Levine Shall Sit the Throne and Drown in Reflection the Musings of Man: in which we think on story in Bioshock Infinite

In a previous post, I reflected on the intellectual impact that playing the 2007 video game Bioshock had on me. Today begins what may become a few posts along similar lines. I’m given to expect multiple because my other Bioshock post was rather interminable. I hope that by addressing different aspects in turn, I can better treat the facets that fascinate me.

I can’t help but notice that mere days after finishing the game, Roger Ebert, whom I mentioned in that previous Bioshock post (maybe you should go read it so I’ll shut up about it) died. I don’t know if it was his age or the fact that people are lauding yet another Bioshock game as artistic. (Too soon?)

(The title for this post is a tweaked version of a foreboding missive seen numerous times throughout Bioshock Infinite; Ken Levine is the creative mind behind the Bioshock games. The original lines goes: “The Lamb shall sit the throne and drown in flame the mountains of man.”) For those unfamiliar with the story—and who don’t think they will play the game itself—there is a good run-down of the characters and plot on Wikipedia. I cannot stress enough, however, that part of the power of this story is the way in which the pieces are revealed and then put together. Reading it on Wikipedia is a distinctly anticlimactic experience, but it may have to do. From here on, I will be free with my references, so spoiler-haters…you’ve been warned.

I will try to organize all this topically, but, as with any well-crafted tale, the cogs all interlock and it is the sum of their parts that bring the “whoa” to bear. But taking the machine apart may be necessary to appreciate its ingenuity.

I. Will the Circle Be Unbroken?

These words are key. I plan to revisit them in a future post, but for now, let’s think about them. Not only does the song from which these words come fit the religious vibe of the game, but they also portend, from early in the story, what that story is about. I confess I love it when story’s do this—when the pieces were laid out for me from the beginning, but I didn’t have the glue to stick them together until the end. So let’s consider the pieces Levine gives us.

A. The Multiverse: If you are any kind of self-respecting sci-fi geek, then you should know something about string theory, time travel paradoxes, the multiverse theory, and Schrödinger’s Cat. If you are not a sci-fi geek (or a self-respecting one) then you might need a primer. Bioshock Infinite uses ideas from theoretical physics, philosophy, and ethics to drop epiphany bombs on our mind grapes. Premise: for every decision made, two (or more) realities potentially branch off. This would imply an infinite number of realities (universes/timelines), some so similar to each other as to be nearly indistinguishable—taking tea instead of coffee in the morning. Others are wildly different—what if Hitler had been accepted to art school?.

All different, yet similar. Constants and variables. This notion keeps arising when the Luteces appear, providing their witty British banter, as though the entire game is one big thought experiment. Heads or Tails? The Bird or the Cage? Alive or Dead. In fact, the coin flip is, as the Bioshock Wiki notes, a reference to Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Deadwhich is itself a piece of metatheatre (assuming I’m using that term correctly) based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. (The rabbit hole just keeps going deeper, doesn’t it?)

The notion of division is embedded everywhere, along with a yearning for its implied antithesis—reunion. That is of course, what the song Will the Circle Be Unbroken is all about. 

Booker and Comstock are divisions of each other, branching off from that crucial decision (the very word decision means to “cut off”) of baptism. The Luteces are divisions of each other; they are forever divided from their natural existence, but always together with each other. Booker is divided from Elizabeth (but neither he nor we realize it at first). Elizabeth is quite literally divided from herself when he finger is cut off as a child. The City of Columbia, gilded image of the American melting pot, descends into civil war—a house divided against itself. Several times during the game, Booker is separated from Elizabeth, whether by argument, Comstock’s minions, or Songbird. What keeps us moving forward is the desire to see them reunited in the midst of all the division around them. Most poignant of all, Booker’s and Elizabeth’s agreement that he must die in order to avoid the “birth” of Comstock—a more permanent division. Even with the tag scene after the credits, we never actually see baby Elizabeth in the cradle. Perhaps they are forever divided, perhaps not.

One by one their seats were emptied.

One by one they went away.

Now the family is parted.

Will it be complete one day?

