BioShock Infinite is very much a BioShock game. That’s obvious from the title, of course. But the two games are more intrinsically linked than that. Characters, mechanics, and settings are all shimmering reflections off the same pool of water: the final image is slightly different, but both come from the same root picture. BioShock and BioShock Infinite are in a quantum entanglement, stemming from the same strand of DNA. As a result, they share many ideas.
In the first in this series of three articles, Lachlan Williams does his best to compare how the characters, and the themes that drive those characters, link BioShock with BioShock Infinite.
Oh, and naturally, these articles contain SPOILERS for BioShock Infinite (and BioShock the first, I guess), so do not read if you do not wish to be thoroughly spoiled. Ye have been warned.
1. The Sword – Character
“Will the circle be unbroken?”
Phrases occur and reoccur throughout both BioShock and Infinite. Words of power. Words of compulsion. They weave themselves through the worlds and infect their inhabitants. Certain words have a real, tangible effect in these worlds.
“Would you kindly?” Three innocent words, in any other situation. Directed at BioShock’s Jack, however, they take on a sinister purpose. Through hypnosis and brainwashing, Jack is conditioned to respond to the phrase “would you kindly” by undertaking whatever task is demanded. And Fontaine exploits this to full effect. The words dog you on your journey through Rapture, at first seemingly just a phrase like any other used by the apparently helpful Atlas. Atlas gives you a game objective, prefaced with the phrase “would you kindly”, and lo! you must complete said objective. It’s a clever play on the constraints of the medium, but it serves a greater purpose. It ties Jack to his destiny, and removes the agency to make a choice. You are controlled by the words, and you don’t realise it until the big reveal.
This culminates in the unforgettable confrontation with Andrew Ryan, where you (the character Jack and you as the player) violently bludgeon him to death under the control of your trigger phrase. The words eventually lose their power, but remain omnipresent in Jack’s mind, driving him towards the only conclusion possible – confrontation with your controller.
Booker DeWitt’s trigger phrase is less explicitly controlling. The words themselves have no inherent power over Booker’s actions, but they undoubtedly control his every deed.
Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.
The girl is Elizabeth, aged 20. The debt is a financial one.
Booker arrives at the lighthouse with one objective, and that is to retrieve the girl in exchange for a clean slate. As he begins his task, motivated by selfishness, he is unaware and uncaring of the reasons behind those offering the way out. He just knows the words, and what he must do.
What Booker does not realise is that these words are an echo from another time. Booker already brought them the girl.
Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.
The girl is Anna, aged 1. The debt is a financial, and, more importantly, spiritual – a debt of sin and evil deeds.
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt” is an idea for Booker – a phrase that both drives his search for his daughter (consciously or subconsciously) and memorialises his greatest shame of giving her up. It is as fundamental to his relationship to Elizabeth and Comstock as “would you kindly” is to Jack and Fontaine. They drive Booker to fulfil his purpose in the universe, firmly implanted by the Lutece twins and cemented by shame.
These words map out the destinies of our protagonists, forcing them through to the conclusion of their respective stories. Rapture’s Jack is a puppet, dancing to the tune of “would you kindly”. Booker DeWitt does likewise, although he responds to the subtle harmonies of the wily Lutece twins. The result is similar, and each one carries out their task as directed.
Which brings us to the next theme that links BioShock and BioShock Infinite – the conflict between that which is predestined, and free will.
What we have in BioShock is a reoccurring concept of personal choice. Not only is Jack controlled by the well-known “would you kindly” phrase, but we’re constantly taunted by Ryan through another phrase. A man chooses, a slave obeys, we are told. What are we? Slaves, doing what we’re told? Killing splicers and Big Daddies and Little Sisters? Or are we “men” – free to interact with the world of Rapture at will? Our gameplay choices ultimately have very little effect on the game world. We are slaves to game design, doing what we’re trained to do by nearly two decades of first person shooters. Go down the corridor, shoot things that move, rinse, repeat. That’s not inherently a bad thing, however it highlights that Jack (and us) have no real agency. We can only change the world in very limited – and always designed – ways. When Jack is told to do something by Fontaine, we obey, because we have no choice but to do so. Jack is in Rapture because he was designed to be there – his whole life was constructed for that purpose. Jack is a slave, and Rapture is our cage, and that is the nature of the game presented to us.
We are birds in a cage, fluttering about defiantly, all the while restricted in what we can change.
