Ryan Lizardi

Ryan Lizardi is an assistant professor of digital media design and humanities at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Lizardi holds the following degrees: Ph.D. in Mass Communications, M.A. in Media Studies and B.A. in Film and Video from Pennsylvania State University.
Contact information:
Ryan.Lizardi at sunyit.edu

Bioshock: Complex and Alternate Histories

by Ryan Lizardi


Irrational Games’ Bioshock series, represents an important example of videogames that are made within the current mainstream industry that stand above many other games in terms of their potentials to be thought-provoking and complicated texts. The Bioshock series does not contain universally progressive ideological elements, nor is it universally acclaimed by critics, but through a combination of complex narrative content and quality gameplay the series stands out as a potentially important site for scholarly exploration. Because of the complexity and ever-changing nature of these games - dynamics that are continually reinforced through ludic gameplay elements - the Bioshock series embodies the future of game studies as a complex field of exploration that recognizes the importance of all its interactive elements. Specifically, this article argues that the Bioshock series encourages complex historical interpretations as opposed to simplistic accepted histories, and that it does so despite the games' fantastical literal content. Other scholars could also explore the series to address gender power dynamics, which on the surface do not appear to be completely progressive but the games do contain a number of strong female characters who are more powerful than their male counterparts. Another option would be to study the series from the perspective of political collectivism versus objectivism, which were important issues explicitly explored in the first two games. Because of the complexity and polysemic nature of this game series, dynamics which are continually reinforced through ludic gameplay elements, this article will first address how to approach this type of game series, will next engage the series’ potential for complex history, and then, in the end, argue for more game studies research on the alternate historical text for its progressive potential.

Keywords: historical games, alternate histories, Bioshock, counterfactual, quantum physics

Irrational Games’ Bioshock series (2007-present), under Take-Two Interactive’s 2K label, represents an important example of videogames that are made within the current mainstream industry and yet surpass most other games in terms of their potential as thought-provoking and complicated texts. Although the Bioshock series neither contains universally progressive ideological elements, nor is universally acclaimed by critics, it stands out as an important site for scholarly exploration by virtue of its combination of complex narrative content and quality of gameplay. Departing from this mixture of complexity and quality this article argues that the Bioshock series represents an encouragement of complex historical interpretations as opposed to simplistic accepted histories, and that it does so despite the games’ fantastical literal content. Other scholars could also explore the series to address gender power dynamics, which on the surface do not appear to be completely progressive but the games do contain a number of strong female characters who are more powerful than their male counterparts. Another option would be to study the series from the perspective of political collectivism versus objectivism, which were important issues explicitly explored in the first two games. Because of the complexity and polysemic nature of this game series, dynamics which are continually reinforced through ludic gameplay elements, this article will first address how to approach this type of game series, will next engage the series’ potential for complex history, and then, in the end, argue for more game studies research on the alternate historical text for its progressive potential.

Methodology and Series Introduction

With a sprawling series like Bioshock, one that spans three full games, multiple DLC (downloadable content) chapters that go beyond new multiplayer maps, and even an interactive web-game designed to prime players for Bioshock: Infinite (2013), any form of textual analysis can become unwieldy.

Nonetheless, I played each game twice through to conclusion, the second time focusing in on the alternative or counterfactual historical elements that I noted as significant in the first playthrough. I also extensively played the Bioshock 2 multiplayer portion as well as the internet-based ancillary game that served as a puzzle-game prequel to Bioshock: Infinite, entitled Industrial Revolution. Finally, I played through all of the DLC for Infinite, as the new “chapters” contained significant information for the concept of the alternate historical text.

