It’s hard not to compare Bioshock Infinite to the original Bioshock. The original Bioshock was a near-masterpiece in how it expertly wove narrative, gameplay, and atmosphere all into one cohesive experience. Infinite, on the other hand, just feels like a disjointed mess. To be honest, it feels like the story team was secluded in a room and writing the story they wanted to write while the gameplay and/or environment teams worked in another room on what they thought was another Bioshock game. I’m being vague, so let’s just get right into it.
Bioshock Infinite tells the story of Booker DeWitt, an alcoholic ex-soldier with a fair share of regrets. After building up a large sum of gambling debts, a mysterious entity hires him to find a girl named Elizabeth and escort her to New York. It turns out Elizabeth is a captive of sorts in Columbia, a massive flying city. Originally built by America, Columbia has since seceded from the union and gone a little bit crazy.
It’s an interesting setup and the first quarter of the game actually plays pretty well. It has all the elements you might expect from a Bioshock game: audio logs, loot containers, magic and gunplay, charismatic personalities that love to monologue, strange vending machines, and the like. The problem is that most of the features have little, if anything, to do with the overall narrative. About a third into the game, the story does a very sudden shift into new territory and spirals out of control from there. By the time it’s all over with, you can tell that this replacement plot of sorts is the story the game’s creators actually wanted to tell. I almost feel like it devalued the earlier portions of the game.
And that brings me back to why this game is disjointed. Let’s take a look at it piece by piece. In the first Bioshock, plasmids (essentially magic spells) were a core part of gameplay. Balancing the use of plasmids with the use of guns was part of the fun of combat and the wide variety of plasmids allowed for a variable approach to situations. But the true strength of plasmids was that they were also an integral part of the game’s narrative and world. Plasmids were responsible for the downfall of Rapture, as they slowly drove the citizens insane and turned them into splicers. Even the origin of plasmids (a substance found in sea slugs during the city’s construction) was integral to the game. The use of plasmids was required both to be successful in combat and to understand what had happened to this city.
Compare that to Bioshock Infinite. In Infinite, you acquire vigors (plasmids, just renamed) that have similar effects on gameplay. While I can’t say for sure, I didn’t feel as if vigors were as numerous or useful as they were in the original Bioshock. But more importantly, vigors are absolutely meaningless to the narrative of Bioshock Infinite. Vigors are introduced during a city fair of sorts, but we never truly understand what vigors are or where they came from. We never see if they have had an impact on Columbia. At the end of the day, it just feels like vigors are present in this game because “it’s Bioshock.”
That actually sums up a lot of the problems with Bioshock Infinite. It makes much less sense that there are vending machines selling guns in Columbia than it did in Rapture. But again, “it’s Bioshock.” Recorded audio logs seem few and far between and next to no insightful information is given about Columbia itself. But they are in the game because “it’s Bioshock.” In the original game, we found dozens of audio logs from all manner of people. It was through these logs that the city of Rapture was so well realized. In Infinite, audio logs tend to only come from the major characters and, after a point, only deal in the refocused narrative.
Then there’s the Songbird. This giant mechanical guardian has been billed as Infinite’s equivalent to the original game’s Big Daddies. This comparison is almost unfair, I’d say. The Songbird is a mystery. Its job is to protect Elizabeth and once you break her out, it begins to hunt you. Or at least that’s what you think will happen, but it doesn’t really because you only see the Songbird maybe three times over the course of the game. Even more, we never find out anything about what the Songbird is. Through its expert world-building, the original Bioshock made absolutely sure the player knows what a Big Daddy is. It forced us to observe them, fight them, see how they’re created, and eventually even become one. When you have an antagonist, even an indirect one, you should be able to understand it by the time everything’s said and done. I never understood the Songbird. I never discovered how it was created, how and why it did the things it did, and I certainly never felt hunted by it.
It was disappointing because the sequence where you first encounter the Songbird is extremely strong. The way it’s framed in your view to only give you a quick glimpse reminded me of classic films like Alien and Jaws. After that encounter, it’s much less impressive. You only see the Songbird a couple of times and every time you do, it’s during sequences when the game takes control away from you. While I don’t have the solution, it would have been nice to see the Songbird while I was actually in control of my character. It may surprise some to learn that you never even fight the Songbird. It’s a giant, flying, robotic plot device.
This is what I’m talking about when I say that Bioshock Infinite fails to merge gameplay and narrative in the expert way that the original Bioshock did. While yes, plasmids and Big Daddies were plot devices, they were also important parts of the gameplay experience. You could even call Rapture itself a plot device, but it was still important in every single aspect of the Bioshock’s experience. The Songbird is a plot device, but it exists wholly outside of gameplay. Vigors exist in gameplay but seem to be totally irrelevant in the narrative. Most disappointing of all, Columbia itself is important for gameplay mechanics but seems also to be totally irrelevant to the narrative.
The story that Bioshock Infinite wants to tell you could have taken place in any secluded city in the world. The fantastical hyper-patriotic floating dystopia of Columbia means little, if anything, in the overall narrative. In the first Bioshock, Andrew Ryan said, “It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea; it was impossible to build it anywhere else.” I have always felt like that quotation also meant that the story of Bioshock was one that could only take place in Rapture. The city itself was so intricately folded into both narrative and gameplay that it would have been impossible to set that game somewhere else.
I think that because all of these elements failed to mingle successfully, it made other parts of Bioshock Infinite suffer as well. The combat is just…boring. Vigors don’t change things enough and the variation of guns seems to be artificial. A couple of the guns have two or three variants that behave in different ways. Why not just make a different gun for each of those versions, each with a unique model? It would have been more interesting than re-colored versions of the same gun. But the combat really suffers because, as I said, there has been no effort made to integrate it into the narrative. The combat is pretty much Bioshock combat through and through. But without the narrative hooks linking the combat to the rest of the world around you, it just feels bland and repetitive. However, I will say that using the rails that connect floating building to floating building in order to flank enemies was fun for a bit.
I don’t want to come down too hard on Bioshock Infinite, though. Visually, the game is breathtaking. The art style is very well realized and the city of Columbia is definitely an impressive sight to behold. The color palate is bright and appealing, especially in an age where most first-person shooters are brown or gray. Also, the animation seems to be top notch. Elizabeth’s facial expressions during her conversations with Booker are subtle and realistic and it goes a long way. The story that the game wants to tell you is pretty good too. I think that if they had just made a game without the Bioshock name, telling this story, Infinite would have been a hundred times more successful than it is. It’s a story (and ending) that will leave you thinking for a good week or so after it’s over.
I went into Bioshock Infinite with high hopes. I had seen a bit of the promotional stuff showing off Columbia and I was excited to experience the floating city. I looked forward to understanding what it was and what went wrong for it and ultimately having an effect on it myself. Sadly, about a third or so through the game, I realized that Bioshock Infinite was not the game I was hoping for. Mechanically, it had all the parts of the game I thought it’d be, but the soul and complete vision was missing. Still, I encourage everyone to play Bioshock Infinite and form their own opinion on the matter. But while I keep returning to Rapture every so often, I don’t think I feel the need to visit Columbia ever again.