Spoiler Alert

04.13.13

Nerdiness from Noah: BioShock Infinite

It is possible you’ve seen some ads for this video game on TV or on the internet:

Video screenshot

This is BioShock Infinite. A game which isn’t just getting good reviews, it is being written about as a paradigm-shifting and industry-changing event. The New York Times declares: “BioShock Infinite is confirmation that in the hands of the right creators, video games are the most sophisticated form of not just interactive entertainment, but of multimedia storytelling as well.”

BioShock has come at a time when genuinely creativity in video games are rare and the industry turns out mediocre or broken products. Electronic Arts, the giant in the industry, recently received the Consumerists’ magazine “Worst Company in America” award for the second year straight. The new SimCity has had a botched and buggy launch, and it seems that every new generic shooter game comes out that is interchangeable with the games that came before it.

So the $200 million question (that’s the cost of development) for Bioshock: is this really an amazing game that is more then “just a game”, or is it just the best we have in a sea of mediocrity?

(Warning: Spoilers ahead are liberally discussed. You have been warned.)

A quick overview of the story: In BioShock Infinite, it is 1912 and you play Booker DeWitt. He is a veteran of the Battle of Wounded Knee and his past is a mystery. At the start of the game he is been sent to the fantastic city of Columbia on an errand: to find a girl and have his debt cleaned.

Columbia is a Steampunk flying city. Within the timeline of the game, the city was the crown jewel of Chicago’s World’s Fair of 1893. (The fact that there is a flying city in the year 1912 should tip you off that something off in this world.)

Columbia is an amazing and gorgeous location. It is bright and fully realized. Its inhabitants are also frighteningly racist and nativist. They champion a belief in Manifest Destinty that is deeply unsettling and don’t shy away from being upfront in their dismissal of African-Americans, Chinese, Jews, and the Irish. (To try and be historically accurate in depicting the racism of Columbia’s citizens, BioShock designer Ken Levine took inspiration from President William McKinley’s declaration that America would “uplift and civilize” the Philippines.)

"That idiot priest needs to learn the difference between baptising a man and drowning one." ()

A game with a focus on turn of the century American exceptionalism would have been enough to make BioShock a novel game, but the creators of BioShock were not content with just that. So they have also added in meditations on quantum mechanics, the nature of redemption, and questions about what truly makes a man a sinner.

Oh, and did I mention that this game bought the license to play some of the most popular songs from the 1980’s over the course of the game, but modify and distort them so you don’t initially realize that they are there? BioShock Infinite is more ambitious and arguably takes bigger risks with its story than nearly any other game on the market.

It is very hard to write about BioShock’s ending because it requires a lot of familiarity with the plot. That familiarity which is hard to gain unless you’ve invested many hours into playing it. The story in BioShock doesn’t just come from what characters say, it also comes from the posters in the city, the audio recording left behind, and the ambience of a city on the verge of war, as the lower classes seek to displace their masters.

"And so our Prophet led the people away from the Sodom Below, up, up into the city where they created an even more perfect union." ()

Many game reviewers have effusive in their praise: “But by the end of BioShock Infinite my understanding of its world had been blown so wide-open that it was all I could do to navigate the final twenty minutes in stunned silence, which followed me through the credits and for the rest of the night.” And: “Unlike the vast majority of other games, Infinite's ending will give you something to talk about with your friends for hours and days afterwards.”

I suspect the one reason that the game industry likes BioShock Infinite is because by the end, the game seems to be championing the medium that it is in. Our characters reflect on the fact that the timeline they follow seems to have predetermined their destinies for them, just like in a video game when a designer makes their story. They reflect on how the universe they are in could have turned out very differently, just like when a video game designer changes an aspect of game development. They reflect on how there may be other universes out there that are similar to their own, but different, just like how this is not the first BioShock game created by Ken Levine.

The game both tries to push the limits of how a game can provide a compelling setting and then makes sure to use the final 20 minutes to let you know that it is damn proud of itself for what it did.

BioShock is a great game, and if other companies can aspire to have their games be half as creative the industry will be better for it. While I do think the reviewers like the ending because they think that final sequence is an ode to the power of video games, that may not be a bad thing either. No one is going to remember the recently released, Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, and people will only remember SimCity for its awful launch. But people will remember BioShock Infinite.