An alternate, or counterfactual, historical account seems more in league with pop culture musings like comic book “what if?” scenarios where a position is posed that is not officially “what happened,” and as such there is a “profound suspicion of counterfactualism” amongst historians (Ferguson 1999, p.20). For Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to Virtual History, the goal would be to only consider “alternatives which we can show on the basis of contemporary evidence that contemporaries actually considered [emphasis original]” (1999, p.86). This ideal is probably too stringent for a series about underwater and floating cities, as no one had the actual means to consider these as viable alternatives during the eras in question. However, taking the spirit of what Ferguson is arguing, this analysis of the Bioshock series can look to elements of the counterfactual historical narrative that retain direct connections to ideologies and events during the time periods covered. Determining that the alternative histories present in the Bioshock series live up to this ideal is important if these games are to be posited as encouraging a contemplative historical mindset. If a critique of objectivism in the first Bioshock retains analogs to the real-life capitalistic pursuits of the 1950s or if an embellishment of American exceptionalism in Bioshock: Infinite is tied to real turn of the century notions of national identity, then these seem in line with the value Ferguson sees in the counterfactual.

Given the preponderance of scholarly discourse about the videogame studies issue of ludological and narratological research perspectives, a brief note about the stance of this article is warranted. The impetus for the distinction between the two formalisms, as Ian Bogost so describes them in his excoriating blog post “Video Games are a Mess” (2009), is the fear of an unproblematic use of "aesthetic linkages to prior media forms" such as in film (Apperley, 2006, p.7). An exaggerated conflict was described as a "‘war’ between ludology and narratology" (Nielsen, Smith, & Tosca, 2008, p.195). Gonzalo Frasca, and other scholars of the time such as Bogost, state that there was never an actual war to be had, and that scholars were often wrongly accused of only looking at one or the other (2003). Regardless of the scale of conflict, the differences between ludological and narratological formalism - one that deals with the rules of games and the other its narratives - are important to note only insofar as they point towards necessary dual concerns of the contemporary video game scholar. Even Jesper Juul, the self-proclaimed ludologist, notes in his canonical book Half-Real that "video games are rules and fiction" and that video game scholars today would do right to adhere to this balanced approach (2005, p.12). The complexity of games today belies this methodological approach.

Arguing that the Bioshock series is incredibly complex, it is important to briefly elucidate the key themes, characters and plotlines present in each game to avoid confusion later. Bioshock (2K Boston, 2007) takes place in an alternate 1960 in which objectivist and businessman Andrew Ryan has built an underwater city named Rapture to avoid mainstream society and what he perceives to be its oppression of society’s elite. His planned utopia devolves into civil war between factions run by Ryan and a man named Frank Fontaine as they quarrel over politics and access to ADAM, which is a DNA-altering sea slug that causes users to develop superhuman powers such as telekinesis and the ability to shoot fireballs from one’s hands. Gamers take control of Jack, a plane crash survivor who is lured into the underwater city by a mysterious man named Atlas who claims to want to take down Ryan. Once inside Rapture, Jack encounters multitudes of enraged/deranged Rapture citizens as well as the “Little Sisters” who are orphan girls that have had the ADAM sea slugs implanted in them by a woman named Dr. Brigid Tenenbaum. Jack also must deal with the massively powerful “Big Daddies” who are humans grafted into diver suits and charged with protecting the Little Sisters at all costs. Atlas turns out to be Fontaine, Jack turns out to be Ryan’s son and the choices of how gamers treat the Little Sisters have broad repercussions as the game reaches its climatic battle.

Bioshock 2 (2K Marin, 2010) takes place eight years after the events of the first game in the same city of Rapture, which has now devolved further into disrepair and conflict. Only this time players control an early version of a Big Daddy - named Subject Delta because he was the fourth - and the primary conflict is between a group called “The Rapture Family” under the control of collectivist Sophia Lamb and Dr. Tenenbaum from the first game. Subject Delta attempts to reconnect with his paired Little Sister named Eleanor - who is actually Lamb’s daughter - but faces resistance from the Rapture Family and the newly created Big Sisters, which are more powerful female versions of the diver-suited adversaries from the first game. On the surface this sequel appears less complex, but dealing with issues of the self versus the collective, altruism versus domination and what it means to be human it proves deeper than initially perceived. Again the decisions of the player greatly impact how the last portions of the game play out, as harvesting the Little Sisters along the way leads to Eleanor becoming an all-powerful tyrant with plans for world domination and rescuing the Little Sisters leads to a utopic, optimistic ending.

