Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Infinite World of Bioshock

The Infinite World of Bioshock:
Bioshock Infinite may or may not be the
single best game released for today’s video game systems, but it is
without a doubt among the greatest. Like its 2007 predecessor,
Bioshock, it is a
gorgeous and involving triumph of interactive narrative and world
building, rich in character and knotty political and philosophical
ideas. The original made for a promising opening to the next six
years of big-budget, mass-market video games; now Bioshock Infinite offers a fitting
capstone to the console generation set to end this year. Just as
the first Bioshock became a touchstone in the ongoing
arguments about whether video games can be art, Bioshock
ought to close the door on any remaining debate.
The visuals alone ought to be enough. Video game art direction
is consistently strong these days—even essentially mediocre games
such as Hitman Absolution and Dead Space 3 are visually
impressive. Even still, Bioshock Infinite stands out for
its inventive and frequently gorgeous world-building.
Infinite’s world offers a twist on the one found in its
predecessor. The first game took players through Rapture, a mostly
abandoned undersea city set in 1960. The sci-fi Art Deco vibe gave
the game a mix of kitschy humor and retro grandeur—it was both
amusing and awe inspiring. Bioshock Infinite once again
offers a vivid retro-inspired city to play in, but this one is set
in the sky: a huge, floating city called Columbia.
Like Rapture, Columbia is a city founded on a political ideal,
and led by a visionary leader. Rapture was the product of an
experiment in aggressive Darwinian capitalism, led by a man named
Andrew Ryan—an Ayn Rand-inspired figure who throughout the game
preaches the virtues of will and self-reliance. Columbia is a
turn-of-the-century secessionist colony founded on an idealized
vision of American exceptionalism by one Zachary Hale Comstock—a
man who calls himself “The Prophet.”
Bioshock Infinite’s city in the clouds is flat-out
gorgeous—sun-speckled and majestic, filled with strange details and
breathtaking sights. Your visit to the city opens in a courtyard
featuring giant-sized monuments to America’s founding fathers; a
few moments later, you witness a floating parade in which a
barbershop quartet gently sings a Beach Boys tune (don’t worry—all
will be explained by the end).
But the beauty of the world isn’t what makes the game truly
great. Instead, it’s the narrative opportunities the world
offers—and the highly effective way the game capitalizes on
Lots of video games look great these days, but very few have
characters or stories worth a damn. Bioshock Infinite’s
narrative is smarter and more engaging than most of the movies
released so far this year, and as good or better than a lot of the
genre novels it draws from.
Much like the first
Bioshock, which toyed with game-friendly notions of
individual decision making and self-determination, the big ideas in
Infinite all riff on video game conventions of choice and
control. Without getting too heavily into spoiler territory, it’s
enough to say that, like so many contemporary video games, which
offer players endless opportunities to tweak the looks and
capabilities of their characters, Bioshock Infinite is
built around the question of who you choose to be. But unlike so
many of its peers, which superficially fetishize the idea of choice
but rarely offer players much much more than a slightly different
set of magic hats to wear, Infinite doesn’t view its
central question in a mechanistic way. Instead, it forces players
to confront the potentially cruel consequences of even seemingly
benign actions, beliefs, and identity choices—both for individuals
and the worlds they create.
Ironically, one of the biggest complaints amongst players of the
game seems to be that it offers too few meaningful choices. It’s a
criticism that misses the game’s whole point—which is that many of
the choices we think matter most don’t matter much at all, and that
our lives are often determined by choices we don’t understand, many
of which are grounded in complex social and political histories
that began long before the lives they shape.
But don’t worry if this sounds too dense—this is a video game,
not a philosophy lesson or a history lecture. I loved playing every
minute of Bioshock Infinite, and I was thoroughly gripped
by both the story and the minute-to-minute challenges of gameplay
at just about every moment (I especially enjoyed taking down
Motorized Patriots—giant robot versions of America’s Founding
Fathers, complete with heavy weaponry). It is, in virtually every
way, a powerful example of what video games can and arguably should
be—an entertaining, involving, and even thought-provoking piece of
pop art.
But what games should be, of course, is not always what they
are. And if I came away with a nagging worry, it’s that it took so
long to produce a worthy follow-up to the mix of game and narrative
ideas in the original (a quickie 2010
was a fun but not particularly memorable rehash produced
under a license by a different game development studio). It’s been
six years since the original, and Bioshock Infinite feels
like a major step forward from its predecessor, but not a giant
leap. It’s a game that offers plenty of evidence that games can be
art—but it also serves as a reminder that too few of them are.