Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Afraid of You: The Existential Triad in BioShock Infinite

May 10, 2013Print This Post         


Columbia, BioShock Infinite, Irrational Games, 2013

by Jesse Miksic

That which has separated definitively – for example, the I from the non-I at birth – continues none the less to run along another line. These lines, or these parallel lives, meet only in death. But at certain moments, you can jump from one to the other, cross one of these other lives. Destiny dooms us to a personal death, but something of this multiple predestination remains.

— Jean Baudrillard, The Impossible Exchange

The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The concentration and fusion into a whole being can never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me. I require a You to become; becoming I, I say You.

All actual life is encounter.

— Martin Buber, I and Thou

One of the strengths of BioShock Infinite, acknowledged less often than its expansive and detailed historical-revisionist steampunk setting, is the way its narrative is punctuated. The extended forays down cobblestone streets – and the intermittent murderous rampages – are connective tissue, linking a series of scenes that are genuinely, jarringly emotional. The relationship between Booker, Elizabeth and Zachary Comstock sets the stage for some truly evocative dramatic turns, perhaps more of them – and handled with a more dynamic sensibility – than in any other game in memory, including narrative-heavy games like Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs).

These moments are thematically woven together, and many of them are linked to the original BioShock, albeit loosely. Before I dive into the psychological and existential dimensions of BioShock Infinite, I want to acknowledge some of these scenes, and unpack their significance.

In BioShock Infinite, you play the role of Booker DeWitt, a free-wheeling mercenary assigned the task of extracting a woman named Elizabeth from a city called Columbia. The first gameplay sequence is your initial arrival at the lighthouse, your climb up the stairs and your launch from the tower into the clouds. Aside from setting the tone for the game and introducing some of the motifs that echo through the rest of the narrative, this sequence links Columbia directly to Rapture, the setting of the original BioShock, where you started out at a similar lighthouse, but from there descending deep into the ocean, arriving in Rapture: a fecund, hazy, collapsing city, dim and lurking and claustrophobic. Columbia, by comparison, is high up in the clouds, cerebral, ideological, idealized and held together by Skylines that crackle like synapses through an idle brain. The contrast between Rapture and Columbia is the contrast between a barren womb and a shackled mind.


Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth

Several hours of gameplay later, BioShock Infinite yields up one of its tensest and most evocative sequences, the infiltration of Monument Island; a sinister shiver before you meet Elizabeth and find yourself caught up in the game’s emotional riptide. The portrayal of Elizabeth as a specimen in a controlled science lab is one of the first prominent indications of the game’s feminist subtext: in the eyes of the institutional powers of Columbia, Elizabeth is an object of fascination and grave fear.

One of Infinite‘s landmark scenes is a surreal, dreamy trek across the beach at Battleship Bay, where you get to see this place as an escapist wonderland… just as Elizabeth herself must see it now that she’s free of her statue.

One of the most shrill, disturbing sequences in BioShock Infinite is the harrowing march to the upper levels of Comstock House, a bastion of Elizabeth’s madness. This climb culminates in a vision of Elizabeth that casts a dark shadow over her character… a character who, up to this point, has been a competent charge, and an endearing companion, but still just an object. In a way, the aspect of Elizabeth that we see in this scene is necessary to show her as a fully-formed, multidimensional person.

Within the bevy of revelations at the end of the game, it’s worth singling out the scene in the annex to Booker’s office, in which you are forced, via a rigid game mechanic, to hand your daughter over to Robert Lutece. This is not only a pivotal symbolic scene in BioShock Infinite, it’s also a direct link to the turning point in BioShock where you, Jack Ryan, are forced – via the same mechanic – to put a key card in Rapture’s mainframe and claim the city for Atlas. The use of a simple sealed-room mechanic to evoke helplessness in the face of fate is a vivid demonstration of the storytelling power of player agency.

These emotionally resonant scenes are some of BioShock Infinite‘s defining accomplishments, along with the richness of the setting. However, these are just surface merits, providing experiential hooks. They don’t necessarily prove that the game has any conceptual depth. It takes more than a staff of excellent designers and a team of sharp writers to create a unified work of art. That distinction has to be earned on the thematic level, and that’s where the rest of this analysis will linger.


Rapture, BioShock, Irrational Games, 2007

On a thematic level, BioShock Infinite‘s tropes may be well-wornit taps into familiar material – but it does reconfigure and invigorate these tropes, delving deeper into them than a work of art has attempted in a long time. These motifs, as articulated by psychology and existentialism, are the Shadow and the Other. They’ve been used in video games forever, generally in the shallowest of ways, but in BioShock Infinite, they’re resuscitated and supercharged, and their primal power gives an uncanny intensity to those aforementioned emotional moments.

