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BioShock Infinite: On the Importance of the Authorial Contract
by Eric Schwarz on 04/30/13 08:00:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

BioShock Infinite is a game that was able to achieve an incredible amount of success in the gaming community, not necessary in terms of raw sales, but as a cultural phenomenon.  For weeks, it was just about the only thing the gaming world seemed to be talking about.  What does the ending mean?  Did you notice all those new things upon replaying it?  Is there deeper symbolism at work?

Yet for me, personally, the story of BioShock Infinite was not one which inspired much wonder, whimsy or intrigue.  Indeed, it was quite the opposite: I found it frustrating, awkward, poorly paced, and ultimately it took a lot of willpower for me to even finish the game, so frustrated was I with how it played out.  This puts me in the minority.  I think it's fair to say that most people will agree that Infinite's ending overshadows the rest of the story; a much more interesting question to ask is exactly why that is in the first place.

In this article I'll be using the idea of the authorial contract to illustrate why, as an ending, BioShock Infinite is brilliant, but as an overall story, it struggles.  And yes, there will be spoilers.

The Authorial Contract

In the realm of literature, I've come across the idea of the authorial contract a few times in the past, though the exact definition and details tend to vary based on who's using it, and when.  For the record, please understand that this is my own take on the idea, and might differ from it as used by others.

The authorial contract is of prime importance to any storytelling medium.  It can be best explained as the contract created between the audience and the author.  It is, effectively, and in successive order, an agreement wherein the author establishes the tone of the work, the themes discussed, the rules of the world, the characters who inhabit that world, and, last, the plot events which make up the story.

An easy way to think about this is to bring up the idea of genre.  In film, we collectively have an understanding of what constitutes a horror film, versus a comedy film, versus a drama film.  There are certain rules of theme and tone which are specific to each, though not necessarily mutually exclusive, and we all expect a given work to adhere to those.  It is very telling that sometimes a film can make the most impact by defying expectations - but as we all know, this is usually a very delicate balancing act that has a lot of potential to go wrong.  One person's satire is another person's drama, after all, and it's not uncommon for subversion to be lost on an audience.

From there, characters, plot events and so on are all expected to consistently follow from those rules of genre.  We all know the tropes - the cabin in the woods, the group of college students, each representing a stereotypical young person (the nerd, the cheerleader, the jock), the rule that certain people are going to be killed off by the monster one by one, until only one remains to fight it away.  Like tone and theme, characters must be in keeping with the genre of the film, or it can lead to confusion of the story.

Infinite catapults between moments of intense violence and moments of wonder, but this only highlights the inconsistencies in tone and themes throughout the story.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't create stories that are bold, or different, or have unique twists on ideas, or unconventional characters.  But, you need a starting point to ground your story in if you are going to try to tell something different.  Without expectations set up from the beginning, it's very difficult to knock them down properly.

The authorial contract, then, can be said to be the informal agreement between the author of the work on display, and the audience who is experiencing that work.  This agreement is, essentially, that the author will agree to the fundamental rules, themes, and tones of the work throughout - that the work will not experience a sudden change in genre, or that it will not be resolved by an illogical plot event if the rest of the work has been shown to be exceptionally logical.  There are exceptions allowed, of course - but only within reason as justified by the author to the audience.

If you've been watching MrBtongue's game commentary videos, you might just have come across the question, "what do they eat?" in the context of Fallout 3 and New Vegas.  Specifically, he uses the question as a way to express how the authors of both those games created rules for their respective game worlds.  Bethesda, for Fallout 3, did not devote much time to questions such as what the populace eats, how they get their food, how they organize politically, why they build towns around dormant nuclear bombs, and so on; Obsidian, for New Vegas, put express emphasis on creating a world that made sense.

The argument (and one I agree with) is that New Vegas is much more successful as an interactive story because the tone, themes and overall verisimilitude of the game world are not violated; in Fallout 3, these violations are so common and arbitrary that it becomes impossible to take its story seriously.  Just like you wouldn't find a game of chess against a friend very entertaining because she keeps changing the rules every turn to suit her, a story cannot violate the rules set by the author.

Thus, when this happens, the authorial contract breaks down.  Because the work does not take pains to logically answer questions which arise from the particularities of its authorial contract, the audience cannot take that contract seriously anymore. The audience loses faith in the work and the contract becomes invalid.

Tone, Theme and Verisimilitude

BioShock Infinite is, if nothing else, adventurous.  It is a game that covers all sorts of ideas: you've got those themes of rebirth alluded to in the baptism motif, the growth from childhood and innocence to adulthood and innocence fading, both seen in Elizabeth's character and in the floating city of Columbia itself, and many more smaller ones along the way.  In many respects, Infinite is actually quite thematically rich and often expertly achieved.

The problem is that Infinite goes to great lengths to establish themes, tone, characters and setting, yet it has extreme difficulty in actually reconciling all of its ideas into a consistent work.  For all its bold and interesting ideas, its biggest weakness is that it actually can't stick to one set of them and keep them going throughout its length.

