The other night I finally finished Bioshock Infinite. Having finished the game, I can now read some of the excellent writing that has filled the sails of the Internet for the last month. I had not planned to write anything about the game, but the first critical response I read was Tim Rogers analysis and inevitably it crystallized some thoughts.
Rogers has coined a rather good new concept: ludonarrative interference. It is a twist on the ancient dogma of ludonarrative dissonance and describes cases where corners of the game’s interactive systems jut into the narrative experience; to quote Rogers phrase, “when a little taken-for-granted videogame design trope unceremoniously bubbles corpse-like to the surface of a game’s story’s otherwise pristine ocean”.
Rogers concept puts words to an experience that I had on my first arrival in the city. When you get through the forced baptism and out into Columbia, the game is careful not to throw you straight into a gunfight. Instead, you get an unexpectedly lengthy stroll through Columbia’s shopping district. This is the game’s first push to build a sense of place. Irrational want you to take Columbia seriously, as a living, breathing city that is more than just wallpaper for shoot-outs. You can’t actually do much during this period (or at least not in the FPS sense of ‘do’); however, one thing you can do is start gathering resources and replenishing your health. Having been playing FPS for the best part of two decades, I know exactly how this works and I know that all kinds of useful things are found around corners and in desks and rubbish bins.
When I emerged from the baptism I quickly saw that people had been leaving coins about, presumably as offerings. I snaffled the lot and kept my eye out for more. I shortly discovered that food products operated as the traditional videogame cure-all. As I went sight-seeing I kept my eye out for more cash and candy. I also started nonchalantly checking the rubbish bins as I went, as you do.
This was the point at which a ludic corpse bubbled to the surface so close to my face that even 20 years of circle-strafing couldn’t edit it out. I found cash in a litter bin. Then I found more cash in another and another and another.
What kind of person throws away hard cash? That was the question that broke through my immersion in Columbia’s budding narrative. It became a riddle. Is this a society so wealthy, so untroubled by economic scarcity, that its inhabitants are relaxed about dropping their coinage into the trash? What does it even mean for a society to behave like this en masse?
In retrospect, I have found cash in the trash in games before. An example that springs to mind is Fallout 3‘s bottlecaps. In that case, it strikes a nice note: contrasting the contemporary value of bottlecaps as a means of exchange with their historical origin as a by-product of consumption by the pre-apocalyptic Virginians.
But in Columbia the experience was different. Partly this was, I suspect, because I wasn’t exposed to distracting threats; I was not yet in an FPS proper. Partly it was because I was ostensibly visiting a living culture in its heyday rather than scurrying through its ruins in traditional videogame style. But the question remained: what does it mean for a society when its citizens persistently throw away hard cash? This was the loose thread that I had found dangling at the corner of Bioshock Infinite’s tapestry and I couldn’t resist tugging at it as I made my way through the shops and carnival fair.
My initial, tentative hypothesis had been that the society, or this layer of the society at any rate, had bootstrapped its way out of scarcity. Maybe the Columbians’ technology had advanced to the point where there was little or no trade-off between different consumption choices. Maybe Columbians could have their guns and their butter. Maybe cake today did not mean foregoing bread tomorrow. As such, maybe its no big deal if you drop your wallet in the rubbish bin. Happens all the time. (A friend of mine saw someone do just this in MacDonald’s once: tipped the tray and then realised.)
However, the explanation doesn’t hold up. The purpose of a means of exchange is that it operates as an abstraction of value. As physical objects, tiny metal discs are pointless. Their usefulness is derived entirely from the collective understanding by members of a society that these discs can be given or received in place of bartering goods or services. Rather than swapping a turnip for three carrots and then swapping two carrots for an apple, you can simply swap the turnip for some universally recognised coins and then swap some of those for your apple.
If the Columbians no longer have any need to barter, if any given Columbian can have turnips and carrots and apples together, then the means of exchange has no usefulness, which would explain why people are relaxed about throwing their coins in the bin. However, if the coins have no usefulness then why do they exist at all? The only reason for the Columbians to manufacture coins in the first place is for use as a means of exchange. Have the Columbians gone to the effort of stamping millions of Silver Eagles on a whim?
I refined my theory. Maybe Silver Eagles had originated as a functioning means of exchange but had outlived their usefulness as the society moved to a post-scarcity economy. Maybe the Silver Eagles that are found scattered on benches and in litter bins are relics of this earlier time.
The revised theory did not hold up for much longer, unfortunately. As you move through the city there are several shops you can pop into selling groceries, books and so forth. The shops had cash registers. Later in the game several buildings had safes that were stuffed full of Silver Eagles. At the carnival fair, you could pay to have a go with the entertainments. It was clear that some Columbians were definitely using these Silver Eagles as a means of exchange. So why were other Columbians throwing them in the bin and leaving them lying around on benches?
Within a human-normal interpretation of Columbian behaviour, I couldn’t reach an internally consistent explanation of why they would throw cash in the trash. So I reached the remaining, and I think correct, conclusion: the Columbians simply can’t see a lot of these coins. They can see some of the coins, the ones in the cash registers and safes. They can presumably see the coins that they carry in their own pockets. However, they can’t see the coins in the litter bins or scattered on the park benches and balustrades of the floating city. I am the only person who can see those coins. Like Truman, I am just a little bit more special than everyone else.