Two quick reminders:
1- This is part 4 of a multi-part article, and I’m jumping right in without much of recap.
2- While I’m not decoding the end or discussing the plot directly, there will be spoilers.
(I’m also going to be doing some minor spoilers for Alien. But seriously that was like thirty years ago, so get over it.)
Sorry about the delay in part four. A rhinovirus that looked like Alan Rickman had plans to take over my body like Nakatomi Plaza tower, and it took my Bruce Willis white blood cells a few days to crawl through all my blood vessels and kill them all one by one.
(Oh also Die Hard spoilers. My bad.)
But let’s get down to business: We’ve shown that Bioshock Infinite has a theme that is important to the human condition and that the internal elements of the game help reinforce this theme. We’ve shown that the technical execution of the game is superb.
What about subtext? Does Bioshock Infinite have any of that?
Subtext is one of those things in art that is a little hard to explain, but at its simplest, it means that things have a meaning that goes beyond their surface. If you’re watching an old married couple argue about pizza toppings, and one is talking about never trying any NEW pizza toppings and the other is saying they like their pizza the way they like their pizza and you realize they are really talking about life, that is a conversation with subtext.
And yes, you perv-muffins. Innuendo is basically sexual subtext. (Insert a few “kitty” jokes here.)
Let me give you an example: Alien. Alien is a movie about a mining crew that finds an egg and the alien runs around the ship kicking the crap out of them until Ripley blows it out the airlock and then fires thrusters into its face.
And how many times has this plot unfolded exactly in the same way in a million forgettable movies? Horror. SciFi. Scifi Horror. We’ve seen it done over and over and over again. Why is alien one of the most praised films of all time?
Because alien is steeped with subtext about something else—specifically about rape. (Obviously that link needs a scrolling marquee trigger warning about rape. And I’m going to add a bit more in the next paragraph, so if you want to meet after the picture of the bunnies below, I’ll meet you there.)
This deepened subtext of alien not only taps into deeper primal fears, kind of turns the narrative around by having the men be most violated, have the violent birth, and causes a shudder when we think about it choking Kane and threatening to kill him if it is removed “before it’s finished.” But even beyond that, it gets into even deeper social commentary when you realize that the ships name is “Mother” and it forced them into the position to be violated. (OOOOooh what’ll really bake your noodle is if you realize that the gender switching of alien violations means that’s actually a social commentary on FATHERS.) And you thought that alien mouth shooting out and penetrating everyone was just kind of cool.
That is subtext. On the surface it’s a movie about an alien with a second shooty mouth. Under that, it’s about much more.
Now there is a lot of subtext within B.I. that I could analyze but again my goal here isn’t to write a masters thesis article about everything going on and put Ace of Geek’s readers to sleep. Cages, birds, corsets, free will, religious imagery, and even the writers’ attempts at social commentary (which we will get to next time) all play into a deeper subtext that challenges the ostensible action on the screen. Once you get past the convoluted plot about multiple dimensions and the “what really happened” analysis, B.I. has so much more roiling beneath its surface. But in order to continue proving that video games have the capacity to be real art, we need really only examine a single successful (albeit ubiquitous) symbol that is pervasive throughout the game.
So let’s talk about water.
You step into Columbia and you are literally inside a fountain. The water spills across the floor in a shallow pool, it flows down the stairs in defiance of every reasonable safety precaution. There isn’t even a hand rail! (I hate to think whose job it is to clean up the blood spatters and twisted bodies of everyone who slipped on this breathtaking display.) Water covers the floor in not one, but two chapels with spectacular stained glass, and then you go down the stairs along a single walkway of waist high water with candles floating in it. Throughout the story, despite the fact that you are in a city floating miles above the earth, water is all around you—beaches, traitorous falls, near drownings, and of course the brutal end of several characters.
Let me point that out explicitly. In a game about a floating city—where it would be easier in every way to just leave water out of the game—the game designers took great pains to explain and put it in. Dismissing its significance is absurd. It’s been a long time since 1984 when a game had to have a water level.
A case can be made for water as a symbol for life or death or even both simultaneously. Three major characters die in water. Being “reborn” within the waters of baptism is not only a major part of the plot, but is essential for Booker to enter Columbia (but not without saying he “nearly died”). And of course, there’s the unambiguous end in which both life and birth come from the single act of Booker’s willing but forced asphyxia at the hands of his own daughter(s).
However, an even more interesting subtextual meaning for water is as an allegory for choice—the game’s principle philosophical conundrum, and we can track this by paying attention to how deep the water is during any given moment.
- When Booker arrives in Columbia, he is confronted with a thin layer of water over everything—and there is only one way he can possibly go to enter the city. In fact, he must be baptized within these waters “for that is the only way to enter the city.”
- It is during his plunge into deep water that he almost is free of songbird the first time, but he wakes up, on land and his first words are of Anna.
- It is no coincidence that the water kills the songbird at an almost comically shallow depth (for a construct of such ferocity). The one part of Booker’s life that he can’t seem to overcome to regain his agency and free will (“Songbird always stops you…”) is destroyed by deep water. Underneath the water’s surface, his agency is restored him.
- Comstock is basically drowned in a few centimeters of water within a birdbath as a tender waterfall flows near him from some infinitely recycled source. Indeed, his fate was sealed the minute you walked in the room.
- And of course it is Booker being plunged into the waters of Baptism, but held beneath them (something he foreshadowed during his arrival to Columbia), that is the only way to end the vicious cycle of becoming Comstock and building Columbia. He must let himself be held under the surface to find the only choice he can still make. Like songbird, he is killed at an almost comically shallow depth (barely over his knees) and in doing so his agency is restored to him.
Even small details within the game mechanics themselves help to reinforce this relationship: the control you can exert over enemies via water with the Undertow Vigor borders on ridiculous.
This is also why in the scene that takes place in the deepest water in the game—a brief foray into the setting of Rapture (an underwater city) - Bioshock’s earlier incarnation -a moment of truly infinite choice is opened up as Booker DeWitt casually uses a Bathysphere—the use of which by Andrew Ryan is a major plot point of the original game and a genetically coded device. (Now go back and look at the little sisters and Elizabeth again.) In the deepest of water, the full scope of “infinite” within Bioshock Infinite becomes clear as it is implied (with almost diabolical subtlety before the DLC’s release) that Rapture may be an echo of Columbia. Deepest water—infinite choices.
[Note: I have not played B.I.’s DLC yet, and I know it’s called Rapture, so please don’t “gotcha” me with spoilers revealing how “duh” all this is. I figured it out first, goddammit!]
Consider in this context the imagery with which the game opens. Literally leaving the ocean of choices behind by heading towards a lighthouse—a beacon that is ostensibly land among the water but also represents the beginning of Booker’s predetermined path . And in the end, you end up back at the same lighthouse, walking across water (but unable to enter it) as you go from one lighthouse to another as the illusion of choice disappears and you end up back in the same place you started.
Subtext? Yeah, it’s got some of that.
Now we’re four for four on the real-art-o-meter. But wait….there’s more….
(Next time, I’ll enrage white middle class geeks everywhere as I talk about some of the ways Bioshock Infinite spectacularly failed in its quest to be politically and socially poignant and what that means to its claims of artistry. Stay tuned!) (And here it is! Part Five! -Ed)