Narrative Review - Bioshock Infinite
Original Review Date: December 2014
Revised Review Date: August 2017
Game Title: Bioshock Infinite
Platform: XBOX | PlayStation | PC
Genre: First Person Shooter
Release Date: March 16th, 2013
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Game Writer/Creative Director/Narrative Designer: Kevin Levine
Bioshock Infinite is set in 1912 where the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, travels to the floating city of Columbia to find a young woman named Elizabeth who has been locked up all her life. He is charged with bringing Elizabeth back to New York to wipe away his debt. He frees her and together they face two factions, Comstock's army, and the Vox Populi, as they travel throughout the city in search for a way back down to the surface. During their travels, they pass through many alternate worlds which help them get one step closer to leaving the city, but for every tear they open, there is a consequence. Together Booker and Elizabeth unravel a conspiracy about the antagonist Zachery Hale Comstock, which leads them on a new path that involves killing Comstock. In the final moments of the game, Elizabeth opens one last tear which takes them to Rapture and evidently brings them to multiple light houses which lead to alternate worlds much like Elizabeth's tears. They travel through these worlds and the truth is finally revealed about Elizabeth and her powers as well as Comstock's origins. Together Elizabeth and Booker go right to Comstock's birth and kill him, preventing the creation of Columbia and all other future events. The game touches on social issues such as racism and classism. struggles between the working class and upper class are made abundantly clear as the game progresses, eventually leading to a conflict similar to that of the French Revolution.
Booker DeWitt: The player assumes the role of Booker. He is a serious and adaptable man, who expresses much self-loathing, but he is in fact, a better man than he believes himself to be. He is a disgraced member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and partook in the Battle of Wounded Knee, which has scarred him emotionally. He attended a river baptism which he intended to take part in but in the end, he refuses deciding that a "dunk in the river" would not wash away his sins. Over time he racked up a large amount of debt and so he is sent to Columbia to get a young girl named Elizabeth and bring her back to New York. After, Elizabeth and Booker enter a tear into an alternate world in which they discover Booker has become the Martyr of the Vox Populi. These are two sperate version of Booker that are presented in the game, both of which gave up their daughter Anna DeWitt to pay their debt; an action that Booker is unable to remember until the end of the game.
Elizabeth: She is the deuteragonist of this story who is perceived as being innocent, having a strong dislike for violence which changes quickly as the violence around her escalates; though she still maintains that she would rather avoid conflict than seeking it out willingly. Elizabeth shows determination and is very intelligent, free spirited individual. She has been imprisoned on Monument Island since childhood by order of her parents as a way to control her powers. She has the unique ability to open tears which lead to alternate worlds. Elizabeth is able to access other dimensions due to the fact that exists between multiple worlds at once. Originally she was named Anna DeWitt and is the true daughter of Booker DeWitt. She was given up to Robert Lutece who took her to Father Comstock, and in doing so would wipe away Bookers dept. Booker did try to get her back as she was being taken through a tear to Columbia. As a result, she lost her pinkie finger and wears a thimble over it. She is determined to be her own person free from Comstock.
Song Bird: It is a large robotic bird like creature who is both Elizabeth's only friend and her keeper. Song Bird is programmed to feel betrayal every time Elizabeth tries to escape. It was created by Jeremiah Fink and said to be a creation of both the best parts of man and machine.
"Father" Zachery Hale Comstock: He is the founder of Columbia and the main antagonist of the story. He is revered as the prophet of Columbia and maintains his power over the city through a cult personality that is based on Christianity and the founding fathers of the United States. He is a manipulative and zealous man who can be quite single minded. He is, in fact, an alternate version of Booker, the one who does accept the baptism and is reborn as Comstock. Since he is unable to have his own children he sends the Lutece twins to retrieve Anna DeWitt from his alternate self; having full knowledge of the tears Elizabeth is able to produce. To keep this a secret he kills Lady Comstock and the Lutece twins.
Daisy Fitzroy: At first glance, she appears to be the savior of the people and a potential ally for Booker and Elizabeth She is intelligent and seeks justice for herself and the lower class men, but in working towards this she shows that she can be ruthless and brutal. She was once the house maid for the Comstock's. After witnessing the murder of Lady Comstock's, of which she was blamed, she grew to hate the ways of the Founder's resulting in her becoming the leader of the Vox Populi.