In Bioshock: Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013), the narrative took its biggest leap forward by changing both the narrative setting as well as key gameplay elements that players had grown accustomed to. Instead of Rapture, the plot takes place in the sky city of Columbia - named for Uncle Sam’s female predecessor (Franke-Ruta, 2013) - where gamers control Booker Dewitt on his quest to find a woman named Elizabeth and get her away from Zachary Comstock, the creator and leader of Columbia. Engaging complex plotlines as diverse as American exceptionalism, religious zealotry, fervent racism, labor movements/revolutions and a healthy dose of quantum physics, this Bioshock iteration is by far the most complex to date. Gameplay has also been altered, as Booker is accompanied by Elizabeth for most of the game, providing item collection support but not requiring any annoying assistance in battles. Also changed is that decisions made throughout the game are given the appearance of significance despite the eventual reveal of their inconsequential nature. The more complex details of Bioshock: Infinite’s plot and gameplay devices will be discussed at more length where appropriate, as what players do and do not know are crucial to this article’s arguments and would be misplaced here. Instead, it is vital to parlay this narrative complexity and the concentration on gameplay consequences into this series’ consistent and deep encouragement of players to rethink accepted historical discourses.

Complex Narratives and Complex Histories

The Bioshock series contains nuanced, critical and discussion-provoking historical representations, despite being a completely fantastical alternate historical construction. Much has been written about historical representations in video games, and as such it will be impossible to describe the breadth of this research in great detail. Instead, a brief look at scholarly discussions of the alternate, or counterfactual, historical text will help best inform the argument being made here. Neill Ferguson, quoting Tolstoy, appropriately notes that alternate histories serve their function as illustrative because historical writings can never demonstrate “’absolute inevitability” as doing so implies “’knowledge of an infinite number of spatial conditions; an infinitely long period of time and an infinite chain of causation’ [emphasis original]” (1999, p.37). The video game is not traditionally seen as a rich site for the kind of contemplation inducing alternative histories that resist historical determinism, but scholars have recently highlighted the features of this medium that make it uniquely capable of creating sites of historical meaning. Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Justin Parsler, in working through the trends inherent in the historical video game, describe the “linearity with which early games used history as a tool rather than an actual event, rapidly became unsuitable as games became more complex” (2007, p.204). Once games became more sophisticated in their use of history, MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler noted “counterfactualism in history games” as a trend that grew, though they saw this dynamic “often used as a ‘get out clause’ (in case the history is either wrong or controversial)” (2007, p.205). MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler discuss notable examples of what they call “altered history,” and describe gamer consternation when there is a “lack of counterfactual agency” in these games (2007, p.207). Not being able to actually engage in the historical choices that diverge from the accepted narrative is “seen as problematic” by those playing games like Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994) (2007, p.207). Where Bioshock retains that counterfactual agency is through choices that contribute directly to how the alternate version of historical events in these games concludes.

As complexity developed, it led scholars like William Uricchio to recognize in Handbook of Computer Game Studies that “digital technologies have found a ready market among historians, facilitating a quiet transformation in the writing and conception of history” (2005, p.332). Games now had the chance to contribute to conceptions of the past, especially those that pushed the boundaries of the accepted historical narrative. Adding to the discourse surrounding the “virtual history” termed by Niall Ferguson, Uricchio posits that video games with historical representations “permit a radical reframing of familiar events” and are “capable of calling into question beginnings, endings, and everything in between” (2005, p.335). Uricchio does not see this potential in all video game historical representations, as he sees many “sites of stubborn adherence to the historiographic status quo” cultivated through their abundance of detail and “unalterable starting points” (2005, p.336). Where the Bioshock series leans towards Uriccho’s “radical reframing” is in its unabashed avoidance of historically familiar starting points--such as under the sea where no grade school textbook begins. Lars Schmeink, in discussing this setting of the original Bioshock, notes that the “[a]lternate history is generally seen as a subgenre of science fiction (SF), which allows a discussion of a divergence from our reality in terms of historical development” (2009, p.4). Schmeink goes on to note the rich background of research that explores how alternative histories ask their consumers to compare and contrast contemporary real-life scenarios with those depicted fantastically, much as is the case with the Bioshock series. Andy Duncan highlights the moment of change in these texts and the consequences of diverging from the historical record (2003, p.209), while Paul Alkon describes alternate histories as being “more or less explicitly intended as portraits of possible futures” (1987, p.129). Schmeink then connects these positions to Karen Hellekson’s notion that an alternate history, of the type that the Bioshock series consistently creates, forces those who consume these texts to “rethink their world and how it has become what it is” (2000, p.254). Hellekson goes on to describe how the consumption of an alternate history highlights the difference in the present state of things, and posits that readers, or players in the case of Bioshock, live in “a universe in which we are capable of acting and in which our actions have significance” (2000, p.255). It is important to extend Schmeink’s groundbreaking work in the exploration of the significance of Bioshock’s alternate history to both the series as a whole, as well as to the cultural implications of this approach to the historical videogame.

