Contemporary Reviews

Weekend Writing: BioShock Infinite, the polarizing third installment.

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It’s been about several months since I last wrote a Weekend Writing post. Admittedly me playing games has slowed down considerably in 2021, due to a multitude of personal factors. Fed up with playing Bingo Story and Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War all the time, I decided to tackle a game in my backlog. One that has sort of an infamy among gaming circles. A game that’s particularly very polarizing, to a point where people who praised it as the “Game of the Forever” and considered its creator a genius now consider it the worst game in the entire franchise. And since I talked about BioShock 2 back in 2019, I feel it’s fitting to play the third – and as of 2021, the most recent – game in the BioShock series.

So. much. bloom.

BioShock Infinite is one of those games that I heard had sort of a legacy behind it. When released in 2013, the game was unanimously praised for its storytelling and gameplay, and won a myriad of awards. As time goes on, though, the general consensus has taken a 180 – damning criticism and people calling creative director Ken Levine a talentless hack. Even when I wrote about replaying BioShock 2 a few years back, that sentiment seemed to still be true, with some people even re-evaluating BioShock 2 as probably the best game in the series.

But hey, I always believe in playing things for myself rather than blindly going with what others say, so let’s see if this is infinitely amazing or infinitely terrible.

(Content warning: Plot spoilers for BioShock Infinite follow. While the game is eight years old as of this writing, I always assume that someone who’s reading this might not have played the game yet, much like me.

In addition, this game does go into themes of racism and political movements, of which I’ll also talk about here.)

Must these games always start with a lighthouse?

The plot of BioShock Infinite starts thusly: Booker DeWitt must go to Columbia – a magical city in the sky, via lighthouse – to rescue a girl by the name of Elizabeth, for a bounty. As the game goes on, it turns out the goal is not that simple as we think, partially due to Elizabeth’s magic ability to create “tears” in the world that go to alternate timelines and worlds. Thus Booker and Elizabeth must stop Zachary Comstock and the world of Columbia he’s made, while also figuring out the mystery of why Booker’s there in the first place.

As I went through the intro world of Columbia, there was a rather unsettling sense of christian white supremacy in the early story beats, which is a rather strong but somewhat upsetting start. Before Booker even gets the chance to visit Columbia, he must be baptized. Eventually Booker starts seeing the Vox Populi, the rival group of people demonized by the Founders that basically hate the cleanliness that Comstock’s Columbia brings. You would think that since there’s a clear hero/villain dynamic to the world that Booker would just be able to work with the Vox Populi and cause a revolution, right?

If only this was a reality. Well, technically it is, but… it’s complicated.

Well, technically no. Booker just wants to get out of Columbia with Elizabeth, being rather selfish. There’s a point in the plot where through a special ability that Elizabeth has brings the two of them into a timeline where Booker was the Vox Populi leader who became a martyr, but the rest of the plot tends to lean that both the Founders and Vox Populi are evil in their own distinct ways. I couldn’t roll my eyes any harder when they got to that point in the story.

The game definitely does not shy away from the racist imagery, as this early section shows.

BioShock Infinite came out in 2013, and around that time, you could probably get away with being a fence-sitter politically, shunning both sides as being “bad” in their own unique ways. But in the years since the game’s release – in some countries, definitely in the United States – we’ve been seeing the rise of fascist regimes, with clear motives that were very obviously bad for those who aren’t part of their support group. It got so bad here in the US that it eventually lead to a bunch of “patriots” storming the US Capitol building in early 2021, causing an insurrection. We’re still picking up the pieces on that one.

This game is about as subtle as being hit with a brick.

According to a Washington Post interview with Levine, The Occupy movement of the early 2010s was the inspiration for the Vox Populi, and if you’re looking at that movement at a cursory glance, then you could easily see them not being the right solution either. In 2021, there’s a line that’s incredibly clear of who’s good and who’s bad, and for a game like Infinite to just shrug and say that both sides are terrible is an incredibly bad look nowadays. In a sense, it kinda tells me what Ken Levine and, likely, most of Irrational Games thought about these kind of political movements: not positively.

