As someone who played the first Bioshock and LOVED IT, I (Bryce) was very excited for the last installation of the series to be released. When I heard nothing but good reviews, it seemed the third Bioshock game would live up to the standard set by the first. And so, let’s segue into a full review, by none other than our favorite reviewer, Luke Brown. Ladies and Gents, it’s time for Girl Games #3!
“Time rots everything, Booker. Even hope.”
In 2007, Irrational Games released Bioshock to almost universal acclaim. The objectivist tale set in Andrew Ryan’s underwater city of Rapture captivated gamers with its meticulously crafted environment, unique FPS action, and immersive storyline. It was an odd combination of wartime propaganda, film noir mise-en-scene, and David L. Snyder art direction (ala Blade Runner). Bioshock’s influence spread outside the private gaming community and into the hands of critics, analysts, and scholars. Terms like “ludonarrative dissonance,” “moral,” “story,” and “character development” crept into reviews and discussions. Even Ayn Rand enthusiasts joined the party with their juicy lexicon.
Wait, what? Bioshock’s just a game, right? Games don’t have metaphors or themes. That’s reserved for higher forms of entertainment like literature, visual narratives, and the still image. You know, art. Games aren’t art, they’re games. Run, shoot, kill, advance. You don’t feel in a game. Right? Wrong. Bioshock tore down the wall between reputable storytelling and gaming, grabbing the attention of many a story enthusiast. Perhaps Bioshock’s greatest contribution to gaming is that it caused people who don’t play video games to play video games.
Hell, Bioshock inspired people. A simple search at DeviartArt reveals a plethora of detailed work. Dissertations about Bioshock can be found in universities too. Video games fight an uphill battle in the “Are games art?” argument, but Bioshock provides favorable ammunition. It’s a triple-a release sporting the entertainment value of a Hollywood blockbuster with rich philosophical pearls of discussion. Remember when The Matrix came out, and we were all like, “Daaaaaamn. Dat shiz be dope. Lez talk 4-EVA bout’s it, ‘cause daaaaamn, dat shiz hella dope! Cinema ‘bitchin!” Yeah, Bioshock’s kinda like that.
Bioshock 2 came out a few years later. It was a cash cow from a different developer. No one cared.
Meanwhile, Irrational Games spent five long years developing Bioshock Infinite. It was delayed for so long that fans scoffed at the release date when it was finally announced. Just what the hell was Ken Levine, certified perfectionist and head designer of Irrational Games doing? As it turns out, a great deal. Bioshock Infinite is a conceptual mindfuck.
The year is 1912. You’re Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent burdened by a mountain of bad debt and emotionally plagued by the Battle of Wounded Knee. Rosalind and Robert Lutece, a strange duo, task Booker with the retrieval of a woman named Elizabeth from Columbia, a magnificent floating city in the clouds ruled by self-proclaimed religious prophet Zachary Hale Comstock. This description of the plot is like saying Watchmen is about superheroes.
Look at that. LOOK AT THAT. Columbia is a wonder to behold. A friend of mine once told me that his favorite activity in The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was to stand still, doing nothing in an environment and soak it in. It’s an astute observation. Doing so exposes the minute details representing a designer’s love for their subject (or lack thereof). From the moment Booker sets foot in Columbia, the city is as much a character as any person you encounter. Children share cotton candy, play hopscotch in the streets, and make wishes in glistening fountains. Men and women share romantic views, watch outdoor entertainment, bicker, propose, and occasionally answer the calls of street vendors selling goods and services. It’s clear that Columbia’s citizens live their lives before, during, and after you pass them. To know I was walking on the footsteps of others gave me a sense of “being there” that few other games have accomplished.
Then there’s the art direction. It’s an insanely detailed mashup of American exceptionalism and classic gilded architecture with sprinkles of steampunk thrown in for good measure. Stone streets flow over glistening streams and under glowing archways. Patriotic and religious propaganda hang off heavy brick stores and houses. Golden monuments and shrines tower above elegant gaslamp quarters.
