Postmortem: Bioshock Infinite

I finished playing Bioshock Infinite this summer, and I have been mulling on the game for some time. I was really impressed by the art and story of the game, it was deep yet concise, and had me engaged. But I am most critical of the things I love, so here are some of my quick thoughts on the narrative and gameplay.

**********This post contains massive spoilers**********

I talk about the narrative start to finish – including the ending!!

BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter video game developed by Irrational Games, and published by 2K Games. Previously known as “Project Icarus” in development, it was released worldwide on the Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 platforms on March 26, 2013. BioShock Infinite is the third instalment in the BioShock series, and though it is not part of the storyline of previous BioShock games, it does feature similar gameplay concepts and themes. The game’s concept and setting were developed by Irrational’s creative lead, Ken Levine, who took inspiration from both historical events at the turn of the 20th century, as well as more recent ones at the time such as the “Occupy” protests.

The creator made a game that was very political, however in this quote from Game Revolution, Ken Levine implied that people only see what they want to, and negated many of the political messages within the narrative. (This was in response to white supremacists which makes is all the more interesting, but I’m sad he didn’t take the opportunity to stand up for racial equality)

BioShock had the same thing, where you had Objectivists being infuriated by it, and people more on the left thinking that it was a love letter to Objectivism. I think these games are a bit of a Rorschach for people. It’s usually a negative Rorshach. It pisses them off, you know?

… If they’re about anything, they’re about not buying into a single point of view. About having a lack of confidence in anything. They’re not ever an attack on a single idea. It’s a bit of a plague on all your houses.

However, I would argue that everything that gets released into the world has context, it has history, and it has bias, because nothing exists in a vacuum.

I want to make several points in this blog post, that Bioshock Infinite, was indeed a treat to play, but does draw on and reinforce various stereotypes and beliefs held in society that reinforce systemic racial, gendered, and cultural oppression.

Addressing politics and religion and reinforcing apathy as “cool”

The game is heavily focused around systems of privilege and oppression. I found the political undercurrents of Columbia fascinating, but some aspects really made me thing. The first was The Battle of Wounded Knee exhibit, where you face Slate. This exhibit which depicted a battle between aboriginal peoples of Wounded Knee and white settlers. But this battle of Wounded Knee was actually a reference to a real event. In fact is was a reference to a massacre of 350 Lakota peoples, not a “battle,” thanks for the cultural sensitivity game designers .

My second pet-peeve with the political and religious under tones of the game is that your character, Booker, cannot give a single care about any of it. Also Elizabeth has lived her life in a freaking tower so she also gives no cares about politics. You interact with the game as a party completely detached from citizenship and politics until thrust into the middle of it.

So, why are we promoting apathy as cool? I know in Canada (where I consumed this game) we have a hard enough time to get kids to vote. Did you know only 38.8% of 18-24 year olds voted in 2011? WOW.

Daisy Fitzroy: Revolutionary, Leader, or just another disposable black woman?

Daisy could be sooo amazing, and the narrative starts in an amazing place. She is the leader of the black liberation front under the name “Vox”. Then she is taken down a peg and made to seem insane as her revolution becomes legitamate. Finally, she is neatly demonize, disposed of, and never had any real connection to the plot.

In game plot points:

You enter a parallel dimension where the Vox revolution is in full force, Booker Dewitt is the martyr of the revolution, and Daisy Fitzroy is leader. Wait what!? Why is Booker the martyr of a black-liberation movement? Why does that happen??? Why does it make sense that Daisy would hate whites while holding Booker up as a martyr? When you shift to the parallel dimension where the Vox revolution is in full effect, Daisy’s mission has lost all coherency, and her leadership seems random, spastic, impulsive, and wrong. Why is her cause and leadership contorted in this way?

I found the final confrontation with Daisy one of the poorest design choices in this game. You can hear her shouting at you as you try to reach her, at this point she is clearly your enemy, and committing morally questionable actions.

In her final scene she is murdered by Elizabeth as she is holding a gun to the head of a white child. This is the first time Elizabeth takes a life (directly) in the game. Multiple things happen here that disturb me.

1) Daisy is seen as manipulative. She is being drawn as a parallel to Comstock. Only difference is, after her death she is NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN. She is entirely dismissed, even as she dies, the camera (Booker’s gaze) doesn’t look twice at the body or the child, it pans up to see Elizabeth losing her innocence.

You literally kill her and wipe your white hands clean of her black-liberation-agenda and that whole storyline is never seen again. Religious undercurrents, still a thing. Racism? Apparently suppress black liberation and everything is A-OK. I felt this was NOT OK.

2) Elizabeth loses her innocence. Why is this a major plot point? This woman has been throwing you shot gun ammo and watching you sky-hook faces for hours now. We are infantalizing Elizabeth, saying you as her designated protector have failed in keeping her pure. I smell purity myth, this propagates the idea that woman are not capable of managing their own affairs, controlling their emotions, or making decisions. These stereotypes limit opportunities for women in the workplace, and place restrictions on their freedom in society. So again, I felt this was NOT OK.

I just want to wrap up with, yes you included a woman of colour in a position of power in your game. That is awesome, thank you. But the development and fate of this character is reflective on the systems of oppression that exists in society, and it would be amazing to have strong, successful, women of colour represented. Possibly even like a a role model or something….

