Bioshock Infinite is still about choice. It’s about the different paths your life can take, and if you’d made once choice over the other, how things might have turned out. It’s about the untold possibilities of the world, and how astonishment at the complexities of human existence are infinite.
It’s kind of hard to nail down exactly what Bioshock Infinite is about. Its predecessors, Bioshock and the somewhat uncreatively named Bioshock 2 were thematically concerned with choice and parenthood. Infinite, appropriately, touches on both, but isn’t limited to either.
Set during 1912, Bioshock Infinite takes place in the floating city of Columbia. High above the clouds, the denizens of the city enjoy a paradoxical paradise. Those lucky enough to be born white enjoy lives of plenty in Columbia, while blacks, hispanics, asians, the Irish, and native Americans are viewed as lower-class citizens on a good day, and subhuman on a bad one.
Protagonist Booker DeWitt arrives in the magical city of despicable racists looking for a young girl named Elizabeth. A former Pinkerton agent, and deep in debt, Booker has been charged with bringing Elizabeth back to New York City unharmed.
Most games stories are fairly rote, aside from a few interesting thematic variances. Bioshock Infinite, while not necessarily as groundbreaking as its forefather, it is disturbingly critical of modern extremist American political conventions.
Neither conservatism or liberalism escape from Infinite unscathed. While the racially purist Founders are violently oppressive and racist in ways that would disturb even the most staunch contemporary republican, the Vox Populi, made up of minorities and malcontents are so utterly convinced of Columbia’s inherent evil that they’re willing to literally watch it crash and burn.
Still, both parties are portrayed as an even more monstrous “other” by the opposite party. They turn them into disturbing straw men with no resemblance to reality; a practice that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with American politics.
All of that said, it’s a shame that this condemnation of extremism doesn’t directly translate into gameplay. Bioshock Infinite is a shooter, and a violent one at that. When you’re not blowing your enemies away in a shower of blood and viscera, you can use one or more of the game’s magical “vigors.” Presented as magical snake oil that actually works, vigors allow you to char flesh from bone, send a flock of crows to rend and tear enemies to pieces, electrocute them to the point that their heads pop like cherries, or command them to machine-gun themselves from crotch to chest.
Then there’s the Skyhook, a chainsaw glove that allows you to propel yourself around Columbia’s gondola lines at top speed. You can either fire your weapons while using your skyhook, or jump down onto your enemies while they scream in terror. During regular combat you can use the Skyhook to perform brutal finishing moves such as shoving the glove in face of your enemy and sawing off his face.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with violence in interactive media, especially as an identifiable verb for the player, but context is important. In Bulletstorm the player could kill with impunity because the tone of the game was inherently ridiculous. Bioshock Infinite spends the first 45 minutes forcing you to identify its denizens as real people with real lives. When you have to start killing them in increasingly grisly ways, it feels wrong.
In that regard, your constant companion Elizabeth is kind of the player’s conscience. In addition to tossing you ammo, health and salts to recharge your vigors, Elizabeth will react to the player’s actions. Snap a man’s neck with your Skyhook, she’ll be horrified, refuse to kill an old friend to prevent him from being captured, only to find out later that he’s been lobotomized, and she’ll learn that mercy isn’t a simple concept.
To a certain extent, Infinite is about Elizabeth, her fears, her hopes, and what she represents the people in her life. Sometimes it feel like she’s the protagonist, that she’s the one escorting you.
But in other ways Bioshock Infinite is still about choice. It’s about the different paths your life can take, and if you’d made once choice over the other, how things might have turned out. It’s about the untold possibilities of the world, and how astonishment at the complexities of human existence are infinite.
Oh, I see what they did there.