Saturday, March 25, 2023
In one of those nasty little slippages of time, BioShock Infinite is ten years old this week. This really shouldn’t be the case, given that much of the game feels like it could come out next week. The story spins around Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who is hired to rescue a girl named Elizabeth. And boy does it spin. The job takes him to Columbia, a city that floats in the firmament, high above America. The science that keeps it up there soon gives way to cracks in time and space, and to grapple with the intricacies of the plot, even now, I need a pen and paper, a pair of compasses, and a couple of aspirin.
BioShock Infinite was the last in what is, at the time of writing, a trilogy. (There is another game on the way, of which we know very little.) It followed BioShock and BioShock 2, spurning the drab predictability of the number “3” in favour of the endless. It also departed from those games in its setting. They took place in Rapture, an underwater metropolis whose citizens prospered behind double-thick glass, riveted to the ocean floor. Columbia, by contrast, was light and bright; with its facades as white as marzipan, it resembled an airborne wedding cake, delicately frosted by the altitude. For anyone who struggled, squinting through the brine and gloom of Rapture, to make out anything that would identify it as a former utopia, here was the thing. Columbia showed us why people may have wanted to actually go there; who wants a blue whale bruising past the window, when you can look down on all creation, coughing along through a tide of cloud?
Other changes brought by Infinite, ironically, include the paring down of mechanics. Booker could wield only two weapons at once, flipping between them and swapping them on the fly. Far from an impediment, though, this gave the action an improvisational air that seemed in keeping with the breezy Columbia, where all life was lived on the fly. The Plasmids – superhuman gifts from the previous games, imbued by plunging a harpoon-sized syringe into your wrist – here took the form of Vigors, quaffable tonics that bestow similar perks. But there weren’t as many of them, totalling only eight. The first game boasted twelve powers, and the second added another four; but again, you don’t feel short-changed. What’s here are the core abilities, none of which blur together or go unused.
The best of them has to be Murder of Crows, which allows the unflappable Booker to summon a blizzard of vicious birds. Though special mention has to be made of Bucking Bronco, a riff on Telekinesis that saddles your foes with stasis, holding them aloft and defenceless while you pick them off. But what of the curious power, glimpsed in the first trailer for the game, which allowed Elizabeth to rescue a falling Booker by catching him on a bed of roses? The prevailing theme of BioShock Infinite is the confluence of paths not taken; Elizabeth has the knack of opening rifts between dimensions and pulling in possible outcomes from other realms. It is fitting, then, that the theme of strimming and trimming would define the game’s thorny development.
Rod Fergusson – currently overseeing the progress of Gears of War, at The Coalition – was brought in, late in the day, to heave the game over line. Part of that painful process was the culling of ideas, the pruning back of sights that had bloomed in trailers and screenshots. Elizabeth looked different. Columbia’s public transportation system, the Sky-Line, was cut short. Whole scenarios, such as Elizabeth opening a portal into a Paris street and nearly getting run over, were removed. And yet, the end result feels anything but incomplete. In fact, perversely, the troubles of its begetting seem to have invested BioShock Infinite with an extra layer of myth. Look closely, at the end of the adventure, and you will see that earlier version of Elizabeth, cleverly presented as an extra-dimensional facsimile. There is no cut content, you see; we are simply not equipped, in our dull and neighbourless dimension, to see the other versions of the game that did come out and is, presumably, delighting our other, infinite selves.
Ten years on, the legacy of BioShock Infinite is elusive. Yes, the series isn’t finished – though you can’t help feeling that, really, it is – and, yes, Ken Levine, its director, has just unveiled Judas, his new studio’s debut, which bears a few visual similarities to the BioShocks of old. But what, exactly, was its impact? The likes of Prey, Dishonored, and, more recently, Deathloop all sprang up around it, but, despite a few Plasmid-like powers, their influences can be traced further back, to System Shock 2. (That game was made by Looking Glass Studios, where Levine began his game development career, and the shattering of which led to the formation of Irrational Games, which gave us Rapture and Columbia.)
Where BioShock Infinite remains almost unmatched is in its attention to setting, and in the vigor of its imaginative powers. The series is a tale of two cities that wraps itself around one true subject: the American Experiment. Rapture was soaked in the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, its founder, Andrew Ryan, beseeching us to ponder whether a man was not entitled to the sweat of his brow. He built a haven at the bottom of the sea (“It was impossible to build it anywhere else”) to drown out the rest of the world. Columbia, meanwhile, coasting through the heavens, sees itself as being more than geographically above the rest of the planet. One character, exploiting the inter-dimensional fracture, peers through time and plunders shards of American pop culture – the music of Cyndi Lauper, R.E.M., and The Beach Boys, hence the anachronistic cover versions that you hear throughout.
It’s a hell of a thing to hit upon just to get the noise of the Twentieth Century humming through the streets. The clear comparison is to Rockstar, which rattles the air of Grand Theft Auto with licensed music from the in-game radio stations. Rockstar may be the only other big studio to take America as its grand subject, working at it from various angles (satire, excessive detail, violence, freedom) in order to capture it in different lights. BioShock Infinite came at it through pulp genre (science fiction, film noir, serial adventure) and arrived at the same vision of unified crack-up. There aren’t many big games that would attempt, let alone pull off, such a big picture. Credit to Ken Levine and to Irrational Games for delivering something this strange and striking, as difficult to imitate as it is to grapple with. A decade has gone by since Booker landed in Columbia, but to say that his trip is now over doesn’t seem quite right. It feels as if he is there now, looking for Elizabeth, with the future still up in the air.
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