When I say insanely detailed, I mean exactly that. This utopia is a little too perfect. Everywhere you look, a flawlessly composed painting waits to be studied. It’s within this perfection that the suspicion of Columbia resides. The plot and setting are so singularly involving that I often found my attention at odds. It could be that I’m easily distracted, but I spent a great deal of time perusing the setting while feeling pressured to progress. I battled between fleshing out the world I knew and finding out what happened next. It’s player’s choice – you can read the novel or watch the movie. I must admit, I never achieved a satisfactory balance. If I chose to progress without examining my environment, I wondered what tidbits I’d missed and worried about whether or not I’d get the maximum experience. If I chose to soak in my surroundings, I lost momentum and caused uneven gameplay. Of course, this quality warrants replay value, but I’m not a fan of additional playthroughs considering the time requirements of games these days. Call me a simpleton, but I would’ve liked a Columbia with slightly less detail. There are no side dishes in Bioshock Infinite. Everything wants your complete attention as if it were the main course. As is often the case in postproduction, subtracting strengthens what remains, and I think Bioshock Infinite could benefit from a minor dose.
The perfect drug, however, is Elizabeth. She’s the yin to your yang. She appears early in the game and changes a rescue operation into a cooperative survival mission. She’s helpful, empathetic, adorable, and very, very dangerous. Luckily, she’s on your side.
Elizabeth adds heart and honesty to a story steeped in illusion. As a shut-in for most of her life, Elizabeth’s unwavering curiosity toward the outside world is delightful to witness. She’ll often venture on her own and gleefully investigate what everyone takes for granted, i.e. paging through books in the bookshop with wide-eyed wonder and humming along to the celebratory sounds of outdoor big bands and barbershop quartets. Elizabeth dances like there’s no tomorrow on an ocean-side peer with the sun on her back and not a care in the world. Contrasting this is Booker, a man consumed with guilt and carrying a reputation for ruthlessness. This equation equals interesting coffee talk. Remember Vincent, Tom Cruise’s cold-blooded character in Collateral? Imagine him spending time with Agatha, the precog from Minority Report. It’s a fascinating dynamic. Elizabeth’s naivety compliments Booker’s callousness, cultivating an atmosphere of respect and learning that elevates their relationship to something much more transcendent than romance.
The Elizabeth and Booker scenario brings to mind a term that conjures an eye roll and a groan from the gaming community: escort mission. It’s what happens when you’re charged with protecting someone or something with such terrible artificial intelligence that you loathe it more than your enemies do. You’d be hard pressed to find an enjoyable escort mission in any game. Seriously. They’re a pain in the ass.
Picture it: You just infiltrated the top secret base where they’re holding the scientist with the nuclear launch cancellation codes. Quoth the scientist, “Thank you, good samaritan! What’s that? A nuke? I’d be happy to disarm it for you. Lead the way!” You backtrack with the scientist in tow and inevitably run into guards packing major heat (since you tripped the alarm while freeing the scientist…nice job, dumbass). Channeling your inner Ivan Drago, you proclaim “I cannot be defeated. I defeat all man!” and get surgical with your fully upgraded shotgun when suddenly the fucking scientist runs right into your line of fire. You accidentally kill the scientist and have to start over. During round two, you manage to keep your bullets away from your absent-minded genius until you enter a room with spiked walls closing in on you. You run through the room and narrowly escape, but it doesn’t matter ’cause the fucking scientist ran right into them and fucking died again. Nooooooooooooo! That stupid scientist practically sought out those spikes! WHAT. THE. FUCK. Suddenly you’re eight years old. You throw the controller across the room, fold your arms, and pout like, well, an eight year old. After you’ve played some righteous outdoor hoops, you try again. Success, no thanks to the nuclear physicist with a death wish.
