BioShock was released to a universally positive reception in 2007. Those who had been extolling the medium’s storytelling potential for years were particularly enthralled to see it move millions of units. It sold a many people on the idea that a game could have a cerebral plot rather than something akin to a mindless action film. There was only one logical thing for Irrational Games to do in the face of this commercial and critical success: keep the momentum going. However, director Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games opted against the idea of working on a direct sequel, leaving the development of BioShock 2 in the hands of Jordan Thomas, one of the original’s primary level designers, and 2K Marin. Mr. Levine, on the other hand wanted to set his sights higher by creating a BioShock game with a different setting. Thankfully for them, Take-Two Interactive allowed them complete freedom in this project.
The development of BioShock 2 was made known in 2008 before seeing its release in 2010. Unbeknownst to the public, Mr. Levine and many of the people behind the original began working on a sequel of their own, dubbed “Project Icarus”, starting in February of 2008. Only six months after the release of BioShock was the concept for this new game formed. In the cycle’s earliest stages, the team considered many different settings. Some wanted to reuse Rapture while others suggested setting it during the Renaissance period. In the end, they decided on a city named Columbia. In a stark contrast to Rapture, which rested on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Columbia was to float in the skies above. The primary inspiration behind this setting came from The Devil in the White City, a non-fiction book written by Erik Larson in 2003. The book prominently featured the World’s Columbian Exposition, which was set in Chicago in 1893. The staff became interested in setting their game around the turn of the twentieth century and the historical events surrounding the exposition helped inspire the idea of a city in the sky.
With a setting and time period in mind, all Mr. Levine and his team now needed a theme. Rapture, the setting of BioShock and its sequel, sought to deconstruct the ideals of objectivism. They wanted to demonstrate why a society based on those principles would burn itself out quickly. Meanwhile, the World’s Columbian Exposition was considered to symbolize the concept of American exceptionalism – that is to say, the belief the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Additionally inspired by classic films such as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the team now had a goal and would stop at nothing to see it through.
The development of this game proved to be something of an arduous process. The original game utilized a modified Unreal Engine 2.x, which was quickly deemed inadequate to support the ideas for Project Icarus. The team decided to work with Unreal Engine 3, and as a result, every single asset had to be made from scratch. As a likely consequence of this, the game ended up taking roughly five years to complete. Its official announcement in March of 2012 finally gave this project a name: BioShock Infinite. It was also given a slated release date of October 16 of that year. However, in May, the release date was pushed back to February 26, 2013. Nearing the end of the year, it was delayed again – this time to the following March – to allow the team to polish the mechanics further. After much speculation from the press and varied reactions to the promotional material, Mr. Levine proudly announced the game had gone Gold in February of 2013. It had been approved by Sony, Microsoft, and PC makers, allowing it to exist on all three platforms simultaneously. As promised, BioShock Infinite was released on March 26, 2013.
As highly regarded as BioShock was, the critical reception to BioShock Infinite achieved the impossible by surpassing it in some circles. The publications that gave it less than nine points on a ten-point scale could likely have been counted on one hand – and this hypothetical person would likely still have fingers remaining. BioShock Infinite proceeded to win the highly desired “Game of the Year” award from forty-two separate publications, including the Associated Press, CNN, and Forbes. Much like the original, critics praised its scenario, paying special attention to its striking visual design. It wasn’t just critics who were singing praises of this game, for it sold 3.7 million retail copies within two months of its release, eventually moving 11 million units overall.
With the success of BioShock Infinite, one would expect the sky to be the limit for Irrational Games. System Shock 2 flopped and was one of the causes of Looking Glass Studios’ bankruptcy only for Irrational Games to rise from the ashes and became a juggernaut among critics and fans alike. Unfortunately, such was not their fate. As a coda to this game’s success, Mr. Levine announced the dissolution of Irrational Games in February of 2014. The average AAA title of the 2010s had a budget that necessitated the company selling tens of millions of units just to break even. As a consequence, games from that era and scene rarely had a powerful, auteur voice, for any kind of experimental title could bankrupt a company instantaneously if it didn’t sell. Not only that, but because they had been working on the game for five years, the cycle took its toll on the staff. Mr. Levine himself would state in a 2016 interview that the stress of managing the development of BioShock Infinite adversely affected both his health and his personal relationships, causing him to opt out of directing an even larger sequel. In its seventeen-year life, Irrational Games was only responsible for the development of a handful of projects. Was BioShock Infinite a particularly triumphant swansong for Irrational Games?
