Talking Game: Bioshock Infinite (SPOILERTASTIC! You have been warned!)
I needed some time to process this game. It’s part of the Bioshock franchise, and I’m a big fan of the first one (never played the second).
Let’s talk about gameplay first.
The controls are a little difficult at first. Having played FPSs in the past, I’m used to squeezing the left trigger to aim down the sights. This is one of those adjustments that will cost you some mojo in due play, maybe get you killed once in a while. It’s a quibble that can be overcome with practice.
Your arsenal is combination of arms that range from normal to steampunk and special powers known as Vigors. Vigors can be used for straight up blasting, crowd control, disrupting your foes, and so forth. Personally, I happened to like the “Murder of Crows” Vigor for the sheer eeriness. Vigors replace Plasmids from the original game, but there’s nothing to replace the hacking. This is much more a straight up action game.
While you’re limited to carrying two weapons at any time, ammo tends not to be a problem unless you have a very strong preference for a type of gun when Elizabeth isn’t around. In fact Elizabeth is one of the most interesting innovations in the game — she’s someone you’re sent to rescue, but you don’t have to protect her. As you journey through the skyborne city of Colombia, Elizabeth scrounges for money, health, Salt (which powers your vigors), and ammo. The animation is keyed to the item being chucked your way, making it amusing when Elizabeth does her best to heave an RPG into your hands. Her ability to open tears in some battlefields can give you advantages like cover, ammo, health, or even an ally or decoy.
The animation and voice acting are excellent by far. This is not the claustrophobic environs of Rapture, that’s for certain. Elizabeth’s transformation from the school girl to the character on the game’s cover is gradual and believable, as are her expressions. Shortly after a violent shootout after gettting Elizabeth out of her tower, there’s a point where she won’t even look at you. I even tried moving around to get her to look at me, and after looking away twice, she walked over to another part of the room.
Now, let’s talk story.
You play Booker DeWitt, a private investigator and veteran of the massacre at Wounded Knee. It’s a literal Portal/Quest opening, with Booker in a rowboat being taken to a light house. Honestly, seeing it looming did plant a seed of dread. However, this light house takes you into the skies to the floating city of Columbia. Your mission, find Elizabeth and bring her to New York. So of course, once you find her things go sideways.
Elizabeth is a unique girl, to say the least. She has the ability to open tears in the structure of reality, creating gateways to parallel universes where things are just a little bit different. Her guardian, the mechanical monstrosity known as Songbird, harries your mission as it seeks out its charge. That’s not all: there’s this conflict between Columbia’s Founders, led by the “Prophet” Zachariah Comstock, and the Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy. This boiling dispute threatens to erupt in outright civil war, and you and Elizabeth are caught in the crossfire. Racism and zealotry play key roles, and it becomes apparent that hatred is the black fuel that powers this conflict.
I went into this game knowing of the two factions and immediately decided I wasn’t going to trust either one. Call it paranoia from the first game, but it served me well. The expected war does erupt, but through the latter half of the story it seems to get put aside in favor of the reality hopping. So does Songbird, which is a shame as I was hoping for a show down, but he’s destroyed by plot instead. There’s a couple of solid moments where I see the “You Can’t Go Home Again” trope starting to make itself known. Seeing people suffering the echoes of the tear, remembering being killed yet still being alive in a sort of Schroedinger-induced fugue, is quite unnerving. The same can be said when seeing a woman singing CCR’s “Fortunate Son” as a spiritual amidst violence and chaos.
Seeing the subtle changes from one side of a tear to the next and having Elizabeth warn you that “we might not be able to go back” was what got me thinking about that trope I mentioned earlier. If you’ve read Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War then you’ve seen one way to make it work. I was wondering if I was going to find myself shifting over to Rapture due to the divergence of realities (I did but not in the way I expected). While certain I wasn’t going to get Elizabeth to the Paris she knew, I was hopeful there’d be a good (or fair) end to all these trials.
And here’s where the big spoiler leaps in…
I couldn’t accept Booker and Comstock being the same person, even if removed by a single-life choice between two realities. The clues and the context weren’t there to support it. In fact, some of the material goes against it. For example, Booker’s a veteran of the massacre at Wounded Knee. Comstock also claimed to be a veteran, but one NPC (Cornelius Slate) denies it. Violently. You would think that Slate, having been there as well, would be able to recognize Booker and Comstock as one and the same.
As a player I found no points of reference to connect the two. We don’t get a clear look at Booker throughout the game — all that we have is on the cover and in the adverts. The voices are provided by two different actors. Not even Elizabeth can provide the necessary connection until the very end, which is more or less exposition. She can’t for the most part, as she was taken from Booker as a baby and raised in isolation without knowing Comstock at all.
I could raise the question of whether Booker is an unreliable narrator — he could be. We start our story in a rowboat with the Lutece twins, but I took this as a Portal/Quest approach. The first Bioshock game starts in a similar fashion even with the iconic lighthouse. With only one minor reality dysfunction between the game’s beginning (not counting Booker’s vision of New York burning) and finding Elizabeth, Booker comes across as too reliable to be anything else.
In the end, the game is ambitious but it fails to stick the landing. The themes of jingoism and racism are definitely unsettling — and they damn well should be — but they fade into the background in favor of reality hoping. I can’t call Infinite a failure — the game plays well and Irrational Games should be lauded for trying to expand on their story-telling. If nothing else, I hope the success the game is enjoying leads to something even better: the rebirth of System Shock.