Bioshock Infinite & Video Games as Art

(Ed Note: Spoilers ahead! All of them!)

The floating city of Columbia’s welcome center is perhaps the most beautiful setting in video game history. Sunlight breaks through the stained glass to the floor below. Marble statues tower over you. Beautiful music and the swishing of running water are all you hear. Flowers float past you.

Upon leaving Columbia, you step into the sunlight, greeted by statues of Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. Citizens drenched in red, white, and blue enjoy old-timey carnival games at a fair.

It’s paradise.

Until, of course, you are asked to assault an interracial couple. Then to defend yourself from attacking police officers. Then told you can initiate all sorts of gory executions using your Sky-Hook. Through all the violence and blood, the sun shines on.

Columbia is soon aflame, literally and figuratively, from civil war. As the embers of a burning city swirl around you, you come upon a young woman sitting on a crate amidst the chaos, singing a startlingly beautiful version of Fortunate Son.

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As soon as I set down my controller, eyes still filled with tears, I knew I had to write about Bioshock Infinite. The ending left me in a daze for what seemed like hours, but was probably minutes. When the dust settled following a lengthy trip down the Bioshock wiki rabbit hole, I was convinced that Bioshock Infinite was nearly the greatest video game I’ve ever played.

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Infinite, much like the rest of the Bioshock series, shows us the extremes while suggesting we stay as far away from them as possible. Just as Bioshock gave use a glimpse into a dystopia of Ayn Rand’s making, Infinite shows us a society, led by “The Prophet” Zachary Comstock and industrialist Jeremiah Fink, based on American exceptionalism. Columbia is a place where xenophobia and racism are not just policy, but proud policy. A place where the reforms of the Progressive Era never happened, leading to the continued exploitation of the have-nots by the haves.

Of course, the “other half” of Columbia, led by Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populi, isn’t much better, particularly in those universes where they have additional power and weaponry. Columbia’s social order is overthrown, but it’s not enough. The city is torched. The well-to-do are hunted down and murdered. Fitzroy proclaims that the city must be destroyed to prevent it from rising again. It’s The Dark Knight Rises if the film showed us the bloodstains.

There is no morality in the extremes.

The most fascinating part of Columbia’s society is their hatred of Abraham Lincoln. In The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell says that Americans are taught to respect the Founders, but taught to love Lincoln. Although the game is set in a time period where separate, but equal was still policy, it’s easy to picture Columbia an America that never benefited from Lincoln’s vision.

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Like any Bioshock game, Infinite has several moments that sear themselves into one’s mind. Seeing New York City aflame from Columbia’s bombardment was breathtaking. The look on Elizabeth’s face when Songbird abducted her was almost as heartbreaking as their interaction when Songbird died in Rapture’s depths.

And no, I totally didn’t shit my pants when I turned around and saw that Boy of Silence looming over me.

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Some games find convenient excuses to leave the player on their own. Others create tiresome escort missions where you need to babysit your frequently incompetent companion. Others allow you to give your companion orders, telling them to stay behind when danger lies ahead. Infinite does none of these. Elizabeth will stay out of the thick of the fighting, tossing you ammunition and supplies during firefights. Elizabeth can hold her own.

Not only is Elizabeth the best integrated NPC in the history of video games, she’s also the most lifelike. She explores rooms, comments on the environment, holds her nose in bathrooms, eats cotton candy, sits on benches, and looks at whatever is happening in the background.

The result is a character you forget isn’t a real person. It made it all the more-gut-wrenching when Songbird tore her away. It made me all the angrier to see her tortured (I mercilessly gunned down two cowering scientists responsible for her agony). I’ve never been so immersed in a video game relationship.

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I’ve already attempted to explain my infatuation with all forms of precipitation. I also love contrast. I seek it out in people, situations, and stories. Water is a central motif in Infinite, and the game portrays its inherent contrast. It is used equally for baptism and murder — rebirth and death — playing off of the game’s larger contrast of religion as a tool of both love and of hatred.

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Mass Effect 3 is a cautionary tale for video game makers: If you are going to tell an incredible story, you better end it well too. Booker DeWitt, the player’s character, is a Pinkerton agent haunted by a past tragic enough to turn to drinking and gambling. DeWitt’s debt is purchased by a man who tells him to “Get the girl. Wipe away the debt.”

The story effortlessly weaves together time travel and alternate universes. In the end, we come to find that the debt was purchased by another “version” of Booker DeWitt himself from an alternate universe, through what are called “tears” throughout the game.

Furthermore, Zachary Comstock, the game’s primary antagonist (and remember, the guy you bashed to death and drowned in a baptismal font) and Booker DeWitt are the same person.

As it turns out, Booker fled a baptismal ceremony after selling his daughter to pay the debt. In a parallel universe, Booker accepted that baptism and became Zachary Comstock, using his power and influence to manufacture the tears and purchase his daughter from his parallel self.

HEAD ASPLODE!

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Also, this. For the love of god, listen to the whole thing.

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If this is a review, it’s time to talk about the negative: It’s really not that fun to play.

The gameplay and combat are solid at best, uninspiring at worst. Aside from the very cool Sky-Hook addition, there is nothing different from the first two Bioshocks, whose gameplay weren’t much to write home about in the first place. Ultimately, I found myself playing the game to unravel the story rather than because it was fun.

If this is about art, I can’t do much more than I already have. There are a lot of people who will take with them to the grave the belief that video games cannot be art. Give them Bioshock Infinite. I can’t offer higher praise for a video game.

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