Playing the Game
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers for the entire BioShock series thus far.
The year is 1912 and Booker DeWitt is being taken by the Lutece twins to an island lighthouse off the coast of Maine. The twins have issued a particularly strange demand: “bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”. The boat eventually reaches the island on which the towering lighthouse rests. Ascending the stars, Booker finds a rocket silo. Entering this curious machine, he watches out the window as the Earth disappears from sight. Before too long, he has ascended above the clouds and into the flying city of Colombia.
After receiving an impromptu, obligatory baptism, you can have him explore the city in earnest. Before you’re formally thrown into the thick of things, one significant difference between BioShock Infinite and its predecessors makes itself known. Discounting one solitary exception apiece, the protagonist of System Shock 2 and Jack from BioShock uttered not a word. It stands to reason, for both of them arrived in locations that had already been thoroughly ravaged; there wasn’t exactly an abundance of people to converse with. An overwhelming majority of the living beings the protagonists interacted with were both completely insane and trying to kill them. A more practical reason for this design choice was to allow players to react to these strange developments in tandem with the protagonists. Having a silent protagonist in those situations was logical, for the design decision complemented the dead settings.
In a stark contrast to the Von Braun or Rapture, the city of Colombia and its citizens are thriving by the time Booker arrives. Because it would be tonally jarring to have a silent protagonist wandering around a lively setting, you’ll soon find out the Booker DeWitt is fully voiced. As you have him explore the city, he will occasionally react to the oddities he stumbles upon, even holding causal conversations with the citizens.
One of the first locales he visits is a carnival complete with a “test your strength” game, a shooting gallery, and various technological demonstrations. While many of the attractions only exist for the purpose of world building or as the basis for one-off gags, it is by visiting the shooting gallery that you can use a gun for the first time. Like many contemporary first-person shooters, you can aim any weapon from the hip or using the attached sights.
One of the technology demonstrations introduces Booker, in a rather comedic fashion, to concept of voxophones – personal, portable recording devices used by the citizens of Colombia. Practicably, they function exactly as audio logs did in this game’s predecessors. They’re journal entries that give insight to the world and its supporting cast. On occasion, you may need to find one in order to obtain vital information such as a secret code.
Though operating on similar premises in broad strokes, there was a particularly subtle, yet intriguing distinction between System Shock 2 and BioShock. While the Von Braun in System Shock 2 was overwhelmed by an outside, alien force, the downfall of Rapture in BioShock could be attributed to a metaphorical implosion brought on by excessive self-interest. Make no mistake – something does come along to completely tear Colombia asunder. That something happens to be Booker DeWitt himself.
What BioShock Infinite does to kick off the gameplay in earnest demonstrates that the narrative is not about to pull any punches with the themes it chooses to tackle. Booker wins a raffle contest by drawing a baseball numbered 77. He is immediately announced as the winner by the raffle’s host, Jeremiah Fink. His prize is that he gets to be the first person to throw a baseball at an interracial couple. In 2013, it was exceptionally rare for a game to tackle heavy subjects. BioShock attempted to do this, but it still very much resided in the “fiction” half of the science-fiction equation. This meant the setting and its themes, though having some basis in reality, were fantastical for the most part. That is not the case here. Rapture, for its myriad faults, could at least claim to have an equal-opportunity environment, recruiting talent from all over the world. Columbia, on the other hand, is a society that unabashedly basks in the institutional racism typical of the era in which it was founded.
Here, you can have Booker throw the ball at the couple or Fink himself. However, before he can act, Fink and the Colombian police attempt to apprehend Booker. Taking note of the strange marking on the back of his hand spelling out “A.D.”, the law enforcement recognizes Booker as the False Prophet. According to the propaganda posters, this “False Prophet” is destined to “lead the lamb astray”, bringing about Colombia’s downfall. Grabbing a nearby bladed weapon, Booker kills one of the police officers. Grabbing a fallen gun, he fights his way out. Accepting a strange infusion from the Luteces shortly thereafter, he sets out, determined to fulfill his mission.
