A Beautiful Mess: The Continuous Clash Between Narrative and Content in Bioshock Infinite

  • Class: ENGL 797 — Feminist & Gender Critique in Critical Video Game Theory
  • Assignment: Weekly reading/game play responses, 1-2 pg length requirement, 1 scholarly source included
  • Week 2, Response #1


In 2013, Bioshock Infinite won awards for its musical score, first-shooter action, and unique side-characters (the Luteces).  Ironically, when the game was suggested to me, none of those trophies were displayed as a reason to play. I was told by multiple people that the game had beautiful set and character design, a complex narrative, and a memorable female protagonist named Elizabeth.  Since completing the game myself, I have understood why the awards and the personal suggestions did not line up. While Bioshock Infinite is a very interesting game with incredible potential, its ludonarrative dissonance (a new word for me) is jarring and distracting, but for all the wrong reasons.  Since the positive and negative aspects of the game are often the same thing or they clash consistently, I will be addressing them under two headings: narrative and content.

  • Narrative:  In my opinion, the best aspect of Bioshock Infinite is its narrative. The alternate reality/potential time lines story plot is always intriguing. It is a brain teaser. How did the timelines split? How do they reconnect? What happens when such-and-such is changed? These are all questions that puzzle-loving gamers are drawn to.  I was one of those gamers who was drawn in by the mystery, and if the narrative was transplanted into a novel or a movie, I believe it would have been nearly (heavy emphasis on the “nearly”) flawless. However, the content rejects a smooth transfusion with the narrative just as violently as a mismatched organ.
  • (sidenote) Character critique: Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth/Anna DeWitt: My focus for this class is feminist and gender critique, and the two protagonists of this game certainly deserve a look at through that lens.  Booker DeWitt is everything a typical first-shooter game deserves.  He has a haunted past, filled with intentional, violent acts (but not one that he ever actively apologizes for); he has a deep, powerful, commanding voice; he’s a shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of guy (very Han Solo); he’s on a personal mission (very Byronic) and happens to save the princess–I mean, reality-bending girl– in the tower on the way.  Looking at content alone, from voice to appearance to action-skills, Booker is perfect for the fight scenes in this game. But as the lead in a game about solving the mystery behind alternate realities and time travel? He seems a bit lost. When I first wandered into the game, adventuring as Booker was interesting but confusing. I wanted to know more about his connection to Elizabeth, the debt, and the Luteces, but the fighting style and and, honestly, everything about HIM as a character threw me off. The game is saturated with in-your-face problems about its reality (racial violence, sexism, abuse of capitalism, etc etc), but Booker never questions or even considers the reason or right/wrong for his actions. Perfect blank slate male protagonist for a first-shooter, but a disturbing mismatch for a half-way executed satire.  As for Elizabeth, she is both central to the game and unimportant. I do love Elizabeth as a character. She’s smart (she reads quantum mechanics volumes and solves codes for fun), she’s resourceful (lockpicking and an excellent looter), and her backstory both grants sympathy for her as well as awe at how much power she possesses.  As an NPC though, she bothered me. Here was a character with amazing potential as a problem-solver, possibly a fighter (Bioshock version of X-Men’s Jinx, much?), and most definitely as a female protagonist, but throughout the game, she does nothing but provide materials to the man and serve as his compass to the goal. And once you reach the goal? She self-destructs. To truly be free of her father in every reality, she had to murder him, which effectively would erase herself.  The game puts up a convincing front of being friendly to its female protagonist, but in action and use, Elizabeth is barely different from Peach or Zelda — she is the girl in the tower, she is the man’s redemption and sacrifice, but she is given no autonomy or interactive connection to the player.  This clash between awesome narrative character and nearly voiceless NPC was confusing to play through. I loved Elizabeth and was in awe of her limitless powers. I was particularly amazed at the end, when Comstock’s machine is destroyed by Songbird and Elizabeth’s power escalates, when Elizabeth–the girl in the tower–becomes a sort of demi-god (which is excellently referenced at the game’s opening: “Are you afraid of God, Booker?” “No, but I’m afraid of you.”). Booker–melee-happy, consequences-be-damned Booker–is afraid. But this excellent plot twist still hides any willful interaction between player (Booker) and Elizabeth. Elizabeth doesn’t get to act on her own fate, to change it, until the end. And then, we assume, she dies with Booker. And that is where my frustration lies.
