As "BioShock Infinite" boasts proudly in the trailers and on the box, its already "the winner of eighty awards" before it was released. I mean, obviously every single one of those awards are "best of show" thing and various other prizes for trailers, but it really does show how much hype is flooding around this title. At some point it became the shining glorious hope for all first-person shooters, and perhaps gaming itself. For the most part, I think it deserves that allure, because the art design for this game, particularly the world concept is unrivaled in its brilliance and beauty. That combined with a promise of a very experimental mind-bending plotline with interdimensional travel, robot birds, and the horrors of American-brand fascism make for a compelling subject which alone is worth the price of playing the game.
However, I will say right now that anybody looking to discover a game that raises the bar on "games as art" or expands the medium into a whole new frontier will be disappointed. Because its a First-Person Shooter, and at the end of the day, that's all it is. Its very-well polished and has a very characterization and world building details that blow most titles out of the water, but it doesn't really expand the genre, I feel. After the twelve hour game is over, I was left with this strange dissatisfaction, because I had finished the main campaign, and really that's all there was to enjoy. Plus there are a few niggling gameplay and plot issues I think should be discussed. "BioShock Infinite" on any scale, is going to be discussed for awhile, I think, not least of which because of its ending, which is sure to be controversial. And I'm glad to be here at the beginning of the discourse.
So what first caught my eye during the very first trailers was the world concept, which by now I don't think needs any further examination since the gaming world is already well-familiar with it thanks to extensive E3 trailers that are now several years old. But still, its a remarkable and perhaps even daring concept that can use further discussion. (Also its the bit that swipes closest with my history knowledge.) Really, the whole idea of Columbia, the floating city where "BioShock Infinite" takes place, is encapsulated very well with this piece of artwork:
Its a pretty shocking image, featuring George Washington as more than simply a beloved war hero and political founder, but rather as a messiah, holding the Ten Commandments and the Liberty Bell as symbols of power, and lording over twisted caricatures of the excluded peoples of the United States around the turn of the nineteenth century. Here is the imperialistic Manifest Destiny cultural themes that paintings like John Gast's Manifest Destiny capture - that glorious vision of American exceptionalism - mixed with repulsive and offensive exaggerations of African Americans, Chinese, Irish, and Mexicans, the great hated peoples whose place never quite clear in the Great White Future that American was supposed to represent. Today rhetoric of American as the savior of the world is at best thought to be ridiculous at worst dangerous madness, but around 1900, the year where this game took place, America was finally burgeoning as a World Power and these symbols were very potent. And if history had turned another one, it was more than reasonable that a mixture of Christian fundamentalism and worship of America itself as a religion could have come together to create the nightmarish totalitarian fantasy that "BioShock Infinite"'s Columbia represents.
Several decades ago "BioShock Infinite"'s concept of American fascism would have been considered the worst of treason, an attack on America's entire ideological underpinnings. Today after the turmoil of the 20th century shattered America's false sense of its own innocence, and the failure of the War on Terror seems to have quite finally killed any further grand imperial projects, I don't think many people are even batting an eye. Mostly because the Columbia of "BioShock Infinite", even while running off the mores and concepts of only a century ago, represents an America that today only the most insane would dare believe in. Especially the ideas of America being a "White nation", which our society has so decidedly rejected that white supremacy itself is now more a brand of sick humor than a legitimate political theme. Columbia is Old America, basically a foreign country, and one we don't particularly want to visit.
Still there is something enthralling in the shameless hokeyness that makes up Columbia, with its proud red, white, and blue flowing everywhere, and how they build kill-bots with George Washington's face. There are big bandstands, straw hats, phonagraph records playing polka and ragtime - music that hasn't been popular since before my ancestors first came to this country in the 1910s. This was the period where the Republicans named themselves the "Grand Old Party" and that actually was a fashionable piece of rhetoric. The best bits though are the various bits of folk music that characters play, especially the chorus in the church you visit when first coming to Columbia. The game is very very bright and the world environment is so inviting to just look around, which makes the horrors of its entire foundation so much more frightening.
Now, I guess I should ask, what does the conflict of a fanatical White imperial vision for America vs the egalitarian promises of a democracy have to do with interdimensional travel? I have no idea. I'd like to think the two are interrelated somehow in a thematic or metaphorical way, but I really can't see it. Which is unfortunate because rather than going for the jugular against the Church of America, "BioShock Infinite" tries to introduce an alternate extreme of radical anarchists called the "Vox Populi", who are evil... just because. They're undeveloped as villains, sadly. I guess the idea is to show both ends of the ideological spectrum as being equally unjust, that way it doesn't really have to commit to any kind of final political statement, and can weasel out of offending anybody. The interdimensional travel business mainly is there just to explain how Columbia could exist, and ultimately turns out to be the real focus of the game.
