I never completed Bioshock or Bioshock 2. I’ve owned them for a long time, but I quickly became bored with the first one. Yes, I agree, it had an amazing atmosphere, the potential for an awesome story, and made you think. That last part is the big one for me, since so few games ever make you think (at least not in the way that books and movies can often do). As such, I approached Bioshock Infinite with a great deal of trepidation – I didn’t want another game to sit idly on my shelf, waiting to be completed. I am so very thankful to my friend who bought the game for me, because without that choice, I may of found myself in a world where I never played the latest Bioshock game. What a sad and miserable world that would have been because Infinite is the great American Nightmare that I dreamed it would be.
Story, Setting, Characters, and Themes:
In Infinite, you play as Booker DeWitt, a wayward soul in search of a ‘princess in a tower’ who is the key to absolving him his debt. The catch is that the tower in which she is being kept is high up in the sky, rising above the clouds as just another landmark dotting the landscape of a floating city-state named Columbia. Ruled by the Prophet Comstock, Columbia is a pastiche built out of the American history, and made real as a city of wonder in the early 1900’s. Wrapped in a shiny package of salvation and true devotion to God, Columbia is a seemingly heavenly place where people get a leg up in reaching for salvation by living in the closest city to God ever built.
Only, this isn’t a perfect utopia: there is a deep, dark underside to the shining city on a hill … err … cloud. When I said Columbia was put together out of pieces of American history, I meant it. The city’s populace have a great deal of devotion to American ideals like freedom and liberty and a love for at least three of the Founding Fathers: Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln also makes an appearance, but as an idealized figure for Columbia’s opposition faction, the Vox Populi. Washington, specifically, shows up many time and time again as either an automated tour guide or as a murderous robot. Despite the seriousness of the game and setting, I couldn’t stop smirking when I first saw George Washington, the robot, squaring off against the Vox Populi’s Abraham Lincoln robot. I never expected a robotic deathmatch between American Presidents when I signed up to play Infinite.
However, Infinite goes far beyond worshiping the Founding Fathers. Manifest Destiny, the supremacy of whites over other races, and the dark side of capitalism when it comes to factory labor and monopolies, all rear their ugly heads in Columbia. In the same way that the prophecies of Father Comstock are at the core of Columbia’s founding, so too are these other ideas. When you first arrive in Columbia, it looks like a man-made heaven, and a place where one truly can find salvation. Instead of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all men who are created equal, Columbia’s real American ideals are lurking just beneath the surface. Strip it away, and you realize that everything about this beautiful city built on a foundation of hatred, greed, and bigotry.
Those are the moments when Infinite’s setting works best. The game has an overwhelming since of horror and suspense to it, even when you first arrive. You know without a doubt that things aren’t right in Columbia before you even hit New Game. Still, Irrational manages to deliver a few gut punches with just how wrong things really are in Columbia. The first one comes when you are asked to throw a baseball you won in a raffle at white man and black woman who were caught in certain act. That’s when the walls of Columbia start to come down, and you realize that slave labor (utilizing both Irish and Black populations) are still in full force. Cartoon monkeys with big lips and a comment about ‘taking your coffee black’ only heighten the experience into actual disgusting levels. As I said before, it is rare that games make you think, but it is even rarer that they hold up a mirror to your own world and demand you no longer ignore what you see in that reflection.
You get another punch later when you visit the factory and shanty town of Columbia. Here, you are greeted with a short movie about fixing the Irish problem and set free in a world of poverty, hunger, and hard labor. It was only a passing comment, but the industrial area’s leader, Jeremiah Fink, mentions the practice of paying employees with tokens only good for the company store. Especially prevalent with mining companies in more removed locations, companies would pay their workers with credits that weren’t worth any cash value, but could be exchanged at the company store for food, clothing, and other necessities. These stores were almost always monopolies, so their pricing was almost never really fair. Listen to a classic folk song like “Sixteen Tons” and you’ll have a better understanding of how the practice was little more than an easy way to exploit hard laborers to make even more money.
Outside of Columbia’s rotten core, I am thankful the anti-religion elements aren’t really a part of it. I had read that in earlier iteration’s of the game, Ken Levine (the Creative Director and a co-founder of Irrational Games) had a far more vocal anti-religion theme running through the game, but after hearing some heavy criticism from team members decided to do some re-writing. As an atheist, there are certainly things you can criticize religion for, especially when it comes to the way Christianity has been used throughout American history as a justification for a lot of what is actually rotten in Columbia. However, I don’t think it is fair to argue those claims while also still making a great video game that is worth people’s time. It’s far too nuanced an issue to really be discussed in this medium, and I am happy they Levine it out and presumably refocused on far more important issues.