Robert and Rosalind Lutece: These characters act as mysterious guides through the world appearing only to provide strange words of wisdom. Rosalind seems to have many grand ideas, while Robert seems to think more cynically but both are very sarcastic and mechanical in the way that they speak. At one point the Luteces worked with Comstock, Rosalind created the technology which allowed his city to float and Robert secured him a child. They continued to use tears and saw Comstock's future. In seeing what Comstock had planned for Elizabeth they realized their mistake, and so they set out to bring her back to where she belonged. Comstock discovered their plot and sent Jeremiah Fink to destroy their tear machine with them inside which caused them to be spread out across all of space and time; this is why they can appear whenever they like. To avoid this future they lead Booker to Columbia. They appear as two separate people but it turns out that they are really just the same person from different realities though they refer to each other as brother and sister.
The Founders: These are the upper and middle-class people of Columbia that subscribe to Comstock's teachings. They are affiliated with the colour blue in game.
Vox Populi: Primarily made up of the lower working class they are the militant underground of Columbia. They are at first known as the anarchist by the other classes, but later in the game, they become the revolutionaries of Columbia; adopting the colour red in response to the Founder's blue.
The narrative in Bioshock Infinite is robust and very complex, being that it primarily deals with alternate dimensions. The game starts with Booker DeWitt in a boat with the Lutece twins taking him to a lighthouse. In the lighthouse there several signs that are littered with religious messages and iconography which act as a clever lead up to the city of Columbia. The phrase "Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt," is also repeated several times not only in the light house but also throughout the rest of the game. At the top of the lighthouse, there is a rocket silo which Booker enters and is transported to Columbia. While inside the rocket the player has a limited view framing the world outside pulling the player's attention to important details and locations within Columbia.
The rocket lands in a welcome center where it is shown to the player that Comstock is the prophet that lead those in the "Sodom below" to Columbia and that his wife, Lady Comstock, gave birth to the "lamb" that would inherit Columbia from him. Large stain glass murals with scripture are used to depict all this and set the tone for the world the player finds themselves in as well as help to immerse the player in the overly zealous city.
To truly enter Columbia Booker must undergo a baptism where the priest almost drowns him and he awakes in the founding father's gardens; in later play throughs, it is a clear sign of Booker's past and future. Once inside Columbia Booker's main goal is to find and make his way to Monument Island where Elizabeth is being held. On his way to the island, he passes through a carnival where he takes part in a raffle. It is at this moment that the player starts to get a sense of what kind of world this is. After winning this raffle he gains the opportunity to throw the first baseball at a Caucasian man and African American woman who have been caught in a relationship.
In Columbia this is unacceptable, in fact by observing the environment it becomes clear that segregation has been maintained by the people of Columbia. The player is then prompted to either throw the ball at the couple or throw it at the announcer, Jeremiah Fink. This choice like many others throughout the game is arbitrary because regardless of the players choice Booker always ends up showing his hand which is branded with A.D marking him as the False Shepherd and an enemy of the city. He chased throughout Columbia by the cities authority until he finally reaches the abandoned Monument Island.
While on the island the player does not encounter any enemy A.I. which is notably uncommon for a first person shooter, but the inside of Elizabeth's tower has lots of different rooms to explore or simply pass by. If the player does choose to explore the tower they find two rooms, one where there is a video showing different aspects of Elizabeth's life and the other is a dark room where photos of Elizabeth were being developed. It becomes clear to the player through clever design and visual story telling that Elizabeth is viewed as a specimen that was locked up for study. As the player ventures further into the tower they find a machine called the siphon which seems to alter different objects such as a teddy bear, journal, and piece of paper. The top of the tower is where Booker finds Elizabeth but to reach her he must pass through several observation rooms that emphasize Elizabeth's imprisonment. When Booker and Elizabeth are in the middle of their escape a song, which will mark the arrival of Song Bird throughout the rest of the game, is played. As they try to leave the tower Song Bird tears the tower apart causing both Booker and Elizabeth to fall into the ocean below where they wash up on the beach of Columbia.
While Booker was unconscious he dreamt of Columbia waging war on the world below. Elizabeth saves Booker from drowning and in order to get Elizabeth to come with him, to the First Lady Airship, he says that he'll take her to Paris. Excited by the prospect of seeing her favorite city Elizabeth is eager to set off for the airship.
