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On Bioshock Infinite

Spoilers ahead

1. It would be an understatement to say Elizabeth and Booker are well-crafted and believable characters. Sure, at first glance they seem to be cliches, bits and pieces of stories we’re heard far too often. Booker seems a laconic, thoughtless thug who can only be moral if tasked appropriately; Elizabeth a waif with naive dreams who alone injects a moral element into the narrative. We’ve seen this before, no?

Not even close. I’ve been thinking a lot about how convincing and involved their relationship is – that definitely inspired the poem – and what struck me is how irreducibly complex they both are. Booker is no meathead. He’s a realist who lives out the consequences of such a view. The same realism that allows one to do inhuman things in the name of necessity also creates the guilt that comes from such things. It’s nearly impossible not to see as one’s victims see unless one can convince oneself about being right about everything. Booker has a morality which stems from his perspective(s) and a host of anger and guilt issues. He can certainly see other points of view and understands trade-offs; he actually navigates moral ambiguity rather well. Where things get most confusing for him involve issues of self-worth – more on this later. For now, it suffices to say that it is hard to take note of all this while playing because you lose control of Booker at key moments, most notably when he beats a person to death. I suspect this was intentional, that we would commit horrific acts of murder playing Booker then get mad when we lose control of the character for a second because he has to commit a horrific act of murder. Our perspective is that he simply is very angry. The truth is that he’d probably like some control himself, but control is a matter of people believing in you and you believing in yourself.

Elizabeth comes off as some kind of Audrey Hepburn-esque waif who is vulnerable and needs to be rescued and impossible not to love because of her idealism and emotions. I imagine there’s a number of feminist critiques about how she’s a “trope” all over the place, but if Bioshock Infinite teaches anything, it’s that how things appear are not how they are. Elizabeth is supremely well-educated and skillful, able to handle herself after being locked in a tower for years because her powers of observation have been honed by her educating herself.  She doesn’t express naive idealism: she sees events happen and wonders aloud about causality. That leads her to see positive possibilities, but she’s not blind to the negative. Just horrified when the negative happens, as any normal person would be. What’s stunning about Elizabeth is how heroic she has to be in order to be normal. All her learning about codes and physics doesn’t sit still, but makes her wonder about who she is, whether she has the right to be free. She has guilt and anger issues too, and while at times she vocally places blame, one shouldn’t take her particular pronouncements about people too seriously. She’s thinking through the issues she confronts aloud. It isn’t hard to notice how deeply she loves Booker from early on, how she wants obligation, reciprocation, responsibility.

2. The plot is crazy and the whole quantum mechanics/alternate reality/time travel stuff gets out of control. So here’s the spoiler loaded summary: a veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee, Booker DeWitt, is having trouble living with himself after his actions there. (The Bioshock team knew what they were doing in creating this character: the United States of America gave out 20 Medals of Honor (!) for a massacre.) To deal with the guilt, he goes to get baptized. Now things get weird: in one reality, he goes through the baptism and becomes Glenn Beck on steroids.  He starts styling himself a prophet, renaming himself Comstock, and denouncing America for its “sins,” which include bringing in people of other races and religions and not reverencing the Founders (which emphatically do not include Lincoln). You can probably infer what he thinks about a minimum wage and child labor laws. He gets industrialists and scientists to build him a floating city where he can firebomb civilizations he doesn’t like into oblivion. He attacks China and he has plans to annihilate the USA.

In another reality, Booker DeWitt tries to go through the baptism but can’t. He says that he can’t believe some water can cleanse him of what he’s done. So he becomes an alcoholic and a single father and starts amassing gambling debts while running a failing business.

It is essential to note that Comstock’s island does not float because of “large balloons.” Some kind of quantum generator suspends it. In other words, whereas floating is normally about holding a position in space, what Comstock’s island is really trying to float over is time. Time in the game is pretty much subjective: it is usually based off of the decisions one makes. One travels time indirectly by going to other realities where other choices played out. Now the first Bioshock was about freedom, the second about mind control. Could either produce a utopia? Bioshock Infinite is more daring with its counterfactual: the ultimate utopian dream involves control over time. What if you could undo your sins or an original sin and stop all evils simply? What if you could assert that the self you’ve chosen is superior to all other selves you could be? If you had such technology, what you’d find is this: you might undo the moment you thought you created a chain of evil. But you’d still be the same person you were, and a whole bunch of awful possibilities for you and everyone around you would still exist. Those possibilities will probably be worse than they were before you started surgically fixing your past, present and future.