The Shadow Self is most frequently credited to C. G. Jung, who used this term to refer to the part of the subconscious that’s repressed and denied in the interest of morality and self-control:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is (88).

This snarling mirror-image, “the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions” (88), has long been a force in mythology and philosophy. Only since Jung’s time has it been one of the great concerns of the therapist.

Of course, as a gamer, you’ve seen the crude literalization of the Shadow Self before. In Zelda II, Link has to fight a shadowy version of himself to acquire the Triforce of Courage. In the original Prince of Persia, the Prince is split from his shadow by a mirror, and this Shadow Prince hounds him throughout his quest. Both of these cases are mildly interesting: Dark Link is a sinister protector, the inversion of Link as the noble rescuer; Shadow Prince is an elusive Trickster, a fitting parallel to the roguish protagonist.

BioShock Infinite pits the player against his Shadow Self as well, a twisted version of the Byronic Booker DeWitt. According to the backstory, Booker has severely punished himself for his sins against the Native Americans at Wounded Knee, sinking into alcoholism and gambling debt for a large part of his subsequent adulthood. Zachary Hale Comstock is Booker’s inverse in a number of ways: instead of resigning himself to sin, Comstock has righteously renounced it; instead of struggling with his prejudices, Comstock has embraced them and integrated them into his ideology. Where Booker has lived his life as a powerless degenerate, Comstock has pursued power to a monstrous degree, elevating himself into a prophet and a political-spiritual leader of a levitating secessionist nation.

Infinite doesn’t really hammer this “Shadow Self” theme home until the final scene, when it’s revealed that Booker and Comstock are actually alternate versions of the same person. Suddenly, as in Zelda II and Prince of Persia, the Shadow Self archetype is literalized: it turns out that Booker has been fighting a version of himself that represented everything he personally repressed. This development puts a number of themes in order, but it also complicates some of them, and brings to light some ambiguities in the game’s emotional core. In particular, a question arises: how does Elizabeth relate to the two sides of this fragmented personality?

If Booker and Comstock’s roles are best understood psychoanalytically, then Elizabeth’s is best understood through an existentialist and feminist lens. Feminist signals are littered through the narrative – at the beginning of the game, she is being held in a massive gold idealization of female virtue, for God’s sake. She opens vaguely vaginal tears in space-time, and she has a troubled love-hate relationship with firearms, which neatly fit the role of Phallic Symbol in this structuralist tapestry. After Elizabeth kills Daisy Fitzroy, her revolutionary idol, she has a coming-of-age scene where she cuts her hair and cleans the blood off her dress. Clearly, her story was scripted with an awareness of its feminist implications.

Dovetailing with this symbolism is a structuralist motif: Elizabeth’s role in the game’s triadic centerpiece is that she is the Other to both Booker and Comstock. This role of the “Other” is where feminism and existentialism meet, and it’s one of the ordering principles woven through the entirety of BioShock Infinite.

Martin Buber is one of the best philosophers to consult on the Other and its relationship to the Self:

Even as a melody is not composed of notes, nor a verse of words, nor a statue of lines—one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity—so it is with the human being to whom I say You. I can abstract from him the color of his hair or the color of his speech or the color of his graciousness; I have to do this again and again; but immediately he is no longer You (59).

Buber was a German Jewish existentialist, writing around the time of the World Wars. Within his theoretical framework, a person could only become whole – could only “actualize” – at the moment they encountered an Other, an entity radically different from themselves, a fellow subject in a universe of objects. These encounters, so essential to identity formation, begin with the first recognition of a human presence, and are exceedingly rare thereafter. This relationship can be reduced to a primal word, the “I-You,” to which Buber contrasts a word of objectification, the “I-It.”


Zachary Hale Comstock

Of all the theoretical frameworks philosophers have conjured up, this one seems best for describing Booker’s plight. At Wounded Knee, Booker let go of whatever part of himself allowed for empathy, cohesion and self-respect. Through that act of self-sabotage, Booker lost sight of his “You”… he has no way of encountering and recognizing the Other, and he’s lost in a world where all things are just passing images, assemblages of parts, and objects to be used for his own purposes. Buber explicitly warns about this:

When man lets it [the It] have its way, the relentlessly growing It-world grows over him like weeds, his own I loses its actuality, until the incubus over him and the phantom inside him exchange the whispered confession of their need for redemption (96).

