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Fair Warning: You should not read this review unless you have played Bioshock Infinite or could care less about spoilers. This is one of those times where spoilers might alter your experience of the game.

Bioshock Infinite is one of the most anticipated games in recent memory. It belongs to a loose trilogy begun what seems like a long time ago with what is often considered one of the greatest games of all time, Bioshock. As a substantially literary game, Bioshock showed what could be done when story, writing, theme, and narrative immersion were fundamental foci for the game design. Infinite maintains the same priorities and you definitely know while playing it that it is the narrative, characterization, themes, and plot were more important to 2K and Irrational Games than anything else.

Like Bioshock, the setting is the hook. The world-building here is nothing short of spectacular. A triumph of the imagination bolstered by almost obsessive attention to detail. As many have reported, the weak link in Infinite‘s altogether masterful formula is the over-reliance on shooting and scavenging. If you look at this comparatively, to other shooters, it really isn’t what you’d call a weakness in the game. It is simply only part of the game that feels obligatory and occasionally tedious.

There’s a sense that Infinite could have and should have been more and quite a lot of backlash about perceived “broken promises” made during the release of marketing materials showing off mechanics or scenes that never made it to the final cut of the game. In no way does Bioshock Infinite feel rushed or slighted. It feels like a complete game. Maybe not quite the breath of fresh air that Bioshock was but it’s not like expectations don’t account for that. You don’t catch lightning in a bottle twice when you use the same bottle. Your best bet is to channel the lightning you’ve already caught in a different, equally viable direction. Infinite definitely accomplishes that. It also skews more toward action than horror than its predecessors.

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The action is often overly chaotic, but just as often spectacular and satisfying.

In Bioshock Infinite you play Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton agent who is tasked with retrieving a young girl from the city of Columbia. “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt” is a mantra repeated frequently in the game. It not only represents Booker’s primary motivation and the mystery that drives the player’s interest in it, it also ends up having layers of narrative significance. Columbia is an early 20th Century city, looking a bit like the Atlantic City of Boardwalk Empire really, but it floats in the goddamn sky.

The young girl is Elizabeth, a seventeen year old girl imprisoned in a giant statue of an angel. As Booker first enters Columbia, the player is treated to a pile of world-building meant to introduce you to not only Columbia itself, but the underlying themes of both the setting and the game’s story. Columbia is a monument to a certain aspect of American culture. It was founded by a Prophet named Comstock who saw a vision from an angel named Columbia (the statue is of her) about a holy city in the sky. You see early on that three “Founders” are worshipped as Saints and even prayed to. They are each represented by a motif that is layered through the game. The first is George Washington, the Sword, representing the militant stance of the city and who also takes on the form of “Patriot” automatons who fire machine guns at you and spout Columbian propaganda. The second is Ben Franklin, the Key, who represents the spirit of scientific advancement and invention in Columbia (necessary for the city itself to even exist). Last is Thomas Jefferson, the Scroll, whom represents the law and the spirit of independence.

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Dem Founders.

Columbia is as obvious a satire of Tea-Party style constitutional/religio-political fundamentalists in American society (and history) as Rapture was of libertarians and Objectivists. This is the introductory statement of Bioshock Infinite. It is not the primary raison d’etre for the story, though. Like Bioshock, the themes of social and political thought that run through the game are mixed up and used in various ways, often subtly, and show up as part of the superstructure as a participle in the game’s overall hook. You chuckle a bit and move on, looking to see where the game is going to take you on this journey of critical, satirical exploration of a part of the American psyche that is both glorious and hideous.

That Colombia is led by a religious Prophet was something I actually didn’t know before playing the game. I never expected Irrational to want to go at religion and Christianity the way they do. Some are calling Infinite an “anti-Christian” or “anti-religious game”. I don’t know if it really goes that far. Instead, it questions and criticizes the way religion and Christianity have often been used in American culture. Like it or not, the peculiar and American brands of Christianity have been highly influential throughout the country’s history. From Mormonism (which the game leans on heavily through Comstock and his angel) to the contemporary right-wing fundies who have taken over the Republican party, Infinite has something to say about the whole ugly spectrum. The game literalizes the lyrics of its symbolic theme song, Will the Circle be Unbroken (By and By) and refers back to them often. This threads nicely through its exploration of quantum uncertainty and multiverse theory, really, and suggests a degree of awe, respect, and uncertainty about the metaphysical nature of the universe (God or no God).