Characters and Story
Your hero is Booker Dewitt, a cynical action hero type who comes to Columbia to "bring us the girl and wipe away the debt" for two mysterious snarky English twins. These twins are a brother and a sister who keep popping up in Columbia itself, offering items and cryptic hints to the final act twists. Booker is tasked to find Elizabeth, the pretty girl from the top picture, who is the daughter of Comstock, the bearded prophet who rules Columbia as a private flying kingdom. Honestly, as a hero, Booker isn't much to write home about, being a little too cold for my tastes, and really is more or less the eyes of the player. This is fitting since this entire game is first-person, even the cutscenes.
The real star of "BioShock Infinite", at least the character that everybody is going to remember is Elizabeth. She's been designed to appeal directly to your heart, with a face like a Disney Princess and a similar backstory of being a heroine trapped in a tower for you to save. Elizabeth is something of a dangerous design since she's so pretty with her large eyes and copious cleavage, and her personality is so well designed with both cute and touching moments that I think many gamers are going to fall in love with her. They've even programmed her to interact with the environment, such as failing to pick up a medicine ball, and singing to a small child, which are all great Easter Eggs** and character-defining moments. She's basically a perfect motivator, this the thing you're here to save. Booker and Elizabeth's relationship is the compelling prime mover of the story, and its interesting to see it develop. Unlike the Zelda-Link relationship in "Skyward Sword", which was the best part of that game but locked away in preciously few cutscenes between ten hours of dull gameplay, Booker and Elizabeth are right there together for easily four-fifths of the entire experience. Plus Elizabeth often helps you out in combat by throwing ammo and health, so you can't help but love her.
There are other characters around, such as a comically greedy industrialist named Fink. (There are times when the satire of 19th century social problems grows too exaggerated to the point of being merely ridiculous humor and not commentary, the Fink section of the game is very guilty of this.) Comstock himself is usually only seen through projections or his voice over the radio, leading to a great deal of mystery as to what he really looks like... which turns out to be a red herring. The mascot of this adventure is a robotic jailer to Elizabeth called the "Songbird", which is the other figure in the top picture. He is implied to have a great deal of menace, and his relationship with Elizabeth is very complex, though I'm afraid its underdeveloped as well. You never find what the Songbird is, the conclusion of its plotline is anticlimatic in both a plot and gameplay stance, and even when it attacks you in the game, its always in cutscenes, so its never frightening.
Elizabeth's power is to create "tears" in the fabric of reality, which sometimes leads you to alternate dimensions. In gameplay, she can summon turret guns and cover and boxes of items sometimes, but in the story, it often leads to things getting muddled. There is a very confusing middle section of the game - whose purpose I'm afraid was just to extend the rather skimpy game - in which you're tasked to find guns for the Vox Populi. You fight your way over to the gun factory, and it turns out the gun guy has been captured, and then he's dead. Elizabeth tears a whole in a dimension, and the entire narrative shifts a few times, until finally a few hours later you just come to a dimension where the Vox have guns now. This all fits the ultimate Many Worlds conclusion, but its still weird.
I won't say anything about the ending, other than its going to be very intense. Since the back cover of the game comes with the quote "the mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist..." you cane easily guess that things are not quite as they seem. And since I've seen every final twist before, the conclusion wasn't that big of a shock to me. But Elizabeth's final choice to do what she does, is pretty horrifying. Its not quite clear what it means, but its still a satisfying conclusion to the story***. If anything, I think the ending should have been even weirder. There was a point where the game started to fray apart in David Lynch-style madness, and I wish they didn't even explain what was going on, they just went balls deep into total insanity. But that's me.
Here is where I think "BioShock Infinite" is probably at its weakest. Columbia is a monument to what modern gaming can achieve in art design, beauty, complexity of environment, and the interactions of the main characters with that environment, this is all a marvel. But the game around it is really only a FPS. And at that, it isn't the best FPS the world has ever seen. I'm not really the world's biggest FPS-player, in fact, the only other shooter game, first or third, that I've beaten before this is "Final Fantasy VII: Emo of Cerberus". So I don't know if this is a typical thing for the genre, but I feel like the overall game was too linear.
