Right then. Before we set off, let’s get some things out of the way. This is my first ever blog for this website. If you consider my writing to be sub-par, you can nibble on my manly earlobes. And please bear in mind, English is not my native language. If you spot any mistakes and you feel the urge to gleefully point those out to me, you can massage my hairy calves. But, if any of the actual content of this bit of writing finds you entertaining opposite viewpoints backed up with actual arguments, please feel free to get medieval on my ass in the comments section. Also: SPOILERS. In huge quantities.
When playing Infinite the first time, I noticed pretty striking similarities with a game called “To the moon”, that are just too good not to explore for a bit, but before I go into actual spoiler territory, if you have played Bioshock Infinite (which is likely) but have not yet had a chance to play To the moon, stop reading RIGHT NOW and play the game. From this moment on, any time not spend playing that game constitutes a major lack of prioritization on your part. The thing is only 4-5 hours long, and the price on Steam is the equivalent to that of only two pints of lager. To the moon is probably one of the very few things in life that offer a more rewarding experience for that amount of money than drinking those two pints. But I digress.
This blog is about lighthouses. In both games, lighthouses play an important part in the story, and use the concept of lighthouses as metaphors in similar ways.
Let’s start with Infinite. As in the first Bioshock adventure, the game begins with a lighthouse from where the player travels to Rapture, which pretty much sums up the role of lighthouses in that first game. In Infinite on the other hand, lighthouses are featured more prominently as a metaphor and a story telling device. Later on in the game, Elizabeth explains to Booker that the stars in the sky are actually lighthouses. An infinite number of lighthouses that are portals to an infinite number of simultaneously existing universes. Only each universe is different. In one universe, the computer I am typing this blog on might be an HP, in another universe it might be Asus. In one universe, an eccentric leader of men with access to obscene amounts of money from obscure sources might create a city on the bottom of the ocean, in another universe it might be a city in the clouds. In one universe, Booker DeWitt might choose to be baptized after Wounded Knee and become said eccentric leader of men, in another universe he becomes muscle for crooks. In each universe a particular contingency has become reality. Contingency is a concept explored by German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (read http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/leibniz-modal/ for an introduction). In the world of Bioshock Infinite, lighthouses are the portals to these parallel – but different universes.
Lighthouses guide sailors to safe shores. They are the first visible sign of a new and different world waiting to be explored. When lost at sea, a speck of light in the distance can bring both excitement and apprehension of the approaching unknown. In Bioshock Infinite, Booker’s character is quite confused. He has memories from different events occurring simultaneous in different universes, leading to conflicting recollections (hence the bleeding nose). By being involved in multiple realities, Booker has lost track of reality itself. This is where Elizabeth comes in. She guides Booker through the multiple universes, and helps him discover the truth about himself. She is quite literally his personal lighthouse.
As a game, Bioshock Infinite is a far cry from To the moon, a hybrid point and click/puzzle game mostly designed and written by a single man, Canadian Kan Gao. To the moon’s gameplay mechanics are mostly forgettable (which is probably also true for Bioshock Infinite’s shooting mechanics), it is all about story, characters and the concepts the game explores. Let’s begin with a quote from one of the main characters, River, when she discusses the stars in the sky:
"I never told anyone, but... I've always thought they were lighthouses."
"Billions of lighthouses... stuck at the far end of the sky."
And boom goes the dynamite. But that is just the beginning. Both games presenting stars as lighthouses is a neat little coincidence, but it goes much further than that. My interpretation of River’s text is that lighthouses are actually people – all the people in the world. River says:
"Because one day... I'm going to befriend one of them."
River has Asperger’s syndrome and has difficulties making friends at school. But she believes there is somebody out there for her, and she is right, because she meets Johnny (she utters the quote above at that first meeting). River and Johnny agree to meet at the same spot a year later. If they fail to meet there, they agree to meet on the moon instead. But tragedy strikes: Johnny’s twin brother dies in a car accident. Johnny’s mother gives him strong pain killers that make him forget about his twin brother and tragic death. But Johnny also forgets about River and his date the following year. We can only imagine fragile young River waiting in vain at the lighthouse for Johnny to show up. But he never will.
When I become leader of the free world, my first directive will be the following: anybody who played To the moon and is not emotionally affected by the experience can no longer be allowed to refer to themselves – or be referred to by others – as being human. But I digress again.
But River and Johnny meet again, a few years later in high school. They fall in love, get married on the spot where they first met (which is now marked by a lighthouse), and obtain carnal knowledge from each other inside the lighthouse. As such, the lighthouse becomes a special place for them; they give it a pet name and when they start rolling in the dough, they decide to build a house right next to it. But the lighthouse has a more special meaning for River: she knows it marks the location where they first met. The older she gets, the more the tries to help Johnny remember. But he never does.
I have spent too much time on To the moon’s story already, and I have not even gotten to the meat of the game yet – the Inception inspired main plot. Rivers dies and when Johnny is on his death bed himself, he hires scientists Eva and Neil to fulfil his one last wish: to go to the moon. Neil and Eva set about doing this by going into his memory, plant the irresistible desire to go to the moon at a very early age, and watch how Johnny “changes” his memories in such a way as to accommodate this desire. In other words: make him remember he went to the moon.
Eva decides that the only way to make Johnny desire to go to the moon, is by removing his second meeting with River from his memory. It works: Johnny does not meet River in High School, is filled with a desire to go the moon (because his subconscious remembers he was supposed to meet River there) and is eventually accepted at NASA after years of study and training. But so is River. She is filled with the same desire (or Johnny’s recreated memory of River) to go to the Moon. They meet at NASA, fall in love, etc.
But back to lighthouses. The game suggests Johnny and River were destined to be together. Artificially splitting them up can only be temporary: as a ship inevitably finds a port using a lighthouse, so did Johnny and River inevitably find each other. But as in Bioshock Infinite, where Elizabeth can be seen as Booker’s lighthouse, so can River be seen as Johnny’s lighthouse. Both Booker and Johnny have lost touch with reality. Booker through his dabbling in multiple universes, Johnny through popping pills. Both these men are guided by their women: Elizabeth and River try to help the guys discover the truth about themselves.
Similarities do not end here. Both games suggest the existence of multiple realities. Granted, in To the moon these realities exist only within the mind, but then again, isn’t that true of everything in a sense? Both games also suggest that the course of events can be influenced, leading to these other realities. And both games use the concept of lighthouses to access these realities. As mentioned above, the lighthouses in Bioshock Infinite are the portals to other universes. In To the moon, the lighthouses are the people around us, and it’s the people around us how propel our lives in a certain direction. When Eva and Neil remove River from Johnny’s high school, they quite literally close off a particular direction Johnny’s life (or better, the memory of his life) would have taken otherwise. Instead, (the memory of) his life takes an alternate route, one that exists simultaneously to the previous (older) memory.
Bioshock Infinite’s title is not only a reference to its exploration of a multiverse conception, but most likely also to its development budget, which is quite probably similar to the GNP of a small European country. To the moon’s development budget is probably more comparable to the GNP of my back yard. I am not claiming that there is no need for massive development budgets in the gaming industry. Bioshock Infinite’s world is amazingly creative (and creatively amazing) which I am sure could not have been developed without an enormous budget. The point I am making here is that we have two completely different games exploring similar concepts through similar devices in their own unique ways.
In the introduction I encouraged everybody to go “medieval on my ass” if they find themselves in disagreement with any of my musings. If you decide to do so, please be gentle, it is my first time after all.