That the game doesn’t respect religious expedience, the mix of religion and politics, and the hubris of so-called prophets who claim to speak for cosmic unknowable entities is pretty plain. In general, Irrational likes to instill its games with a lot of old school “what if?” science fiction and its pretty unmistakable that there’s a pro-science agenda onto which dystopian technologies are liberally sprinkled. That is as true in Infinite, with its Handymen and Vigors, as it was in Bioshock (which committed to this idea more).

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They could have explored the technology of Columbia more, but it likely felt like repetition.

Because the nature of technology in Columbia isn’t all that different from that of Rapture (The ubiquitous vending machines again stand as a witty reference to America’s love affair with rampant consumerism, drugs, and guns), there’s a point that can be made about the cross-section of repeating game mechanics and thus repeating world-building. Infinite actually goes out of its way to justify this in its elaborate, metaphysical epilogue, but it seems like the game features “plasmids by another name” anyway. I understand that there can’t be as much focus on the science and technological policies of Columbia given that this was such a big part of Bioshock (and truly, Infinite is after higher-hanging fruit anyway) but it does leave the game open to criticism that its world-building and mechanics, intertwined as they are, amount to too much repetition. Whether or not Infinite improves on it over previous games is probably the real question, and reactions to this have been mixed. Some think the gameplay is more shallow and others think it is tweaked and far better. Exploration works basically the same, with the player rewarded for looking around and paying attention to the lavish world they’re inhabiting. Unlike most games, the reward is not simple completionism nor is it material rewards of better loot, powers, etc. These are part of it, but Irrational more or less set the bar on using exploration rewards as a way to flesh out settings, characters, themes, concepts, and the larger story itself. Like in Bioshock, there are relatively few “cut scenes” and most of this additional story is delivered through audio recordings. Miss these and the game will seem even more ambiguous than it actually is, let alone much shorter.

Though you’re likely to spend just as much time doing exploring as fighting enemies, it’s the combat that has to really work for the player to not get bored and plow through the story. Combat in Infinite is smoother and more immediate than in previous games. Booker relies more on guns, a wide variety of them, and so do the enemies. Fights often take place in elaborate, expansive shooting galleries with multiple different approaches. The game lacks puzzles (something I miss) and uses very simple mechanics for passing obstacles (Elizabeth’s lockpicking) but the fights themselves are sort of like puzzles. This reminds me of Dishonored in some ways, as there are so many ways to use Booker’s weapons and powers, let alone the environment and Elizabeth’s tears, to get through the chaotic fights. This in itself makes combat fun and varied and overcomes some of the repetitiveness of enemies, locations (there are roughly 3 types of locations where fights occur: indoors, outdoors, and outdoors with rails/ships/hooks) which is a thing even though the game does a splendid job of progressing through introducing new concepts, powers, enemies, and so on and allowing you the room to experiment and interact with the game on this level before moving on to something new.

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Whenever the combat sequences threaten to have shown you everything they were going to, the game introduces something new.

The combat is extremely frequent, however, and almost always large scale. This means it is incredibly hectic, a meatgrinder as many have called it, and this necessitates some concessions to shallower game design additions like respawning shields. Thankfully, the inclusion of Elizabeth to most fights means that you are able to get last-minute, cinematic-feeling boosts to ammo, health, and Salts (the energy source for Vigors) right in the middle of fights. Though it might get a bit old by the end of the game, there are enough fights without Elizabeth that you miss the presentation of those moments. The sound effects (particularly when she tosses you coins), her defiant or supportive yelling, and the quick animations of getting a gun tossed over to you just feel great even hours into the game. This mechanical function of the Elizabeth character is a masterstroke, actually, since it completely reinforces the player (and Booker’s) attachment to her.

Speaking of Elizabeth. The game settles on a very Beauty and the Beast sort of motif for her, initially. She even looks like Belle and like her, she is imprisoned by a monster for whom she has some sympathy. When you first meet her, she is in a great big library that calls back to the one The Beast gifts to Belle. It’s sort of a minor connection, really, but I think it says something about how expressive Elizabeth turns out to be as a result of the heavy Disney influence in her art design and animation.

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The resemblance to Belle is striking.

More importantly than this, Elizabeth represents The Girl in the series of Constants that connect the multiverse within which Bioshock takes place as a series. Yes, Infinite is where the game brings in the freaky physics. The Lighthouse, Man, and Girl are those Constants and they represent the things that are the same, no matter what world you’re in. Infinite is the first game in the series that acknowledges the underpinning structure of its fiction. Simultaneously, it is a game that deals with world-hopping, alternate versions of people, and the ability to control or change entire universes as plot points. Elizabeth is fundamental to all of this, but she is also very like the Little Sisters and Eleanor from the previous games.