Comstock, inspired by the amazing success of his gospel of hate, has absolutely no compunction about tearing holes in space-time to get whatever he wants. His baptism is time travel, his complete remaking of himself, ridding himself of guilt by denying that he ever did anything that should be considered a crime. That he has the actual power to mess with space-time allows him to extend his Providential narrative. He can have a story where an evil liberal America strayed from its path and was destroyed by heavenly fire foretold by a Prophet. He’s got a story, but there’s a catch: he can’t have children. When he finds out that DeWitt has a kid and a lot of debt in another reality, he sends a man to pay DeWitt for his daughter. Booker takes the offer and immediately regrets it, going back to find his daughter, only to see his infant be thrown through some weird portal. This leads to years of drinking, before the man appears some years later with a deal: step through another portal and go get your daughter back. But stepping through the portal isn’t risk-free. Booker has temporary memory loss from entering the other dimension and doesn’t know who he’s rescuing or why until the end of the game.

3. All throughout the game you encounter tears/portals that allow access to other dimensions. You need to travel through them to get the sequence of events that allows you to stop Comstock. You also get hit or drown and nearly die – or actually die – at least a few times before the end. The player can tell these times are distinct because the game cuts to Booker’s office, where he is in the process of mulling over giving his daughter away. There are even times where you remember you’re dead in other realities; you start bleeding out your nose and need to be snapped back to the reality you’re in. And, of course, there are parallels between all the realities and the places most familiar to Booker that, like all the other things I’ve listed, make one wonder where Booker is the whole time.

I will leave it to more diligent gamers to document all the instances and track exactly what reality Booker is in at which point in the game. The timeline of the game for most people is going to be a mess. The importance of the timeline is this: the end is far, far crazier than anything I’ve told you about above. At the end, DeWitt realizes he’s Comstock, because his daughter, both tortured and empowered by Comstock, has command of creating tears/portals and seeing other realities. She sees literally infinite possibilities: at any given point, one can choose and create a whole other reality, and she can create doors to those places if she isn’t creating those places herself. Her powers seem to come from the fact that he wanted an heir to continue his legacy of hate. It isn’t enough for him to have control at present, his vision needs to be the future. When her full powers are restored, as he was siphoning her power to keep her locked up and trying to make her share his hate, she realizes DeWitt is Comstock and has to convince him of what he is capable of. Since DeWitt is hellbent on eliminating him, he willingly lets his daughters from the other realities that featured Comstock drown him at the place of his accepted or rejected baptism. The idea seems to be that if DeWitt dies at the baptism, that creates a new decision tree: either he goes to the baptism and simply drowns, or he doesn’t even consider getting baptized and stays DeWitt, alive and drunk with a daughter who won’t be taken away. Put that way, the ending almost doesn’t seem as nihilistic as it actually plays out on screen. It’s pretty sick to watch, although you get an epilogue where DeWitt is alive, in the office, and rushes to see if his daughter is still there.

I think every time I’ve commented on Bioshock previously, I’ve talked about how the experience of playing the game can distract from how much sense the villains or heroes can make. We usually need to use our imagination to reconstruct things from their perspective, to see the appeal or actual reasoning of what they did. But there’s a limit to this. A daughter drowning her father is exceptionally cruel, especially since you run into an older Elizabeth who carries on Comstock’s hate and burns NYC to the ground. It isn’t clear she’s caused exclusively by Comstock, just as it isn’t clear that killing DeWitt at the place of baptism stops DeWitt in all realities from being Comstock. The difference between DeWitt and Comstock can’t be coincidence, but all the multiverse talk seems to indicate that. If one says the difference between DeWitt and Comstock is moral, fine, but that leads to this: why should DeWitt pay for the other’s sins? Even for a second? Of all people, the daughter knows this: she sees all possibilities, and earlier in the game, she sees how far DeWitt will go to rescue her, even admitting that he wouldn’t give up his daughter and saying, for her own elder self’s firebombing of NYC, that time alone can break one. She sees more than anyone else why Comstock and DeWitt really are two different people; even before DeWitt willingly dies, it is clear how much more he suffered for not being Comstock.

4.  I posit that the trick to the ending is to avoid the multiverse stuff as much as possible and focus on the moral development of the characters. Booker really does grow throughout the game – he gets into his hero role, he does love Elizabeth as an independent, strong woman. His devotion is admiration; he is clear about this at various points. The anger he expresses throughout the game is pretty much directed at Comstock, who he can’t recognize immediately as himself. A good clue that he isn’t interested in killing indiscriminately is when fighting other veterans of Wounded Knee. The player can spare the chief nut who wants to die with honor.

