Narrative Analysis - Bioshock Infinite
Below is an analysis of the narrative structure of Bioshock: Infinite that I wrote last year with the intent of submitting it to the GDC Game Narrative Review competition. In it, I discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative and the characters in the game. This game in particular is special to me because it is the game that made me realize that games are a valid medium for great storytelling and can have applications beyond "fun". I think this essay is important to share because it gives some insight into how I view storytelling in game and how I believe it can be boosted or hindered by gameplay design.
Game Title: BioShock Infinite
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux
Genre: First-person shooter
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Game Writer / Creative Director / Narrative Designer: Ken Levine (writer and director), Adrian Murphy (producer)
BioShock Infinite is a linear narrative-driven first-person shooter game. BioShock Infinite is set in the steampunk-styled floating air city of Columbia. Columbia is advertised as an international world’s fair designed by the United States government to showcase the success of America. After the start of the game, however, Columbia is revealed to be a theocratic dystopian police state under the rule of its founder, self-proclaimed prophet Zachary Comstock. Colombia’s society is based on the worship of Comstock as a divine savior and the founding fathers of America as major religious icons and institutional racism and classism run rampant. The player controls the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, as he is sent up to Columbia to locate and retrieve a girl imprisoned within the inner city. Booker is quickly outed by the city authority as an individual foretold of by Comstock, known as the “False Shepherd”, who would overthrow Columbia. The game follows Booker’s struggle to find the girl and escape Columbia all while fighting against the Columbian government.
BioShock Infinite is the third installment in the BioShock series, but has no continued story lines or any narrative similarities that indicate that Infinite even takes place on the same timeline as the first two BioShock games. While BioShock Infinite is technically a part of a series, in terms of the narrative, it is a stand-alone game. Infinite does a phenomenal job of developing a narrative that, at first, seems very linear and regular into a deeper, interwoven, non-linear story. The gameplay is simple, even sometimes bland, but the most astounding aspect of this game is not the gameplay, but the development and change in the narrative as the game goes on.
Each character in BioShock Infinite plays a vital role in the development of the narrative. The player has a unique form of interacting with each of the characters as well, and as such, the individual development of the characters is experienced in different ways.
Booker DeWitt – Booker is the protagonist of the game and the character that the player controls. At the start of the game, Booker is a disgraced member of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Prior to the start of the game, Booker fought in the Battle of Wounded Knee which left him emotionally scarred from the hideous acts of violence he committed. In his guilt, he began mounting gambling debts, and thus is given a job to “wipe away the debt.” This job sends him to Columbia and marks the start of the game. Booker is skeptical of faith or the extraordinary and believes that nothing can wipe away his sin. Booker has a scar of the letters “AD” which marks him as the “False Shepherd” in Columbia. Booker’s development is mainly though the narrative itself, but also through various flashbacks to a surreal version of his office.
Elizabeth – Elizabeth is a young woman who has been held captive in Columbia for most of her life. She is revealed to be Comstock’s adopted daughter and was intended to take over as Columbia’s ruler when Comstock died. She is very intelligent and possesses many practical skills such as cryptography and lock-picking. She is missing the tip of her pinky finger and keeps it covered with a thimble. Elizabeth can open and interact with dimensional tears and, as such, gains a higher knowledge of the universe and the existence of multiple timelines by the end of the game. At the end of the game, Elizabeth is revealed to actually be Anna DeWitt, Booker’s daughter. It is revealed that Comstock kidnapped Anna across dimensions and in the process of a dimensional tear closing, her pinky was severed, allowing her to exist in multiple universes and interact with dimensional tears. Elizabeth is developed through the narrative mostly, but also through Booker’s flashbacks and dialogue with Comstock and the Lutece twins.
