As is the case with all game reviews on this blog, this review will assume that you’ve played the game, i.e. it will contain spoilers for BioShock Infinite. It may also contain mild spoilers for BioShock and BioShock 2.
I had high praise for last year’s Hong Kong open-world adventure, Sleeping Dogs, which I’ve heard described as “Grand Theft Auto with an editor.” Though a mishmash of mechanics, it knew exactly what it wanted to be from start to finish: a semi-serious thriller and a homage to Hong Kong cinema. As a result, despite its open-world design, Sleeping Dogs ended up being a tightly focused and refined experience, engaging from start to finish.
On the other hand, BioShock Infinite is clearly the baby of creator Ken Levine. It’s the work of an auteur without an editor peering over his shoulder, a piece of mad genius that dazzles and delights, but also frustrates. It’s a fascinating look inside Levine’s brain, bursting with intelligent ideas and thought-provoking concepts. But does it all hold together as a coherent, unified work? I’m not so sure.
After its brief, rainy opening, BioShock Infinite launches you into the sky to the airborne city of Columbia, a slice of idealized, early 20th century Americana. I’ve twice been to Walt Disney World, and I must say, Columbia perfectly captures the essence of the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street, U.S.A. There’s a sense of untrammelled patriotism in the air, but it feels simple, quaint, and joyful. Blue skies surround the player as clouds drift lazily by, creating a sensation of tranquility.
Of course, not all is right with this supposed paradise in the sky. It’s apparent that there are nasty currents of racism and classism running through Columbian society. Blacks and the Irish are regarded as third-class citizens, and the Chinese don’t fare much better. The leisurely stroll through Columbia soon gives way to one of the game’s first important scenes. The player character, Booker DeWitt, is told to lob a baseball at an interracial couple; such is the punishment for miscegenation in Columbian society. The player is given a choice: throw the baseball at the couple, or throw it another man standing on a stage. After making the choice, Booker winds up to make the throw, but is then stopped when someone sees the brand on the back of his hand. It’s a subtle but brilliant piece of game design: the player makes a choice, but it has no consequence; the throw is stopped regardless of the decision made. This is the first indication that Infinite essentially espouses a fatalist view of choice and consequence, a notion that plays a role in the game’s final twists.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. There’s still so much of Columbia left to explore after the opening sequences: the sunny beaches of Battleship Bay; the frighteningly racist exhibits at the Hall of Heroes; the dilapidated slums of Finkton; and much, much more. More so than Rapture before it, Infinite’s Columbia feels like a fully-realized world – breathing, vibrant, and alive. Navigating through that world involves a lot of walking around and exploring, searching for supplies and audio diaries. It’s in these quieter moments that the game truly shines. Columbia feels like a place that’s steeped in history, and I wanted to absorb it all.
The game also has its louder moments – i.e. the combat sequences – and though they’re not as brilliant as the slower moments, they’re exciting and vital for its pacing. The combat has some flaws. For one, the aiming is a little clunky; it took about an hour of fiddling with the mouse sensitivity settings before it felt remotely comfortable. The other main problem is that the vertical field of view doesn’t cover enough height, so it’s all too easy for Booker to get caught on out-of-view scenery in the middle of an intense firefight. I go back and forth on whether the two-weapon limit is a flaw. On the one hand, it discourages experimentation and wanton weapon-switching. But on the other hand, that limit amps up the difficulty by forcing players out of their comfort zones, making them pick up different weapons when their current ones run out of ammo. On the whole, though, combat consists of a well-honed set of features and mechanics. Guns feel good and have the appropriate weight. In particular, the volley gun is just a blast to use (pun intended), and it comes in handy for defeating the game’s tougher enemies. Enemy AI isn’t stellar, but enemies use the environment to their advantage, ducking behind cover and riding around on sky-lines. Vigors add some variety to the mix, allowing you to stun enemies, shock them, or set them on fire. Once you unlock the Charge ability, things become doubly entertaining as you happily run around the map, headbutting everyone like a maniac.
Speaking of the maps, their open design lends a thrilling, frantic nature to the combat. Sky-lines allow you to zip quickly around the levels, giving fire-fights some much-needed verticality. Whereas combat in the original BioShock was a clunky, claustrophobic affair, combat in Infinite is like a lethal, magical dance. The rechargeable overshield keeps the pace quick by not forcing players to scrounge for medkits in the heat of an intense battle, and the sheer number of enemies keeps players on their toes.
One can’t talk about navigating the world of Columbia – both in its quieter and louder moments – without talking about the AI companion who accompanies you on that journey: Elizabeth. In keeping with the colourful, fantastical nature of Columbia, Elizabeth looks and sounds like a Disney princess, with her big blue eyes and her innocent voice.
Elizabeth feels like a real character, and while much of that is due to her expressive facial animations, I would be remiss not to mention Courtnee Draper’s stellar vocal performance – possibly one of the best ever in a video game. Her voice blends so naturally into the game that it’s conspicuous only by its absence. In the game’s quieter moments, it provides commentary on the events and surroundings. In the midst of combat, it’s a helpful call for an ammo or salt refill. Elizabeth proves herself to be a useful companion, pointing out where supplies can be found, and also opening “tears” in combat that can provide cover or new weapons. The “tears” are a little gimmicky and at times are tricky to use, but since only one tear can be activated at a time, they add a nifty tactical element to combat.
