Bioshock Infinite: A dream of American apple pie
Say what you will about Ken Levin but the man is not unambitious. Be it with groundbreaking forays into immersive sims with System Shock 2, exploring Objectivism in Bioshock or (with this one) exploring alternative realities, American history and race relations with said history. You might remember, readers that I was very impressed with Bioshock Remastered . But I was unable to give it the Hall of Fame entry due to its performance problems. Infinite suffers some unstable performance issues. But the story is bloody amazing.
Set in 1912’s America, Booker DeWitt is given some instructions for what seems to be another thug job. “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” Are his only instructions, after being dropped off outside a lighthouse on the Maine coast. Booker finds himself rocketed (literally) into a strange new world: the floating city of Columbia. Things then get rather interesting when the girl is discovered to have the power of manipulating reality.
That is all I will say about the story, but regardless I will say that Infinite’s narrative is maybe its strongest contribution. I admire the ambition on with its topic and themes. I applaud how well they have been executed. The ending left me speechless in the best way possible. Hell they I am still thinking of it as I write this. I will not spoil anything (I know this is an old game but still). With that in mind, let’s get to it.
Heads or tails: The difficulty of time and alterative reality in fiction
If there are two literary concepts in Science Fiction and Fantasy notorious for their difficulty of implementation. It would be time travel and alternative reality. Even most talented writers can struggle to pull off these concepts well. Due to (time travel’s) easy plot holes, continuity errors and pretentiousness.
The latter have the problems of having to take into account an entirely new historical timeline. Setting the diverting event too far back will see your world building falling apart (see Bright/Atlas Shrugged for an example for that). Failing to take account of all the changes closer to home can still make the world seem weak.
Bioshock Infinite succeeds in this, by making Columbia more of a secret world then a fully fledged Man in the High Castle approach. Booker is just as much as an outsider in the world as we are. Allowing for us to identity with Booker but also creates organic world building. The alterative realities too give us as the player (and Booker) the opportunity to see how our (the player’s history) deviates from Infinite’s world. Because he is an outsider to Columbia just like us. As a result of controlling information and perspective. Irrational Games are able to avoid a number of the problems that come with Alterative Histories and Time Travel.
Time Travel is used sparingly and is not really intractable. Rather.... more in line with a premonition to run around in. I do appreciate how nicely tided up the plot points ended up being. When they could have easily unravelled and not made any sense. The high point to my mind when it come Infinite was the ending, which brought all the realities together and delivered a gut punch that I will not forget. Infinite cleverly uses difficult story concepts to a skill rarely seen in most media.
Constants and variables
One way Infinite uses the theme of alternative reality is through the concept of constants and variables. Booker (and us) first encounters this through the motif of the coin. The Lutece twins ask Booker to toss a coin (Heads or Tails), the coin always lands on heads (that is a constant). But Booker’s attempts to rescue Elizabeth (the girl) are a variable. Hence why there are so many results on heads. The motif is later applied (in another mark of great writing) when explaining alternative realities to Booker and the player. “You see heads and I see tails. It’s all a matter of perceptive....Dead...Alive...A different Columbia.”
Irrational Games, by simply using a coin. are able to explain alterative realties. They succeed in a way that is catchy, memorable and most importantly, informative without confusing the player. It is very clever and does exactly what a motif should do, support the narrative and theme without being overbearing. It is also quite an original means of establishing the rules of the world without becoming pretentious or wordy.
The Lutece twins
(warning of spoilers later in the video)
When we first meet the Lutece twins (Rosalind and Robert Lutece) you might be forgiven for thinking they are mad (or at least very strange). They seem to be talking about everything but saying nothing. However, they quickly become some of the most memorable and fascinating characters in the series. They are seemingly godlike in their characterisation “We are where we’re needed. And needed where we are.” Offering Booker and Elizabeth advice and help in Columbia and sometimes, just messing around. They are a chaotic natural, more interested in the outcome of Infinite’s events rather than the journey, very much like a scientist approaching a problem. You can see this in a certain events (Watch the video for examples).
I personally find these sorts of characters very fascinating, as you (the player) have no idea what their motivations are. Their indifference and scientific rigor make them an instant curiosity. I also love the chemistry between the two (Oliver Vaquer and Jennifer Hale respectively are wonderful in this). They always are debating and challenging themselves against their own theories (like good friends or colleagues) . Rosealind and Robert are excellent examples of delivering exposition. While personifying the theme of constants and variables (Lutece intelligence is a constant but the sex is a variable) and be compelling characters in their own rights.
Columbia is a character in of itself, deceptively utopic and (truth be told) seeming a nice place to live. But like the thinnest of masks, it slips almost instantly once the player gets to the raffle. Bioshock Infinite is a dark violent game, and tackles its subject matters of racism, totalitarian and nationalism very well. Some have complained in the past that Bioshock is unnecessarily violent.
The words ludonarrative dissonance has popped up when discussion around the Bioshock series comes about. I however don’t think it this term really applies to Bioshock. Because there is no conflict between the gameplay and the story. Booker is a violent man in a place where violence is hidden under the thinnest crust. Columbia is an oppressive society that gets rid of anything that threatens it. Columbia is a dystopia that tries to pretend it is a utopia.
History of violence
Columbia’s history is too steeped in violence, responsible for the massacre at the Boxer Rebellion and the planned destruction of New York City. The characters, the setting and events of the story are all steeped in violence. Booker is not a scared Lara Croft who becomes a killing machine once gameplay starts. He is a trained solider and mercenary, who has killed before. Booker is mentally strong enough for it to be believable. Columbia is a place where they give their mechanised founding father figures machine guns! How can one honestly think there is a dissonance between gameplay and story?
As I have said previously Columbia is a fascinating character in of itself. It is grotesque parody of 1912 American south. An ideal that borders on the cartoonish, the founding fathers are treated as gods. Abraham Lincoln has devil horns and John Wilkes Booth has a heavenly glow about him. Columbia is an excellent example of American exceptionalism gone so badly wrong, like any good dystopian work. It examines the flaws in a particular ideology (Libertarianism in Bioshock 1 and Socialism in Bioshock 2) when taken to its logical extreme. Much like the first game, Bioshock Infinite takes a concept that is not really explored in dystopian fiction (American exceptionlism). Infinite examines the flaws and failures of that system. Flaws that are made more evident with the backdrop of slavery and Jim Crow. The latter which was still in effect in the game’s time period.
The entire game (after Elizabeth joins the party) is an escort quest. This could have gone really badly for us, (glares at Ashley from RE4). But unlike Ashley, Elizabeth is not a screaming teenager who gets kidnapped with the clockwork efficiency of mushroom kingdom royalty. She is one of the most helpful escorts I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Instead of becoming improperly skilled with guns (Elizabeth has never even left the house) or getting in way of gunfights, she is actually useful in a way that makes scene.
She tosses health packs, salts (mana) and ammo in fights; she keeps out of the way and helps you by opening tears, summoning health packs and gun turrets etc. She is useful and doesn’t stress the player in having to protect an AI. From a writing perspective, this is brilliant. Elizabeth is pragmatic and self reliant; she becomes a likeable and respectable character to the player, as we don’t have to be her babysitter (Ashley).
Elizabeth is also not flawless. She panics when first seeing the sight of blood. She fights back when it is discovered that Booker was lying to her, and even refuses to go with him. Elizabeth is an intelligent person who couldn’t have been replaced with a brief case; she is integral to the plot and gameplay. Elizabeth is a person who you want to have on your side, she adds to the narrative instead of weakening it.
At its core, Bioshock Infinite is a pretty standard linier FPS. What helps it stand out (asides from the Vigors and story) is how the player moves around the battle area. It could have been a boring cover based shooter with very lovely wallpaper. But Irrational Games overcame industry standard at the time (cover based FPS) to deliver a fun (occupationally frustrating) experience.
There are eight Vigors in total (this world’s Plasmids), and many of them work the same way as the original Bioshock. But I will not lie, there a lot of fun to be had in sending hordes crows at the not KKK and then electrocuting said crows for a complete floor wipe. They add a nice piece of strategy and variety to what is otherwise an average FPS.
Their functions can be a little bit repetitive (holding down typically creates a mine of some description). But they are practical for the most part, even if the fast paced combat areas do make me forget the trap tactic in the heat of it all. The new Vigors are very creative and enjoyable to use. They offer the sort of cathartic fun that one gets from firing a jet of water at a racist, causing them to fly off the Columbian railing, and plummet to their deaths.
The skylines really set Infinite apart from other FPSs at the time, which were often very (pardon the pun) grounded. You could only plink at people from behind cover and walk to the next area. The skylines not only open up the world and make it feel more intractable. But also make the combat very energetic. I find wiz around the battlefield, leap off and instant kill a racist. It feels great, and makes the combat all the more exciting.
The ease of movement is too excellent for adapting on the fly (you will have to in to avoid those mechanized George Washingtons). You are always on the move, getting to the high ground or savaging for guns and ammo. I would use the skyline to yeet up to the roof of a nearby building, discover a conveniently placed sniper rifle, and take a few pot shots at a Handyman before leaping to safety. The skylines are insanely fun and I love them.
The AI is not always the smartest when it comes to combat. I found this to be more of a problem in the Burial at Sea DLC as opposed to the main game. But the AI would sometimes just not move or get stuck in loops that really tend to result in easy victories. I am not entirely sure what happened between the main game and the DLC (maybe something to with having to rebuild Rapture from the ground up). But it does hurt the product a bit, a little lack of polish in another wise great package.
The tears in reality
As mentioned previously, Elizabeth can open tears into other realities. Bringing in anything from guns to ammo or gun turrets. You can only have one open at any given time, the player has to choose what is best for the given situation. A gun turret or a mechanized founding father can be a great means of winning over the battlefield (and taking away fire from you). But an RPG or a skyhook can allow for potent firing power and mobility. But it is highly useful and a carries a good amount of gameplay alternatives. Due to the relatively limited amount of healing items and guns readily available, it is nice to have the ability to summon in a batch of health kits at a moment’s notice. On the harder difficulties you will need every advantage you can get and Infinite provides that without overpowering the player.
Art style and Graphics:
Columbia is utterly beautiful, much like Rapture; Columbia is vast and boldly realised. I have nothing to complain about here. It is the personification of everything the Confederate South stood for. I love the deification of the Founding Fathers, the little hints of darkness under the utopia. Columbia tells a story in dozens of ways and is a character as a whole.
There were persistent frame rate problems throughout the majority of my time with the game. This is an optimisation problem but the persistence of it is very distracting.
Bioshock Infinite left me speechless, for the rest of the night I couldn’t talk because I was simply stunned. The performance problems might be a bit of a drawback, but the gunplay and story more than make up for it.