Zachary Hale Comstock – Comstock, the main antagonist, is the founder and ruler of Columbia. He is a self-proclaimed prophet of the lord and is a religious fanatic. He has led Columbia as a dictator and promoted racism and sexism while at the same time maintaining his power though conspiracy and murder. Comstock is the leader of the faction, the Founders, a cult of personality based on religion and the American founding fathers. Comstock claims that Elizabeth is his daughter, stating that she was a miracle child born to lead Columbia in the future. Comstock is later revealed to be an alternate version of Booker; Booker as we know him refused a baptism after the Battle of Wounded Knee whereas this version accepted it, found religion, and became Comstock. He then founded Columbia with the help of the Lutece twins. After the founding of Colombia, it was revealed that the technology used by the Lutece twins made Comstock sterile. This resulted in him traveling to a different universe and taking Booker’s infant daughter. Comstock isn’t directly in the game much until the end. He is mostly developed though the narrative of other characters and various audio logs (Voxophones) and film projectors (Kinetoscopes).
Daisy Fitzroy – Fitzroy is the leader of the Vox Populi, the rebel faction in Columbia opposing the Founders. Fitzroy was initially a servant in Comstock’s house, but she fled after she was framed by Comstock for the murder of his wife. After escaping, she founded the Vox Populi and began fighting in opposition of the Founders. Although the Vox Populi fight against the injustice brought upon the people by the Founders, they are seen as radical and no better than the Founders due to the extreme measures they are willing to take to overthrow Comstock.
The Lutece Twins – Robert and Rosalind Lutece are two strange, reoccurring characters that directly lead and influence Booker. Prior to the game, they took orders from Comstock and developed the technology that made Colombia float. Throughout the game, it appears that Robert and Rosalind are near-identical fraternal twins, but it is revealed that they are actually the same person from two different realities. Together the twins worked out how to communicate with each other and eventually travel between dimensions at will. Over the course of the game, it is revealed that Comstock attempted to murder the twins to protect his secrets by altering one of their devices. However, instead of dying, they ended up in a state between dimensions, existing in all possibilities. The twins are the first characters seen by Booker in the game.
Songbird – Songbird is a massive, robotic bird-like creature that guards Elizabeth. He is her prison warden, but also her only friend. He has been programmed to feel betrayal if Elizabeth attempts to escape, and he gets very violent if she does. The characterization of songbird is shown only by what Elizabeth tells Booker, and then only by pure, frantic chaos. Songbird only appears in the game in short, fast bursts.
The narrative of BioShock Infinite is a special kind of narrative in its ability to shift a story from one format to another almost seamlessly. The narrative is strange in that it has no concrete format; it moves in, out, and in between different formats and narrative elements without sticking to something specific for too long. For instance, the beginning of the game sets up a very linear narrative: a hero is given a task, the hero comes across unforeseen obstacles, the hero falls, but then gets help and overcomes the obstacles, and then the hero completes the task. The beginning of the game set up a pretty standard “hero’s journey” story and the game goes with it. All said and done, the game follows this original set up. The game itself has a definite beginning and end. The narrative, however, does not. This is where BioShock Infinite separates itself from other narrative games. While the game itself is linear, the narrative begins to jump and shift into a completely non-linear format. Our hero, Booker DeWitt, is introduced and given his quest just like the beginning of a standard hero’s journey story. By the end of the narrative, however, Booker hasn’t just completed a journey. He hasn’t completed his task, and he hasn’t defeated any evil. The narrative of BioShock Infinite is fluid and has multiple paths that are all running at the same time.
This being said, BioShock Infinite does follow a linear story line to a point. The game has a beginning and an end and nothing the player does will change the final outcome. The lack of agency in BioShock Infinite doesn’t inspire confidence in the player that their choices matter or that the story has any depth other than the predetermined outcome. Regardless of the actions of the player, there will be two constants: Booker DeWitt will go to Columbia (beginning) and Booker DeWitt will die (end). To this extent, the story can be seen as following one singular line, giving it a linear format. The rest of the narrative is locked in between these two constants, but the narrative splits and changes in between these constants and that is what sets BioShock Infinite apart from other narratives.