Yeah, I said "linear", I know that makes me a moron, but I don't play linear games very often. The main campaign was very short, and I feel like if they turned Columbia from being just a series of events step to step in a more open-world kind of game, similar to "Batman: Arkham City", it would be far more worth its price tag. Honestly, this should have been more like a Metroidvania game than a single stream of "battle, battle, battle".
For the most part, the game is as simple as an FPS could be. Run and shoot. Hide and kill. I'm not a very complex person so eventually I defaulted to just a very effective combination of shotgun and carbine. You feel the stress and pressure of a wild fire fight, and it is a great deal of fun to play. The carbine was for long-range snip kills and the shotgun was a coup de grace, which nicely took care of anything at close range. There is an extensive magic system of roughly eight spells, most of which more or less do the same thing. They fire magic at foes, usually stunning them or dealing heavy damage, and then you can kill them with a shotgun. I wasn't very creative with the magic either, and mostly defaulted to the fire spell which incinerated anything that the shotgun or carbine couldn't take care of. The trailers very prominently featured huge skyline sections which you could ride on like roller coasters, these weren't quite as used as I would have liked, since the AI is never smart enough to use them, but they are still a lot of fun and can be used for a swooping Batman-style ground kill.
However, there is one big problem: no bosses. None. No final boss, no battle against the big Songbird creature, no huge fights against super enemies. Occasionally there are mini-enemies who are tough enough to be something like "minibosses", but they get repeated often enough that it loses the special flavor of being an especially challenging moment. There are plenty of areas laid out like they could have been places for a boss fight, but they aren't used as such. The one thing that I would call a "boss", the battle against the Siren, is just a strong enemy summoning lots of undead monsters for you to fight. So this was a very big disappointment for me. The game even reaches its climax with a moment that easily could have been a short battle against the Songbird****, but it never happens. I mean, he's a giant monster on the cover, you should be able to fight the Songbird, but you can't.
The other huge problem is that there are no GAME OVERs and death never seems very much of a hindrance. Enemies gain a little HP when you die, but your ammo and MP replenishes so there is pretty much zero challenge to this adventure. Of all the game play decisions, this is easily the worth one. Because you need some kind of challenge to get the feeling you're playing a game. If you die during a big fight, the fight should restart. Yeah, it can be annoying to die so frequently, but its a necessary annoyance to force the player to acquire the skills to beat the game. I died often and the only hindrance I had was some embarrassment.
You can't get a better environment for a video game than "BioShock Infinite"'s Columbia, and you could not create a more compelling character than Elizabeth. The art, story, acting, and writing is all top-notch, reaching towards what is close to an indictment of the entire philosophical underpinnings of American exceptionalism. It isn't as controversial as I was hoping, but the story is very solid and features lots of shocking swerves for the player. By the end of the experience "BioShock Infinite" leaves its player with a lot of emotional data to weave through, and I don't think you're going to be exactly sure what you think of the title until you sleep on it. But having thought on "BioShock Infinite" really does have some interesting concepts and offers a great story that is very unlike most other adventures you can buy at a video game store. Where many modern Square Enix games are merely pretentious when they play for deep mindbending storylines and ultimately end up as pitiful foolish mistakes, "BioShock Infinite" succeeds.
However, it isn't God's Savior to Video Games. At least not for me. I'm not a huge shooter fan, but this isn't the world's best video game. Its the world's best setting put into what is a basic linear adventure title. I came in with the highest of expectations, imagining what would be simply the greatest game I ever played. And its still got a level of polish and intellectual challenge that few games try to achieve, and when they do, they usually fail. I would be more than willing to play another game in this universe. Elizabeth and Booker's stories might be concluded, and Columbia itself may not be the setting, but I feel like there are unlimited, nay Infinite, opportunities for the BioShock mythos to explore.
* I mean, I've beaten "Super Mario World" in a half hour run. And "Link to the Past" I once sped-run in like four hours. The only other game I've chowed through so quickly is "Metroid Other M" because that was a rental.
** Get it?
*** Unlike the fucking ending to "Final Fantasy XIII-2" which remains the biggest slab of fucking bullshit I've ever seen. That wasn't a clever twist, it was a "we don't feel like finishing the story, so buy more of our shit to see the ending". Fuck that game.
**** Spoilers (kinda): I thought that Father Comstock was the Songbird for much of the game, and that he would be the final boss. He wasn't. Both characters have their stories conclude in cutscenes.