A man, a lighthouse, a city, what’s wrong with that?
Okay, strap in people because before my conscience will let me get back to playing Bioshock Infinite on hard mode I need to spout off a little more on what I think the game did wrong story telling wise.
There are going to be spoilers here and though I’ll try and keep at least a thing or two secret I’m not going to leave them unmarked since this post would not make much sense otherwise.
I personally feel that weather it was intended or not Bioshock games have always had a level of a “meta plot” that deconstructions and reconstructs a certain notion beyond the obvious plot of what political theme they’re putting on the chopping block for the day.
The First Bioshock was not just about Objectivism it was about family though this meta plot is not really explored to the degree as it would be in other games, it is still there if you look hard enough. (I’m going to assume good playthroughs since otherwise you don’t have a morality play just a tragedy) It is all about Jack effectively doing the same thing the villain Fontaine did on some level, he is a man without a family so he is creating one for himself in his journey through rapture.
He rescues and releases the little sisters adding to his family and in the final battle when Fontaine sneeringly comments
“I had you built! I sent you top-side! I called you back, showed you what you was, what you was capable of! Even that life you thought you had? That was something I dreamed of and had tatooed inside you head. Now if you don’t call that family, I DON’T KNOW WHAT IS!”
He gets an answer a moment later when a horde of Ex-Little Sisters who Jack has freed jump him with Adam Syringes and finish off what Big Brother Jack has started. Because that’s what family is really about it, it is not about control or exploitation, about the strong looking after the weak so that when the tables are turned either by age or by chance the favor will be returned.
Bioshock 2 was not just about collectivism (which sadly right out of the gate makes it a somewhat weaker main plot than the first since we’ve seen in real life just what a Collectivist Dystopia can look like this one just added more water and genetic super powers) but to make up for this it managed to make the Meta Plot much more well woven throughout the entire story. Bioshock 2’s Meta Plot is about parenthood and the difference between a good parent and a bad parent. It is about how Sophia Lamb is a horrible horrible parent who sees her daughter strictly as a means to an end, someone who can she can use to bring about her wishes of creating her vision of a better world no matter what it does to Eleanor.
It also serves to awkwardly highlight the difference between the Alpha Series Big Daddies and the final versions you only ran into in the first game. The later ones ironically are just like Sophia Lamb in a way, their little sisters are interchangable they are only a means to an end, they will fight to the death to protect them, but they see them as property not as people. Granted they were brainwashed experimented on and who knows what else to be made that way but their behavior still serves as a useful counterpoint. On the other end of the scale we have the Alpha Series , who see their little sisters as irreplaceable individuals. Once again they’ve been twisted and wrapped mentally to do this, but that’s neither here nor there at the moment.
What is worth mentioning though is that Subject Delta is a good father. We see this again and again (I’m going to assume Good Playthrough once again) in just how much he is willing to give up and do in order to rescue his daughter. He is willing to plow through wave after wave of Splicers, all the other Big Daddies who were designed to be bigger meaner and tougher than he is, the Big Sisters who were designed to be Faster, more ADAM infused and deadlier than he is, several other Alpha Series Big Daddies who might in theory have once been his equal to get Elanor back. There is no weight that he will not lift to free his daughter, and in the end even his death does not significantly sadden the ending of the story since he dies having accomplished what he set out to do, save his daughter.
Bioshock 2 is on a deeper level a look at bad parents who expect their children to suffer unduly so that they might live vicariously through them, and good parents who are willing to expend blood sweat and tears so that their children might have a chance to grow up free and happy and get to become whatever it is they wish.
Now lets get back to Bioshock Infinite.
There is a metaplot here besides the American /Rebellious extremism is bad, and that’s good. The bad thing about this metaplot is that it’s about fatherhood (the evil villain is evil called “Father Comstock” though in a religious sense) again. It’s about how good father’s don’t send their children away from them, don’t lock them up in towers away from the rest of the world, don’t try and address the symptoms of the unhappiness this causes by bringing them toys or books rather than the cause of the problem (by freeing them from the tower) good father’s sacrifice to let their children have the best life they possibly can and live their own lives, caring and protecting them without controlling them.