The game starts with Booker being transported to a lighthouse by the Lutece twins with a job. All he is told is:
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”
The player is then abruptly launched into Columbia and the rest of the game proceeds from this point. Now, although the player doesn’t know anything about Columbia or any of the characters, three major plot points essential to the narrative have already occurred: the baptism after Wounded Knee, the kidnapping of Anna DeWitt, and the attempted murder of the Lutece twins. BioShock Infinite uses time as a narrative tool in a completely different way than just moving the story forward. Infinite uses time to stray from the linear storyline that the game has already set for itself. Even though the game has a definite beginning and end, the narrative uses time to go outside of those bounds and to move the narrative in any way desired. The player has just started the game, and yet the narrative is already well underway and split. For instance, the first plot point, the baptism, is also the first stray from the linear format. In ever version of the narrative, in all universes, Booker DeWitt fights in the Battle of Wounded Knee. In all universes, Booker returns feeling guilty and burdened with sin. Then Booker is offered a chance to start anew with baptism. This is the first break; in some universes, Booker feels as though his sin is too great for forgiveness and he denies the baptism. In these scenarios, he stays Booker DeWitt, the same character the player knows and controls. In other universes, however, Booker goes through with the baptism, finds faith in religion, and is reborn as Zachary Hale Comstock, the main antagonist.
In the timelines where Comstock exists, he is made infertile by the technology that the Lutece twins use. Because of this, Comstock actually jumps through time and to a completely different reality to steal the child of a different version of himself.
Before the game even starts, the narrative has strayed from is linear format and given us a character that is simultaneously the protagonist and the antagonist in the same story. Time and space is used to create a story element that would be impossible in a linear story format: a character that splits into two and then actually jumps between storylines and time to interact with himself.
The narrative of BioShock Infinite is constantly in motion even outside of the bounds of the game and isn’t restricted by conventional chronological story-telling elements. The player doesn’t know this, however. The narrative is revealed to the player through the progression of the game, interactions with characters, and by obtaining expositional Voxophones.
The narrative progresses as the game goes on, but there are two direct elements in Infinite that directly tell the player different aspects of the narrative: Bookers flashbacks and the Lutece twins.
Throughout the game, Booker has the same flashback. He is in his detective office alone and is greeted by a loud banging at the door with the phrase “Give us the girl, wipe away the debt” being repeated by an abrasives male voice. The flashback sequentially shows more of the scene every time the player visits it with the player originally only being able to move around the room to eventually being able to converse with the voice and interact with numerous objects. Although it isn’t clear to the player right away, this flashback is displaying a pivotal narrative moment in multiple timeline. The voice is actually Robert Lutece and he is at Booker’s office to collect his infant daughter, Anna DeWitt. This is the event where Comstock, the alternate version of Booker, has become sterile and gone to a different universe to kidnap a biological heir to the rule of Columbia. This is the event that leads to Anna becoming Elizabeth – the entire reason Booker is sent to Columbia. In the process of switching timelines, Elizabeth’s pinky is cut off by the closing dimensional tear, causing her to exist in two realities. This is what causes her to be able to create and interact with dimensional tears and is what ultimately separates the narrative from the linear chronological format.
This massive narrative point happens early on chronologically, but isn’t actually revealed until very late in the game. The player is, however, repeatedly brought back to this event and incrementally given more information about this specific narrative event. This gives the player a constant narrative theme to cling to and return to, thus smoothing out the shift from linear to non-linear narrative formats.
The Lutece twins are also a reoccurring narrative theme throughout all of Infinite. The twins are the first characters that the player meets and interacts with, and they make incremental appearances throughout the game in a very similar fashion to the flashbacks. The Interactions with the twins are always vague and cryptic, yet the twins actually provide direct exposition to the story by giving insight into Comstock’s character and motivations. It is later revealed that the twins are also the direct cause of all of the games events: they are the creators of Columbia, they developed the technology that allows the travel between universes, and they themselves actually gave Booker his job to go to Columbia and retrieve Elizabeth. They cause, influence, and drive the entire narrative, and the player never knows until the grand reveal at the climax of the game.
