The Merit of Video Game Narratives in Academia

Ashley Wawryk

Elyn Achtymichuk’s lectures about the video games inspired a plethora of passionate discussions regarding the nature of video games and whether they should be studied in a university-level English class.  As an avid gamer, I found the lectures and the discussions that emerged intriguing.  I decided to analyze the narrative of Bioshock Infinite through an academic lens, as I believe certain video games possess rich narratives that can be beneficial to academic practice.  In order to properly discuss this topic, I will provide a brief summary of Bioshock Infinite.  Spoiler alerts will appear well in advance of any discussion regarding the ending of the game.  Additionally, I will spend time unpacking the numerous themes found in the game’s narrative and discuss how they might aid students’ comprehension of narratives.

In order to adequately analyze Bioshock Infinite’s narrative, I thought it would be wise to play through the entire game to give myself a refreshed view of the plot.  The game takes place during 1912, and the player takes control of Booker DeWitt.  He was once employed by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and carries emotional baggage from his service at the Battle of Wounded Knee.  His wife dies in childbirth and he turns to gambling to numb the pain of losing both his wife and his daughter.  With a rapidly accumulating amount of debt, Booker is forced to pay off these debts by travelling to Columbia in search of a young woman named Elizabeth.  However, nothing about this job is conventional, as Columbia is a steam-punk themed metropolis that, through scientific innovation, sits suspended thousands of miles in the sky.  The game’s main antagonist is a man named Zachary Comstock.  He built Columbia on a set of twisted beliefs where former presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are revered as deities.  Racial segregation is severe, as African-American, Irish, and Chinese people are viewed as less than human.

Therefore, it is not surprising that a rebellious group known as the ‘Vox Populi’ emerges as a resistance to the white American bias that founded the city.  Upon rescuing Elizabeth, Booker comes to the realization that she is not a normal young woman.  She possesses the power to open and produce ‘tears’, which are ripples in time that lead to different dimensions.  With that in mind, it is clear that Elizabeth’s abilities could be used for malevolent intentions.

On numerous occasions, the player is confronted with participatory situations where they must make choices.  In the first Bioshock, the choices you make throughout the game directly influence the ending.  An example of the participatory nature of video games can be drawn from the Lutece twins in Bioshock Infinite.  The physicists appear randomly throughout the story and they are crucial to the advancement of the plot, as the player cannot progress further in the game without interacting with the twins.  A short cut scene ensues where the Luteces demand Booker to choose heads or tails in a seemingly random coin toss.  Additionally, another encounter involves the Luteces offering Elizabeth one of two necklaces.  Both necklaces have a pendant, one of which has an image of a cage, and the other an image of a bird.  Although these moments lead the player to assume that these choices will change the ultimate outcome of the narrative, as seen in the first Bioshock game, they do not directly affect the outcome of Bioshock Infinite; however, the decisions one makes throughout the game do influence various conversations that emerge in the narrative.  The videos below display a moment where the player is allowed to make one out of three choices which lead to a miniscule change in the plot.  Be advised, the clip contains graphic images and language that might offend some viewers.

Link to the video clip (1): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZEhLqvGsiMs

Link to the video clip (2): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfSMn5B8GAY

As previously mentioned, the themes found in Bioshock Infinite relate to ones that have sparked conflict in the history of the human race.  These themes include racial segregation, religion, the uprising of the marginalized against the established order, and questions of morality regarding scientific advancements that manipulate the laws of nature.  In his article “Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative: Video Games in the English Classroom”, Jonathan Ostenson outlines how his English class studied video game narratives by playing several different games.  He concluded that studying video game narratives allowed his students to become more critical about multiple platforms of storytelling, including novels, films, and television shows (76).

***  I will now discuss the ending of Bioshock Infinite.  SPOILER ALERT.  You have been warned!  ***

The ending of the game reveals the true nature of Bioshock Infinite.  The aforementioned Lutece twins are not siblings.  They are the same person but from two different dimensions in time.  Through their research, they reached the conclusion that Booker DeWitt and the antagonist, Zachary Comstock, are the same person.  Booker quickly changes his name to Zachary Comstock after he decides to be baptized, as he wants to absolve himself of his past sins and start fresh.  It is Comstock who longs to use Elizabeth’s powers to stage an attack on New York City.  Ultimately, his plan is to wipe out all major cities in the United States for the sole purpose of Columbia claiming the title of the only great American city.  Therefore, the Luteces take it upon themselves to conduct experiments manipulating the fabric of time to achieve an outcome where Comstock is defeated.  Unfortunately, Booker and Comstock are the same person.  Elizabeth realizes that, in order for change to occur, Comstock must be killed before he was ever born.  As Comstock came to life during Booker’s baptism, it is Booker who must make the ultimate sacrifice.  He chooses to end his life to break the infinite loop for good.

As discussed during the debate that was held during class, there are numerous drawbacks that can hinder the study of video game narratives in the classroom.  The largest issue is accessibility, as some students might not own a video game console or a computer.  With the growing popularity of video games and the continual advancement of technology, the study of video game narratives in class will become more commonplace in the near future.  The themes found in Bioshock Infinite can be related to past and present day events.  The most blatantly obvious example is Donald Trump’s presidency, and numerous movements that have recently emerged, such as Black Lives Matter.  Ultimately, Bioshock Infinite reinforces the fact that history often has a nasty habit of repeating itself.  The Bioshock trilogy is not the only video game series to present audiences with narratives that use societal issues that we can recognize and analyze.  As long as technology continues to advance and the demand for video games remains steady, it is safe to assume that video games with complex narratives and deeper themes will continue to be produced, as the value of video game narratives will prove useful to students and academics in the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of education.

Works Cited

Ostenson, Jonathan. “Exploring the Boundaries of Narrative: Video Games in the English Classroom.” The English Journal 102.6 (2013): 71 – 78. Web.

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