Let’s Talk about Bioshock Infinite

I made this myself.

Let’s talk about this (or at least I will).

My first thought upon finishing Bioshock Infinite was, “Well, that was quite the thing.” Then I went to bed and stewed on it for a while. After a few days of pondering, I think I’m finally ready to put down exactly what I liked — and what I didn’t like — about the experience. This stream of consciousness rambling isn’t a review; at least not precisely, though anyone bothering to read it will get a pretty comprehensive grasp of my opinion of the game. Naturally, there will be some light spoilers, about on par with the stuff the advertising has already been giving away for months.

And with 40,000% more balloons!

Columbia is every bit as fascinating as Rapture was.

1. Columbia Sure Is Well-Lit Compared to Rapture

A little over a year ago I was having a conversation with a friend, one of those guys who’s always excited about the Next Big Thing. Usually it’s the annual installment of Assassin’s Creed that gets his pulse up, but this time it was Bioshock Infinite. “Did you hear it takes place in a floating city in the sky instead of underwater? And that it’s set before the original Bioshocks?” he asked. I sure had. And it sounded to me like Irrational Games was really digging to the bottom of the concept art slush pile of anachronistic dystopias in search of something that would wow audiences even more than Rapture.

Not that I needed to be worried. Of course Columbia, Bioshock Infinite’s sky-city, is stunning. The best parts of the game take place during moments when you can tell you’re in a flying living space, complete with mad skyline transit, docking buildings, and airships full of enemies. I do wish it had taken more advantage of the setting, because as good as it is when journeying through areas where the game space provides open areas, vertical combat, and some chances to explore a bit, many of the game’s weaker moments are disappointingly linear. Sometimes even indoors. Every time I left the airy outdoors for some dreary drawing room or smoky gentleman’s club or stuffy museum, Columbia may as well have been anywhere. Like, say, the bottom of the ocean.

Still, Columbia is the real protagonist here, fully realized and beautiful. Buildings bob when docked and swoop into view the rest of the time, and it’s never short on sights. And the fate of the city is every bit as central as the story being told through the game’s characters — often more so.

You get one space penny for each instance of a recycled decal in the skybox that you can spot. So far I think I've found six.

Your first glimpse of Columbia.

2. There’s a Soda in the Sock Drawer

At their core, the Bioshock games are really about rummaging through people’s personal effects to find their stashed cash, bullets, and gin. At least in terms of gameplay, you’ll spend more time checking to see if desks contain some silver dollars or cups of coffee than you will fighting. Or talking. Or anything else, really. That’s not a bad thing; actually, it was the relative freedom of exploration that I liked so much about the original two games. Even at their most linear, they were brimming with side areas to explore, and had plenty of interesting weapons (and ammunition types to put into those weapons) and powers to fuel the desire to continue exploring every dangerous nook and cranny possible.

Infinite is, ironically, narrower. And that’s the thing I like least about it. There’s less of everything on display here, not the least of which is a greatly reduced amount of side-territory to uncover. Except for a very few areas (I think only one quite near the end), your goal will always be to travel from point A to point B, and while there will be a couple rooms off to each side for you to pick over, you’ll never have much reason (or ability, since this sky-castle is full of corridors) to go off the beaten path.

Given how gorgeous Columbia is, this is a real shame, because I cannot see myself replaying this game the way I replayed Bioshock 1 or 2. There just isn’t anything there that I didn’t catch on my first playthrough. Even the various areas sort of ran together and ended up feeling a bit samey — while a few still stand out in my mind, Infinite doesn’t have any equivalent of Fort Frolic from the first game, or Ryan Amusements from the second.

This narrowness extends to other fields as well. There are more weapons than in either previous Bioshock, but they’re bland pistol/shotgun/machinegun/grenade-launcher types, and none have interesting alternate ammunition that can lay traps or electrocute goons or whatnot. I like the implementation of the powers better in this one than in previous games, though once again the number of options are pared down. There is some additional customization in the form of bonus-giving clothing you can wear, but none of these were exciting enough to replay the game for the sake of trying different combinations. There’s no risk-reward mechanic of researching your enemies for passive perks, few wandering dangers other than the scripted ones, no actual decisions to make (and here I’m only bemoaning something missing that was in the second game, because the oft-repeated “moral” choices from the first game, that of “Do I kill this innocent toddler or not?”, were not painted in shades of gray), and in general very little to do other than to follow along as you’re drip-fed story.

