Bioshock Infinite and the Hardboiled Tradition

So I finished Bioshock: Infinite recently. I suppose in paragraph one I should deal with some of the basics, given what I’ve seen online so far: Yes, I liked it. I thought it was better than the first Bioshock. No, I don’t mind it was linear, why would I? No, I don’t think it should have had multiple endings. Yes, I liked Columbia – better than Rapture. And I loved Booker and Elizabeth. And that’s where this post really starts. With Booker.

Oh, hold on.


Booker’s just a big damn hardboiled detective, isn’t he? This isn’t exactly an earth-shaking conclusion, but bear with me. For anyone who’s not familiar – or will at least let me go on about this again – the hardboiled detective is best exemplified by Marlowe and Sam Spade (by Chandler and Hammett respectively). Marlowe in The Big Sleep just hammers away at problems until they go away. His entire “plan” in the novel is simply to make so much of a nuisance of himself that the killer tries to kill him too. Meanwhile he wanders into speakeasies and then goes to chat with the cops, not only to get information but also to make people uncomfortable. Which side is he on? people are forced to wonder. Hammett’s Red Harvest goes to town with that idea – the entire town of Personville is on one side or another, between the crooked cops, the politicians, and the various criminal organizations. The unnamed main character doesn’t care and ruins every single person’s plan because they’re all awful.

If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite that may sound familiar. Booker is a private eye who used to work for the Pinkertons breaking strikes – just like A) that unnamed character from Red Harvest and B) Hammett himself. He is guilty about something – that turns out to be selling his daughter to answer a debt. And like all good hardboiled detectives, he becomes so bloody-minded about the job that very little else matters, even though the job seems to him so impersonal.

Of course it isn’t. Here are where the spoilers really start. Elizabeth, whom he is trying to rescue from Comstock, is actually his daughter, Anna, sold not very long before. In his regretful attempts to get her back he was found by the scientists who facilitated taking her in the first place – it got so bad in Columbia they need him to bull his way through the city and take her away before Comstock destroys the world. But being ripped from one reality to another messes with his head and so, like Red Harvest’s character, Booker doesn’t know which end is up. He’s in Poisonville, and he doesn’t care.

I guess a lot of people are upset that Columbia isn’t as fully-realized as they wanted? I’ve read defenses that point out it’s a stage – obviously so, as the game consciously breaks into video game stages – and people saying it’s a disappointment after Rapture. So, first, I think Columbia was better executed than Rapture, but that’s just a personal opinion. What’s true is that there’s no way this game could work if it focused on the place. Booker doesn’t care about where he is, only what he has to do. Ever wonder about those little reminders in Bioshock games – the ones where the protagonist holds out his hand and it transforms, illustrating in some kind of grotesquerie which vigor you have equipped? Both the protagonists I’m familiar with (I didn’t play Bioshock 2) don’t care about what it takes. They will make themselves different, ruin themselves, just to get the job done. If the job changes along the way that’s another thing, but whatever goal it is they have, they stick to it and destroy anything in their way.

Booker drinks the vigors, takes the guns, shoots anyone in his way, and doesn’t care. Why would care about Columbia the city? In fact, the game makes this obvious: several times over the course of the story he talks about how it’s the same story in a new place. People are people. Fink wants to hire Booker to break strikes. Comstock is just another religious nut. The rich are rich, the poor are poor, the revolutionaries are so hungry for freedom that they’ll do anything once they have it, just because they can. Fitzroy wants revenge, Comstock wants to be a Biblical patriarch, and Booker just wants to get his job done.

Of course, it turns out that job is rescuing his daughter from himself. Comstock is him from the Columbia alternate-universe. There was a moment in Booker’s past when he went to a baptism to be saved and rejected it. Comstock didn’t, and Comstock, in fact, was his newly-chosen baptism name. He worries at his bitterness just like Booker, but with religion it finds an outlet, whereas Booker becomes a lonely, obsessive man who’ll take on someone’s goal for money. In fact, the goal is all that’s different – “lonely, obsessive man” who’ll do anything is Comstock, he just has a mission.

So what about hardboiled fiction? Why bother with that at all? Well, for one, it reconciles me to one of the saddest, most touching endings I’ve come across in a game. Booker will do whatever it takes, even kill himself, in order to rescue Elizabeth. She chooses never existing over having been a prisoner, being tortured, and possibly ruining the world. Booker will make that happen, and he does. Even the horrible-future-Elizabeth, who is bitter herself and unleashes the apocalyptic attacks her father wanted, still has faith that Booker is coming – she just has to re-route him into her timeline rather than the original.

Except, of course, “original” doesn’t mean much. The “Infinite” of Bioshock: Infinite has to do with infinite possibility, both in gameplay – infinite variety in limited options – and story – infinite universe SF. For anyone else the worries and concerns would be too much. Elizabeth frequently worries about going from universe to universe through the tears she opens. But Booker never hesitates. That’s what they have to do, so they do it. Like drinking a vigor without knowing what the hell they are, or jumping from universe to universe, he dies. Because that’s what he takes. I’ve seen claims that the game is about fatherhood, and that is, of course, absolutely right. But it is also about a particularly American kind of literary character, one who is deeply flawed by definition, apparently unredeemable, who is, in fact, the best of us all: Sam Spade, Marlowe, and Booker DeWitt.

A lot of the characters who live in Columbia talk about how they were sinners and were saved because no sin is too much for the Lord – or the Prophet, Comstock – to handle. The ability to sin shows the ability to take action. But through a dark world of sinning the hardboiled detective forces his (or her) way, not sinning because not agreeing to the standards of those around them. They have something good they want to do, and they do what it takes. It is not quite that the ends justify the means, because for them the ends and means are indistinguishable. There is only the vaulting forward.

I realized writing that last paragraph that they are America’s Byronic hero. Damn.

I do think maybe the game offers hope for the characters, though maybe it’s a trick on the player? After the credits Booker wakes up in his office and hears the music that played over Anna’s crib. He calls out to her and opens the door. I didn’t notice anything behind it – but in a world with infinite possibilities, is it not possible that he forced his way into one where he never had the urge to be baptized? And then might Elizabeth, or at least Anna his baby daughter, not have found her way there as well? I probably need to watch that a couple more times, as well as the entire ending maybe who knows? But that’s what I wondered about as I sat like a statue after the game ended, contemplating it and, yes, crying. For Booker and Elizabeth. So if you want a review, there it is, I suppose. I cried. The game was beautiful on every level, even when it was grotesque. And I’ll probably talk about that some other time.

2 thoughts on “Bioshock Infinite and the Hardboiled Tradition

  1. Pingback: On those who make sense of the world | Wondrous Windows

  2. Pingback: Half Life 2, manshooters, and setting/UI interaction | Wondrous Windows

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