This is the narrative style of BioShock Infinite; the narrative is continuously running in multiple ways simultaneously, yet the player is unaware of just how grand and complicated the narrative actually is. The player progresses through the game with an expectation of a linear story, but are then rewarded with a grand reveal and massive converging climax. BioShock Infinite drives its deep, underlying narrative by expertly revealing only select, important pieces of narrative to the player.
The strongest aspect of BioShock Infinite is definitely the development of the story throughout the game. The narrative ends in a place so completely different from the beginning that they wouldn’t even seem like parts of the same story, but BioShock Infinite makes a smooth, impactful, and immersive shift from beginning to end. It is extremely impressive that a story as complicated and difficult as this one can be effectively communicated to players, especially in what is essentially a stand-alone game. Throughout the game the story doesn’t seem to mesh together or make sense, but the climax brings every aspect of the narrative together in an effective way and this only creates a massive impact on the player. No story elements were left unsolved and the climax of the narrative causes players to have to pause and reflect.
The narrative gets somewhat covered up and bogged down by the simple and repetitive gameplay. BioShock Infinite plays like any other first-person shooter and plays exactly like the first two BioShock games. The levels themselves feel like simple redesigns of the same pattern: hallway, enemy room, hallway, enemy room, etc. While the visual designs of each of the levels vary (and are actually quite stunning), it is very easy to predict how a level will feel and will play out. This can easily cover up the narrative, and can deter some players from wanting to continue to the end. This is extremely unfortunate seeing as the end of the narrative is what provides the maximum impact and gratification that this incredible narrative has to offer.
The best part of the game and the narrative is when Songbird is chasing Booker and Elizabeth and Elizabeth transports the three of them to the underwater city of Rapture through a dimensional tear. This is a great little nod to the previous two BioShock games and will make any fan of the franchise happy. Not only does it give Songbird an incredibly satisfying end, but it gives just enough relation to the previous two games to give Infinite the BioShock name while allowing it to keep a stand-alone narrative and setting. The scene in Rapture also gives enough relation to allow for speculation on whether Infinite takes place in the same universe or timeline as the previous two games, especially since this is during a sequence in which Elizabeth and Booker are traveling though many different realities.
BioShock Infinite released to highly positive reviews all around. GameRankings gave Infinite a 96% and it received a Metacritic score of 94/100.
IGN’s Ryan McCaffery called Infinite “a brilliant shooter that nudges the entire genre forward with innovations in both storytelling and gameplay.”
Joel Gregory of Playstation Official Magazine compared Infinite to the likes of Half-Life, Deus Ex, and the original BioShock as “the apotheosis of the narrative-driven shooter.”
The general consensus of the game was centered on the story and the setting of the game with many reviewers agreeing that the ending of the story would leave players thinking for days to come.
· A narrative doesn’t have to fit a predetermined story format. A rigid narrative format will not guarantee a good story and each individual narrative should be able to pick and choose the narrative elements that will make it the most successful.
· Time is a much more effective tool in telling a story than just progressing the story. In a bigger sense, one should push every story-telling element to its full potential to achieve different feelings and effects. Stories are fluid, so the elements used to tell them should be too.
· Gameplay should support the narrative, not hinder it. If the gameplay is too dull to the point that players drop interest in the story, than something has to change. On the other hand, the gameplay shouldn’t be so complicated and flashy that it over-powers and distracts from the narrative. The gameplay should serve to make the narrative interesting and the game fun.
BioShock Infinite finishes out the BioShock series in a spectacular fashion. While technically a part of the series, Infinite told an interesting and compelling story independent of the stories from the previous two games. The incredible shift in the narrative and the use of the characters to complete this shift created a truly unique and interesting narrative-based game experience.