It is here that the gameplay can be said to begin in earnest. Like its two predecessors, BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter. BioShock and its sequel seemed to be an active rebellion against the direction in which console first-person shooters were headed by holding onto health meters while most contemporary efforts lacked them. Instead, they often featured a mechanic in which you would guide your injured character to safety and wait for their health to recover automatically. BioShock Infinite would appear to continue the trend with a health bar adorning the top-left corner of the screen, yet the team behind this game did end up taking a page out of Infinity Ward’s book in the end.
The infusion granted to Booker by the Lutece twins manifests as a magnetic-repulsive field that increases the amount of damage he can take before sustaining an injury. In other words, it acts as a shield – the integrity of which is measured as a yellow meter directly above the one measuring Booker’s health. Naturally, if the shield is depleted, any further attacks will damage his health meter. By staying out of enemy gunfire for long enough, the shield will regenerate on its own. Booker’s health does not regenerate automatically. To restore it, you can have Booker consume any comestible he may come across, though first-aid kits are more efficient.
Not terribly long after Booker’s arrival in Columbia is he introduced to Vigors. These wondrous tonics concocted by Fink Manufacturing bestow extraordinary abilities onto those who consume them. Some allow users to hurl fireballs while others cause their bodies to generate electricity. Because of this, an outside observer would likely mistake these astounding feats for superpowers. They cannot be used indefinitely, however. Functionally, these Vigors are indistinguishable from magic. As such, much like how most video games with magic as a core mechanic have mana systems, Vigors are powered by Salts, which are measured as a blue bar on the bottom-left corner of the screen. The exact amount of Salts required to use the currently equipped Vigor is shaded in a lighter shade of blue.
BioShock Infinite lacks a complex inventory management system. Anything edible or otherwise consumable is expended as soon as Booker picks it up. Though most consumables are only beneficial, cigarettes damage Booker’s health while restoring his Salts. Drinking alcohol achieves the opposite effect while also significantly impairing Booker’s vision and ability to walk in a straight line. As such, it’s best to know when to leave them alone. After all, you never know that an enemy is just around the corner, waiting to ambush you. Ignoring the food could prove beneficial if you take too much damage from an unexpected source. Furthermore, unlike Jack or Delta, Booker cannot carry any first-aid kits or tonics capable of restoring Salts on his person. This means, to a much greater extent than during your journeys through Rapture, you must exercise caution.
During the jump between System Shock 2 and BioShock, the latter eschewed many of the role-playing elements upon which the former built its identity. Though role-playing elements occasionally show up in BioShock Infinite, they are very much in the background. There are no experience points to be gained from fighting enemies, nor are there ways to research them and discover their weaknesses. To emphasize this, Booker can only carry two firearms at a time. When you happen upon a third weapon, you can swap it with the one with which he is equipped. He does not have to worry about changing his array of Vigors, for there are only eight to be found in the entire game. It is with these comparatively minimalistic set of resources that Booker must fight his way through Colombia.
“If BioShock Infinite isn’t an action-RPG, what would you describe it as?” you may ask. To that, I would say BioShock Infinite is an action-adventure game. In a manner not unlike that of The Legend of Zelda with its Heart Containers, Booker can find Infusions capable of enhancing his health, shield, or Salts capacity as the player’s discretion. Though BioShock Infinite is even more linear than BioShock 2, it’s clear the developers put a lot of time and effort developing these environments, and hiding these Infusions is a good way to get players to actively engage with the setting rather than treat it as a series of obstacles between stages.
Though I don’t think of BioShock Infinite as an action-RPG, there is a mechanic that wouldn’t feel out of place in one. Namely, there is an upgrade system dubbed Gear. These items come in the form of four articles of clothing: hats, shirts, pants, and boots. When these clothes are equipped, they provide Booker with a passive benefit. Though their effects vary, they do tend to follow a general theme. Hats typically transfuse Vigor effects into melee attacks, though some enhance Booker’s survivability. Shirts improve Booker’s combat effectiveness in the midst of a particularly brutal, overwhelming fight. The bonuses associated with pants allow Booker to escape difficult situations – whether it’s by allowing him to flee temporarily or allowing him to make a final stand with the bare minimum of resources. Lastly, boots usually offer situational bonuses. Akin to equipping armor in an RPG, Booker can switch Gear at any time; he does not have to visit a Gene Bank or any other similar service to accomplish this.
