'Bioshock Infinite': A First-Person Shooter, A Tragic Play

Apr 1, 2013
Originally published on April 1, 2013 8:19 pm

In a first-person shooter video game, your targets range from zombies to soldiers, aliens or any other variation of "enemy." Most people wouldn't call that art. But BioShock Infinite creator Ken Levine says he's aiming to transform the genre.

Back in 2007, in the first installment of BioShock, Levine created a world based on Ayn Rand's individualist philosophy and let it play out. This time, Levine has turned a game into an Aristotelian tragedy and used the model of great tragic heroes.

"Whether it's Hamlet or Oedipus, there's a notion of greatness to them," Levine says, "and a notion of what would've / could've [been]. And what's so painful about them is how wrong they went and how right they could have gone."

The Characters And Your Mission

All that is true of Booker DeWitt, the tragic hero of BioShock Infinite — whose shoes you fill during the game. DeWitt is a jaded detective whose life took a disastrous turn.

The game opens in 1912. Two mysterious people bring you by rowboat in the pouring rain to an empty lighthouse on an island off the coast of Maine.

As you make your way up the inside steps of its tower, there are portents of what's to come: religious music and signs with messages such as "Of thy sins shall I wash thee." That phrase evokes an ornery response from DeWitt, "Good luck with that, pal."

At the top of the lighthouse steps is a chair; you strap yourself in, and you're transported with a noisy blast to another world.

This moves the game along to what Aristotle considered the most important element of tragedy: the plot. You, as DeWitt, are getting paid to rescue someone. You're reeled into rescuing Elizabeth — a character who's been imprisoned since childhood — from a city called Columbia and return her to New York.

It may be a first-person shooter game, but the killing doesn't start when you get to Columbia — a floating city in the clouds.

You spend an hour of the game exploring streets and gathering supplies. The city is filled with quaint turn-of-the-century buildings. People seem to peacefully meander along the sidewalks, stopping at shops and cafes.

'Cluing You In'

But everything is laden with clues of a darker story that will bring this floating city to earth. There are preachers and statues of historical American leaders.

"This city is run by a prophet figure who created a new religion that worships the Founding Fathers of the United States," Levine says. He describes their religion as "a mixture of Christianity and a sort of Founder worship."

But what makes this different from a tragic play is that you aren't just watching Hamlet — or rather Dewitt. "You are him," Levine says. "So we have lots of ... cleaver ways of sort of cluing you in to who you are, and what your mission is and what your purpose in life is."

In Hamlet, the audience watches the prince struggle with the implications of taking violent action. In BioShock Infinite, you struggle with it.

You Make The Decisions

In one scene, you're directed toward a raffle in front of a stage. You take a baseball from a basket with the number 77. You win! The curtain opens to reveal the prize: You're offered the chance to be the first to throw a baseball at a captive interracial couple.

And you have to make the choice to throw the ball at the couple or to throw the ball at the announcer. But here's the tricky part. If you throw the ball at the announcer, you will be revealed as a traitor and it may compromise your mission to find Elizabeth.

Levine says everyone he's watched play has made the same choice. "It's an ode to human nature and where we've come as a society that I've never seen somebody choose to throw the ball at the couple," he says.

But when you try to throw the ball at the announcer, the battle begins. And, after all, Aristotle considers spectacle an element of tragedy.

A Resonating Interest In Characters

In this game, the amount of fighting means something bigger, says gaming critic Evan Narcisse, who writes for the gaming site Kotaku.

"All that serves to get you to the end, which doesn't have a score attached to it," he says. "You're playing to push these characters along a path because you become interested in these characters. You embody these characters and then you want to find out where their story ends."

And since this is a tragedy, it doesn't end well for DeWitt or Elizabeth. Choices made long ago come back to haunt them. Everything we encountered early in the game comes together: the worship of America's founders, the religious zealotry, the racism and DeWitt's inability to believe in redemption.

For Narcisse, it resonates.

"You wonder about the people you meet in the game and what happens to them as a result of your actions or a result of your inaction," he says. "It has something to say about how people treat each other."

And Narcisse says BioShock Infinite has one of the most important elements of a tragedy: catharsis — that moment at the end which Aristotle says evokes pity and fear and brings about an emotional transformation and release.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's a genre of really popular video games called first-person shooters. They're pretty basic - you shoot to kill zombies, soldiers, aliens, or any other variation of the enemy.