In Booker’s case, the incubus over him is Columbia, and the phantom inside him is the forgotten father, and the confession comes with the words: “Bring us the girl, erase the debt.”

Buber was not explicitly a feminist, but he shared concerns with the generations of feminists who followed him. With feminism and the postmodern turn, philosophers have officially recognized the primal, monumental difficulties women face in attaining equality in the social ecosystem. One of the reasons for this is that there is an assumption, buried right at the root of Western civilization, that the Female is the Other, that she will always be an auxiliary, however mysterious, defined primarily by her relationship to the Male. From the beginning of BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth finds herself subject to this asymmetry: she is the mysterious Other, the lost You, to both the unhinged, nihilistic Booker Dewitt and to the fascistic, self-righteous Zachary Comstock.

It’s interesting to note that Booker and Comstock, being part of the same person, share this existential deficiency. In losing its Other, Booker’s personality has fragmented, and neither half of the bisected whole has managed to restore the You to its rightful place. Booker renounced Elizabeth in infancy, and even in the course of the game he continues to see her as a means to his own ends. Likewise, Comstock acquired her and closed around her like a vise, making her a puppet for his own moralistic agenda. To both of these men, the Other – the primal female, the forgotten and impossible daughter – is a mere object to be manipulated.

The only hope that starts to glow in the cracks of BioShock Infinite‘s narrative – and the designers captured it beautifully – is Booker’s gradual recognition of Elizabeth’s agency, his slow climb toward respect for her as a potent force in his moral universe. This respect begins with fear (“No, but I’m afraid of you”), which is one of the most important signs that Booker is starting to recognize her for what she is. After all, as Simeone de Beauvoir informs us:

The source of these terrors is that in the Other, beyond any annexation, alterity remains. […] He [the male] loves her because she is his, he fears her because she remains other; but it is as the feared other that he seeks to make her most deeply his: this is what will lead him to raise her to the dignity of a person and to recognize her as his peer (187).

The irrevocable longing that fills the space between Booker and Elizabeth is represented in the game’s visual vocabulary by a single gesture: Elizabeth’s hand reaching toward Booker. This happens three times: first when he meets her in Monument Island; second, when Songbird lifts her away from him at the entrance to Comstock House; and third (though chronologically first) when, in infancy, she reaches toward him through a tear in space-time, losing her pinky finger in the process.

As the player completes BioShock Infinite, so Booker completes his return to Elizabeth. He attempts to protect her, but he eventually accepts her mission as his own: he wants to destroy Comstock for her, to destroy the siphon so she can be free, and to accompany her into the twisted corridors of space-time. This leads to the revelation that he is her father, and eventually, to the baptismal ceremony, that turning point in his life when Comstock splintered off into a separate entity. At last, at the end of this journey, Elizabeth can reintegrate Booker’s personality, bringing together the shattered fragments at the source of their divergence. This can only happen through the symbolic death of Booker, the traumatized soldier, drowned in the waters of redemption.

By recognizing the motifs of the Other and the Shadow Self, the player can discover a new pattern in these parts. Still, this exercise is incomplete without one more reconsideration, a twist in our analysis of an already convoluted mosaic of symbols. In this final refactoring, we must acknowledge a subtle, vicious inversion of these roles, an ambiguity at the heart of the triad, and it brings a new significance to the whole thing, in both the psychoanalytic and the feminist spaces.

The fact is, neither Booker nor Comstock is literally a shadow like Dark Link and Shadow Prince of Persia. We play as Booker, who eventually emerges as the compassionate “good guy,” rescuing Elizabeth and putting a metaphysical end to the abomination called Columbia. As I noted above, it only makes sense to see Comstock as the Shadow Self, splintered off to embody all those negative emotions at the moment of baptism.

But the extensive cues written and designed into Infinite don’t support that reading. In fact, it is Columbia that carries all the tokens of autonomy and moral authority: the light shines endlessly on Columbia’s gardens, and it hovers on the edge of heaven, a fact constantly alluded to by Comstock in his Voxophones. Comstock is affirmed by the power of public consensus (he seems to have crafted a cult of personality among Columbia’s civilians), and he wields the police as an institutional weapon. He is the character with absolute confidence in his mission, the Self who has erased every trace of ethnic and ethical difference. Booker, on the other hand, rises up from the depths of New York City, the modern Sodom, an inky shadow emerging from the perpetual night off the coast of Maine.

