BioShock Infinite Is Still a Masterwork, Ten Years On

BioShock Infinite Is Still a Masterwork, Ten Years On

Josh Wise

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.

  • Yes it is. And Atomic Heart is also a masterwork and it's only 30 days old.
  • Still the only game that my wife asked me to keep playing and wanted to know when I'd play again so she could be there to watch and see the story unfold.
  • Infinite is a masterpiece. Atomic Heart is not, though I will admit I haven’t had this much fun with FPS in almost a year.
  • The hype around this game was insane on release with "greatest game of all time" being thrown around, but over the years people seem to have turned on it a fair bit. It was certainly good, but any combat encounter that didnt have the skyhook involved just felt like a worse version of Bioshock 1&2 due to the enemies and guns being more bland than anything in rapture. Also, the story making the slave uprising the bad guys half way through because "violence is always bad" felt like it was written by a 15 year old
  • I enjoyed Bioshock Infinite, buy it was my least favorite of the three. Rapture, or the first two games were just so much better. Better story, better enemies, better combat encounters, better "big bads". Those first two games oozed with atmosphere and it made the game immensely immersive.

    Rapture felt claustrophobic... You truly felt alone and isolated, separated from the rest of the world. You were leery about entering every room for what you may encounter in them. You stare at objects in a room, frozen in time, imagining what it was like before the incident occurred the way one would stare at objects in video clips of the sunken Titanic, visualizing life in motion on that ship, placing those items there before the incident occurred. Sadly, Columbia had none of that, or even it's own version of immersive atmosphere. For me, I rank the Bioshock trilogy exactly in the order they released.
  • I have to vehemently disagree with the term 'masterwork'.

    Simply on a mechanical level, the game was significantly pared back from what was shown in trailers. Contrary to this article I felt it did make it feel incomplete. It had so many interesting ideas either only partially realized it entirely unused.

    Then thematically, the portrayal of Daisy Fitzroy and her rebellion undercut almost anything else the game was trying to say. The 'both sides are equally bad' portrayal, where one side is the embodiment of white supremacy and the other is a rebelling underclass with no route other than violence at their disposal, is laughable.

    The DLC then went a step further to remove even more agency from the characters and got so caught up in it's own self-perceieved cleverness that it retroactively devalued the games that came before it as well.

    I don't dislike the game overall, it had some really interesting ideas but lacklustre execution and some troubling thematic undercurrents make it fall well short of masterwork in my view.

    Prey on the other hand truly warrants the title, sharing much of the same DNA as Bioshock.
  • It wasn't THAT good. It kinda got lost up its own ass somewhere after the halfway point and I thought the gameplay was better in the previous games anyway.
  • Bioshock is easily was of the greatest video games ever made...Infinite, however, doesn't quite compare.
  • Atomic Heart is mid at best.
  • Still way better than most “AAA” games that are being made today.

    Imo the industry has gone way downhill since the end of the Xbox 360 era.

    At least when it comes to fun unique games that are not cookie cutter shit that’s been beyond played out (no pun intended)
  • The worst of the Bioshock Games.
  • Bioshock infinite is way overrated.
    The gameplay is simplified to a fault compared to BS1/2.
    In particular the limitation to 2 weapons at a time makes no sense considering the ammo distribution throughout the game and the weapon upgrade system.

    Inventory management and considerate item distribution is pretty much non existant, with elisabeth giving you what you need in the moment, in gated off areas linear compared to semi-open explorable environments in BS1.

    Unbalanced bullet-sponge bossfights, with bad respawn mechanic, that lets you loose yourself into a corner (in particular the first ghost fight on harder difficulties), compared to BS1 big daddies, with strategic preparation and lots of tactical options (traps, hacking, plasmids, environment).

    The story is pretentious, convoluted and makes no sense. It mentions a lot of topics (religion, politics, racism, workers rights, etc. but fails to properly explore or make a point about any of these.

    Then there is the multiverse theory, which in this game makes no sense at all.
    Usually multiverse theory follows specific rules, to negate certain paradoxons (grandfather paradox, fermi paradox, etc.). Infinite doesn't give a shit. Multiverse is just a tool for lazy writing, to have that occur, whatever needs to happen to advance the plot.
    Two quotes from elisabeth during the game demonstate that very well
    1. "Some things are alway constant" (How? Why? Does this follow any logical rules)
    2. Elisabeth after spawning a key out of thin air "I guess it was always there, I just didn't look close enough" (Oh that's convenient. How does this work?)

    Then there is the "Mark of the false prophet" that triggers columbia being hostile. What is the significance of this? Why does Booker have it? Why doesn't Booker try to conceal it (wearing a glove, a bandaid or whatever?)

    Choices that are played up to be relevant but have no effect (bird or cage), not even in a telltale way, that they change a line of dialogue.

    These are just a selection. There is way more wrong with gameplay and narrative, but I leave it for now.
    I somewhat get the feeling that Bioshock infinite was supposed to be a different game, with more fleshed out mechanics, that at some point was rushed to development, so it was cut down to a somewhat functioning state. Particular weapons, ammo and weapon-upgrade system make no sense for the game it is now.
    As for the narrative, it seems overly ambitious with setting up all these themes and topics in the beginning, but eventually not properly developing them, leaving all these loose ends and logical inconsistencies in there. Like it was rushed to completion by someone (maybe Rod Ferguson), who didn't understand or give a shit, what someone else (maybe Ken Levine) was trying to accomplish.
    Ultimately Bioshock Infinite seems sophisticated and artsy at first glance, but if you take a second to think about and understand it, it turns out to just be a convoluted mess, that doesn't even work particularly good as a game.

    To me Bioshock Infinite seems like a "The emperor has no clothes" case, where (especially at release of the game no one wants to appear as the unsophisticated simpleton that just doesn't get it.

    The game is solid in terms of craftsmanship and production value, to save it from being terrible as a game. Also the art design is quite good, but at the end of the day its not really a good game either and certainly no masterpiece.
  • I remember not liking the first news about Bioshock Ifinite leaving Rapture and the deep oceans. Then I slowly started to like the idea of the new setting and got the game fairly early. I did like the game a lot more than I thought I would. I also liked the characters in Infinite quite a bit.

    The story DLC made things worse though. I liked being back in Rapture but the story got really convoluted and I felt it tried to hard.

    I still like the game but it is the worst entry in a very good trilogy in my opinion.
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