisting multiverse. It's philosophical, it's deep, and it resonates, but it's not ending to the game we were playing.

Cursed With Awesome

Bioshock: Infinite is an absolutely brilliant failure, not in the way that we would address "Spec Ops: The Line", in that it tried something astounding, and must be seen despite its failures, but in that it contains so much brilliance that its whole cannot equal the sum of its parts.

In many ways, Infinite is not one game, but two, and either would have been a worthy title, but together, they fight for screen time, and the whole is irreparably damaged.

The ending of Infinite is the ending to the apparent lesser of the stories, the framing device used to get us into Columbia, not the story that dominates much of the game, and which deserved far more than it was given.

To explain this, the stories must be extracted - though I have already warned of spoilers, what follows will be deconstruction, which is to spoilers what thermonuclear devices are to explosives.

Bioshock: Infinite is the story of Booker DeWitt, a troubled war veteran turned private investigator, who takes a mysterious job in order to wipe away a crushing debt. The job is to rescue a girl, Elizabeth, from the floating city of Columbia, and the clutches of its "prophet", Zachary Hale Comstock. Appropriately, Elizabeth is held in a tower, and our hero must steal her away.

As they journey through the city, they come to grips with one another, Elizabeth, the innocent, and Booker, the cynic, reflecting each other as they attempt, again and again, to escape the false paradise in the sky, as Columbia grows more and more sinister with each twist and tear.

The two learn more of each other, as Booker kills and Elizabeth discovers that she is the "seed of the prophet", and destined to "drown in flames the mountains of men". They cut skirt about Daisy Fitzroy's Vox Populi rebellion, flirt with Jeremiah Fink's corporate malfeasance, and thread the needle of civil war, Booker growing from caring only about escaping the city, to caring about saving the girl (from Columbia, from Comstock, and from herself), and Elizabeth growing from caring about everything, to caring only about bringing the tragedy to an end.

The final revelations come in a flurry. Comstock is not Elizabeth's father. Comstock killed the Luteces (twins/doubles who designed the quantum tears that power Columbia) for mysterious reasons, but left them outside of time. Comstock used the tears to go into another world and take Elizabeth from… Booker DeWitt.

There's barely enough time to register that last one. Elizabeth is Anna DeWitt, whose initials are carved in the back of Booker's hand as penance for selling his daughter to "wipe away the debt".

The Luteces, trapped outside of time, brought Booker here to save his daughter, but his memories are scrambled by the collapsing timelines, creating the interplay between the sale of Anna and the rescue of Elizabeth.

The two protagonists bounce through many worlds, all reflecting the same pattern of "constants" and "variables", in a unique spin on the Many Worlds Theory, until they come to realize, in a combination of righteous vengeance, penance, and clarity, that the only way to make this tragedy stop is to kill Comstock before he is born.

The climax comes as a reflection on redemption. Years before, Booker, torn apart by his crimes at the Massacre at Wounded Knee, went down the riverside to seek baptism, but, unable to forgive himself, refused it and fled.

Except, in another world, he didn't.

In another branch, he took that baptism, and "washed away his sins" - just like his debt - and emerged reborn - as Zachary Hale Comstock.

In order to break the stable time loop, Booker and Elizabeth agree to drown him in the timeline, before he took his baptism, thus killing Booker, and erasing Comstock from all the potential could be's.

No Comstock, no Columbia, no Lutece field, no Elizabeth. The game ends with a final piano song, with each note, a portion of reality wiped away, as a man, a tower, a city, and a girl, all fade to nothing, and then a black screen.

It's impressive, terribly so, like an excellent two-hour Doctor Who special.

Which is part of the problem, since, for ten hours between these two hours of content, there's an entire other game.

Shadows and Echoes

This other game feels the weight of Bioshock: Infinite's dozen revisions, these other visions pushing through into the final product.

In interviews, Levine has stated how there were "five or six games" of cut content from the release version. Demos over the year show this, with different versions of Elizabeth, with different powers5, and different versions of Columbia67. At times, more than you can count, pieces of these older games drift, or even thrust, themselves upon the player.

This would not be a problem, or at least, so severe of one, if they were not so damnably compelling.