As was the case in Rapture, your primary means of acquiring resources come in the form of vending machines. Unlike in BioShock or its sequel, ADAM is not required to upgrade Vigors. In fact, money is used for just about everything in this game. Whether you’re trying to upgrade a weapon, enhance your Vigors, or acquire extra ammunition, you need money to make it happen. Obviously, this means money is a much more valuable resource in Columbia. While your journeys through Rapture could end with you sitting on a pile of money with almost nothing to spend it on, the odds that you will ever fill your wallet to its capacity at any point during your playthrough of BioShock Infinite are remote. As a measure of geniality on the developers’ part, you don’t have to worry about losing your investment when upgrading weapons. For example, if you upgrade the machine gun once and drop it in favor of a shotgun, the next machine gun you find will retain all of the old one’s specifications.
System Shock 2 marked Ken Levine’s first stint as a lead designer. Though it flopped, it gathered a cult following and is considered one of the finest PC games ever made. In light of this fact, I can easily imagine many of those fans believing BioShock Infinite to be a downgrade in quality with some going as far as calling it a mindless first-person shooter. Not helping the game’s case is how the guns Booker can acquire would appear to cover the basic gamut of first-person shooter weapons. Even with alternate models available for most weapon types, a contemporary, big-budget effort could easily boast more variety. Also gone is the alternate ammunition system. There are no armor piercing rounds, incendiary buckshots, mini-turrets, or trap rivets awaiting the player in Columbia. Every weapon you find has a specific purpose and though you can upgrade them, they are generally less flexible than any of the ones found in Rapture.
I can also picture the same fans being disappointed in BioShock Infinite for its extreme linearity. System Shock 2 and even BioShock to a certain degree allowed players to backtrack to older areas as they so choose. One could consequently describe those games as taking place inside one giant dungeon that gradually opens up as you meet your objectives. Conversely, the level design in BioShock Infinite is more akin to Half-Life 2 insofar that it could be likened to a rollercoaster ride. Though there is occasional backtracking involved, there are multiple points of no return – some signposted more obviously than others. I can see longtime PC gaming enthusiasts assuming based on the fact that BioShock Infinite effectively left behind the Ultima Underground influences upon which the first System Shock built its identity, this game is clearly the inferior effort.
They would have even more of a reason to believe this considering BioShock Infinite abandoned or significantly downplayed whatever remaining RPG elements existed in its two predecessors. After all, this means every playthrough is more or less the same. There should be no replay value in a game that gives you a simple, permanent solution to solving your problems – even with the obligatory fantastical power to liven things up. While System Shock 2 defies description when attempting to pigeonhole it into a genre, BioShock Infinite is a first-person shooter through and through.
In light of the thoughts skeptics had going into to the game, some of you may be asking how it compares with its predecessors, spiritual or otherwise. I have a definite answer to such an inquiry: from a gameplay standpoint, I feel BioShock Infinite was the pinnacle of Ken Levine’s work by a significant margin. I can imagine some people are quite confused that I would make such an assertion. I assure you that everything I wrote in the paragraphs leading up to this one is true. They were a general overview of criticisms I heard lodged toward BioShock Infinite, and I propose that not a single one of those aspects negative impacts its quality.
Being stuck with a limited array of weapons compared to most first-person shooters isn’t an issue. Whenever I play one whose marketing department boasts having thirty or more firearms, I tend to gravitate towards, at most, five. A small amount may seem disappointing, but it also translates to less time spent looking for your preferred ones. Even the limitation of only being able to hold two at once isn’t an issue because the game has a habit of throwing a large variety of enemies to stop Booker.
Though I give Mr. Levine’s team for retaining the RPG aspects of System Shock 2 in BioShock, they held the game back in practice. Thanks to its scant RPG elements, BioShock comes across as a first-person shooter with an identity crisis. It evokes something similar to the Uncanny Valley effect in that it plays like an action title, yet its RPG elements bogged down the experience more often than not. It was rather jarring having Jack fight off multiple Splicers at once only to find a machine he could hack, necessitating a short session of a Pipe Dream-inspired minigame. They added some degree of complexity to the proceedings, but because of the inherently erratic nature of exploring Rapture, I found myself improvising strategies until I won. Because BioShock Infinite knows it’s an action game, I found it much easier to adapt to its challenge. If I found myself in a pinch, I almost always knew how to react accordingly and pull through.
