There’s always a lighthouse: BioShock Infinite and auteur theory

This post contains SPOILERS. Do not read unless you’ve finished Infinite.

Songbird

The opening of BioShock Infinite is mysterious, wondrous and threatening. The protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is in a boat off the coast of Maine, on his way to a lighthouse. His companions, an unnamed and unseen man and woman, talk obscurely about rowing. Booker reaches the lighthouse and enters, alone. Inside, he ascends to find various religious messages – including one offering to cleanse him of his sins – and, finally, a dead body with the note “don’t disappoint us”. From here he reaches the top of the lighthouse and activates the device that launches him into the clouds, to the floating city of Columbia.

In itself, this opening sets up the tone for the rest of the game: a mix of mystery and menace. But if we take a deeper look – with knowledge of the previous two BioShock games – then it begins to take on added significance. Infinite’s opening is packed with references and nods to the preceding games, seemingly dropped in for the benefit of the super-observant or the BioShock uber-fan. It recalls the recurring touches or themes that certain directors – be it Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lynch, Godard, or Tarantino – embed within their films and which led to the establishment of the concept of the director as auteur.

Auteur theory – the notion that a director’s creative vision and influence positions them as the overriding “author” of a film – is a firmly-established, oft-debated facet of film criticism. It deals with a director’s signature, whether that be thematic, visual, aural or even a recurring piece of camerawork. It positions the director as the artist at the forefront of an entire film production. Given that a typical Hollywood movie is a collaborative effort of hundreds of people, it’s not difficult to imagine that auteur theory is not one that everyone subscribes to.

It’s even less surprising, then, that the games industry is rarely ready to apply the concept of auteur to its output. After all, games are produced by studios, the crew of which – unlike movies (generally speaking) – do not disband as soon as the production of a title is completed. If we view AAA titles as the equivalent of Hollywood, then we associate studios with those titles rather than individuals: Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto, Infinity Ward or Activision’s Call of Duty, EA’s Battlefield, Bungie’s Halo. As Brian Ashcroft notes in his piece The Search for the Video Game Auteurs, “the auteur ends up being the studio itself”.

Ashcroft’s “Studio Auteur Theory” undoubtedly carries weight, but what then of notable video game creators like Warren Spector, Tim Schafer, or Shigeru Miyamoto? Or, to bring it back to BioShock, Ken Levine? All can certainly have auteur theory applied to their games as identifiably “theirs”, through their use of recurring themes, styles and visual touches.

The opening of BioShock Infinite positions Levine firmly as auteur in the way that it so clearly imitates the original game [1]: like Booker, BioShock’s Jack enters the game’s city via a lighthouse in the Atlantic – the city of Rapture which, like Columbia, is a haven for a specific philosophical/political line of thought (Objectivism and American Exceptionalism respectively). And, like Booker, he starts the game’s events by picking up a gun (although in BioShock we only learn this retrospectively in the game’s twist). Infinite even recycles one of BioShock’s memorable opening lines – “is it someone new?” – except this time it is spoken by a preacher rather than a murderous splicer. The visual similarities even extend to the journey the two protagonists take to their destination: Jack looking out of a bathysphere’s porthole at the wondrous city beneath the sea, and Booker staring out at the colourful floating buildings, decked out for a parade. Columbia’s blimps are even a virtual reproduction of an iconic shot in BioShock’s opening of a giant squid gliding between Rapture’s buildings.

The similarities border on the obvious, even for the casual player. However, upon reaching further into Infinite’s story, it becomes apparent that the game is less evidence for Levine as auteur, and in fact more of a critique of auteur theory itself. While true that Infinite treads thematically similar ground to the original BioShock, we are – in the game’s final act – given an explicit explanation for why these similarities exist. In its twisting, multiverse-centric plot, Infinite’s characters speak of constants as well as variables between those infinite universes. Elizabeth, Booker’s companion who has the ability to manipulate portals (“tears”) between the alternate realities, even goes so far as to announce:

“There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man, there’s always a city…”

There's always a lighthouse

There’s always a lighthouse

That is to say: there are certain elements that are common to every reality, and by extension every BioShock game. It is highly significant that this declaration comes moments after Elizabeth has transported Booker into Rapture (or, more accurately seeing as we’re dealing with infinite realities, a Rapture). At this point, the player gets to walk through the opening setting for the original BioShock, except rather than retreading steps taken back in 2007 we are actually in reverse: heading back to the bathysphere and out of the city. With Elizabeth’s words, Levine turns the whole concept of auteur theory on its head: yes, this feels familiar, but here’s a narrative reason for it.

