King Lear and the Blank Page: Reflections on Tragedy, Videogames, and Bioshock Infinite

I have talked about the Bioshock series before, briefly, and only in relation to its first sequel. My opinion there has softened somewhat — I think Bioshock 2 wasin the end, a warmer project than the coldly high concept original, as Richard Corbett has recently argued.  But since we’re back to Ken Levine and the original dev team with the recent Bioshock Infinite, I thought I’d pick up the rubric I implied in my earlier brief mention.  Namely, I hope to ponder in some 3000 words what Infinite can tell us about tragedy and videogames.  Needless to say, there will be some heavy spoilers from here on out.

It seems to me that any sensible videogames criticism would have to take into account to greater or lesser degrees issues of both affect and performance.  Performance allows the critic to account for the sometimes spontaneous, ephemeral (“emergent”) nature of gameplay, the thing which disappears after it’s transpired and may not ever be reproduced.  The study of affect, meanwhile, would allow the critic to assess the relationship between the player and the ludic apparatus: do they care for this character, is this combat sequence frustrating, and so on.

I admit that this is difficult, something of a pipe-dream, and I am my own test subject.  I also admit that “performance” will be less tied to the gameplay itself in this essay, since the gameplay in Infinite tended to float under my radar.

The affect, however, will be thought about in detail — and so I will be thinking about how this game performed emotions for me, how I performed them in return, and what this means for the ludic experience, particularly — as my title suggests — as it concerns the idea of tragedy.

I. I am not Booker DeWitt.

“The refusal of closure is always, at some level, a refusal to face mortality. Our fixation on electronic games and stories is in part an enactment of this denial of death. They offer us the chance to erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution. In this respect, electronic media have the advantage of enacting a deeply comic vision of life, a vision of retrievable mistakes and open options.”
-Janet Murray

Booker DeWitt is a troubled man whom I don’t particularly like.  He’s a gambler, something of a drinker, and he seems vaguely aware that race relations in the early 20th century are not ideal but is not particularly angry about it.  At least, not enough to try to change things.  In the hours I got to know him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, though, and at least one thing that made me disgusted with him.

But, in the end, I also felt… sad for him.

The Janet Murray quote up above, from her 1997 book Hamlet on the Holodeck, has been quoted often by various people and, I will be quite frank, is rather a relic of a certain older generation of critics who don’t quite seem to have the same relationship to videogames as someone my age does.  I do not enjoy playing as Booker DeWitt in the way Murray seems to expect I should; it is not exhilarating to be him, he provides no Grand Theft Auto-style release of carnage.  In fact, I agree with Leigh Alexander, who in this excellent piece describes how she found the combat of the game ultimately tedious and disheartening.

But I lead with Murray because she still manages to illustrate what I think has been and continues to be one of the prime sticking points of games and their criticism: many games contain “a deeply comic vision of life” that is implicitly not worth taking seriously, because it is escapism — from the dreary workaday world, from mortality, whatever.  (I would say it is worth quibbling with this persistent bias against the “comic vision,” but at a later time.)

Within the past few years — nearly the last decade, really — we’ve started to see games that nevertheless are grasping toward tragedy.  This very short, very rough writeup is my attempt to think through the ways they’ve done this, and in particular, how Bioshock Infinite resonates within the genre, largely construed.

Primarily videogames that fall into this category — which I will term, I guess, the “tragi-ludic” — aspire toward tragedy by asking serious questions about human nature, often with recourse to their own formal elements qua games and the relationships they forge with the player character.

For instance, in 2007 the original Bioshock revealed that the player-character had been, diegetically, a mind-controlled puppet throughout the course of the game, foregrounding the absurdity of the actual player’s own conditioning to the directional cues usually employed by videogames (pick up this, go here, kill this, etc).  The essential thrust of Bioshock is that something terrible has been done, and the player is implicated.

Brendan Keogh in Killing Is Harmless sketches a rough idea of the so-called “post-Bioshock game,” a game which is aware that it is rail-roading the player into making certain unhappy choices and is nevertheless insistent on reminding the player that by continuing to play the game, they share culpability (like Spec Ops: The Line).  Cameron Kunzelman takes a view of the post-Bioshock game I find more amenable, one that at least allows for an alternative to endless Brechtian shaming of the player: Infinite, as its own post-Bioshock game, “is a moment of reconciliation and cooperation–not ‘we are glad you are here to save us all’ in a classic (and non-reflexive) games sense, but instead a ‘we are all in this together’ mode.”