To reach their destination they must travel through Soldiers Field, but they have a problem the trolley that takes them to the airship is not working so they must go find Slate who has the Sock Jockey that will get things running again. Booker and Elizabeth have to travel through the hall of hero's which depicts the battle of Wounded Knee. This just so happens to be the battle that scarred Booker and lead him to attend a baptism which the player's version of himself rejected but another version of himself accepted and became Comstock, who then turned the battle into an exhibit to convince the people of Columbia of his greatness. After the player defeats Slate they gain the Shock Jockey ability and are able to board the First Lady Airship. On the airship, Elizabeth discovers that Booker had no intentions of bringing her to Paris and he explains that he was hired to get her and bring her back to New York, to which she responds by hitting him over the head with a wrench. Up until now, the story has been fairly straight forward, get Elizabeth and get to the airship but now the story takes a slight turn. Booker awakens to Daisy Fitzroy who has now taken over the airship. He makes a deal with her that she will give him the airship back if he gets her guns from the gun smith Chen Lin.
Booker leaves the airship to chase down Elizabeth and they make a deal to work together once again. Upon arriving at Chen Lin's workshop they find out that he has been taken by Jeremiah Fink's men and so set out to find him. Unfortunately, they are too late and Chen Lin is dead. That is when the Lutece twins show up and say that it's all a matter of perspective, saying that 'from one angle they see dead and from another alive," implying that if they look close enough they can see a tear that leads to another Columbia where Chen Lin is not dead. This is a major turning point in the story that sets up the events that soon follow. Elizabeth opens the tear from which there is no return. Once again they arrive at Chen Lin's work shop only to find that his tools have been taken away, so they resolve to find them. When they find the tools they are forced, once again to open another tear; being that the tools are far too large to be carried back. In this work, Chen has his tools and Fitzroy received her guns.
Things really begin to escalate from here and the story begins to mimic the events of the French Revolution. A full-scale revolution was the result of Fitzroy receiving her weapons. In this world, Booker is known as a martyr of the revolution. However, when Daisy finds out that he is alive she declares him an imposter and sets the Vox against both Booker and Elizabeth. During the French Revolution, the people of France stormed the Bastille. Similarly, the people of the Vox Populi stormed Jeremiah Fink's factory which symbolized the aristocracy and capitalism in Columbia. To get to the airship and reclaim it Booker and Elizabeth had to fight through the factory and confront Daisy. In the process, Daisy kills Jeremiah Fink and is about to kill his son when Elizabeth stops her by stabbing and killing her. Unable to cope with her actions Elizabeth goes into shock and runs onto the airship locking herself away. When she emerges her hair has been cut short and she is wearing the outfit of Lady Comstock visually signaling the growth of her character. She no longer sees the world as a free and beautiful place, her resolve grows stronger and she becomes that much more independent.
While trying to once again escape Columbia via airship Booker and Elizabeth are stopped by Song Bird who destroys their ride leaving them stranded on Columbia. They run into the Luteces again who suggest that the bird can be tamed just as Comstock has already done, so Booker and Elizabeth decide to confront Comstock. They run into another snag at the gates to Comstock's house. It appears that they require Lady Comstock's hand to open the gates, so Elizabeth decides to go to her mausoleum and take her hand.
Upon entering her mother's grave a siphon is activated and an alternate ghost version of Lady Comstock is brought through a tear created by Elizabeth's powers. This is another turning point that leads the story down a strange and confusing road. Unraveling the mystery around Lady Comstock's death proves to be an important moment in the narrative, but it is also fairly off putting for players as the game takes on a whole new tone. After battling the ghost the Lutece twins show up again and explain that Lady Comstock, like everyone, exists across time, therefore, she is both alive and dead. At the same time, ghostly footsteps lead out of the grave yard to apparent unfinished business. Booker and Elizabeth follow these footprints where they find the Luteces blocking their way. Robert and Rosalind Lutece say, "…there is a way to bring her to reason…three truths you must discover first…truths which, in this world, Comstock has destroyed…" After hearing this Booker and Elizabeth set off to discover these three truths. The first of these being that Comstock is sterile due to the Luteces machine, therefore, Elizabeth is not his biological daughter. The second being that Comstock killed his wife blaming it on Daisy Fitzroy and then he hired Jeremiah Fink to kill the Lutece twins. The third truth was that he had these people killed because they knew that Elizabeth was not his real daughter. At first, when the player is uncovering this conspiracy the message is not quite clear but Elizabeth and Booker seem to put everything together for the player and though their dialogue Constocks deceit becomes clear. Booker and Elizabeth have one last final show down with the ghost of Lady Comstock and after defeating her, Elizabeth forgives her mother for hating her and locking her away. In return, the ghost breaks down the gates to Comstock's house.
