On Monday evening – March 25th, 2013 – several friends and I sat glued to our monitors, watching as the clock ticked away, down and down to midnight, March 26th. Five and a half years earlier, our monitors and television sets were graced with a work of art that has been widely acclaimed and acknowledged as one of the best video games of all time: BioShock. BioShock was an intriguing and meditative game that placed its setting front and center, a sprawling underwater city called Rapture, and explored the nature of society and economy as the player explored its broken down halls. After an adequate but ultimately uninspired direct sequel (made by a different creative team), a new game had been announced about two and a half years after the first. This game – which would become BioShock Infinite – promised a new setting, a new main character, and a brand new story unrelated to the first. It was more of a spiritual successor than anything else. From the very first trailer for this game, I – and most of my friends who had played the original – were hooked.
This was three years ago. For three years, during which the game was delayed three separate times and teased relentlessly for the last year or so, we waited. And after three years of waiting, on Monday evening, we were finally about to get our hands on what looked sure to be the best game of 2013. The clock ticked down increasingly slowly, leading us to make typically geeky remarks about us approaching a large mass and the resultant time dilation (I’m perhaps irrationally proud of my pun, “we’re approaching the point of infinite curvature and time is slowing down exponentially”). But eventually, midnight arrived, and we were finally able to play this game.
If I can trust my writing ability to adequately convey the astronomical (oh look more puns) level of hype for this game, you should have a pretty good idea of how high our expectations were. When expectations are this high, it is almost entirely probably that we are going to be disappointed. There are so few works that can measure up to that level of hype; disappointment is virtually assured in these situations. To make the situation even more dire, the original game was among the very best ever created. This game had its work cut out for it from the very beginning: expectations based on its own merits as well as being forced to somehow live in the shadow of its predecessor? How could it possibly measure up?
And so it was with great trepidation and excitement – an odd mix to be sure – that I pressed that welcoming “Play” button on Monday evening. Within ten minutes, any fears that this game would disappoint were expelled.
By the end of the experience, I was convinced that I had just played the greatest game ever made.
“Are you afraid of God, Booker?”
“No. But I’m afraid of you.”
BioShock Infinite takes place in 1912, in the city of Columbia, a formerly American city run by the charismatic religious leader, Comstock. The limitless zeal of the citizens, all devoted to the Founding Fathers of America (the figures Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin are particularly venerated) and to Comstock, whom they see as a prophet, ultimately leads the United States to reject them. In response, Comstock set the city to the skies, seceding from the United States but clinging to the history and iconography of its history, as the city is lifted into the air and held aloft on the clouds. The player takes control of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent tasked with retrieving a girl named Elizabeth from the city in order to clear his debts. Turns out, however, that Elizabeth is the daughter of Comstock, and is a key figure in one of his many prophecies, and is held in high reverence by the citizens of Columbia. Around an hour and a half into the game (perhaps more depending on the way the player plays the game), Booker encounters her, finds that she wants to escape, and joins forces with her to escape the city while the citizens try to stop them out of devotion to Comstock.
If this sounds like an elaborate set up, that’s because it very much is – the beauty of Infinite, as with BioShock before it, is that the history of Columbia and the nature of the bizarre half-reality it presents is revealed through gameplay in elegant, efficient ways. As in the original game, simply walking around the city will reveal a wealth of information: from the myriad signs and advertisements placed all around the city – all of which have impeccable attention to detail and continuity, including running ads for companies that reappear later, such as Jeremiah Fink’s company and Duke and Dimwit – to the various shops and merchant stands that line the streets, everything around you has something to say about this strange and mysterious place in which you find yourself.
Irrational Games’ level designer Shawn Elliott compared BioShock to BioShock Infinite by likening the first game to archaeology, and the second to anthropology. In BioShock, Rapture is a dead city. It’s been torn apart by conflict resembling real life drug wars and conflicting ideologies met with a refusal to change by Andrew Ryan, the city’s founder and de facto enforcer. BioShock Infinite, however, presents Columbia as very much alive. People consistently line the streets of Columbia, talking about various things related to everyday life, commenting on Booker and Elizabeth, and referencing the very events of the game as they unfold. Moreso than any of the absolutely stellar environment design, just walking around and listening to the people around you gives you a tremendous wealth of information and understanding of the city. Simply sprinting through the streets of Columbia to your next objective is a terrible way to play this game; instead, a leisurely walk through the streets, looking high into the skies to see the gorgeous environment design and building architecture, and listening to the various chatter of citizens is necessary for full appreciation of the spectacular world building on display here.
