BioShock Infinite lets the player pick heads or tails, but not whether to flip the coin
ROBERT: “Why do you ask what?”
ROSALIND: “When the delicious question is when.”
ROBERT: “The only difference between past and present…”
ROSALIND: “…is semantics.”
ROBERT: “Lives, lived, will live.”
ROSALIND: “Die, died, will die.”
ROBERT: “If we could perceive time as it really was…”
ROSALIND: “…what reason would grammar professors have to get out of bed?”
Bioshock Infinite is without a doubt a game of startling artistic and narrative achievement, but one in which the player is more like a virtual tourist than an active or even necessary part of the game play. The game promised a kind of radical infinitude in early demos and previews that is disappointingly absent in the final product. As a result, Bioshock Infinite lives up to its name only as a thought exercise. If anything, Infinite is one of the most restricted games on the market in terms of player agency.
The game begins by placing you, Booker Dewitt, at the center of what is at first an ambiguous mission: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. To do so, you must be propelled up into the floating city of Columbia in the year 1912 from a foreboding, gloomy lighthouse. The girl who needs saving, Elizabeth Comstock, is the daughter of Columbia’s religious prophet and founder, Zachary Comstock. The game’s early stage is memorable for its vibrant American iconography — though it favors a heavy-handed and cartoonish fascist aesthetic. The founding fathers are patron saints, there is a standing memorial to John Wilkes Booth, and the city is plastered with posters and billboards celebrating traditional families, whiteness, and prosperity. One for “Columbia Security” reads: “Protecting our Faith, Wealth, and Racial Purity.”
This supremacist utopia quickly transforms into a dark and abandoned dystopia plagued by violence against Dewitt, initially identified by Comstock as “the false shepherd,” there to capture Elizabeth and lead Columbia into sin. But the plot doesn’t move in an entirely linear fashion because Infinite depends on multidimensional warfare —so we leave our initial Columbia to enter an alternate reality where an uprising of the minority workers, or the Vox Populi, has been successful. This is only one of many jumps to parallel timelines in the game, both forward and backward. It is the reason why every initial understanding or summary of Infinite is haunted by a necessary re-write as the final credits roll. Those last moments entirely reframe our motivations for why we, as Dewitt, were on Columbia at all.
In short, it’s because we must prevent the destruction of New York City in 1984, an attack led and prophesied by Comstock. The catch is that Dewitt is Comstock, or rather that he becomesComstock following a baptism after the Battle of Wounded Knee. The game’s philosophy of infinitude hinges on this one crucial moment. Dewitt, plagued by guilt over his murderous conquests as a soldier, seeks absolution in the form of religion. It is as a consequence of this baptism that Dewitt becomes Zachary Comstock and founds Columbia. Only by employing who we later learn is Dewitt’s daughter, Elizabeth, whose powers have been stifled by being locked away in her tower, can we return to the moment of baptism situated indefinitely in space-time where all of possible Elizabeths appear and drown Dewitt, ensuring Comstock can never come into existence.
Infinite explains this away by pitting free will against determinism, constants against variables. It creates rules for a multiverse that dictate how one decision forms an infinite number of worlds where the various permutations of a single choice come to fruition. Yet in no potential universe would Dewitt ever become Comstock unless he went to the baptism.
The obvious metaphor for Infinite’s laws of physics would be the flip of a coin: when one flips a coin to heads, a world is created where it landed tails. Infinite uses this clear-cut illustration to rationalize the role of constants in the game. In the opening sequence, Dewitt is met by two figures identified as only “a gentleman” and “a lady,” who are subsequently revealed to be the Lutece twins. The twins are the true masterminds of Infinite: they built the machine that creates tears between universes, were employed by Comstock to engineer a floating city, and, as it turns out, are actually the same person as the result of their assassination within their universe-tearing machine. Their death did not mark the end of life, but rather the ability to travel through space and time with a kind of godly omniscience. But before we know any of this, we simply see a man and woman demanding that Dewitt call heads or tails on a coin.
When we are handed the coin, the screen asks what side to call, not whether we want to flip or not. Our only option is to play along with the Lutece’s game. When returning to the scene we can see that on the chalkboard where Robert Lutece has documented these coin flips it has landed on heads 122 times in a row (our play-through marking the 123rd). Robert, who anticipated heads, says “I never find that as satisfying as I’d imagined,” as Rosalind updates the board tally. “Chin up, there’s always next time,” she says.
But the point is there never will be a next time. So far, this version of Booker Dewitt has tried and failed to infiltrate Columbia 122 times. In this universe he always calls heads; it is an immutable constant. What, then, is the variable? Well, we are. As the player, we are the only thing that is different, and in a game so rife with allusions to quantum physics, it is possible we are creating the Observer Effect. This principle is frustrating for physicists because it means their readings change from a vacuum to a controlled experiment, but in Bioshock Infinite it determines whether Comstock, and subsequently Columbia, ever come into being. At the game’s end we ensure that Columbia never existed—our game, as it were, never happened.