I was running this at 1920×1080, my native desktop resolution, and the HUD still felt unnecessary tiny. Bet this looks easier to see on a console.

But you’re probably saying, “get to the gameplay, stupid.” While the plot is just as consequential, I can understand wanting to know how I felt about how it plays. Especially in some cases where gameplay can bolster the rest of a game’s shortcomings. Not so here with BioShock Infinite. 

One of the biggest problems Infinite has is basically making the game for more “mainstream” audiences. The complexity of the previous games, with its hacking, exploration, the choice of stealth or combat, is basically nonexistent here. The game often railroads you towards a specific path, and rarely rewards players for exploring like in past games. The best solution to every situation is to basically shoot while occasionally using a vigor – the game’s equivalent to the previous game’s Plasmids – to spice things up. You can use skyrails to move around the arena quickly, but I feel it wasn’t really fun to fight enemies that way except to do a takedown on an enemy.

Having Elizabeth be able to help you out by bringing robots from another timeline to life is cool, but only masks the flaws on the game’s rather basic combat.

You can let Elizabeth spawn cover or weapons, but it doesn’t have the cool factor of hacking a turret to work at your side while you chill back like in previous games. Infinite goes for a more aggressive approach to gameplay, rather than the option to engage or hang back and let something else do the work for you.

Even Elizabeth just becomes a vessel for free goodies like money, health, ammo and salts, thus becoming a repository to keep you well-stocked more than an actual important plot character. The overall gameplay keeps one engaged throughout, but it also makes fights less memorable than in past titles.

Streamlining the combat isn’t the only problem, though. Booker can only hold two weapons, which doesn’t make sense here. In prior games, the player could hold up to eight different weapons, which gives an entire arsenal to mess around with. It was an easy way to spice up gameplay every once in a while, and to have specific weapons out for certain enemies. While playing Infinite, any of the game’s weapons – be it Founder or Vox Populi-made – worked against most combatants, and the combat felt real dull as a result. Combined with having a shield that protects your health, it makes Booker DeWitt feel like a combination of Master Chief from Halo and Soap MacTavish from the Call of Duty franchise. It doesn’t really fit in the world of BioShock.

I can’t deny the game looks pretty, but these areas blend together. There’s no area – such as Arcadia from the first BioShock – that’s particularly memorable here.

As I went through the game’s campaign, constantly killing enemies, exploring the alternate places that Elizabeth was making, it just felt rather unremarkable. Very few interesting locales, and with most areas being fairly linear meant there was rarely any opportunities for me to soak in the game’s atmosphere and see the world. It was a straight line to the next objective, and even with side objectives that just rewarded me with more goodies, it felt unrewarding compared to how they were in previous games.

Even in a later section I saw a padlock – something Elizabeth can unlock with lockpicks you find around the world, or a “hair pin” lock if it’s required by the story to progress – locked away by a chain lock. The game forbade me from exploring that area until I hit the required objective in the story to see that area. In other games, that area would be available to visit at any time and if visited early the game would accommodate for the player’s sequence-breaking. But in BioShock Infinite, it sends a clear message of “come back here when you’ve gotten past the relevant story section.” Even when I could visit areas early, there would be nothing there for Booker to find until I specifically went to the place the game asked me to go. Exploration is what made games like BioShock so good, and for them to basically design the game like it’s Call of Duty is maddening.

“Hey, I can see myself from here!”

But I gotta talk about the later parts of the plot. It took me a while to figure it out, but Elizabeth has the ability to make tears that bring things from another world. From a gameplay perspective she can use that to bring enemies and cover to the area, but it also holds a plot purpose: those tears made seemingly infinite timelines – hence the title. There’s a point during these exploration-like tears where Booker and Elizabeth are walking on a dock on a seemingly infinite amount of lighthouses, implying that there’s always “a man, a city and a lighthouse.” Never mind the fact that BioShock 2 didn’t involve the last part whatsoever.

