Amatuer Analysis: Bioshock Infinite

Warning: spoilers for the game Bioshock Infinite. If you haven’t played it and still care about playing the game fresh, then stop reading.

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When we first start Bioshock Infinite we see an epitaph which gives away one of the key plot points that was meant to be a big reveal. The epitaph also warns us that all the assumptions our protagonist will be operating on are completely wrong. Even so, Booker DeWitt believes that in order to clear a debt to very dangerous people he has to infiltrate the floating city of Columbia, retrieve a VIP, and bring her to “the men in New York.” For a large chunk of the game Booker is very belligerent about clearing his debt, yet in spite of his mixed up brains it’s a bizarre motivation.

We can safely assume Booker owes a large sum of money which he could probably never repay through regular work on a deadline satisfactory to his creditors. We can also assume they’re also very scary people in Booker’s mind, but so what? Here’s the problem, there’s nothing to stop Booker from reneging on the debt. Booker’s wife: Dead. Booker’s child: No longer in this world. Booker’s work: Hired muscle when you get to the heart of it. Booker’s home: Apparently his rundown office. His life really sucks and there’s nothing beside the moral need to repay what one owes. However, when he finally meets Elizabeth and witnesses her powers whatever obligation he has to repay the debt should have been overwhelmed by the spine chilling horror born of imagination. Elizabeth demonstrates a power which makes mockery of all our ideas of time and space, and handing her off to violent gangsters is a recipe for disaster. For her to stay in Columbia can only end badly for the world, but for her to be under the thumb of the men in New York is hardly better.

As Booker and Elizabeth took over the First Lady for the first time, there were likely more than a few players who got mad at Booker for insisting on going to New York and the flimsy ruse he employed to get Elizabeth on the vessel. Instead of the condescending bullcrap which only got him smashed with a wrench, he should have been direct with her. He did mention he racked up a debt with bad men who are eager to get her, but he should have elaborated that even if Booker failed or betrayed them that they wouldn’t stop. This persistence, and the vicious means the men in New York are willing to employ, are the reasons that Elizabeth must come with him to New York. She’ll be the bait which draws them in, and Booker will kill them.

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Maybe deep down I’m a bad person, but killing the men in New York is a practical option which Booker should have contemplated the second he saw what Elizabeth could do. There’s no reason for him to be squeamish about it, his biography has demonstrated he is really good at making lots of people die. The term ludonarrative dissonance gets bandied about carelessly, but there is something curious about Booker shying from the most obvious solution. Why is he afraid of his creditors when regular gameplay has him bring death to his enemies like a Horseman of the Apocalypse? Hell, by the time Booker and Elizabeth get to the First Lady on top of his proficiency in murder he has: a shield which deflects bullets, the power of Geass, fireballs, and goddamn lightning! There are also the gears, but those are randomized with various degrees of usefulness. It’s not even a set of talents he loses by stepping out of the TV world; he can use them in New York and can sustain his powers through soda and chain smoking.

What makes Booker’s motivations especially frustrating is that a slight adjustment could have put his actions in a completely different light. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” is what Booker is told and he misinterprets that as instructions to get Elizabeth… but what if he was told “If you want your daughter back, go to Columbia?” Booker, and players who aren’t expecting the rug to be pulled out from under them, instead operates on the belief that the men in New York are holding his infant daughter as collateral and as before he clears his debt by getting Elizabeth. That could work to put Booker in a more sympathetic light, create tension in Booker (and hopefully by extension the player) as they waver between the drive to save the baby girl and guilt at the thought of selling Elizabeth out, and possibly show a little character development in Elizabeth.

In the game, Elizabeth is eventually resigned to teaming up with Booker as her best shot at getting out of Columbia, but with a Booker motivated to save his daughter perhaps Elizabeth might consciously make herself an ally in Booker’s quest. She still wants her freedom, but the idea of a father wading through great adversity to rescue his child might appeal to a young woman who had less than ideal parental figures in her life. Thus she resolves to help Booker find a way to get wee baby Anna back without not subjecting herself to new prison same as the old prison. At the very least, this should get the player amped from the sensation of the tide turning and the roaring fighting spirit against all who stand in the way of a happy ending.

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If played with well, awareness of Booker’s daughter and the overarching goal of rescuing her could make the big reveal hit harder. Bioshock Infinite’s ending show that Booker had already paid his debt by handing over his infant daughter. Booker’s insurmountable debt was a ploy by Comstock because he needed a blood relation to take over after he died, but was sterile and couldn’t produce an heir naturally. Still a little hazy on how this plan was intended to work, as it seems everything that went wrong for Comstock could be traced back to crimes he committed to conceal the truth about Elizabeth.

Anyway, I know it’ll probably make the plot twist that Elizabeth is Booker’s kid even more obvious than it already was (Seriously, was up with that woman addressing Elizabeth by her real name other than to give away that plot point?), but if there were alterations in the dialogue for Booker and Elizabeth to gradually convey a sense of parent and child in the dynamic between them it could pay off big in the ending. The time spent with Elizabeth gives a glimpse of what Booker could have had is he didn’t give up, and the idea that in spite of himself he might not have been a terrible father. Perhaps the game should have made the reveal about Elizabeth’s origins and Booker’s failure as a man earlier in the story. The ending threw too many twists at the player in too small a frame of time to absorb it all. Pretty sure the audience would appreciate seeing a universe where Booker grabbed a brick and knocked Robert out rather than hand over his daughter.

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Think about it, that moment would have been a perfectly good time to exercise the murder option since the men in New York were comprised of a very mortal Robert Lutece and Comstock without his army of zealous followers is just a fanatical old man.

All said, I still enjoyed Bioshock Infinite and in spite of the shakier parts of the story it’s nice to see a shooter attempt a narrative and themes of some complexity in a market where the single player side is a flimsy excuse to sell an updated version of multiplayer every year. But what the hell was going on in Friendly Patriot World? Those robots were programmed to ruin your day, but there was the option to summon them in some intense battles. It follows that in at least one universe, there were circumstances which lead to Patriots being programmed to fight on Booker’s behalf. Did nobody at Irrational stop and think the players might be curious to get even a glimpse of that world?

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