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Bioshock Infinite Retrospective – a Blast in This or Any Other Reality

This price of ambition



Bioshock Infinite Retrospective

Bioshock Infinite Retrospective

2013’s Bioshock Infinite is a flawed gem. But even ten years on, its triumphs outweigh its missteps. Coming off the massive success of the stellar original Bioshock in 2007 (and its less well-received though still successful sequel, Bioshock 2), Bioshock Infinite was in for an uphill struggle from the word go. Yet despite the pressure placed upon it by fans, critics, and perhaps greatest of all, the developers themselves, the title never lacked ambition and was met with overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release.

But while this ambition rocketed Infinite up into the stratosphere upon launch, when the smoke settled, it became clear that much had been jettisoned to streamline the experience. As well as to ensure there ever was a launch, to begin with. Whether it benefitted from this streamlining has been the point of much contention in the years since, but for a title with story and character at its heart, a more focused plot and more linear gameplay made Bioshock Infinite more than the sum of its parts.

Image: Irrational Games - The view never gets old.
Image: Irrational Games – The view never gets old.

Doing its Own Thing

Bioshock Infinite is not Bioshock. A statement the game makes clear from the very start. In simple terms, where the original Bioshock looked down, casting a grim light on humanity in the deepest depths of the ocean, Bioshock Infinite looked up, exposing the seedy underbelly of nationalism and religious zealotry in the stark light of day as it floated amongst the clouds, while also shining a little hope on the human condition with the excellent Elizabeth.

Where the original Bioshock focused on the beliefs of Ayn Rand – specifically her thoughts on Objectivism and the idea that to succeed, a man should be driven by his selfishness – Bioshock Infinite turned its attention towards the concept of American Exceptionalism. Essentially, the idea that the United States of America as a nation is “distinctive, unique, or exemplary compared to other nations” – that, for many reasons, the United States is the greatest country on Earth, and its people must, for good of all mankind, work together to spread its beliefs worldwide, whether others want to listen or not.

This gave rise to the idea of Colombia – a floating city, a marvel of technology and religious pride – which would act as a travelling World Fair, spreading its ideologies wherever it went. A city so full of pride, so convinced of the fact that it was better than anywhere else, that its people were so vastly superior, that it eventually seceded from the United States (the country that birthed it, and whose praises it was supposed to sing) to become its own nation. But prejudice breeds prejudice. A superior nation, a superior class, and a race of people could not be expected to run itself; the well-to-do weren’t well-to-do if they had to do their own manual labour, or clean their own toilets. Even Colombia needed a working class to oppress, and so it brought one along with it.

The player is introduced to the fantastical flying city of Colombia, its people, and ideals in one wild ride of an opening sequence that has lost none of its spellbinding magic in the past ten years. In the first twenty minutes, the game lays out every one of its themes – from the aforementioned American Exceptionalism to its brilliant take on alternate realities and the nature of choice – with pitch-perfect style and pacing. In twenty minutes, the player understands this world completely, even if they cannot yet fully conceive what it all means. And it’s a feat that has yet to be replicated or bettered in even the very best of narrative games since.

Image: Irrational Games - Colombia, despite its terrible underbelly, it beautiful to behold.
Image: Irrational Games – Colombia, despite its terrible underbelly, it beautiful to behold.

A Heavenly Opening

It starts with a quote: “The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…” – an intriguing tease into the theory of other worlds and the idea that things aren’t exactly as they seem – and it starts with a lighthouse – a direct parallel to the original game but a connection that runs deeper than a simple call back.

The player is immediately thrust into the shoes of the main character, Booker DeWitt, and given their goal: “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” The nature of both the debt and the girl will become clear with time, but for now, it’s one hell of a hook. Climbing the lighthouse places Booker, and the player, in a miniature rocket, which, with little warning, suddenly blasts off into the sky. The dark and the wetness of the ocean below (so reminiscent of the original Bioshock) falls away and is replaced with stunning colour and light, that, up until that moment, had been missing entirely from the series. “Hallelujah.” The city of Colombia appears in a burst of blinding sunlight. Buildings bob on gigantic balloons, a heavenly stone angel watches over all, and the first few notes of the song “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” ring out. The setting is well and truly established.