Overall Kunzelman asserts that Infinite reaches a level of maturity most videogames lack, and I basically agree with him.  Of course I must now qualify “maturity,” because there is plenty of objectionable and ridiculous cartoonish stuff about Infinite in practice.

So I will be specific: what I mean by maturity in this case is the ability to take seriously precisely the things which, according to Murray, “electronic games and stories” let us disavow: things, like, for instance, death, and our lack of choice in the matter.

You die at the end of Bioshock Infinite.

II. Sides of the same coin.

Or, rather, you don’t die.  Booker DeWitt, the player character, does.  I want to emphasize how incredibly crucial this is, because it is by no means the only recent big-name game which killed off the player avatar in the end.  Whereas Commander Shepard was a deeply personalized avatar, though, Booker refuses to be a cipher.  He is a character, an entity of the game independent from whoever is playing him.  It is this fact, I think, which allows Infinite’s ending to be mostly successful while Mass Effect 3‘s was widely reviled.

Murray, I would wager, is half right: there are certain types of games, the ones in which we as players are led to identify most strongly with our avatars, which — due to our deeply personal affective investments — seem to demand a comic resolution, a certain postgame infinitude (shall we say) for the characters we have worked so hard to make ours(elves).  (I think here also of the original ending to Fallout 3, and the DLC remedy.)

In the original Bioshock, where the player-avatar (unnamed in the game) functioned as basically a cipher for the player, a certain affective investment was similarly fostered — and, it turns out, skillfully deployed in the “Would You Kindly” twist.  Though the avatar in Bioshock was not customizable a la Shepard, there was still a way in which the plot’s grand existential prank on him was also the game’s existential prank on the player.

But after the plot/game calls out the avatar/player for following its carefully laid rails, the player obviously would not want to continue — but, given the nature of the medium, there’s no choice.  (Keogh mentions the ability of the player to turn off the game console, which is indeed a viable exercise of the player’s agency but seems something of a dead end.)  The end of the game gave us a player-character who apparently had learned nothing, while the player herself would be all too conscious of what had transpired, and desperate to choose something different.

Infinite resolves the original Bioshock’s deadlock by removing the question of the player’s “choice” from the game almost completely.  Admittedly there are some moments that allow the player the purely cosmetic option to, as Austin Walker puts it, become “authors of tone, aesthetic, and character.”

This does not mean the player ever fundamentally changes who Booker is, but they are allowed small moments of influence: where to toss a baseball during a despicable public execution sport, which brooch Elizabeth should wear.  Walker is correct, I think, in highlighting these moments as particularly useful not for changing the game per se, but rather in establishing a certain surplus connection between Booker, the player, and the game-world.  Paradoxically, to be truly meaningful the choice itself must be meaningless: unhindered by possible metagaming or worrying about stat-bonuses, the game provides the luxury of an illusion of choice, choice for its own sake.

This makes the intense, later moments of the game all the more notable for the ruptures they introduce between Booker and the player, when Booker chooses what he wants at the expense of the player’s desire.

During the scene in which Booker drowns the mad prophet Comstock — echoing at least narratively Bioshock’s mind-controlled murder of Andrew Ryan — the game simply does it in a cutscene, because this is a murder Booker wants to commit.  But Comstock was on the verge of revealing something — something Booker doesn’t want to hear, not yet, but which the player quite definitely does.

Before Booker realizes the truth  (that Comstock is a version of himself from an alternate reality) he sets out to kill him “in the crib,” to which Elizabeth asks — hesitatingly, knowing more than she says — if this is what he really wants.

If, by this point, you’ve pieced together what’s coming — and I had — it does not matter what you think Booker should do, because he’s made his choice, and this is not a game about what you want, but about what he wants.

Against all sense, all reason, the character is pushed toward his tragic end — and the player is drawn along in his affective wake.

III. Tragi-ludic?

If games — at least as Jane Murray sees them — are innately comic, then what must happen for them to become a tragic medium?

Tragedy, by at least one definition, is a terrible thing.  It excites unpleasant emotions which, paradoxically, gives us some amount of pleasure.  We do not want to be the tragic character, but at the same time we recognize in, eg, Oedipus one who has taken the brunt of the truth for us, paying the price for exposing the comfortable lie upon which his world is built.  This is what he was meant to do; we never allowed him a choice.  It is the role that he was, so to speak, born to play.