Looking, for a moment, outside of video game scholarship, historical theorist Robert Rosenstone provides a helpful framework to explore any text that would attempt to "render the world as multiple, complex, and indeterminate" (1995, p.37). Though not all video games with historical representations adhere to this maxim, such as a Call of Duty game that might prefer a monolithic interpretation of history, the Bioshock series presents a complication of the traditionally accepted view of the 1950s and 60s in America. Theorists who explore media representations of the 1950s, especially Stephanie Coontz’s tour-de-force book The Way We Never Were (1992), describe texts of this era as being most often too optimistic and idealistic about the purportedly wholesome decade. Instead of a normalized and suburbanized version of this era, Bioshock players are presented with an underwater dystopia where the ideologies of two desperate men - objectivist Andrew Ryan and nihilist Frank Fontaine - are counterposed as an examination of this era’s accepted ideologies. Multiple scholars have noted a similar occurrence of this characteristic in the series Fallout (1997 - present), which can be seen as a logical contemporary to the Bioshock series. Joseph A. November, in dealing with how alternate timelines are constructed, notes that in Fallout “society seems to have never moved past our 1950s” (2013, p.299). This stagnation leads to a “paradoxical world in which the future is very much mired in our past” (2013, p.300). Fallout players are left to contemplate how this alternate timeline occurred, and are “given many opportunities to explore the dimensions and consequences of the still very real tension between American liberal, democratic ideals and Americans’ aspirations” (2013, p.309). Much like this argument presented here with the Bioshock series, Fallout is seen to provide a “world of radical potentiality in which history can be constantly refigured, reshaped, and replayed” (Cutterham, 2013, p.318).

Rosenstone provides a theoretical framework for thinking about the difference between complex and simplified histories by suggesting a medium-specific approach to texts that engage the historical. The written history, for Rosenstone, is uniquely capable of detailed and multi-causal accounts, while a film contains different potentials when it comes to encouraging historical engagement, such as an affective, or emotional, "information load" that "fulfills the need for that larger History, that web of connections to the past that holds a culture together" (1995, p.23). Historical accuracy is less important for Rosenstone than a complex approach to historical discourse in films and, as such, he posits that the visual account cannot be held to the same standards as the written work. Although Rosenstone does not deal with videogames, we can apply this same medium-specific approach to understand how an interactive medium can hold players historically accountable for their choices when playing a game, especially in the case of the Bioshock series where much depends on the actions of the players. Adam Chapman argues fluently about this very issue as he encourages “approaching historical videogames on their own terms, and by using a method that privileges transferable understandings of form over fixed analysis of individual historical content” (2012). Chapman describes the intertextual dynamic for players of serious historical video games such as Civilization, as they “not only engage with a historical videogame but also the larger historical discourse to which it relates” (2013, p.316). Because of their agentive role in “playing” through history, the videogame appears as a medium that can ask players to question the choices made by historical actors and, because it is in a fantastical alternate history, Bioshock can provide potentials “to revision, even reinvent History" (Rosenstone 1995, p.12). In later works, Rosenstone expands on the notion of the oppositional historical text by describing its ability to create a “counter discourse on the past” and help “return us to a kind of ground zero, a sense that we can never really know the past” (2006, p.164).


