Big Stakes, Big Ideas and Big Payoffs in Irrational's Bioshock Infinite

“You’ve come to lead my lamb astray, but thy crook is bent, and thy path is twisted!”

What makes a game Bioshock? If it is indeed true that Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite do not at all overlap (no comment), then what, other than name brand recognition and critical fervor, makes Bioshock Infinite a Bioshock game? We have this assumption of what it means to be Bioshock that is plot and setting based, as we’ve already had two games set in Rapture, with Big Daddies and Little Sisters and Brigid Tenenbaum and Andrew Ryan. So we assume that what it means to be a Bioshock game is taking place in Rapture, with the specter of Andrew Ryan floating over everything, and plasmids and ADAM and splicers. Of course, Bioshock 2 wasn’t even created by Ken Levine and Irrational; they were too busy working on the game that would (eventually) become Bioshock Infinite. Now, Bioshock 2 was a good game, and it had a good story, and it had some fantastically good DLC (Minerva’s Den is the sickness), but it wasn’t remotely on the same level as its predecessor. 2K Marin did a very good job. But they didn’t have Ken Levine. So it makes you wonder that, if Bioshock 2 had never been made (which would have been a shame more due to losing the last ten minutes of Minerva’s Den than anything), and if Bioshock Infinite had been the second title to feature the name, would we be so tied to the concept of Bioshock as Rapture and Andrew Ryan and Gatherer’s Gardens? Or would we think of Bioshock more as the collective idea for a game? A set of parameters independent of setting and character that can be applied to any number of eras or design philosophies.

That certainly seems to be what Ken Levine is gunning for with the release of Infinite. In a lot of ways, it’s a pretty notable departure from the original Bioshock. Rapture was abandoned by its people. They all escaped or died or became splicers, with only a few crazy fucks left over. The protagonist was a silent cipher with no discernible personality, a window into the world, and, other than his trusty radio compatriot Atlas, was entirely alone. He used plasmids and could carry about 6 guns, plus a wrench and a camera. He was just some guy named Jack and essentially had no backstory until 2/3 of the way into the game.

Booker DeWitt, to start, has a last name! And an actual backstory. It’s a shady one, of course, and full of inconsistencies, but it does exist. We know he worked for the Pinkertons, and we know he fought at Wounded Knee as part of the 7th Cavalry. He also talks, which is a big deal for a Bioshock game. The protagonists for System Shock 2 and Bioshock were both silent, making this is a notable departure from Ken’s bread and butter. The choice, especially in a first person shooter, of giving your protagonist a personality and a voice is not something to be taken on lightly. A silent protagonist is much more easily immersed into the world. He or she is a blank slate. It is not difficult to imagine yourself as this person. You see through his eyes, you control his actions. In many (but not all) cases, you never actually see his/her face or body. So you can imprint concepts, feelings and emotions from your own experiences onto the character. You can make him act like you would act (or, if desired, in the exact opposite way you would act) and feel an inherent personal connection. That connection is severed when Booker speaks and doesn’t sound like you. It’s severed when he bends over the basin in the lighthouse and you see his reflection and he doesn’t look like you. You didn’t work for the Pinkertons or slaughter innocents at Wounded Knee. The story has erected a deliberate wall between you and DeWitt, even if you still see through his eyes and control his actions. It’s a markedly different experience from the predecessor that bares its name, and that’s before you even begin to explore the world of Columbia.