This is the problem of the one and the many.  How can one being’s particular troubles speak to a multitude?  I would argue that this does not require an identification with the singular entity — with Oedipus, with Booker DeWitt — but rather a particular sort of affective investment from the spectator/player, one that recognizes the terrible, self-destructive agency of the other and appreciates it not only despite but because of its alien nature.

In the context of the tragi-ludic videogame, this suggests a need to both maintain and elide the player/avatar connection in ways different than those one would find in film or drama.  Tragedy largely requires the spectator to understand the characters in the fiction as independent entities, at least insofar as they are subject to individual terrible ends based on actions partly of and partly not of their own doing.  The issue for the tragi-ludic, however, is the tendency for the players of videogames to see their avatars as extensions of themselves rather than as characters.  Overidentification would render the tragedy absurd or, from the player’s standpoint, “unfair.”

Does this mean that any game that aspires to tragedy must divorce the player from the avatar?  My argument is tending this way, but it is nothing I would assert wholesale.  Nevertheless, when a character like Commander Shepard is meant to be our wish-fulfillment fantasy, it makes us angry when we are forced along the rails of a heroically tragic ending for which we were never prepared.  Killing “my Shepard” is like killing me.

By contrast, killing Booker DeWitt was killing Booker DeWitt, and Zachary Hale Comstock to boot.  And Comstock notwithstanding, to repeat myself: Booker DeWitt was a troubled man whom I didn’t particularly like.  In the hours I knew him, I found out quite a bit about Booker DeWitt: nothing that made me like him more, and at least one thing — selling his daughter — that made me disgusted with him.

But I saw him realize what he was, and though he could not change, not entirely, I saw him try to make good.  So nevertheless, in the end, I also felt sad for him.

Sad at the life he lived, and the death he faced, all the lives and deaths with which his were ignorantly entwined, the lives and deaths that were not mine but which, in some nebulously way, I briefly shared.

But perhaps not sad enough.

IV. A Tear

“My brother has presented me with an ultimatum: if we do not send the girl back from where we brought her, he and I must part. Where he sees an empty page, I see King Lear. But he is my brother, so I shall play my part, knowing it shall all end in tears.”
-Rosalind Lutece

It is coincidence, I wager, that a tear (as in, a tear in the fabric of space-time) and a tear (as in, a drop of water gathering in the corner of your eye) are homographs.

I did not cry at the end of Bioshock Infinite.  But maybe some did, because I could see, very faintly, why I would.

Let me use this as a point of transition: If there is a character who truly comes anywhere close to being a player analogue in the game, at least in my experience, I would say it’s actually two characters.

Robert and Rosalind Lutece, quantum physicists and quasi-dead trans-dimensional siblings and Stoppardian observers, embody the analytical stance the player can take when distanced from Booker’s first-person narrative.  It is implied that they have run a high number of Bookers through a high number of trials, what you see during the playtime being only one turn through the rat-maze.  They are experimenting, though they are somewhat agnostic on their outcomes.  What is different this time, they wonder, and what will change because of it? (Very often, it seems, the answer is: nothing.)

I realized, in retrospect, that I play games the way the Luteces wander through the world of Bioshock Infinite.  I try to climb up to places I’m not supposed to, I jump in front of NPCs unexpectedly, harass them with seemingly pointless action button commands, do my best to walk outside of scripted events — not simply for the absurdity of it all, and to see not just what will happen, but to see if something will happen at all — can I escape the game in some way?

Robert believes that the bloody cycle at the heart of Infinite can and will be broken, that the destruction engendered by Comstock and his sky-city of Columbia can be averted.  Rosalind, less cheery, suggests she sees only a tragic ending.  But what tragic ending does she foresee?

The game would have you believe that she sees the destruction of New York City by Columbia’s forces in 1984.  But, given her reference to Leardoes she perhaps mean the inevitability of death and unhappiness no matter what she and Robert do?  On the one hand, NYC is destroyed.  On the other hand, a girl drowns her estranged father in a river, perhaps dooming herself to nonexistence in the process.  How can we reckon one with the other?  How does the one relate to the many?

The game is not entirely successful at this gambit.  As Sparky Clarkson wrote, “I am more irritated by the asymmetry between problem and solution.”  Is this a failed character arc?  If so, what would its successful completion really look like?

