Ken Levine, as it turns out, is fascinated by choices. The famed designer and current head of Irrational Games has an obsession with the idea of determining the outcome of anything and everything. Perhaps less the end product and more of the process, but the penchant is clear. Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock 2, Freedom Force. From the get-go, you can see it in his work; they all feature and specialize in giving not only tools to the player but also options, a framework on which anyone can build upon to reach their goals (a staple of most Looking Glass Studios alums).
Then he took a more narrative stroke in the realm of player choice. BioShock, a seminal release in terms of game narrative, was basically built on this premise alone. The idea of being able to choose with regards to the illusion of choice was core to the game, a running theme stronger than even the Randian overtones in a fallen utopia. A man chooses, a slave obeys; would you kindly; Jack’s chains. These are tenets of BioShock‘s (and Levine’s) fundamental compulsion for choice.
Unsurprisingly, that motif makes a return in BioShock Infinite but in a very different way. It’s less about asking what choices, if any, matter (are they really choices? Does this freedom actually exist?) and more about whether the choice is worth it. Through the world of Columbia and its layers of delectable complexity, Levine examines the prospect of comparing value and collateral as we decide what to do.
We, as the player, are an agent of change. Booker DeWitt—our shell, a former Pinkerton, and indebted gambler—is, oddly enough, nothing without us. Make no mistake that he is the conduit through which we exert influence on this virtual world; if we don’t move, Columbia, New York, and Paris are in stasis. They will plod along much as they have prior to our intervention. History will chart its course and Columbia will float ever skyward while we do nothing more than stand at the foot of this lonely lighthouse.
But we don’t. He doesn’t. Every action, though predetermined through the machinations of this medium, is by our hand and we are shown up close exactly the result. It’s easy enough to light the fuse and walk away, but now we are being forced to watch the foundation crumble. Like a punished dog, the game rubs our nose in the wake of our choices.
Do you think that Monument Island and Elizabeth’s tower would still be standing had we not broken our charge out of her cage? Would the river of blood run dry and the pile of corpses you leave behind eventually decompose? Levine saw fit to slap us in the face with Newton’s Third Law, showing us exactly what it means to exert external forces on a closed system.
SPOILER WARNING: the following few paragraphs may or may not be spoilers, but maybe don’t read it until you finish the game anyways. It in no way discusses the ending, but it does showcase a few developments from the middle-ish parts. I think the entire game is beyond spoiling in any meaningful way with any one particular revelation, but Infinite is a game best served fresh.
Elizabeth, for example, takes a turn about one-half to two-thirds of the way through the game. She starts out as a smart, headstrong, and innocent girl who looks at much of the world in wide-eyed wonderment and dreams only to be in Paris, a place she’s only seen in paintings and read about in books (and futzed around with in tears, but I guess that’s not really the same thing). It’s hard not to fall in love with her because it’s so hard to not fall in love with genuine, authentic passion. She is infectious in her fervor for exploration and it’s a bug I don’t mind catching.
But then she sees me and, by extension, Booker what we really are: killers. He is a gun and I am the finger that pulls the trigger. I am the one exposing her to murder and death and rampant indecency in a world she previously had filled with nothing but joy and happiness. Her reaction to first seeing me kill is appropriate: she runs. The second time is to rescue her, and she understands the act’s necessity. Then, when she is the one with the crimson-soaked hands, she understands its simplicity, its ease. There is a murderer and a victim and nothing more. What she becomes is still smart and headstrong but jaded. Cynical. Us.
Her bare reaction is key to our experience of the game. From when she believes that the tears she has been ripping into the world(s) have killed people to when she is actually holding the bloody blade (doing what she believes is right in protecting a child), we are shown that what we have been so blasé about after thousands of bullets and hundreds of bodies is simultaneously complex and simple, muddled and stark, clean and dirty. The motion of firing a gun or wielding a knife is simple but the reasons for doing so are numerous, unfathomable, and imprecise. It’s a path of escalation to where each step along the way we ask ourselves is it worth it and then we fire anyways, looking back and wondering as we march forever forward.
In our pursuits to get an airship back from Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi, we twice see the death of gunsmith Chen Lin, his wife once, and end up sticking hundreds of people in a state of remembering being dead while still existing in some other reality. We trade the fanatical rule of Comstock for the maniacal reign of Fitzroy, resulting in commensurate blood and, it seems, more scalps. But now we are forced to ask ourselves at what point did the tide turn?
We are forced to examine whether the outcome of the Vox/Founders war was inevitable or by our doing only. We ask was the finality of the situation binary or has our hand made it that way. Jack and Rapture represent a pillar of fatalism; Booker and Columbia dabble in determinism. Both, however, steep in a pool of choices and question. Levine first asks what little choices and actions we make matter if they are within a larger construct of some other’s design. Now, with BioShock Infinite, he asks if the consequences of our actions can possibly stand against the value of our goals.
He asks, but we may choose to answer.