What Booker loathes, then, is literally a part of himself. Booker, in choosing not to be Comstock, saw that trying to wash away guilt with water alone was just an exercise in self-delusion. He saw what he was capable of and stayed away from it. Once was enough, and he is adamant throughout the game that he is no hero.

There’s more that makes Booker a profoundly moral character: Why does he give up his daughter? What breaks him? “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt” pounds through his head continually throughout the game. It isn’t just a moment of weakness, remembrance that he traded his daughter for coin. He didn’t trade his daughter for coin. He didn’t trust himself to be able to raise anyone after what he did. He didn’t see himself as capable of morality. This, again, is very evident from his more macho talk to Elizabeth early game about what he’d rather she didn’t know, even though he doesn’t know it himself.

5. Killing Booker, then, is more than a cold or cruel act. It’s easy to make the case that he gets used, has some kind of innocence despite his awful deeds, and is certainly pitiable. Which brings us to his daughter, originally Anna but renamed Elizabeth. Again, she can see this more than anyone; she shows in curious ways that she recognizes Booker as part of her. I’m thinking of when he fights the songbird and pretty much drowns and is almost magically rescued by her; when she stabs Fitzroy, killing for the first time, and says it runs in the family; when she willingly lets the songbird take her away than let it hurt Booker; finally, that she won’t raise a hand against Comstock despite all the talk of killing him. There’s at least two times Booker’s nose bleeds and she’s the one telling him to snap out of it.

We’ve got to wonder what exactly the source of Elizabeth/Anna’s power is. Who has the power of God and can’t remember who their Dad is, though they can tear holes to other dimensions? This has to be connected with where Booker actually is; even without much of the quantum mechanics stuff, this story is breaking down.

I’ve said Elizabeth has a thirst for knowledge that extends so deeply it becomes a want of self-knowledge, that she’s willing to question her ideals as she works through them, that she has the power to open doors to other realities and see other possibilities completely played out. Comstock wanted to make Elizabeth exclusively his daughter by giving her the gift of prophecy through physical means. He uses a giant robotic songbird to keep her trapped in a tower that is shaped like a statue of her, watching her constantly. I think the songbird more than any experimentation Comstock did gives us the metaphorical clue we need to how Elizabeth has power. Not only does she like to learn, but DeWitt left her, so to speak, to the birds. She talks about the songbird being a friend early in life and a warden later. How does she tear open doors to other realities? Because she likes to learn and wants freedom. She is trying to see possibilities clearly while everyone else is blinding themselves.

This leads to why I don’t really think Elizabeth kills Booker in any sense. She talks about her power being a form of wish fulfillment. It’s pretty clear what the wish the 17 year old made was: she wanted to learn who her father is. That’s what set up the chance for redemption for Booker. You see baby Anna reach out to Booker; the 17 year old Elizabeth reach out; the older Elizabeth also reaches out. When Booker “drowns,” the player sees all the other Elizabeths disappear except the one who accompanied Booker the whole time.

The floating island, Columbia, is all about deconstructing the world Elizabeth knows. That world is created by an arbitrary, cruel father bent on justifying himself no matter what and literally leaving his kid to a bird. In other words: “Comstock” is at least as much a projection of what Elizabeth thinks her father could be as he is something within DeWitt. Elizabeth is trapped inside a tower that looks like her: she sees that even if her father might be proud of her, he has some romantic idea of her or thinks her no better than a tombstone. It makes perfect sense that an abandoned child in America would correctly see a lot of hate and stupidity in the name of a divine mission. But for our purposes, “Columbia” is where Booker approaches Anna.

When the tower is destroyed, Columbia is finished. The scene shifts to doors out in the ocean, doors everywhere. This is Booker’s mind: everything done there is about Booker remembering.  Elizabeth/Anna has already forgiven him – the most important clue is right before the drowning, when it Elizabeth is scared of Booker going through a particular door. The metaphorical interpretation of the drowning is that Booker sees what he’s capable of, of how much pain he can cause, and the guilt overwhelms him. The Elizabeth he seems to know and knows him moves toward him but sounds brainwashed as Booker keeps saying the word “smother” and telling himself about how Comstock never can be allowed to be born. The Elizabeths and Booker complete each other’s thoughts as one mind in this scene; they are obviously not one mind throughout the rest of the game (there are two characters in game that are actually one mind and contrast rather sharply with Elizabeth and Booker). The “death” seems to me to be the end of a dream more than anything else. It’s the realization that Booker would never choose to be Comstock, that he would rather die than be him. Elizabeth/Anna, again, had seen this earlier. The only person who needs to know that his guilt and sin, while real and requiring judgment, are not the end of everything is Booker.