—from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”

B. Greek TragedyRosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead shares its major themes of determinism, free will, and existence with Bioshock Infinite. As NPR’s Laura Sydell observes, Bioshock Infinite bears the earmarks of Aristotelian tragedy, much like Hamlet does. To be more specific, I would point out the twist on the tragic tradition of hamartia. Often translated as “tragic flaw” or “tragic error,” it can have a number of nuances—wrongdoing committed in ignorance of its eventual consequences; this wrong act begins a chain of causality that ultimately ends in the demise of the one who committed it. This is certainly not my area of expertise, but I think I’ve got a decent handle on it:

  • Booker’s hamartia is metaphysically himself, in the person of Comstock, but also literally himself in that he gave Anna/Elizabeth away as a child, resulting in his journey(s) to Columbia, and eventually his death. But Booker’s giving his child away is one of the constants, Elizabeth observes toward the end of Infinite.
  • Comstock’s hamartia begins at his decision to bargain for Booker’s daughter, setting off the chain of events that lead Booker to come to Columbia and kill Comstock. Part of Comstock’s downfall is tied up with a sort of second-level hamartia involving the Luteces.
  • The Luteces initiate a twist on the hamartia trope when they decide to help Comstock steal Elizabeth away. Regretting the action and planning to reverse the damage results in Comstock’s order to have them killed. Because of their universe-hopping device, they are not quite dead (unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who , as we know, are quite dead). They are more like Schödinger’s Cat (or the Ringwraiths), neither living nor dead per se. And because of Comstock’s attempt at murder, he in fact frees them from any one particular reality, enabling them to more easily work events toward his downfall. They have all the time in the multiverse. Still, for them, it’s not truly a “fatal error” so much as a “timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbly error.”
  • Jeremiah Fink’s avarice and ill-treatment of minorities in his factories results in his death at the hand of the very sort of person he sought to exploit.

C. Doppelgänger: There are a few moments centered on confused or mistaken identity in the game that seem innocent on the first play-through, but take on another meaning once you know where the story’s headed.

  • Immediately after escaping the destruction of Elizabeth’s tower prison (relatively early in the game), Booker awakens to Elizabeth’s face and groggily calls her “Anna.” Hmm…
  • Having lost Elizabeth, Booker overhears a man telling a woman that he will leave his wife for her. She replies, “Some men don’t know who they are.” Innocent enough, but it turns out that Booker doesn’t know who he is—his own worst enemy.
  • Soon after that eavesdropping, Elizabeth and Booker make their way to a dirigible airship in order to escape Columbia. Just before entering the turnstile, a woman stops Elizabeth and nonchalantly calls her Annabel. The writers hang a lantern on the oddity of the exchange, but then we simply move on. On the second play-through, we know that Elizabeth is, in fact, Annabel—Booker’s Anna—as in, the “AD” etched into his flesh (Annabel DeWitt). The woman who “mistook” Elizabeth for Annabel, because she (and several others past the departure gate) are plain-clothes Columbia security, intent on bringing Elizabeth back at Comstock’s behest. After fighting them all off, we find an audio-diary that confirms this.
  • Mid-game, Elizabeth finds a ledger outlining how much money Comstock exacts from the people of Columbia (50%). Booker comments that he ought to get into the prophecy business. Of course, he doesn’t know that he did—in an alternate reality.
  • Over the course of the game, we continue to pick audio diaries left by one, Preston E. Downs, a Wild Bill Hickok sort of showman whom Comstock hires to hunt down Daisy Fitzroy. After trying to trap her, he accidentally maims a child of Sioux descent. He then feels remorse, begins to care for the boy, and resolves to hunt Comstock instead. Downs himself is in some ways a mirror of Booker. He initiates a seemingly straightforward hunt for a girl, albeit for different reasons. His search is complicated by accrued emotional baggage—a debt, if you will—(just as Booker’s true debt is the lives he has damage or taken), and seeks acquittal via vengeance upon Comstock.
  • When Booker kills Comstock, his nose begins to bleed again, something that happens as Booker’s mind tries to reconcile “reality” with what he remembers.

