The bird, or the cage: What BioShock Infinite says about choice and fatalism

8 Apr 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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WARNING: This article assumes you’re familiar with BioShock Infinite, the first BioShock and both of their respective endings. That means spoilers and plenty of ‘em!

Since its release on 26 March, BioShock Infinite has generated much discussion about its themes, ending and groundbreaking use of an ethereal parent as a boss fight. One of those themes is the ever-present tension between choice and fatalism; both in the way it impacts the characters within the game and the player themselves.

As we’re both the games writer equivalent of insufferable blabbermouths, Tim and I shared an email exchange on this very topic. In it, we discuss how choice and fatalism run through the game, the degree to which BioShock Infinite was successful in its exploration and communication of said themes, and various other diversions.

Whether you submit to fate or simply make the choice, you can read that exchange below.

BioShock Infinite

Peter: Tim! I am roping you into this discussion about how BioShock Infinite addresses the notion of choice in videogames. Resistance is futile. It is your destiny.

So, my initial thought about the ending (after my mind unwrapped itself) was “wow, Ken Levine took the criticism over BioShock’s moral choices really hard.”

That’s perhaps a bit uncharitable, but I think getting burned about the binary (and, let’s be honest, pretty weak) choice over whether to harvest or save Little Sisters influenced BioShock Infinite’s conclusion at least a small amount.

It seems like Infinite adopts a really broad definition of “choice,” to include every single behavioural and functional decision a player has made in the game (from which Vigors they used, to when they jumped to avoid an enemy shot and … well, everything really) and scales right back on any branching narrative options. At the end you see multiple Bookers, all of whom have made their choices to reach this point, but they are all at this point. The only other endings are theoretical (Bookers who didn’t make it.) The player can only ever see one narrative path.

It’s an elegant meta-comment on the many, many people in the real world playing through BioShock Infinite, but also seems like a bit of a cheeky way of suggesting that the sort of choices offered in other games are ultimately meaningless if they bring you to the same point every time.

What’s your take on all of this?

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Tim: Just let me put my wank hat on.

You’re quite possibly right, insofar as the game tells a “complete” story regardless of the choices you make, but I actually thought the in-game morality decisions having no real effect was a really nice touch. Lots of games with moral choices get bogged down in alternate rewards, or aiming for one ending, and these “goals” impact any decision the player might make. BioShock Infinite doesn’t do this; it simply comes down to what you think is the right choice, and most of the decisions (and results) are pretty morally grey.

That said, I did rather like the ending. It touches upon fatalism (insofar as this is “the” ending, which everyone is destined to hit) as well as videogame mechanics themselves – much like BioShock did, but in a very different way.

BioShock had videogame fatalism, with the protagonist conditioned to respond to “Would you kindly” in the same way as the player has been conditioned over many years of gaming to just follow the Mission Control voice’s instructions in order to progress through the game. This was extremely clever, insofar as it completely turns the game (and the Mission Control voice instructions) on its head.

We’re not focusing on BioShock here, but it’s important to bring it up if only because BioShock Infinite does it in a very different way, by pointing out that the game/Booker’s journey has a very definite, predefined end point… but that different players will have had different experiences up to that point. Again: it takes a core videogame conceit (linearity, in this case) and does something clever with it. The aforementioned “meaningless” choices tie into this, too; regardless of how you treated Slate, you will still hit the same endpoint. It’s the journey that differs – and, in a game, it’s usually the journey that matters – and BioShock Infinite pretty much states this outright.

In fact, a huge amount of the game is about fatalism. Do I need to bring up the Luteces, and their little experiment at the beginning – that the coin flip always ends the same way, every time, as evinced by the chalkboard?

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Peter: Yeah, the Lutece coin flip is probably the fatalism scene, not least because whatever Booker chooses (and he does choose differently sometimes,) it lands on heads. In case people don’t know, that scene is straight out of Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a play/film about a pair of characters from Hamlet who are doomed to die in Shakespeare’s text. There, the coin toss reflects the same theme of fatalism.

You’re right to put my “meaningless” choice comment in scathing quotation marks! Meaningless is too imprecise as a term.

Choosing not throw the baseball at the couple during the ‘raffle’ has meaning because you’ve taken the choice not to be a disgusting racist monster. In fact, I kind of wish you hadn’t been ‘rewarded’ with some extra gear for doing that. Just seeing the couple again and knowing that you helped them escape would’ve been enough. I think that’s pretty much the only choice where doing the morally reprehensible thing is punished to some degree.