6. Does America have original sin? Yes and no. To say no, you need the reality of Elizabeth, of a daughter still wanting a father that abandoned her and willing to see the good. And you need the realism of Booker, where he can see so clearly what he’s capable of that to tell him the possibilities excites his imagination to fantastic levels. It’s almost like you’d need someone else to walk him through his own mind, but he can be spoken to, perhaps in his office about to drown in his own guilt and break himself. At one point when Booker is knocked unconscious/dead, he envisions the Elizabeth he knows in the office at the moment someone is knocking on the door about the girl and debt.

The temptation is to say that everything that happened is all in Booker’s head. I’m contending that Elizabeth is real, that the potentially awful future is real, that the guilt is real, but the self-realization for Booker is only in his head. The weird thing about this interpretation is how it reads Comstock entirely out of the picture. Nothing is real about him; he’s a construct Booker feared and that Elizabeth/Anna saw as the only “Dad” that could be had, a psychotic abuser.

The deeper reason why Comstock isn’t real is that he erases himself. He doesn’t need to be beaten to death, DeWitt doesn’t need to be drowned. Those tears going to multiple dimensions all throughout Columbia weren’t caused by Elizabeth alone. The whole place was unstable in its very inception and when he tore through his dimension to get Anna, well. The only things that could make Comstock real are a daughter who hated and a father who quit on himself. This makes two funny things about Bioshock Infinite: how the daughter never hated, the father never quit, despite the fact one spoke of killing an abusive father and desecrating an abusive mother’s grave and the other while drunk, broke and depressed gave away his child. There is heroism in everyday life. What prevents it is when we doubt ourselves and each other and indulge the doubt, when we don’t let people be human and be different or make mistakes, when we use others’ weakness for exploitation. America has original sin as long as it indulges the sin. The reality of the present is why the past, why the future. Booker himself understands this, despite a guilt he knows has to linger: he takes every opportunity to point out what happened at Wounded Knee was horrible and not to be celebrated. Why is Glenn Beck on the air, when fictional characters in video games see the truth?

Bioshock 2: Libertarianism, Transhumanism and the Will to Believe

Spoilers galore ahead

1. I finished Bioshock 2 last night. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the opening – mind control makes you shoot yourself in the head 30 seconds into the game, then you resurrect 10 years later – the idea of Rapture (the city you explore) is one of the best premises I’ve come across in a long while.

Some background, familiar to those of you who’ve played the first Bioshock. Rapture is an underwater city created in the 50′s by ultra rich Ayn Rand fanatics who want to live entirely independent of government. They get their wish and for a little while things go smoothly to a degree. There’s all the capitalism one could want and some issues with class and indoctrination, but nothing fatal.

Then people find a sea slug that when mixed with their blood gives them super powers. The rich quickly become angels and demons of a sort and the poor are relegated to merely human status. The problems don’t just stem from the scarcity of superpower blood additive; the more of the substance one has, the more powerful one can theoretically be. This leads to people pretty much eating each other. A former gangster, in the name of getting more additive for the people, finds a way to mass produce the stuff and stages a rebellion against the city’s founder. Things get bloody quickly and the whole city becomes an insanity-filled ruin. The substance isn’t perfect and deforms people over time. It certainly does not promise immortality just yet.

As a critique of libertarianism and Objectivism, Bioshock’s plot is powerful. I’m really amazed gamers can play this and not have doubts about some of the views popular in the gaming community. I remember attending libertarian events. There was always ranting about how bad government was and almost no thought about how low some individuals we knew were actually going. The assumption was once the evil government was removed, whatever is left is good. Bioshock just explodes that: power is real and people want it. Take away restraints and those who have advantages will abuse them for any number of reasons. When there’s no formal order, everyone can become more fearful and paranoid. For all its problems, law protects us from each other.

2. The setup of a fallen Rapture is not without nuance. Bioshock 2 presents the educational amusement park dominated by Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan. The voice of Ryan and several animatronic Ryans preach the evils of the surface to children in exhibit after exhibit. Government takes away from honest, hardworking farmers, stifles scientific progress, prevents artistic free expression. As you explore the area, Ryan Amusements, you encounter the audio diaries of several of the major characters. One of the gentlemen who wanted to create the park wanted a genuine amusement park, a place where children could have fun. His vision seems to have been completely appropriated. Ryan himself, though, expresses doubts about the mode of education involved. He concedes grudgingly that the approach of Ryan Amusements as a whole works. The larger tension of how freedom and education reconcile is driving the darker emotions on display. Aristotle does not think children or animals have rational choice. If Aristotle is even close to being right, the consequences for an immediately practicable political ideology are huge, and not just for the children being indoctrinated. The doctrine itself is in a way pretending that freedom is a one-size-fits-all proposition.