    “He doesn’t row”

D. 123rd Tim’s the Charm:

At the end, we learn that the game we just played was one of numerous attempts by Booker to free Elizabeth.

  • As the Luteces row Booker to the lighthouse, what we take for repartee, is actually quite telling:

Robert: Can we get back to the rowing?

Rosalind: I suggest you do, or we’re never going to get there.

Robert: No, I mean I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d assist.

Rosalind: Perhaps you should ask him [Booker]. I imagine he has a greater interest in getting there than I do.

Robert: I suppose he does, but there’s no point in asking.

Rosalind: Why not?

Robert: Because he doesn’t row.

Rosalind: He doesn’t row?

Robert: No. He doesn’t row.

Rosalind: Ah. I see what you mean.

We don’t see what they mean, initially. The Luteces already know that Booker just sits in the boat because that action (or inaction) is a constant from trial to trial.

The Luteces’ Coin Toss

  • The game hints this a few times. When we unlock the launch chamber in the lighthouse, we ring three bells in the pattern: 1x, 2x, 2x.
  • During the coin flip with the Luteces, we notice they’ve been keeping track of the heads vs. tails. The mark they make after the coin is flipped is the 123rd mark on the board, indicating 122 previous attempts to extricate the girl and wipe away his “debt.”
  • The dead man in the lighthouse might also be taken as evidence of a prior attempt to launch to Columbia.

II. There’s Always a Lighthouse

Now let’s compare and contrast the Bioshocks (not necessarily including Bioshock 2)…

A. City as Character: Both stories prominently feature a city treated as something akin to a character. The setting not only sets the mood in these stories, but it is also entangled somehow in the plot (i.e., the plot could not enfold as it does if it were not for the unique pros/cons to the city-setting). In Rapture, the city held an ominous sway over the player’s mood via an oppressive sense of confinement, entrapment, and claustrophobia; Columbia, on the other hand, embodies the story itself by juxtaposing a bright, cheery façade with a sinister subtext. Both cities are reached by means of a lighthouse that turns out to be more than it appears, and both cities are cities intentionally cut-off from the rest of the world in order to form a more perfect society. Many people classify Bioshock as dystopia, but dystopia requires a society. In Rapture, society has broken down—that’s what we call post-apocalyptic. Even though it’s not post-apocalyptic in usual sense (à la nuclear fallout, climate change, or zombie viruses), it is about what happens when society breaks down after some sort of cataclysm. Rapture used to be a dystopia, but during the events of Bioshock, I think we can safely say it is some variety of post-apocalyptic fiction. Conversely, Columbia contains populations of people who, though misguided, are perfectly sane. Social structures, commerce, holidays—all guises to that sinister subtext I mentioned—this is dystopia.

B. Civil War: Dovetailing into that discussion is the presence in both story lines of civil war. In Rapture, the civil war is technically ongoing, although my perception of the political situation was that of a stalemate, with all hostility focused on the player. In Columbia, we arrive in the midst of rising tensions, but prior to all-out war. One of the curious and, I think, compelling aspects of this conflict is that neither side is particularly championed. The dark seeds of power-lust and violence are openly acknowledged in both camps.

“Let there be light—at my price per gallon”

C. Haves vs. Have-Nots: This war is given a patina of racial tension by the writers of Bioshock Infinite, and that element should certainly not be discounted. But when we dig down to it, the conflict between Columbia’s Founders (essentially WASP-stand-ins) and Vox Populi (everyone else) is very much the same as that between the citizens of Rapture—an economic one. Jeremiah Fink, one of the most prominent members of the Founders, is a business magnate and manufacturing giant who conjures images of John D. Rockefeller. Fink’s voice comes over the public address system at points, chiding his workers (made up mostly of minority groups) for being discontent with their compensation. Likewise, Booker and Elizabeth learn that Comstock takes 50% of people’s income in a kind of tithe-tax.