Let’s list the other ones: ‘sparing’/shooting Slate, drawing first vs having your hand stabbed at the ticket office, bird or cage for Elizabeth to wear … I think that’s it? I did like the permanence of having your hand bandaged after the (super gruesome) stabbing. There’s also a neat touch with Elizabeth’s pendant changing during certain scenes of the ending, which I guess either suggests that the Elizabeth’s are different at that point, or they’ve briefly merged, or the tears have just made matters unstable.

I suppose the ultimate act of fatalism performed by the game is that the absolutely key choice of Booker’s baptism, one of two choices upon which the whole of BioShock Infinite hinges, is a choice which has already been made (and not made) for you before the title even begins. Your main goal, it turns out, is to prevent a choice from ever happening.

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Tim: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (the film, at least) is excellent. Just wanted to put that out there, because we haven’t had a nice discussion about movies for awhile. But yes, the coinflip (and the “Don’t take this raffle number,” even though it’s preordained that Booker will take that ticket) are very early examples of fatalism in effect – although you don’t really know that until your second playthrough.

The ball-throwing was a really interesting choice if only because it’s a not-very-interesting choice, and it deserves some elaboration. Forgive me.

Booker “wins” the raffle, and thus is given the first throw at an interracial couple, but players have the option of instead lobbing the ball at the announcer. Horrific as it is to modern-day eyes, this was a period when racism was rife, and – although Booker is generally established as being too wrapped up in self-loathing to really give a toss about skin colour any more – it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary, contextually speaking, for him to throw the ball. It’s the sort of scene that works precisely because we, as modern-day players, have a different reaction to the event than the characters present. Personally, I had no idea the game was going to tackle racism (which was perhaps foolish and naive of me) so it was pretty shocking to discover what the result of the raffle actually was. Although having read Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, I had a pretty good idea that it was going to be something horrible.

It’s also one of the occasions when videogame mechanics do have an impact on the way we make our choice. On the one hand, a player might swallow their self-loathing and opt to throw the ball at the couple in order to keep Booker undetected so that he can complete his mission in Columbia… but it’s pretty obvious that the gameplay demands he be discovered soon enough anyway, which massively lessens the perceived impact of the choice itself.

For what it’s worth, I pulled my gun at the ticket office, and then felt horrible about it because of Elizabeth’s reaction. She may react the same way regardless of what you choose, but it was one of those moments that made me feel like a total bastard nonetheless.

It’s interesting you bring up the baptism, actually, because the game works off layers of fatalism. It’s noted by the Luteces – and possibly by Old Elizabeth, I forget – that these events have played out many, many times before, but Booker is always killed by the Songbird on every prior occasion the Luteces have tried to change events. In this sense, it’s sort of a complete loop, which is why it’s so fascinating that the ultimate goal of the game – to break out of the loop and finally change events – is seemingly predestined. Fated to fight fate, as it were. It makes my head hurt.

I’ll also note that this made the Songbird more imposing to me, and his ultimate end extremely sad. We never fought Songbird during the game, and it’s stated outright that if we had, we’d have died. On the one hand, this makes the creature somewhat more terrifying. On the other hand, I didn’t have much personal animosity towards it, so its final death was rather poignant. Making the most fearsome opponent in the game something that you actually never fight was an interesting decision by the dev team, but as far as I’m concerned, it paid off.

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Peter: I’ve seen a few people complain about never fighting Songbird, but I’m with you on that. Dodging the ‘obvious’ boss fight was a neat swerve around convention and definitely made his death more powerful. There’s a theory out there that the universe Fink was peering into when he learned how to merge man and machine (as per the voxophone you find about Songbird) was one that contained Rapture. In effect, he’s a proto Big Daddy (but built to withstand low rather than high pressure.) When she drowns him outside Rapture, Elizabeth may be returning him home in some weird way.

By the way, there are a whole lot of drownings in this game. Songbird, Comstock, Booker – all drowned. It seems like another obvious nod to baptism, but a perversion of that idea. Drowning doesn’t remove the sin, it just removes the person.

Here’s the thing. I think BioShock Infinite presents a compelling case for telling a story about choice and consequences within a (basically) linear videogame structure. It does succeed in that, but the majority of choices are either alluded to (not performed,) pre-determined, or ultimately don’t have that much impact on the story. Choosing to draw/not draw at the ticket desk results in the same post-fight dialogue and events with Elizabeth (though, as mentioned, the latter does also lead to the visual change of a bandaged hand.)

For me, that’s always going to be a little less satisfying that a game like The Witcher 2 or Alpha Protocol or (what I’ve read about) Way of the Samurai. You can argue about the extent to which any of those games present choice as having a major effect upon their various endings, but it’s undeniable that choices you make during them have direct consequences to greater and lesser degrees. In BioShock Infinite it’s thematic. In those other titles, it’s more tangible. You see consequences in dialogue, in events, in bits of the game that are now open or closed to you.