That’s not to say I didn’t like Bioshock Infinite. I did, and quite a lot. Perhaps I’m wishing I could have a bite of the cake I’m eating, but I don’t think the improved story of this game required it to become as linear and uninteresting as it did.

Why, Elizabeth, put down that foreshadowing you're holding there.

Meet Elizabeth. She’s normally nicer than this.

3. The Characters Ain’t Caricatures. Well, I Mean They Are, but They’re Good Ones

The real triumph here is Elizabeth, the girl your character, Booker DeWitt, is sent to recover. Without giving anything away, she’s everything this game needs: a strong, reliable, interesting female lead who is more than just a damsel in distress. I’m not sure I regard her gradual cleavage-reveal throughout the game as necessary sexualization, but maybe it represents her becoming more confident or something. It’s appropriate that the developers went the way of Alyx Vance and made her invincible during combat, otherwise her presence would likely have gotten annoying fast, and she was possibly the most useful buddy I’ve ever had in a single-player game, throwing me ammunition when I was low, health packs when I was bleeding, and salt when I was, uh, needing sodium to power my magical abilities.

(Side note: the original Bioshocks at least made the effort explain the thematic mechanics behind their powerups. Infinite makes very little effort in this regard, and I’m not just talking about some of the things you’re supposed to infer, like some of the technologies’ similarities to those from the original games. For instance, why on earth are “salts” replenishing my ability to call crows to my aid, or turn my hands into fire-grenade-flingers, or possess machines? I have no idea, because it’s never explained. Once again, some opportunities to rifle around for extra data wouldn’t have gone amiss).

Seriously though, Elizabeth is very well drawn. The writers deserve to be commended that her moments of distress are actually prompted by truly distressing events, rather than some of the usual tropes (like a skeleton hand falling on her shoulder or spider webs or something). More than most video game characters, I felt her worries, her fears, her pain, her grimness, her determination.

Other than Elizabeth, Infinite is filled with at least serviceable characters. The Lutece twins are as fascinating as they are bored by the events going on around them, Zachary Comstock is appropriately detestable, your own character is an actual human being (albeit sort of a poor one)… maybe it’s a bad sign that I can’t think of any characters other than those ones, but the ones that do spring to mind come vividly.

Click to embiggen these ones, seriously. Hilarious, awesome stuff awaits.

Whoever commissioned these paintings isn’t exactly an undecided vote.

4. Racism is Good (for a game to talk about)

I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game that was so unflinching about facing and examining racial intolerance. And that’s a good thing; nay, an excellent thing. The way Infinite introduces its commentary on racism is absolutely perfect, from the early allure of a perfect and comfortable society where people leave their shops unattended except for an honor-system basket for collecting money, to an undercurrent of abused labor and the unrest it engenders, to outright furious rebellion. It’s gripping stuff, full of great little stories told through the game’s voxophone recordings, incidental imagery, and the shudder-worthy cruelty of supposedly-decent folk.

And that resonated with me, because I’ve met people like this in person: wonderful, giving folks, who you’d never suspect are members of an invective-screaming race-supremacy militia by night. And I appreciated that the game had enough clarity of thought to show that once the uprising had taken its course, things are every bit as shitty and intolerant as when the other guys were in charge.

This level is super linear and disappointing though. You basically get a choice of which of two short hallways to walk down, and it feels like a choice until you finish one wing and you're told to go do the other.

One of the less-boring historical exhibits out there.

The only problem is, after a point it just goes away. As in, it disappears. You’re still taking part in a conflict between the Founders, the white defenders of the city, and the opposing Vox Populi movement, but all the heart-wrenching stuff from earlier is completely gone. It’s true that Infinite isn’t the story of how this populist movement plays out — that’s just a backdrop to the main narrative. But I found this stuff to be much more interesting than the actual subject matter of the story, which I’ll get to later.

