This post includes spoilers for Bioshock Infinite.
In the medium in which the audience’s choices are supposed to matter because interactivity is key, Ken Levine just seems to keep coming back to the notion that, shucks, no choices really don’t—not even in video games.
When Andrew Ryan declares that “A man chooses. A slave obeys” in the original Bioshock, he declares that the player, despite all his seeming autonomy, is a slave. That is much of the point of the “Would you kindly?” twist in Bioshock. Despite seemingly having chosen to aid Atlas or to aid Tenenbaum to save Little Sisters or to destroy them, ultimately we have been as programmed as the game itself. We follow the arrows that point us in the right direction in video games. We follow that disembodied tutorial voice without ever asking why. And even when we don’t, when we insist on attempting to ignore those prompts, we find that ultimately we are handcuffed (or chained as is the case in Bioshock, whose main character has chains tattooed on both wrists) to the elements necessary to drive the plot forward. Or else we give up in exhaustion to play something else. But to get to the end of most games in most instances, we find that we must jump through the predefined hoops that the developer deems essential to forward motion.
But, the player protests, when I play a Grand Theft Auto game, I choose what to do, where to go. There are after all a million variables that makes my playthrough of Grand Theft Auto unique, individual, my own.
With Elizabeth’s declaration that “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city,” Bioshock Infinite admits to such variables. Indeed, Elizabeth seems to be defining the Bioshock universe, why Rapture exists, why Columbia exists, as variations on constant themes. In Levine’s iterations of the Bioshock universe, it seems there is indeed always a lighthouse, always a man, always a city.
However, this statement is as true for the universe defined by multiple games as it is true for each individual game itself.
Just before playing Bioshock Infinite, I spent the week before watching my daughter and a friend of hers taking turns playing through the original Bioshock. When I heard Elizabeth’s declaration that “There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city” and then follow up by noting that despite the multitude of lighthouses, men, and cities, they always lead to the same ending, I found myself reflecting back on my daughter’s and her friend’s and my own playthroughs of Bioshock. Despite the countless different moves that I made, that they made, the countless different ways that I fought splicers, that they fought splicers, the countless different ways that I built my character, that they built theirs, it always ended the same way: with the scripted, programmed response of the single player game ending. Yes, there is my Bioshock. There is my daughter’s Bioshock. There is her friend’s Bioshock. And they are unique experiences that belong to us. However, if we want to complete the game, if we want to resolve it, we can’t escape the scripting of solution, the sameness of an ending, the chains of rules to accomplish an externally defined objective.
Yes, Grand Theft Auto offers thousands of options to play, but if I want to finish, it will end just like yours will. This naturalistic philosophy, the championing of a deterministic view of the universe so prevalent in Levine’s two cracks at this franchise are inescapable (quite literally and quite deterministically). We are a unique snowflake, but… we aren’t.
Frankly, a complaint that players had in the first game, that choosing to save Little Sisters or destroy them only created the illusion of choice in the game, speaks directly to this philosophy. While the game implies that choices like this one will have consequences (Atlas tells the player that he will grow more powerful by destroying Little Sisters and that not doing so will result in the player having to get by on less of the “fuel” for their powers, ADAM), nevertheless, Tenenbaum always rewards the player with more ADAM if they save the Little Sisters. This “choice” has negligible effects on how a player ultimately can build their character. Save them, destroy them, the consequences and outcomes are pretty much constant.
Likewise, the choice of offering the “bird” or “cage” necklace to Elizabeth in Infinite seemed to me to imply such far reaching consequences (after all, doesn’t the bird symbolize freedom and the cage symbolize captivity?), so much so that I was ready to play through the whole game again to change that choice just to see how that would effect the story. That is, until I was told that it doesn’t matter. As Elizabeth notes, bird or cage, it all ends the same, right? We assign meaning and significance to how we read these symbols and then discover that those meanings are indeed entirely arbitrary. The universe, the game will march on to its ultimate conclusions. And we will march right along with it.
In that sense, the most naturalistic moment in the game’s closing scenes is when Booker, the man standing in for you, the player, declares something like that he doesn’t listen to where anyone tells him to go, to what anyone tells him to do. Elizabeth’s simple response is as devastating as the “Would you kindly?” moment in Bioshock and more to the point: “You already have.”
Indeed, there are very few game worlds that offer truly infinite variables with no constant resolution. Sure, I can play The Sims my way, assumedly perpetually, making choices, shaping the lives of my sims. But the “ending” of the game is always exhaustion with it. I don’t solve The Sims. I can’t beat it. I can only give up on it.
Ironically, the games that seemingly can be beaten, those with defined solutions and scripted endings, perhaps, cannot be beaten either, at least in Levine’s Bioshock Universe. They may simply beat you.