Heads or Tails: Free Will vs. Determinism in Bioshock Infinite
WARNING!! SPOILER ALERT!!! If you’ve not completed BioShock Infinite, then honestly, I wouldn’t continue reading.
You are presented with a choice, or at least the illusion of one. The man, wearing a chalkboard recording the previous results, tosses you a silver coin and asks you to call heads or tails. What you say is irrelevant. Little do you know, the coin always comes up heads.
They’ve been flipping coins for some time now, this British couple–or are they siblings?–who rowed you out to the lighthouse. It’s one of their many experiments in probability and logic, in free will versus determinism. You flip the coin: heads again.
“Told you,” says the man to the woman, gloating. The woman, audibly annoyed, marks it on the chalkboard. “I never find that as satisfying as I’d imagined,” he taunts.
“Chin up, there’s always next time,” she playfully retorts.
“I suppose there is.”
They continue bantering, and as they turn to leave you see the back of the chalkboard: improbably, 123 times in a row, the coin has come up heads.
In a distant universe, far removed from BioShock Infinite’s Columbia, there’s another pair of bickering, coin-tossing Brits. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Tom Stoppard’s absurdist, existentialist play, which was later adapted to film (1990), also opens with a coin toss. In fact, the entire first act is about it.
The titular characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are bit-players in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are flipping coins to pass the time as they make their way to Denmark. Rosencrantz bets heads every time, and, improbably, 92 times in a row, he wins. Guildenstern, who is perhaps the savvier of the two, is understandably disturbed by this unnatural result:
Syllogism the second: One, probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two, probability is not operating as a factor. Three, we are now within un-, sub- or supernatural forces. Discuss. (p. 17)
Rosencrantz is at a loss. “I’m sorry I–What’s the matter with you?”
Guildenstern responds, “The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defence against the pure emotion of fear. Keep tight hold and continue while there’s time” (p. 17).
Rosalind and Robert Lutece are, above all else, scientists. They approach their world, even in death, through a scientific lens. It makes sense that they would be conducting these experiments on the various Bookers that they encounter. They’re nothing if not curious.
And, like Guildenstern, they’re curious why the coin always come up heads. It’s against the laws of probability! They, too, are within the realm of un-, sub- or supernatural forces. Constants and variables.
Thematically, the BioShock series is all about free will versus determinism. In the first game, you assume the role of Jack, a supposed survivor from a plane crash who makes his way to Rapture. Later you learn that Atlas, your radio-transmission ally, is controlling you with the now iconic post-hypnotic catch-phrase “Would you kindly?”
For first half of the game, you–as Jack–believe that you are choosing to do things of your own free will. You think that you are helping “Atlas,” first to find his family and then to avenge their death. It is only later that you realize you are being manipulated: there is no “Atlas,” he never had a family, and you are but a pawn in Fontaine’s war against Andrew Ryan.
In the climactic scene where you meet, and kill, Andrew Ryan, all is made clear. “Would you kindly bash my head in with this golf club.” And you do, without hesitation. There’s no choice in the matter.
Sure, you’re given the choice of whether to harvest or save the Little Sisters, but that’s an illusion of choice. You’ll have plenty of Adam and become just as powerful regardless, it amounts to which ending cut-scene you want to see. BioShock was one of the first, and only, games to question unwavering obedience to an objective, and to backhand the player with the knowledge that they’ve been doing the bad guy’s dirty work all along.
In the second act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they are playing a game, the one in which you can only respond with a question or else you lose. Guildenstern is particularly strict about the rules, and he calls Rosencrantz out on repeating a question he’d already asked, claiming the point as his own.
Rosencrantz is tired of Guildenstern’s bullshit: “I’m not going to play if you’re going to be like that” (p. 42).
You’ve just rescued Elizabeth from her tower. You’re on Battleship Bay, the artificial beach in Columbia, You found her–dancing, delighted–and are trying to lead her to an airship to Paris, by which you really mean an airship to New York. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”
They’ve returned, the British couple. This time, they’re offering Elizabeth two different brooches: a bird or a cage. She asks you which one she should choose.