Transgendered Play: First person shooter, if I have to be a guy don’t make me sexist

I believe your gender identity does impact the way you interpret a game.

I liked Elizabeth and I found her character charming and independent. I in fact identified with her more than Booker while playing. I wanted Booker to be squatting behind a crate throwing Elizabeth health packs.

And there were some moments where my immersion was shattered (notably the scene before the final battleship) where Booker tells Elizabeth to “stay behind” because it is “too dangerous”. That made me think, as a woman, if this next level is too dangerous for Elizabeth, then am I not welcome here either? No girls allowed? Oh wait, women are too weak and fragile to participate in fictional battles on a fictional airship in an entirely fictional game? So instead of enjoying the game I am worry about stupid sexism in a throw away dialogue line to show Booker cares for Elizabeth. Dear writers: In this situation, wouldn’t “Are you ready?” or “Be careful ok.” sufficed?

The Ending: It was shocking when I saw Fight Club.

I am going to sum it up in one line:

Oh shit, Elizabeth is really not important and the narrative revolves around the white guy, surprise!

A more thoughtful response to elaborate on the above, I was really disappointed when as soon as Elizabeth gained power and knowledge she was killed, or rather never born in the first place. After talking to a few professors at my school, it can be paralled to the fate of many romantic ballerinas. Notably, Giselle – falls in love then dies, La Sylphide – tries to become human and dies, Swan Lake – falls in love and tries to become human and dies. In all of these tropes the woman dies as soon as she is or is going to be freed. This is also true of Elizabeth, she only tastes the illusion of freedom. This just illustrates that Elizabeth is merely an accessory to Booker’s story and allows women to be commodified, objectified, and placed under someone’s ownership.

Finally, In my dream-version of Bioshock Infinite, I think it would’ve been cool to open up the narrative to include more than just Booker and Elizabeth. Like, what if Elizabeth was never the girl at all? What if Daisy was actually Booker’s daughter? How would the writers have explored or explained that. How would her death be treated, or Elizabeth’s power be explained?

I was nice that everything wrapped up so neatly, but I felt it was at the expense of the female characters in the game.

  • SarahBeck
  • Currently works as a software developer of EA. She has a BSc in Computing Science and enjoys JRPGS, anime, and Ruby on Rails. You can find her on Twitter at @sarah_bytes. Opinions are my own.

One Comment

  • Finally finished the game myself, so here’s a late response! In short, my feelings are that it was a visually pleasing game, and fun enough; I don’t feel like I wasted my time. But I don’t feel compelled to go back and visit it again to try and find secrets I missed or anything. I was kinda meh about the original BioShock too, but that one did have a brilliant twist/commentary on linear gameplay. Unfortunately, BioShock Infinite didn’t really have an analogous high point.

    I liked that they threw in the Wounded Knee reference. Tangential learning! Obviously the portrayal in the game was hugely biased but I assumed the player was expected to see through that, go and look it up for themselves, and form their own opinion. (I actually didn’t know about the Boxer Rebellion before the game, so reading up on that later was interesting too.) I mean, the game also shows Abraham Lincoln as the devil so it’s definitely not an objective view you’re getting.

    What I didn’t like was that they used the Wounded Knee massacre as part of the backdrop for Booker’s white man guilt. “Ohhh, I was part of that massacre. It was so terrible, I’m such a terrible person.” YEAH, I DON’T CARE, BOOKER. YOU’RE BORING AS DIRT AND NOTHING I HAVEN’T SEEN A BAZILLION TIMES BEFORE.

    Kind of related to Booker and the Wounded Knee reference, I really disliked how my (Booker’s) only means of ever interacting with the world, was violence. Slate? Grand tournament with all his men for flimsy reasoning, in hugely biased retellings of “battles.” Fink? Grand tournament with his men for flimsy reasons.

    And then, amidst all your killing and looting you find a guitar AND HOLY SHIT YOU CAN BOND WITH ELIZABETH IN A WAY THAT DOESN’T INVOLVE KILLING AND LOOTING. But then you immediately go back to killing and looting and the whole scene feels like it just comes out of nowhere. Any sort of emotional weight it should’ve had was lost on me given that you never do anything like that ever again.

    I agree Daisy could’ve been amazing. I actually don’t mind her killing the kid, even if it seemed oddly out of character for her from what we’d learned about her up until that point. But I like the idea of her as a violent revolutionary.

    However, the fact that she’s built up as this interesting character, only to end up a plot device for Elizabeth (“Oh noes, I’m a murderer, I’m all dark and anti-hero now.”) was irritating. Totally agree with your points about that. Any interesting commentary the game may have been trying to make about racism just become background noise after Daisy’s death.

    As for your point about Booker being overprotective of Elizabeth, totally agree. This does not in any way counter your point, but I did like how earlier in the game he tells her to not mess around with the tears (because he’s the big white man who will protect you!) but then does actually later say, “No, I was wrong, please do actually make full use of your power.” Though really, that should’ve been what they were doing to begin with.

    “Oh shit, Elizabeth is really not important and the narrative revolves around the white guy, surprise!”

    Yes, that was hugely irritating as, again, Booker is probably the dullest character in the game.

    I did like the Lutece twins, at least. Maybe partly because Jennifer Hale. But also just because of the air of mystery and whimsy surrounding them.

Comments are closed.