PAR reviews BioShock Infinite: Down in the river to pray
BioShock Infinite is a game about relationships, and how we define ourselves and those around us based on those relationships. Identity is a fluid thing, and it can change based on the people in our lives, what we want from them, and what we’re willing to do to get those things. The game is a collage of fascinating relationships, and they shift and change as you guide Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth through danger.
The setup is simple: DeWitt is a man with a violent past and considerable debts. All he has to do is find a girl, and deliver her safely to those with deep pockets. In return, his past transgressions will be forgiven. The job is a means to an end, and to perform it he must travel to the floating city of Columbia. We know how these stories end; DeWitt will begin to care for Elizabeth as they spend time together, and his allegiances will be adjusted. He will change from being an abductor to a protector. He will grow as a person.
That’s the expected story arc. The reality is much darker, and more complex.
You’ll spend a significant amount of time exploring Columbia, and the city is reminiscent of main street in Disney World. Columbia feels like a painting of a time that is hopelessly idealized, complete with barbershop quartets, couples dressed in fine clothes gently flirting, and picnics enjoyed in the shadow of statues of notable men. The buildings move across the sky, connecting and disconnecting to and from each other on a set schedule. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, especially on a powerful computer. This is the power of a well-funded AAA game: The ability to show you something you have never seen before.
This is the stuff of classic science fiction. If a town looks and seems too good to be true, it usually is. You’ll begin to see the cracks in this particular society once you win a raffle, and are given your prize. This begins DeWitt’s run from the law, and his path towards Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, at least at the beginning of the game, is a pitiful creature. She’s locked in a literal tower, and her every movement is watched, remarked upon, and recorded. They kept her favorite toys, her book of poetry, and even evidence of her first menstrual cycle encased in glass, as if in a museum. She’s not even an animal on display at the zoo, she’s a science experiment, and her reaction when she realizes the full extent of her situation is one of anger and distrust.
Elizabeth is a fascinating character, as she’s both strong and intelligent, but not worldly. She reacts to situations with the innocence of someone who grew up with few “friends” other than books and a monstrous mechanical protector called Songbird. Songbird would bring her food and books, and they were companions. As she grew older she began to realize that he was more of an understanding warden. Her joy in hearing music in the open air and dancing with strangers is beautiful, but it’s balanced by the panic and fear in her eyes when she hears the Songbird.
She is missing a finger, and hides the deformity with a thimble.
While you’ll explore Columbia and talk to the people you meet, much of your time in the game is spent in combat, and Elizabeth is able to watch after her own safety. She’ll pick up ammo and throw it to you, or help you with health. As the game progresses she gains the ability to open tears in reality to bring in supplies, cover, and weapons. You won’t have to worry about her being cut down in combat. If you die she’ll revive you, although you lose a small amount of money each time this happens.
You’ll also be given the use of a Skyhook, which is used to zip you around the tracks that connect different parts of Columbia. This adds a wonderful kinetic quality to the combat, as you’re able to move to a different location and continue the fight if you find yourself overwhelmed. Again, don’t worry, Elizabeth has her own Skyhook and will follow you. She doesn’t weigh you down during your travels, and is in fact a helpful companion.
You’ll gain certain abilities by drinking potions called “Vigors” that operate more or less like the Plasmids from past BioShock games. Some of them are incredibly useful, such as the ability to cause turrets and enemies to fight on your side momentarily, while others just change the rhythm of battle and are fun to play with. There are certain enemies that operate much like mini-bosses, but don’t expect any gigantic boss battle in the levels. The major characters in the game are dealt with in ways that are much more brutal, appropriate, and fascinating from a story perspective. This is a game that wouldn’t have benefitted from boss battles, and thankfully avoids them.
The weapons you use also do a wonderful job of thudding, spitting lead and rockets, and killing the bad guys. You’ll be able to use your Skyhook as a particularly bloody melee weapon. The combat is fine, but keep in mind there is a lot of it; BioShock Infinite feels much more focused on gunplay and cover than past games in the series.
What are YOU doing to protect racial purity?
Ken Levine has denied that he was satirizing any particular political group while writing the game, and the deep-set racism, belief in the white man’s burden, and hatred of racial mingling creates an uncomfortable backdrop from the game.
While Infinite goes out of its way to point out that these views are negative, some are going to be disturbed by the amount of racial caricatures and casual racism throughout the game. “’Twas yellow skin and slanted eyes, that did betray us with their lies, until they crossed the righteous path, of our prophet’s holy wrath,” an animatronic statue in one sequence states, describing the Boxer Rebellion. An equal amount of ire is directed at Native Americans. One audio log has a writer describe his love of silver as making him “half a Jew.”
On the other hand, few games in this generation have used music as well. You’ll hear bits and pieces of recognizable songs, but Infinite also plays with our sense of time and place in its choice of music. You’ll participate in a class riot while a voice sings a spiritual version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's “Fortunate Son.” There is a barbershop quartet version of the Beach Boy’s “God Only Knows” that is especially pretty, to the point where I stopped what I was doing in the game just to watch and listen. The rights to these and other songs couldn’t have been cheap, but their use in the game is effective.
There is no equivalent of the choice between harvesting or saving the Little Sisters, although there are a few moments that present you with options that make me curious about how the game will play out across multiple playthroughs. The game treats its own world as a real place, and the deeper you dig into how Columbia runs and the processes that make its existence possible, the more you'll understand that deep cost of the beautiful system in the sky.
Where the game excels
Ken Levine and company are operating at a higher level when it comes to telling a human story through video games. I won’t ruin anything about the greater plot or how things wrap up, but pay attention to the last hour of the game; things actually slow down and you begin to learn much about what you’ve seen and done. It’s a trick of pacing that shouldn’t work, and it can seem like something of an infodump, but the voice acting is top-notch and the use of sound and music turn the ending sequence into something very special. As always, be sure to stay after the credits.
I still have questions about the events of the game, and how the characters fit together, and I’m looking forward to playing again to collect more of the audio logs, explore the world, and try to put it all together. This is a game that welcomes conversation about what happened and why, and I have a feeling I only understand many things on a topical level. I’ve already had a few discussions with other critics about this and that, and there seems to be much of note hidden within the game.
This is a game about relationships, and how everything we do affects everyone around us. It's about how trying to do the right thing can be as monstrous as starting with ill intentions. It's about how we can hate those we love, and love those we hate. It's about a man, a girl, and a lost finger. It's about circles, and how you can go around them and end up in a completely new place. It's a beautiful game.