Taking into consideration the ideals of the counterfactual or alternative historical text, each game in this series needs to be explored for whether or not they live up to Rosenstone’s tenet of "history as experiment" (Rosenstone, 1995, p. 50). An experiment not in questioning the specificities of these particular alternate historical events, but in encouraging the value of critical historical reflection reinforced by ludic praxis. Bioshock's narrative renders the world multiple in terms of its historical representation of a 1950s that was inhospitable to those without the prevailing ideologies, asking the question early on: "In what country is there a place for people like me?" While the idea of an underwater objectivist “utopia” would probably not fall under Ferguson’s “plausible” historical alternatives that were actually considered (1999, p. 87), it does work to strengthen his idea that the past was once a present’s future and when that was the case it “did not have a predetermined end” (1999, p. 68). When this fact is brought to light for players, a contemplative approach to history is encouraged. Players are also given the ludic gameplay option to follow Ryan's self-interest thinking or not through the decision to "harvest" the Little Sister characters or save them. Grant Tavinor calls this an "emotionally provocative moral choice" that plays out across the entire game (2009, p.92), which fits within Bioshock's overall reliance on consequences through "very concrete experiences" (Sicart, 2009, p.156).

Far from a passive story that unfolds in front of a player's eyes, Bioshock allows players to decide how these alternative historical events should develop. Gonzalo Frasca, in discussing possibilities of “serious” computer games, describes the tendency of video game actions to be “reversible” and by utilizing the right save points it is “always possible to go back and play until you reach a happy ending” (2000, p.175). In Bioshock, similar to series like Mass Effect (2007 - present), players are given choices but not told immediately whether they were the “right” ones to make, which limits the amount of reversal at a player’s disposal. Bioshock presents itself as validating counterfactual, anti-historical determinism with these ludic choices because when players are exercising their “free will” they are not privy to the “infinite chain of causation” (Ferguson 1999, p. 37). At game’s end, players are punished or rewarded for hurting or helping the Little Sisters and, most significant for complex historical discourse, players are encouraged to complete the game multiple times with different choices made each time. Ludic choices in this game then encourage a “world of radical potentiality in which history can be constantly refigured, reshaped, and replayed” (Cutterham, 2013, p.318). When players choose to hurt the Little Sisters they are given an ending that highlights dominance and "brutality" that is often levied against those of lower stature in society. By saving the Little Sisters players are given an ending where those who have been dominated now have a "chance to learn, to find love" and "to live." Because the narrative happens in an alternate historical past, and with each ending having a different influence on the alternate future, Bioshock highlights a comparative and adaptive engagement with history akin to Rosenstone's criteria of an historical representation that shows "why history should be meaningful to people in the present" (1995, p.63). The true importance of this comparative narrative lies in gameplay that involves players on an agentive, interactive level with the questioning and destabilization of accepted historical events. There is no “lack of counterfactual agency” here that plagued early alternate historical video games (MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler 2007, p.207).