Perhaps the greatest advantage BioShock Infinite has over BioShock lies in its setting. There’s no question that, in 2007, Rapture was one of the most unique settings in not only video games, but science fiction in general. However, a minor issue lied in the fact that Rapture’s appeal began and ended with its aesthetical traits. Setting the story in an underwater city was a clever, practical method of emulating the isolation and claustrophobia players felt in System Shock 2 in a world without space travel. The problem is that it wasn’t incorporated into the gameplay as well as it could have been. BioShock 2 included a few sequences involving areas flooding with seawater, but because Delta couldn’t drown, they only existed to forward the plot.
Within the first act, you’ll learn that Mr. Levine and his team didn’t just place Colombia in the skies just to make the game stand out from its competition. As their main means of transportation, the citizens of Colombia employ a system called the Sky-Line. During the raffle, Booker acquires a Sky-Hook, which functions as the default melee weapon. He can also use it to latch onto the Sky-Lines littered throughout the city. Though it would appear to be a gimmicky mode of transportation at first, you’ll soon learn Booker can use it in combat. He can use a one-handed weapon to return fire when gripping onto a rail. Alternatively, he can dislodge himself from the rail and take down an enemy on the ground with a fierce melee attack. I assure you this is every bit as incredible as it sounds. Because of their comparatively simplistic nature, action games have to change things up in order to remain fresh throughout the experience. Employing the Sky-Lines in combat is one of those mechanics that never got old.
I could continue to extol the values of BioShock Infinite as a game, but if I continued to do so, I would only describe half of the experience. Just like BioShock before it, BioShock Infinite grabbed the attention of the gaming community at large with its pensive scenario. Such was the scope of its impact that countless essays were written in its wake. As the writing is debatably the game’s primary draw, it’s time to finally disclose exactly what about BioShock Infinite drove journalists and fans alike to write extensively about it.
Analyzing the Story
Despite being a significant decade in history due to the First World War, the 1910s wasn’t a setting often used in video games. Though Columbia is obviously on a different path from the United States, soaking in the scenery in this game is quite an experience. You’ll feel as though you jumped in a time machine.
The city of Columbia was founded by Zachary Hale Comstock, a charismatic religious fanatic who considers himself a prophet. Keeping in line with the themes of American exceptionalism, the city’s name was chosen to pay homage to the female personification of the United States. With the extensive use of giant blimps, reactors, propellers, and quantum levitation, Comstock was able to launch his creation into the air in 1893 during the World’s Columbian Exposition. His accomplishment would be later dispatched to distant shores across the globe.
The city was initially seen as the pride of the United States, being a phenomenal achievement in a world where commercial airlines didn’t yet exist. However, it didn’t take long for tensions to rise between Columbia and the United States. In 1901, Columbia violently quelled the Boxer Rebellion in Peking against the wishes of the government. The city revealed itself to be a heavily armed aerial battleship in the conflict and the government demanded Columbia’s return to sovereign soil immediately. In response, Columbia seceded from the United States, disappearing into the clouds and from public consciousness.
As Booker explores the city, it appears to be a utopic society with little strife before revealing its hidden, malevolent nature. If Rapture showed what happens when a society unabatedly operates on Objectivist ideals, Columbia demonstrates the kind of world a religious, jingoistic zealot given complete control would sculpt. It is a militant pseudo-Christian dystopia with institutional racism and elitism actively enforced by the government. The Founding Fathers are worshipped as gods and the city operates on an ethos promoting racial purity. Much like how Andrew Ryan and his ilk saw no problem turning menial laborers into Big Daddies, Comstock actively brings minority races into his city for the express purpose of exploiting them for cheap labor, effectively making them indentured servants. It’s easy to get the sense that the public stoning of the interracial couple was far from an isolated incident.
Though having a memorable setting is a fundamental part of any good story, it is usually wasted without a strong cast of characters. Booker being voiced when his predecessors weren’t would come across as overly gimmicky without a second person with whom to contrast him. This is issue is addressed rather quickly; unlike Delta, Booker doesn’t take long to find the person he is looking for.
