I have to admit that sometimes, having what some would call rigid moral standards can sometimes bite me in the ass. The first Bioshock is considered one of the greatest games of all time, and yet to this day, I’ve never played it because of my boycott of the SecuROM DRM software that the PC version used. Though I could have easily played the console version, I decided that to buy the console version was to effectively say “2K, I am punishing you for your PC decisions by handing you the same amount of money for your console game, which you can’t possibly screw up”. Call it a self-defeating rule of thumb, but idealistic boycotts have always been more about consistency than about reasoning.
Eventually, years later, SecuROM was dropped, and with it, my reason to hold out on one of the greatest games of all time. However, by the time I noticed that had happened, Bioshock Infinite hit. At that point, I figured I could get to Bioshock later; why not work on what’s been described as a remake of the original anyway? As a bonus, the rented copy of Bioshock Infinite even came with an installable version of the original game! Two for the price of one rental! And to top it off, thanks to a bad ankle injury, I had all the time, and all the morphine, I would need to fully enjoy the experience!
I was well aware that Bioshock has been as much of a poltical statement as it has been about being a video game, but the best way I can describe Bioshock Infinite is this: if the original Bioshock is an extrapolation of Ayn Rand’s fantasy world, Infinite is Glenn Beck’s version. The setting is Columbia, a floating city in the sky that was effectively disowned from the United States after being involved in the Boxer Rebellion, becoming a libertarian utopia of sorts, so long as the judge is a white person. The game takes on numerous touchy subjects from around this time, from racism to American Exceptionalism to the dangers of propaganda and cults of personality – the main antagonist, Zachary Hale Comstock, is like a mix between a televangelist and Joseph Stalin – to genetic engineering and the pursuit of a “perfect” woman. Despite all of these subjects, Bioshock doesn’t really come off as preachy so much as realist. There is no benefit or punishment to making what some would consider “moral” decisions, such as the one to throw the baseball at either the interracial couple or the carnival barker giving that right away as a prize of sorts. Instead, Infinite places the player, in the form of Booker Dewitt, right in the middle of this world as if everything about it is normal. The action is immersive, in the sense that no one playing a video game in 2013 has experienced such open, almost casual racism, at least without the proprietor suffering consequences for his actions.
Speaking of Booker, the main draw of the game is the interactivity between Dewitt and Elizabeth, who Dewitt is paid to liaison with. Simply put, this part of the game – the interpersonal dynamic between the two main characters – is brilliantly done. The main thing I noticed was that there were no actual cutscenes; all interactivity with Elizabeth, except in parts where they took control away, was completely in the context of the game. I am all for the death of the cutscene, which tends to disengage me more than get me farther into the story. I want the days of seeing my character do amazing things in a cutscene, followed by me making them do significantly less awesome things and not looking as good doing it to end, and Bioshock Infinite is a good first step towards that.
The dialogue itself is also sterling. The story goes that the voice actor and actress for the characters were intimately involved in the creation of the game’s narrative, and it shows in their innate charisma. It doesn’t feel like they’re reading lines, because they’re not. They’re interacting directly with each other, like any other movie star that has a chemistry with their on-screen partner, and unlike a movie, which has the benefit of showing non-verbal cues, that chemistry jumps out just in the way lines are delivered. It also helps that Elizabeth, as a character, is brilliantly written, in a way that makes her become not just Booker’s companion, but the player’s as well. I found myself actually caring about Elizabeth the character, instead of just relying on Elizabeth, the partner who provided me timely ammo and health.
All of the above mentioned set pieces combine to provide a puzzle that’s brilliantly woven together in an outstanding piece of interactive storytelling. It’s just too bad the combat had to ruin the fun.
When Bioshock Infinite had gone gold and the marketing started getting serious, players criticized the decision to put Booker on the cover. The reason stated by Ken Levine was that they needed something that would appeal to a mass audience, and the gruff male character was the best way to do that, because the people complaining were going to buy the game anyway.1 Sometimes, the combat itself feels like it was stuffed in for marketing reasons. There is a spectacular interactive narrative in this game, and then they fuck everything up to have Booker shoot a bunch of enemies. On the one hand, the use of the game’s vigors (the same as Bioshock’s plasmids) is interesting and well done, even if some of them are more useful than others. On the other hand, the shooting itself is bland; there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better. Furthermore, the sheer visceral nature of the violence is disconcerting. While I understand the argument made by some, primary among them Forbes’ Erik Kain, that the sheer amount of blood and stunning executions are a reminder as to just how jacked up things are under Columbia’s surface – an argument that it’s an artistic statement – I just don’t see it when I play the game. At best, the shooting parts of the game, and the imagery that comes with them, are distractions. At worst, there are times that they actually detract from the experience, yanking me out of my immersion to play an average shooter.
Of course, that brings me to the conclusion: the infamous ending. I don’t want to get into spoiler territory with this, so I can’t talk about it too much. The one thing I can say is that it should be experienced by anyone, because it leaves itself open to so many interpretations. My one criticism is that 98% of the game seems to take place on this one line towards this one conclusion, and then things go absolutely batshit for that last 2%, leaving me personally to wonder what the hell I just witnessed, although I will concede that the copious amount of painkillers I was high on at that time did not help me in that matter. I literally had to Google up the ending to find interpretations to guide me along, that’s how messed up the ending was. I still can’t say it makes sense, but at least I can somewhat coherently look at what happened, even if I struggle to tie it to the rest of the game.
If I were to review Bioshock Infinite, I would probably give it a B+ or even an A-, likely the former because the shooting parts didn’t impress me. I’m not a hardcore shooting fan, so I wouldn’t get too much out of replays (making the $60 price a bit steep for me; the $20 I paid in rentals was far more palatable), but those that are would definitely get a lot out of 1999 Mode, which is very difficult but fairly balanced. Either way, Bioshock Infinite is definitely something that needs to be experienced, and at the very least, has me wanting to belatedly dive into Rapture.
1 – For what it’s worth, I fully supported this. The way you support a game like this, that you love, is to want it to sell as much as possible, realizing that just putting a dude on the cover, while not the strongest statement for equality in video games, is the way to do that. Simply put, this was never a battle worth waging.