Bioshock 2 concerns Sofia Lamb, a psychiatrist with a literally cult following. Ryan and the former gangster are dead following the first game, and Rapture was a dystopia then. Now her cult “runs” what’s left of an already that much more wrecked Rapture, with drug addict super powered post-humans everywhere. She once accused Ryan of unleashing the egoism of everyone in the city. Given where one finds that accusation, it might be thought a comment on Ryan creating a cult of personality. Ryan saw her cult as a collectivist menace. Both run cults of personality but seem willing to accept that irony. Ryan thinks of what he’s achieved as liberty. A little egoism never hurt anyone, as long as they’re free.

With Lamb, the problem runs deeper. She sees self-awareness as pain and greed. Utopian individuals are possible, but they need to be completely disinterested. Her cult of personality is a stepping stone to a greater good. She’s using it to collect more of the superpower substance for her daughter. Her daughter will have near infinite mental resources and powers. She can be the first citizen of a true utopia. It’s weird: in game, Lamb comes off as shrill, menacing and insane. Writing out what she’s after – hey, if we get rid of self-interest, aren’t these superpowers usable? – makes her project look a lot more feasible and interesting. Give the superpowerful family ties and selflessness: that’s not just a perfect society, but an angelic realm, no?

3. Why this can’t work is tricky. The conventional narrative, given by the game: the rarity of the superpowered substance required a new race specifically devoted to having the sea slug in them, producing and storing the stuff in their bodies, collecting it from corpses lying around the city. This was the Little Sisters: genetically modified to have it pump through their veins and lacking any superpower besides regeneration, as well as mentally conditioned to see the world as roses no matter how bleak it is. “Little Sisters” are loyal to a fault to “Big Daddies,” behemoths designed to defend them to the death while they harvest/produce/store.

Lamb’s daughter for a complex set of reasons was turned into a Little Sister. This turned out to be a blessing for her mother’s plan, as it meant she could process a large amount of the substance without becoming deformed or insane. But it also meant that she became attached to a “Big Daddy” – you, the player in Bioshock 2 – and since she has some issues with Mom, is trying to get you to rescue her.

The larger issue is “What is family?” and Bioshock 2 doesn’t disappoint. You, as a Daddy, are almost entirely a construct of your own daughter. Lamb’s make-a-family project has a lot of validity to it – again, this is very hard to see while playing – and it looks like the daughter picked that much up from Mom. Your daughter resurrects you using the system set up to empower her. The choices you make as a player are prompts conditioned by the fact you have to attempt a rescue and, in it, learn her history.

It’s a very strange circumstance: a parent almost entirely created by a child, one who has to learn a child just to act himself. Even stranger is the outcome, where the daughter learns from how you act. Who she grows up to be is completely dependent on what you do in game. What is the difference between “almost entirely” (your daughter’s construction) and “entirely?” (her moral formation)

4. If I knew the answer to that, I’d be a lot richer. Suffice to say the question on my mind is how the libertarian framework created the collectivist, religious one. It would be easy to limit that inquiry to “conditions:” the failure of libertarianism on a practical level created the need for something more egalitarian. The story of Rapture allows for that explanation. I don’t think it’s good enough.

It’s not good enough because people’s attachment to what looks like order in game is too convincing. In the midst of death and destruction and a complete lack of anything like civility, people are that much more in awe of someone with a title or some kind of power. Again, I don’t think that’s just “hey, when you’ve got no power, you make the person who does a god,” although that’s sort of true. Nor is it nostalgia from memories of a time things were more ordered, although that might be true.

Something about self-awareness leads to a deeper consideration, but it isn’t clear why. Lamb and Ryan and everyone else in Rapture are right to emphasize the utility of reason. Who cares if you know more about yourself through a book? What’s more important is that knowledge can benefit all or be used to increase your pleasure or pride. Yet the daughter wants self-awareness above all and her mother thinks she is a monster for this.

I can’t tell you what freedom is, but I can see what hesitation is. Independent of any moral concerns, hesitation – reason as restraint – seems to be the flip side of reason as utility. Self-awareness may be nothing more than pain and greed ultimately. But we like to think that it is about our sitting in judgment of ourselves, having some control over who we are. Maybe that’s the real reason why a cult with no pretense to anything divine, only an earthly hope, takes over in Rapture. Only Lamb really believes in a selfless order. All those in awe of her might respect the fact she has the distance to think about things and put them together for herself, to form something appropriate.

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