“The girl” to whom the Luteces refer is a young woman named Elizabeth. Having lived her entire life in Comstock’s Monument Tower, she is fairly naïve about the outside world. This allows her to exist as an effective foil to Booker, a disgraced Pinkerton agent who fought in Wounded Knee. His trials have left him highly cynical and a slave to his vices. In fact, the reason he agreed to this mission in the first place is because of his nearly insurmountable gambling debts.
Despite, or because of, their wildly contrasting personalities, I feel their interactions are the highlights of the game. Elizabeth is appalled at Booker for killing Comstock’s forces at first, and when she learns why he rescued her in the first place, she knocks him out with a wrench. On the other hand, whenever they’re simply walking through peaceful sections of the town, it’s nice seeing Booker open up and Elizabeth’s enthusiastic demeanor is both realistic given the circumstances and not grating at all.
I can imagine some people getting a sense of dread when rescuing her. After all, in a vast majority these kinds of scenarios, this is when the game would turn into a prolonged escort mission. In what is a particularly amusing moment of self-awareness, the second Elizabeth begins traveling with Booker, the game flashes a message telling players not to worry about her, for she can take care of herself. The developers knew savvy players would be anticipating an escort mission and assured them point-blank that one did not await them in the immediate future.
Elizabeth begins contributing to the journey very shortly after she’s released. During combat, she helpfully scrounges the area for ammunition and health packs, tossing them Booker’s way when she finds them. Like many video-game sidekicks, she has the inexplicable ability to pick locks. Unless it can be opened with a hairpin, locks require a certain amount of picks to open. You can find picks among the other items awaiting you in containers. A general rule is that the amount of picks required to open a lock is directly proportional to the quality of the reward you will receive. Very often are large caches of money, Infusions, and helpful Gear hidden behind these locks.
When exploring Colombia, you may notice that, discounting its obvious racial issues, something is very off about the city. The songs you hear feature lyrics that wouldn’t be penned until several decades later. Despite Booker having to go through many trials and tribulations just to get from Point A to Point B, the Luteces have no problems following him around. Whenever Booker dies, he returns to the battlefield as though nothing happened, though he loses money in the process. Even ignoring all of that and focusing on the BioShock universe itself, the existence of Vigors is highly suspicious. It wouldn’t be until the founding of Rapture that Brigid Tenenbaum discovers the gene-altering properties of ADAM and, along with Yi Suchong, begin the development of Plasmids.
The first hint as to what is going on behind the scenes occurs when Elizabeth begins showcasing strange powers. Specifically, there are rips in dimensional time and space known as Tears. Every citizen of Columbia can see them. There are an infinite amount of different eras and alternate histories that can be observed using these Tears. Some individuals, such as Albert Fink, the man who allegedly composed these songs, have taken advantage of them. In other words, the person the public believes to a talented composer is, in fact, a thief who committed his acts of plagiarism across multiple generations. Even Albert’s brother, Jeremiah, brazenly stole the idea for Plasmids by using a Tear to observe Rapture, eventually turning them into Vigors.
As it turns out, Elizabeth can interact with them to a greater degree than most of Colombia’s citizens. During gameplay, Booker can ask her to bring objects from alternate dimensions into the one in which they currently reside. Objects that can be drawn in from other dimensions appear as translucent outlines before Elizabeth opens the Tears. The Tears are utilized to travel to alternate dimensions as well. At one point, Booker and Elizabeth are pursuing an arms dealer at the behest of a resistance group led by one Daisy Fitzroy. They call themselves the Vox Populi – the “Voice of the People”. This plan hits a brick wall when the dealer has already been killed. By abandoning the current dimension, they eventually find themselves in an alternate reality in which Booker died, becoming a martyr for the resistance.
What I like about this development is how careful Mr. Levine and his team were when they introduced the concept. After all, on the face of things, they handed their protagonists a power that should, in theory, completely break any semblance of conflict the narrative may have presented. However, after using the ability a few times to make the impossible possible, they suddenly face a severe consequence for taking the easy way out. This universe’s version of Fitzroy believes Booker’s unexplained appearance undermines the sacrifice of the Booker she knew and orders her forces to gun him down.