Bioshock 2

Historical nuance continues in Bioshock 2 with the destabilization of the accepted past through the questioning of any form of extremist politics, regardless of which "side" one is on. Set eight years after the events of the first Bioshock - putting the time period in the late 1960s - connections can be drawn between the politics of Bioshock 2’s alternate historical timeline and issues of community versus the individual that were so prevalent in the McCarthy era and the subsequent hippie/youth movements that followed. This is certainly a generalization of the era in question, and the historical connections in Bioshock 2 are the most implicit in the series, but this game deals with questions of collectivism versus the will of the individual with direct connections to ideologies and events during this time period. As such, even the most implicitly historical game in this series adheres to the modified Ferguson “plausible” counterfactual history ideal. Playing as a Big Daddy and searching for your long lost pair-bonded Little Sister, Eleanor, gamers must grapple with whether or not there is any humanity left in your controlled protagonist - named Delta Four - manifested, again, in the choice of whether or not to help or hurt the Little Sisters. Dr. Sophia Lamb preaches socialism and the morality of the collective over the individual, which she reinforces with a healthy dose of Christian iconography used to indoctrinate the members of the Rapture Family. As this sequel is an extension of the first game’s storylines and characters, there are direct contrasts between the extreme politics of Andrew Ryan’s objectivism and the extreme religion/politics of Lamb’s collectivism. Bioshock 2 specifically asks players to question all sides of debates when extreme stances are taken, and asks players to weigh their decisions in an alternate and complex history. Bioshock 2 is also the only game in the series to date that contained a multiplayer option, which in games often represents the least narratively challenging moments, but which in this game is used as a place to hammer home a connection to the first game’s politically extreme spectrum. Players take sides as Ryan factions battle Atlas/Fontaine factions and sling terms like “parasites” and “fascists” at each other, respectively.

One particular sequence of events in Bioshock 2, when Subject Delta finally reaches a grown up Eleanor, exemplifies the dynamics of choice and extremism from both a ludological and narrative perspective. Players learn that Eleanor has longed for the reconnection with her father figure, and has exercised extreme individuality to achieve this goal, which is problematic for the collectivist Lamb. As these narrative elements unfold, surrounded by a vicious battle with a pair of Big Sisters, players begin to learn that their choices and actions will not only influence their own fate as Delta Four, but also the future of Eleanor and the whole world. As players of Bioshock 2 experience this counterfactual history coupled with agentive choices, demonstrated in multiple ending sequences, they are exposed to what Ferguson calls the “garden of forking paths” - channeling a short story by Borges (1999, p. 70). A cut-scene depicts choices made so far -two Rapture citizens that players either killed or spared are shown as well as the choice of harvesting or helping a Little Sister - and these ludic selections carry through to the end of the game where Eleanor either becomes a world dominating monster or a savior of sorts. Moments like this distinguish Bioshock 2’s level of ludic/narrative complexity from many other mainstream first-person shooters.

Bioshock: Infinite

Just because Bioshock: Infinite takes place in a different place, the sky city of Columbia, in a different time, primarily set in 1912, and revealed throughout the game to be a different parallel universe does not mean that the questioned nature of complex histories is missing. In fact, Infinite takes on even more aspects of the United State’s checkered past than either of its predecessors, and that is saying something considering what was called into question in those games. Infinite deals with American exceptionalism and violence/oppression towards those who would oppose, such as in its depiction of an alternate version of the Battle of Wounded Knee, a view of the Pinkertons as a force of unadulterated violence, overt racism and eugenics of the time period, and labor movements that more than implicitly pull in issues of the oppressed ethnic worker. Bioshock series creator Ken Levine discusses how United States history is a “much broader story than what’s shown in Columbia” and, channeling Rosenstone, feels its not a game’s responsibility to present the universal accuracy but to present prevalent issues of the day such as “charismatic religious movements” and “growing nationalism” (Lahti, 2013). Despite Levine’s caveat of inaccuracy, it is easy to place Infinite’s counterfactual history within our modified version of Ferguson’s “plausible” ideal, as it connects deeply with possible interpretations of historical events. For Infinite, Levine describes being inspired by a PBS documentary entitled America 1900 (Grubin, 1998) and “tried to form a complete social perspective on the period in which the game takes place” (Frum, 2011). Even accepted and beloved icons of US history are called into question because of their complex backgrounds, such as the game’s transformation of the images of Washington and Lincoln into violent religious icons. Engaging with such beloved American figures presents a “radical reframing of familiar events...capable of calling into question” much of what is historically held dear (Uricchio 2005, p.335).