Elizabeth provides the emotional core of game, serving as a narrative anchor for its first three-quarters. As you fight your way through Columbia, its Disney-fied sheen wears off, and correspondingly, Elizabeth’s innocence is stripped away as well. I’ve seen complaints about Infinite’s violence and even accusations of ludonarrative dissonance, but I believe that violence is a necessary part of the story to show how everything goes to shit once tensions boil over and the equilibrium in Columbia is disturbed. Booker comes in like a wind blowing down a house of cards or a wave toppling a sandcastle, leaving destruction in his wake. Wherever he goes, violence inevitably follows. We see that reflected in Elizabeth too: as the game progresses, her blouse is ripped and torn, and eventually, after a bloody murder, she’s forced to change her clothes and cut off her bloodstained hair.
In this journey from the pristine streets of Comstock Center to the soot-covered lanes of Finkton, Infinite does a remarkable job of showing the dark side of American exceptionalism while also demonstrating that revolution may not be the solution to working-class ills. It also shows how emotions often get in the way of ideals. Take Daisy Fitzroy, for example, whose bloodthirsty quest for revenge compels her to lead the Vox Populi to kill innocent white Protestants who played no active role in Columbia’s class system. Personal choice, as well as cause and effect, play an important role in the narrative. As Booker and Elizabeth step through different realities, they realize that even small, micro-level changes can have large, macro-level effects. It’s the kind of intelligent, well-thought story that you rarely see in a video game – or in any piece of fiction, really.
And then, in the last quarter of the game, things go off the rails. The problems start with a badly-paced set of missions in Emporia, leading to a boss fight that repeats itself, not once, not twice, but thrice. Making matters worse is that said boss is a ghost, propelling the narrative into the realm of ridiculousness. (Seriously, how can a ghost be harmed by bullets?) Following that is a level set in the now-abandoned Comstock House that attempts to recreate the tension of the original BioShock with dim lighting and limited ammo, but just ends up feeling like a cramped, claustrophobic slog. The next few hours are a mixed bag, featuring some genuinely thrilling and challenging combat sequences, including one that involves hopping from airship to airship in an attempt to fend off a Vox Populi attack, but also containing some frustrating narrative developments. Surprises and twists can be great, but Infinite piles on so many mindfucks in a short span of time that the story ends up verging on parody. The final twist is especially silly; I let out an audible “Really?” when it was revealed that Comstock and Booker were the same person from different realities.
Look, BioShock Infinite is not a subtle game. It wears its themes on its sleeve. Racist propaganda posters are plastered all over Columbia, and it’s clear from the outset that the story’s main players – Fink, Comstock, Fitzroy – are all despicable in some way. But heavy-handedness shouldn’t be confused for shallowness. This isn’t a story that simply boils down to “racism is bad”; Infinite warns against romanticizing or idealizing the oppressed. However, with that lack of subtlety comes the expectation that the emphasized themes are important and will play a role throughout the story. And they just don’t in Infinite. After the Vox Populi rebellion, American exceptionalism is discarded as one of the game’s driving ideas, and the Vox and the Founders become two faceless sets of enemies, distinguishable only by the colour of their clothing (red vs. blue). This could be interpreted as a Animal Farm-type scenario, whereby the revolutionaries fall prey to the allure of the deposed’s ideals. Unfortunately, the game never really engages with that idea, beyond some remarks from Booker about how the Vox and the Founders are basically the same. Since we already know Booker to be a cynical character, this comes off more like a knee-jerk reaction than an important statement of theme.
The game then dives into the realm of metaphysics, turning into a cross between an endorsement of fatalism and a meta-commentary on video game narrative. All the interesting sociopolitical ideas that undergird the first three-quarters of the game are forgotten. Even Elizabeth seems to be forgotten as a character, and she turns into a walking exposition robot, explaining how Booker is always fated to attempt to rescue her, no matter what reality he inhabits. It’s a smart way of relating the idea that all stories, whether real or fictional, are essentially the same, but shoved into the last few hours of the game, it feels rushed and undercooked, and it doesn’t justify throwing Elizabeth’s characterization away.
It’s not as if it’s impossible to write a story that appears to be about one thing but then turns out to be about another. Indeed, one of the greatest works of literature of the twentieth century, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, pulls that very trick. Lee uses the racism of depression-era Alabama to make a broader point about compassion and judging others by their appearances. Similarly, BioShock Infinite takes American exceptionalism as its starting point and initially does a great job of expanding on it, but the game never manages to relate that concept to the ideas it presents in its final hours.
And that is, in essence, the main problem with BioShock Infinite. The narrative engages with so many interesting ideas – racism, religion, patriotism, choice and consequence, American exceptionalism, fatalism, quantum mechanics, historiography, storytelling – and furthermore, it engages with them in compelling, intelligent ways. But it never manages to make them cohere into a unified thematic statement, and as a result, it feels like an exercise in drive-by intellectualism, like having a conversation with a really smart kid who has attention deficit disorder.
BioShock Infinite is an excellent game whose main problem is a surfeit of good ideas. It’s an exciting, inventive, awe-inspiring experience, featuring stunning art direction, solid gameplay, and some astute examination of issues faced both currently and formerly by American society. Ultimately, though, it’s the work of an auteur, with all the positives and negatives that connotes. BioShock Infinite is a work of mad, uncompromising genius. But a narrative that remains thematically coherent from start to finish is probably best found elsewhere.