But which shall we choose – the bird, or the cage? References to birds and cages shape Columbia. From the subtle appearance of the mysterious humming birds that flit around the idyllic gardens, clearer displays with the Vox Populi contained behind bars, to the overt Songbird and his C.A.G.E, we know that Columbia is forged in the bird/cage dichotomy.
Early on in BioShock Infinite, we are given a choice. It’s a small choice, but it is personally revealing, and important thematically. Elizabeth, after being freed from her floating fortress – her prison, her cage – she stumbles across the Lutece twins, who offer her two pendants for her choker. Instead of choosing which one to take herself, she asks for your opinion. Which do you choose for her? The bird? Or the cage? One symbolises freedom and escape, and the other stands for imprisonment. Which will you choose for her, Booker? The choice has no impact on the story – it is merely cosmetic – but it makes you feel like you have some say in how Elizabeth relates to you.
It is not until the end of the game that it is proven that you have no influence whatsoever. There are no alternate endings here. No choices – arbitrary or meaningful – for you to make that can change how you meet your end. Booker always dies at the hands of Elizabeth because he has to – he has no other choice. It is taken from the player and made by Booker on your behalf, and it’s not a real choice in the first place. What father wouldn’t sacrifice his own life for his daughter? You are the bird, and your cage is the ending.
Which brings us back to Rapture. Jack is routinely presented with choices that affect the conclusion of the game. Will you harvest the Sisters, or save them. It is an entirely arbitrary choice – a moral binary. Do you take the extra ADAM so you may buy more Plasmid upgrades, or save them and get a wider array of things for free? It’s almost entirely mechanical, this choice. There is no meaningful payoff either way. The three endings are entirely based on whether you save most of the Little Sisters or not. If you do, congratulations, you get a shallow thank you. If you harvest any more than one, you’re a monster, and all the Sisters die. There are no significant consequences – mostly just a change in narration. The line in the sand between the endings is so cleanly laser-cut that it’s not a real choice at all.
But the reason we’re even doing any of this is because of a girl. In BioShock, we’re driven to find the Little Sisters. Whether we “choose” to save them or condemn them, we are invariably seeking them out for our own benefit. The Sisters are important to Jack because of what they can give us – more power, a better chance. Likewise, we’re seeking Elizabeth for our own purposes – to wipe away the debt. Little is initially known about Elizabeth, but the progression of the story, and the ultimate reveal of Elizabeth’s relationship with Booker, is irrelevant to the initial motivation. At first, Elizabeth is a goal, a commodity. An item to be traded for a second chance. Our relationships and motivations behind interacting with the Little Sisters and Elizabeth change and evolve, but they begin the same.
Likewise significant are the female characters’ protectors. Little Sisters have their Big Daddies – hulking menaces, part machine. It is their task to ensure their paired Sister stays safe. Daddies have a single minded sense of duty, impressed upon them through brainwashing and mind control. Their thoughts and actions are not their own – they act only to ensure the fulfilment of their mission. It’s a symbiotic relationship, with a Sisterless Daddy a blank, dying slate, and a Daddyless Sister supremely vulnerable. The Sisters love their Daddies – their sole companions in Rapture, and their only genuine friends.
Elizabeth also has a protector of sorts – Songbird. This hulking menace, part machine, is both Elizabeth’s protector and her jailer, confining her to her gilded cage at all times. He is single minded in his task, controlled by a special singing statue. Whoever controls the song controls the bird. There is a relationship between Elizabeth and Songbird, too. Elizabeth used to think of him as her best and only friend, before realising that he was in fact her jailer. Songbird’s actions are not his own, however, and he does whatever it takes to fulfil his designated mission. The attachment between the two is a lasting one, though, and despite Songbird’s actions as a stalking nemesis throughout much of Infinite, there is genuine remorse when Elizabeth finally has to put Songbird down. And at the end, we know that Songbird would still do anything for Elizabeth, despite her being responsible for his mortal stranding.
In many ways, Elizabeth is a more mature version of the Little Sisters. And Infinite mirrors this relationship to BioShock in many ways. Infinite is the mature reflective pool, mirroring the familiar ideas that were presented in the very first BioShock game. We recognise the patterns, the links, the homages, and we see that the ideas embedded in the series have evolved and been refined.
But this is only the beginning of our dual journey through Rapture and Columbia. We still have the Key and the Scroll to examine. Next time, we’ll be looking at the Key – the industry of the games: the mechanical themes that link the two games together, revealing them as the parallel worlds that they are.