At approximately the halfway point of the game, players encounter a sequence of events that coalesces many of these features of the complex historical text. Our protagonist, Booker, must begin to help the leader of the revolting Vox Populi, Daisy Fitzroy, to secure his and Elizabeth’s escape transportation from the city of Columbia. Not only do players begin to contribute to the symbolic fight between the hyper-capitalist, Comstock, and the collective-minded revolutionaries, but they also begin to receive hints about the ludological structure of jumping between alternate dimensions/realities. Players must begin to pick up items in one reality to bring them into another, and are introduced to the concept of individuals who are dead in one reality but alive in another, which creates a “superposition” where characters are rendered incapacitated by recalling being both dead and alive simultaneously. Even Booker experiences a mild form of this superposition in this Vox Populi sequence, when he is informed that he died as a martyr in an alternate reality. This may seem like a strictly narrative element, as there is no player agency in the dimension jumping or superpositions - these elements function more to funnel players through the story. However, after being introduced to these metaphysical concepts, players are given gameplay choices of which items to bring into their current dimension to help them during battles. The connections between the ludic function of dimension opening and the matching complex narrative continues throughout the rest of Infinite and even works against player expectations later in the game, as Infinite concludes with the notion of infinite versions of the self that split when making decisions - a key feature of Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics (1957). Players are directly confronted with the notion that historical choices matter greatly, as they have the capacity to create new universes through their item manipulation choices. When coupling this ludic structure that emphasizes small differences that have big historical influence and the narrative complex content that addresses labor relations, players are left with a contemplative game that encourages a comparison of real life events and what might have been - a key feature of the alternate historical text.

Even the music of this series has been noted as providing players with moments of reflection and the ironic juxtaposition of optimism and dystopia (Gibbons, 2011). Despite its alternate historical presentation, William Gibbons describes the music of the first Bioshock as deriving from before 1960 in our real world timeline, with the most recent song being Bobby Darin’s version of “Beyond the Sea” from 1959 (2011, par.5). Conceivably, even in this alternate version of historical events where Rapture exists literally under the sea, there could have been a crossover of musical content and these songs could have retained their original origins. Where Bioshock: Infinite extends this critical distancing is through the incorporation of songs that could not exist in the game’s time period. Songs like The Beach Boys “God Only Knows” from 1966 exist in a narrative that is set in an alternate 1912. Booker and Elizabeth also encounter an instrumental version of the 1983 song “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper. These songs further validate Gibbons’ position that Bioshock uses popular music to “comment in a meaningful way on the narrative events” (2011, par.10), and their chronologically incongruous inclusion serves to strengthen this commentary.

The one issue that must be addressed when claiming many of these laudatory statements about the complexity of Bioshock: Infinite as a provocative alternative history is the way the narrative ends. Gamers who had experienced Infinite’s first two-thirds would likely assume that threads of American exceptionalism and workers revolting over unfair labor conditions would continue throughout the game, leading to some sort of conclusion. However, Infinite jettisons many of these issues near its end in lieu of metaphysical and quantum physics complications. The game reveals that Elizabeth is actually Booker’s daughter, stolen from him and taken into a parallel universe by that reality’s version of himself, who turns out to be the very Zachary Comstock that Booker has been fighting the whole time. Booker discovers, in an extended denouement sequence, that there are infinite versions of him and Elizabeth with some constants and some variables. Finally, the connection is made to other father-daughter relationships in the first two Bioshock games, as they are presented as just another variation on Infinite’s storyline. These connections were made even more concrete in the DLC chapters, “Burial at Sea,” which explored a Rapture version of Booker and Elizabeth with a final circular connection made between the end of Infinite and the beginning of the first Bioshock. Significant from a ludological standpoint is that the decisions one made while playing Infinite, such as whether to kill or spare lives that were so important in the first two games, were revealed to be inconsequential to how the game finished, which is an obvious manipulation of the expectations of those gamers who had played the first two games in the series.

