Video Games as Literature and The Ending a Different Kind of Story: BioShock Infinite’s Final Episode

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Alex Russell

[Editor’s note: There are very, very light BioShock and BioShock Infinite spoilers in this. Nothing specific is given away, but if you’re the sort of person that wouldn’t want to know who won the war in Gone with the Wind, be warned.]

Albert Einstein said “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” His point is that whatever weapons evolve out of the nuclear age are going to be so destructive that they will reset the entirety of technology. His point is that whatever comes next will be huge, because what’s here is already huge.

He meant that in a bad way, of course, but it opens up discussions of the meaning of “progress” in the development of weapons. There’s a similar discussion (though one of much less importance) about “art” with regard to progress. Were the best stories told in oral tradition? Is typing a novel rather than physically writing it on paper so removed from the page that it can never be as good? Is digital visual art still art?

It’s a big thing to say something “isn’t art.” Robert Ebert famously said that video games weren’t, and that made a lot of people angry. A younger version of myself was disappointed that such a great man could make such a statement. Now, I suppose that art is subjective. People came at a film genius and demanded he love something else just like film. What did anyone expect? He can’t be entirely blamed for that one.

Art aside (that’s another debate), video games are definitely stories. The story may be as simple as saving the Princess (capital P, because you know the one) or it may be as complex as the dawn of an empire (or an Age of some, say). They can be well-told or not, good-looking or not, and positive or not. They are as complex — though definitely not on a percentage basis, don’t misunderstand me — as any other way to tell a story, and one of the largest, most ambitious tales to tell in video games just came to an end.

With BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea‘s second-and-final episode’s release yesterday, the story of Rapture and Columbia and of Booker and Elizabeth is over. Ken Levine, the director behind the BioShock series, shut down his studio after the downloadable episode was finished. He released nearly all of the staff that made the games and effectively relinquished control of the BioShock brand. It’s rare in the world of games that a story is done,  but this one is done.

If you didn’t play the games, I can offer a simple summary. Very light spoilers follow, and you’re free to read as ‘thpoilers’ in your head, if you like. In the 1950s world of BioShock, an Ayn Rand-inspired businessman named Andrew Ryan sets up an undersea city called Rapture and establishes himself as a larger-than-life icon of the new paradise for people who are tired of government and welfare. He exiles the first charismatic figure to rise up against him and sinks a portion of his underwater city to throw rebels and dissidents into a watery prison. In BioShock Infinite (the third game, but the second that is really necessary for the main story) a religious zealot named Father Comstock rules Columbia, a city in the clouds above Rapture. Columbia is designed as a neo-America for the early 1900s, including “racial purity” among its supposedly vaunted ideals.

The settings provide unique storytelling opportunities, but they are designed as mirrors on purpose. In both, people asked for and received isolation. In both, people believed that a fresh start in a new community would allow for a better society – and in both they were wrong.

The final episode is a five-to-six hour (depending on how slowly you go) final attempt to bind the two settings together. Infinite — an extremely popular choice for “Game of the Year” from much of the gaming journalism world — ended with an important part of Columbia sinking from the sky into Rapture. Now that the final episode is over, it’s fascinating to see just how much of this was all planned when BioShock originally debuted seven years ago. This was meant to be a continuous story, and the final episode takes you all the way back to the start of BioShock.

There is a ton to praise about these games, but what people keep saying — when they say anything negative — is that too much combat breaks up the story. People want to get to the next big reveal. I touched on this when I talked about Gone Home, a game that is entirely story, earlier this year. The final episode dumps combat almost entirely and rewards you for ducking through the shadows. Since it’s played in flashback, this offers your character a lot of chances to sit in air ducts and shadows and watch the previously untold parts of the story you already know.

This style of narrative is as important as what’s being said, and the stealthy run-through-the-shadows effect really supports it well. In the previous game you played as a brash private eye who ran into situations guns blazing. Now you’re forced into a more agile role — the wily, brilliant, and sassy Elizabeth — and the gameplay adjusts to match.

It’s certainly sacrilege to a lot of people, but one of the best “books” I’ve “read” this year is one I played with a controller in my hand. That certainly won’t be true forever — the game came out yesterday, and the effect of recently-consumed culture is obviously inflated — but it’s more than a rebuttal to the opinion of Roger Ebert at this point. Arguing if games are a narrative isn’t the argument anymore – it’s if, in some ways, they’re the best one we’ve got.

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

 Image source: Wiki

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