They continue on their path to find Comstock but Song Bird reappears attacking Booker. To save his life Elizabeth tells Song Bird that she's sorry for leaving and to take her back which he does, leaving Booker completely alone. Bookers' character has grown by this point and he no longer sees Elizabeth as a job to get done but instead as a friend in need. Booker makes the choice to try and save her from Comstock, completely discarding the job he was once hired for. At this point in the narrative, the entire objective of the game has changed from getting Elizabeth to New York to save Elizabeth from a horrible future. However, the core goal of obtaining Elizabeth has not changed. While traveling across a bridge to Comstock's house he is unknowingly transported to an alternate world in the future where he encounters an older Elizabeth. at first glance, it is apparent that something is wrong. As Booker makes his way through the house he comes across tears that hint to what has happened to Elizabeth; that she was tortured and indoctrinated. He is called by a silhouette of a woman that sounds like Elizabeth and is asked to take her hand.
When he does he sees his dream of Columbia at war with the world below made a reality and the older Elizabeth explains that Booker kept trying to save her but was unsuccessful because Song Bird always stopped him, she then proceeded to give Booker a letter with instructions that present day Elizabeth would understand. He was then transported back to 1912 to save Elizabeth which he did and Elizabeth decides that she wants Comstock dead, that killing him is the only way to end this. Booker agrees to help her and they board Comstock's airship to track him down. When confronted by Booker and Elizabeth Comstock indicated that Bookers does know why Elizabeth is missing her pinkie finger. Booker insists that he doesn't but Comstock is insistent prompting Booker to loses control and kill Comstock. Just when the story seems to end there is another twist and the Vox Populi start to attack the airship while Elizabeth decodes the message from her future self, which allows her to gain control of Song Bird. Together they use him to fend off the Vox Populi and then destroy the Monument tower which acted as a siphon to limit Elizabeth's powers. For the final time, Song Bird turns on them and Elizabeth, with her powers fully restored, opens up a tear to a completely different world taking Booker and Song Bird with her.
They find themselves in the world of Rapture, an underwater city from the first Bioshock game. While Elizabeth and Booker are inside the city Song Bird is trapped outside in the water and due to the pressure, it dies. Elizabeth then leads Booker to the bathysphere which takes them back to the surface where they find themselves in yet another lighthouse. The route that the player takes through Rapture pays homage to the first game as it is identical to the opening route in the original Bioshock. It is at this moment that the whole purpose of the game is about to come to light. Opening the door to this lighthouse reveals many more lighthouses at which point Elizabeth explains that every star is a lighthouse and every lighthouse leads to an alternate world, in each of these worlds she states that there is always a lighthouse, a city, and a man. They continue on and eventually come to a baptism in a lake that is the exact same as the one seen when Booker first enters Columbia. It is here that Elizabeth insists that Comstock is not truly dead; that they have to go to his birth to truly be rid of him. Upon hearing this Booker agrees to carry on with her. They continue to another door and when it is opened they find themselves in a black and white world where Robert Lutece is asking for Bookers daughter Anna to "wipe away the debt." Booker does so and exits through another door into an alternate world. Here Booker sees Rosalind trying to help Robert and Comstock come through a tear with Anna. She is successful but Booker intervenes and tries to take Anna back.
In the struggle, the tear closes but Anna's pinkie finger did not make it through. With this scene, it is revealed that Elizabeth is Anna and has been Bookers daughter all along. Elizabeth then takes Booker through a tear back to the beginning of the game where it is revealed that Booker created his own story about having to go get Elizabeth to wipe away his debt. They pass through the final door, which is the first one the player opens in the game. When they pass through the door they are once again at the baptism and Booker realizes that he is Comstock, in another life he accepted the baptism and was reborn as Zachery Hale Comstock. Multiple Elizabeth's from different worlds begin to appear before Booker.
Knowing all the wrong doings in his life Booker allows the Elizabeth's to drown him in the river thus killing Comstock before he can be born. Everything has come full circle in this game and was done in an interesting and complex way. The player was always involved with the story in one way or another which helps to maintain interest and keep the audience completely immersed. There was a lot of verbal cues being repeated throughout the game helping to serve as anchors for the player helping them to a line their goals with Bookers. The narrative can seem quite confusing on the first play through but this game, like a good movie, needs a second run through to fully grasp everything that is being presented.
