Karen and I finally finished watching and playing, respectively, Bioshock Infinite this past weekend. My reaction to the much heralded ending closely mirrored my reaction to the equally “mindblowing” Inception.
**SPOILER ALERT FOR BOTH BIOSHOCK AND INCEPTION**
As the game’s ending unfolded, I experienced all the emotions that I was intended to: confusion as we walked through a sea of multi-dimensional lighthouses, surprise as I learned Elizabeth’s origin, disbelief as multiple Elizabeths confronted Booker, grief as the Elizabeths disappeared one by one, and hope as Booker walked towards the cradle after the credits.
The ending seemed sufficient enough, though I knew I had missed pieces of the puzzle. I immediately hopped on Google and searched for explanations and interpretations. I found plenty of details on what I’d missed or forgotten from earlier in the game. Things snapped into place and made sense, more or less.
But something didn’t quite feel right, and I was reminded of Inception. The movie was jaw dropping and hugely popular, but it, too, lost appeal the more I thought through its mysteries. The reason, I believe, is that these stories were not made correctly. Their purpose is not to tell a story that needs to be told, but rather to shock the audience with some insanely clever twist.
I picture a writer starting out with the question, “How can I surprise the audience?” Then the writing process happens backwards: “What if the hero turns out to be the bad guy all along?!? Then the hero has to sacrifice himself in order to destroy his enemy. Perfect! Now how could that happen? They could be versions of each other from different dimensions. Now we need some way of jumping between dimensions, so let’s create a character who can do that. Of course, we’ll have to limit her powers somehow, otherwise she’d just solve the whole mystery right from the beginning. And there’s all sorts of paradoxes and issues that come up with multi-dimensions, so we’ll introduce some arbitrary rules here and ignore some problems there.”
And so it goes, with the writer bolting on more and more story elements to the chassis that is the surprise ending. The surprise itself is so convoluted that a special world with its own rules is devised to contain it, and even the rules of that world have to be bent and stroked at times to make everything fit snuggly. Remember all the crazy rules in Inception? They were still introducing them well into the movie (“Oh, by the way, if we die in this particular dream, we die for real.”)
As the audience, we follow the story and try to accept the rules handed to us, arbitrary though they are. And in the end, it all pays off: we’re left with a brain-melting revelation which suddenly changes everything we thought we knew. Well, everything we thought we knew about the contrived world we were presented with.
And that’s the hollowness that I leave these types of stories with. I’ve been entertained, but I’ve learned nothing of consequence. I can now intelligently discuss whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was, in fact, still dreaming at the end, but I will not live my life differently because of the story.
This type of story telling is like a magic show. You watch the performer, knowing something amazing will happen, and it does. You’re entertained briefly, and you might even spend some time trying to figure out how the trick worked. In the end, however, you walk out of the theater knowing it was all B.S., and you move on with your life.
There’s nothing wrong with hollow entertainment. I partake in it all the time without writing overly long blog posts about it. What bothers me is when people hold up games like Bioshock Infinite and movies like Inception (read any other Christopher Nolan movie) as deep, meaningful, and provocative. It’s akin to people holding up Criss Angel as some special being because he can levitate.
By all means, let’s enjoy the experience, but let’s also keep in mind that we are watching a trick – a piece of entertainment – which works only in a specific, forced situation. Instead of crowning such media as “mindblowing,” “visionary,” and “a real mind f#@k,” let’s all just pick our jaws up off the floor, thank the performers for a good time, and move on with our lives.