It all began with a lighthouse in the ocean.
When the original BioShock was released in 2007, gamers ventured into a decadent underwater society and drew out its dark undertones. We were left with maddening questions on the perspectives of man, the illusion of free choice and the relentless pursuit of personal success. BioShock lives on as a paragon of video game storytelling, and Irrational set a high standard to follow for their next game.
Bioshock Infinite surpasses that standard. The newest entry in the series creates grander expectations for interactive story and character development, while still leaving gamers with complex philosophical questions long after the credits roll.
Player protagonist Booker DeWitt is looking to resolve a gambling debt, and is forced to visit the floating city of Columbia and find a specific girl as penance. While BioShock’s Rapture was a neon-glowing metropolis in murky waters, Columbia glistens above the clouds. The architecture skillfully mixes early 20th century design with science fiction. The melding of realism and futurism is on greater display here than in Rapture, as Columbia unsuccessfully tries to cling to simpler times.
As one might expect from a BioShock game, the beauty of Columbia is superficial. Beneath the shiny exterior lies a disturbing societal structure steeped in racism and American exceptionalism. Posters and vignettes magnify the race separation, and the struggle for equality plays a large role throughout the game. Reconciling Columbia’s physical beauty with its dark social identity creates a dissonance that seldom works in video games.
Columbia’s soul would not exist, however, without strong characters to occupy it. BioShock Infinite imbues the city’s population with personality, charm, and depth from the simplest NPC to the main story characters. This is most apparent in the relationship between DeWitt and Elizabeth, the girl he supposedly needs to find. When Elizabeth and DeWitt meet, their relationship is strictly results-based. Over time, Elizabeth finds cracks in DeWitt’s steely façade, while DeWitt questions his motives and mission. Both are looking to break free of something, and that keeps them fighting against a tyrannical prophet who knows a great deal about them both.
Those familiar with BioShock’s gameplay will be comfortable here, as it continues the gun/magic combination from the predecessor. Magical powers are acquired via vigors – liquid supplements that give DeWitt powers over fire, electricity, possession, among others. Experimenting with different gun/vigor combinations can add variety to the fairly standard combat. DeWitt will encounter various enemies in his journey – including robotic George Washingtons with duel chainguns – but the core gameplay doesn’t change much throughout the game.
When you do finish the game - after about 10-12 hours without sidequests - the ending will stick with you for weeks. This is the greatest argument for BioShock Infinite’s legacy, and it will leave you questioning your actions in the game – and your perceptions outside of it. I’m still wrapping my head around it, but remember that it all begins with a lighthouse in the ocean.
BioShock Infinite represents a new standard for storytelling and character development in gaming. If you are a gamer of any stripe, play this game – and experience the beauty and darkness of Columbia for yourself.
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