BioShock Infinite

Rescue a mysterious girl from a gorgeous, terrifying city in the sky

Release: March 26, 2013 (PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360)

By Ian Coppock, Originally Published on March 27, 2013

Ken Levine, a screenwriter-turned-game designer, has placed himself squarely at the tip of games’ ascension into art with BioShock Infinite. This game is a masterfully-written piece of narrative, with pacing and set pieces to match. If video games are to be taken seriously as artwork, they need to start hosting the arguments of what artwork is and what experiences they hold for the beholder. I can promise you that BioShock Infinite will not disappoint. It may not amaze or inspire you as it did me, but the game is so beautifully designed that you’d have to try pretty hard not to be drawn in.

The Story
BioShock Infinite takes place in 1912, and players assume the role of Booker DeWitt, a checkered private investigator. To pay off debts incurred by drinking and gambling, Booker takes a job offered by anonymous individuals to rescue a girl from a city called Columbia. He accepts, and soon finds that the assignment is more than he bargained for. Quite unexpectedly, he arrives to a majestic city floating 15,000 feet above the surface of the earth.
Columbia is one of the most beautiful game environments I’ve ever seen.
After arriving to Columbia, Booker learns that the city is a sort of ultra-American theocracy run by a president-priest named Zachary Comstock. He also learns that Columbia was built by the American government in 1893, but seceded from the Union following an unspecified diplomatic incident. After meandering through airborne streets and crowds of joyous citizens, Booker finds that the girl he was sent to rescue is being held hostage by Comstock, and has the ability to tear open portals to other dimensions. Comstock tracks Booker and recites, word-for-word, his formerly secret mission and even his thoughts. It becomes apparent that there’s more to Columbia than meets the eye. After Booker springs Elizabeth from her jail, the pair must battle fascist civilians, anarchistic rebels, and cybernetic monsters in order to escape the city.
Booker soon realizes that Columbia’s citizens are patriotic to an offensive and racist fault.
Like the original BioShock, which was released in 2007, BioShock Infinite is incredibly immersive. I was drawn into the game world almost from the first minute of gameplay, to the point where my couch and living room faded away before Columbia’s sheer awesomeness. The game is intuitively designed to predict gamers’ every exploration impulse. The environment also feels refreshingly organic; citizens gather on picnic blankets to discuss the day’s news while shoe-shiners and ice cream salesmen peddle their wares to passerby. As the game progresses, it takes a much darker tone and Columbia’s peaceful facade begins to tear away. The journey from light to dark felt completely organic, not that I noticed at the time (I was too busy drooling at the bright colors).
As BioShock‘s story becomes heavier, the game’s tone darkens without losing any of its beauty.
The game also eschews a considerable amount of character development. Unlike Jack, the silent protagonist of Bioshock, Booker DeWitt is a fully-voiced character, whose own observations and plans provide the guidance for the story. Elizabeth starts out as a childish 20-something who’s free after 15 years cooped up in a laboratory, and it’s rather amusing to watch her chase butterflies and leave you knocked out on a beach so she can go dance. Booker’s rough cynicism clashes heavily with her exhilaration at being free, but the two characters eventually learn to trust and rely upon each other as they face more and more baddies in an increasingly hostile city. Elizabeth never seemed to lose her charm; Ken Levine wrote the character with antics that would ordinarily be annoying but that I thought were uplifting and funny, because I empathized with her having been imprisoned most of her life.
Booker and Elizabeth have to trust each other in order to survive in Columbia.
The gameplay is silky smooth, with effortless transitions between weapons and pseudo messed-up superpowers called Vigors, which give Booker such charming abilities as summoning a crowd of bloodthirsty crows or setting several dudes on fire. Elizabeth can use her tear ability to summon weapons, cover, and other handy dandy items. She can also look after herself and does not need escorting, and thank Christ for that, because nothing breaks immersion faster than having to babysit an NPC. I was free to focus on Booker’s own health and well-being, which, in some of the more chaotic fight scenes, was pretty close to all I could handle anyway.
My one major complaint with BioShock Infinite’s story is its somewhat toothless take on philosophy. BioShock was chock-full of philosophical and historical references, and centered around mankind’s right to keep the fruits of his labors to himself. In BioShock, Andrew Ryan was a bit of a bastard sometimes but he had some legitimate grievances and good philosophical arguments. These made me question which of us was “the bad guy” and added all the more to the story’s tension and depth.Infinite‘s Comstock, while a well-written character, is a racist Christian fundamentalist whose own viewpoints, such as his idea that black people are animals, can be rejected with no challenge whatsoever. Existential philosophy is the heart of BioShock narratives, and while it was present in Infinite, it was weakened by being so obviously antagonistic.
The Artwork
BioShock Infinite was built on the Unreal Engine, and features incredibly beautiful scenery. The team at Irrational Games went into overdrive on their time period studies, and the entire city looks, feels, and breathes the American exceptionalism period of 1890-1920. The initial scenes are set with surreal bright lights and fantastic colors, and as the game darkens, the story’s tone is further muted with subtle hues.
Bioshock Infinite‘s open worlds provide breathtaking vistas, especially when surveyed from a skyrail.
I also enjoyed Infinite‘s artwork because it was more than a pretty backdrop. The environments were lively and believable. The floating buildings of Columbia bob in the breeze and gently brush against one another. Cargo trains trundle by, and people look at you funny for checking trashcans for coins. The environment, impossible as it seemed, was made real because the subtle things were accounted for. That was what really made the game immersive.
Beach in the sky? Seems legit.
The artwork is also detailed almost obsessively. Everything is brightly painted and polished, giving the impression that this is a 1912 World’s Fair. The game’s darker imagery serves as a counterweight by being insidiously somber; the game contains a fair amount of violence and bloodshed, and being aBioshock game, portions of it are quite disturbing.
Should I get it?
Now that we’ve moved on from that engagement proposal of a review, we come to the recommendation. I recommend Bioshock Infinite more than any other game I’ve posted about. This game’s story and writing are the apex of good game design, and the artwork will draw you in. It just will. Right now the game’s a little pricey at $60, but if you feel like going on a dark but beautiful journey, be my guest.

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