I always knew Franklin was a heartthrob under his fat-suit. Just to keep some of the ladies away, I'll bet.

Fathers Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson.

5. Religion is Good (for a game to talk about)

The other day, one of my friends asked me, “Dan,” (because he’s sort of weird and always prefaces his questions with your name) “what did you think of the religious elements? Did they offend you?”

(If you think this isn’t an issue, unfortunately it is for some. Apparently, a member of the development team threatened to quit over the inclusion and tone of the religious themes).

He was probably asking me because I’m a religious guy — though I’m not Catholic, everyone assumes that for some reason (*eyes wander up to Wee Aquinas at the top of my blog*). Ah right, him. I just like the cut of his jib. Anyway, no, I wasn’t offended, and I personally can’t comprehend why any religious person should be. In part because Columbia’s religion of American exceptionalism and Comstock-worship is enjoyable exactly because of how warped and corrupt and hideous it is; and in part because there isn’t any actual religious commentary on display here. For all its talk of familiar concepts like baptism, it’s a pretend religion, after all. Religions make wonderful and convenient villains, especially when they’re obsessed with a singular “scripture” about how they’re going to burn the world to a crisp. And repeat it three dozen times before the credits roll. And they’re all racists. What I’m getting at is that all the pseudo-religious stuff is a fun and uncomplicated motivation for some of the game’s bad guys, but it’s not as though it’s a workable criticism of anything.

Yeah, I used a Doctor Who quote even though I haven't seen any post-Baker episodes. TAKE THAT WHOVIANS.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey… stuff.

6. The “Infinite” Suffix Makes Sense

I initially thought the “Infinite” in “Bioshock Infinite” was sort of like the “Forever” in “Batman Forever.” No particular reason to it.

Of course, by now anyone who has watched or read anything about the game probably knows that Elizabeth can open “tears” to other worlds. Sometimes these manifest as little battlefield reliefs, like medkits or cover to cower behind as a mechanical George Washington with a crankgun waddles ever closer. Other times, these tears open doors to other dimensions entirely. And there are an infinite number of them (in the lore, not in-game).

This is the stuff all those racism and dystopian themes bow out for. And it’s fine — it’s all very interesting, appropriately mind-bending, makes you feel like a genius when you piece little things together, etc.

Still, I found it a little disappointing.

The best comparison I can come up with is that I’ve recently been rewatching Star Trek: The Next Generation with Somerset. Every now and then, they do a time travel episode — the most recent one involved a confused Will Riker in a future where the Federation had made peace with the Romulans, had a Ferengi helmsman, and all sorts of other shenanigans (Trekkies may note that this wasn’t technically a time travel episode, but it’s tonally similar enough that I’ll allow it). When it came on, Somerset sighed and said, “Another time travel one?” And that’s basically how I think everyone feels about those episodes — another one? Well, the writers kept going back to making those time- and dimension-bending stories for a couple reasons. One, thanks to some strange property of our brains, we get really tweaked by the logic (or lack thereof) necessary to think about that kind of thing; and two, they make for clever writing in which regular conventions can be abandoned. Not the best, mind; but very clever stuff.

That’s how Bioshock Infinite struck me: clever.

Once the story switched over and decided it was done with all that racism stuff, and instead it wanted to feel like it was written by J. J. Abrams, it was still good. Better in a couple ways. It was cleverer. But I’d still lost a lot of the interest I’d held before that. Not that I’m all that disappointed! Endings are hard, maybe even harder than beginnings, and at the very least Bioshock Infinite had a better ending than the first game’s, which came five hours before the credits.

It’s a good thing the human story was there to keep me going. Elizabeth saves the day yet again.

Also, I really liked this picture.

Not really the ending, that would’ve been too spoilery.

7. It Has Caused like a Thousand “Bioshock Infinite Ending Explanation” Articles

Hm. Not sure whether this is good or bad. Probably neither. At least it’s sticking in people’s heads. Though if you couldn’t wrap your mind around the ending, you should never watch Primer. Your brain might pop.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. If I had to assign it a final score, I’d say that I was genuinely glad I’d played it once, and I’ll probably play it once again someday.