What do I mean by this?  Let's take Columbia itself.  Columbia is a wondrous, incredible place.  It's a huge, floating city lifted by technological innovations so advanced, they might as well be magic.  It's got big balloons and rockets that let it fly all over the world.  The people there live in a veritable Disney Land, with beautiful parks, amusements, and a true excitement for the joy of life.  The first thing one thinks when entering into Columbia is "damn, why don't I live here?"

Yet Columbia has dark secrets.  Its religion, the literal worship of Comstock and the Founding Fathers as gods, initially comes across as misplaced but ultimately harmless, but slowly warps into something resembling an obscene, deluded cult.  We learn that the gold-paved streets were built on the backs of slaves, and it's their toil that keeps the city floating.  Those same people who are so content and happy every day secretly fear for their lives as the Vox Populi and other threats stay just beyond in the shadows of the undercity.

Columbia is a beautiful place, almost out of a storybook.  Its drastic transformation into a warzone over the course of the game, however, also prompts us to ask more insightful questions about it - for which it has no answers.

When we start out BioShock Infinite, we have a fantastic world, and fantastic gameplay to go along with it.  The combat is fast and exciting; the Skyrails that allow the player to ride all over the floating islands, perilously avoiding 20,000-foot falls, inspire a sense of adventure.  In many ways, Infinite is a swashbuckling fantasy.

And then you have the racism.  And the exceptional amounts of blood and gore.  And the progressively darker and darker themes which work their way in as the game goes on.  And quantum physics, and time travel, and so much more.  And the world itself is not equipped to adequately explain all of these.

Remember what I described about verisimilitude above?  Verisimilitude is not necessarily realism, but it is the degree to which a setting is consistent with the rules as defined by the author.  In that fantastic Disney Land, we don't need to know how the city floats, we don't need to know about the harsh lives of the underclasses, we don't need to know about the significance of Elizabeth's first period.  Yet as all these more complex, darker themes enter the equation, we begin to have a conflict with what we've been shown.  The world that we could once accept as happy and whimsical is no longer that; it's been exposed as a more grounded, realistic, gritty place.

Yet, the game never really gives you those answers.  Instead of providing explanations for why things make sense, it resorts of to technobabble that doesn't even sound remotely plausible.  The technology that could once be rationalized away as magical suddenly is magical, and we can no longer buy those trite explanations.  With the emergence of those themes of race and equality, we can't help but ask all sorts of questions about how the city works and how its people live.

Where are all the houses?  Where do they get their supplies?  How did they possibly build such a place?  How much did it cost?  How did the United States government let them get away with this?  Why is there smog and dirty air in the slums, even though the city floats and moves around?  Shouldn't it be extremely windy all the time up there?  How the hell did they build a giant lake in the sky?  Wouldn't the water all fall off?  When Elizabeth and Booker are escaping the Songbird, they fall into a huge body of water near a collapsed bridge, but then they wash up on shore at a much smaller body of water, and there's no collapsed bridge anywhere, so how did they get there?  Why are the police officers willing to fight and die in their thousands to stop one man?  Wait, is Booker so stupid as to not cover up his hand immediately after he notices the posters indicating he is Columbia's devil?  Are you saying that Fink was able to produce all of this technology 50 years in advance of his own simply by catching glimpses through tears?  Why does nobody else use Vigors or these incredible modified weapons, if they're lying everywhere?  Why did we have to go through that pointlessly overlong and extended section fighting Slate and his soldiers even though he was old friends with Booker?  Was he just insane?  How does all this time travel and infinite universe stuff work anyway?  If Elizabeth was locked in a tower for her entire life, by herself, why isn't she a socially stunted, pale, physically atrophied frail individual, instead of a manic pixie dream girl for the intended male audience?

Some of these questions do have hand-waves in the game, but that's not good enough anymore.  Suddenly the game world is too big, too detailed, and requires far too great a leap of faith to accept what's going on.  When the world was a simple Disney Land that we could accept as a swashbuckling adventure, we didn't think about this sort of thing because it wasn't needed to enjoy the plot; indeed, we didn't even expect to have to think about such things, following the conventions of genre.  Yet when we were given a different Columbia to believe in, one which couldn't be taken so easily on faith alone, that Columbia was found extremely wanting.

This, for me, is where the contract stretched to the breaking point.  For those who enjoy stories that are driven more by characters and dramatic events and less by the raw logical details of the plot and setting, this probably isn't enough to cause serious problems for the enjoyment of the story.  Yet even so, that certainly did not prepare me for what was to come.

The Ending

The ending is, as I've mentioned, the thing that made BioShock Infinite really endure in discussion.  People are still talking about and debating all of its minutia, ranging from relatively minor character details, to the implications on the nature of reality.  It's interesting and, in some ways, very inspiring stuff, and for those who have got a lot out of it, I'm gladl.  I also think it was a risky move for Irrational Games that paid off quite well - there have been many game endings in the last couple of years that have caught the flak of fans, so to see it turn out well rather than into a PR nightmare must be comforting.

