By and large, Tokyo Disneyland is the same as Disneyland. The monorail makes the same stops, and the animatronic pirates pillage the same faux-Caribbean. The unapologetic cut-and-paste approach makes sense when you’re building a theme park on the other side of the world. It’s less appealing as the basis for a video game sequel, which is what makes BioShock Infinite so vexing. It brings players to a wonderful new place, teases them with new ideas, and then takes them on much the same ride as BioShock did six years ago. It’s a small world after all.
When it was released in 2007, BioShock was a revelation. Written by Ken Levine, (who directed Infinite but was not associated with the 2010 cash-in BioShock 2) the first-person shooter interrogated the philosophy of Ayn Rand by putting an objectivist tyrant at the heart of an underwater dystopia. You were left to sift through the wreckage. The subaquatic city of Rapture had style to spare. It was an elaborate work of Art Deco architecture, and the experience was tied together with thrilling guns-plus-superpowers combat. The confident execution of daring subject matter made BioShock an icon of modern game design. Very few major-studio games since then have left such a strong artistic mark, and BioShock Infinite—despite flashes of excellence—doesn’t measure up.
The new quest takes place in 1912 in the airborne city of Columbia. Levine sets up the drama by drawing on real-life tensions of that era and the present day. A self-proclaimed Christian prophet, Zachary Comstock, rules the people here with an ultra-conservative policy of racial purity. Comstock is opposed by a populist insurgency that bears the self-serving mantle of Vox Populi—they’re the Occupy Wall Street to his Tea Party. As the Comstock Vs. Vox bout tears Columbia apart, you step into the middle of it, playing as former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt. You have no stake in the fight; you’ve been hired to rescue Comstock’s daughter, Elizabeth, and return with her to terra firma.
You accomplish this by shooting very many people with your guns and your magic hands. Columbia is littered with “Vigors”—tonics that give you the ability to, say, engulf a foe in a swarm of angry crows or fire electricity through the air. If that sounds like the injectable “plasmids” from BioShock, that’s because it’s the same thing. The specific powers and the overall flow of combat are much the same as they were six years ago, too. Okay, BioShock had swarms of bees instead of crows. BioShock Infinite—now with less stinging, more pecking!
Most of the new ideas in Infinite are represented by Elizabeth. She starts out as the damsel locked in the castle tower, but that’s just a crafty feint by Levine. You spring her, and she accompanies you for most of the game, but don’t worry. As an on-screen dialog box hastens to note, Elizabeth can take care of herself. (It seems that buxom sidekicks in shooters have come a long way since GoldenEye 007, whose Russian bombshell/lobotomy patient loved to stroll into crossfire.)
Elizabeth helps you out by scrounging for goodies in the countless hidey-holes of Columbia—yes, repetitious scavenging is still a BioShock staple—and she always has a knack for timely finds. If you’re running low on ammo in the heat of battle, for instance, Elizabeth often unearths a fresh clip. The Comstock heiress’ knack for wish fulfillment is a central theme of the game. She’s not just an expert scavenger; she has the ability to merge portions of alternate universes into our own, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty swell trick.
Elizabeth’s reality-bending talent is the foundation for Infinite’s most compelling thematic thread, which questions the underpinning of existence. She refers to her ability as “a sort of wish fulfillment,” and whenever she opens another convenient tear in the dimensional fabric, it calls into question the line between perception and truth. Infinite suggests that we live more in the former than anyone would care to admit—and that the rules of reality can be bent by a truly liberated will.
These heavy philosophical questions take shape in the dialogue of Infinite’s best characters, a ghostly brother-sister pair who appear throughout your quest and have chipper arguments over Cheshire Cat-style riddles. They’re the quantum-reality Bickersons, and I wanted more of them, which probably means that there’s just enough of them.
Infinite never quite brings the multiple-reality philosophizing to a head. In the closing hours of the game, Elizabeth’s story takes a few delightful turns—Levine knows how to pull off a killer plot twist, especially toward the end—but it also gets tangled in a mess of psychobabble and filial angst. That’s still better than the political threads of the plot. Infinite becomes bored with those about halfway through. Levine sets up a conflict between American exceptionalism and rabble-rousing populism, but he punts by casting practically every prominent figure in Columbian politics as an irredeemable asshole. Comstock is an asshole because he’s a megalomaniacal eugenicist—something of an open-and-shut case right there—and the Vox leader is an asshole because she’s more concerned with the narrative of her triumph than the welfare of her citizens.
The takeaway is that anyone who seeks power is a scoundrel, a moral steeped in the easy cynicism of false equivalence. (I expect this sort of Nihilism Lite from Rockstar Games, but not from Levine.) The intellectual dodge of calling everyone a loser excuses Infinite from having a meaningful political point of view. The game’s politics hide behind its metaphysics—if everything is just a matter of perspective, why bother holding any ideals? If you believe in something, then in the immortal words of The Dude, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
While Infinite’s treatment of fin-de-siècle America may be ideologically thin, its embrace of the period’s aesthetics is deep and convincing. Columbia is inspired in part by the “White City” of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. BioShock Infinite may be as close as any of us ever come to walking those grounds, which is not to say that it’s slavishly faithful to its namesake. The place is a weaponized city of airborne terror, after all. The style is Beaux Arts by way of steampunk, with flourishes like a Skyline that whisks its passengers around the upper reaches of the glittering town—all you have to do is grab on.