Indeed, we can also revisit Infinite’s opening moments in a whole new light, as the game subverts – literally and figuratively – the intro sequence of its predecessor. Instead of travelling down to the bottom of the ocean, this time we are heading up into the floating city in the clouds. Instead of the dark and dangerous Rapture that awaits us, all wreckage, dripping walls and shrieking splicers, our introduction to Columbia is part-church, part-Disneyland.

Disneyland in the clouds

Disneyland in the clouds

Again, the visual similarities between the journey that Jack and Booker undertake are immediately obvious, both ending with a descent past signs that lay out the respective cities’ ideologies. But where Rapture’s promise that “all good things of this Earth flow into the city” fails to hint at the horrors that await Jack, Columbia’s overtly religious message (culminating in its self-proclamation as a “new Eden”) is backed by chains and clunking machinery, and finally the harsh, Hellish glow of red lights.

Booker’s symbolic descent from the Heaven above to the Underworld below is a jarring contrast to Jack’s journey. Levine pulls the old magician’s trick of making the audience look at one hand – the obvious visual similarities between entering the two cities – while doing something with the other – foreshadowing the evil that lies beneath Columbia’s shining, virtuous veneer with its subtle references to a descent into Hell.

At this point it’s worth considering precisely what it is that characterize a BioShock game, for Infinite is not a sequel in the traditional sense. Unlike BioShock 2 (which, incidentally, Levine did not work on), Infinite introduces a new setting, new characters, and is set half a century earlier. Yet it treads very similar themes: politics, parenthood, manipulation, destiny. The gameplay still focusses around shooting, and the plasmid power-ups are present in all-but name. It would be easy to dismiss the idea of Levine as auteur, and instead look at these similarities and simply say “well, that’s what makes a BioShock game”.

I would argue that this is simplistic. Infinite is littered with small details that reference back to BioShock, and in doing so lean towards auteur theory. A wrench, suspiciously similar to that wielded by Jack, sits by the controlswrench of an airship (and, further to the “inversion” argument, is actually used by Elizabeth on Booker). Songbird, Elizabeth’s mechanical protector/keeper, bears distinct resemblance to Rapture’s Big Daddies [2]. Columbia’s history, and the game’s narrative, unfolds via a series of “voxophones” that are near-identical to Rapture’s audio diaries. And of course, Levine gives us the explicit explanation of the thematic similarities: there’s always a lighthouse.

One could mischievously tie all this to a deeper message about what it means to create an AAA title as part of a franchise: simply, you have an established mainstream audience for that franchise that you must satisfy. Inarguably, Infinite panders to the conventions of the First Person Shooter genre, something that Michael Abbott has noted with frustration. How do you satisfy that established mainstream audience? The (sad) truth is by giving them more of the same. Is Levine mocking this convention? Is that what Elizabeth is hinting at: there’s always a man… with a gun? Is that what it means to send us, improbably, to Rapture for a brief moment? It’s entirely possible to view Infinite as a pastiche of the identikit nature of some AAA franchises.

The game is much more than the cynical recycling of features that have worked before. Despite something of a critical backlash since Infinite’s release, there can be no doubt that it has provoked remarkable levels of discussion: everything from its treatment of race to its similarities to The Wizard of Oz. To return to the AAA games as Hollywood movies analogy, Infinite is no Transformers and Levine, a former screenwriter, clearly has more to say in his medium than mere explosions and electric shocks.

Being considered an auteur is about more than mere visual signatures: thematic links play their part. Levine’s games carry those links, but in Infinite he drops the veil of auteur to explain to us explicitly why they are present and, arguably, says a little about the state of today’s games, and the whole concept of auteur theory itself.

revolution

ENDNOTES

[1] Here are the intro sequences for BioShock and Infinite. If you’ve not seen them, I encourage you to watch them (particularly the original, which is masterful). If you have seen them, I still encourage you to watch them again.


[2] A recording of Songbird’s creator, Jeremiah Fink, tells that his creation was in fact influenced by something he found through a tear into an alternate reality – possibly Rapture (or a close version of it).

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