BioShock Infinite: A Story That’s Crushed Beneath Its Own Ambition
May I play the devil’s advocate without being torn a new one? BioShock Infinite is a good game. With an almost unbelievably beautiful setting, stellar music and voice acting, and solid gameplay similar to its predecessors, 2K Games’ success was a foregone conclusion. Is it a truly great game? Not in my opinion.
If it seems weird that I’m writing a critical of a game that, in the end, I heartily enjoyed, take a trip over to Metacritic. BioShock Infinite currently stands as one of the most highly rated games of the generation. And — superficially — it deserves all those accolades. Let me discuss first what I loved about it.
Columbia, like the original BioShock’s Rapture before it, is a game changer. It’s a steampunk- and World’s Fair-inspired floating city with shades of Final Fantasy and Devil in the White City. The underwater city of Rapture was dark, desolate, frightening, post-apocalyptic, claustrophobic, and lonely. Columbia is an absolute contrast. It’s colorful, exploding with variety, vibrant, big, open, and jam packed with other people. I literally cannot conceive of how 2K games could ever top this setting. There are moments when I would just walk to the edge of one of the floating buildings or platforms and just stare at how beautiful it was. It inherently makes ya wanna slug back bottle a hooch and use 1920’s slang. As a visual marvel, Columbia hits all sixes and then some (okay, I’ll stop now).
The gameplay is exceptional, but imperfect. For everything I loved about it there was something there to irk me. The Vigors — replacing the Plasmids of BioShock yore — are spectacularly fun. Slamming into enemies; pummeling them with Crow-bombs; grabbing and throwing them with tentacles of water; capturing attacks and releasing returning them as a ball of energy — most of them are truly inspired and none stop being fun. Riding the rails to get from place to place feels natural and exhilarating. Having said that, when there weren’t rails around, the action sometimes feel cramped and linear. With such a big amazing looking world around me, I wanted the freedom to jump, dash, and launch myself on to everything I could see. While it had its own gameplay problems, I longed for Dishonored’s — developed by 2K associate Arkane Studios — freedom of movement.
For most of the game, you’re accompanied by Elizabeth, a pretty girl with mysterious, time-bending powers. She is the game’s game. Not only is she central to the story, but she’s also integral to the gameplay. She can open tears in the time-space continuum to bring things like hooks, health, weapons, and other necessities into existence from other universes. 2K’s greatest achievement is maybe that she is the least irritating character to escort ever. She never needs to be protected, and regularly finds salts (used to power Vigors), health, ammo, and money for you. Oh, and she also comes with a giant metallic bird — reminiscent of BioShock’s Big Daddies — that will try to kill you sporadically, but hey, nobody’s perfect.
The soundtrack is glorious. The orchestral score is evocative and brilliantly mood setting. But what really shines here is the use of licensed music. Prepare to hear The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” sung by ‘Columbia’s Gayest Quartet’! Other classics — Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” among others — either appear in the game, or get reworked to fit the early century time period. It is a truly inspired use of pop music.
Has my view seemed a little overwhelmingly positive so far? We now reach the frustrating part: the story. It’s a huge, original, exciting narrative, and there is a lot that’s great about it, but it’s crushed beneath the weight of its own ambition.
(Spoilers to follow here for BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and the original inFamous.)
Father Comstock, Infinite’s nebulous, omnipresent antagonist, is very weak. The original BioShock’s Andrew Ryan was a shining example how to write a video game villain, mainly because it was unclear whether he was a straight up villain or just a misguided idealist. He was a character driven by ideas, and the connections to his real-life analogue, Ayn Rand, made him all the more fascinating. When you listened to his recordings strewn about Rapture, he made extremely compelling arguments. Yes, he went to hideous extremes to achieve his goals, but his ideas were seductive.
Like many of the ideas enveloped into Communism, Fascism, Capitalism, and any other form of extremism, Rapture actually did have the potential to be something good. Ryan was written to show how enticing the ideas of Rand and her rabid Objectivist supporters can be. Rapture then became a highly politicized setting, a warning against the dangers of laissez-faire capitalism. Sandwiching the timeframe of the game between the releases of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and the game itself — the contemporary political landscape — illustrated how deeply corrupted and misrepresented Rand’s ideas have become.
