Bioshock Infinite’s infinite space, bounded in a nutshell

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Bioshock Infinite is aptly named. It’s an ambitious and sometimes dazzling story far too big for the too familiar game that holds it. It contains multitudes and they’re all pinned under the boots of an unseen protagonist in a two-fisted first-person shooter, plasmid in one hand, rivet gun in the other. It is beautiful in the way that a snow globe is beautiful. Small, ruthlessly bounded, a little precious and silly, but its intricacy undeniably lovely in that diffuse light. I admire it more than I like it. I’m glad I played it, and although I’m pretty sure I’ll never play it again, I’ll be talking about it for a long time to come.

After the jump, let the talking — spoiler-free — commence

The early moments of Bioshock Infinite are stiflingly familiar. Well known pieces fall into place with different names. Plasmids are vigors, eve is salt, tonics are gear, Big Daddys are Handymen, those are the Houdini splicers, these are the bees, there is the Circus of Values, he is the Atlas, she is the Tenenbaum. When is the gameplay twist? When it comes, it won’t be enough to redeem Bioshock Infinite from its fate as an iteration on what you did in the other two Bioshocks. This is Bioshock minus much of the detail and variety that made those games replayable. This is Bioshock with no new solution for how not to be a game about rummaging through desks. This is, well, Bioshock.

I mostly blame the Unreal engine for undermining what Infinite wants to do. The underwater city of the previous Bioshocks was a marvel of narrative, art design, atmosphere, and — you cannot overestimate the importance of this — a game engine perfectly suited to a game. The Unreal engine was ideal for that world, that story, that gameplay. The cramped rooms were expected, the oppressiveness appropriate, the intricate detail an ideal trade-off for the lack of long vistas. The world of Rapture suited the two-fisted toe-to-toe gunplay perfectly. Remember the sniper rifle in Bioshock? Of course you don’t, because it didn’t have one. It didn’t need one. It probably didn’t even want one. Everything you fought was right in front of you, animated, alive, vivid, present. It was a game about close quarters in a world consisting entirely of close quarters.

Now consider Bioshock Infinite’s cloud city, built on distance and expanse, poorly served by this same engine, and this same gunplay, now with a sniper rifle. To videogamers today, expanse is the latest Assassin’s Creed, the latest Far Cry, and even the latest Tomb Raider. And here is Columbia, a city in the clouds built from a set of bridges in boxes, set against a warm creamy bloom pouring in from the faux distance of its skyboxes where some characters are so far off they need an icon over their heads so you know they’re there. Parts of Columbia are certainly big, and the scale of the action is larger than in any previous Bioshock. Those games wouldn’t dream of trying to show you some of the set pieces you get in Bioshock Infinite. But it’s not enough for Columbia. When this game should fly, it instead rides rails, like a rollercoaster where a dream of flight should be.

Columbia also has a hard time expressing the story of Bioshock Infinite. There’s an area in Bioshock 2 called Ryan Amusements. It serves the three purposes. 1) It catches you up on the story so far. 2) It demonstrates how much it must have sucked being a brainwashed kid in Rapture with this half-assed alternative to Disneyland. And 3), it makes a clever meta joke about the way videogames move you on rails through set pieces. But then you finish that level and you’re back in Rapture’s underwater wonderland. Bioshock Infinite is full of the equivalent of Ryan Amusements because it struggles with how to tell its sprawling story in the context of a two-fisted shooter. Imagine Inception as a real time strategy game or The Maltese Falcon as a match-3. Imagine a vast and unmoored story straining at the seams of its medium. Imagine ambition exceeding gameplay. Imagine Kojima.

