Guest Thoughts: How I Would Have Handled Finktown

Jumpcast's Greg Jahn sends his thoughts on Bioshock Infinite's Finktown section.

Falling_Desktop_1920x1200.jpg

Before I start this opinion piece, I should note three things. First off, I am in absolutely no way qualified to make real technical criticism - I have never written a book nor made a game. I am simply a person who has way too much time on their hands, enjoys playing games, and saw an opportunity which I felt was not properly utilized. Secondly, despite the fact that this column will focus on criticisms, I genuinely enjoyed and cannot praise this game enough - while I still have not settled on one, Bioshock Infinite will likely end up being my favorite game that I have played this year, I just saw a glaring area in what is generally considered to be the weakest portion of the game. Third, I realize the title is rather strong, and not necessarily appropriate - I will be providing a theory which could better explain some of the events of the game, and with a small number of tweaks, could have provided a more thematically complete experience. The title, rather, is a homage to a wonderful article How I Would Have Ended Bioshock - check it out if you have not read it.

Bioshock Infinite spoilers follow.

Before we can get into the details of the relative weaknesses of Finktown, it is necessary to explore the nature of tears, and what makes the tears in Finktown unique. Tears are shown and used throughout the game, expressing a variety of phenomena, ranging from random tears temporarily distorting the game world:

To windows to other times and space which can simply be walked through:

To allowing for individual items to be brought through to be used

However, in the course of Finktown, there are two tears which are passed through which do not behave the same way. In the course of the game, it appears first that you’re stepping through into another universe, but that does not appear to be the case. As is shown above, it’s possible to walk through a tear without the side effects which are exhibited by the Finktown tears, where there is impact on individuals who were not those who “stepped through.” Rather, it appears that something else is going on. Note that, as Elizabeth opens the tear, it does not form a window, but rather extends to the horizon:

So this leads to the question of “what is happening with these tears?” I posit that, rather than stepping through into a new universe, which is what the characters themselves express within the game, but rather the entire universe is being pulled through - what results from this action is not a separate universe, but rather a “collapse” - a union between the two universes. This has a number of interesting consequences (not the least of which is the ability to handwave the differences depending on how things fall out, but that’s more a convenience factor). Let’s assume that this is the case, and step through the entire process of Finktown.

Booker starts the chapter by meeting Daisy Fitzroy for the first time when she commandeers the airship. She does not appear to be a particularly nice character, but she is caring for her men, and demonstrates a certain amount of compassion which is not present later in the chapter.

She gives you the task of getting guns from Chen Lin. I would tweak the dialogue here slightly - it’s apparent later in the chapter that Fitzroy and Lin know one another already, so there needs to be some reason Booker is needed to get the guns out. The simplest method would be to add another layer to the Fiztroy/Fink dynamic by having her state that she knows that Fink won’t bother Booker (because she has spies who overhear while working and she knows he wants to hire Booker, or something along those lines) so Booker would hypothetically be able to approach Lin and get the guns. Regardless, that’s more an aside than a central point to this process.

Booker and Elizabeth make it through Finktown, and discover that Lin has been taken from his wife:

Racism against Asians is once more underscored in his torture scene (and the ties to Fiztroy are shown to be established as well):

And finally, Lin is found, dead:

Throughout the game, Elizabeth has asserted that the tears show up when she’s anxious, and are a form of wish fulfillment - they show her what she needs, when she needs it, when she’s emotionally passionate or filled with anxiety. Mechanically, this can be shown by the fact that tears show up when combat is started - although I wish that they actually weren’t around until the combat itself begins, instead of being tied to the area in which they take place, but that’s nitpicking. The moment of finding Lin’s corpse, shocking enough itself, coupled with the plans that they had in place crashing down, results in a new emotional state for Elizabeth - and the tear appears, providing her her wish. A portal to a world where Lin is not dead.

So the tear is opened, and the worlds combine. It’s more satisfying from a consequences standpoint, as it resolves one of the true problems of the many-worlds theory in science fiction. If your actions are merely spawning a new universe, or you can move between universes to a better one, the previous universe still exists with all its problems. Lin is still dead. Your actions are purely selfish, and in every case you are not actually bettering the world for anyone - merely choosing that you will be experiencing the world where your actions provide a more positive result, or stepping through to one where you hadn’t messed up. By collapsing the universes together, this is still “your” timeline, where your actions have greater meaning. Furthermore, the union of the universes could hypothetically provide a better world for all, creating a more interesting narrative structure instead of skipping town to avoid whatever road block was thrown up.

Once the universes are merged, it’s obvious that something is different - despite not being the people who stepped through the portal, the two guards Booker just killed both have memories of both lives - of being both alive and dead. It was established at the very beginning of the game that memory conflict can occur, but only to those who have undergone trans-dimensional travel:

So the only explanation for these soldiers also being impacted is that they too traveled between dimensions - by the first dimension entirely traveling through into the second.

The impact appears to be most centralized near the tear - it’s in these locations that the barrels that you had searched, and the locks that you had opened remain so after you’ve stepped through the tear. However, not everyone has the dual memories - Fink has no recollection of who you are in the short-term, thus this is an imperfect solution. Regardless, as Booker states, I don’t suppose you can change something like that and have everything else be the same. And this - THIS is the root of the problem that can be improved in Finktown.

When we arrive back at Lin’s shop, Lin is in a state much like those soldiers. He has his memories of being dead and alive, and is in a stupor, so once more, we go down to his wife. However, what was changed to keep Lin alive is that his wife is now white, and (as was revealed in the recording) is the sister of the police commissioner.

