It takes a long time for the dust to settle on Columbia. But it seems it hasnâ€™t taken long for the dust to settle on the critical consensus regarding BioShock Infinite. Already hailed as one of 2013â€™s best and most polished titles, it's had critics frothing at the mouth to extol its virtues.
But, it does take a long time for the dust to settle on Columbia. With the wisdom of reflection, we're ready for a follow up question: Once the clamour has died away, is BioShock Infinite really that good?
Back in 2007, Irrational Games first introduced us to BioShock and the BioShock method of storytelling. That game, set in the 1960s, led players through the undersea city of Rapture â€” a submerged dream world built on the utopian dreams of Ayn Rand, libertarianism, and the free market. It was a fantastic and inventive collision of the political with the fantastical, and injected ideology back into gaming. 2010 saw a lesser follow up to that stunning first title - with BioShock 2, again set in Rapture. Following a tepid reception, the series went back to the drawing board.
And that leads us to Columbia.
Irrational games have turned the series on its head, almost literally, taking the BioShock story back 50 years to 1912 and the city of Columbia. But this is not another submerged city - quite the opposite. Columbia is a city floating in the clouds hundreds of miles above the earthâ€™s surface, rendered in exquisite and beautiful detail.
It is a fantastic world, in both senses of the word. Irrational Games have once again outdone themselves with their depiction of setting and place. Columbia hums with energy and creaks with an aesthetic that masterfully rolls together steampunk and the late romantic. But thankfully, a city floating atop zeppelins, pumps, pipe-powered machinery, and steel rails are not all that gives Columbia its grandiose sense of majesty.
That comes from the narrative structure that is built into the very bones of the BioShock Infinite experience. The story weaves together different strands, structures, political themes, and emotional relationships. Itâ€™s a tour de force but a complicated one. In fact, perhaps too complex for the relaxed gamer or the idle player.
BioShock Infinite is centred on the actions of Booker DeWitt, who has been sent to Columbia to rescue the â€śgirlâ€ť. That girl is Elizabeth, a woman who has been imprisoned in Columbia by the prophet Comstock â€” the leader of a personality cult whose style borrows from reverential christianity, southern patriotism, and the Ku Klux Klan. Booker and Elizabeth must make their way off Columbia, so that Booker can wipe a mysterious debt that he owes.
There is a lot in that. A lot. And thatâ€™s not even addressing the main narrativeâ€™s numerous side plots, characters, and quests. But it doesn't even come close to describing the full complexity of BioShock Infiniteâ€™s complex storytelling.
You see, Irrational Games have decided to present a second narrative, a more political story that exists underneath the main â€śguys saves girlâ€ť hero quest of the main game. As the game progresses this second story becomes more important, and if you know where to look, more powerful. This duality is typical of the BioShock series that has always had critical political themes running through its experience.
At the very beginning of the game, Booker is walking through a carnival as he tries to make his way to Monument Island to meet Elisabeth. As he passes a stage, a showman directs his attention to a two people that have been bound together. One is a white man, the other is a black woman. Booker is asked to decide this interracial coupleâ€™s fate, or refuse to answer the question by attacking the showman. Its a fleeting glimpse of the sub-narrative to come.
As soon as that scene is over, it's gone. But the further you work your way into the game, the clearer the divide between the white kings of Columbia and their black servants becomes. In the middle of the game, it strikes you front and centre once again. As Booker and Elizabeth battle their way out Columbia, they come into contact with the Vox Populi, a group of rebellious freedom fighters led by the debonaire Daisy Fitzroy. They are fighting for social and economic freedom from Comstock and Columbiaâ€™s â€śmastersâ€ť and they will stop at nothing to get it.
This important political undercurrent is testament to the complexity of BioShockâ€™s story. And the subterranean way it is told â€” through voice recorders, signs on walls, and NPCs â€” could even be interpreted as a subtle, but cutting, critique of gaming and the gamer demographic. In BioShock Infinite, (mostly) white gamers play as a white man who saves a white girl from another white man â€” but the world you play in is figuratively built on the sweat of the â€śotherâ€ť. And thereâ€™s no option to save them. Maybe thatâ€™s reading too much into it. But that fact that you can is an example of the depth that Irrational Games have built into the title.