Early on in the game, Booker is offered a series of choices. Heads or tails? Throw the baseball at the stoning, or stop the stoning? Draw your gun, or keep it holstered? These choices reflect into the narrative in subtle ways, with dialogue between Booker and Elizabeth reflecting your choices, and subtle changes found in Columbia itself8. About the time you enter the amusement park, the choices seem to be steadily building into a narrative with branching paths:

Who will you work with? What devil will you deal with? Your war buddy Slate, now a tragicly broken rebel? Daisy Fitzroy's Vox Populi, to whom Elizabeth is romantically drawn9, but to whom Booker is wearily cynical? Jeremiah Fink, who offers you employment and favors for his disreputable aims? At a point, it feels like the game is straining out in all directions, about to explode into a political clusterfuck of incredible proportions, something along the lines of perhaps Fallout: New Vegas, where you have an objective (escape the city with the girl) and several dubious routes to get there. Do you care about Columbia? Do you care about Elizabeth?

Make your choices carefully, because they have consequences.

Daisy Fitzroy calls this out in the game proper, demanding, "Whose side are you on?" before sending you on a quest for weapons.

The answer, sadly, is never given, because the question is forgotten.

Near the center of the game, the choices cease. No longer are you given options. No longer are you given decisions, even minor. Now, instead of deciding where to go, you are given a mulit-verse hopping tour of three Columbia's: one, where you begin, where the civil war is simmering; one, where it never came; and one, where it is in violent throws as the sky-city burns, a la Rapture.

But these are not your cities, and you are not given a choice. Moreover, the game doesn't seem to care, as Booker becomes numb, and Elizabeth jaded, and the entire final segment becomes a stop-and-start series of wave battles against an invisible enemy counter, a punch-clock sequence used to buy more story as you ride the rails towards the final battle with Comstock.

The main story, then, is supposed to be a personal one, about the mystery of Elizabeth, Booker, and Comstock, but most of the game, and most of the advertising, and indeed, most of the interest, is in Columbia itself.

Columbia, the paradise. Columbia, the hell. Columbia, built on corroded dreams, and fueled with the blood of slaves. Columbia, torn apart by war.

But Columbia is gone for the third act, and the game commits the same fatal sin as Bioshock did, when it traded Ryan for Fontaine.

The third act of Bioshock wasn't lesser because it had a boss fight. The third act was lesser because it traded the wonder of Rapture, and Ryan's broken dreams, the setting which built the game, for a straightforward rail-shooter in a dingy hallway. Infinite has no boss fight, and it has a compelling climax, but that third act is still disconnected from the wonder promised in the first and second acts.

I cared about Elizabeth, and about Booker, but they were reflections of the setting, and then the setting was rendered suddenly pointless, just one of a million visions, because the game was about something it wasn't ever about, and all my "choices" were meaningless, pointless dead-ends, because I'd left Columbia long ago, and then, to wrap it up, deleted the city, it's people, and all its struggles, gone in a poof of timey-wimey drowning.

It was an ending. It was even a conclusion, but it wasn't the ending I'd been sold, or that I craved, from that early promise.

Those other visions, those other games, with choices, decisions, factions, and intrigue… they kept coming through, as if "tears" in the metatext of the game, and they made me long for what that other game might have been, before whichever revision erased all but their shadows and memories.

In the joyous days of childhood
Oft they told of wondrous love
Pointed to the dying Saviour;
Now they dwell with Him above.

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice.
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

The Cat is Alive: Why Bioshock: Infinite is an Incredible Success

I set out to write a review about why Bioshock: Infinite was a good game, but a failure, because I cared more about the setting, and the lack of choice. Where did the battle for Columbia go? Where did the civil war go? Where did the "pick your side" and "choose your fate" go? For a game sold with such a series of questions, delivered with such a focus upon them for the majority of its run-time, it had devolved into a tunnel vision at the end.

Here was a game, sold on choice, with only one ending.

Or was it?

I stepped out of my apartment, to walk through the cold spring air, and gather my thoughts before I wrote this out, because I was conflicted. I liked it, but I didn't. I wished it was more, but realized it couldn't be, because of the story it had chosen to tell. I pulled at the edges of the game, plucking away at the pieces of logic that held it together, consciously aware of two facts: one, that any work would collapse under the sort of deconstruction I was starting to apply10; two, that there was more here than the initial melancholic ending, and I would pull it into light.

Sure enough, I found the ghosts of other narratives I described above, and I became more and more disgusted. Perhaps, this was another brilliant failure, like SpecOps: The Line, or, moreover, The Dark Night Rises, that would collapse under its own weight when viewed from a distance. I began to build my catalogue of failures, the kind of mental checklist I used to stamp out my love of Mass Effect after that ending, where every twist of dialogue, ever camera angle, every interviewed quote, became grapeshot, loaded and fired back upon its creator.

