(WARNING: Spoilers for BioShock Infinite)
Welcome back to take two! Terrible pun aside, today’s course will be a more concise one that covers a topic that is not as broad, and will only focus on one piece of media. I hope that it may also overlap with other works (perhaps Titanic, I dunno…), but as with the title, does emotional storytelling outweigh plot?
To begin, what do I specifically mean by emotional storytelling outweighing plot in the case of this post? To summarize with an analogy, have you ever been in love and commit actions that defy any sense of logic? While these actions cause satisfaction, will they scrape at the back of your head with such nuance that only much later you realize your mistake? This is how prominent emotional storytelling exists in fiction: it takes all attention away from other aspects of the work such as plot and setting, and (for example) instead pits drama and character interaction ahead of all else. We easily find ourselves invested in our emotions, and watching a movie, playing a video game, and reading a book is no different. If there is literally zero plot progression, a character that your entire mind is invested into may change your opinion from zero-to-eleven quite drastically.
When I initially played BioShock Infinite (released by 2K Games back in 2013), this character was none other than Elizabeth.
For those of you who haven’t played the game (which you should), Elizabeth is the heir of the games main antagonist Comstock, the leader of a political party in the floating city of Columbia that has an ultra-nationalistic ideology (that takes Americanism to its extreme). She is locked away from the rest of the city, and held by awe by its populace as the “Lamb of Columbia”, who will emerge to clear out our undesirable world below.
The player is Booker DeWitt, a troubled former Pinkerton agent with an excessive gambling debt who has a deal to “bring them the girl and wipe away the debt”. This girl is none other than Elizabeth, guarded away in her tower protected by the menacing sight of the Songbird. While this is true, the game pulls at your heartstrings much earlier on in the serene, pristine streets of Columbia, and this is where I give the game an immense amount of credit: this early game section where you simply walk. This opening section is where we will begin our examination.
While I don’t want to drone on about the overall world of Columbia and its interesting characters, the beauty of this place is astounding and alluring. The former picture of the last two is the first sight of the city, and with an ethereal e-piano playing in the background, it may be one of the most memorable sights in any video game I have ever played.
Upon entering the city, you are met with a myriad of harmonic voices singing “Will the Circle be Unbroken”, and opens Columbia to be the perfect utopia: clean, vintage, and plenty of idealistic values that seem absent from the world we dwell in. This concept is very manipulative is making you feel very positive emotions, and is presented in a way where you press on forward. The tip of the iceberg may be when a barbershop quartet sputters up from the depths of the infinite blue skies and sings “God Only Knows”, and this is perhaps where I say that words cannot describe how beautifully this sets up the world in terms of tone. Instead, you can experience it for yourself (also listen to the rest of the soundtrack, even if you have no intention of playing the game):
So far, I have presented the emotional entourage of BioShock Infinite’s opening in brief strokes, and this should hopefully give off the harmonic and angelic tone that I experienced myself. Yet… Where is the rest of the story? Let’s take a look, shall we?
- BioShock Infinite does very little to explore its characters in this opening, and Booker is very much closed off at this point.
- The audio logs do not serve to explain and serve the setting, but rather give foreshadow on plot and explore background (at this point) characters that are important nonetheless.
- The practical existence of Columbia is hastily explained as a scientific marvel…
I should note that none of these above points are particular problems, yet tone and emotion are definitely the key player at this point of the game, soon to be followed by a character-driven force that defines its remainder. Many complaints I may have about BioShock Infinite may be in comparison to the original BioShock, which I regard as superior is some aspects. This includes an immersive and fully fleshed-out backstory, world, and side characters that make it feel almost real.
I have spent much time covering the opening of the game, yet it is such a prime example to delve into and analyze that we are not even done.
Later on, the game introduces vigors, a beverage that makes its wielder become inflicted with supernatural powers, such as summoning a vigorous flock of crows, or a blistering inferno of fire from their fingertips. While little to nothing is done in the game’s story to explain or signify vigors, they are introduced as a saleswoman almost tries to seduce Booker into a free sample, giving off a utopian sense that everyone is content with themselves and would never be anywhere else. Even idle chatter from citizens is so happy-go-lucky that I wish there was more if it.
Moving along, this opening walk-in-the-park is put on full breaks when it is interrupted by the game’s first insight into its theme of ultra-Americanism. Almost like a swift punch to the gut, the peaceful tone of the game is jerked out and replaced with a root of America that still feels pain today: racism. The player is presented with a stage, a baseball, and a black woman and Irish man tied to a pole, with the populace simply laughing and cheering as if they are watching whimsical tricks at a circus.
Such a switch of the portrayal of regular men and woman can incite feelings of disgust and perhaps horror. The game then gives you two options: throw the ball at the interracial couple, or the man presenting this display. I assume the majority of players took the latter option, yet they are stopped as they find out that Booker is the “False Shepard”, sent to Colombia in order to stray Elizabeth away as prophesied by Comstock. Following this, a combat sequence pits the player against the police force of Columbia takes up a larger part of the opening, and this is where we will stop and analyze this change of heart.
I have definitely spoken on how Columbia is now thrust into a more negative spotlight, yet its pristine nature still persists later on into the game. My question is: what purpose does this scene serve? The theme of racism in this game definitely fits in greatly with the theme of Americanism, yet both are not prime focuses too far in. Perhaps it fits as an allegory for Booker’s character, as he has a history rooted in racial violence, and Columbia will literally be a second Ark destined for himself as a human being. Yet with a twist later on relating to an underground faction of other races called the Vox Populi and the point where the plot (in my opinion, perhaps not yours) ends up too convoluted into its own theories and “deep” messages (including inter-dimensional travel…), I feel as if this scene ultimately goes nowhere and the plot falters in retrospect.
Once again, does this mean this scene is bad? Definitely not. We see a more sinister side of Columbia rooted into its nationalism, yet these are people who may very well be like you and I. While the setting and backstory give a clear backseat to tone and character exploration, did you notice upon your first time playing the game? If you did notice, did you care? Personally, I can say that I did not notice this as the game is extremely effective in telling an emotional tale that left me genuinely moved, and this opening is only the first foray into a tale of twists and turns and an unexpected conclusion that may leave some confused, yet is a prime example of where the subject of this post comes in hand.
For next post, I will be looking into the character of Elizabeth, who I believe to be the emotional core of this game that transcends into possibly one of the best FPS protagonists at the climax of the games DLC, Burial at Sea Part 2. With this, I will leave a few more images of Columbia to paint its vast sprawl in all its glory.