There’s a lot of detail in this game that can be easily missed, but that is absolutely astonishing in its intricacy. The citizens of Columbia still harbor a number of racist ideals, given that the game takes place in 1912, after the city had been in the sky for 20 years. Segregation is in full swing here, but it’s arguably even worse than the United States’ Jim Crow segregation was, if that’s believable. There are washrooms not only separated based on color, but on nationality as well. Particularly striking was a set of washrooms labeled “Colored and Irish Washroom” that were in horrible states of disrepair. When you, the white, non-Irish protagonist walk into this washroom, a black NPC standing in there pleads that you leave, lest both of you be horribly beaten. That’s savage, and it’s triggered entirely by walking through a door. Even further, if you walk down the hall, you’ll find sparkling clean washrooms that aren’t labeled yet are clearly for whites of some descent that isn’t Irish (and arguably not one of several other white nationalities as well, but only Irish is directly discriminated against by the characters). Beyond there, you will find a young white boy being scolded by his mother for fraternizing with girls that had Irish last names, whom she refers to as “potato eaters”.
Columbia is a harsh, rather terrifying world – and it’s all waiting just under the surface. When you arrive in Columbia, you’ll be struck by the beauty and wonder of the city. But spending just a few moments looking closer and looking more inquisitively at your surroundings, listening to the people around you, and you’ll be clued in to the horrors that lie beneath the surface of this apparent utopia.
As wonderful as the setting of the game is, the true heart of the game’s storytelling lies in the actual events of the game. This is yet another departure from BioShock: in the original, the city of Rapture was the main character and the main story thrust. Yes, there was the conflict between Atlas/Fontaine (seriously, the game is six years old. If you were going to play it, you’ve likely already played it) and Andrew Ryan, and the whole “Would you kindly?” plot involving the silent player character, Jack, but ultimately the game was about exploring and getting to know Rapture, and what happened in it that brought it down to the state you see it in.
Infinite, however, is completely different in that Columbia is truly a setting. For all of Columbia’s American idealism and “more American than America” posturing, for all of its racist leanings and historical revisionism, the story’s heart doesn’t lie in any of those places. The story instead is one of a family that has secrets. Why did Comstock lock his daughter, Elizabeth, up in the tower? Why did Lady Comstock demand it be done before she was murdered? What exactly is the nature of Elizabeth’s bizarre powers? This is the crux of the narrative: this bizarre family and what secrets they’re actually hiding. Of course, the narrative begins to fly off in many different directions, bringing in characters such as Jeremiah Fink and Rosalind Lutece to fill in a few gaps in the family drama on display here. Then there’s Booker himself: where does the player come into all of this?
There are a LOT of questions that go through your head as you progress through the story, and it can feel at times overwhelming. But the game does a good job of slowly peeling back layers of the intricate plot, with bits and pieces of the full picture coming together as the game progresses. Watching as the mysterious family story becomes a complex web of metaphysical experiments and a veil of public perception that masks a terrible set of truths is engaging, and at times can pull the player away from simply getting lost in Columbia, instead opting to follow the path of the story even more closely in order to unravel the story’s secrets more quickly. A significant part of this urgency at times is related to your near constant companion, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth has been praised as the game’s best achievement, and to an extent I agree (it’s hard to single out any one feature as the game’s best achievement, since it’s a ridiculously high achieving package): Elizabeth is one of the best drawn characters in the medium. The game manages to make her feel needed and integral to the experience, while at the same time not feeling limiting. Using her as a lockpicker to open doors you normally can’t is inspired, as it makes her presence feel increasingly welcome as it enables you to explore more. Her presence in combat, as a provider of additional bonuses such as health packs, Salts (a resource for vigors), and ammo may seem gamebreaking, but is actually simply a bonus: it is incredibly well programmed and always manages to give you something exactly when you need it, but at a frequency that makes it feel like a bonus rather than an assured supply. That combat does not feel significantly gimped in her absence attests to this: you can function completely normally and well without her. Her presence is not necessary, but instead a welcome and exciting addition.
