Bottom Line: Theoretically, given the unlimited nature of the multiverse, there must be a dimension in which BioShock Infinite isn’t a lumpy quilt of softcore narcissism.
Reason for being
We all know that publishers and developers exist to make money, not art. Although they’re willing to spend a fortune to fulfill a creator’s artistic vision, that vision must fall within certain market trends in order to be considered viable. Art is a selling point, right below things like “iron sights”, “sprint button”, and decapitating men with a spinning hook hand. But it’s still there. BioShock Infinite was subjected to the same business realities as every other piece of mainstream entertainment, but it’s still an attempt to make art. A bad attempt that deserves to be promptly forgotten.
We don’t need to ask why another big-budget (and yet less than $200 million) BioShock installment was created. We need to ask why this particular BioShock installment was created this particular way.
I can’t help but imagine that BioShock Infinite is the end result of Ken Levine asking himself what he would do if he if he had to keep making the series forever. He sits down and asks, “What would they all have to have in common? What would be allowed to change? What is the formula that makes a BioShock game, a BioShock game?” Infinite is Ken Levine proverbially masturbating to that question while staring at his own reflection. The focus of the entire game is ultimately about itself, and nothing more.
The self-reflexive tendencies were foreshadowed by the title of “Infinite” in the place of a standard number. If Infinite was designed to preempt all other sequels by becoming the meta-sequel that extravagantly reveals all possible variations of itself, perhaps Irrational Games believed it couldn’t afford to emphasize the details of the particular instance you happen to pass through. Why slow down and focus on the characters and nuances of Dimension #20485, if you’ll be switching to Dimension #20486 in the next 5 minutes? Why flesh out the histories and motivations of a character that will simply be replaced in an instant thanks to a tear in space-time? Why care about racial oppression, if racial oppression is just a thing that happens to exist in this dimension?
Staying in the shallow end
The game’s high concept pushes everything but itself to the margins, if not the gutter. Its refusal to humanize characters you meet — and its complete dismissal of the “world” you inhabit, actually — punishes you for caring about the circumstances and struggles of Columbia. It guarantees that you’ll feel disgusted by the now-redundant killing, which becomes entirely senseless the moment you flip history on its side. Whether you consciously realize it or not, you’ll quickly have to make a choice between caring about the world around you, or caring about the bungling, perfunctory adventure of a gruff dude and his pet girl. Considering that Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth are both plastic cutouts that have been done ten thousand times before in other stories, this a choice you’ll regret no matter which way you go.
Infinite touches on many big subjects and concepts, but gives none of them the respect they deserve. Mature audiences who appreciate fine storytelling will be grossed out by the self-absorbed, amateur writing habits of Ken Levine and Irrational Games. Teenagers who’ve never known a world where Modern Warfare wasn’t the dominant standard for everything from narrative to gameplay might find themselves blown away by the idea that a game can look so darn pretty and talk so much about “smart stuff” like metaphysics at the same time, but we can only hope they eventually read a book.
I’m not ashamed to say I stayed in the shallow end of the game’s story the whole way through, because nothing about it drew me in deeper. Even though I knew I was going to review it, I decided to wait for it to entice me in with some sort of charisma or intrigue, the way a good story ought to. So if you want a synopsis of the story, I invite you to skim its Wikipedia page. I won’t regurgitate it here. Obviously if I had been interested in the series prior to this installment, or if I had believed the hype leading up to it, I would have felt a natural investment in the “epic conclusion”, or even the “event” of its release, or whatever has so many people flustered about it. As it happens, I didn’t follow the conversation surrounding it, and thankfully I didn’t even spend money on it thanks to a generous reader who gifted it to me through Steam. I felt no obligation to get my money’s worth, or my pride’s worth.
I went in cold, and I never stopped noticing the chasm between where I naturally was and where the game presumed I must be, psychologically. This is perfectly in keeping with the pattern of arrogance I noticed. To Irrational Games, marketing is foreplay. Don’t expect the game to waste its precious time getting you in the mood with things like an “Act One”. Instead, a huge red banner falls from the top of the screen to command you what to do, complete with an abrupt industrial clanking sound effect! Those susceptible to audio-visual conditioning techniques will soon be well trained to obey such prompts; for myself, I wasted a good amount of time trying to spite these commands and the linearity of the game, only to find there was nothing meaningful to explore or enjoy. So I reversed my position and decided to always be ahead of where it expected me to be, racing to all the obvious checkpoints and disregarding the pointless offshoots it offered. Tapping “E” rapidly while running past countless who-cares-what objects littered over the map netted me all the cash, food scraps, and ammunition I needed anyway.
As a result I didn’t listen to the vast majority of the recorded messages found around the levels, or the vast majority of the Comstock propaganda machines that contain so much exposition. I didn’t soak in the scenery or the details, because I wasn’t hooked by any of the childish premises Infinite offered. When I did indulge such devices along the way, I found awkward high-school level writing, delivered inside an even more awkward gimmick of private recordings laying around in inappropriate places. Tourist attractions tucked away deep in a land where you have to be launched by a rocket, baptized, and mortally threatened just to get in? How could I start to indulge the “intellectual” side of the story or become engaged by its mysteries when it kept insulting my suspension of disbelief? Finding clues to a mystery sort of loses its appeal when the clues themselves are packaged and delivered in an idiotic way. Sherlock Holmes never wandered around finding incriminating confessions on tape-recorders stashed under park benches, because that would make everyone involved look stupid and defeat the appeal.
