Bioshock Infinite as a Retro-Futuristic Fairy Tale

Wednesday 12 December 2018

The world of Bioshock Infinite is a magic one. A universe full of color and fancy with a vibrant steampunk atmosphere, and contemporary tunes playing on gramophones in retro style. Its characters defy both time and space: they can fly in the air thanks to improvised devices and they can go back in time by using tears. Nothing is ordinary in Columbia and Emporia, the colorful floating cities that are bursting with life and flowers and look like amusement parks coming straight out of a fairy tale.

The imaginative settings of the game add greatly to the atmosphere of a fairy tale

When the protagonist of the game, Booker DeWitt, wakes up in a boat on a rainy night, accompanied by two strange people who lead him to a a mysterious lighthouse, little does he suspect of what will come next. The lighthouse, a major symbol used extensively in video games, plays a crucial role here too, transporting Booker to Columbia where he begins a dramatic quest, looking for answers concerning his overwhelming sense of guilt. As it is gradually revealed, he had lived more than one lives in several realities. In one life he was a soldier who took part in a massacre, in another he was a private detective, in a third one he was the leader of a revolutionary movement, in a fourth one he was a bloodsucking governor who longed for eternal life.

Similarly Elizabeth, his co-protagonist, has gone through several different statuses during her time travels. Same goes for Rosalind Lutece, the enlightened scientist who developed the quantum technology responsible for the existence of floating cities and, subsequently, the possibility of traveling back and forth in time through the tears that she was able to create.

Time tears, appearing as ghostly slots, are a major plot point in the game

Combining elements of past, present and imaginary future times, historical events, fantasy and tragedy, Bioshock Infinite is a retro-futuristic fairy tale that uses elements of the past to describe a society of the future. Sometimes, it can also be the opposite. No less than a gloomy prophecy, its depiction of an authoritarian society where the high class is thriving while the vast majority of its population is suffering, sounds and seems particularly realistic in its symbolism. But this is exactly what fairy tales always do: they make extremely insightful and diachronic statements through allegories that can be universally applied. Bioshock Infinite follows the structure of a traditional fairy tale, incorporating all of its standard elements that have to do with the plot, the characters and the complementary attributes.

Fairy tales play with opposites, the most prominent couple of contrasting sides being good and evil. Bioshock Infinite has its good characters, Booker and Elizabeth, who, in different stages, have to go against several evil forces, represented by Zachary Comstock, Jeremiah Fink and Cornelius Slate. The battle of good versus evil, however, goes even deeper in the game, as in Booker's case both opposites exist in the same person: he is a good man in his current state as Booker DeWitt, albeit with a past he is not so proud of as a soldier, while he was an evil man as Zachary Comstock in a different reality. The biggest tragedy in Booker's life is that his good side is constantly fighting against his evil side; a fight that at some point resulted in him giving up his own daughter.

Booker and Elizabeth could be the lead characters of a modern fairy tale

This also ties with two more recurring themes in fairy tales, that of the exploration of human weakness and that of the triumph of human strength. Despite its dramatic ending, Bioshock Infinite does note the strength of its protagonists, which is showcased in different ways. Booker sacrifices himself so that his other, evil self will not be able to harm his daughter, and Elizabeth finds the necessary inner strength to kill him so as to save her life.They both manage to overcome their weaknesses and turn their fate around. Nothing is definitive in the Bioshock universe, however - and both of them are doomed to be born again and again in different realities that always make them come face to face with each other.

Elizabeth exists in different realities and eventually all of her versions appear

In their turn, Comstock and Fink, as well as Elizabeth and Lady Comstock, belong to a society of privilege and wealth, while Booker, just like the revolutionary Daisy Fitzroy, represents the oppressed working class. Poverty and wealth are themes that are extremely popular in fairy tales, and they are most of the times in opposing sides. In Bioshock Infinite, this fight is not highlighted so much as a financial inequality but more like a denunciation of the manners that the higher classes go by that totally diminish and out-power the large masses of underprivileged citizens.

The Shantytown is a gloomy depiction of a poverty-stricken region

The lead characters in fairy tales have to carry out impossible tasks. Either because they are bound by a curse, or because they are looking for a lost love, or simply because they have to go through a journey of coming-of-age, they are called to carry out trials that seem to test them in more than one ways. In Bioshock Infinite, Booker's quest is such a task; and it leads him to enlightenment, which is literal, as the final revelation starts in an infinite sea with numerous lighthouses, and metaphorical, as he comes to realize the truth about his life.