Columbia is everything Rapture was not. It might be the most vibrant gaming environment we’ve seen, and it’s all about the time Irrational took to populate their world. Everywhere you look , there are people. Citizens of Columbia. And when you walk up to these people, you are often stumbling into the middle of a conversation. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff, and was even present in Bioshock, where you would often come across any number of bizarre rantings between splicers before they would notice you and attack. But I can’t imagine it’s been done on the sort of scale that we see in Columbia, where there are these little moments just everywhere. It’s not something canned and simple like the NPCs of Skyrim repeating one or two different lines whenever you walk up to them. These moments inform the story, the climate and the culture of Columbia. There’s a moment early on as you are first exploring Columbia where you come across a sky barge carrying a barbershop quartet across the scenery while they sing a cover of “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. You watch it, and you take in the beauty of the scene as it slowly plays out across the impossibly blue skies of this improbably sunny setting. And it takes you a while to realize that this quartet is singing a song that will not have been written for 54 years. And you wonder what in the blue hell is going on. And you check your phone to see if “God Only Knows” was a cover and was actually written at a time so as to not be anachronistic (it wasn’t). And you once again wonder what in the blue hell is going on. These moments are everywhere. It makes you understand why it took them so goddamned long to release the thing. You can beat the game pretty quickly if you want to, but you end up missing out on so much in the cracks and crevasses of the world, and in the audio and video diaries that your time is best spent relaxing and exploring every little corner that Irrational has given us.

Of course, I still haven’t gone into detail about Elizabeth. Oh, Elizabeth. It’s pretty safe to say that she’s a game changer. I was surprised that the Bioshock Infinite panel at PAX East this past weekend (just a few scant days before its release to the public) was entirely devoted to Elizabeth’s AI, as opposed to the game as a whole. It doesn’t take long for you to realize that she might be the best companion character in the history of video gaming. You can watch trailers and game footage and get a little of a sense of the way Elizabeth interacts with Booker and the world at large that is Columbia, but once you experience it first hand, you realize just how far they went to make Elizabeth as close to a real person you can get in a video game. The gaming industry has had a combative history with companions and escort quests. Your companions will just stand behind you and not do anything until there’s a battle, perhaps offering a few canned dialogue trees. Star Wars: the Old Republic and Mass Effect both had some nice companion quest lines that fleshed out the characters and their back stories, but the actual minute to minute actions of these characters are nonexistent save an idle animation or two. They just stand in place until they are interacted with. Escort quests (and I’m thinking about MMOs here, specifically World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic) often consist of waiting around while your target slowly walks from point A to point E, while being systematically ambushed by spawning enemies you can often see appearing out of thin air at points B, C and D. Often it takes forever and you die during the last leg of the escort, meaning you have to start the quest over again and watch the stupid character walk SO FUCKING SLOW again until you can use the knowledge you got from dying the last time to your advantage. In the end, you take pleasure in the character’s death because that’s what you get for strolling down the road at the slowest pace imaginable while you know bandits are out to get you.

The problem that arises from this design philosophy is the way it so efficiently shatters your suspension of disbelief. Whenever you see that companion run into a wall due to poor pathing, or that escort quest participant mosey along like nothing’s wrong, you no longer believe that you’re interacting with a character in the world. Suddenly, you become acutely aware that this friend of your game character is simply a lump of code that corresponds to this stiff, uninteresting thing standing behind you never moving. In my personal experience, I’ve found Bethesda to be the biggest sinner in this environment; games like Skyrim and the Fallout series have so much depth and scope, and are entirely populated with unfeeling, uncaring and uninteresting NPCs that have no personality. Wheatley from Portal 2 is a huge step in the right direction, despite the fact that every single moment you see and interact with Wheatley is entirely scripted and cannot particularly vary from its rails. All Valve did was hire Stephen Merchant and let him talk. A lot. At certain points in the game, you can just listen to Wheatley talk for minutes on end about complete nonsense in such a way that it immediately endears you to him (could also be the accent), even if he is not strictly an AI in the way Elizabeth is.

The difference between Bioshock Infinite and the rest of the video gaming world is apparent immediately the first time you regain control of the game after you and Elizabeth escape from her prison. She basically never stops moving. She’s curious about everything around her (in part because she’s been trapped in a monument her entire life, Rapunzel style), running over to strangers and watching what they do, trying to life heavy medicine balls, dancing with a group of Columbians and just generally enjoying the world. If you stop moving, she’ll wander off and inspect a painting on the wall or some other thing she’s never seen. She’ll follow you wherever you go, but she won’t just move in lockstep behind you like so many companions do in so many other games. She’s vibrant and engaged, and it looks like she’s actually thinking about what she’s doing. She wears her emotions on her sleeve, and you can always tell exactly what she’s thinking or feeling by her face or her body language. There’s a moment pretty early on when Booker breaks a promise he makes to Elizabeth, and you can immediately see the consequences in the way she acts around you. Her once bubbly demeanor cools. She responds to objects around her monosyllabically with an air of disinterest. She walks around, arms crossed, and always has her back toward you. If you try to face her, she turns away. It’s amazing how effective this is in its goal of eliciting an emotional response from you. Elizabeth makes you invested in the game in such a way that you don’t often see at all.