Bioshock‘s main strength has always been the simple emotional core that rests within all the science fiction, horror, and social commentary. Just as Pixar films are known for, these games are often reducible to that simple emotional core and it is really the heart of everything else. In the Bioshock games, that core has always been the relationship between fathers and children. In Bioshock 2, which is far more superficially similar (direct father-daughter relationship with twists, experimentation, rescue, etc), this element is part of the reason I’m probably one of the only people who doesn’t consider that game a let down. It is also why the extent to which all three games are fundamentally similar in mechanical and narrative ways just doesn’t bother me that much. Hell, I bet most people who like this series don’t really realize just how similar each game is. Not any more so than other popular franchises, surely, but for whatever reason I think Bioshock games are expected to be a lot more different by iteration than they are. Bioshock 2 was often called an expansion to the first one. If that’s true, then Infinite must suffer the same criticism in spite of its different setting (admittedly a key point of distinction).

But I digress.

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It is actually painful to watch Elizabeth’s naivete erode under the pressure of what she learns and goes through alongside Booker.

Bioshock featured a paternal narrative between Jack (the protagonist) and the Little Sisters, especially if you choose to save them. Jack and Andrew Ryan’s father-son thing is a bit more overt, but I think the subtlety with which Bioshock does the father-daughter is just the mark of a theme beginning to emerge. In Bioshock 2 it is in full swing. In Infinite, the relationship seems to be a symbolic one again but the savvy player should always suspect that there’s a heckuva lot more to Booker and Elizabeth’s relationship than his just being her rescuer. This pays off well, if unsurprisingly, in the game. It is by far their strongest emotional statement in the series, also, as the late scenes of Booker giving up his Anna only to try and get her back (to say nothing of the sickeningly sad and hopeful after credits sequence) will bust you up. Especially if you’re a father who has a daughter. Like me.

This time around, the themes are more focused on the extent to which a father can control the destiny of his child. Comstock, an aged version of Booker from another world, tries to do this actively by making her into the realization of a prophecy he constructed from glimpses into other worlds. Throughout the game, there’s a sort of metaphysical comedy being played out in the fringes, usually indicated by scenes of the Lutece “siblings” spouting cryptic hints about what’s really going on. The culmination of this comedy is that the game is their latest attempt (of over 100) to undo the world-meddling they are responsible for. This meddling produced Elizabeth/Anna, a being who’s body is in two universes at once (her finger left behind in the world she came from). Whether or not this is the source of her universe-hopping powers is unclear, but this is not a game afraid to be ambiguous and get the player trying to work it out for themselves. Little hints abound, however, and though I didn’t find them all I think I found enough (helped greatly by going over it all with my brother) to be confident of my interpretation.

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The game sexualizes Elizabeth, which I think is a mistake.

There are some minor problems that Infinite does have. One of them is that Elizabeth is sexualized by about halfway through the game. It’s not that she suddenly starts nailing dudes or that there is any sexual tension with Booker. Far from it. It’s the wardrobe and haircut. People will say that it’s symbolic of her growing up, getting darker, etc bit it’s not a good way to symbolize that. Grown up and edgy doesn’t equal tits and corsets nor should it. Ultimately, it’s not like it ruins the character or anything. It’s just a weak move for Irrational and a bit of a head scratcher given that Elizabeth is a seventeen year old girl with home the player (and Booker) form and realize a paternal bond. She’s not your love interest, though that justification would have made the male gaze thing even more obvious, so why strip her and sex her up?

Another issue is more of an honest nitpick. I found that dialogue overlapped way too often, as if Irrational expected players to just compensate themselves. Missing dialogue or having to replay your voxophones because Elizabeth randomly starts talking over them is annoying and happens too much. But really, that’s not a very big deal. More worth mentioning because it’s a weird oversight and also something I’m sure most players notice.

Speaking of the audio. This game has lavish sound design and music. There’s a sublime part, my favorite really, where Booker plays guitar and Elizabeth sings Will the Circle Be Unbroken (By and By). It’s a completely missable moment but the kind of small, intimate thing that games do not do often and that are so fundamentally lacking.

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The Songbird is an interesting, too rarely scene force of nature.

