Monday, April 29, 2013

Schrodinger's Bioshock Part 2: The One About Story (They're All About Story)

So, now that I've taken some time away from it, let's talk about the story of Bioshock: Infinite. You know, the most interesting things about it. Many, many spoilers to follow, but for those of who who haven't played it yet, I'll begin with First Principles: where it succeeds, it succeeds admirably; where it fails, it provides a sort of meta context on inadequacy and a fundamental misunderstanding of it's medium. And there I leave you, because admittedly, if you haven't played it, what follows will not make much sense.

By now, you know that the story in Bioshock: Infinite is, and feels, way more railroady than the first two. The choices you see are completely irrelevant to the overarching story, calling out choice as illusory. In the first two games, the persistence of the choice point (the temptation to deviate from a choice made once or twice, or more, through the harvest mechanic) masks the illusion in a way that is not un-masked until you go on youTube and watch all the endings that were available. And if you did that, Ken Levine's comment in this article about how he's not good with branching narrative is pretty self evident. So, in Bioshock: Infinite, he throws the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and simply has the player fight their way through, essentially, his screenplay.

Fortunately, his screenplay is pretty interesting, though I can't help but think that most of the people who have commented on the story of this game have not actually finished the second one. Because it's the same bloody story. You're a guy who has half-stumbled, half-been fated to endure through a quasi-religious setup centered around a messianic girl-child called "The Lamb," controlled by a totalitarian, oppressive parent. And yet, a bunch of reviewers said there was no connection to the second game?


Anyway, it drives home that each of the Bioshock games are about Fatherhood, in their own way. The first-- and least mythic-- of them does so with The Twist, with Atlas, and with the obvious Big Daddy/Little Sister thang. The second game puts you in the role of the Big Daddy, in conflict with an evil mother figure. The outcome determines whether you have taught your devoted little girl to be a ruthless killer, or to dispense mercy where she can. And the last game focuses the conflict between two possible futures that have, in a Schrodinger sort of way, have already played out: two kinds of being a completely shitty father. One, Booker, is a neglectful waste of life unable to care for himself or a baby given the death of his wife. The second, Comstock, wants to make his daughter into alt.him, and sacrifices everyone-- including his wife-- to do it.

This would be a big huge yawn, except the consistent theme throughout the three games, tying them together, appeals to me. Even the pre-release promotional ARG for Bioshock 2, There's Something In the Sea, continues this theme, following the story of a man obsessed with stories of kidnapped little girls, whose own daughter is eventually kidnapped-- presumably taken to Rapture and turned into a Little Sister. Interestingly, his wife is uninvolved with the hunt, and thinks he's crazy. But Bioshock isn't really kind to mothers and mother figures in it's lore.

Anyway, the Fatherhood theme is much more interesting to me than the Eternal Recurrence  "There's always a man, always a city, always a lighthouse" theme. The man, city, and lighthouse are iconic, but have no meaning beyond their presence, which is a damn shame in such a sea of metaphors as these games manage. The end result is a kind of multiversal welsh-plot Fight Club, where the man has to face his Other Self (and necessarily kill him), not once but twice-- once without knowing what he's doing (in a strangely anti-climactic scene), and once knowing what he's doing enough to allow himself to be killed (in a sequence where you couldn't make a choice if you'd wanted to, but does manage to accomplish excellent climax). In retrospect, it seems an oddly empty tale, except for it's metatext-- it's pretty much an interactive novel with combat. Is that a bad thing? No, not really. Just bizarre and unexpected in a disappointing way, rather than a direct way.

The You Are Actually Alt.Dimension Comstock thing is, of course, the loop that is broken by the presence of the Observer, which gets back to the most interesting point of all this. Levine talks at length about wanting to interact with the player, as in, observe what they go through at the moment of choice, while caring very little about the actual outcome. Which is amusing, as the most poignant choice you have is all meta: do you observe the story, or do you not observe.

Once again, I say it's worth observing, at least once, for the discourse.