Whatever the merits of its component parts, BioShock Infinite has a larger problem of coherence. The game takes a preexisting structure, with surprisingly little modification, and grafts a new set of ideas onto it. The surgery is expert, but the seams still show.
The guns-and-magic combat that proves so gripping in BioShock’s Rapture is not such a perfect fit in Columbia. The submarine claustrophobia of Rapture makes for short sight lines that limit the effectiveness of your superpowers. Yes, you can fire bolts of lightning from your hands, but that does nothing for the son of a bitch hiding around the corner—or creeping across the ceiling behind your back. In the wide-open spaces of Columbia, however, battles often prove anticlimactic, as you can pick off enemies from a great distance. So even if the grump with the rocket launcher is a hundred yards away as the crow flies, the crows will indeed fly there, and then they will peck him into submission.
Other parts of the BioShock carryover simply don’t make sense. It’s all well and good that the plasmids of the old game have been rechristened as Vigors for Infinite, but in the BioShock, plasmid abuse was an integral part of Rapture’s downfall. More to the point, plasmids made sense in the culture of Rapture, where self-worship was the norm, and man’s freedom to improve his lot was sacrosanct.
Where do Vigors fit into Columbia? I don’t know, and neither does Infinite. There are advertisements for Vigors all over the city, and you can find bottles of the stuff lying around, but very few Columbians use them. In a society that espouses racial purity, you’d think Vigors would be more of an issue. After all, they can turn a person into a demigod regardless of race. But this never comes up. If anything, Comstock appears to tacitly embrace the sale of Vigors. There’s a difference between plot holes, which are excusable, and a disregard for internal logic. Vigors belong to the latter category.
The most discordant moment in my playthrough of Infinite came at the end of a harrowing scene between Elizabeth and the one mother figure in her life. In the scene, Elizabeth learns a devastating fact about her past—I won’t get into specifics because it comes late in the story. But after the scene ended, Elizabeth instantly reverted to scavenger mode. “Here, I found this!” she said with a smile, and she flipped me a coin that added $20 to my bankroll. It was the equivalent of a close friend learning they had terminal cancer and then, in the same breath, reminding you that tonight is half-off margaritas night at Chili’s.
Dissonant moments like these can actually improve a game like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, where the myth-making is fragmentary and the creators embrace the lunacy of a messy world. But in the more tightly constructed drama of BioShock Infinite, such a disconnect from fictional reality is a killer. Strange turns like Elizabeth’s sudden mood swing require more than the suspension of disbelief. They demand the suspension of belief—belief that Elizabeth ought to be taken seriously, that she has a soul which persists from one moment to the next. I want to believe. And too often, Infinite makes it hard to do so, because the pieces of the puzzle don’t align.
There’s a Godfather Part III problem here. Infinite is a fine work, even extraordinary in some respects; it’s primarily a disappointment in light of its pedigree. As far as games where you shoot at people are concerned, Infinite is among the best games where you shoot at people (even if the last couple hours devolve into a tiresome slaughter parade—“Here’s even MORE bad guys all at once!”). But the present-day studio system is built, both in terms of its creative methods and its talent pool, to produce high-quality shooters. They’ve become banal, to the point that admiring BioShock Infinite because of its merit as a shooter feels like praising your dog for licking his balls. It may be entertaining, but it’s hardly worthy of applause.
All of Levine’s BioShock villains have a common flaw: They hold tight to their supposedly perfect visions of the world even when actual events diverge from the ones listed in the recipe. In BioShock Infinite, Levine exhibits a bit of that myopia himself. I’m not saying that he’s a monster, not remotely. By all accounts he’s a very smart guy, and he’s impressed me as a thoughtful artist when I’ve had the chance to meet him. It’s just that there is a touch of the ideologue in Infinite. It treats the rules, flow, and structure of BioShock as if they form a perfect vessel—a framework into which any ideas can poured. (And the original game was itself an extension of ideas Levine tried out in System Shock 2, a sort of proto-BioShock.) Levine seems blind to the moments in which BioShock’s bones are a poor fit for Infinite. Likewise, he doesn’t account for the discordance that results from a piecemeal approach to game creation.
Then again, maybe the better parallel is Elizabeth, the wunderkind who escapes her tower but who remains imprisoned by the crushing demands of her gift. Artists can be tied to their masterpieces, and although he enjoyed creative freedom on this project, Levine’s bond to BioShock is understandably strong. I wonder, will the next sequel be conceived as its own independent, harmonious whole? Or is BioShock fated to be a series of sparkling Disneylands, ad infinitum?