Saints Row IV vs Bioshock Infinite: The Illusion of Choice.


On the surface the question seems fairly absurd. One is a beautifully crafted tale of redemption set in a floating city and the other lets you beat people around the head with a dildo bat, but hear me out here. Oh yeah for the record…

SPOILER ALERT! Do not read this unless you have completed Bioshock Infinite, Saints Row IV and watched the Matrix Trilogy…or if you just don’t care about spoilers that’s fine too.

OK so let’s start with Bioshock Infinite. On the surface it’s an action filled romp through a floating city to take on some nutty religious cult leader who wants to conquer the world. We have Booker DeWitt as our anti-hero and Comstock as the straight-up bad guy. But as the story gets deeper we start to learn that things are not what they seem. Rather than ruin the whole plot for you, I’m just going to really ruin the end bit. We find out that Comstock and Booker are just alternative versions of the same man, one who chose to be baptised and one who couldn’t go through with it.

Baptised Comstock found a new and somewhat bonkers purpose in life and founded the city of Columbia. Booker got drunk and gambled so much he had to give away his kid to pay off the debt. This all fits in with the game’s theme of choice. You see, whilst choice is shown to be so important to characters when you, the player, did not actively make the choice e.g. Booker’s original decision to become Comstock – the decisions the player does get to make are shown to be entirely meaningless. It doesn’t matter if you pick heads or tails, the bird or the cage or even whether you let Slate live or kill him. None of these choices matter. As the game so eloquently puts it, there are constants and variables. The variables may change but they can have no effect on the constants.

This was ground-breaking story-telling in the eyes of many, myself included, when Bioshock Infinite came out earlier this year. The game deliberately pointed out the fallacy of choice in games, and why giving the player a choice was in many respects meaningless. Look at the hissy fit that people threw at the Mass Effect 3 endings. Three games and hundreds of choices lead to a single, disappointing choice of red, green or blue. The game has the power, and it gives you the illusion of choice to make you think that you’re the one in control.

But hang on a minute. That line sounds a little familiar doesn’t it? “Choice is an illusion created between those with power and those without.” That line was uttered by the Merovingian in the Matrix: Reloaded.

We’ll come back to the Matrix in a second, but for now let’s bring up Saints Row IV. To say it occasionally references The Matrix would be an understatement. The Simulation is the Matrix, the Wardens are Agents, you have super powers etc. etc. So it should come as little surprise that the game also directly references a few moments from the film trilogy, including the scene where Neo meets the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded.

Matrix architect

You have a little chat with Zinyak, the big bad guy in Saints Row IV for those of you struggling to keep up. Then Zinyak offers you a choice, go through the blue door and continue to fight him fruitlessly and risk the lives of every human being left alive, or take the red door and surrender yourself to execution, but with the promise the rest of humanity will be released.

This echoes the choice that Neo is given by the Architect, but there is a major difference that sets it apart and links back to The Merovingian’s/Bioshock Infinite’s message about choice. In the film it is said that Neo has already made the choice, both by the Oracle and the Architect. In essence who he is leads him to that choice, all he must do is understand why. In contrast the choice in Saints Row IV has also already been made, but not by the player. The game has made the choice, as if you pick the red door you die, the game ends and you reload your checkpoint just before the choice is made. The game is giving you the illusion of choice but it, like Bioshock Infinite seems aware of that fact, even giving you the achievement ‘You chose…poorly’ for picking the red door. There is only one choice, you have to go through the blue door to continue the game, but by giving you the illusion of choice, Saints Row IV gives you a sense of power, a measure of control.

So yeah, that’s kind of it. I know it was a bit of a roller-coaster of logic but the point of it all was this. Don’t judge a game by its cover…or its giant dildo baseball bat. Saints Row IV may not have the intricately crafted narrative of Bioshock Infinite, but it can still be incredibly intelligent and thought provoking when it’s not asking you to blow stuff up with Keith David.

What do you think? Am I onto something here or has Saints Row’s utter insanity started to seep into my brain? Let me know what you think in the comments below.