I’d say: tragedy.  In other words, this is not simply a failure of medium or character or narrative, but also a failure of genre.

Bioshock Infinite is probably a watershed in games.  It is something that will be talked about in the future.  It is something that will have to be dealt with if the medium and its field of criticism are to evolve.

It is also not perfect.  Especially not in its representations of race, of social struggle, as many have pointed out, and far better than I could.  It also, on the whole, obviously falls a bit short of the emotional mark it wants to hit.

In terms of genre it comes close to being a tragedy — almost functionally is, except for the post-credits stinger, where Booker possibly-maybe-probably awakes in a world where he never sold his daughter, and can now live in peace.  This short and (I think) unnecessary scene returns us to Murray’s claim that the comic vision of the videogame evinces the desire to “erase memory, to start over, to replay an event and try for a different resolution.”  This time, the game wants to say, this time, things will be different.

It is not a tragedy, not fully, definitely not some Sophoclean Great Tragedy.  But it is a point of transition for these sorts of narratives, and for this medium.

And so we are indeed the Luteces.  We play these games, we press their limits when we can, we see what they can do — and we wonder, what will be different this time?  Far too often, yes, the answer is nothing.

Will the circle be unbroken?

But something was different here, or at least almost different.

Perhaps this is a transitional stage.  Perhaps things are starting to change, and as a result of this game in the future something — something — will happen.

I look at Bioshock Infinite and I see a blank page.

But, looking hard enough, I notice in the center of it a single tear.

And beyond that page, on the other side of that tear, just barely visible: I see great poetry.


One thought on “King Lear and the Blank Page: Reflections on Tragedy, Videogames, and Bioshock Infinite”

  1. I don’t play games anymore – I watch them (because my tiny little hands can’t deal with next-gen controllers). I feel like that gives me a weird perspective because I become the person going, “oh, hey, there’s stuff over there! You need to heal! I know how to solve this puzzle!” So neither one of us were Booker, but I was completely Elizabeth.

    Plus, I knew the plot before Pillow did, so that served to add another layer.

    What you said about the Luteces is so freakin’ spot on. When we play games, we try to get the game to react in ways we wouldn’t expect it to. Pillow brings up Morrowind, in which you can kill Vivec on a whim and totally bring down the entire plot to the point of making the game unfinishable. It also makes me think of the Mass Effect 3 extended ending DLC, in which my glib comment of “Oh, you have a gun now? Shoot the Star Child!” resulted in GAME OVER, MAN. Whoops.

    On that note, ME3’s ending sat fine with me, although the DLC did provide answers to questions like, “did my team just freakin’ die?!” We picked the Synthesis ending for ME3, because Hikaru Shepard’s journey had always like it was going to end in sacrifice, and it was sad but felt natural.

    Fallout 3 didn’t sell me on it _at all_. Sure, there was an emotional connection to the player character, but the thing that chafed was that it didn’t HAVE to be that way. Who cares if your dad was the one who put it into motion? It’s a really faulty reason for you to be the sacrificial lamb when you could, at that point, have at LEAST two companions who were completely immune to radiation. Either of them could have gone in and done the job with no consequences other than huraah, the job is done! So the fact that the game was like, “okay, either you go in or you force this other lady to die for you” was so weirdly contrived and had a feel of “BUT THOU MUST!” rather than a truly inevitable result. I personally found the DLC to be less “man I wanted the story to continue” and more “that was… pretty bullshit.”

    Infinite’s ending was a mix between the two, because I have HELLA PROBLEMS with “infinite worlds”… since I think about the idea a lot on its own as a philosophy. I feel like with ACTUAL infinite possibilites, that means that one of those Elizabeths drowning Booker should have been kind of a dog person or had her skin turned inside out or at LEAST one where she was Ebenezer instead! Besides, they only erased Comstock from the worlds where those Elizabeths ever existed. Are there worlds where Comstock wasn’t a crazy religious zealot and instead had a farm somewhere in Pennsylvania? Did they destroy that guy, too, just in case? Auuughhh!

    That, and the game seems to imply that Bookers 1-121 did not make it back to the lighthouse (the man, the city) so I’m endlessly amused at the idea of another world where Booker gets to the point of no return, and upon being asked if he wants to go forward, says, “Nope!” and shoots himself.

    How now, brown cow.

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