Posted on April 3, 2013, in Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed reading that, still have to finish the game though.

  2. I’d be inclined to agree about all of this, BUT THAT ENDING! I do gotta say though, I feel like I got less out of Bioshock Infinite than the first one (never played the second).

  3. Daniel Adamov

    Never played the original Bioshock (it came out when I was more exclusively into strategy games and RPGs), but played this on the recommendation of a friend and found it quite enjoyable. Any game where you can throw birds at people’s faces is alright in my books.

    Now, regarding religion – I myself was not offended, though I did find a certain twist towards the end towards the end a little… dubious, from that perspective, because it can be read as “accepting baptism makes you evil”. Which is not to say it should be read that way, but honestly, this is where more information on why that character ended up the way he did would’ve been helpful.

    That friend of mine, though, had a pet theory that there was a specific religious community that this might’ve been… well, not targeted at as such, but inspired by: Mormons. Prophetic, charismatic leader, check, vision from an Archangel, check, belief in American exceptionalism of a sort, check, flight from the Sodom of the rest of America, check, racism, sort of check (looking it up, Mormons in the past did have some ideas about race that would probably seem suspect in America today, but nothing really comparable to this; then again, I don’t think they’re out to cleanse America through aerial bombardment either). While playing the game though, I was more struck by the KKK influences. I guess it wouldn’t be surprising if LDS was one of the “sources” used while designing this religion, but it is distant enough to not be such a strong issue.

    As for memorable characters, I admit that most of them do tend to fall by the wayside. Still, I rather liked Slate’s rants – which made his actual part in the story rather underwhelming. Also enjoyable was Jeremiah Fink – he was just so deliciously slimy, and for my money a far better (not more accurate, but more… striking) caricature of an early 20th century American capitalist than Comstock was of a religious leader. His animal kingdom metaphor-laden speeches were probably my favourite public addresses in the game. Be the bee! Be the bee! It made it genuinely hard for me to tell whether he was not all there or just a good actor who gets carried away. Meanwhile, I’m afraid Comstock just didn’t impress me all that much. As prophets go he just played a bit too fast and loose. He was much better at being an abusive father, though.

    The revolution, with the celebrations and the looting and reprisals afterwards, was delightful. And I’m Russian, so I know a thing or two about revolutions.

    • Excellent thoughts, Daniel! Thanks for that. 🙂 I thought I was done writing about Infinite, but I suspect a second writeup is in order, because I’d love to talk about some of the things you’ve brought up here.

      • Daniel Adamov

        Thank you! I’d quite like to read it if you do decide to write it.

        Expanding a bit on the subject of revolution. It’s interesting because the game uses all those social themes as a backdrop, that briefly becomes more relevant to the main plot around the middle, then recedes again. It is a little disappointing (the historian in me just really wants to see how it all ended), but it does make some thematic sense. It’s basically a game where the revolution (and the social turmoil in general) presents you with both obstacles and opportunities as you try to reach your personal objectives that ultimately have nothing to do with it. And I’m not sure if this is such a bad way to handle a revolution in a game. Certainly there is plenty of literature that uses it in a somewhat similar way – it’s been ages since I read it, but, well, Les Miserables comes to mind (or, closer to home, Doctor Zhivago). It is a lot like a natural disaster that a single man cannot hope to control or thwart until it settles down, which is certainly what it starts to seem like towards the end. All you can do is try to survive it and move towards your goal despite it.

      • I went through a similar thought process. As a history student, I was disappointed we didn’t get to see the entirety of the revolution — though I must say I absolutely loved how Elizabeth excitedly name-dropped Les Miserables early on, only to become grimmer and more world-weary as the reality of the process struck home. Once the revolution plot faded, I lost interest for a little while. Then people started talking more about multiple dimensions and I was hooked again.

        I’m also feeling a little silly the more I look back at it, because I’ve long wanted to see a game set during an intense battle, except the game would have very little to do with the battle and was about, say, a peasant trying to escape the chaos, or a father trying to find and rescue his daughter or something. Upon further reflection, maybe Bioshock Infinite is that very game.

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