Bioshock Infinite is a terrifying, horrible monster with a beautiful singing voice. It is a reflection of US history, a provocative take on the hypocritical messages that come with American principles, past and present. Land of the free! And slavery. Land of opportunity! And profiteering. It talks about blood-lust and religion. It talks about progress and fascism. It talks about videogames, too. It's sort of like seeing George W. Bush at a Neil Young concert.
The question I continually asked while I was playing through Bioshock Infinite, which saw worldwide release late last month, was "why is this a Bioshock game?" The series, of course, has come to be known for Rapture, its gorgeous, deco-modernist, undersea
utopia dystopia, along with the haunting whale groans of the iconic Big Daddy filling the flooded halls, and the maniacal denizens circling around you in the masquarade of their lost sanity. Only here, Infinite's setting has been replaced by Columbia, a floating city in the sky, a symbol of America's coming superpower-dom, taking place in 1912.
In Columbia, patriotism has given way to piety, and this city's leader is the figure-head of the cult, with the Founding Fathers becoming idols of worship. It has the highest rate of employment of sculptors of any city that ever existed. And boy, are these people fucking racist.
I can almost imagine Ken Levine, the game's creative director, sitting in on an early concept meeting, hands resting palm-to-palm just under his nose like a namaskar to one's brain. "But what if it's OK for us to talk about racism by making the city racist?" he questions, while one junior gameplay designer nods feverishly along in confused agreement.
Bioshock Infinite sets out to explore the issue of racism. But it just comes off a little brutish, potentially because just before and after meaningful moments in the story that play with the idea of racism, you have to mow down whichever side of this civil war isn't trying to kill you, be that Columbia's rich white policeforce or the down-trotten yet violent Irish and Black 99 percenters, Vox Populi. The game holds the dejected view that either leader of either side are equally horrible, which is carried over again from the original Bioshock.
One time in Finktown, a shanytown for factory workers, I saw a bunch of people in line for something that looked like a desk. I saw something I wanted--a vial--just behind the man at the desk. This apparently was a storefront, and by stepping over an invisible line these men, whom I now realize were trying to distribute food, pulled out shotgun, engaging in combat with me. I can't apologize. I can run away--which I did, but when I emerged from the bar I'd holed up in, they were waiting for me. I had no choice but to kill them--men, distributing food to the poor. I swear I saw a tutorial message at the beginning of the game that said I could avoid fights whenever possible, but those moments didn't happen in my playthrough.
Perhaps most interesting of all is a museum in Columbia dedicated to the "Battle" at Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion. One is a flat out lie. The other, the very same anti-foreigner, frenzied nationalism that Columbia practices fanatically. With all these ideas swirling around, Bioshock Infinite does offer some interesting questions, if only because videogames rarely enter this territory. But they do so ineligantly, not because it's violent. This because the world, Columbia, doesn't make sense the way Rapture did.
Columbia is a beautiful and terrifying world to explore. Unlike Rapture, which is intimidating at first, Columbia lulls you in, as it's heavenly visage appears in tandem with the way we first saw Rapture back in 2007. The awe and splendor of Columbia lasts for a while; this isn't a city torn apart, but a perfect city, carelessly floating on giant balloons. It didn't take me long to realize that this perfection is anything but. It's delusory. You are the pinprick that will send this balloon town into its downward spiral, farting and flapping erratically through time and space itself until finally the exhausted thing lands, deflated and opaque.
Instead of the series standard silent protagonist--Jack in I, Subjct Delta in II--you play Infinite as Booker DeWitt. Booker is a videogame character. He's brooding, handsome. He holds a gun over his shoulder on the box art. He's got a mysterious and dark past he can't escape from. He doesn't suffer fools lightly, and he will quip about any number of situations as you experience them except for recognizing the tens of hundreds of people he mows down with his science-y magic hands and trigger finger.