But her presence also provides the player a chance to get to know her personally. The chatter between Booker and Elizabeth is a game highlight: it’s well written, often witty, and always emotionally satisfying. Whether it’s an amusing conversation between the two, an intimate character moment where the two discuss motivations and coping with the things they have to do to escape the city, or something as small as general banter when she opens a lock: it’s always fun to listen to. She runs around with you for the bulk of the game, but it isn’t an escort: it’s free roam. She’s just there with you, commenting on the sights and sounds as you explore. What really sells her presence in the world as you explore are her reactions: she has specific animations for a great number of sights, and will react accordingly. Corpses lying mutilated in a jail cell? She’ll cower in revulsion and quickly turn the other way, rubbing her arms. She feels like a real person rather than a canned escorted damsel, and that’s something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in a game.
Over the course of the game, her very welcome presence becomes one that the player very much loves to have: so, when the game removes her as it does on a few occasions, there is an immediate and very real sense of urgency to find her and either rescue her or win back her favor. There’s a very real relationship that grows between Booker and Elizabeth, and more significantly, between the player and Elizabeth, and it’s astonishing to watch.
I’ve said a lot about the story and the setting, but we musn’t forget that this is, after all, a game. The best works of art, as I have always argued, are those that tell their story in a way that is unique to the medium. For games, that comes down to the importance of gameplay in both the narrative and in engaging the player with the material. In this, BioShock Infinite excels. Exploring the city is more of a passive activity than an active one, but the game smartly gates content behind locked doors that require a lockpick and the use of Elizabeth to unlock. This incentivizes scavenging for lockpicks, which is itself a form of exploration, in order to search behind all the doors in the game in search of collectibles that boost your three primary attributes (health, shield, and Salt), Voxophones which convey a short voice message from a significant character, or sightseeing objects such as kinetoscopes and telescopes. Unlocking everything in the game requires an active effort of exploration throughout the entire experience.
But the center of the gameplay is not exploration, but combat. The first BioShock was not a particularly strong shooter of its own merit; in fact, it was decidedly weak at times. It had a clumsy upgrade system and a defunct plasmid system that seriously favored two or three over the rest, and the use of a single gun over the full arsenal. BioShock Infinite, however, is decidedly more interesting as a shooter. All of the vigors have useful combat applications, and I found myself using all eight of them in turn based on the situation. Rather than carrying around a full arsenal of weaponry, Infinite limits you to two weapons that you can swap out at will. It’s a smart move, and it drives home a sense of urgency when you run out of ammo and need to quickly find a gun (unless Elizabeth is kind enough to toss you some ammo as a nice bonus), which in turn forces you to use all of the weapons available, particularly as ammo becomes scarce in the late game.
But the ultimate success of Infinite‘s combat is in the sheer joy and exhilaration of it all. More so than any shooter I have ever played, the combat in Infinite is rapid and frantic, with waves of enemies seemingly never stopping at times and being unforgiving of haphazard play. It rewards smart dispatching of large groups of enemies with tactical use of vigors: using Bucking Bronco to toss a group of four of them into the air, then unleashing a Murder of Crows to deal damage over time as you pick them off one by one with your carbine, all while they’re suspended in midair from your first blast is one of the most satisfying combat moments I’ve ever experienced in a game. The synergistic relationships between the guns and the vigors is sublime, and you don’t feel reliant on either method of combat over the other. You’re actively required to use all the abilities and guns at your disposal, and it feels outstanding.
But even beyond the combat abilities you have on your person, the game features an environmental combat function in the sky rails. Using the Skyhook which Booker acquires early in the game, the player can latch onto long rails that soar throughout Columbia in circuits around points of interest. While riding these rails, the player can control their speed, change their direction, and shoot enemies from the sky, as well as leap down off the rail and execute enemies from above. The motion from ground to track and track to ground (or track to track in some cases) is incredibly fast and smooth, and makes jumping from rail to rail while shooting enemies and air assassinating others insanely entertaining. I have never had as much fun in a video game as when dealing with a Handyman, the most difficult enemy in the game, by leaping onto a rail heading away from him, slowing down and shooting him in the heart as I slowly drift away, out of his reach, and then leaping down onto the ground as he leapt onto the rails to pursue me. My movements were swift enough to match his own fast movements, and the whole time I was able to stay on step ahead, gracefully leaping from ground to rail to avoid his hands, shooting him all the while.
The combat in BioShock Infinite is one of the strongest shooters I’ve ever played, and is the absolute best in terms of sheer manic joy.
Overall, BioShock Infinite is the best game that I have ever played. With a glorious marriage of an engaging setting, a character driven and emotional story that touches on metaphysical concepts with an insane thematic range, and some of the most fun combat I’ve ever experienced, this is a game that is not to be missed, and one that will be revisited for years to come.