D. Playing a PlayerBioshock’s story capitalized on player expectations. The midway reveal of the game still sticks in my mind as a brilliantly clever bit of story telling. The metanarrative underlying the story is a commentary on players’ suspension of disbelief when playing a video game—that they will blindly work to accomplish the objective the game gives them in order to complete the game. Similarly Bioshock Infinite hoodwinks us in the end too, by revealing an interesting twist on the grandfather paradox—that of Booker being Elizabeth’s father AND he and Comstock being the same person, albeit from parallel realities. So once again, the question of choice asks if we ever truly have a choice and who our worst enemy truly is—casting a brighter, retrospective light on the events of Bioshock. In the original game, we were given a “choice” to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters of Rapture. That choice revealed one of two endings. Bioshock Infinite‘s story highlights the fact that for all the semblance of choice video games may try to provide—regardless of what we the players choose, however we choose to play—creating seemingly infinite number of versions of the same story/experience—we ultimately end up in the same place. (I think no other game has displayed this more disappointingly and obviously than Mass Effect 3.) Furthermore, this is a fascinating twist on the classic gaming trope of princess-rescuing: Mario rescues Princess Peach, Link rescues Zelda, etc. The joke here is that your princess is not in another castle; you find her pretty early on. The problem is keeping her. As we near the end of the game, she is taken away from Booker, and he, in effect, has to fight through another “castle” to reach her.

E. Predestination vs. Free Will: This begs the question, “is there such a thing as free will?” Both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite raise this question; it is essential to both stories. I plan to deal with it in greater detail in a future post, but for now, let me give a quick summation. Is the true nature of reality one of predestination or free will? Yes.

Big Daddy, Alpha Series

F. Man in the Machine: Big Daddies and Handymen are some of the most tragic characters in the Bioshock series. Unwilling men whose bodies have been fused with mechanical body parts, ostensibly making them stronger, but leaving them dehumanized and tortured. In both games, the player must confront these creatures in battle, and they are indeed a tougher battle than other enemies. But there is always a certain amount of remorse, when the Big Daddy groans an inarticulate cry of anguish, or the handyman yells, “Every step is like burning coal!” No other video games have elicited from me such pity for enemies as these have.

Handyman

G. There’s Always a Man, a City, and a Lighthouse: There are a number of oblique references to the original Bioshock, and I’m sure I haven’t noticed them all.

  • The stairs up to the lighthouses at the beginning of each game are nearly identical
  • In Bioshock one of the creepiest moments early in the game was coming across a woman, ADAM-addled, talking like a mother to a baby carriage which actually contained a revolver. At Battleship Bay, Booker passes a baby carriage containing pistol ammunition.
  • The design similarities between Songbird and Bid Daddies.
  • Bioshock (potentially) ends with Little Sisters you had rescued, now like adoptive daughters, holding your hand when you die. Bioshock Infinite ends with the hands of your actual daughter holding you under the water.
  • Submersion—always everywhere all the time.
  • Jack’s wrench from Bioshock makes a couple cameos in Infinite.
  • I assume the writers noticed that the reverence by Columbia’s inhabitants, and use of “Lamb” as a euphemism for Elizabeth would be compared to Bioshock 2‘s Eleanor Lamb, who is also a special and uncannily powerful young lady, equally venerated by the inhabitants of Rapture.
  • Booker bears scars forming AD on his hand. Jack bore a chain tattoo on his wrist—both alluding to the murky pasts of each character.

So, it has proven laborious to even get these thought down in any cogent order. There is so much floating around, and I’ve tried to save certain things for a discussion on religion and faith, and one on the use of music.

This video is a handy summary. It does contain some language, but it also contains the most crucial and revelatory moments of the story. (Whoever put it together, however, decided that in a list of top ten moments, there should be two no. 8’s.) Each scene is separated by an excerpt from “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

Sources:

GameSpot GamePlay Podcast

Slate, “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later”

CVG, “Unlocking the Secrets and Mysteries behind BioShock Infinite”

Game Front, “‘He Doesn’t Row’: How BioShock Infinite Isn’t Booker’s Story” [really interesting!]

Numerous entries from the Bioshock Wiki

NPR, “‘Bioshock Infinite’: A First Person Shooter, A Tragic Play”

Reddit, “My Detailed Ending Explanation…”