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BioShock Infinite is the much anticipated first-person shooting video-game that follows up Irrational Games' breakout success with the original Bioshock. Beautiful visuals, pitch perfect audio and intelligent level design create a world you'll want to explore. That is to say, to the untrained eye this looks and feels like any other video-games released this year.
However, Bioshock Infinite stands out in surprising and unexpected ways.
For starters the game is set in a floating city steeped in the politics of American exceptionalism and all its related problems. We play Booker DeWitt on his mission to save Elizabeth from her Rapunzel-style incarceration. Elizabeth who, we discover, is a central figure in the floating city because of a prophesy about her atoning for the sins of the world, being the child of the society's founding prophet and (as if that wasn't enough) her ability to open doors to other places and times.
Before we get to all this good stuff though, there is no escaping that Bioshock Infinite is a game primarily designed to sell to people who like pretending to shoot other people in the head, and are reasonably good at it. Indeed, for all this grown-up interest most grown-ups would need considerable coaching and practice to be able to experience it in full -- in either dual-stick gamepad or Move gesture controls. In fact it is one of the most violent games I have played in recent years with enemies being decapitated, sliced, electrocuted, incinerated and generally treated as cannon fodder throughout.
Irrational Games tackle the problem of this "shooter-tainment" storytelling by weaving the violence into the plot. Elizabeth, our computer-controlled companion, is genuinely shocked and repulsed in a "are you some kind of monster" way at Booker's off-hand disposal of enemies. As you may anticipate, she quickly learns to live with the carnage and even defaults to a supportive role in keeping Booker's weapons stocked.
Booker's own slow-growing remorse at his actions is more successful although again is undermined in any ongoing way by the sheer number of people he has to kill to rescue the girl and achieve his catharsis.
It was actually this quieter more personal thread that stayed with me.
This notwithstanding, Bioshock Infinite takes big budget video-games another step beyond entertaining target practice. Things happen in its ten (or so) hours that there is not time for in a three hour film and wouldn't work in a pre-scripted book. Booker and Elizabeth matter because we spend time with them in "real" space, we overhear their story for ourselves rather than being shown or told it by a third party. In fact, this way of experiencing narrative is itself another skill we need to work at initially, like reading or watching.
Once mastered it lets the narrative proceed gently, so that players can engage with the layered story at their own pace. Simply spending time in the floating city, seeing the religious phrasing and iconography, overhearing the chatter and responses of inhabitants or even just taking in the architecture and fashions do as much of the narrative work as the dialogue.
This lends the relationships between Booker, Elizabeth and her dictator-captor, Comstock, room to breathe and become genuinely intriguing over the course of the game. It's a complex of characters that avoids stereotype by a shifting perspective of who really has the high moral ground.
Elizabeth is particularly impressive and soon lays to rest concerns over spending long hours with an "artificial" companion. She deftly channels the adrenaline from battle sequences into quieter emotional moments when you often catch her ruminating on her plight and the sad state of the world.
While the game wears its grand themes of politics, ideology and religion on its sleeve, it was actually this quieter more personal thread that stayed with me. Nowhere better is this found than in Elizabeth's relationship with Songbird -- a huge mechanical bird programmed to care for her and keep her "safe" in the tower.
It's the impossibility of unequal powers relating without damaging each other, while at the same time the necessity of those relationships for human life and hope.
Songbird plays King Kong to Elizabeth's Ann Darrow, only here the potential power of the heroine is writ large in her space-time-travelling abilities and the fragility of the monster magnified in its avian design. Like Kong the Songbird relationship teeters on the abusive as the overbearing robotic guardian ruthlessly carries out his programming to keep Elizabeth locked up at any cost.
A step removed from the shooting, we find a painful paradox here in Elizabeth's fear and appreciation of the attention of her overpowering protector. It's not far removed from the contradiction we find in the bible when people and god take the ill-advised step of interacting. It's the impossibility of unequal powers relating without damaging each other, while at the same time the necessity of those relationships for human life and hope.
Elizabeth and Songbird reminded me of this hope found in all sorts of relationships. But whether that is god and creature, parent and child or even an abusive love affair, it's the will to face and negotiate this mountain that is emotionally engaging in Bioshock.
From moments of deep terror, begging for death rather than Songbird's cage, Elizabeth slowly finds the courage to face her fears and even offer herself as decoy to the bird to let Booker escape. This mastering of her fear in turn changes Songbird, from stalker to ally before arriving at an originally unimaginable a final sad parting -- the game's real highlight for me.
It is the people rather than ideologies that we are left with in the end.
All the while we dance around the story, taking part, overhearing, collecting, making decisions, revisiting, exploring and (inevitably) killing, lots of killing. Along the way Bioshock Infinite raises many big issues with considerable maturity, be they the utilitarian state, racism, exceptionalism or religion, but it is the people rather than ideologies that we are left with in the end.
Booker, Elizabeth and Comstock are on a journey towards honesty, held back by fear and anger and regret. When they each arrive at their moment of decision the question is no longer about washing away the past with forgiveness but the sacrifice of living with who they really are. It's a story, like some we find in the bible, which almost make their death and killing worth it.
First published on Thirdway in June 2013.
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