These moments have been a hallmark of both Irrational Bioshocks, dating back to the interactions between Little Sisters and Big Daddies, which are mirrored by Elizabeth’s relationship with the monstrous and mysterious Songbird. Something as simple as the way Songbird’s emotions are reflected in the color of his eye and how his demeanor changes as his eye shifts manages to do so much to relay this information to the player without spelling it out in too much detail. These games assume a base level of emotional intelligence that allows Irrational to skip the sort of heavy-handed monologuing and breathless exposition you always see in lesser games.

But Elizabeth, while working so well as the emotional core of the story and the hook that propels you further is only the tip of the iceberg. Ken Levine has loftier aspirations. I think quite a few of us found the choice of the title’s name to be a little odd, but the deeper you get into the game, the more the plot itself (the actual plot that is, opposed to the surface) comes to the fore, the wisdom behind the choice begins to unpack itself, and the story spins off into the stratosphere. The third act strips away the veneer and gets down to business, and there’s no way I’m going to say anything more than that. It must be experienced on its own in the purity and beauty of ignorance. It’s safe to say, however, that the themes of personal responsibility, sacrifice and familial bonds run deep and provide true satisfaction at the end.

We should not forget, though, that this is still a game. With guns. The actual gunwork of the original Bioshock was pretty much always second to the story and the setting. The plasmids certainly made the combat more interesting than your simple run and gun FPS, but it wasn’t the one thing you came away with from the game after playing it. Infinite is similar, in that the combat is still secondary to the story, but this did not mean that Irrational rested on their laurels. The plasmids are still there; they’re called vigors now, but are essentially the exact concept. They’re a little more varied this time around, as every vigor can do a few different things at the outset, and they’re also more enjoyably varied in the way they interact with each other. There’s nothing more satisfying than sending a fleet of crows to attack and distract your foes, only to throw some fire in the mix and watch as flaming crows wreak havoc all over the screen. Additionally, the choice to only allow DeWitt to carry two guns at any one time forces you to constantly reevaluate the situation to figure out which guns and which vigors you need to fight the given foe who is assaulting you (you can also only have two active vigors at once, but can switch between them radial dial style at will like the original Bioshock). The presence of Elizabeth also thoroughly affects the combat, as she will scavenge the area for ammo, salts (the Bioshock Infinite version of EVE/mana) and med kits she can throw to you in the heat of battle, and she also has the ability to open tears in the fabric of space and time that allows her to bring forward detritus you can use for cover, or hooks you can use to reach heretofore unreachable areas of the world, or any number of other things. Above all of this, we have the skylines, which makes this game truly three dimensional in a way we haven’t really seen before, allowing you to zip around the environment and fight your enemies in a new and different way. When you put all of these aspects together, the combat of Bioshock Infinite is astoundingly deep in its implications. You can approach any fight almost hundreds of different ways, combining vigors and ambushing from the skies. It’s awash with possibility.

And, in the end, that’s what Bioshock Infinite is all about. Possibility. It feels more open than your average open world game. Every aspect of the game just feels right. Elizabeth is quite possibly the best and most fully realized NPC we have ever seen in the industry. The replayability factor is undeniable(I finished it last night and just want to fire it up again so I can make sure I don’t miss the handful of voxophones and kinetoscopes I missed the first time). The story is complex and far-reaching in its implications not just for any other Ken Levine game that could consider the moniker of Bioshock, but for gaming as a whole. In a sense, the video game industry has just been put on notice. Every possible bar that can be raised has been raised into the stratosphere. You can’t half-ass it anymore and expect to get by. Not after Bioshock Infinite.