What follows is essentially a rollercoaster of thematic tableaus – a baptism depicting the Founding Fathers as saints or prophets offering devotion to one mysterious Father Comstock; a parade celebrating the city’s history, complete with flag-waving children and a barbershop quartet; a coin flip that always lands on ‘heads’; a raffle to decide who gets to throw the first ball at an interracial couple. The rot glimpsed beneath the cracks of the city’s “perfect” façade burst forth in a single violent eruption.

It was an ambitious endeavour to undertake in a game that primarily marketed itself as a first-person shooter aimed at a wider and less niche audience than its predecessors. And while its themes of flawed patriotism, religion, elitism, and racism might not have fully paid off by the time the credits roll, they were set up wonderfully.

After meeting Elizabeth, many of Infinite’s most interesting themes are dropped in favour of pushing the alternate realities, “constants and variables”, and quantum physics narrative to the forefront. And that’s a shame because while it dives deep into the inherent problems and dangers of time- and dimension-hopping (as well as granting the player some interesting new gameplay scenarios and hooks with it), it loses some of its more human side as the struggles of Colombia’s lower classes are pushed to the fringes. That’s not to say there is no humanity, it just shifts focus wildly.

As an opening, it’s practically perfect. The rest of the game may have its ups and downs, its triumphs and blunders, but those first few minutes, even now, even put up against a whole decade of storytelling progress, still shine, still deserve to be put up on a pedestal of how to start a game right.

Image: Irrational Games - There's always a lighthouse.
Image: Irrational Games – There’s always a lighthouse.

A Colourful (and Violent) World

The opening isn’t the only thing to have aged well. Infinite’s art direction was top-notch for its time, and, owing to the fact that it didn’t chase the realism many AAA titles of the eighth and ninth (current) generations strived for, it still holds up remarkably well today. The 1910s-inspired architecture and artwork really gave the game a sense of place and time that felt wildly different from anything else on the market, both back then and today. Its bright colours and high contrast really bring the sun-drenched streets to life and help it stand out against the drab grey-brown shooters that seemed to populate the charts a decade ago. Its almost cartoony style still looks beautiful in both screenshots and in motion, yet while the look is perfect for exploring Colombia’s bright façade, it clashes jarringly with the violence that unfolds the moment the player is handed a weapon.

The opening moments end with a shower of blood and viscera as Booker jams one police officer’s Skyhook (the title’s melee weapon and means of travelling on the city’s interconnected Skyrails) into another’s face. The juxtaposition between the bright and happy colours and the fountains of gore can be too much for some, turning them off the game completely. Either that or it can come across as grotesquely comical. It seemed a bizarre choice back then, and it only seems stranger now. The art direction suits the game well, it just could have benefitted from dialing back on the violence.

That being said, Infinite’s combat isn’t bad. On the contrary, it’s really rather fun. While enemy behaviours may be a little basic compared to the AI of today, the myriad of ways players can dispatch them never gets old. Encounters are very fast-paced, especially compared to the original, with no enemy health bars to worry about and the ability to zip around the battlefield using the Skyhook.

The latter of which adds some fantastic verticality and freedom, allowing players to get the drop on their enemies from above or speed away to safety when feeling overwhelmed. Coupled in with Booker’s Vigor abilities (essentially Plasmids from the first game, elemental powers that combine in unique ways to levitate, blast, or possess enemies) and Elizabeth’s tears (the ability to bring cover, turrets, and weapons through from other realities), and each combat encounter becomes its own little puzzle box as players discover the most efficient and most entertaining ways to off their foes.

Granted, the combat is far too easy on most game modes, but it makes for an entertaining spectacle. Whack the difficulty up to Hard or 1999 Mode, however, and the enemies suddenly become a little too deadly and aggressive and a little too hardy. Suddenly the new two-gun system, which was designed to force players to experiment more with the game’s varied arsenal, becomes a downright hassle, as players must constantly juggle guns as they run out of ammo. This can make certain later areas of the game a real slog.

Image: Irrational Games - The combo of guns and Vigors can be a real power trip on lower difficulties, but become essential on higher ones.
Image: Irrational Games – The combo of guns and Vigors can be a real power trip on lower difficulties, but become essential on higher ones.

Character is Key

Story and worldbuilding are what the Bioshock series does best, and Bioshock Infinite is no exception. While it didn’t up-end the gaming landscape and change the way players and developers saw gaming narratives like the original had six years earlier, it set a new precedent for AI companions and character. One that would, unfortunately, be bested only a few months later by a little game called The Last of Us.

