By now, I’m sure quite a few of you have heard that Bioshock Infinite is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m here to tell you it’s better than that, friends. Sliced bread has just been dethroned. From now on, you’ll be throwing together a sandwich with mustard, baloney, and two pieces of Bioshock Infinite. And each time you do it, you will nearly pass out because you won’t be able to comprehend how delicious it is.
Strong words? Too strong? Nope, I don’t think so. I finished the game (for the first time) several days ago, and I’ve been thinking about it for pretty much the entire time since then. Right after I finished the game, I didn’t hesitate to put the experience right up there with Half Life 2; I knew right away that it was already on my short list of “best games I’ve ever played.” Now, after having some time to mull it over, I can say with confidence that Infinite has emerged the victor of my brain battle… it is my new favorite game.
So here’s what I’m going to do… I’m going to blab a bit more, in a general, spoiler-free way, about my impressions of the game… the gameplay, the setting, the characters, etc. And then, for the second part of this post, I am going to go into full-on spoiler mode, where I will try my best to interpret meat ‘n’ potatoes of the story, and why I think it’s such a beautiful tale. No spoilers yet, though. Rest assured, I will clearly mark the spoiler point-of-no-return. You can keep reading for now, if you haven’t played (or are still playing), and need further convincing to pick up (or finish) the game.
But seriously, just get the game and play it, if you haven’t already. Do you like well-told stories? If so, then this game is for you. If not… no big deal. I won’t judge you (I’m judging you). If you don’t play many video games, but still like good stories, find someone who has the game, camp out on their couch for twelve hours, set the game to “easy,” and play through it. You may want to schedule an additional twelve hours, because you’ll most likely want to play through it again; It’s not mandatory, of course, but I highly recommend it.
If there was any argument left as to whether or not some video games can be considered high art, the argument is now over. If you are still on the “video games cannot be art” side of the fence, it’s time to give it up and admit defeat. Simply judged as an interactive story, Bioshock Infinite tells a better story than most movies or TV shows have done. And it’s right up there with some of the best books, comic books, and other things that contain stories in them. Especially if you like science-fiction; but even if you don’t like science fiction, the tale nestled at the center of all the potentially distracting sci-fi themes has genuine heart. More on that later.
I could give you a rambling list of reasons why the story is several cuts above most video game stories, but in a nutshell, it’s this: every detail furthers the story in some way. Every thing you do and see, every character you meet, every clip of dialogue, every song you hear, has significance. Which is one reason I recommend at least two plays through it. You’ll notice all the little moments that foreshadow what’s to come. And this is the difference between a good story and a great story. The Mass Effect series, for example, has a good story; you may like the characters, or the side stories, or the themes that are explored along the way; you may even like the central story (many aren’t happy with the conclusion, but some are). But, chances are, you’ll overlook the weaker moments in favor of the good ones. There are plenty of areas where the pacing is bad, or a plot point is revealed in a clumsy way, even if you still appreciate the story that runs throughout.
Infinite does not have this problem; it is, so far as I can tell, an exceptionally well-crafted piece of storytelling. I can’t think of one weak part I chose to overlook in favor of the larger story.
The setting and attention to detail are engrossing, especially if you have a PC capable of running the game with all the bells and whistles turned to “11.” Irrational is still using that dated Unreal Engine 3, but they certainly squeeze every last bit of awesomeness out of it. The city of Columbia is gorgeous and immersive, during both its most peaceful and its most violent times. The voice acting is top-notch. The characters are believable and compelling, and even the supporting characters have complexity(I dare you to not have conflicting emotions about the Songbird). The gameplay is fun, as well. If you’re not into first-person shooters, that may be a sticking point for you, but if that’s the case, I will again recommend you turn down the difficulty and give it a try. I did encounter some difficulty spikes late in the game, but I’ll chalk that up more to my deficiencies as an FPS player than any fault of the game. There’s some battles toward the end that made me want to cry, but on “easy,” I’m sure they won’t be a problem.