As much as I loved exploring Columbia, I also rather enjoyed the personal arc for the game’s leads, Booker and Elizabeth. The multiple universe, interweaving plot line may be a bit much for some people to really grasp. Thankfully, I took Metaphysics in college, so it’s nothing I haven’t studied [yes, I actually studied this stuff] before. Like any good twist ending relying heavily on science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy, there is a lot of wiggle room, I feel, for multiple interpretations of Infinite’s ending. I’ve already began arguing with it with one friend, and, though I won’t go into it here, I will say that I very much loved it. Often, stories like these set themselves up to fail by relying on a stupid twist, but I think Infinite handled it well with a sort of paradox. I can see some people maybe feeling some slight disappointment from it, but I think it works which is enough for me.
Combat & Progression:
The story, setting, and characters are the real highlight of Bioshock Infinite, and the only real reason you should be playing the game. The rest of the game, I found to be okay, but nothing impressive.
That’s not to say that shooting guns, hiding behind crates, upgrading weapons and vigors, and the enemy design are bad. At times, they are quite good, but overall, Bioshock Infinite can feel like a bit of a slog. Most of that comes from the fact that the narrative and setting are drawing you in so much that you don’t want to be distracted by anything else. Other times, it is because upgrading weapons and Vigors feels like a minor addition to the game, and you just can’t be bothered to care.
Don’t start writing your comment yet because I didn’t really love Bioshock’s combat. Playing the game portion of Bioshock is still loads of fun, depending on your mileage with the genre. I just can’t help but think that instead of very weak RPG elements or a heavy focus on shooting, Bioshock might benefit more with adventure and puzzle elements. The game does start you off with ringing bells in a specific order based on a picture, but then never uses that bit of gameplay again. The game is also willing to give shooting a long break, instead giving you the time to take in the world of Columbia in all of its majesty. With Elizabeth’s unique abilities and Booker’s blank slate background, Bioshock could have embraced a style of gameplay that better facilitated the beautiful, deep world they’ve created for us, one that would only further draw you into its embrace,allowing you to paint the town red in more ways than just in blood.
I was also a little turned off by the violence. Most of the time, it makes sense and fits with the dark story line and bleak themes, but I found myself turned off by it when it was ratcheted up to ultraviolent for no reason. By no means am I feint of heart: I love horror movies and games that are violent for the sake of being violent alike, but Infinite struck me the wrong way for some reason. I think with such a meaningful story that has some great social commentary, I was hoping for visuals that didn’t go straight for the “yay gore!” crowd with every execution, disintegration, and immolation. Overall, it’s a minor complaint given the state of gaming and how extra violence is the rule rather than exception, but if you are squeamish at all, then shoving faces into spinning metal will probably be upsetting for you.
Complaints and gripes aside, the variety of guns and enemies are nice for any FPS game. If you are a fan of the genre, then Bioshock Infinite will not disappoint you. Every major type of gun is represented, enemies can give you some serious challenges at times (especially Handymen, which still kick my ass on a consistent basis), and the Vigors are pretty varied. The two gun limitation might be a minor gripe, if only for the lack of ammunition later on in the game, which sometimes lead to respawn loops where your firepower is severely, severely limited. Elizabeth’s ability to help resupply you fixes this somewhat, but is ultimately a little too inconsistent for my liking. Ultimately, the gameplay experience of Bioshock Infinite has moments of averageness and moments of greatness, and will keep you looking for more for most of the game.
I completed Bioshock Infinite in approximately fifteen hours on PC, playing on Hard difficulty. It was worth every penny (assuming I had spent roughly 6000 of them). Easily one of the best games I have finished in the last decade of my life, Bioshock Infinite is a marvel of story-telling that sadly has few peers in gaming. In time, it’s story and world have a chance to rival even Planescape: Torment’s crown as a major achievement for narrative in gaming. It doesn’t hurt that the game also features great graphics and a fun shooter experience to deepen the game’s value. If you are a gamer, this is a must play game. If you aren’t, this is still something I think you should experience. Bioshock Infinite is a dream come true and easily one of the best games of all time.
If I had to rate Bioshock Infinite I would give it: