Let's get it out of the way up front: BioShock Infinite is a flawed masterpiece. Arriving with enormous hype, the game was meant to be creative director Ken Levine's crowning achievement. Expanding and iterating on 2007's BioShock, BioShock Infinite was destined to tell a grand story. Set in 1912, Infinite promised to explore everything from American Exceptionalism to turn of the century Christian revivalism. Where BioShock showed the disaster in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Infinite promised it would have something to say about America's past. Booting up the game for the first time I was excited to see how these themes would play out, to see how Levine would use the BioShock template to explore issues rarely addressed in gaming. Instead I found a game that utilizes those issues as little more than window dressing, delivering serviceable game at best. At least he bothered to include an absolutely amazing ending.
Set in an alternate universe version of 1912, you play as Booker DeWitt. Deep in some gambling debts, he's enlisted to go to the flying city of Columbia to retrieve a certain girl. "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt" you are told over and over again.
Arriving in the secessionist flying city of Columbia, the player is treated to an idealized version of turn of the century American life. Columbia is obsessed with America to the extreme, with the founding fathers seen as saints, and George Washington as the second coming of Christ. The entire city is the plan of self proclaimed prophet Zachary Comstock. As you explore the city, and eventually find the girl, you come to witness that all is not as bright and cheerful as first appears. There's dark undercurrents to this white-washed version of America.
But back to the girl. Her name is Elizabeth, and curiously she's kept apart from the rest of the citizens of Columbia, locked in a tower. Ken Levine spent years developing her character, and Courtnee Draper gives a great performance. At times Elizabeth veers dangerously close to becoming a Disney Princess, but I'll at least give it to Levine that she never quite crosses that line. However, I feel there's a lot more they could have done with her. Though we get to know her fairly well, there's times where I just wanted Booker to ask her some basic questions, like, what are your feelings about being a locked in a tower for your entire life? Elizabeth is also gifted with a strange power, able to open rifts in space-time, often resulting in glimpses of a strange future, one where movie theaters are showing something called Revenge of the Jedi and where automobiles drive around playing strangely familiar music.
After finding Elizabeth most of the rest of the game involves Booker and her trying to escape Columbia. While the opening of the game is spectacular as you are introduced to this idealized America floating in the sky, the middle of the game suffers. Basically you end up running around Columbia, running into various characters and struggles, but all in all not much really seems to happen. All of these amazing ideas are right there for exploration, from America's treatment of Native Americans, to slavery, to Reconstruction, to religious zealotry... and the game does very little with it all. To tell the truth I was fairly bored. The entire middle 50% of the game almost feels like filler. It's not until about three quarters of the way through do things pick up again.
Almost a Disney Princess... almost.
But when they do, oh boy do things get interesting. I really don't want to ruin anything here because the ending is wonderfully executed. I didn't quite believe the game reviewers when they said the last 30 minutes were some of the most extraordinary they've experienced in modern gaming, but I will admit that my jaw hit the floor, accompanied by a huge grin on my face when I finally got there. When the credits rolled I had to rush to the Internet to discuss the ending with others. It's like the first time you saw Inception or the Sixth Sense where you leave the theater discussing with others all the different layers of dreams, whether Leo was still in a dream at the end, and wow, so I guess Bruce Willis was ghost the whole time! So at least there was some pretty good payoff at the end, but it was a bit of a slog to get there.
Ken Levine certainly drew upon a slew of popular influences when crafting Infinite. The opening scene at the lighthouse practically screams Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the floating city of Columbia seems influenced in part by Jules Verne and cloud city from The Empire Strikes Back. Ken Levine has cited 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis as an inspiration, drawing upon it's classic Americana look.
Then there's the more curious influences. Throughout the game the player comes across moments where familiar yet out-of-place for the era songs can be heard, but all done in a very unusual style. Everything from a pipe organ version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun, REM's Shiny Happy People, to Fortunate Son. What makes these musical pieces all the more interesting is that they're not inserted into the game Baz Luhrmann style, unnecessarily crammed into the game to get us to smirk fondly. Instead the reasoning behind their placement is explained through plot and makes surprisingly sense once you understand what's going on. Upon completion of the game one realizes just how much the lyrics speak to the characters and the story. Girls Just Want to Have Fun takes on a tragic meaning, while The Beach Boys' God Only Knows becomes a summation of the entire game. It's actually rather ingenious once you've played through the entire game.
So here we are. What do I think of the game? I'm divided. One of the first pieces I read upon completion was this bit by Daniel Golding and I instantly connected. Where was the nuance, where was the moral dilemma? I'll just let Mr. Golding speak:
In taking the game seriously, I want to be as clear as possible: BioShock Infinite uses racism for no other reason than to make itself seem clever. Worse, it uses racism and real events in an incredibly superficial way—BioShock Infinite seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’ as a barrier to point to and claim importance. BioShock Infinite presents a veneer of intelligence—with wholly unexplored and mystifying asides to complicated concepts like Manifest Destiny and the New Eden—without ever following through. Without any deeper exploration of these ideas, BioShock Infinite’s use of American history and the Columbian Exposition is illusory, and already puts the lie to the claim that by engaging with these themes, BioShock Infinite is the place to find substance in mainstream videogames.Over at the A.V. Club's Gameological Society, John Teti points out the false equivalence present in the game's message:
Levine sets up a conflict between American exceptionalism and rabble-rousing populism, but he punts by casting practically every prominent figure in Columbian politics as an irredeemable asshole... The takeaway is that anyone who seeks power is a scoundrel... The intellectual dodge of calling everyone a loser excuses Infinite from having a meaningful political point of view.It's true, the game, like it's predecessor, promises to show us the danger in following a line of thinking too far, in the original BioShock it was Objectivism, here it's more or less American Exceptionalism, but unlike in that first game, the game leaves the player with nothing to takeaway except "they were all bad people". Levine seems unwilling to take a stand, and the game suffers for it.
However, I just can't get over that ending. It was fairly brilliant, and managed to wipe away most of the bad taste the rest of the game left in my mouth. If The Usual Suspects had been a poorly directed movie but still included the same twist ending, you'd probably think "damn that was a boring movie, but wow, who woulda thunk Kaiser Soze was him??" I was prepared to give the game a fairly low rating, but the ending actually turned me around somewhat. If anything, now that I know the twist, I'd like to play through it again so that I can enjoy all the hints and foreshadowing. Until then, I'll leave you with my score.
4/5 Zrbo points