This is one of the two items in Finktown which makes absolutely no sense. It was previously established that interracial marriages are to be looked down upon by “high” society, as demonstrated by the lynch mob at the start of the game:

Why then would a police commissioner pull strings for his sister who married an Asian? In the first universe, he would have been more likely to kill Lin, just to rid his family of the shame. This is nonsensical - and thus is the perfect place to start building our narrative. Obviously something is very different between this universe and the one which Booker and Elizabeth had “left.” Following the realization that even Lin had gone through trans-dimensional passage and remembered being dead, Elizabeth should muse on the concept of the dimensions merging. And with this in hand, when Mrs. Lin is found to be a white woman, the seed of hubris is planted: this was still Elizabeth’s dimension, and she made it better. Interracial marriage is not a taboo, Lin is alive, by doing this she made her world a better place. She takes ownership of the actions, and sets herself up for the fall.

There would need to be some adjustments to the story in order to expose her to the implications of interracial marriage, as she was sheltered prior to meeting Booker, but this could easily be done by introducing the wedded pair from the start of the game as characters in Finktown who have a short cutscene where they speak to Booker. It could further be underscored if, following the merging of the dimensions, their lot had changed from being outcasts in Finktown itself to being gainfully employed (sic).

At this point, Booker heads to get the tools, because he still needs those weapons to get that airship - the second point where Finkton REALLY falls apart: If Booker and Elizabeth had stepped through to another universe, why would they assume that Fitzroy had made a deal with Booker and would give them an airship? This more than anything else is what unravels this entire segment of the game - there is no reason for the characters to assume that the actions that they are performing of any consequence, or will help them in any way, because if they believe they are in a new dimension, there is no reason for them to believe there is any deal with this Fitzroy. If the universes are merged, however, there is still reason to believe that the deal is on. A courier from Fitzroy, meeting Booker as he leaves Lin’s shop and relaying the message that they’re still expecting him to honor his agreement despite Lin’s current situation would resolve this issue (and would also be more interesting than a fifth fight in this same map).

Elizabeth would be emphatic at how the tear improved things, rather than feeling the tear wasn’t a good idea. Which leads to her reaction when seeing Shantytown take on new meaning:

Elizabeth at this point is actively supporting the Vox. She wants them to take revenge:

And as is evidenced by her reaction after opening the second tear, her mind is on revolution, and Les Miserables:

And here is our fall. If the tears are wish fulfillment, Elizabeth wants Fitzroy to have her revenge and a revolution to occur, Fitzroy would need to be harder - she would need to be capable of having that sort of revenge. So not only was the world which Elizabeth’s desires found one in which the weapons had been created - it was one in which Fitzroy was the sort of hard leader who could bring about the revolution. And Elizabeth, through her actions, merged this world with her own. She can be considered “responsible” for Fiztroy’s actions. The revolution takes on new meaning, because it is occurring to her home dimension - not some other one they happened to skip to.

She is first exposed to the consequences when she finds the bodies of the Lins:

Note that it’s his white wife, not the original - as the dimensions had combined, it was the union of the first two which unified with the third. Booker and Elizabeth head towards the factory, and get noticed:

As they ascend the factory, Elizabeth is having a crisis of conscience. Under the “stepping into another world” theory, it makes absolutely no sense.

If the world always existed and they merely stepped through to it, then she is demonstrably false. They didn’t have a role in it. If they merged the worlds, then they had a very direct role and she is absolutely correct - moreso if it was her own desires that chose the manner in which they merged. Which is the crux of the matter. Elizabeth has a great deal of power, and Finktown is supposed be the moment in her character arc where she learns the consequences of her power. But as they attempt the dialogue (but not the actions in-game) to demonstrate, they’re stepping through - she is not culpable for any actions which are done in this world, merely for choosing the world that they landed in. If she must taken ownership for her actions - must take care of Fiztroy herself - it should be because she was actually responsible for HER Fitzroy becoming the monster she is through her idealistic thoughts of revolution.

Moving forward, the moment where the union theory could be proven would be when Fiztroy is talking to Booker on the phone - a throwaway comment about remembering both promising to give him the airship and him dying, not knowing what he did to her to make her think that, but once more that he “complicates the narrative.” Finally, as Fitzroy goes to kill the child (aside: have her struggling to get the kid and then holding him up to Booker or something - not just standing there with a gun to his head for an indeterminate amount of time threatening the kid to no one), Elizabeth takes ownership of her actions and deals with the situation.

And thus we have a proper loss of innocence for Elizabeth’s character. She realizes that she has to take responsibility for her actions, and that she cannot use her powers without forethought. The two most glaring points of fridge logic - interracial marriage and why Booker would expect Fitzroy to honor his deal - are resolved. The middle section of the game, which was previously basically a matter of running from point A to point B and back with no real purpose and pretending that it had higher narrative consequence than it actually did is resolved. And perhaps most usefully, the concept of taking all the timelines and merging them - which is explored in the finale of the game - is introduced as a concept earlier, providing a pointer to what the eventual conclusion of the game is.

Finktown was frustrating. It wasn’t bad, it was just a series of ideas which felt disjoint, and it feels like the gameplay mechanics and events do not agree with the dialogue which occurs throughout it. But with only a few minor tweaks - not even any changes in events, just some different dialogue, the entire sequence could take on greater meaning, consequence, weight, and further tie the overall narrative of the game together. In retrospect, it just feels like a missed opportunity, and one which I wish had been in the original game.

- Greg Jahn