This tale of a man with a troubled past, hired to rescue an imprisoned girl from a city floating in the sky is as thematically rich as the original BioShock, as well a fine example of a great sci-fi story presented in a capacity that only a videogame could provide.
It’s a rarity, that’s for sure. The way it blends art direction, high concepts and interactivity, while pacing set pieces and characterisation deftly to avoid the pitfalls of boring game design, ensures BioShock Infinite is a piece of entertainment that you just have to get involved with.
Whereas BioShock put a dystopia on the bottom of the ocean, Infinite puts one among the clouds – Columbia, the game’s primary setting, seceded from the United States at a point prior to the game’s 1912 setting.
As your protagonist, former Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt enters the city, you soon learn that Columbia belies a sinister culture of institutionalised racism and a pro-wealth class system. Something else is amiss, too: hearing a barbershop quartet version of God Only Knows is one of many anachronisms that imply all is not as it seems.
In the midst of this, Booker has a debt to clear, which he can only pull off by escaping to New York with the aforementioned captive girl, Elizabeth, who can rip open the fabric of space and time into different eras at will. The two come between the clashing sides of government and rebels within Columbia, where it becomes clear that Elizabeth’s immense powers could change the course of everything.
Anything more and we’ll spoil it – BioShock Infinite is primarily a story-driven game, with this narrative told organically as you’re led through the city in a first-person perspective, journeying alongside Elizabeth and developing a bond with the character. There are no cutscenes in Infinite; everything you learn about the story, you gain from overhearing conversations, listening to audio diaries or absorbing the remarkable environmental detail to piece it all together.
A lot of games of the past five years have been inspired by BioShock to borrow these elements, but few understand that these are not simply meant to be filler, but rather narrative-enhancing cornerstones of the story itself. Infinite is a more refined game than the original BioShock, slickly edited so every part of the tale is crucial in some way – Irrational has pursued a forward-thinking approach to delivering this beautifully-written and twist heavy story, that smartly hints at a reality where sci-fi games could diversify their subject matter in a way that doesn’t rely on borrowing ideas from films.
It still says something about modern game design that a sci-fi tale so exquisitely told has to be wrapped up in hours of relentless shooting and killing, and indeed, while the combat sections are of the highest order, alternating between shooting crows out of your hands at gangs of exotically-designed enemies before having a low-key, emotional conversation with Elizabeth creates a disconnect that’s worth pondering.
Infinite’s Director, Ken Levine, compares them to musical numbers within a movie, in that they would seem out of context were they not written into the language of the form – there’s certainly an intelligent logic to that, which we can respect, but nonetheless you may eventually find yourself desensitised to the sheer amount of shooting, while being alternately engrossed by the narrative.
Yet there’s no denying this is otherwise the best that modern videogames have to offer, with standards clearly being set in artistic direction, scriptwriting and voice acting. BioShock Infinite presents a remarkable world that dares to explore ideas that almost all mainstream games would never even consider touching upon, and that bravery alone is worth the £40.
It’s a real creator’s piece, a game genuinely worth discussing when so few actually are.