Dang, I wouldn’t mind going to this timeline.

Here’s the thing: I like alternate timeline and time travel stuff. Back to the Future is my favorite film franchise. But BioShock Infinite doesn’t feel like it has any idea of what to do with it. There’s a part early on where Elizabeth opens up a rift into 1980s-era Paris where Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” plays while they stand outside a city street nearby a marquee for Return of the Jedi. There’s parts later on where it shows potential alternate futures, but it’s so convoluted and only briefly glanced at that it stopped making sense by the end. If confusing the player with these tears was the intent, then by god they succeeded.

It also doesn’t really fit in the world of BioShock. BioShock as a franchise has often gone very fantasy-like in its nature, but never has it ever covered time travel or alternate timelines. It’s like they wanted to put the time travel element into a different game entirely but couldn’t find a way to implement it, thus they grafted it onto Infinite’s plot, causing it to be rather disjointed from the rest of the series.

At least the throwback to Rapture from the first game looks nice.

The ending itself, which involves Elizabeth repeatedly opening tears and Booker opening doors, basically boils down to “You were the villain all along.” It’s kind of thrown out of left field, and the way it tells you this is arguably the worst. It’s like they wrote the game into a corner and decided to pull a few deus ex machinas to tie everything together in all the worst ways. It’s a rather disappointing ending to something that could’ve been rather straightforward, and it just left me rather unsatisfied and partially confused. That’s not really what you want to do with your game’s ending.

I haven’t even played Burial at Sea, the game’s two-part expansion. BioShock 2 had the wonderful Minerva’s Den expansion, and I can’t imagine they’re gonna be able to top that. I can’t imagine it being amazing or anything. With how the rest of the game shook out, I fully expect it to be full of references to the first game – and only the first, it seemed Irrational liked to pretend the second game never happened – and likely have some convoluted end that disappointed me just like the main campaign. Maybe I’ll write an addendum if I ever get around to it.

This bird shows up a bunch and is only consequential to the plot towards the end. Why it exists is a mystery, and isn’t really explained well.

It’s been years since we’ve heard about any new BioShock game. Lord knows whatever Ken Levine’s doing with his skeleton crew at the rechristened Irrational Games – now known as Ghost Story Games. But to be honest, I can’t imagine a new BioShock being any good unless it goes back to the fundamentals, and even then, we already got games that fulfill that niche: I’ve heard the 2016 Prey is really good, and there’s even the upcoming System Shock 3, of which BioShock was made to be a spiritual successor to. That’s not even getting into any potential games made by smaller studios that take that same spirit that BioShock popularized.

I feel a bit bad slagging off BioShock Infinite. When I think of this game, I think about a friend who really loves this game, of which they had a blog that mentioned dialogue from the game, really praising Elizabeth and the songbird. I know people’s opinions can differ, but I kinda went into this game thinking about them, as well as the people who frequently sung genuine praise about this game that has since morphed into outright derision. 

I try my best to go into games relatively fresh without any prior knowledge, but admittedly the game’s infamy colored my view on what I was going to experience. As a result, I see a game that not only has a muddled and unclear message, but feels like it’s a step backwards from the series I previously enjoyed. It’s a mess.

I don’t even think this game has multiple endings like in previous titles. Or if it did, I couldn’t really tell.

I’d recommend the prior BioShock games over Infinite. Infinite feels like a game that outside of a few gameplay elements and story beats, only feels tangentially related to BioShock. It’s not terrible, but it’s really disappointing. A below-average entry to an otherwise good franchise.

It can only go up from here, right? Hope it doesn’t involve skyhooks this time.

This post was available on Patreon one week early. If you wish to see articles like these before everyone else, you can check out my Patreon here. Just $1 is all you need, whether you find it yourself or Elizabeth throws money at you randomly.

One comment Weekend Writing: BioShock Infinite, the polarizing third installment.

[…] a reader of this site has seen me write about big popular games after their popularity, such as BioShock Infinite last year. But this time around I kept myself a bit closer to the zeitgeist this time, by playing a game a […]

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