As it turns out, Comstock is the Self, and Booker is the Shadow. It is Booker who’s spent the last ten years in anonymity, self-destructive and alone; he is the infernal Trickster, the usurper who bubbles up from the calm surface. He is truly the False Prophet:

The shadow of the false prophet accompanies a pastor or priest all his life. Sometimes it emerges into the outside world as a narrow sectarian or as a hated demagogue within the church’s organization. Sometimes it resides within (Guggenbuhl-Craig 111).

The structure becomes clearer when we realize this: we were never identifying with the hero, following a bright light toward redemption along a path of selflessness. As it turns out, by playing Booker, we are identifying with the Snake, the poisonous, lingering, long-suppressed spirit of self-doubt and subversion. We are the dark part, infectious, attempting to devour the light.

Am I saying we should suddenly regard Booker as the antagonist, after seeing through his eyes for fourteen hours of gameplay? Of course not. Rather, according to this reading, the meaning of Good and Evil shift. In Comstock, we see the totalitarian tendencies of the Good, the crushing weight of the status quo that comes from being a dominant power, feeding on loyalty and sacrificing difference on the altar of solidarity. With Booker, we are looking through the eyes of the saboteur, through the lens of the terrorist; thus, we can suddenly see the glaring defects in the safe, “enlightened” facade of the dominant culture.

This reading also clarifies the relationship between Elizabeth, the Other, and Booker, the Shadow Self. Feminism has never found an ally in the prevailing institutions, and Columbia is no exception. The Floating City is a grand icon of patriarchal self-sufficiency, and the patriarchy’s greatest weakness may be that it can’t look the Other in the eye. Instead, it has to control her, to imprison her in a massive mockery of her own virtue, denying her agency as it sets her aside for future use. Its blindness creates the space for Booker, the Shadow Self, to invade this twisted paradise, and to snatch the means of redemption from the closed fingers of Comstock and Songbird. The fortress of Columbia and the Founders is compromised by a critical fault – the absence of a genuine Other – and the whole existential-patriarchal clusterfuck can only be resolved when Booker slips in, blows the whole thing open, and makes contact with Elizabeth, so that the past can be drowned and demolished and something new can take its place.

So, at last, we arrive at the final question of this analysis: why did we bother with it? Why did I bother writing it, and why did you bother reading it?

First of all, of course, it’s a good thing on principle. In the noisy barrage of praise and backlash and criticism and opinion, it’s good to take a moment, reserve judgment, and really take a close look at some of the things this game has accomplished. Down in the depths of its characters, we find things that are poignant and eternal: myths and archetypes, the deep roots of our culture, captured in a vibrant, ambitious ludic experience. There’s something to be said for disinterested critical appreciation.

For me, at least, there was also a practical outcome. As I’ve written this, I’ve tackled my second playthrough of Infinite, and thinking about it this way gives a whole new tint to the experience. When I think of Booker as the Shadow Self, the pure-evil antagonist in Comstock’s essentialist universe, I gain a new appreciation for the moral dimension of the gameplay. Suddenly, it makes more sense that Booker is a murderer, a “thug,” as Elizabeth calls him; as the unrequited Dark Side of a self-righteous monolith, his violence – his single-handed murder of dozens of police officers and revolutionary soldiers – becomes a cohesive part of his character. The jarring, violent, conflicted themes of the game seem to cohere, and the whole story becomes fresh on the second run-through.

This is what I play for, and this is why I write about it: it’s these layers of experience, these stacked, interpenetrating themes, that make a really great game – an artifact that’s not just fun, not just a worthwhile purchase, but an achievement worth admiring.


Works Referenced:

Baudrillard, Jean. Impossible Exchange. Trans. Chris Turner. London; New York: Verso, 2001. Print.

Beauvoir, Simone De. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970. Print.

Guggenbühl-Craig, Adolf. “Quacks, Charlatans, and False Prophets.”  Meeting the Shadow: Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. Ed. Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1990. Print.

Irrational Games. BioShock. 2K Games, Boston. 21 Aug. 2007. Video Game.

ibid. BioShock Infinite. 2K Games, Boston. 26 Mar. 2013. Video Game.

Jung, Carl. The Essential Jung. Ed. Anthony Store. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.

Mechner, Jordan. Prince of Persia. Brøderbund, dev. Tokyo: Konami, July 3, 1992 (SNES).

Nintendo EAD. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Kyoto, JP: Nintendo, Jan 14, 1987.

About the Author:

Jesse Miksic is a designer, critic and content creator living in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse maintains a cinema and media theory website here.

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