It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t change the ending.
Really, all that changes is which Lutece is disappointed by your choice. “Surprising, I expected the cage/bird,” says the one that lost.
Echoing a line from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the winning Lutece responds, “If you’re going to be a sore loser, then I shan’t do this again.”
But of course they will. They have to.
The first two BioShock games critique yet still succumb to the illusion of choice, presented as false binaries. Blow up or save Megaton (Fallout 3), do good things and become a Jedi or do bad things and become a Sith (Knights of the Old Republic). Whereas BioShock and BioShock 2 touched on obedience to a narrative and the illusion of choice, they still presented a game-changing decision: save or harvest the Little Sisters. BioShock Infinite subverts this: it presents you with many choices, but none of them change the narrative or the ending.
This is perfectly in line with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. After all, it’s a meta-narrative on free will versus determinism in the context of fiction. Regardless of what they do, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always die at the end of Hamlet. Just like Booker.
Once Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reach Denmark, they begin to question their purpose there. Rosencrantz just wants to go home, although neither of them remember what that was like. Guildenstern, much more deterministic than his comrade, is willing to accept his fate, urging Rosencrantz to wait “Till events have played themselves out. There’s a logic at work–it’s all done for you, don’t worry. Enjoy it. Relax” (p. 40).
This is how I felt playing BioShock Infinite. A sense of calm: “There’s a logic at work…don’t worry. Enjoy it. Relax.”
I didn’t always understand what was going on, despite my familiarity with quantum mechanics and the possibility of alternate universes. Even after completing it twice, there are more questions than there are answers. Yet I willingly assumed the role of a somewhat ambivalent player in this narrative: Booker T. DeWitt.
Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Booker is merely a pawn in a much bigger game. Carried along by the plot, all three are unaware of their own impending demise. In the third act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Guildenstern notes that, “Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one…” (p. 60). Booker is also condemned, to fulfill his role in the narrative, to repeat the same moves over and over again.
You’re in your apartment: there’s a baby in a cradle and a man at the door. Elizabeth stands by, observing. You’re confused: “Wait, wait, no, this is wrong…there’s no–there’s no baby. I remember, there was no baby, and if there was I sure as hell wouldn’t give it over to this guy.”
“Booker, you don’t leave this room until you do.”
You don’t leave this room until you do. You can forestall the inevitable for as long as you want, waiting, hoping for an alternative to present itself. You can pace around the room while Elizabeth calmly looks on. You can turn off your console or PC, but eventually, if you’re going to proceed in the narrative, if you’re going to finish the game, you will pick up the baby and hand her over to Robert Lutece.
For “Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral, and logical conclusions” (p. 79).
In the deterministic world of BioShock Infinite, Booker is fated to repeat his choices in every universe because there exists a universe in which he already has. There are an infinite number of Bookers, and this is an elegant description of the nature of video game characters. For every person playing BioShock Infinite, there is a different Booker. Yet the ending is always the same.
It’s a tragedy in the classical sense, drawing inspiration from the works of Sophocles and Shakespeare. No matter what, Booker always dies in the end, drown by his own daughter(s). According to the Player, a somewhat omniscient character (not unlike Rosalind and Robert Lutece) in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, “We follow directions–there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means” (p. 80).
A video game that is, dare I say it, rooted in classical tragedy! But there’s an existential twist, one which pays homage to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Booker has been dead all along, from the moment you started playing. Like the title suggests, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have likewise been dead the entire time, from the very beginning of the play. They just don’t know it yet.
Booker has died infinite deaths, but can’t remember. His nose bleeds, he has a headache, and he’s back to business as usual. It isn’t until the ending that he realizes the true significance of these symptoms.
And yet, there’s no outwitting death. Not in a fictional narrative, not in real life.
They are stuck in a narrative loop, Booker as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are dead, only to live and die again with each playthrough and production, respectively. But both narratives are skeptical as to whether free will can overcome determinism.
Elizabeth tosses you a coin. “Booker, catch!”
It always comes up heads.