I think “choice” junkies like me tend to get quite excited by even minor changes, actually. In Alpha Protocol, there’s a bit where you recover some data and your handler (Mina) decodes it for you. Unless you have a high enough tech stat, in which case you just do it yourself. That kind of detail is so minor, but I absolutely love it. It’s a small, sensible consequence applied to your earlier choices.

That’s not the sort of game BioShock Infinite is trying to be. I accept that, and I’m not trying to say otherwise. But even though the narrative justification for linearity is well handled and very clever, it does still irk me a bit that for a game literally all about the lasting impact of Bookers choices (baptism, whether to sell Anna,) released in a medium which allows for such creativity with choice, that the player doesn’t really get to make all that many. You’re kind of cheated out of it by fate. Damn you, fate!

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Tim: Speaking purely about gameplay for a moment, I don’t think a Songbird fight would’ve worked. There are enough huge, heavy enemies in the game that one more would’ve been Just Another Enemy – which would, again, have lessened the perceived power of the thing – unless the fight was heavily scripted, and heavily scripted boss fights tend to be rote and boring. Songbird has power because we don’t fight it, really. In another game, maybe, but BioShock doesn’t really have the combat engine for a big, setpiece heavy boss fight. I mean, the ghost boss fights were annoying enough. Did we really want another one of those, only against a flying Handyman? Perhaps with the environment falling apart around us as he smashes it to bits? Blech. It might’ve been exciting at the time, but in the long run, I’m truly glad it never happened.

But yes, there are a whole tonne of references to BioShock and Rapture throughout, both overt and hidden. Infinite pretty much takes the same concepts and themes as its predecessor, but twists them a bit – the whole Elizabeth/Songbird thing is a definite Big Daddy/Little Sister allusion that’s been turned around, not to mention the constant themes of parent/child relationships in both games. Rather than an enclosed setting under the sea, you’re in the open skies, and there’s definitely something about Elizabeth being imprisoned in what’s technically the most open place imaginable. Hell, she’s even siphoned for her power, much like the Little Sisters. They both say things about gameplay and gameplay mechanics, but they say different things and wedge them into the story in different ways. Infinite really is very similar to BioShock, while being its complete opposite in a number of ways.

Anyway: I think you’ve accidentally hit the nail on the head. BioShock Infinite is a game about choice, not a game of choice, and it does what it does superbly.

Much as I adore meaningful choice in games (in terms of impacting the story and/or gameplay, that is) or a feeling that a game is paying attention to what I’m doing, as Deus Ex manages so adeptly, I don’t really have a problem with this. I’ll confess that it would’ve been nice were there some minor changes based on the choices made, but a linear game telling a rather good story that messes with my head and makes me think long and had about various aspects of life isn’t something I’m going to complain about, and oddly, too many choices might’ve muted the impact of its various themes. There’s certainly space for a game to do that, but I don’t think it could ever have been BioShock Infinite; I don’t think the story as it is here would’ve supported it. Any minor choices that could’ve been put in would’ve been insulting. Would it have been a better game if, at the end, you got to choose whether to submit to the drowning or not? Because honestly, I think it would’ve been far less powerful and would’ve made an ENDING A OR ENDING B mockery of what the game did a really good job in saying.

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Peter: Yes, that was pretty rubbish in the first one and it would’ve been even more rubbish here.

Even though I’m not completely satisfied with how Infinite reconciles being a videogame about choice that’s also linear, it does get an awful lot right. I’m a sucker for titles which play around with the idea of “what it means (maaan)” to be a game, and there’s plenty of that on show here.

When it comes down to it, I love that this discussion is even possible. I’m not sure there’s another medium where the protagonists choices can be debated in terms of both theme and the mechanics of the medium itself. So much of BioShock Infinite lends itself to being talked about, and I think that invitation can open avenues to improved critical dialogues about other titles too. We’re still getting to grips with what games are able to do; the ‘languages’ they use to communicate with and cajole the player. Both the first BioShock and Infinite are works which explore that question really damn well.

Plus they give games writers a fine excuse to publish wanky think-pieces. Hooray!

Tim: So that’s choice out of the way, at least until one of us thinks of something we forgot to write. Which one of Infinite‘s approximately 7,000 themes are we going to discuss next?

Peter: The tragedy of a man obsessed with scavenging pineapples and candyfloss from filthy bins.

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Read the IncGamers review of BioShock Infinite here.

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