You might have the nagging feeling that portions of the United States have broken clean off. Just up and decided to veer into their own orbits, consequences be damned. Because any notion that the States aren’t United is a really uncomfortable one, a cacophony of voices all jostle to demonise their opposing factions. They say that the other side has selfishly detached themselves from the reality that we Americans are all supposed to share. How dare they?!
BioShock Infinite takes that nagging feeling of disunion and makes players wade through its century-ago antecedent, in a way that lays bear the agonising personal costs paid to the grinding cycle of history.
Columbia is a chunk of America that has in fact gone to pieces. And the result is horrifying. But it’s beautiful too.
You haven’t been to a place like this before. The fictional floating city where Infinite is set is all clockwork platforms and brass gears, its many sections populated with hucksters, strivers, lovers and schoolchildren. One minute, you’re walking past a sheer drop, the next a park swings down into the open space. Sure, they seceded from the Union but it’s such a bloom-lit paradise that you almost can’t blame them.
Then you come along. Well, not you. Booker DeWitt — the former soldier and Pinkerton agent players control — isn’t a cipher meant for you to occupy, like the mute protagonist from BioShock 1. He’s his own man with a voice, a checkered past and reasons for staging a one-man invasion. Debt weighs heavy on his soul and the only way he can come clear of it is to fetch a supernaturally powered young woman named Elizabeth. If he gets her to the people who want her, then he might be able to get on with the rest of his life.
If you subscribe to the idea that there is in fact a formula for making a BioShock game, then Infinite will only support your thesis. Mix up sci-fi archetypes, comic-book super-science, ideologically driven conflict and old-school first-person-shooter love with narrative ambition and philosophical conflict . The player character’s special abilities get wielded through the left hand while weapons get gripped by the right and he must wend his way through an isolated city-state in turmoil. Once you do that, you have — in broad strokes — the component parts of the games that have been called BioShock.
The powers you wield this time are called Vigors. You can mix and match them so that you can electrify a flock of crows after flinging them at an enemy. Or you can hold the soldiers you’re fighting aloft and then set them on fire with telekinetic and pyrokinetic Vigors.
Important moments of choice have been another hallmark of BioShock games. This time out, the importance of choice isn’t in where you wind up plot-wise. It’s in how you play. The method In which you cobble together the upgrades you find with Elizabeth’s combat support and the amazing verticality of the game’s battlegrounds will leave you with a unique experience that you can transform as you go. Couple that with the various firearms and Vigor you’ll collect, Infinite’s play feels like it gives you more tools and a faster pace to use in an expertly crafted playground.
For all that’s familiar, Irrational Games’ new release does add new seasoning to that BioShock recipe. One of the big changes is in basic locomotion. Columbia’s mass transit is a series of snaking pipeworks called Skylines and they provide a thrilling, vertiginous way to get around the city. They feel like a one-man roller coaster that you can shoot at people from. Aside from that, you can pounce on enemies from way on high or rain down gunshots while zipping along. And enemies will do the game to you, so these aren’t an easy way out of most battles.
But it’s the character of Elizabeth who represents the biggest change to the BioShock formula, which up until now gave you scant companionship on your adventures in Rapture. At first, Elizabeth might remind you in a broad way of the dog from Fable II. That pooch found you loot and helped you get around the world of Albion. You formed a simple but meaningful bond with it.
Elizabeth is far more complex. She’s a fully scripted persona who aids you in combat and in scavenging, by finding and supplying health, money and ammo. Most impressively, she can manipulate tears, which are space-time hiccups that let her pull things from alternate reality through to this world. Discount vending stations, machine-gun turrets and grapple points are just a few of the assets she can summon for you. Which tears you have her manifest will affect the strategy options you have during a firefight and this branching opens up the uniqueness.
From an emotional perspective, things change immediately when you meet Elizabeth. She’s naïve, but with strong streaks of curiosity and desperation running through her. A skybound city doesn’t feel like paradise when it’s all you’ve ever known and she yearns to experience the world below. Columbia founder Father Comstock is a religious zealot, one who commands a city of totally obedient martyrs. When he tells them not to fight, it’s far creepier than when you’re battling them. He means to use Elizabeth’s abilities to deliver an apocalyptic judgment to the America beneath him. But Comstock must also deal with an proletariat insurgency by the Vox Populi, who want to topple what they see as a corrupt oligarchy.
Elizabeth alternately wants to impress Booker and run away from him. They need each other and she never feels like a stack of AI scripts walking alongside you. When she throws you a health pack in a firefight, her need for you to survive is palpable. She’s haunted by a lack of a past while Booker is chased by a history too full of blood. Together, their shared journey moves from wariness to warmth to resolution with real poignancy.
For all the talk of parts, this game is more than just the sum of its pieces. You’re playing for story here, and that story is embedded through the entire fabric of Infinite. The more you explore Columbia, the more its made-up citizens and history pull you in. There’s a mystery swirling around the clouds that surround the city and kept me guessing until the very end of the game.
Early on, you get signs that something more than mere isolationism is amiss in Columbia. Those tears in reality’s fabric are a tease to the main conceit of the game, with the gambit being nothing less than the re-writing of American history. Columbia’s already well down that road as its spiritual revisionism has made demigods of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. But you can’t shake the creeping sense that many things are going to happen as a result of your actions. They do and they’re all pretty weighty.
Given the fact that there’s inevitable conflict waiting to joined, you might think that a repudiation of American self-aggrandisement is all there is to BioShock Infinite. The uppity sky-dwellers in Columbia need to be taken down a peg, right? But what’s more surprising than the rude awakenings is the degree to which Infinite is a celebration of Americana. It’s a game squeezed out of Normal Rockwell paintings, set to ragtime music and filled to the brim with jaunty bygone slang. It zips and zings, even with it’s beating you down with giant robot president enemies.
And, yes, Irrational creative director Ken Levine and crew are lobbing a slew of scholarly -isms for players to chew through: racism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, 18th century revivalism and the gospel of industrialism as a cradle-to-grave caretaker of the worker. The tribalism that’s inextricably part of America’s spiritual DNA is a big part of the game’s factions and battlefield too. The Vox Populi — made of common-man labourers — think they have too little while the well-to-do Founders essentially believe that Comstock’s vision of America is a better one than the one lived on solid ground.
If you’re acquainted with the language of revolution and regime change, then lots of the rhetoric slung across the conflicts in Infinite will ring familiar to you. Opponents from different classes and backgrounds slander each other. Divine/universal logic is on our side. That kind of thing. The difference is that Infinite places players in the fires of tumult and shows them the result Most of the people you overhear in Infinite are racist, classist, snooty and surly. Yet you feel bad for them as some of the illusions keeping Columbia aloft begin to crumble. It’s a hell of a thing to believe in a dream with all your being, for both good and bad reasons.
BioShock Infinite may not the first game to try to say something about the very nature of the country it was made in — and the people who make it up — but it’s certainly amongst the best. Some scenes reminded me of how people who looked like me had an unbelievable array of prejudicial forces from public and private institutions set against them. Yet, even as I played through those moments, I was reminded that America is a big experiment. That experiment in letting people chart their own destinies has sometimes made it so brother fights against brother.
It’s easy to dismiss those people floating in the fractured mirror Americas that we disagree with. They’re wrong; we’re right. Who cares why they are the way they are? But BioShock Infinite asks us to consider that very question and gives an answer that mixes hope with bitterness, wonder with despair and allegory with history. The game doesn’t offer any advice about how to make everyone get along better but it makes a powerful argument for owning — and owning up to — all of our collective past.