  • Content Under this heading, I will be including both content and game mechanics, since I see them working relatively well together, but completely in opposition to the narrative.  The narrative describes two characters, Booker and Elizabeth, that are puzzles to be solved along the game’s timeline.  Some of the content, such as visuals and musical score, add to the similar-yet-alien feel of a potential 1912 America and its haunting inhabitants.  However, the mystery and the lack of choice in a game that offers choices is frustrating. When confronting NPCs or interacting with key points in the story (telling Elizabeth to stop dancing, killing Comstock, picking a locket, etc), there is no actual choice. The decision is made for you, the mystery will be unraveled and handed to you. Ian Bogost, in “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” describes how the human factor of gamers and the game’s rules create meaning: “…when we play video games: we explore the possibility space its rules afford by manipulating the symbolic systems the game provides. The rules do not merely create the experience of play—they also construct the meaning of the game” (Bogost). The open option of exploring small portions of the cities clashes with the impossibility of making any choice in the game. The simple fight system clashes with the complex narrative and the gamer’s mental interaction with it.  The rules of the game fight the gamers’ attempts to test the game’s limits.  The input you are allowed to give is practically non-existent until the fight scenes, and the feedback you get back from that has nothing to do with the plot of the game’s story. Raph Koster addresses this in his article, “Narrative isn’t usually content either,” when he separates narrative from all of the other cogs in the mechanism of the game (Koster).  When it comes to the fights and the minimal chosen interaction, they neither fuse with the narrative nor entirely separate from it, hence confusing the tone of the game. The most jarring conflict with the narrative was the fight style and mechanics. While a sinister world may inherit sinister interactions (like the vigors “Murder of Crow” or “Possession”), the detailed gore, the physical controller reaction to meleeing with a skyhook, the free-for-all battle sequences (with NPC soldiers that were cookie-cutter in appearance), and the button-mashing, no-skill-required attacks kill the seamless-ness between story and gamer interaction.  After exploring a wonderfully detailed world and attempting to mentally interact with the mystery of Elizabeth, you, the gamer, are ripped away from the flow of the game and shoved into a fight system comparable to old school Mortal Kombat.  As Koster comments in his article “Narrative is not a game mechanic,” games do not require narrative; a challenge and its subsequent action can exist without story plot (Koster).  The dissonance mentioned earlier exists in this rift, where a basic fighter game, in which the reward comes from the feedback of slicing necks and mashing weapons into skulls, is fused with a mystery narrative.
  • Questions to Consider: 1.) Since the issues of racism, sexism, and fascism are both smeared across the game and yet equally hidden, does the game make any actual effort to dismantle or show the possibilities of fixing these problems?  2.) How would one fix Bioshock Infinite to be more than a really pretty first-shooter with a nice backdrop?  3.) Does the mystery/puzzle aspect of the narrative change the way the game is played (if the player is active in solving it)? 4.) Does the detailed gore of the fight scenes add to the game or further add to its inner-dissonance?

Works Cited:

  • Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 117–140. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.117. Web. http://nau.edu/CAL/Interdisciplinary-Writing-Program/_Forms/RhetoricVideoGames_Bogost/
  • Koster, Raph. “Narrative is not a game mechanic.” Raph Koster’s Website. 26 Jan 2012. Web. http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/20/narrative-is-not-a-game-mechanic/
  • Koster, Raph. “Narrative isn’t content either.” Raph Koster’s Website. 26 Jan 2012. Web. http://www.raphkoster.com/2012/01/26/narrative-isnt-usually-content-either/

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