Bioshock Infinite is essentially one long escort mission – something players around the world had come to loathe due to wonky AI getting NPCs stuck in doorways or charging headlong into a hail of bullets – how then, would this work as an entire game? The answer was to make Elizabeth feel real. A feat easier said than done, as the developers had to set up an entire team dedicated solely to bringing Elizabeth to life in a way that felt realistic and allowed her to interact with her environment rather than just exist in it. It was a lot of work, but the results speak for themselves.

Freed from her tower, Elizabeth explores the floating streets and buildings of Colombia alongside the player. She asks questions, inspects statues, pokes buttons, and skips stones at the beach. Stand around for just a few seconds and she’ll be off exploring something new. While she may seem naïve, she’s far from the Disney princess that first appears to be. She’s inquisitive, resourceful, and capable, and while she may not know how the world works, she knows what she wants. This characterisation comes through every gesture, every look, every decision she (or her AI) makes. Companion AI may have moved on since 2013, but there’s no denying Elizabeth’s charm even now.

If there’s one thing Bioshock Infinite excels at, it’s its characters. Both Elizabeth and Booker are fantastically written and superbly acted. Booker (voice by none other than Troy Baker) is a great reluctant protagonist – what starts out as just a job grows into something more as he learns to care for the girl he was sent to kidnap. It’s reluctance and cynicism done right, unlike a certain recent Square Enix game. But it’s Elizabeth who truly steals the show – through Courtnee Draper’s emotional performance, she becomes real, and the player comes to care for her just as deeply as Booker.

Image: Irrational Games - Elizabeth is up there as one of the greatest companions of all time.
Image: Irrational Games – Elizabeth is up there as one of the greatest companions of all time.

The Price of Ambition

What hurt Bioshock Infinite most post-launch was its pre-release hype. Eager to show off just how ambitious and daring they were with this title, developers Irrational Games showed off a lot of early footage. Too early, as it turned out, as much of what they showed ended up cut from the final game. (Something Ken Levine’s new studio has promised to steer away from.)

Where Rapture was a city post-revolution, Colombia was envisioned as a city mid-uprising. The player was originally set to explore this floating powder keg just as it went off, witnessing the superiority of the upper classes and oppression of the lower before the revolution and the horrors committed by both sides during. As both sides clashed, it became apparent that violence only begets more violence. And while this was shown in the final game through jumping through tears and exploring alternate realities, it wasn’t as open and organic as initially promised.

And the game was set to be open – with wide-open districts to zip around via the player’s Skyhook, more organic and freeform combat encounters with roving revolutionaries, and plenty of player choice. This last omission was felt especially keenly, as plenty of pre-release footage demonstrated the importance of choice – will you take one side over the other? Will you respond to an insult thrown at you or Elizabeth, even if you don’t know the consequences of doing so? Will you kill a dying horse or allow Elizabeth to try to save it? These could have served as real tests of morality or encouraged repeat playthroughs, but they were left on the cutting room floor.

As were the majority of Elizabeth’s powers. Players were originally supposed to be able to combine their Vigors with Elizabeth’s tear-opening to create some real elemental damage-dealers, completely with bombastic screen-filling special effects. But like much of what was shown in these early reveals, these never materialised. And the more players found out, the more they felt they were robbed of something that could have been truly special. Truly game-changing, just like the original Bioshock.

Image: Irrational Games - Bioshock Infinite packs a lot into its linear design.
Image: Irrational Games – Bioshock Infinite packs a lot into its linear design.

Perhaps there is a universe out there where Irrational Games were given more time, were able to see their initial dreams through to release. Would this game have been worth the wait? Or would it have been crushed under the weight of its own expectation? Bioshock Infinite is not a perfect game by any means, but it is a great one. And the restraints of budget and time gave the developers a clearer focus.

The lack of open-world freedom gave rise to a linear, tightly paced, thrill ride of a story that kept players engaged from start to finish while still peppering in small moments of humanity, complex themes, and philosophical diatribes. The lack of choice fed directly into the meta-themes of quantum physics, alternate realities, and “constants and variables,” with certain outcomes predetermined, no matter the timeline. There’s no point tearing your hair out over what could have been – Bioshock Infinite was a great game when it was first released, and it’s still a blast to play today!

As songwriter Leonard Bernstein famously said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a good plan and not quite enough time.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.

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