Dramaturgy: BioShock Infinite

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Note: I’m not 100% sure if I’m using the term “dramaturgy” correctly here. I learned it from Chris Braak, who writes cool ones about stuff like Wonder Woman punching tanks and tearing George S. Patton’s guns in half for Threat Quality Press. I am using it here to indicate that I feel the plot of BioShock Infinite is flawed and talk about the ways I, personally, would go about fixing it. Is restructuring/reworking the plot of a video game a dramaturgical undertaking?

ETA: Now I know! Braak: “The word ‘dramaturgery’ is a word that I made up, it’s a portmanteu of ‘dramaturgy’ and ‘surgery,’ and refers specifically to the thing that I do when I rewrite the plot of a movie in order to correct what I perceive are either errors or just places where the idea isn’t very clear in the dramatic structure of the story.”

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Note 2: I would make an absolutely appalling video game critic, for several reasons. Firstly, my brain doesn’t really function effectively at the speed of internet. When I first play something, particularly a game I’ve been eagerly anticipating, my response is basically, “IT GAVE ME ADRENALINE FEELS, IT IS THE GREATEST THING THAT HAS EVER BEEN CREATED BY MAN!!!” Maybe I’m selling myself a little (little) short with that characterization, in hindsight some of my initial post-playthrough responses don’t come off as fangirlish as I was expecting, but the point stands. So that’s why you’re getting thoughts on BioShock Infinite now, because I’m thinking about it now.

Note 3: If you are a delicate reader, please turn back now, because my main thought on the game at this point is…

I really wish BioShock Infinite had been WAY more fucked up.

I mean, it was fucked up, obviously, but in the wrong ways. The fuckedupness of the BioShock Infinite That Is mostly manifested as “WHOA, RACISM, SHOCKING!!” (sickening, but not at all shocking to anyone who pays the tiniest bit of attention to our real, actual world), falsely equivocating the violent response of a brutally oppressed people to the actions of their oppressors (do you REMEMBER how many little girls were abused and killed in OG BioShock? Threaten one little boy, man, and it’s all over), and the weirdness of violently slaughtering your way through a populated city, gleefully maiming and murdering the security force that is trying to prevent you from wreaking mayhem on its citizens. Anyway, other people have written a whole shit-ton of great stuff about that.

Here is what would happen in the BioShock Infinite that I want to play: it would get fucking sick. It would get crazy Oldboy all in my face at the end. And it would be interesting, and fresh, and function as an incredible critique of a lot of video game and general media tropes, WHILE allowing us all to play a fun shoot-nonexistent-prop-people-in-the-face game!

I am still so bothered by the whole “Booker is Comstock” plotline. Guys, frankly, that is bullshit. As Bethany said immediately after playing, “What, so he got religion and turned into a racist?” I mean, obviously it was supposed to make a point about how the power (of bigoted tyrannical awfulness) was in him all along, but seriously? Beard, new face, new voice, same guy? Troy Baker is incredible,  at least let the man do the voice for both characters. Personally, I don’t even buy Booker-is-Comstock as canon, it’s so obviously wrong. This is a story about fathers and daughters, and who is the devoted caretaker figure in Elizabeth’s life? Who is the one who spends time with her, and dotes on her, and literally keeps her imprisoned in a tower to keep her safe from the outside world and the consequences of her own potential actions? Who is the one, like Booker, who is willing to unleash outrageous, over-the-top violence in order to keep Elizabeth “safe”? Who is the one who is, as the game makes a point to reveal, actually patterned after a Big Daddy? A BIG. DADDY. Guys, Booker, or a Booker, is so obviously Songbird. It ties in so neatly with daddy/daughter themes in the previous two BioShock games: the parents who commited suicide when they realize their daughter Masha has been turned into a Little Sister in BioShock; Jack turning himself into a Big Daddy to connect with the Little Sisters in order to defeat Fontaine (and, if he so chooses, save the Little Sisters after they save him); the plotline about Mark Meltzer in BioShock 2, who traveled to Rapture to search for his kidnapped daughter only to become a Big Daddy himself; the entire storyline of Subject Delta, the protagonist of BioShock 2, who can easily be read as Eleanor’s biological father (though the game did not explicitly confirm or deny). It’s just better that way.

Comstock can still be another father figure, but he’s the institutional, governmental father figure, the one who thinks he and all men know what’s best for women and thus believe themselves worthy to enact legislation to limit our rights and choices. The real story here is between two dads fighting over a daughter without taking her into account as a being with agency, and the inevitable tragedy that results.

Let’s start with Booker encountering Elizabeth. Here’s a nineteen-year-old woman who has been locked in a tower with a lot of books for her entire life. You know what would be first on my agenda upon getting sprung from the clink, in that situation? GETTING SOME ASS. And the first person she meets is a hot guy with Troy Baker’s voice. Come the fuck on now. I think BioShock Infinite absolutely should have followed the trope of jaded-man-is-thrown-into-contact-with-nubile-idealistic-young-girl, they-bond-through-trying-circumstances, man-is-softened-and-bettered-by-his-interactions-with-girl, girl-experiences-new-feelings-of-sexual-awakening-because-of-man, and then, after she sings that sweet little song in the tavern, he just can’t help himself anymore and gently touches her face, and then kisses her, and then they DO IT. The entire POW factor of the reveal that Elizabeth is “your” daughter in the game as-is rests on the assumption that players would view Elizabeth as a sex object (that bustier, man) and then feel grossed out with themselves when they realized that, due to the nature of her connection with the male protagonist, she is actually something more. That impact would be multiplied x1000 if the game had actually followed through with romantic interaction between Booker and Elizabeth. No narrow moral escapes for the player; just serving up exactly what we expect, and then exploding it horribly in our faces. And THEN…

That provides motivation for Booker-Songbird’s entire arc! Why is Songbird so desperate to protect Elizabeth? If Songbird is a Booker who “failed” a previous attempt, by boning Elizabeth, don’t you think he’d be desperate to do anything to rectify that choice? It’s just such a Dad Thing to want to protect your daughter from negative sexual experiences, particularly if that sexual experience is incest and involves yourself. But Booker-Songbird’s solution is tragic and ineffective. Instead of trusting Elizabeth to make her own decisions (presumably deciding, in the worst mistaken heavy-handed Dad way, that allowing her some freedom and agency is what got them into this situation in the first place), he dedicates himself to keeping her isolated and pure, out of reach of all men, which is precisely what sets the stage for her to get it on with Booker when he turns up (again) and manages to “rescue” her.

It’s a repeating cycle of two men—actually the same man at different points of his life—royally fucking everything up by imagining and then ACTING on the notion that they know what is best for Elizabeth, based entirely on the lens through which they view her in relation to themselves. What she wants is to go to Paris, and if they would both just get out of her damn way and let her choose her own path, the entire tragedy could be avoided. But can they bring themselves to consider her desires, to believe that she has valuable ideas of her own? Well…the Luteces’ count doesn’t look particularly encouraging.

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My fix for BioShock Infinite: lose the racism as window dressing, EMBRACE the daddy issues, toss in some fucked up sexual content along with the plethora of violence, throw it all in our faces and watch us squirm at the things it says about us as a culture, as individuals, and as “gamers.” Wouldn’t that be a game worth playing?

4 thoughts on “Dramaturgy: BioShock Infinite”

  1. Yes. Yes it would. Luckily, we A) have fanfiction and B) quantum timeline shizzle, which means that what we played was just ONE story. In a world of, literally, infinite possibility, I’m pretty sure what you described happened somewhere. Write a fic about it, I’ll totally read it with glee.

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