The AI is great, both for the enemies you fight, and for Elizabeth, who is your ally and companion for most of the game. Elizabeth is never a nuisance; you never have to worry about her getting in the way, and she actually helps you at crucial times. Elizabeth was a bold move for the developers at Irrational, because so much of your enjoyment of the game hinges upon the player liking (and becoming attached to) her character. If they’d done it wrong, an annoying or poorly-acted Elizabeth could have easily ruined the entire game. But they didn’t do it wrong; they did the opposite of wrong. In fact, I think they knocked it out of the frackin’ park with Elizabeth.
Oh, and the music. Not only are there some fantastic period renditions of more contemporary songs scattered throughout, but Irrational has found a way to give even the songs in the game some significance to the story. I still get chills whenever I hear that barbershop quartet version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
The only serious criticism I have is that the game doesn’t use enough different models for the run-of-the-mill townspeople you see milling about the streets of Columbia, which gives the place an odd, Village Of the Damned vibe at times. So, okay, the game isn’t perfect… but at this point, we’re picking nits that are so tiny they’re meaningless unless you’re determined to look for them.
So go play it already! And when you’ve finished, you can come back here and read the rest of my post and we’ll have a nice conversation about it. That’s right…
WARNING: I am now going to dish out some MAJOR SPOILERY SPOILERS from here on out. I am spoiling the CRAP right out of this game for the rest of this post!
Are you still here? Good. I know it’s only been a little more than a week since Infinite came out, but my head’s been buzzing since I finished, and I need to get a few things off my chest.
I’ll start by saying that the multiverse trope is done very well in this game, I think. It all seems to fit pretty tightly together, and I’ve spent some time thinking about all the angles and possibilities, and whether or not the plot is strong enough to hold up to the questions I’ve been throwing at it. I have yet to find something that doesn’t make sense, and I’m pretty happy about that.
But I think everyone’s been spending lots of time poring over the sci-fi elements of the story, so I don’t think I’ll spend much time covering that ground. Of course, I’ll mention some things tangentially, but I don’t really want to get too far into any discussion of free will, or quantum physics, or the Schrodinger’s Cat Theory, or variables vs. constants, and so forth. Because while everyone obsesses over these things (and I agree it’s fun to obsess over them), I see very little discussion online about the very poignant and heartfelt story at the center of it all; the story of a father and his daughter.
“God only knows what I’d be without you.”
That refrain, along with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, is absolutely central to my understanding of what’s going on in Bioshock Infinite. Isn’t it great that they can throw a song in there and make it seem like a casual and witty anachronism, but then also make the entire story benefit from it? It goes back to what I was saying earlier, about a good story versus a great story; great stories do things like this.
Anyway… I think “God Only Knows” is, in some ways, even more important to the story than “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, and the fact that the full version of “God Only Knows” is the first thing you hear as the end credits roll, only reinforces my belief. Because this is a story about Booker and his daughter. It’s about Booker’s guilt from the horrible things he’s done in his past, and his fear of not being worthy of his daughter. The very first line of dialogue in the game, before you even see any of the characters, is this:
Elizabeth: Booker, are you afraid of God?
Booker: No. But I’m afraid of you.
At face value, when these lines come up again much later on in the story, we’re meant to think that Booker is referring to the terrible power which Elizabeth has; namely, the ability to travel between parallel universes at will. And yes, Booker (and everyone else) has every right to be afraid, because no one should have that power; it’s too great a responsibility.
But why put that line at the very beginning? Because Booker is also afraid of being judged by his daughter. He’s afraid he’s not good enough for her, and he’s afraid she’ll hate him for the man he was. It’s why he gives her over to Robert Lutece (as a proxy for Comstock) in that moment of awful weakness. But then… God only knows what I’d be without you. We see two different versions of this. In one, Booker gives baby Anna to Lutece, and spends two decades atoning for his greatest sin. He carves her initials into his hand as penance. And he lives in misery until Robert Lutece returns and (motivated by a desire to correct his own mistake) offers Booker a chance at redemption. In the other version, Booker, baptized as Comstock, is a monster who is rendered sterile during his drive for power and unable to produce offspring of his own. Still, he yearns for Anna, and in his madness and his jealousy he goes to great lengths to steal her away from Booker, who he deems undeserving.
