I hadn't played the first BioShock before I began BioShock Infinite. I started this game with no memory or knowledge of past events, only a vague idea of what I was supposed to do next, stumbling from one conveniently placed Voxophone to another, hoping to desperately piece together some kind of context. In other words, I was Ken Levine's favorite type of protagonist.
Before I go beyond the lighthouse: there will be spoilers for all BioShock games. And by that I mean for the original and Infinite because I still haven't played BioShock 2 and I'm not entirely sure I've lost any context because of it.
The Mind of the Subject Will Desperately Struggle to Create Memories Where None Exist
BioShock Infinite is praised heavily for its story. In fact, ask any given Infinite fan to tell you their opinions of the game, start a stopwatch, and count how long it takes for them to even mention gameplay in passing. If you clock it at under an hour, the person you're talking to probably didn't "get it."
By "it" I, of course, mean "enough Voxophones." BioShock Infinite—and, by extension, all of the BioShock games—are wholly aimed at the curious and thorough explorer types and no one else. If you want to breeze your way from one battle to the next, stopping only to pick up what money you need to buy upgrades, and ignoring those silly record player things, you will have roughly zero clue what's going on in the main story. If you do stop to find them, you still might not understand by the end.
Some main characters provide very key hints as to how the story works in somewhat-hidden Voxophones. Other characters only exist in Voxophone form, but still contribute to the story in semi-meaningful ways. The game tries to at least force you to find some of the more important recordings, but even putting them in your way doesn't guarantee comprehension. As an example, it took about four playthroughs and a Wiki article to figure out that "The universe does not like its peas mixed with its porridge" was Lutece's way of saying that Elizabeth's finger getting cut off by a tear is why she turned into a multiverse-manipulating god. In hindsight, it's obvious...right?
To be fair, the core story is told mostly in cut scenes and the Voxophones only help fill in the obvious gaps, so the non-nitpicky crowd probably won't care too much. But it does create a weird middle ground where the people who want to get invested but aren't obsessively hunting every detail may end up confused.
This storytelling mechanic is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it plays on your curiosity and invites you into ever deeper levels of storytelling. On the other, it's largely optional. If you want a simple FPS that pairs old timey Steampunk weapons with lightning bolts from your hands, you can shoot mental patients and racists in the head til you pass out. If you want replay value, you will get your fucking money's worth. If you're somewhere in between...well, Whitson will be happy to tell you all about that in the comments.
"Are You Afraid of God?" "No, But I'm Afraid of You."
Despite the sometimes clumsy storytelling method, the BioShock Infinite story still manages to be enthralling. This is in no small part due to the absolutely insane character acting from Elizabeth and, to a lesser extent, Booker. AI-driven NPCs have long been an anchor on the player's leg at best and an active nuisance at worst. Not only do they make gameplay difficult, but they're usually very poorly acted. Voice acting and motion capture happen entirely separated, which gives you an uncomfortable sense that you're being vaguely talked at by a digital puppet. However, early on in the game, you see one of the most heartwarming and uplifting things you'll ever see regarding an NPC in any video game:
"You don't need to protect Elizabeth in combat. She can take care of herself."
Not only does Elizabeth not need protection (except when the plot calls for it), but she's a better actor than most DreamWorks characters. When idle, she explores the world around you, during cutscenes, she responds with appropriate facial expressions, and when she's worried, scared, or anxious, you feel it. Video games don't tend to suffer from the same "star power" draw that movies do, but if you heard that Elizabeth was going to appear in Ocean's Fourteen, you'd be on that like a lonely, middle-aged housewife on the cardboard cutout of George Clooney she doesn't want her kids to find. Elizabeth is that good.
This acting isn't just a technical feat, but also essential to the main plot. Arguably, the story is much more about Elizabeth than it is about you. Sort of. I mean, it is about you, but not you you. You you barely does anything. But you do a lot of things, I mean, in a broad sense of-...whatever. Time travel, okay? The point is Elizabeth is a lot more essential to the plot than Booker. The story starts off with a fairly easy-to-grasp "Save the girl" story. However, this plot gets turned on its head when you discover that she can manipulate the probability space or something. For people who love parallel universe stories, it's so much sci-fi porn.
There's a period in the game where you sort of lose track of what world you're in or what your motivation is supposed to be—and Booker somehow never figures out how the whole thing works, insisting that alternate universe versions of people honor deals they never made and don't remember—but eventually the story gets back on track and returns to the main focus: Elizabeth, and her relationship with her parents. Regardless of whether or not you can keep up with the various timelines, the emotional impact of seeing Elizabeth struggle for reconciliation with her (sort of) mother, fighting her (sort of) father, and succumbing to despair before ultimately redeeming herself is provocative enough to make every minor annoyance worth it. Plot holes be damned, the characters are better than most TV shows or movies you've ever watched.
What Infinite lacks in easy-to-grasp storytelling, it more than makes up for in immersion. You'll more than likely be confused by how all the various parallel universes tie together or what Elizabeth's powers even are. The pain in Elizabeth's eyes when she murders Comstock is unbearably potent. If you're likely to get confused by plot holes and missing details in a time travel/parallel universe story, it's best to accept you'll need a couple playthroughs to understand everything. If you're just along for the ride, grab a few tissues. It's okay to cry.