Most people wouldn't call that art. But Ken Levine, the creator of a game called "BioShock Infinite," says he's taking first-person shooters to a new level. NPR's Laura Sydell has that story.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Ken Levine is trying to blow up the limits of first-person shooters. Back in 2007, in the first installment of "BioShock," Levine created a world based on Ayn Rand's individualist philosophy and let it play out. This time, Levine has turned a game into an Aristotelian tragedy, and used the model of great tragic heroes.

KEN LEVINE: Whether it's, you know, Hamlet or Oedipus, there's a notion of greatness to them, and a notion of what - you know, would have, could have. And what's so painful about them is how wrong they went, and how right they could have gone.

SYDELL: In "BioShock Infinite," you are Booker DeWitt, a jaded detective whose life has already taken a tragic turn. The year is 1912. Two mysterious people have brought you by rowboat, in the pouring rain, to an empty lighthouse on an island off the coast of Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Is anyone here? Hello?

SYDELL: As you make your way up the inside steps, there are portents of what's to come: religious music, signs like "Of Thy Sins Shall I Wash Thee," along with your ornery reaction.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Good luck with that, pal.

SYDELL: At the top of the lighthouse steps is a chair. You strap yourself in, and you're transported.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Two...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) One...

SYDELL: This moves "BioShock Infinite" along to what Aristotle considered the most important element of tragedy: plot. You are getting paid to rescue someone.

LEVINE: You've made an arrangement with some very shady figures to go to this city of Columbia, this - you know, in this alternate 1912, this floating city; and find this woman Elizabeth, whose been in prison there since she was a little girl, and break her out and bring her back to New York.

SYDELL: It's a first-person shooter, but the killing doesn't start yet. Aristotle also says that a plot should have complexity.

When Booker arrives at Columbia, the city in the clouds, he spends an hour just exploring its quaint, turn-of-the-century buildings. People seem to peacefully meander along the sidewalks, stopping at shops and cafes. But everything is laden with clues of a darker story that will bring this floating city to Earth. There are a lot of preachers, and statues of historical American leaders.

LEVINE: And this city is run by a prophet figure who created a new religion that worships the Founding Fathers of the United States, a mixture of Christianity and - sort of founder worship.

SYDELL: But what makes this different from a tragic play is that you aren't just watching Hamlet - or, rather, DeWitt.

LEVINE: You are him. So we have lots of clue - you know, we think clever ways of sort of clueing you into who you are and what your mission is, and what your purpose in life is.

SYDELL: In "Hamlet," the audience watches the prince struggle with the implications of taking violent action. In "BioShock Infinite," you struggle with it. In one scene, you're directed towards a raffle in front of a stage. You take a baseball with a number.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (As character) Seventy-seven - that's a lucky number.

SYDELL: You win. The curtain opens and reveals the prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Please, what are you doing?

SYDELL: You're offered the chance to be the first to throw a baseball at a captive, interracial couple.

LEVINE: You can choose to throw the ball at the couple, or you can choose to throw the ball at the announcer who's egging you on.

SYDELL: However, if you throw the ball at the announcer, you will be revealed as a traitor. And it may compromise your mission to find Elizabeth.

LEVINE: It's an ode to human nature and where we've come as a society. I've never seen somebody choose to throw the ball at the couple.

SYDELL: But when you get ready to throw at the announcer, the battle begins. And after all, Aristotle considers spectacle an element of tragedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHTING IN VIDEO GAME, "BIOSHOCK INFINITE")

SYDELL: All of this fighting means something bigger, says gaming critic Evan Narcisse, who writes for the site kotaku.com.

EVAN NARCISSE: All that serves to get you to the end, which doesn't have a score attached to it. You're playing to push these characters along a path because you become interested in these characters, you embody these characters; and then you want to find out where their story ends.

SYDELL: And since this is a tragedy, it doesn't end well for Booker DeWitt or Elizabeth. Choices made long ago come back to haunt them. Everything we encountered early in the game comes together - the worship of America's founders, the religious zealotry, the racism, and DeWitt's inability to believe in redemption.

NARCISSE: It did resonate. You know, you wonder about the people you meet in the game, and what happens to them as a result of your actions - or a result of your inaction. It has something to say about how people treat each other.

SYDELL: And Narcisse says "BioShock Infinite" has one of the most important elements of a tragedy - catharsis, that moment at the end which Aristotle says evokes pity and fear, and brings about an emotional transformation and release.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.