BioShock Infinite delivers riveting narrative

BioShock Infinite is a video game with a legacy to live up to. The original BioShock, released in 2007, was immediately crowned a modern classic by critics, primarily on the strength of its shocking plot twist. I won’t spoil it for anyone who still hasn’t played it, but suffice to say, BioShock was a video game that attempted to comment on how we play games. So how did developer Irrational Games follow up such a beloved game? By indulging that urge for meta-commentary even farther and creating a wholly satisfying experience, a first-person shooter that fits firmly within its genre while encouraging the player to consider how narratives in games function.

One of the keys to Infinite’s success is the way it allows you to discover its mysteries, so I won’t give away specific details beyond the initial premise. The game is set in an alternate history of America in 1912. You play as Booker DeWitt, a man given instructions to enter the floating city of Columbia, a gleaming beacon of American exceptionalism. Columbia is a fascinating setting, full of beautiful sights. The game actively engages with American history, something few games are interested in. Historical events like the Boxer Rebellion and the Battle of Wounded Knee play into the city’s backstory, and while most of that historical context is placed in the background, interested players are given a wealth of information and connections to discover.

Mechanically, Infinite is a refinement of the systems of the first BioShock. In fact, the gameplay is the least daring aspect of the game. That isn’t to say it plays poorly, but it is a standard shooter. You cycle through all of the guns you expect to find in such a game, and your other main options come in the form of vigors, which are basically just magic powers, like the plasmids from the first game. The vigors give the combat a little more variety, including a fireball power that acts as a grenade replacement, and a possession ability that allows you to force enemies to fight for you. The combat is at its best in the game’s larger arena rooms, which act as bloody, chaotic interludes within the narrative, and allow you to fully take advantage of all of your abilities.

Make no mistake, this is a brutal game. The first moment of violence is particularly gruesome, and some critics have argued that violence is excessive, that it works against the game’s narrative aims. Personally, the violence reminded me of a Quentin Tarantino film. Yes, it is certainly graphic, and there are some people who will be uninterested in anything that depicts such explicit violence, but it is stylized violence, violence that supports the larger themes of the game. This would be problematic if the game was unaware of its brutality, but it isn’t. The first time your companion character sees the game’s combat, she has an appropriately horrified reaction.

That moment also illustrates one of Infinite’s greatest strengths, the way it uses smaller, personal moments to support and enhance its narrative. It has its big setpieces, its heavy dramatic moments, but it is also full of more subtle forms of storytelling, many of which can be found just off the main path, encouraging you to explore. For example, over the course of the game you find a large number of voxaphones, audio recordings made by other characters which fill in the backstory of Columbia and its inhabitants. Similarly, the game makes fantastic use of music to hint at some of its mysteries. The cumulative amount of information the developers manage to pack into those side paths is quite impressive. If you ignore all that exploration and just stick to the main path, you will miss out on some significant details which help to fill out the plot. But I can’t imagine someone playing this game and wanting to ignore all of that, because the game expertly coaxes you towards its optional content.

I’ve been cagey about discussing what the game’s story is actually about because the process of discovery is essential to the narrative. It isn’t so much that there is a single shocking twist. In fact, it would be difficult to boil down the surprises to a few sentences which could spoil the game. Rather, the story is constantly shifting, never settling down on any one particular area long enough for you to get comfortable.

It’s a thrilling ride, one that ends up in a place that would seem unimaginable at the beginning of the game. The ending is fitting capper to that experience, as it offers explanations without spelling out exactly what occurs. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the ending of the film Inception, in that it forces the audience to interpret it. The moment the credits began to roll, I immediately wanted to talk to someone about what I had just seen.

At a time when there is so much anxiety among video game fans about the future of the industry, BioShock Infinite is a reminder of how enjoyable and even thought-provoking a traditional, single-player experience can be. And yes, there is an argument to be made that most games rely too much on violent conflict, but that should not prevent games like Infinite from being praised, games that use the violence that has become cliché in games for a deeper purpose.

I’m looking forward to playing the game again when I get the chance, partly because I want to see how it foreshadows some of its reveals, but also because I want to relive my first experience with the game, when I barely even knew what it was about. I can’t wait to see what other developers learn from Infinite because it is a stellar example of how to tell a fascinating story in a game.

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