Constants and Variables
For those who have played the original BioShock, the gameplay in Infinite will be both familiar and improved. For those like me who played Infinite first and then went back to play the original, the gameplay in the original will be so obnoxiously annoying that you'll want to trade your left arm for a Skyhook. Or at least a less aggravating hacking mini-game.
In the original BioShock, you're traveling around a series of underwater corridors, using a combination of guns and Plasmids—the Rapture word for injectable X-Men powers—to murder disfigured and insane wealthy people who spliced up their DNA with chemicals in syringes a few too many times. There's a metaphor for Wall Street brokers or Keith Richards in there somewhere, I'm sure.
In Infinite, the entire world is much brighter. Instead of an underwater city, you arrive in a floating utopia to a pre-recorded "Hallelujah". The beautiful city counterpointed against the elaborate and looming religiosity gives you that same uneasy feeling you got when your parents made you have an "accountability" session with the preacher after they caught you masturbating for the first time. A little too on-the-nose to be comfortable, but effective nonetheless.
After a much lengthier build-up and exploration period than the original, you get the same combat powers from the first game. An arsenal of weapons are available in every box, barrel, and dead body in the entire city (presumably Columbia was first launched from Texas), and every so often you'll come across a bottle containing a Vigor—Columbia's word for drinkable genetic modifications, because only the unbelievers need science—that gives you special powers, almost exclusively to deal with your "enemies."
Unsurprisingly, both the Randian city of self-indulgent wealthy people and the overzealous city of wealthy religious fundamentalists have persecution complexes and are susceptible to marketing that promises to deal with their "enemies" in a city that is otherwise homogenous and peaceful. On a related note, oh god why is everyone killing me it was just a joke my spleen ow ow ow.
The one area that Infinite has an advantage over the original is in the Skyhook system. In many battle-ready arenas, there are either rails or hooks that you can latch on to with your Skyhook with a simple jump—explained by "the damn thing must be magnetized" because, again, fuck science—which makes the entire game incredibly awesome. In most games, when you get overwhelmed by enemies, it's stressful and challenging. In Infinite, when an entire legion of baddies is sent my way, I never want it to end. The thrill of riding around on a one-man roller coaster, then leaping off to kill a large guy with a machine gun never gets old.
Infinite does an excellent job of building on the original's gameplay in a way that's familiar to veterans while still fresh and exciting for newbies and oldies alike. Both worlds meld superpowers and gunfights brilliantly. Infinite ditches the hacking mini-game that allows you to control turrets and cameras—which is little more than a direct rip-off of Pipe Mania—for the Skyhook system that blurs the line between Booker DeWitt and Indiana Jones. An acceptable trade.
There's Always a Lighthouse. There's Always a Man. There's Always a City.
Coming at the BioShock universe Infinite-first probably made me a little biased. I played through the original after getting instantly (sky?)hooked on Infinite, and the world of Rapture was beautiful, enthralling, engaging, and adjectives. Personally, I think it's hard to beat Columbia, though.
Up until this point in my life, I always held Valve up as the standard by which other games are judged. When Half-Life came out, it set the bar for modern shooters. I remember oohing and ahhing over the "skeletal animation system" (fancy 90s words for "the characters can move like they're not made of blocks of wood") and how you moved from one chapter to another seamlessly, rather than every level having a defined beginning and end point, entirely separated from one another, with a wall of text in between. At the time it was revolutionary. Portal similarly set the bar for immersive storytelling with its compact yet startling plot, revealed indirectly by the environment and omnipresent antagonist. When it came to merging gameplay and story, Valve knew better than most.
While playing BioShock Infinite for the first time, there was a specific moment where I recall consciously switching loyalties. I love Valve plenty still, but Infinite brought me into its world in a way that no other game has. I may not have ended my first run-through with every question answered, but I played as a non-silent protagonist with an AI-driven tagalong character. That sentence alone should've meant doom for the entire game. Instead, I cared.
Everything from start to finish in Infinite is gorgeous and as engaging as modern video games can get. Moreover, I'm the type of guy who likes a story I can dive into more once I'm done. I love replay value and I love expanded universes. It's this same mentality that makes me love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, MMOs including but not limited to WoW and SWTOR, and the Firefly world. I don't want to go through once and get everything. I want to learn more about the characters every time. I want to discover new worlds. I want to be so overwhelmed by detail and lore that I find something new each and every time.
BioShock Infinite—and the rest of the series—does that for me. When Booker makes his joke about a city under the ocean, I knew that I was going to be able to walk through it and I couldn't wait. I've played through Infinite at least a half-dozen times, and the original multiple times as well. I keep finding new things. Heck, I haven't even moved on to BioShock 2 yet. While it's not reviewed as well, that's a full game's worth of lore to explore. You know, once I'm done with the rest.
Few games can ever live up to their hype when they're hyped this much. Fortunately, I avoided most of that before I dove in. But I do have a system for figuring out when a game is worth my time. If it's still being talked about and praised by the time filthy casuals like me get around to it, it's probably at least worth checking out.
In other words, if you're reading this blog, you're a candidate. Go play.
We are Games On Delay, a non-professional gaming blog by and for filthy casuals. Read more about us here.