BioShock Infinite: Player vs Developer - Irrational's latest opus tells us it needn't always be a fight between player agency and creative control
Playing BioShock Infinite, you can tell that, in the next few years, reams of academic material on it are going to come out. A lot will be in the form of college kids' blogs, like with the original BioShock, but there will also be articles, op-eds, probably even books. It's such a rich game.
I'm going to start my own posturing on it this week with a few thoughts on the whole meta commentary I think the game is going for. When I talked to Ken Levine last November he made the point that, as well as digging his heels into American politics he also wanted to, in his words, "set his own house on fire" and delve into what makes games games.
But setting the house on fire isn't, I don't think, quite what Infinite wants to do. It's far more celebratory of games. From what I can tell, it's a look at what's unique about them and how, if rightly exploited, that can be made as beautiful as any other art form.
To really appreciate what Infinite is shooting for, I think it's important to have played the original BioShock first. In that game, it transpires that through subliminals and hypnosis, the player character has been brainwashed into following the orders of his shadowy, unseen creator. It's a dirk at our illusion of choice. It's BioShock telling us that, even though we thought it was us making the decisions as we were playing, they were in fact the machinations of someone above us: Even when we make choices, as players, we're always subject to the will of the developer.
Infinite is a continuation of that thought. But rather than simply throwing its hands in the air and saying "player agency doesn't exist, games are broken" it explores how the player and the developer can work together to complement each other's creative process.
If you haven't played it by the way, you should probably stop here. The things I want to talk about are things you should see for yourself first hand. Plus, you should just play it anyway: Infinite's something everyone should experience. Go on, off you go. It only takes about 15 hours. I'll wait.
Done? Good, wasn't it? Let's continue.
Throughout the game you hop between different dimensions - different versions of the floating city of Columbia - and each time they're subtly changed. In one version, the character you play, Booker, lets an enemy live and they go on to become friends. In another, one of the support characters is married to a different woman.
It's total conjecture but for me, these alternate dimensions represent different playthroughs of the same game. They're all still in Columbia, they're all still, more or less, starring the same characters, but each one is subtly unique from the next. I think of it as like watching a friend play and he uses the shotgun rather than the rifle I liked, or makes a right where I made a left. It's not as if he's walked straight out of the game and changed the whole thing - he's just made it a bit different.
And Infinite always falls back to the reality that, allow we are allowed to make these small changes, a lot of things will always be kept the same. There's a character who Booker and Elizabeth find dead so they hop dimensions hoping he will alive. After some more toiling, they find him dead again. And not once do they switch dimensions and find that Comstock isn't in charge of Columbia now or the city never existed or something - time travel in Infinite isn't like in HG Wells where the slightest difference in the past means that EVERYTHING is different. There's still control, there are still borders. Booker and Elizabeth's presence has some influence, influence which makes each dimension - playthrough - unique, but it always falls within the parameters of what was created prior.
That to me seems like a much more faithful representation of what games are. The choices we make might have little bearing on the overall narrative, but they still give us some jurisdiction over the game, juristiction we don't have over films or books or other passive media. Whether the choices matter depends on your definition of 'matter.' If you think they only matter if they change the game totally to your whim, they don't. If you think they matter so far as making our experience of a game more ours then certainly, they do.
Founders vs Vox Populi
But what I like about Levine and Infinite is that they don't grovel; they're confident enough to say that players can be a destructive force and that sometimes, following the rules and playing as encouraged can be good. Also, though, they admit the fallibility of game writers.
This is explored through the civil war between the Founders and the Vox Populi, the two political parties of Columbia who are at each other's throats. The Founders are authoritative, entitled; they expect deference from their followers in all matters. The Vox on the other hand are rowdy and disorganised. They know how to burn the city down but not how to build it back up. It pangs, to me at least, of that tension between creators and players.
Ignoring the Founders' racism (because, obviously, I'm not suggesting those are views are shared by Irrational) the party has this top-down approach to Columbia which ignores a lot of its citizens. In the way linear game design might be accused of ignoring the contribution of players, the Founders' government is ignorant to the wants of black, Irish, Jewish and Chinese citizens.
Conversely, the Vox Populi approach to Columbia is ignorant of all practicalities. They have that whole "it's easier to blow trains up than make them run on time" mentality to revolution and, like the mischievous gamer, who wants to run around doing what he wants without any regard for the rules, are happier to destroy rather than contribute to the world.
Neither of these parties is right; Infinite does an excellent job of criticising both their approaches. The Founders are racist and greedy, the Vox are violent and unpredictable. On the one hand, you have the developer, stringent and controlling, and on the other, the player: disorganised and compulsive. Alone, they're both flawed: As rulers of Columbia, both the Vox and the Founders are poor candidates. What's needed is some equilibrium between the two. If the principals of the Vox could be merged with the practicality of the Founders, Columbia might benefit; if the player's propensity for divergence could meld with a developer's literary intent, games would effectuate more fully.
It's what Anthony Burgess called the Clockwork Orange, a blend between regulation and free will, autonomy and consciousness. I guess, in a way, 'the automated man' is an oxymoron - is it actually possible for games to give players free reign while still teaching them a narrative? BioShock Infinite suggests maybe it is. None of the alternate dimensions collapse or die because of Booker and Elizabeth's influence, but neither are they utterly changed.
And the game is filled with mechanical men. Infinite's imagery revolves around the meeting of organic and robotic, automated and conscious. The automated turret guns are shaped like men; one of the main enemies is the Handyman, a human head and heart transplanted into a robot body. Figures like these suggest that control and lack of control can exist at the same time. Unlike the original BioShock, Infinite tells us player and developer can work together.
That's how I've always tried to play games myself. I tend to method act, bouncing my own ideas off of whatever the game is feeding me. For me, Infinite is a much more hopeful vision of computer games. It says that, rather than there always being tension, developer and player can oscillate one another. It's not something I've seen explored in videogames before, but it feels very true.