This was written in August of last year, but as my opinion on the game hasn’t changed in nearly a year, I decided to post it here. Originally written for Epinions, but since the user portion of their site has gone belly-up, I’ll put it here to keep the site from going any more than half a year without content.
To what extent can a single, seemingly unassuming choice end up changing the world?
It’s a question with an ultimately startling answer in Bioshock Infinite, but it’s only one of the many layers that former Pinkerton detective Booker DeWitt has to sift through in the flying city of Columbia. Amidst these celestial heights, with the cryptic prompt that he must “bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt”, Booker finds himself at the seat of a theocratic dystopia that provides a stark and possibly disturbing look at early 20th century racism, and the tactics used to justify it.
The deeper he dives into this steampunk nightmare, the more Booker comes to realize that there is far more to his own history, and to existence itself, than he ever could have imagined.
There’s only so much that I would prefer to say about the plot specifics, because this is an adventure that demands to be experienced first-hand, and the story is the main reason for it. But I will say this: every so often, we come across a narrative that elevates itself above its station (in this case, as a video game) and becomes a benchmark for the art of storytelling as a whole. There are some extremely weighty concepts at work here: the metaphysical entwines with the intensely personal, against a backdrop of social repression and upheaval, and the narrative balances all of it without buckling under the immense weight. While the previous two Bioshock titles both dealt with the follies of political extremism, neither one was as thematically ambitious as the monster of storytelling on display here.
But there’s also a game in here somewhere, isn’t there?
While the interface will recall the previous Bioshock games, Plasmids are replaced by Tonics, but both serve the purpose of a secondary weapon to spice up the combat, as well as an occasional puzzle-solver. A big new draw is the Skyhook, which acts as both a steampunk grappling hook and as a surprisingly brutal melee weapon – which, by the way, failed to get old for me at any point.
The idea of listening to audio logs from citizens of the dystopia in question is alive and well in the form of Voxophones. This remains a great narrative device that is unique to the video game medium: it allows the player to absorb the world at their own pace, and to the extent that they want, whereas a film or novel would need some way to work this information into the narrative proper. Once again it’s handled well, though I highly recommend listening closely to every Voxophone you find: they’ve hidden some very interesting stuff in those machines for you to hear.
And just because you accompany female lead Elizabeth for most of the game, doesn’t mean this is an escort mission; rather, it’s more like Elizabeth is escorting you, keeping you well-stocked with health and ammo when you’re running low. (A meta commentary on escort missions?) That said, this element might make some players feel like they’re being spoon-fed their way through the game. While the need to potentially scavenge fallen enemies mid-battle and switch weapons on the go for lack of ammo adds a layer of challenge and variety to the combat, some players may find even the ‘normal’ difficulty not so challenging for their tastes.
The visuals have traded off the ruinous art-deco aesthetic of the first Bioshock’s Rapture for Columbia’s steampunk environment, slathered in pre-Great War-era attire and imagery. But mixed among it are the kinds of nightmarish creativity that would do Rapture proud: not the least of which is the Songbird, a colossal cybernetic avian that comes off like a melding of the Big Daddies from Rapture and Ridley from the Metroid series. He’s one of those characters/creatures who makes a point of completely owning the stage whenever he appears in a scene. It might be disappointing to some players that you never truly get a boss battle with him, but without spoiling anything, his climactic appearance is…something even more memorable.
And speaking of nightmarish, Bioshock veterans know that the squeaky-clean veneer that opens your view of Columbia at the outset can’t possibly last. The artistic team did a brilliant job of depicting a city that, where Rapture had already fallen to madness, is in the process of falling from grace. By the end of the game, survivors of Rapture will feel right at home amongst Columbia’s disarray. It’s garishly beautiful.
If the first Bioshock was a deconstruction of the idea of mission-based gameplay in video games (not my words), then Infinite almost feels like a deconstruction of the idea of sequels and the power and relevance they can hold. And suitably enough, this is an incredible example of a sequel that does justice to the original, and also expands on the themes and ideas present in the original. A good sequel exists because the artist did not say all that they needed to say with the original, and that very much feels like it’s the case here.
I really have to congratulate the writing team on this, one more time. The layering of political science and actual science is really well done, and while the sociopolitical climate of Columbia is swallowed up by the metaphysics after a certain point, it still feels like an incredibly multi-layered adventure right to the final curtain. Any writer into speculative science fiction can pump out a story about time travel and alternate realities, but it takes a gifted hand to pen it in a way that compels you instead of making you reach for the Aspirin. Ken Levine might just be the Stephen Moffat of video games.
And that’s actually not a bad comparison. If you like the kind of cerebral adventure Doctor Who provides, you’ll probably love Bioshock Infinite even more. You want another easy example of video games so easily being able to interface with other kinds of narrative media? Boom, Bioshock Infinite, and Bob’s your uncle.
Be it for 360, PS3 or PC, get this game and play it. Immerse yourself in the environment and see how the extremism of Columbia has swallowed the American dream; get glued to the story and find out just what lies beyond the next tear.
For Booker and Elizabeth, there’s no turning back.