BioShock Infinite and Exposition
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering BioShock Infinite (2K Games, 2013), the time-bending followup to the original BioShock(2K Games, 2007). This essay may contain content up through the end of the game. Players who have not completed the game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains spoilers for the main storyline.
Every story contains some amount of background information that the audience needs to know to understand the plot. The act of delivering this information to the audience is known as exposition, and it’s one of the trickiest things to get right in writing. When done well, it should be borderline invisible; when done poorly, it sticks out like a sore thumb. The most egregious exposition avalanches, commonly called info-dumps, can drag a story’s momentum down to zero as the audience drowns in a deluge of details. To keep loyal fans from suffering, good writers do their best to hide exposition in the setting whenever they can. By fleshing out the story’s history, culture, and technology through background details, these writers keep the story moving without sacrificing essential information. It’s a trick that works exceptionally well in visual media, as viewers can learn things from the setting while the characters progress the plot, and it’s that much more effective in interactive media like video games. When players control the characters, they can explore the setting at their own pace. This way, they can learn everything they need to know about the story without ever running into the dreaded info-dump, and they’ll come away happier for the experience.
Of all the games that conceal their exposition in their setting, BioShock Infinite (2K Games, 2013) is one of the strongest examples. Like the other entries in the BioShock series(2K Games, 2007), BioShock Infinite is known for its innovative and immersive setting. BioShock Infinite takes place aboard the floating city of Columbia, an industrial wonderland that seceded from the United States of America in the early 20th century. Players take on the role of Booker DeWitt, a disgraced Pinkerton whose quest to wipe out his gambling debts takes him to the Columbia of 1912. The journey upward reveals the dizzying highs of luxury, the sobering lows of poverty, and everything in-between. As Booker navigates the streets of Columbia, players can glean meaningful details from the setting, giving new context to the history, culture, and technology of the city.
Hiding Exposition in Plain Sight
As a sovereign state that only recently defected from its parent-nation, Columbia has a fractious and violent history. Nevertheless, Columbians are deeply proud of their past, and they’ve filled the city with monuments to their heroes. Their leader, the prophet Zachary Hale Comstock, is honored through statues, stained-glass windows, and frequent celebrations in his name. One of those celebrations is a flying parade that depicts the founding of Columbia, starting with Comstock’s first prophecy after the Battle of Wounded Knee and ending with the birth of his daughter, Elizabeth. There are only a few floats in the parade, but the unique combination of narration and visual imagery gives players valuable insight into the city’s history without the feel of an info-dump. BioShock Infinite repeatedly employs this technique, disguising exposition in history-rich buildings like libraries and museums: buildings that both match the style of the time and emphasize the Columbians’ relationship with their history.
In linear stories, the word ‘history’ implies events that have happened before the narrative present, but BioShock Infinite’s timeline is slightly more complicated. The city of Columbia is overrun with Tears: holes in the fabric of space-time that lead to other eras and places. Although the true nature of these tears is only revealed towards the end of the game, players who pay attention to the details in the setting may notice subtle anachronisms earlier on. The floating city itself is the first tell, but players who are used to strange settings are liable to dismiss that as being an element of fantasy. What they can’t dismiss is how the game repeatedly stresses that the year is 1912, yet a barbershop quartet on Columbia’s streets can be found singing ‘God Only Knows’ by the Beach Boys—a song released in 1966, 44 years after the present of BioShock Infinite. The song isn’t important to the plot(although it is thematically relevant), but it still provides essential clues to Columbia’s true history for the players who are paying attention. Like the parade floats and the museum tours, ‘God Only Knows’ is one of the many setting details that teaches players about the world without subjecting them to a lecture.
Like the rest of the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, Columbia is in a state of cultural upheaval. Posters indicating a lack of jobs hang in employment centers, and the wealth gap between the rich and the underclass is evident in the disparate quality of their clothes and housing. Furthermore, racism runs rampant in every corner of the setting, and players will see signs of it wherever they look. Bigoted carvings and drawings depict non-white races as subhuman, while posters crudely indicate which facilities allow ‘Coloreds and Irish.’ The non-white spaces aren’t spared such indignities; they’re filled with enormous banners reminding workers to ‘mind their manners amongst their betters.’ By the time players meet with the underclass rebels, the Vox Populi, they’ve been exposed to more than enough bigotry in Columbia to know exactly why the Vox Populii want to rebel.
Hints of Columbia’s cultural strife can be found in its roots, and those roots are deeply entangled with Christianity. All those who enter Columbia are subject to a baptismal ceremony, and those who refuse are still inundated by Christian imagery everywhere they turn. The city is papered with religious iconography that reminds citizens of the importance of God. Statues of angels loom over the city like watchful guardians, and bible verses dominate the monuments and propaganda posters. Columbia itself resembles the Christian idea of Heaven, as the citizens live in the clouds with their prophet, and the blurry nations below are a convenient Hell for any heathens Comstock casts out. Even the seemingly secular artworks are steeped in Christian symbolism, reminding the citizens that God (and Comstock) is everywhere. For better or for worse, the culture of Columbia is inseparable from the culture of Christianity.
Columbia is a city built on technology—literally. As a floating city, Columbia relies on technological advances that didn’t exist in 1912. While the science behind these technological advances is opaque (probably because it doesn’t exist in the present day), the visuals of the setting speak for themselves. Players who look over the side of the city can see a bed of clouds below, and the city’s different islands are connected by a series of rails and carriages. Period-appropriate zeppelins also have a place in Columbia, although their slow speed makes them vulnerable to the city’s defenses. Those who would dare attack Columbia must face off against gun-toting guards, animatronic founding fathers, and a massive cyborg bird controlled by Comstock himself. These defense systems benefit from modern technology, proving how vital the Tears have been to Columbia’s development.
The technology of Columbia isn’t just for protection; it also serves an economic purpose. Columbia has its own manufacturing district, Finkton, which produces a variety of goods to support the city. Finkton’s parent company, Fink Manufacturing, also serves as one of the primary sources of employment and housing for Columbia’s impoverished citizens. On paper, this seems innocuous enough, but players who visit Finkton will see signs of the poor working conditions everywhere in the setting. The workers are forced to live in the squalid Shantytown, and they’re brainwashed into complete compliance in Finkton’s ’employment education centers.’ Those who refuse are sent to the town’s prison, where they’re either lobotomized or left to die. The sounds are as harrowing as the visuals, but they teach the player everything they need to know about the true cost of Columbia’s technological advancements.
BioShock Infinite is well-regarded for several reasons, not the least of which is its masterful handling of exposition. By concealing key information in the setting, BioShock Infinite teaches its players everything they need to know about the history, culture, and technology of the world without slowing down the action. Writers who wish to avoid info-dumps in their work can look to BioShock Infinite as an example of how to hide background information where it belongs: in the background.
Different ways to dispense must-know information without losing the audience’s attention.
Creating worlds by anchoring stories in time and place.
StoryScan: Prey (2017) and Setting
Prey (2017) maximizes its setting, a labyrinthine space station, by using it to illuminate the plot, the characters, and the theme.