2007’s Bioshock was a once-in-a-lifetime title, a game that revitalized the long-stagnant FPS genre with deeper mechanics and one of the most compelling and original stories ever coded. Ayn Rand-inspired objectivism was folded deftly into an introspective narrative that explored identity, destiny, and free will. It elevated the shooter genre and set the bar to a level that hasn’t been matched since. The sequel was handed off to an internal development studio at 2K (2K Marin, to be exact) and…well, didn’t quite meet expectations. It ran with a seemingly surefire concept (you were a Big Daddy) but it never reached the provocative narrative greatness of its predecessor.
Now, Irrational Games has returned to the Bioshock franchise with Bioshock Infinite, a title that shares many of the thematic elements of its progenitor while setting off in a different direction…literally. The waterlogged utopia of Rapture has been replaced with the airborne city of Columbia, and the choking, perpetual night of the ocean has also been swapped out for the hope of a sun-kissed day. However, things are not as they seem.
You play as Booker DeWitt, a war vet turned private detective sent to Columbia to retrieve a mysterious girl named Elizabeth by some rather persistent bookies. “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt” quickly becomes the mantra of Booker’s life as he ascends from a lighthouse to Columbia (shades of the original Bioshock), undergoes a literal baptism, and enters the city. The beauty of the city stands in stark relief to Rapture, with the sun-drenched streets promising hope and idealism. Dirigible-powered parades tell the oddly Christian tale of Comstock, the founder of the secessionist nation, and serve as a strangely spiritual counterpoint to the relentless patriotic imagery that festoons the skyways. It’s odd, but oddly pleasant.
All of this falls apart with a single pitch of a baseball. Winning a raffle starts to reveal the ugly truth behind Columbia, as you’re given the unpleasant prize of “first pitch” at an interracial couple, flanked on both sides by black-faced cutouts. This sets an incredibly uncomfortable tone for the rest of the game, as Columbia is revealed to be an elitist society, rife with the racism that was, sadly, part of America in the 1900’s that Bioshock Infinite is set in. Prepare yourself for this sort of nastiness for the rest of the game, as Comstock’s utopia is filled with it, with xenophobic images that attack literally every possible minority group. Bathrooms are flagged as “Colored and Irish Only,” certain mechanical vending machines have anti-Semitic slurs scrawled on their clearly Jewish automatons, and the Chinese and Native Americans are portrayed in a less-than-flattering light. It’s an uncomfortable place for gamers of all races, creeds, and colors, but Bioshock Infinite demands that you immerse yourself in it because, alternate history or not, this is what America was. It’s a bold move, and could easily be misconstrued as exploitative, but Irrational handles it with a gravity that makes it thought-provoking and introspective rather than an excuse to plaster the walls with Little Black Sambo and spray painted slurs.
Once you finally find Elizabeth, the game spins you even further into madness, as your target is no ordinary girl. Elizabeth is kept in a tower like a fairy tale princess, and with good reason: her quantum-manipulating abilities make her crucial to Columbia, with her story peppered with false details of a miracle birth in order to maintain her title of “The Lamb of Columbia.” Once you convince her to leave the tower—much to the chagrin of her guardian beast The Songbird—she becomes a crucial ally in her quest, manipulating “tears” that open holes to other realities and times. In combat, she can materialize ammo caches, robotic allies, and even cover for you to hide behind. Even when not opening tears, she’s constantly finding you ammo and health, which she tosses to you with a press of a button. Game designers everywhere, take note: this is how you handle AI-controlled companions.
The tears also open much bigger possibilities as well. An early opening shows a French Cineplex showing “Revenge of the Jedi” (Lucas’ original title for Episode VI of the Star Wars saga), and there are times that your entire reality shifts so that you can complete missions. It’s fascinating to watch reality unravel and reweave itself in ways both subtle and pronounced, and adds immeasurably to the game’s tone. There’s definite hints—no spoilers, so no worries—that tears have been used in a less-than-scrupulous fashion, especially in the game’s unique soundtrack, which includes a barbershop quartet singing The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” and a ragtime rendition of “Tainted Love.”
Of course, with all of this great texturing of the game world, it’s even more wonderful to report that the gameplay has not been forgotten. The gameplay is still what one would expect from an FPS developed by Irrational, with a few upgradeable guns supplementing Vigors, Columbia’s version of plasmids. Vigors give you supernatural abilities that range from lobbing fireballs to launching enemies skyward to, most gruesome of all, rending enemies’ flesh from bone with a murder of carnivorous crows. Despite the new setting and uncomfortable tonal shift, the game is still Bioshock through and through. The biggest addition to the game comes from the Skyhook, a Swiss Army knife of pain that acts as a melee weapon, a death-defying means of transport, and a horrifying way to finish off your enemies. Your first use of the weapon is ramming a constable’s face into its spinning rotor, and it only gets worse from there, letting you snap necks, sever heads, and launch your enemies skyward after grinding through their solar plexus. Even this grizzled gorehound found some of the Skyhook’s furious finishers wince-inducing.
Bioshock Infinite may not be the sort of “typical” horror that FEARnet discusses, but it’s certainly worth any discussion that it brings up. Once you peel pack the layers of more overt horror (The Boys of Silence…’nuff said) it raises a lot of questions that make you feel uncomfortable and frightened overall. While Comstock may be a more extreme representation of xenophobia and racism, this is how people used to think…and some still do. Now that’s scary.