A warning from the author. This post contains spoilers for the plot themes of Bioshock Infinite, you have been warned!
The concept of art as a product has fascinated me for years, especially where artistic design or creative endeavours must be compromised or even abandoned in the cause of commercial success. This is a thread that can be followed in almost any form of entertainment and not always to the detriment of either side. Some great entertainment (or”art” for the purposes of this post) exists purely thanks to the commercial needs or wants of a business where the corporate mandating and efficiency of “the machine” produces a satisfying work that doesn’t (or at last appears to not) sacrifice their creative “soul” in the process. Recently, the movies coming from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the new Star Wars entries at least appear to strive beyond corporate box ticking within their formula and reveal themselves as works with real art on display. Sometimes however, the creative spirit behind a project can find itself battered and even broken by the whims of a business side eager to mold it to fit current trends in an effort for greater returns. Many high-profile movies, music and videogames have fallen prey to this situation and have either emerged unscathed, bruised and battered or in some cases never emerged at all and recently I came upon a product that seems to bear its scars clearer than most, 2013’s Bioshock Infinite, developed by Irrational Games and published by Take Two Interactive as part of its 2K label.
In an effort to clear an ever-growing backlog of games I own but have never played, I fired up Bioshock Infinite to complete the trilogy of a series that I had great admiration for and while enjoying an engrossing narrative, wonderful setting and snappy, punchy gunplay that were the hallmarks of the franchise I repeatedly found myself bumping into the debris of an internal conflict within the game’s very foundations time and time again. Each time I took a break and walked away from Columbia and the adventures of Booker DeWitt I always had the feeling that Infinite is a game that is uncomfortable in its own skin.
Even the game’s name is one of the battlegrounds between creator and paymaster. Bioshock Infinite was never meant to be part of the Bioshock series and just went by the name “Infinite” for quite a while in development.The game has almost literally the opposite setting as Bioshock 1 & 2, jettisoning the 60’s set Rand-ian undersea utopia of Rapture for the ultimate theocracy in the clouds, Columbia, a city founded on America and American ideals as a religion and floating high in the clouds thanks to advanced Tesla-punk technology. The game keeps its relative distance from its predecessors in its setting, trading the deep ocean for the sky, and ditching Objectivism for Ecclesiocracy but from the name onwards, the publisher demand that Bioshock be added to the title comes to undermine the themes, cannibalise the gameplay and overall lessen what could have been something different, but no less rewarding.
Infinite is not a bad game, it is an excellent game but to me, it is the wrong game built from the wrong pieces. The Infinite parts of the narrative, the setting, the characters and the themes are grinding against the Bioshock parts of bloody and violent gunplay, chemical superpowers and rollercoaster pacing and each side takes away from the other. This game simply did not need to be a first-person shooter game, the strong and emotionally and racially charged story is undercut when hordes of enemies are mown down wave after wave with little to no consequences. In fact, the moment to moment gameplay of Bioshock Infinite is completely at odds with the game’s actual key theme of parallel dimensions where infinite possibilities exist. Every problem in Bioshock Infinite is solved by the pulling of a trigger and the bang of a gun, in direct opposition of the theme of infinite possibilities and means that I cannot fully suspend my disbelief, which is essential for enjoying works of fiction.
Bioshock is a first-person shooter franchise so it stands that Bioshock Infinite should fit that template as close as possible and the adoption of the series Plasmids, here called Vigors, feels as incongruous as ever. In Rapture, these Plasmids are one of the principle architects of the entire plot, the existence of and intoxication by Plasmids and the powers they grant are responsible for the collapse of the society and add an extra layer of body horror to Bioshock 1 & 2. Vigors in Infinite play a much smaller role. They are dumped into the story with no fanfare and no explanation as to their existence in this universe at the time Infinite takes place. Yet again, suspension of disbelief proves difficult when not only do we know how Plasmids come into being but also the timeframe in which they exist cannot possibly coexist with the events of Infinite. This can be waved away by the possibility that Infinite just happens to take place in a different universe in which Plasmids exist earlier but this comes across as another attempt to almost retroactively tie Infinite into the Bioshock universe. They have little use in-game either with each power having essentially the same effects of either a focused form of attack designed for a single enemy or a trap form for use against groups of enemies, a far cry from the series’ previous inventive powers but it’s Bioshock so it better have powers I guess.