So let's get started, and here's where the spoilers truly begin: when you introduce time travel and infinite dimensions into story, you are going to cause some serious, serious problems for yourself as an author, and you are also going to strain the believability of your story to the breaking point.  While it's possible to create very surprising, interesting or intriguing twists using such narrative tools, it can also cause unforeseen problems to your story that could end up actually invalidating the whole thing in the first place.

Stories and settings with time travel need to have clearly defined rules in order to make sense.  There need to be limits, structure, of some kind, in order to preserve narrative tension and allow the audience to understand what is going on.  If it's possible for anything to happen, you effectively have a non-story, because all dramatic tension can easily be resolved or explained away.

This is a classic problem, which I've seen many times before.  One of the most obvious (and hilarious) examples I've known in recent times, and has been my go-to for illustrating these sorts of problems, is in Star Trek: First Contact.  In First Contact, the Borg are an alien race bent on assimilating humanity.  They develop access to time travel technology, and use it to go back to the time Earth was going to have first contact with the Vulcans - preventing them from ever being "raised up" into a new age of technology and stopping them from becoming players on the galactic stage.  Of course, the crew of the Enterprise also travel back in time to stop the Borg.

Except, the obvious question that arises is, if you have access to time travel, why don't you just travel back to a time well before that and eliminate your enemy well in advance of them being able to stop you?  Why not travel back to the Middle Ages, where the people would be utterly helpless but still sufficiently populated?  Instead, the Borg put their whole plan in jeopardy by not trying to conquer humanity at a much earlier, easier time.  Now, there are ways to explain it away, to hand-wave the problem, but it certainly is something that casts a serious shadow on the rest of the story, and makes it very hard to take seriously beyond that point.

Wait, why didn't Marty just go back in time to make himself never go back in time in the first place?!  Er, I'm confused...

This is the exact same problem that BioShock Infinite has, except with Infinite, it's even more damning.  By introducing literally infinite universes, where all possible things happen, do happen, it creates a problem in that even its dramatic twist ending can be completely invalidated.  Every action, including the resolution to the story where Elizabeth drowns Booker at his decision point that sets the whole story in motion, can be said to have simply not happened, because another Elizabeth out there (in fact, an equal number of Elizabeths) would have decided to say no.

The nuances of time travel also cast serious problems over the story.  We learn during the course of the game that the Lutece twins traveled back in time to take the young Anna from Booker and raise her as Elizabeth.  In the process, her finger was cut off and left in her original reality, which is implied to have given her her special powers.  Yet, couldn't the Lutece twins simply go back in time, or to another reality, and take another Elizabeth who doesn't have her finger severed in that manner?  All of this casts serious doubts over what their plans even were in the first place, and their competence as scientists.

Again, I'm not saying there aren't possible explanations for what happened in the story, but ultimately these explanations are going to be entirely subjective.  When you are dealing with infinity, it's up to the audience to invest meaning in a given possibility; the author is only creating the framework for understanding.  If you buy into a given explanation, don't be surprised if someone else disagrees with you for other reasons that you yourself never even considered before.

The key thing to note here, is that BioShock Infinite effectively sabotages its own story in the act of creating an interesting, discussion-provoking ending.  A story, not even a good one, needs to have rules, it needs to have limits, and it can't rely on the audience constructing their own meaning out of infinite possibility.  BioShock Infinite's story was already stretched very, very thin due to all of the issues with theme, tone, characters, setting and plot events mentioned above (and that was only a tiny fraction of them).  With this ending, the story completely and utterly breaks.  In trying to say something profound, it actually says nothing at all.

Closing Thoughts

Plot holes themselves don't make a bad story. What makes a bad story is when the problems in it cause the audience to abandon the authorial contract; those sorts of issues are only one possible tension point. Plot holes can be overlooked, justified or ignored if the consistency of the work overall is not affected, because the audience wants the story to work. BioShock Infinite has problems with plot holes, yes, but by literally introducing a clause that lets the author do anything he or she wants, and then simultaneously asking the audience to decide what the story should be to begin with, those problems expand into infinite directions.

Part of me wants to say that this was the intention all along: that Infinite was not meant to be a story, but a meta-narrative commentary, and that the real story was the reaction it would get from the gaming world at large.  That's a possibility worth considering, and I think Ken Levine and the rest of the Irrational team might be clever enough for that.  But, if that were the case, then everything else about the game is completely incidental.  The gameplay, the setting, the characters, that 99% of everything else in Infinite has no real purpose or even consistency.  It trips over the rug on the way out the door, and then behaves like it meant to do that all along.  It is not unfair to suggest that that is all an act.

The ultimate irony is that in a game about wondrous floating cities, rebirth and religious parallels, confusing science with faith, and more, those are all the least impressive, thought-provoking or even important things to its story.  They're all setup for a punchline that nobody ever told.


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