The problem is that while I’ve heard comments that Ken Levine and Irrational Games ducked out of working on Bioshock 2 because they felt it was too familiar to the original Bioshock (which is not a complaint without merit) they ended up in some ways falling into the exact same trap where despite the fact that we were in a brand new time period, we were in a brand new city, we had brand new main character who was not a silent protagonist… the game’s metaplot is at times rather noticeably similar to Bioshock 2.
I guess I understand their desire to act like Bioshock 2 never existed, but while you can strike it from cannon, you can’t strike it from the minds of all the people who played it. Your argument of “that was a bad idea/not the most the series was capable of because it was too similar” sort of hits a stumbling block if you’re going to crib some notes from the thing you’re talking about.
So if Bioshock 2’s metaplot was not going to be about Parents/Fathers and their daughters what should it have been about?
Well there are two distinct roads that you could go down in my opinion.
Option one is you could have it be about husbands and wives (after all since his size/inhumanity strips away any real sexual overtones to his actions Songbird can just as easily be seen as a boyfriend/husband of the “I love you, why did you make me hit you, here let me buy you something to make it better”) variety. As for the rest of the game… for the rest of the game I’d need to mediate on that to figure out exactly what other changes would need to be made in order to pull this off, but I do feel like it could be made to work.
Option two is that you could have it be about America. I guess this is really where I feel my sacred cow is getting gored because this was an option that the team decided not to follow up on (at least not in this universe). If you want to have Columbia sum up everything that is wrong with America from Neo-Confederate Xenophobic Worker Exploiting Jackasses (who are surprisingly free of Misogyny and Sexism in so far as they let women into the police force but that is neither here nor there) to the blind revolutionaries who in their desire to see their wrongs righted have become just as ready to deny the humanity of others as the ones who wronged them in the first place, then there was an chance to have this be counter pointed by having a hero who represents everything that is right with America., or at least is “good enough with America” given that even Booker’s “live and let live” approach to people of different races (“smoke em if you got em”) is a marked improvement over what Columbia is doing. There’s even a sort of poetry or irony to that particular idea, where instead of Comstock’s idea a Messiah that he raises and trains in Columbia descending to the world below to purify it of the sins he imagines, a “hero” who is really nothing special morality wise ascends from the world below to Columbia above and ends up purifying it of the sins of Bigotry and Exploitation.
Granted taking the above path is not without problems. To pick one at random (first one to jumps to my head at least) would be the Mighty Whitey syndrome which could be spotted from a couple miles away (“Stand aside Female Black revolutionary who has let her emotions run away with her, it’s time for captain WASP to show you how to run a proper American revolution!”). And for how to resolve that problem, /not have the whole thing come off as patronizing /exactly as vomit inducingly patriotic as what Coloumbia was set out to parody is a reasonable issue and one I do not have a immediate answer to.
But the history of America the story of the founding of our nation, I feel like it is the story of one of history’s most successful revolutions (granted this may just be my own blind patriotism talking so feel free to step in and correct me) not because it ended up giving us self rule, but because we managed to turn that self rule into a functional society that see’s the highest office in the land peacefully change hands every four/eight years like clockwork. We avoided having our revolution be a violent and bloody affair that just exchanged one set of tyrants for another. Some of that was luck of course (America was far enough away from the rest of the world that we didn’t need to worry about circling the wagons and building up a huge army for self defense to make sure the original set of tyrants didn’t come back shortly after they’d been kicked out) but it is still a remarkable achievement.
So I think when you boil right down to it, Bioshock Infinite feels out of step with my personal view of America’s current Cultural Zeitgeist. It feels like something that would been more appropriate if it had been made half a dozen years ago or so when we were busy calling everything Freedom this and Liberty that as a way to “get back at” whatever nation we had felt had wronged us, and had just recently kicked off our first Pre-Emptive war rather than the wars of defense we’d managed to limit ourselves to for most of our history.
people I want to feel more hopeful about America which is why the way that Bioshock Infinite shows Columbia descending into the sort of mindless violence themed revolutions that only end up exchanging one set of tyrants for another felt like it could have been improved upon.
Though I suppose if Bioshock Infinite was the story of a guy who was at least half black (to avoid the Might Whitey overtones) coming from out of nowhere to an overly patriotic version of America that hates immigrants gathering together a seemingly disunited band of opponents to the people running the place who seemed to spend at least as much time arguing/fighting with each other/the people they’re trying to help as the ones they oppose and bringing the entire floating nation back to sanity and something like the American ideal it might be just a bit on the nose don’t you think?