Monday, February 22, 2016

Illuminations 2.22.16

In Which Christian Talks About Video Games. Again.

Currently one of my favorite video games is Bioshock Infinite. I’ve mentioned it once on this blog, describing it only with what the trailers let out, but after finishing it for the first time a couple of weeks after that post I’ve found a love for the game that goes beyond its religious themes and colonial imagery. (Warning! Major spoilers for a lovely crafted narrative that really needs to be experienced. I’ll try my best not to say too much. I actually say a lot)

I mean Columbia is beautiful: a city in the sky. But that's besides the point.
What Bioshock Infinite really got me with was its views on and how it tackles subjects like determinism, choice, and expectation. Often times the game’s narrative and dialogue is akin to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a play that takes characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and gives them a greater sense of self-awareness. It even goes as far as to take the opening scene of the play and using its coin flip device to subtly inform the player of the idea of choice and preemptively establishing a deterministic world.

This scene in the game is really out of place and is a weird first impression (second if you pay close attention) of these two characters, Rosalind and Robert Lutece, whom you’ll learn later are two of the same person. The draw to them here is their quirkiness and that’s all they’ll seem to have throughout the beginning of your journey through Columbia, but as the story progresses they both present a perspective that transcends both time and circumstance.

They really like coins. They're all about perspective. Both the coins and the Luteces.
If you didn’t know, the main plot device in Bioshock Infinite is Elizabeth’s power to create tears in the universe that can reestablish relationships between people and shift situations into one that appears more favorable. Bioshock Infinite subscribes to the idea of multiple universes. The Luteces are people who can dance between these universes and give the player tips and information about the past, present, and future (all three being one and the same). One of my favorite pieces of dialogue happens somewhere close to the end of the game:

Booker: What is she? Alive or dead?
Robert: Why do you ask ‘what’?
Rosalind: When the delicious question is ‘when’?
Rob: The only difference between past and present…
Ros: semantics.
Rob: Lives. lived. will live.
Ros: Dies. died. will die.
Rob: If we could perceive time as it truly was…
Ros: ...what reason would grammar professors have to get out of bed?

It’s a funny little conversation about trying to grammatically perceive time when to them all of time is happening at once. They play around with grammar a lot, mainly playing around with tense, especially since time seems so trivial. But also, because they are the same person from different universes, the idea of plurality gets thrown out the window. They’re both the same person and yet different people.

Now what does this have to do with determinism, choice, and expectation? Bioshock Infinite being the third installment of the Bioshock franchise was received under certain expectations, one mainly being the idea of choice being very important to the narrative of the game. The choices made in Bioshock games are meant to delineate the story and change up the events of the games, most notably the endings. Bioshock games are known for having multiple endings, but Bioshock Infinite touts only one.

What makes this change very important is that the player is in fact given many choices throughout the events of Bioshock Infinite and is lead to believe that these choices are very important with visual cues that constantly remind the player of the things they’ve done. These reminders are meant to distract the player of the linearity of the game and surprise them when it’s finally revealed that Booker Dewitt, the person the player is controlling, has been through his adventure through Columbia multiple times throughout multiple universes ultimately reaching an end that many other Bookers have met.

If you choose not to pull out your gun the guy at the ticket booth stabs your hand and you get to keep this cool bandage.
A phrase repeated throughout the last 20 minutes of the game is “there’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city” bringing into what actually makes the world of Bioshock Infinite and addressing an idea that the game calls “constants and variables.” There are always differences in every playthrough but ultimately you’re playing the same game over and over. The line “there’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city” also ties in Bioshock games as a franchise where they all start off at a lighthouse, they all take place in a city where utopian ideas are present, and a man has an important tie to that utopian city.

Essentially, since everything that can happen is happening, everything that is happening is fated, is not dictated by choice, and is determined by quantum causes. That’s what Bioshock Infinite is trying to get across and what really attracts me to the game. Maybe it’s my nihilistic point of view but I thoroughly enjoyed the deterministic story and its implementation of the quantum states of multiple universes that Bioshock Infinite provided. It sort of says, “yeah, what you choose to do doesn’t matter, but nothing really matters in the first place. Things are always going to happen anyway.”

- Christian

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