Bioshock Infinite and Foreshadowing

BioShock Infinite takes place on the steampunk...
BioShock Infinite takes place on the steampunk air-city of Columbia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bioshock Infinite recently came out to a whole slew of accolades– and not just about the gameplay. The characters were remarkable, the story was layered and intricate, and the ending… well, I’m going to talk about the ending, and how it uses really great foreshadowing to present that ending to us.

I’ll avoid saying anything about the ending directly, but since this is about foreshadowing, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to put it together from the pieces. Spoilers abound.

If you haven’t played this game, I recommend you stop what you’re doing and play it. If you aren’t a gamer, play it anyway. Trust me, it’s that good. I’m only a casual gamer at best, and I beat it in three days. 

Boxy, my husband, finished the game before I started it (he’s the more hardcore gamer, and he can usually beat a game in half the time it would take me, if not less)– and he refused to talk to me about anything that hadn’t happened yet in my playthrough. He did ask me for theories, though, and the first one I shot at him turned out to be the last words spoken in the game. Being the guy he is, he played coy and made me believe that was a ridiculous theory: “Where on earth did you come up with that idea?”

The answer: foreshadowing. Very clever, careful foreshadowing– the kind that makes the truth crop up in the back of your mind, and just as quickly you stamp it down for being silly. And as writers, we can learn a TON from this.

I’m not talking about the multiple instances throughout the game when characters are being deliberately enigmatic– any scene featuring the Lutece twins, for example– because those aren’t what I’d call foreshadowing. Those are the writers rubbing your nose in the fact that you don’t know something. They’re big red flags that something’s up, and there’s something big that you don’t know. Don’t mistake this for bad writing: in this case especially, it’s important to let us know, so that we stop tuning out those little theories we had and start paying closer attention.

The Quote

The game begins with a quote by Rosalind Lutece, from her book Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel, in 1889: “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…”

Immediately the mind will gloss over this– “Is it a real book? I dunno, sounds pretty obscure to me.” We don’t hear that Rosalind is a character until much later in the game, at which point we’ve already forgotten the quote.  But already the quote has told us an incredible amount:

1) At least one major character is dealing with false memories.

2) Trans-dimensional travel is going to be covered somewhere in this story.

3) The book predates the events of the game by more than twenty years. (Only really memorable because we see the setting labeled literally seconds later).

Elizabeth stares at an unfamiliar sight after ...
Elizabeth stares at an unfamiliar sight after she and DeWitt are pulled through a tear: a theater marquee announcing the showing of Revenge of the Jedi. The area of this setting came from art assets that Irrational had developed for another scrapped project. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Return of the Jedi

This was a carefully crafted game, and every aspect of it (especially the cutscenes) was crafted with deliberate precision. So it’s no coincidence that our first glimpse of Elizabeth using her power reveals Paris during the opening of Return of the Jedi. With that one detail, we know instantly that she can open up doorways not only in space, but in time. At this point, anyone and anything can be from anywhen.

Wounded Knee

Right at the beginning, we’re told that both Booker and Comstock fought at Wounded Knee. Later on, we’re shown the three “heroes” of the battle: Booker, Comstock, and Slate. I’m not even going to touch on the whole question of who was there and who wasn’t, or the issue of the box Booker is given at the beginning. The thing that got me was how dramatically different they looked. Slate and Comstock both looked old– fifty, maybe sixty, depending on their portrayals and the few brief glimpses we got between shooting at them. Booker, on the other hand, looks significantly younger. We get even fewer glimpses of our protagonist, but he seems to be in the thirty/forty range. Perhaps there was a dramatic age difference between him and the other soldiers going into it– there are records of fourteen-year-olds going into battle alongside old men, after all– but it hints at the idea that he’s not quite travelling on the same timeline as they are.

Character Roles and Relationships

While some works are breaking the norm (the show Elementary is one), it’s a typical rule of thumb that in any game, the most attractive reoccurring character of the opposite sex will be the protagonist’s love interest. However, when the two leads have a significant age discrepancy  that relationship will tend toward the parental.

No bones about it, Booker’s an adult– and Elizabeth is very deliberately, repeatedly, described as being seventeen. The age of consent in the US is finicky depending on what state you’re in, but the rule of thumb is that if she ain’t eighteen, she ain’t legal. It’s reinforced by the fact that Booker refers to her as a “young girl” when asking about her on the beach. Given that age difference, we can mentally take his loyalty and protectiveness and label it parental, rather than romantic– and from that point forward, we’re primed to think of their relationship in a certain way.

The beauty of this kind of foreshadowing is threefold:

1) It plays on our metafictional knowledge: our underlying assumptions about the medium, the things we’ll notice, the things we’ll ignore or forget, any outside knowledge we might have of history, and the ignorance about specific details of that history (how many people who went through the game actually knew the year Wounded Knee happened? How many had even heard of the battle before they played?).

2) There are plenty of plot threads, and the relevant details are always woven into more than one. The result is that when we do notice these little discrepancies  we’re more likely to think of them as unrelated, because any little detail could be relevant to any one of them.

3) The big questions are never asked directly. They’re hinted at, sure, but for the most part we’re left to make assumptions and take certain facts for granted. Like the False Shepherd, the writers led us to think a certain way, only to reveal later on that we’d been on the wrong track the whole time.

Have you played Bioshock Infinite? What did you think of the game, and did you have any suspicions? Did you, like Booker, see foreshadowing where it didn’t exist?

Are there any other video games that make you want to take notes for your writing? 

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2 thoughts on “Bioshock Infinite and Foreshadowing

  1. I love your blog Jennifer. I am a huge fan of BioShock Infinite. I have played the game various times, and in every playthrough I always learn something new about the story. I have even made videos about the archetypes in the game (http://zacharyamericanlit.blogspot.com). I have also gotten various friends of mine to play it, and I would ask them, the way Boxy asked you, for theories. And when they answered with what turns out to be the last words of spoken in the game a did as your husband did. I acted as though the theory was ridicules.

    After beating the game a half a dozen times and reading about it on BioShock Wiki, I had thought that I understood the story completely. I was wrong… Have you played the new add-on, Burial at Sea, yet? I don’t want my comment to spoil anything about the ending of the game, but what do you think happened to Elisabeth after that last piano note at the end of the game. I thought that I understood the ending of BioShock Infinite, but I don’t understand how Elisabeth can still there.

    Jennifer, in your blog you say that Elisabeth opens a tare into Paris during the opening of Return of the Jedi, but if you look closely you will notice that the movie playing is not actually Return of the Jedi. The movie that is actually playing is Revenge of the Jedi. Revenge of the Jedi was the original name given to the third Star Wars film before it was changed by George Lucas to Return of the Jedi. This is important because it proves that Elisabeth is able to open doorways to alternate worlds and not only time.

    Like

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