There’s also the underlying implications that result from Booker and Elizabeth abandoning their reality for a different one. What becomes of the people in those dimensions? They don’t cease to exist simply because they left them. Theirs is a story that doesn’t get a definitive ending – it comes to an abrupt stop the second the protagonists step through the Tear.
As one would expect from a game so unapologetically blunt about the themes it chooses to depict, BioShock Infinite met with no shortage of controversy when it was released in 2013. Considering that many of these themes weren’t historically covered in video games, BioShock Infinite having a few execution issues wouldn’t be particularly surprising.
What is fascinating is that one could argue the game came under fire from enthusiasts from both sides of the political spectrum. The character of Comstock was deemed offensive to gamers with religious backgrounds. Some insinuated the game was saying that religion makes people evil. It was to the point where one person purportedly returned the game to the retailer after witnessing the aforementioned baptismal scene. At the same time, the writing was criticized for allegedly demonizing labor movements. Booker even muses that the only difference between Fitzroy and Comstock are their names. After the Vox turn on Booker, he will be fighting them alongside Comstock’s forces for the rest of the game. In fact, the former group is the one fought in the climactic final battle.
I think the game makes it clear that Comstock’s philosophies aren’t the result of adopting religion, but twisting it around to justify his decidedly non-Christian beliefs. In other words, you’re essentially fighting empowered Klansmen. As for how the game depicts the Vox, I will give the writers some credit for not going down the obvious route. It is easy to cast the rebellion against an evil empire in an unequivocally positive. BioShock Infinite tries to demonstrate what happens when there is a particularly toxic element permeating a revolution. The Vox prove to have few scruples to speak of as they remorselessly butcher civilians in their conquest. Any movement such as the one depicted in this game is doomed from the outset, for it would only ensure an endless cycle of bloodshed in the long run.
However, in order to make this kind of deconstruction work, it needs a degree of nuance very few video game writers at the time possessed. This was an admirable attempt, but it doesn’t quite work. Though journalists attempted to highlight different problematic aspects to make their points, I think most of them boil down to one specific issue: BioShock Infinite is not a story that benefits from being in a first-person shooter. This is an issue that has existed in the series from the beginning, but it’s even more egregious here. No matter what kind of hostile force Colombia throws at Booker, he only has one way to deal with them: gun them down. If BioShock Infinite were a largely non-violent adventure game, many of these issues could’ve been avoided outright. Booker and Elizabeth would then have to find more reasonable ways to deal with these issues. This oddity also manifests in the downtime between action sequences in which Booker doesn’t put his weapon away, yet civilians do not emote when he points it at them.
What’s worse is that the game being set in this genre doesn’t do justice to Booker’s character. At the beginning of the game, he doesn’t really care about Elizabeth’s plight and only rescues her as a means to a particularly selfish end. Through their continued interactions, he begins to genuinely care for her and becomes a bit more selfless by the third act. Again, I applaud the writers for developing their protagonist to such a degree. The early-2010s marked an era in which the average AAA protagonist wouldn’t have felt out of place in a nineties comic book. Booker starts out that way, but the writers attempted to make him something more. Though they succeeded on that front, a problem arose when they attempted to program a game around their narrative choices. Much like how Jack’s journey was still a linear, railroaded affair after he gained free will, Booker still resorts to violence at the drop of the hat. To be fair, I never got the sense that he was ever out of character at any point, but it does render his arc a bit hollow.
Even in the face of these perceived slights, one facet caused even more controversy than all of them put together: the ending. A comparatively smaller point of contention embedded within this criticism I can agree with somewhat is that the endgame is something of a step down from the stages leading up to it. A lot of the environmental storytelling prevalent throughout the experience up until that point is abandoned in favor of a tower defense stage pitting Booker against the remnants of the Vox. Where it falls apart is that the game, with its faster pace and greater focus on action elements, isn’t well suited for any kind of prolonged, defensive scenario. That being said, I maintain this is a marked improvement over the Body of the Many from System Shock 2 and the escort mission from BioShock. In addition to being a lot more of a reasonable challenge, you get to command a flying automaton that had been hunting Booker throughout the game to take down enemy zeppelins.