Booker's quest is full of unexpected encounters

If there is something that abounds in fairy tales, it is definitely the objects and animals that have the ability to talk. In Bioshock Infitite we find the Songbird, the huge mechanical bird, Elizabeth's guardian and protector, that acts and reacts like an animate creature. In the same spirit, fairy tales like to include in their heroes' quests magic words or phrases that can open doors or solve puzzles. In Bioshock Infinite, there is the secret tune, comprised of four notes that make up the word CAGE, some kind of code to which the Songbird responds.

Booker plays the tune that summons and tames the bird

In fairy tales there are also items that carry a special importance and they act as passes or keys that lead to other places - sometimes also to other dimensions. In Bioshock Infinite, there are literal keys - more specifically lock-picks, that Elizabeth can use to open locked doors so that she and Booker can go to otherwise unreachable areas. Time tears can also be considered passes of a kind, although they are not tangible items in a plain sense.

Elizabeth has the ability to pick locks as part of her extensive education

Word games are also essential in fairy tales. Many times the solution of a puzzle depends exclusively on using the right words in the right place or in the right order. In Bioshock Infinite, the word games that particularly characterize the dialogues between Rosalind and Robert Lutece as well as the cryptic lines that they say to Booker and Elizabeth offer a lot of insight and often act as warnings or hints.

The cryptic lines of the Luteces usually give hints on what Booker has to do next

Spells and magic powers also play a major part in fairy tales. Similarly in Bioshock Infinite, we have Rosalind Lutece and Elizabeth who have the power to open time tears. Moreover in one specific chapter Elizabeth performs an action that comes straight out of a folk tale: she uses her time-bending powers to place obstacles in Booker's path so that he is unable to reach her.

As Elizabeth is innocent at the start, her obstacles are not threatening but playful

Booker, from his part, can boost his abilities and perception by consuming vigors, which allow him to get stronger and more effective and even grant him with powers that are almost superhuman.

The animations of the gained vigors can get really creepy

Using tricks to go through difficult or cunning trials is a feature that we regularly see in fairy tales. In Bioshock Infinite, Booker often resorts to his wit in order to outsmart his enemies, for example by turning the turrets against them. Elizabeth takes advantage of her ability to open time tears in order to bring in stuff or backup from other realities so as to help Booker carry out tough battles.

Fairy tales feature guardians and monsters - and so does Bioshock Infinite. From a point and on in the story, Booker stands up as a guardian for Elizabeth; a role that gets even more intensified when, after an unexpected twist, it is revealed that he is actually her father. Therefore his role as a protector becomes much more literal and direct. Initially a guardian for a Elizabeth, the Songbird starts pursuing her and Booker from a point and on, but close to the finale Elizabeth manages to tame it and it again assumes its role as her protector. In a sense, Rosalind and Robert Lutece can also be seen as guardians: Booker comes across them very early in the game and they regularly seem to be there for him and Elizabeth to offer a word of advice, even if their role is not always clear.

The Songbird keeps Elizabeth imprisoned but it is her only friend

As for the monsters of the game, they are actually humans with an evil soul. With the exception of the Handymen, who are unnaturally tall and incredibly strong vicious creatures, Lady Comstock's Zealots, who are more like aggressive ghosts that can appear and disappear through swarms of ravens, and the mechanical Patriots, the rest of the enemies are people who chase Booker and Elizabeth relentlessly and never fail to act like monsters. The pitiful but terrifying Lost Boys, the lunatics in the Asylum who all wear masks that depict past presidents of the United States, the soldiers - all of them have a human form but they have very little to none humanity left in them.

The Handyman is a monstrous enemy who looks and sounds inexplicably desperate

Several times in fairy tales, the protagonists meet strangers during their quests; these fellow travelers have tales to narrate, quite often indirectly providing the necessary illumination for the protagonists that helps them take a crucial decision. In Bioshock Infinite, such tales can be heard in the audio recordings that are scattered throughout the game's world. Memories, confessions, testimonies, either directly or indirectly related to Booker and Elizabeth, shed light on secrets, mysteries and their own past lives.

The way that Bioshock Infinite uses the several elements from folk fairy tales in a futuristic plot is ingenious. Playing with the notions of time and space, the game creates a universe where the near past becomes history in a delightful and intriguing style: an old juke box plays "Tainted Love" in retro jazz style, Booker rides an airship of the kind that we would only expect to see in a Georges Méliès film. Given that fairy tales also surpass the limits of time and space and take place in some kind of parallel universe where anything is possible, their kinship with Bioshock Infinite becomes even more direct and both become different stages of the same thing: it is as if Bioshock Infinite is a contemporary fairy tale, the version of a story from the past in an innovative time and space.

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