Vanity of vanities; All is vanity and vexation of spirit
Why is every male character voiced to sound like a boisterous, dripping-wet parody of a Southern charmer? Why is Fitzroy a non-characterized, one-note, no-questions bitch who literally tries to stab a kid while her two reality-warping opponents are watching? Why does everybody you encounter have to be equal parts retarded and crazy? Because Columbia is not a place you’re supposed to care about. The ultimate joke of BioShock Infinite is that you’re supposed to play it over and over again, like a closed loop. Caring about the stuff in a closed loop doesn’t pay off; it’s depressing and futile. But the closed loop itself is great! Jokes made at your expense on your first playthrough are confusing and frustrating, but the second time around you’ll “get it”, and once you’re in on the joke you’ll feel really smart because you finally know what the Lutece Twins mean when they talk about how “He Doesn’t Row”. That’s the idea anyway. Ken Levine sacrifices a bright and playful world for the sake of a few immersion-breaking one liners that will make you groan if you’ve ever had the misfortune of listening to a group of pretentious nerds trying to outwit each other.
A lot of reviewers have pointed out the juxtaposition between the game’s (supposed) aesthetic splendor and its lack of functionality. It’s a cardboard world, painted very nicely. It’s a shallow tourist attraction, not a place to call home. And yet it has slaves, because anything subtle or complex might be lost in the confusion. You will be warping reality, after all! Broad strokes for simple folks, dear reader. I understand the design purpose behind all of these decisions. But it still makes for a boring, implausible world.
Columbia has no strong foundation to build a story on top of, and neither do the characters. The only thing propping up the story (if you care to follow along) is the insane belief that BioShock Infinite is an “Important Game” that deals with “Important Things”. Good dystopian fiction is supposed to feel eerily believable, provoking discussion because they make us feel uncomfortable with our own world. No matter how “crazy” or “out-there” these stories start, they end up hitting close to home; exaggerating truths that we don’t want to see. But BioShock Infinite goes in the opposite direction, planting itself firmly in well-documented historical setting and distorting it to the point of seeming like a lazy farce, at best. It makes a mockery of religion, philosophy, history, science, and the audience itself. Its own ego is the only thing treated with reverence. The result is a pretentious, highbrow, faux-intellectual disaster that folds on itself and contorts until it becomes a helix loop of fail.
High in the sky, not down to earth
You don’t need to probe into the game very far to spot the plot holes. Columbia is elevated above the clouds, and yet atmospheric conditions don’t affect anything. Altitude sickness is nonexistent. Plants, people, and machines function normally, even though it would debilitate all three. (The video is of Top Gear hosts driving cars up a volcanic mountain range. 8 min.)
Another example is Booker DeWitt’s fickle legs. He gets severely hurt if he drops 30 feet, unless he flings himself at a high speed from a magnetic rail, in which case he’s fine. Speaking of which, the rail is one of the most moronic excuses for splicing up a game setting I’ve ever seen. You’re on a series of floating islands, but god (or Comstock) forbid you have an actual aircraft to get around it. When I first heard about the rail system, I knew there would only be two possibilities. Either the game was massive, dynamic, interesting, and interconnected by a real transit system that created a sense of freedom and excitement, or a horrifically lazy excuse for creating a series of wall-less corridors that restrict you to tiny sections at select points. Clearly, the second one is what we got. If blimps and rails can’t get you around Columbia, hell, maybe one of those fancy superpowers that you alone possess could come in handy? No, of course not.
The “Vigors” are a joke too. Powered by “salts”, they allow Booker DeWitt to manipulate reality as much as Elizabeth, only in a more violent fashion, casting spells like he was Gandalf while everyone else prefers old fashioned rifles and dying in waves. Somebody you meet even refers to these godly potions with a wink and a nudge, but unless I missed something (which I might have) it remains a pathetically ignored enigma. Vending machines sell upgrades to your guns and your Vigors, and this is also not explained, but then again nothing is explained. Things just exist, because this is a game. And, because it’s still 1975, we can’t have plausible reasons or even half-assed excuses for anything, ever. Logic does not belong in Important Games that take themselves very seriously and discuss Important Things.
Tearing a new asshole
Defenders of the game will immediately dismiss complaints about the game’s internal logic by pretending like it doesn’t break the game’s immersion or call into question the notion that it’s the work of intelligent science fiction connoisseurs, if not authors. I’m not joking in the slightest when I propose that Irrational deliberately planted enough broken logic into BioShock Infinite that they could earn themselves a get out of jail free card. Rather than overhaul the franchise’s systems in a way that made more sense, or think of something clever — perhaps involving alternate dimensions? — to explain the idea of superpowers, we have a large, effort-sized hole where these belong. It’s a lazy defense for a lazy game. This isn’t Mario, you’re not a plumber travelling through pipes to save a princess from a giant turtle. You’re Gruff, a supposedly guilt ridden ex-soldier traveling through space-time to save a would-be messiah from a twisted future version of yourself and also a giant bird. See the difference?
Just like how The Last of Us and its “ambiguous” (read: unfinished and unsatisfying) ending is praised for bravely taking the easy route, BioShock Infinite chooses to leave itself open-ended and “subjective”. Ken Levine has even said something to the effect of, “Who am I to say what happens?” Indeed, who are you to say what happens in the story you wrote, Ken Levine? You’re so profound. Both games are being praised for not resolving their central conflicts, so I guess we’ve found a shortcut to being “artistic” this year: Don’t include an Act Three in your story either!*
* Unless it’s Metal Gear Solid 2, in which case we’ll literally threaten to kill you if you avoid tying up the loose ends.