In contrast, Comstock — pardon my French — is just a piece of shit. Yes, he speaks with the same fire-and-brimstone fervor of Ryan, but there’s nothing seductive about his ideas. He champions fundamentalist Christianity, white supremacy, and slavery. Anyone who buys into these ideas never had a chance to begin with. The mindless religious nuttery is a theme explored in several other games like the Dead Space series, whereas I had never seen Objectivism tackled in an interactive medium before. Even Infinite’s definite technical inferior, Bioshock 2’s Sophia Lamb had some interesting ideas — if dangerous and reactionary.
It’s not all bad, of course. If Comstock’s ideas are unappealing, the story’s pacing certainly isn’t. The narrative has a very strong pull. Even when its ideas frustrated me, I still wanted — no, needed — to know what would come next. I’ve played few games that manage to construct such a sense of mysterious urgency then maintain that tone for their entirety. There’s always a twist, a development, an unexpected reveal waiting around the corner for the player. This is a game story that never gets boring. 2K knows exactly when to give you information, and exactly what information will make you want to keep playing. Not the least of which is how the heck this whole mess ties into the first two BioShocks.
And then there’s the ending. Oh god, the ending.
I don’t think I’ve ever before played a game whose ending strikes such a perfect balance between completely brilliant and stunningly aggravating. (Wait, yes I do — BRAID!) By the time you reach the end, the story has become massively convoluted in a blender of time lines, shifting personalities, and alternate dimensions. I had heard a lot about the ending of Infinite before beating it (and fortunately did not have it spoiled), so I expected a lot. To my great surprise, it actually managed to find a very cool, very original way of tying the franchise together, specifically the Big Daddy/Little Sister relationship. Yes, the intra-dimensional reveal of the Bio-verses is problematic and messy, but it is a kind of lunatically genius way of tying the games together, like a sci-fi Zelda universe. The bite might be tough to chew, but I was willing to digest it.
But that reveal isn’t enough. They have to reveal in the final moment that Booker DeWitt, the main character, is Father Comstock from another universe. My kingdom for 2K to have left well enough alone. It throws a monkey wrench into the whole contraption, tying it everything together way too neatly. Since ‘there’s always a lighthouse, always a man, and always a city,’ do we now have to reread BioShock’s Jack has alt-version of Andrew Ryan? I don’t even want to get into that. The implications for this game are troubling enough. So I’ve been fighting myself the whole time, huh? And this girl I’m saving is also my daughter who I sold to myself from another dimension? Oh okay, glad that’s been cleared up. This is a frightful attempt to tie everything together ‘neatly.’ I’m reminded of Metal Gear Solid 4, another game that couldn’t just walk away and had to ‘explain’ through ‘twists.’ At least MGS4 didn’t take itself quite so seriously.
And why the heck aren’t the people who are praising this supposedly brilliant, innovative twist pointing out that it’s the exact same as the ending of the first Infamous? After Cole’s climactic showdown with Kessler, it’s revealed Kessler is a version of Cole from an alternate timeline. I don’t remember hearing Infamous being referred to as a narrative masterpiece. Are people that suckered in by pretty visuals and polished gameplay to see the cracks in Infinite’s storytelling? Admittedly, the two games have little in common aside from their endings, but they are too similar — and BioShock Infinite too widely praised for its supposed originality — for me to totally ignore.
The twist is especially confusing because the fiery, passionate Comstock has nothing in common with the persistently neutral DeWitt until that final moment. There may be a greater thematic message here about the allure of the church to the apolitical. A parallel could certainly be drawn between Comstock’s fervorous followers and today’s Tea Party (though Ken Levine has bizarrely denied any connection). If so, these messages are lost amid a monsoon of overlapping universes, protean characters, and pointless plot twists. BioShock Infinite is a shining example of the difference between a great story and well-told story. It is a very well-told story, just not a very good one.
Agree or disagree with Joe? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.