This is not to say that Infinite was required to provide definitive answers to questions of religious zealotry or racism, but it is important to interrogate whether dropping these complex threads entirely blunts the progressive potentials contained in the rest of the game’s complex and counterfactual historical content. The first two Bioshock games bore their issues of collectivism versus the individual all the way to their end credits, whereas Infinite takes a decided turn from general historical critique to the history of individuals. Bioshock: Infinite is far from the only game to change its focus or rules throughout the course of play - with other notable examples flipping players’ expectations such as Red Dead Redemption (Rockstar San Diego, 2010) changing protagonist control in its final sequences after killing off its main character or Halo: Combat Evolved’s (Bungie, 2001) changing adversarial focus to “the flood” - which makes attending to whether these changes force a rethinking of a game’s dynamics an important exercise. For the alternative historical text, it is a question of whether we are more likely or less likely to question our individual or collective histories after consuming said text, and in Infinite’s ending there are key answers. With Infinite, the narrative’s turn to focus on the metaphysical in the end actually serves to solidify a critical gaze on the past by exposing the way our choices have long-lasting influences on potential future events. The turn away from the specific subjects of this alternate historical text ensures a broader and more universally contemplative stance towards the historical. The ludic connection is sound in Infinite as well, despite its departure from the consequence-laden choices of previous iterations. Players were given ludic choices throughout, but in a narrative that ends with the exploration of infinite possibilities countered with historical constants rendering those choices as moot leads to a direct strengthening of a contemplative view of the past, especially considering the previous games set up expectations that the exact opposite would be true. Connecting these threads of player agency, ludic versus narratively driven choices, and the role of an alternate historical account, is the concept of “free will” versus “necessity” that Ferguson engages with Tolstoy to discuss (1999, p. 37). Put more succinctly, taking on a deterministic view of history implies “near infinite knowledge” on the part of the historical actors and the historians telling their determined tales (1999, p. 38). In Bioshock: Infinite, when the dimensions begin to blur concurrent with the expectations of ludic agency being thwarted what emerges is an affirmation of the multi-causal history. Free will as a concept is validated at the very moment it is subverted for the player, precisely because attention is drawn to its absence. Infinite’s narrative is specifically highlighting the counterfactual and indeterminate future of its protagonists, in a game that gives players the least amount of ludic influence on outcomes in the series. When it was revealed to players in the first Bioshock that the phrase “would you kindly?” was a post-hypnotic programmed trigger that was used to control the protagonist’s actions, it was a hint that the series would continue to play with the notion of free will versus control. Infinite reinforced this theme by subverting previously held gameplay rules that choices actually matter. When the consequences of choices are taken away, a broader claim could be made about what this series is saying about history itself and that future historians should avoid determining that our choices were always inevitable. But it is in this absence that the player is encouraged on an individual level to be contemplative about the past. If we truly do not know what we have until it is gone, then the absence of choice points us more directly towards recognition of its importance. When the ludic “forking paths” are taken away from players of Infinite, but the narrative keeps pointing towards their significance, the resulting game experience tells players to value alternate histories, or at the very least a strong consideration of history as multi-causal.


Creator Ken Levine pointedly describes the first game’s controversial, yet ambiguous, ending by describing “[o]bjectivists being infuriated by it, and people more on the left thinking that it was a love letter to Objectivism” (Lahti, 2013). Joseph Packer pointedly argues that “Bioshock represents a counter-narrative to Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged” in both story and gameplay (2010, p.215), but whether ambiguous or straightforward the fact that Bioshock engages these kinds of issues is noteworthy. Levine has stated that he “always believed that gamers were underestimated” and that “the content level of what people think gamers like is actually skewed” (Lahti, 2013). The Bioshock series exemplifies this defense of gamers’ desires for complexity, not eschewing subject matters like quantum physics, labor relations, and religious zealotry.

That this video game series is a site of historical reflection and complexity, despite its counterfactual nature, would be no surprise to the many theorists who have described similar moments of contemplative potential in games like Civilization, Assassin’s Creed (2007), or Fallout (Uricchio, 2005; Chapman, 2012; November, 2013). However, to recognize these moments of historical fissure where players can find themselves encouraged to think and play through history is an important practice that needs to be continued. That the creator and company responsible for the Bioshock series has decided to shut down, leaving any future trips to the cities of Rapture and Columbia in question, far from means a reciprocal shutting down of research on the alternative history video game. We need to keep interrogating these games for the way they encourage ways of looking at our collective and individual histories. “Would you kindly” do so with me?


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