I thought Irrational Games could discuss these ideas about American imperialism, racism, our tendency to re-write history, as well as the misuse of organized religion, especially Christianity, as justification for violence. And yet this experience is Booker's experience--his thoughts are my thoughts, and I am only along for the ride, the cold puppet hands to his confused and hardened mind. As insult to injury, Booker is another in a recent and long list of Take Two Games characters who can be summed up as "I'm kind of getting too old for this but I've got one last job to do." Why? Maybe Levine and other creative directors making games at Take Two feel like they're getting too old, or maybe they're trying to keep the 18-24 year old demographic from ten years ago cornered. Either way, the trope too is getting old.
Whereas in the original Bioshock you at least had the comfort of knowing the people you were killing have gone insane from splicing their genes so they can shoot fire and electricity out of their hands, in this game the only reason these people are hostile toward you is because you've been harolded a heretic, and later because you are mistaken for a ghost. Seriously. At times you'll question how superstitious those who live on the backs of zeppelins really can be, however they seem to think that shooting live crows from your hands by drinking a bottle is passé, as a collective sigh can be heard from the citizens. Early in the game you'll be in a Columbian exposition of sorts (World's Faire plays a big role in the aesthetic of the game), and more people will be gathered in awe over an electric horse than to see a man who can alter the physical properties of his hand to produce electricity by drinking snake oil.
The spider splicer from the original Bioshock showing off her shocking biological abilities
I thought the original Bioshock was a game about choices, about power, about how deep you sink into this crumbling, beautiful world, now a savage and horrible place, and how you'll resurface as either a terrifying monster or as the only shred of humanity that survived the crushing pressure of the ocean's depth. I chose when and how to interrupt the Rapture ecology, if I wanted more power, I could take it, but I had to be prepared to engage the hulking dive suits, the iconic Big Daddy. How and when I engaged them in combat, how I fit into the food-chain, was a more powerful choice to me than the more toted yet binary choice of whether I would harvest or rescue these horrifying and horrified daughters; my choice about being a "good" or "bad" guy.
Bioshock Infinite is a game about no choices. Instead, the player is given "possibilities." It's a bit tongue in cheek--frivilously citing quantum mechanics--but the player's actions will occassionally result in narrative dead ends, which requires the player to fall through the rabbit holes of a story about rewriting time and space; hence "infinite." But this is not a choice. Replay the game and you'll realize none of the few choices you made had any bearing on the events whatsoever.
The game suffers from the AAA problem of having been successful in the past. All of the climactic moments are there to impress you, unlike the "stumple upon" splendor of the original. For whatever reason, game designers in high places see themselves more akin to filmmakers, and their work suffers because of it. These heavily scripted events, while impressive, aren't interactive, aren't true to the form of videogames.
Many of the mechanics from the series remain in tact, with small cosmetic changes and fixes to things that aren't broken. Audio logs are back, which are still great. No more hacking, which is fine. Gunplay is fun and varied. The vigors, which come in beautifully designed bottles, not only show off the Irrational's serious art direction chops, but also are incredibly fun to play and strategize with. I only wish the vigors were introduced more consecutively throughout the game, as you seem to get the final four in one swoop. The rollercoaster sky-line feels perfect. I was skeptical at first back in the E3 2011 demo, but boy, did they deliver.
Gorgeous bottles, dude
But let's talk about cabinets. I am addicted to looking through cupboards, crates, and all kinds of containers to scrounge up spare change, ammunition I don't need, scraps of food and Smelling Salts. There is a dissonance between the story, the events taking place, and me playing the game, because all I ever want to do is look through boxes. I suppose I could just stop looking through them. But nope. It's impossible. The syringe mechanic, which in the previous Bioshocks allows you to refill your health and "magic" is now gone. So it's essential for you to dig up potato chips from garbage cans to refill your health.
While this way of playing encourages discovery, I'd rather be left alone to discover without being forced to. I want to explore this world. Give yourself some credit, Irrational. There could be a critical moment in the story--say, Elizabeth and I are running from Songbird, the aviary Big Daddy-ish character of Columbia. What is a real sense of urgency is overpowered by the thought that I may have forgotten to eat a fucking snack in the previous room.