But then, something else came to me, a stunning revelation that made me laugh out loud, at two in the morning, standing out in the street.

There was a check, written into the game, that I didn't know if I could bring myself to cash.

Mister Levine was a writer before he was a game director. He is an auteur, and more aware of his creations than most, and I found his fucking carte blanche, carved into the foundation of the game.

Go Then, There are Other Worlds Than These

Every moment of the game calls out the ending.

The very first choice is simple, when the Lutece's, the game's developers of the quantum mechanical manipulations, and the avatars of the narrative's very structure, present a coin toss.

Heads? Or tails?

Robert Lutece wears a board, showing eight runs of "heads", and you make your call. No matter what, it is heads, and when he turns his back, the entire rear of the board is covered. The coin is always heads.

Rosalind Lutece offers a warning next, "Do not pick #77" in the raffle. Sure enough, the ball you draw, is #77, and you win the raffle, setting in motion the trainwreck of the game.

Back at the start of the game, the Lutece's row you towards the lighthouse, and Robert asks his "sister" to help him row. She tells him to ask Booker, and he replies, "He never rows."

Not, "he's not the type to row", but "he never rows", because they have done this before.

There is a joke, on the internet, about how Bowser wins nearly every game of Mario. The joke goes that Mario is but one of an infinite number of Marios, compelled to save the princess, dying in horrid ways, until, in one universe, he succeeds, and that is the Mario we play.

Infinite is that joke made flesh.

When Booker dies, he "awakes" in his office, with the Luteces offering him the choice, "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt."

Again and again, the game calls back upon itself.

Booker must be baptised to enter Columbia, as Comstock was baptised to build it, as Booker will be when he nearly drowns in Battleship Bay, and Booker will be, with finality, to end it.

There is not one ending, there is all endings, but there are constants, and variables.

The choices matter, yet they do not.

There is always a man, a city, a tower, and a girl.

The Founders win. The Vox win. Slate takes over. Fink takes over.

No matter. Elizabeth sits the throne, and drowns in flame the mountains of men.

They will never flee the city, for Songbird will always stop them.

If Comstock lives, he will build Columbia, and the cycle will begin again. Comstock must be undone, not destroyed, or the constants will lock the city into tragedy.

The finale is the circle breaking, and the stinger is the conclusion.

After the credits, Booker awakes, in his office, and the piano plays. His hand is clean, unmarred by his shameful brand, and he calls out his daughter's name as he opens the door to her crib.

Without the timeline to create Comstock, Anna was never taken, Booker never shattered. Without Columbia, a broken man was never created, drawn into an impossible quest by the eternal-observers,11, to undo his sins.

Because in the end, Infinite is about repentance, as well as recurrence.

Comstock was born, not from religion, but from his inability to accept what he'd done. He built a fortress of lies, a false paradise, to justify his sins, and called them virtues. Booker stewed in them, hated himself, but never forgot what he'd done.

The only baptism that stuck was the final one, where Booker drowned. That was the only path forward, meaningful sacrifice and penance.

Infinite may never have existed. The entire game could quite well have been the alcohol-fueled hallucination of a Pinkerton man, a broken widower tortured by his role at Wounded Knee, performing excruciating subconscious self-flagellation via dream to bring himself back to the world for the sake of his daughter.12

Or it could be literally real.

There is always a man, a city, a tower, and girl. Those are constants. The rest is variable.

Bioshock: Infinite isn't a game, it's the distillation of it's own genre, and a commentary upon its own narrative.

Quantum States

Does Levine get to cash that check? The one that says, "all plot holes are plot points?" It's a powerful check, the kind that turns The Room into cinematic triumph.

All fiction can be made terrible with enough cynicism.

All fiction can be made awesome with enough love.

Levine's writing calls this question down from the aether. Rosalind Lutece is a fatalist, Robert an optimist. They argue this throughout the game, and I'll let the question stand, as beautifully unanswered as it must be.

Rosalind Lutece, "Where he sees a blank page, I see King Lear."

Is the cat alive, or dead? Is Bioshock: Infinite a failure or a triumph?

Yes.

You can picture happy gath'rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings
When they left you here below.

One by one their seats were emptied.
One by one they went away.
Now the family is parted.
Will it be complete one day?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?


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