Sadly, delays in Infinite’s development also led to missed opportunities and corners clearly being cut. Whether Irrational Games were under pressure from Take Two to release at a certain time is up for debate but as the game moves on, Infinite fails to stick its landing at various points and this is perhaps most disappointing in its treatment of “The Songbird”, Infinite’s signature foe akin to Bioshock 1’s Big Daddy enemies, hulking armoured monsters to act as mini bosses throughout the game world. Having to finally confront one after hours of tension ratcheting encounters with them is exhilarating and difficult but ultimately rewarding. To Infinite’s credit, The Songbird is given almost as great a build up, a horrific metallic man-bird hybrid, posters warning of its ever-present watchful gaze and children’s songs about a vengeful bogeyman that punishes transgressors sets up the prospect of a fantastic desperate battle against this winged beast to continue your objectives but alas, Songbird disappears from the story quite soon after first encountering it, the entire battle played out in an un-interactive movie sequence never to be seen again. No pulse pounding battle, no resolution, done. I suspect that Songbird’s true weakness was time as in the pre release hype, Songbird played an integral part and had Infinite released as intended, would have made for an excellent boss fight to end the first act.
For me, Bioshock Infinite absolutely soars in its opening moments where players are allowed to wander around Columbia and drink in its atmosphere and question its ideals and makes me as a player feel disappointed when it comes time to pick up a gun and shoot. When that moment comes Columbia becomes much less interesting as a setting for a shooting game and would have been much better served as an early example of the “Walking Simulator” games that emphasise plot and multiple solutions to each problem along the lines of The Witness or The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Even as a Telltale style adventure game Infinite could have been even more spectacular, particularly in its treatment of Elizabeth, Infinite’s main secondary character and chief MaGuffin.
Not long after first encountering Elizabeth, a huge text prompt fills the screen informing the player that she is not an AI partner to be escorted and protected and that she can handle herself in combat. No attempt is made to demonstrate this, it’s just dumped right up front to reassure players that the game hasn’t descended into a glorified escort mission in an effort to keep us engaged. As someone who detests escort missions in games, I myself was reassured by that prompt but the fact that the game needed to straight up tell me that this was the case was a clear indication that Infinite never wanted to be this kind of game and in doing so, reduces Elizabeth into Dogmeat from Fallout, finding items for the player and tossing them to us or creating cover spots to hide behind. Her arc as a young girl with magical powers locked away by a regime that both fears and worships her breaking her bonds and experiencing a world is ultimately rendered moot by the need for an action game to happen and Columbia to turn into a shooting gallery. Poor Elizabeth was nearly omitted from the game’s boxart by the publisher fearing that having a demure woman on the cover would harm sales so rough, grizzled Booker DeWitt was pictured, gun in hand, looking like every other shooter before and since.Irrational had to fight to even get her on the back of the box despite the pivotal role she has. Elizabeth as a character deserves better and if Infinite was a different game, she may well have been.
As I said, Bioshock Infinite isn’t a bad game, not by any stretch of the imagination, Bioshock Infinite is a very good game that stops being truly great by the schizophrenic nature of its design sensibilities fighting against the trappings of its Publisher’s desire to make money on the project. Its retrofitting into the Bioshock canon in order to drive sales via brand name recognition stunted the narrative, the bloody violence and linear design creates dissonance between actions and philosophies and a rushed and troubled development left many ideas on the cutting room floor.
I’d like to think that in a parallel universe Bioshock Infinite was a different game, one without the clear conflict between art and business where all of it’s promise is realised and it goes down in history as a true great of the medium but here in this continuum, Bioshock Infinite has to settle with being merely “good”.
Thanks for reading.
Martin Dixon (@BunnySuicida)