As for the story, the ending of BioShock Infinite makes full use of the many-worlds interpretation. The most pivotal moment of Booker’s life occurred when he was about to receive a baptismal. He was racked with guilt over the atrocities he committed at Wounded Knee and wanted to make a fresh start, his sins forgiven in the eyes of God. However, at the last second, he backed out, rationalizing that holding his breath underwater for a few seconds wouldn’t absolve his transgressions. He then became a hard drinker and compulsive gambler. His destructive habits were out of control, culminating in losing his daughter, Elizabeth, after he gambled her away.
In reality, what I just described is one way in which situation could have panned out. What would have happened if Booker decided to go ahead with the baptismal? The answer is simple: he would’ve been reborn as Zachary Hale Comstock. This particularly impactful revelation is made known after Elizabeth exhibits mastery over her powers and Booker realizes the only way to break the endless cycle they’ve inadvertently created is to kill Comstock right after he is born. He realizes the truth as he is drowned in the pond, accepting his fate. In a final scene, he reawakens in his office to the sound of his infant daughter crying. Before he can examine the cradle, the game cuts to black.
It is nearly impossible to understate how polarizing this ending was in 2013. The number of people who argued it was a brilliant masterstroke were matched by those believing it to be pretentious, misbegotten nonsense. In some ways, it was the Metal Gear Solid 2 of its console generation in that its ending made for a fantastic conversation piece at the expense of dividing the fans against each other. Fittingly, my reaction to both endings is pretty much the same. I can’t say one way or another if there’s really a way to “get it”, but I give Mr. Levine and his team a lot of credit for the sheer audacity to challenge their audience to this extent.
Ever since he became a creative lead with System Shock 2, Mr. Levine proved remarkably gifted in the art of plot twists. It doesn’t matter how savvy you are, you will be caught off-guard at least once when playing through his canon. Unfortunately, there was something of a catch to this talent in that he never seemed to know where to go after the big reveal. This was the most egregious in BioShock when nothing in the second half of the game compared to the sheer reverberation one felt learning Jack lacked free will. System Shock 2 fared slightly better by using its plot twist to exacerbate the game’s sense of isolation, but the story proceeded crash and burn in the ending, rendering that goodwill moot.
What Mr. Levine did with BioShock Infinite was approach the problem without directly addressing this curious weakness. By ending the game with the big reveal, it obviously can’t continue aimlessly for another ten hours. Nevertheless, it does lead to an ambiguous situation regarding its ending. As an allusion to the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, the driving, unanswered question is whether or not the baby is in the cradle.
Strangely, I find myself in a similar situation as when I was critiquing Mother 3. This is because I do have to point out that it is immensely jarring having one’s ending up for interpretation when the narrative had been unambiguous about its themes. Then again, I also think BioShock Infinite avoids the fatal flaw of Mother 3 in that its open ending was better planned. Mother 3 had no qualms lecturing the audience of the evils of humanity before the narrative threw up its hands and told them to figure things out for themselves. All of the elements leading up to the ending of BioShock Infinite were present throughout the entire game, lending a sense of fair play when it finally occurs.
Drawing a Conclusion
When I completed BioShock Infinite for the first time, I thought it was one of the best story-driven games ever made. In the grand scheme of things, I no longer believe this to be true. Its premise is intriguing and the gameplay solid, but there is little synergy between them. In order to truly succeed in telling a story in this medium, it’s vital to embrace the medium’s quirks rather than push them aside. While the game does have the right idea, choosing to tell its story through scripted events rather than cinematic cutscenes, keeping it and the mechanics on separate sides of a fence and hoping for the best isn’t a particularly skillful approach.
Even with these flaws, I can still posit that BioShock Infinite is superior effort to anything the series had to offer by that point for one basic reason: it has no qualms about what it is. A cynical fan of System Shock 2 would claim BioShock Infinite is a dumbed down version of the former intended to appeal to the largest audience. To that, I would argue it merely took the direction in which the series was heading to its logical destination. With a greater focus on action, it did away with all of the ideas that sounded novel on paper, but didn’t work in practice.
In the final days of the seventh console generation, BioShock Infinite stands as one of the era’s most polarizing works. Considering the themes of the game, I find it appropriate how it has many interpretations as there are people who play it. Though I can’t say it’s capable of standing toe-to-toe with the most thought-provoking stories I’ve experienced in this medium, I think it’s worth looking into BioShock Infinite so you may sculpt your own narrative.
Final Score: 7/10