Perhaps the biggest change to Bioshock Infinite's gameplay is the inclusion of your companion, the aforementioned Elizabeth, a young woman who can find supplies for you and fling coins at your face. Elizabeth is also a young woman who can rip holes through time and space and create alternate realities based on her own imagination. The strategic, arena-like gameplay familiar to the series is greatly enhanced by her inclusion, as she can summon automated gun turrets and additional weaponry for your benefit all across the battlefield. That's fun.
Elizabeth is an interesting character who is the center of the plot, and while her personality and charm take center stage (thanks to some brilliant motion capture and voiceover acting) there's still a little room for polish. I watched her talk to a grieving widow and realized how alien and Disney princess-y she looks compared to the rest of the world's characters, The oft-toted AI for the character, the way she interacts with the world independent of you, really only feels special in a few moments. While often she'll just be closely examining nothing in particular, she does occasionally remark about the setting or object she's observing in a very cool attempt at bringing life to what would normally be a burdensome escort character. She is not a burdensome escort character.
Belle from Beauty and the Beast × Dr. Manhattan = Elizabeth
All in all, Elizabeth really is the star of the game, both technically speaking and in terms of story line. However, I broke Elizabeth by walking erratically, screwing up her walking animations, having her throw coins through walls, and starring at me while her virtual brain couldn't decide which pose to strike, a movement remarkably like Thom Yorke dancing. Having said that, the technology at work in this game is breathtaking to see, hear, and feel; with aging hardware and an ancient Unreal engine under the hood, it's really amazing what the team at Irrational was able to pull out of the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, even if a little light is coming through the seams, especially the surprisingly low-res textures of designed objects found in the world. I am told these problems don't exist if you're playing on a PC that can handle it. Good on you, PC people.
The original Bioshock's iconic sound design stayed with me for years. It was haunting, wet, and horrifying. I'll never forget those strings flying out of my chest. The music was perfect. The entire soundtrack was like that scene in Blue Velvet when that suave guy sings Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." Exploring such a derelict city to the tune of Django Reinhardt was a sharp contrast and a perfect fit.
But a new sound emerges here. Gone are the creaks and rust of a city collapsing under it's own pressure. Now we hear the mechanical hum of industry, creaks replaced with the tension of rope and gas holding the buildings afloat. The soundtrack is a bit of a surprise that I'd rather not spoil here. If you're playing on the Playstation 3, there is a special mode designed by Irrational for use with the PULSE Elite Headset, which is one of the most immersive sound experiences I've ever felt. Strapping a surround sound system to your face might not be your natural inclination, but it's pretty great to give the audio team an opportunity to completely control the player's experience. The sound pumps into you with such power that it makes me rethink what virtual reality could have been as an audio only experience. This type of sound interface just blew me away.
The Bioshock series will be best remembered for commenting on the videogame medium itself. Infinite almost too heavy-handedly opens that door for you. It forces you to consider the places you find yourself in, celebrating the act of creating a world by having the characters see the holes in it. As its messy plot and impossible world are finally pulled together, it is but one instance where all is understood before everything fades away. It feels a little too biographical, and almost a little jaded by the game's need to be a Bioshock title. I can't tell if the creators are blowing off steam about not getting to make this a new IP, or if they seem a little restricted by the videogame structure, which they adhere to closely.
At the end of the day, Bioshock Infinite is about relationships. How do these characters interact? How do they feel toward one another? How do they recognize each other? How do they forget eachother? How do they forget themselves? How do the rich interact with the misfortunate? How do the privilieged treat the powerless? Answered or not, this is a successful videogame. The world is lush and interesting, and the creatures that inhabit this world--Elizabeth particularly--are conceived well enough. Gone is the "shock" from the Rapture's story about the striving for progress and the limits of human potential, replaced instead by Columbia's story about already achieving perfection, it's effect on the populus, and its leaders consciously knowing that they are anything but.
And yet, why is this a Bioshock game? I realized that a Bioshock game is and always will be about the relationship between the sublime and the beautiful. The ecology of the Big Daddy and Little Sisters of Rapture is here, somewhere, and to me that simple relationship remains just as powerful. By that alone it lives up to its namesake.
What did you think of Bioshock Infinite? Follow Colin at @scallopdelion to chat about it.