It is this paradox that has sent players to forums and subreddits to discuss the final plot twist with fervor. But it is a paradox that subsidizes a kind of playing that is insidiously against the imaginative possibilities of video games, not only as an industry but as an art form. The machine behind the making of Infinite, a $100 million dollar production by Irrational Games, was fully aware of what it was doing. From the onset, even in the game’s trailer, we knew that our mission’s ambiguity was the very puzzle we were tasked with solving. This changes the dynamic of how a game is played; narrative takes precedence over strategy. Ken Levine, the writer of Bioshock Infinite, even implemented “1999 mode,” a difficulty level that can be unlocked in the menu. It supposedly harkens back to a time in gaming where players were required to specialize in particular weapons and work to plot out effective strategies. Levin is clever, though. This mode is as much of an illusion of choice as the coin flip offered by the Luteces ten minutes into play.
Making the game harder certainly limits your resources. It makes targets more difficult to kill; the penalties are greater for dying and re-spawning. But the crucial point here is that it doesn’t really impact strategy because strategy implies a certain level of agency that Infinite simply does not provide. Perhaps if the player could use Elizabeth’s powers to open tears to travel to different universes at will, to provide Dewitt with an army of defenders, to make any number of infinite choices, then 1999 mode would live up to its invented origins. Yet every question posed by Infinite functions as a façade. Even in the rare instance that one can elect to choose “No” to a question, the same events occur as if we had chosen “Yes.” And this is how it must be in Infinite. The universe is already determined, because Levine’s narrative is so tightly wound.
For a game that is already receiving praise from many critics as the best of the year, with IGN claiming it “nudges the entire genre forward,” it is worth pausing on Infinite’s jarring limitations. Of course every game must end, but Infinite challenges what a good ending to a video game is by enforcing entirely deterministic play. The agency of the game is the slight variation in control from player to player, the online competitions for who has taken the best screenshot of Columbia, the interpretations of Infinite itself. Where other games have climactic finales, they also ensure that a world exists that begs exploring, and allow players to push the boundaries of linear storytelling.
As a result, the experience of Bioshock Infinite is far more cinematic than it is interactive. Already YouTube users have spliced the entirety of the game’s pre-written scenes into a film. It comes as no surprise that Levine tried to make it as a screenwriter before responding to an ad for Looking Glass Games in 1995. His imagination deserves some measure of the praise the game has received. The storytelling and attention to detail in Bioshock Infinite is masterful; it challenges the player to think long after the game has ended about how the world of the game, and our own world, works. But the pitfall of cinematic gaming is their allure hinges on the mystique of a punchline ending. It’s not that the ending is too profound to understand, the narrator has simply made it so convoluted and structurally complex that players can’t immediately suss out its precise contours. This is not necessarily a good thing.
In film, it is an all too common trick. Christopher Nolan’s Memento functions as a prime example: An amnesiac, Leonard Shelby (played by Guy Pearce), is tortured by the continually fading and emerging memory of his wife’s rape and murder. He cannot remember any of the events after the attack, and as the movie unravels backwards in time we learn that Shelby’s wife, who survived the attack, actually died of an insulin overdose in an attempt to prove her husband’s condition false. The movie takes place over a year after her death, and the tattoos that Shelby has all over his body leading him to her supposed attacker, John G, are red herrings. In the last shots, we learn that Shelby has consciously chosen to burn up the evidence of the true events in favor of willful ignorance, instead pursuing a murderous, vengeful life based on a lie that, due to his condition, he will continue to believe. It is an ending that, like Infinite, entirely reframes the characters’ motivations, the plot, and the audience’s understanding of the film.
People leave the theater frantic to decode these flashbang endings, rather than discuss the merits of the film itself. It is as though the work does not exist until the final 10 minutes, under the auspice that all will be revealed. It discounts cinematic work that demands active, critical engagement from the outset, instead targeting an audience that is seeking an illusion of intellectual rigor, but in our shock-gratification culture, wants it delivered in a compressed, dramatically scored, high-octane finale.
It’s not a reach to claim that BioShock Infinite is the gaming world’s Inception, another film by Nolan. It is as if Nolan walked in to help with the last five seconds of Infinite, with the music picking off Elizabeths of different universes. The screen goes black with the last Elizabeth standing—the note still striking in the absence of a visual frame. We immediately think of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character at the end of Inception: Did the spinning totem fall?
While in film these endings of faux-profundity are easier to justify by virtue of the passive nature of viewership, in the gaming world heralding Infinite as a genre-buster is a dangerous call. It legitimizes a space for games that follow this Nolan-esque formula of shock and solve, one that does not challenge the player to think independently in the game by developing new strategies or forging novel ways of completing a mission. Instead, the player becomes precariously idle — her input works at a baseline level, toggling controls only when the narrative requires it.
In the final sequence, having finally realized her powers, Elizabeth says to Dewitt: “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.” We look up at what seems to be a sky dotted with stars, but is in fact its own liminal universe of lighthouses—each one leading into another world, with new worlds being created at every moment.
It’s a provocative philosophy and an enduring theme in science fiction; the innumerable what ifs hang in the balance at the game’s end like a sly grin. But as Elizabeth said, these things are always there and they exist to infinity. So why can’t we play with them?