There were many great things about this game from the story to the characters to the game play but I would have to say that the dynamic between Booker and Elizabeth was one of the strongest and most charming aspects of the game. It is clear at the start of the game that Booker is a serious and cynical man while Elizabeth is light hearted and optimistic. They are both at two different ends of the same spectrum which in turn provides some interesting dialogue and it is this dialogue that helps the player care for these characters and gains a better understand of the world. As it is through these characters eyes that the player experiences the world. It helps that Elizabeth was designed to complement the player and the desired play experience so that she does feel like a major burden. Both of these characters also show growth; essentially Elizabeth grew up, learning to stand up for herself and what she believes in, while Booker learns to put others before his own needs.
There is no game that can be perfect for everyone and Bioshock Infinite is no acceptation. As good as the story is, it begins to get very strange and hard to follow after the appearance of Lady Comstock's ghost. There is a lot of information presented to the audience in a short amount of time making it difficult to parse the story together without a second playthrough.
Although the third act of the game can be considered to be quite confusing there is one moment that stands out. Once Booker and Elizabeth re-emerge from Rapture and discover the other lighthouses Elizabeth says, "See? Not stars. They're doors…To everywhere. All that's left is the choosing." Booker is confused by this and at this point, the player is probably just as confused but Elizabeth goes on to explain saying, "There are a million million worlds. All different and all similar; constants and variables…There's always a lighthouse, there's always a man, there's always a city." This is one of many revelations in the final act of the game that ties all previous events together. The key difference with this moment is that it is directed towards the player explaining both Rapture's and Columbia's existence and, in a way, connecting the Bioshock games together. The idea that there are an infinite amount of worlds to be explored provides the opportunity for the creation of more captivating stories and the promise of new worlds to delve into.
All in all, Bioshock Infinite received plenty of positive reviews and praise.
Game Informer - 10/10 They said that the game was a "fresh version [that] redefines what the Bioshock name means."
Destructoid | Jim Sterling - 10/10 Sterling noted that Bioshock Infinite was "one of those rare games with a perfect beginning, an engaging middle, and a perfect end."
The Boston Globe | Lou Kesten Kesten raved that Bioshock Infinite, "sets a new standard for video game story telling."
Generally speaking, it seemed as though everyone loved this game yet there were pockets of the gaming community that did not enjoy the ending of the game due to the death of Booker and how baffling the ending could be.
The Bioshock franchise is known for having compelling narratives that cause the players to stumble upon some sort of revelation. There are many great lessons to be learned about environmental storytelling as well as character and narrative design.
Show don't tell, do don't show: In the film industry "show don't tell" is a technique used to allow the audience to experience certain story elements without the overuse of exposition. By doing this the audience is able to come to their own conclusions and are not bombarded with information that they are likely to forget. This approach is also used in games, however, this medium has to take interactivity into account. That is why game designers and writers believe that in a game you "do don't show." Players should always be active participants in the narrative rather than passive observers. Bioshock Infinite does just this. There are no cutscenes that remove the player from the first person view and in these scenes, the player is often asked to perform a certain task whether it be looking in a specific direction or simply pressing a button. By doing this the player remains an active participant rather than a passive one. Additionally, all information about Columbia is explained to the player through visual elements rather than large amounts of exposition. In doing this the player is allowed to decide on how much of the narrative they would like to experience. If the player chose to explore Columbia they would surely have a better understanding of the narrative than a player who ran through the game with no regard for the world around them.
Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: Every game has a goal and as a designer ones job is to ensure that the player is guided towards this goal. The line, "Bring us the girl wipe away the debt" was used several times throughout the game to constantly remind the player what they are supposed to be doing in Columbia. This verbal cue serves to anchor the player in the world, give them purpose and, at times, prompts the player to look back at the start of the game and see how far they have come.
Align player and character goals: Since the player takes on the role of a specific character who has wants and needs, it is important to align the intentions of Booker with that of the player. In doing so the designers are able to drive the player towards the intended experience. The constant reminders made by other NPCs (Non-Player Characters) helps remind the player that they are to find Elizabeth and bring her home. Even as the narrative shifts from getting Elizabeth to New York, to saving her one constant remains; free Elizabeth. All the trials that Booker must face before finally saving Elizabeth only serve to emphasize the importance of his task.
All in all, Bioshock Infinite is a great game with an interesting and beautifully complex story. It is a game that has so much to offer from fun and engaging gameplay to a compelling narrative full of twists and turns. So much work has gone into all aspects of the game, creating a game that has gameplay and narrative work hand in hand, a rare feat in the world of games.