In one way, Infinite‘s skewing away from the “weird science” elements in favor of the larger (still weird science) plot stumbles. The Songbird is a very interesting character, heavily featured in the game’s marketing, that just isn’t in the game enough. I don’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t show up enough, more that he lacks the supporting attention such an iconic (this game’s version of the Big Daddy) figure deserves. This does maintain an air of mystery and tragedy around the Songbird and perhaps not giving the audience enough to understand him and his origins was a deliberate choice. Or maybe I missed a voxophone. I do feel like, had Bioshock Infinite retread the “oh look at this invention/experiment/monsters” a tiny bit more, I would have been more satisfied with the Songbird. The Handymen get a better introduction, though the Songbird is key in several great scenes in the game (particularly during the final battle). His death is incredibly sad, as it should be.

There’s definitely a sense in which Bioshock delivers the hint-then-payoff mini-narratives of Rapture’s denizens far better than Infinite does. The horror direction of the previous games means that enemies have to be mysterious, teased, and then shockingly right there trying to kill you. The tension is different, in other words, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Infinite has to replace the lack of it. It’s worth noting that Infinite, not being a horror game, doesn’t need or want this same formula (except for a couple of bits where it is used but not particularly well, the Sirens are a good example). The effortless way with which Bioshock told a story about its environment and the denizens seems to be eroded just a bit in this latest game.

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From the very first Columbian Booker kills, it’s sort of a nonstop parade of corpses.

The two biggest bits of dissonance for this come from that you are always killing people, most of whom are police officers or Irish and black revolutionaries (seriously), and the fact that you never have to stop and think about vigors because they are just a carry over from Bioshock. In many weighs, all these things were given more weight in the first game. More nuance. Rapture was a society built on magical science and we get to see what it did to them. I suppose Infinite with even the words “Vigor” and “Salts” are implying a more idealistic version of the same transformative artifact. That Columbia is not a fallen city, not yet, means that this is perhaps appropriate. Comparing Infinite to Bioshock is being done by everyone, usually unfavorably to Infinite, but I do think the game has enough internal logic to counter that. I mean, for every example like the plasmids/splicers vs. the vigors/Columbians, there’s a logically consistent explanation. Did it feel more meaningful in Bioshock? Yes it did. Is that lack intentional and itself meaningful in Infinite? I think so. I’m not sure.

So moving on past the places where my reaction to Infinite is murkier, let’s get at that murky ending. The last half hour of Infinite is pretty much one extended ending with little “gameplay” and much narrative loops getting closed. By this point, the player will have figured out the essential mysteries of the game. By this point it should be understood that there’s a balance between all these universes, and the aforementioned Constants. Elizabeth completely upsets that balance, the direct result of the Faustian bargain made by the Rosalind Lutece (yay Jennifer Hale!) and the version of Booker who became Comstock. Lutece finds a male version of herself, and together they help Comstock satisfy his ambitions in exchange for his patronage. In doing so, they inadvertently create Elizabeth and throw all that balance into disarray. Elizabeth can see everything, go anywhere, and tear it all down. That, it turns out, is not what the Lutece’s want and so they set Booker to the task of undoing their dark work. For this to happen, Comstock can never exist.

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This part hit me hard.

The ambiguity of the ending is: what is left after Elizabeth drowns Booker? Is there some universe where they stay father and daughter, where Elizabeth stays Anna and Comstock never exists? That is the implication, as one version of Elizabeth/Anna remains in the water when the screen fades to black. This is a gutsy and ambiguous ending. Sad and maybe even nihilistic. What is the point of it all, you might wonder, if it has to end with an Undo button. The dominant message there, I think, is that you have to understand your mistakes and their consequences to understand why you have to make up for them. The whole dance you go through in Infinite is symbolic. Booker has been put through this redemptive arc (redemptive for everyone, really) a pile of times and you just happen to be playing the only time it’s actually worked. The version where Elizabeth and Booker reach an understanding and begin to undo their mistakes and prevent the possibility of their repetition.

The responsibility to not be an omnipotent being, or a great destroyer, or a victim is what ultimately completes Elizabeth/Anna as a heroine. Booker facing his memories and his responsibility for abandoning his daughter, a very primal and simple emotional punch, registers just as highly.

Even though it has these satisfying takeaways, it can require a bit of time to let them sink in. Immediately after Infinite I was still unsure about a bunch of stuff. Talking about the game, something Irrational no doubt intended and wanted from the players, helped a lot. So did writing this review.

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