Thankfully, Bioshock Infinite finds clever ways to sidestep the aggravation. For starters, Elizabeth’s character development is on par with the quality of the story. With a script this polished, caring about Elizabeth is easy. A friend once told me, “Chicks mellow guys out.” That’s the Elizabeth effect. At the risk of waxing poetic, Elizabeth softens Booker’s jagged edges. Elizabeth is as uncorrupted as a child, having not yet been plagued by the double-edged ability to self-reflect or analyze. Discussing the way things are, the way things were, and the way things will be with Elizabeth is a calming, simple search for your place (and hers) in the world. It’s surprising to find such truthful and enriching conversation in a FPS, but here it is. Shooting Elizabeth in the back of the head with a shotgun never crossed my mind. Unlike that scientist.
Elizabeth isn’t defenseless either. Once she shows you the power she’s capable of releasing, it negates the need to chaperone her. In fact, she chaperones you. Bioshock Infinite’s combat centers on the idea that Booker alone is inadequate for Columbia’s challenges. Bullets, special powers and health are in short supply. Elizabeth keeps you stocked by finding and tossing you what you need when you need it. She can also use her powers to call in what I’ll only refer to here as reinforcements. She’ll even tell you when you’ve missed something crucial. Elizabeth has a knack for aiding you when you need it most without ever getting in your way. While it’s a fantastic way to deal with the escort problem, there’s chicanery involved.
Elizabeth isn’t a battle pain because the game doesn’t acknowledge her presence. She can’t get hurt or die in combat. The forces of Columbia ignore her completely, and while this spares Booker the agony of protecting her, it’s bizarre to watch enemies run past her after she’s annihilated a wave of them. It’s also silly that Booker needs to accept whatever help Elizabeth offers. For example, if Elizabeth finds a lockpick, she’ll point it out to Booker, but only Booker can take it. Likewise, if Elizabeth finds an actual lock, she won’t pick it unless Booker says so. Given the amount of intelligence Elizabeth displays in Booker’s interaction with her, the dissonance is noticeable. This is, after all, the same woman you discuss quantum physics with. If I were a locksmith (like Elizabeth) and found a lockpick, I’d take it and use it without a second thought. Not because I’m rebellious, but because it makes good clean sense. I understand the need to encourage teamwork as a means of deepening the relationship. I also understand the need for player agency. What I don’t understand is why Elizabeth’s IQ drops so sharply in the name of those ideas. A permission-free Elizabeth would solve this problem and even out the transitions from story to combat.
Oddly enough, I found the action in Bioshock Infinite to be a bit of a pushover. There’s nothing technically wrong with it. Actually, Bioshock Infinite won the action game of the year in many circles and for good reason. Booker and Elizabeth zip around Columbia on elevated rails called skylines and fucking dominate. It’s fast, furious, and unquestionably fun. Booker can perform death from above attacks, light up Columbia with a wide range of vigors (magic powers) and execute devastating skyhook melee attacks. Meanwhile, Elizabeth kicks any ass Booker neglects to. What more could you want? That’s just it…I didn’t want it. I found myself less interested in combat and more interested in Columbia, Elizabeth, Comstock, and the wide range of emotion presented in the game’s campaign. With such grand conception as a foundation, combat in Bioshock Infinite felt like a temporary trip to another game where violence is glorified for fanboy reasons. While perfectly enjoyable on its own, the action is ultimately an intermission I could do without.
Bioshock Infinite is a wonderfully rich, philosophical, warped experience, but you’ll have to play through short stints of anarchy to experience it. Honestly, it’s been frustrating reviewing this game. Bioshock Infinite sports a deep intellect that challenges your views on many a grandiose concept, but revealing any specifics spoils the experience. It’s what I truly want to discuss, but I can’t. All I can say is that Bioshock Infinite isn’t what this review, other reviews, or the trailer below paints it to be. It’s a great game for the same reasons why any other game is great…but it’s also a meditation on what you consider a good life to be. Booker’s a better person for knowing Elizabeth, and assuming you have a soul, you will be too.
Salutations, Luke Brown here. I have a Master’s Degree in Film from San Diego State University as well as a BA from the University of Minnesota. I am a socially apt nerd. When I’m not working in Hollywood post production, I’m reading, writing, taking pictures, playing morally and ethically challenging video games, practicing guitar, getting dominated by the Insanity workout, making homemade soap, cooking from scratch, or eating gourmet pickles.