So. While Comstock seeks redemption through baptism and God, Booker doesn’t really care what God thinks of him, and he lives without hope because he’s already given away Anna, his one real chance at redemption. I believe it’s Rosalind Lutece who says, referring to the initials on Booker’s hand, “It’s his hairshirt, as he is ours.” Or something to that effect; I’m paraphrasing.
Hey, while I’m on the subject of the Lutece twins… they are quite busy throughout the whole game atoning for a sin of their own. Specifically, Anna’s abduction. Because it’s Anna’s abduction which causes the hiccup within the multiverse. Anna’s finger gets clipped off as she reaches for her dad, leaving a piece of herself in one universe while the rest of her is carried off to another. Rosalind states that this is likely the source of Elizabeth’s (Anna’s) strange and terrible power, saying something about the universe not liking its peas mixed in its porridge. Comstock eventually betrays the Luteces, leaving them trapped for eternity between worlds. Rosalind is content to spend eternity with her twin(?) Robert, but Robert is convinced that their role is not finished until they fix what they’ve done, and unstick the universe from the loop in which it’s caught. And how does he propose they do this? Rosalind gives the answer in one of her voice recordings: they have to return the girl. Robert believes so strongly in this goal that he threatens Rosalind with an ultimatum… he threatens to leave his sister and go his own way if she doesn’t help him. To quote Rosalind: “he sees an empty page, where I see King Lear.”
This, of course, is the argument the Luteces are having when Booker first (but not really first) meets them in the boat off the coast of Portland. Rosalind doesn’t see the point of the “thought experiment,” but Robert is determined to fix their mistake… by returning Anna in one piece to her own place and time. Rosalind gives Booker a box with a gun and Elizabeth’s picture in it, with the words “bring to New York unharmed” written on the back. Why give Booker this message? It’s been years since the “give us the girl and wipe away the debt” conversation. In his confusion, Booker (and we) combine the two, but this is an entirely new set of instructions; the first instructions were about giving away the girl; the new instructions are about getting her back. Unharmed. With all fingers attached. Sans universe-tearing abilities.
And how to do this? Kill Comstock. Both Booker and Elizabeth agree on this point, but Elizabeth is the one who first sees the way (and has the power) to do it. Kill Comstock at the source; drown him during the baptism. It’s the only way to snuff out all the Comstocks that ever existed (or will exist) and ensure that Anna stays at home with Booker. Of course, it doesn’t prevent anything from already happening (like Rosalind argues), but it does fix the hiccup in the multiverse and allow other possibilities to continue forth from that point (as Robert argues). Namely, it gives Booker the chance to find redemption through his daughter.
A lot of people (from what I gather on various Internets locations) seem to think Infinite has a really depressing ending. I don’t think it’s depressing at all. Yes, Booker drowns at the end (he sure does drown a lot, doesn’t he?), and Elizabeth ceases to exist as we know her, but they (along with the Lutece twins) succeed in cleaning up the mess they made from mucking about with the universe, and in doing so, return baby Anna to young Booker. That’s the point of the little bit we get after the credits roll. It’s back to October 8th, 1893, the day Booker gives Anna away to Comstock. Except there’s no knock at the door, because there is no Comstock. It’s only Booker and Anna, left to their own devices. It won’t be easy, and it could play out many different ways, but the game shows us many constants and variables. One of the constants we see is that Booker and Anna will do just about anything to protect each other, and another constant is that the two of them make a great team. So I’m hopeful for them.
Phew! Are you still reading? Congratulations, if you are. Like I said, it’s a great game. There’s all sorts of other things I wanted to talk about, but I’m exhausted from all the writing I’ve already done, and you’re exhausted from reading it, so let’s leave it at that. But if anyone wants to comment, I’d be glad to continue the discussion. I’m currently on another play-through, and I’m really curious to see what kind of DLC shows up in the near future. I haven’t had this much fun picking apart a story in a long time. Thanks Ken Levine and Irrational Games for giving my brain such good exercise.