Bioshock Infinite Decoded: A New Brand of Time-Hopping

by on June 9, 2013

Bioshock Infinite undoubtedly tackled the ideas of time and dimension travel in a unique way previously untapped by video games, but did they really stick to the rules? Some may argue that there are no real “rules” when it comes to time travel, but Infinite certainly broke a few widely-accepted time laws in its quest to become one of the most critically acclaimed and awesome games of all time. Was this done on purpose, or did they truly bend the rules to fit their complex storyline?

By the way, yes, this contains spoilers. If you haven’t finished the game yet, go do it. Now. You’re welcome.

Let’s start by explaining the two major rules (actually, theories) of time travel: Tensed and Tenseless time. They were first introduced by John McTaggart in 1908 and have since spawned new discussions about the philosophy of time itself. These rules are also called the A theory and B theory, and contain even more theories within these theories. Please keep in mind that I’m just going to do a general summary of each of them. Incredibly general.

Tensed time is the idea that time flows or becomes, and is a changing entity. There is a past, a present, and a future. In this theory, the future is unknown and the past is gone, leaving this moment right now to be the only thing that is truly real. This also means that time travel is actually impossible, because the past no longer exists and the future does not exist yet. The future is unreal and open, whereas the past existed but is now long gone. Tensed time is the self-rewriting history that can be seen in Back to the Future and Radiant Historia, though these ignore many paradoxes that make this type of time travel functionally impossible.

In Tenseless time, the past, present, and future are all thriving and real. Time doesn’t flow, because there are fixed points. If you go back into the past, you always HAVE gone back into the past. A good example of this is found in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The wizard kiddies go back in time to save their friends, thinking that they had been killed. However, they see that they had been saved all along, by the version of themselves that had just gone back in time to save the friends. There was never a timeline where the friends died because they had always lived, because the wizard kidddies had always gone back in time to save them. In this theory, if you go back in time to do something, you ALWAYS went back in time to do something. Still with me here?

Now, let’s finally bring in Bioshock Infinite. I swear, I wasn’t going to ramble on about philosophy for the entire article. In the game, it is possible to time travel. We see this constantly, and it’s most obvious when Booker is brought into a tear where Elizabeth is old and blowing up the world below. So, since there is time travel, this means that we must be dealing with Tenseless time travel, right? Hold on for a second; this is where things get really twisted.


Elizabeth later suggests the idea that they cannot change what has already happened when she forces Booker to hand over Anna to Robert Lutece. It’s sort of like watching an interactive movie, essentially, but she doesn’t really explain herself too well here. However, this is still the same sort of idea that coincides more with Tensed time rather than with Tenseless time. It’s here that we start to see where the ideas mesh as well as collide with each other.

One of the biggest ideas in the game is about the ability to spawn infinite (title drop!) universes every time you are given a choice. With every choice, a new universe is spawned in which you make the other choice, but here starts a whole new round of issues. Take for example the choice between the Bird and the Cage. If the game had truly adhered to Tenseless time, everything you can do has already been done. You will always choose the bird, so therefore no alternate universe can be made because you have, had, and will choose it.

Old Elizabeth telling Booker to go back and save her younger self would be considered one of those fixed points in Tenseless time. She had always waited for Booker, then told him to go back and help her. But then, wouldn’t Old Elizabeth never exist because Booker does go back and save her? There’s no opportunity for Old Elizabeth to live long enough to tell Booker to save her because Booker already did save her when she was young. The idea is that old Elizabeth killing everyone doesn’t happen, but she is only “deleted” after she sends Booker back to save young Elizabeth. So basically, time seems to be manipulable to the point where you’re literally watching other universes be deleted as you hop to the ones you need, making time a tangible thing you can twist in your own two hands.

Here we have a case of a game taking the ideas of Tensed and Tenseless time, then adding alternate universes to it. Awesome as a game idea, horrendous if you’re a philosopher. The gameplay doesn’t fall into either theory because of the addition of alternate universes, creating its own internal logic so perfectly that you don’t even stop to nitpick the paradoxes until long after you’ve finished the game.

While this may have made for an astounding game, it also makes the storyline so ridiculously tangled that it literally requires its own brand of time travel to comprehend it. While Booker is able to jump forward or backward within the current timeline, he is also able to jump forwards or backwards into alternate timelines, allowing them a kind of inter-dimensional travel similar to that seen on Doctor Who. They take Tenseless time’s idea of being able to time-travel, but actually make it so that changes in the timeline can occur and spawn new universes, as well as “fixing” old ones… Alternate universes pop up with every real choice you make, but these universes can actually be visited and explored with little to no effort whatsoever. It really is just tripping down the rabbit hole, unsure of what lies at the bottom.

Of course, you couldn’t have gone all the way back to kill the Comstock timeline until Elizabeth basically became the new God, but should that even be possible in the first place? Technically, that means that you’ve just deleted the entire game from ever even existing, leaving many open questions about the fate of Columbia’s Elizabeth and the Luteces. I absolutely adored the game, but I felt as though a nosebleed was simply too little a price to pay for the time-travelling, universe-creating, history-altering messes Booker and Elizabeth created throughout the game. Some paradoxes and a pinch of crazy dust is usually accepted when releasing such a beautiful game, but the Luteces should have been hired to help come up with logical time-travelling ideas. After all, they built a floating city, right?