As a story, the problems go deeper than the engine. The story is based on characters that we, the players, the audience, should probably be watching. The identity mysteries of the previous Bioshocks were perfectly served by their mute and faceless protagonists. But Bioshock Infinite attempts an Uncharted style relationship between two characters. It doesn’t work as well as it needs to. Booker DeWitt, ably if also unremarkably acted by Troy Baker, would be a fine figure in a novel or a movie. But in a game driven by his relationship with Elizabeth, Bioshock Infinite snags on the issue of a third-person protagonist in a first-person game. What does Booker look like? How does he feel? How is he reacting to what Elizabeth tells him? What does he do when I press X to “comfort Elizabeth”? Is there any subtext when he makes a choice? How do they look at each other? Does he smile? An actor’s face belongs here. There isn’t one.

Elizabeth fares much better as a character, despite the fact that she’s acting opposite a camera — Booker DeWitt — the entire time. She starts as a twee Disney princess, complete with a musical number that you’ll see if you stray into a particular basement and take up a guitar. Her big Disney eyes, hearty ponytail, and tiny matchstick throat keep her from flailing at the edge of the uncanny valley where even the latest Lara Croft occasionally loses her footing. She is a cartoon. But the remarkable thing about Elizabeth is how she grows grimmer over the course of the game. It’s almost imperceptible. From Rapunzel in a tower to, well, something else that I’ll leave you to discover, something well beyond any twee Disney princess.

But here again is where the story is served poorly by its familiar and simplified two-fisted shooter gameplay. Early on, Bioshock Infinite tells you not to worry about Elizabeth during combat. This is probably a wise choice, as no one wants to play a ten-hour escort mission. But when you’re playing the game, it reduces Elizabeth’s role to “the chick who throws you health packs and reloads your gun for you and magically restarts the game when you die”. As she’s tagging along, she’s a helper who brings you spacebucks. She’s a more expressive version of the scavenger bots in Dead Space 3, a cross between Elika from Prince of Persia and Vita-Chambers, a more functionally useful take on Elena in Uncharted, slightly ridiculous whizzing along skylines, her dress blooming out like Mary Poppins, but it sure beats having to carry her.

Elizabeth is here because she has a specific role that I don’t want to spoil. 2K Games’ marketing department has already done plenty of that. Her role, her uniqueness as a character in this world, is a fundamental part of the story, but Bioshock Infinite is unable to apply her to the gameplay in any meaningful way. Imagine that you’re playing a game with a djinni that grants wishes. How are you going to make a game around that? You aren’t. You can’t. You’re going to have to revise your concept, or come up with some way to draw limits around the djinni’s power. Portal, for instance, is a perfect example of a game-breaking mechanic reigned in by a carefully built game. But the developers on Bioshock Infinite have no such facility with Elizabeth’s game-breaking role. Here is a game with a djinni who grants wishes, so long as you only wish for more health, or a different gun, or a way to get up to that balcony over there, but only that balcony, and only in that spot, and only if you don’t ask any questions about why there would be a balcony there.

And then there’s Elizabeth’s effect on the narrative, which is both Bioshock Infinite’s greatest strength and arguably the hole where it tumbles in on itself. Bioshock Infinite certainly earns its name, and in the process, I’m not sure it makes much sense. But more to the point, I’m not sure it needs to. Not all mysteries need to be comprehended. The point of some mysteries is how they make you feel. Once you’ve played Bioshock Infinite’s final gameplay sequence — my Xbox 360 heaved a sigh of relief when I finally got through that framerate-killer after the fourth try — it’s going to take its time playing you out, and it’s going to embark on a discursive and even gratuitous reveal. It’s satisfying, but definitely not tidy, with a final note not being the one you expected but instead being the one that’s perfect. I can’t think of another game that uses music this smartly, and this sparingly.

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have the impact of the original game, because it doesn’t have that game’s focus. It doesn’t hit as hard because it’s wider and more dazzling, pulled appropriately into many directions and seen through many lenses, a kaleidoscopic reflection of storytellers like Christopher Nolan, Thomas Hardy, Ken Levine, the Coen Brothers, Jorge Luis Borges, Ronald Moore, Sophocles, and D.W. Griffith, inspired instead of derivative, entirely unforgettable, and deserving a life beyond the middling game where it lives.

3 stars
Xbox 360