Bioshock Infinite Review

Monday, May 6, 2013


Written by Chris Carr

The great man and critic Roger Ebert, in my opinion, only said one wrong thing throughout his life. He said that video games were not art simply because they were created for the purpose of entertainment and not for the medium of art itself. Unfortunately, Ebert never got to play Bioshock Infinite.

Now, I’ve been a fan of the franchise since the first game came out. Bioshock, the original game, was set in the sunken city of Rapture, a bastion for science and ingenuity, saved from the taboo-setting main-culture that was regular civilized life in 1960. Your character is sent to the city and forced to duel it out with the citizens of the city, all of which have been become monsters due to their addiction to plasmids. Plasmids are a game device your character can use to inject into himself to shoot all sort of things from his hands; lightening, bees, fire, whatever will cause harm to these forlorn citizens of Don Draper’s Atlantis.

Here we see the first stroke of game design that has made Bioshock so popular. The very thing that has corrupted the population of Rapture is integrated into the gaming dynamic. There is a reason to have these things around and furthermore, a reason to use them for the sake of the protagonist’s survival. This is another step toward the ever-sought-after characteristic that all games should have: immersion.

Bioshock, the original does this perfectly. Your character is unimportant, in fact in the first two games of the trilogy, your character doesn't even speak. An old device in game building that lets the player become the character instead of simply acting a part. Having the character not speak his own mind, lets the player step into the mind of the character as themselves, free to make their own judgments, free from the overall arch of the character. Along with this, the city of Rapture is so fascinating in it lore and people, it pushes the character forward, always baiting and aiding in the right places, but not in a way that comes off as placation, but rather, self-directed education. If you watch someone play a good game, like Bioshock, it’s a lot like someone learning to drive in a parking lot. Mistakes are made, but with no serious consequence, life goes on until your goals are met, or you stop playing.

Bioshock’s immersion is only triumphed by it’s writing. As I will discuss further soon, Bioshock Infinite’s story is one of the greatest pieces of literature I’ve ever had to pleasure to be part of. However, Infinite’s story is made better by knowing the lore, set forth my the first two Bioshock games. In the first game, the over all arch stems from legacy. Legacy is what drives Andrew Ryan, the proprietor of Rapture to create a world free from the social stigmas holding back science. Evil, yes, but wholly productive. In the second Bioshock game, simply called Bioshock 2, the overall theme is deterioration. You are plunked back into Rapture, a know-dying city and forced to save those in need. It’s the simple device of your character, again silent in this one as well, rising from the ashes of a dead civilization to be its savior. The third games arch is one of chaos.

Now, going into Bioshock Infinite, being such a fan of Rapture, the underwater claustrophobic world of deadly sycophants and capitalist un-ethicists, I was weary about the third installment’s choice of location: the wild blue quantum of clouds. The developers of Infinite took a bold move with this game, setting the game in the floating city of Columbia. Powered by quantum balloon technology, the city of Columbia rests amongst the clouds in golden pulchritude, daring the player to pluck it from the sky in a fiery, plummeting heap.

In the first two games, the underwater setting game gives the player a feeling of impeding doom as the ocean could reclaim the city at any time. It was uncomfortable, anxious and just plain creepy-as-hell. Instead of seeing the outside world out a window, you saw lumbering whales and the anti-human environment of reefs and blue abysses. Columbia, on the other hand is golden, shiny and radiated at ever moment with the sun. A welcome companion for most of the game, always over your shoulder, giving you the warm feeling of familiarity Rapture never gave. In this way, Infinite falls short of its predecessors. It’s just not as creepy. Columbia, is a less interesting than Rapture in exploration value because of this.

In this game, you play as a character named Booker DeWitt, an ex-pinkerton with his own thoughts and acidic remarks injected between each termination of a Columbian citizen. This, as said above, is a departure, one I was not too happy about until you realized the entire arch of the story necessarily dictate an actor with his own values, outside that of the player. You have to follow his ethics to understand his choices. A quiet character, that hinges on the thoughts and values of the player would have made the story suffer.

As the game progresses, you run into different agents of Columbia. Some scientists, some military, some (if not most) are straight up maniacs, driven mad under the tyrannical rule of Zachary Comstock, the proprietor and religious leader of Columbia. Under him, Columbia was built, so all its citizens bow to him in reverence. He is your antagonist. And here lies Infinite’s strength over and above the prior two games.

As I said, the first two games were creepy, in they made you want to understand the city, even more than the story of the characters some times. As any good writer will tell you, develop characters and the story will follow. The first two games developed an environment and then let the story grow organically from that. This is a great way to create a game, since, the player is always immersed in that environment, enable to separate themselves from it. However, the emotional attachment will then only ever be attached—between the player and the game—by the environment. I feel that the developer knew this and that’s why Bioshock 2 emphasizes the deterioration of Rapture. However, what both the first games lacked, because of their environment-centric creation was an emotional bond to the city since, well, it’s a city. There is an emotional tie, but certainly not to the same degree as it would be if it were a relationship between people.

This is where Infinite and the city of Columbia shine. The environment, although on the surface is interesting, quickly becomes quaint and hokey. In lieu of an interesting environment, characters were able in this installment to take the reigns on emotional ties to the player. This is why it’s so important to have DeWitt’s insights and stories heard, as it cements the bond between the player and the character they control. This gives the player a sense of ownership and care over the character and deeper sense of self-preservation. The switch by the developers in this regard was perfect.

Furthermore, rather than rely on the instinct of survival to carry the player through to the end of the game, as in the first two Bioshocks, mystery, interest and guilt are used to create a driving storyline that could not be left alone. Even between sessions of playing Infinite, I found myself thinking about the tiny clues and testimonies littered throughout the game. The way the game is constructed—with recordings, graffiti and minor characters—creates an environment of minds, and not of walls. It creates a world where conflicting personalities clash, without concern for their floating (maybe gimmicky) city.

What Infinite has done, as I mentioned above, is instill a feeling guilt, that never before have I felt while playing a game. I play a lot of video games, it’s my generation’s hockey, and never have I felt the emotion of guilt for my choices in a game or in life in general. And that’s what the game is about, after all, choices. Good or bad, they have all been made before and will be made again. In this sense, Infinite takes the gimmick out of choices, like you get in other games, makes the reader realize the futile human comedy to Camus proportions. The guilt may come from the religious overtones of redemption, but really, it magnifies the uniquely human ability to be completely helpless, no matter how good (or bad) of a person you are.

Art, to me, has always been a reflection or a comment. Bioshock Infinite makes many statements about ethics, futilities and duty, but overall it is a work of beauty in chaos with shotguns thrown in for good measure. It’s a reflection of the human intersection between the futility of choice and the absurdity of life (and death). If that’s not art, then it’s full-metal jacket philosophy. It’s the artist’s post-mortem biography written in bullets in a brick wall. Like the cities of Rapture and Columbia, video games may be the last bastion of true artistic integrity and beauty; it’s one of the last places where art is still coveted and paid for. What’s more artistic than that?


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