But as that sub-narrative hints, not everything is equal in Columbia. Unfortunately, BioShock Infinite's actual gameplay doesnâ€™t meet the atmospheric heights set by its narrative and its story. Following on from what we have seen in its earlier iterations, the titleâ€™s gameplay mixes together roleplaying elements, first person shooter action, and the use of special â€śvigorsâ€ť that replicate the earlier BioShockâ€™s plasmids. These game mechanics are fairly similar in style and in effect to what we are accustomed to, but are supplemented by two new unique gameplay elements.
The first is the introduction of metal rails that Booker can leap up to and zoom along. This adds a level of vertical integration to the first person experience that is part roller coaster, part gondola. The second is the use of Elizabeth as an environmental ally. Through a process that is never fully explained, Elizabeth is able to rip open â€śtearsâ€ť in the world around her.
It is through these tears that Elizabeth also helps to drive the gameâ€™s narrative. Booker and Elizabeth can walk through these tears into alternative universes, where events have happened differently and doors closed to them can be opened. This is an important narrative device, but it's also crucial for the gameâ€™s combat mechanic. During firefights, Booker can access ammunition, health, or even activate sentry guns or helpful units that Elizabeth â€śtearsâ€™ open for him. In the right places, and at the right time these are useful, necessary, and add much needed tactical depth to the classic first person shooter mechanic.
However, there is a problem. Even with the inclusion of tears, inventive vigors, and vertical combat, BioShock Infiniteâ€™s gameplay lacks intensity. It is not the rush of battle or the fear of failure that pushes you through this title - it is the story, and the tug of the quest. This results in a game that feels lopsided and unbalanced. Columbiaâ€™s world is full of intrigue - but after a time the constant need to battle Booker and Elizabeth through the chaff to get to the wheat becomes cumbersome. Even with the inclusion of upgradeable weapons and vigors, the gameâ€™s shooting gameplay feels siloised and frustratingly formulaic. This contributes to a mid-game that drags on, undermining the excitement and impetus of the titleâ€™s first few hours.
These concerns are disappointing, because of the rest of the title presents an engaging and emotionally immersive experience. The world of Columbia is clearly worthy of investigation and the simple pleasure of exploring its mysteries is satisfying enough by itself. But the decision to have Booker shoot at everything in his way (and to put so much in his way) typifies a perennial problem with modern game development.
Studios still feel the need to tie an experience to a â€śgenreâ€ť â€” in this case the first person shooter. This can be for a variety of reasons: to please executives, to build on past victories, or simply for expedience. But there is nothing innately embedded into the BioShock experience that says it needs to be that way. It's the story and world, not the genre, that has impressed its fans. Granted, its predecessors were both shooters, but previous designs can often be more of a hinderance than a help to good game development. Given the majesty of the titleâ€™s setting and story, BioShock Infiniteâ€™s combat experience could have benefited from less violence, rather than more. Whatâ€™s on offer is by no means poor. But it is unimaginative, and that a perfect game does not make.
The decision to present the game through the eyes of Booker creates a third problem. Central to the way the story moves forward is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. Developing emotional attachment through a supporting cast is something that games have often done â€” Sarah Kerrigan and Jim Raynor from Starcraft, or Ethan Mars and Madison Paige from Heavy Rain come immediately to mind. But BioShock Infinite puts the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth right at the core of your experience. It is absolutely central to how you interact with the game. But in a genre where you canâ€™t see Bookerâ€™s feet, let alone his face, this throws up insurmountable and unavoidable barriers to how closely you can truly engage with Booker and his relationship with Elizabeth. Again, these challenges are self inflicted.
There is no denying that BioShock Infinite is an excellent title. Its story has depth and complexity, and the experience is enjoyable. Irrational Games have created in Columbia a world that suspends our sense of disbelief and provides us with an engaging, visceral, and emotional experience. But they have also presented us with a â€śgameâ€ť, quote marks intended. To get through that experience, players must lead Booker on a warpath that becomes increasingly rote and decidedly alien. And they must do it with the subconscious knowledge that they will always be detached from Booker himself.
For many gamers, thatâ€™s not going to matter. The Subtle Knife meets The Terminator might be just the experience they were looking for â€” and a polished and well made experience it certainly is. But the dust on Columbia will settle. And when it does, for those looking a little deeper, these design choices will represent a worrying failure: an opportunity for evolution missed.