BioShock Infinite And The Perils Of Following A Masterpiece

BioShock Infinite is a rare example of game that has seen its stock drop in appraisal since its release. After critical infatuation over the weeks of it's launch, slowly the love people felt for it has somewhat soured. The problem with being the true successor to a masterpiece is that the game is already fighting a losing battle. There is an extra level of scrutiny and hyper-analysation that would be absent if it was an entirely new creation, and it's only in the months and years since it first releases that it fully can be torn apart. It's hard not to compare Infinite and the original BioShock when they share the same name, but doing so does a disservice to Infinite, which is best experienced completely as it's own beast.

Infinite cannot be faulted for its ambition. After all it literally aims for the sky with its scope. It tries to address and weave together complex ideas around religious extremism, the oppressed becoming the oppressors, the issue of longing for an idealised notion of a nation that never existed in the first place. These points appear even more prescient now as we prepare for a Trump presidency. The 'Make America Great Again' slogan could easily have been coined by Comstock. These are issues that games rarely have the gaul to address, or if they do it's rarely more nuanced than saying “discrimination is bad”. Games like Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or The Witcher 3 have these themes in their story, but never cutting deep to the underlying humanity or ideological driving force. The twist ending reveal that Booker and Comstock are parallel versions of each other is not simply there just to surprise the player, but to show how the darkside in all of us can be accessed and manipulated by powerful ideas. 

Central to this theme is the plight of Daisy Fitzroy who appears at first to on the 'good side', fighting the fascist regime of Comstock's Columbia and aiming to set the black communities free from slavery. This is a noble cause which the player naturally sides with. The violence that Fitzroy shows seems justified. But this turned on its head as Fitzroy's army turn excessively violent and oppressive themselves. This is a core philosophy of the game, that violence breeds violence and that there is no obvious end to the cycle. Wars do not get won, they merely bleed into each other. There are no 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. Those who are persecuted by violence are changed and can have their humanity and empathy stripped away. Once a soldier, always a soldier.

This is a more realistic and complex view of war and discrimination that has distinct real-world parallels. The seemingly never ending wars that occur in the Middle-East and Africa atest to this. How often over the last decade have we seen rebel-factions overthrowing their tyrannical leaders but becoming equally as monstrous when they are in power? This flies in the face of the logic of most games, where there is a clear goal and a clear evil that the player must defeat and after that everything will be OK. The original BioShock touched on this theme, Andrew Ryan himself is Jewish and the oppression he felt led him to establishing his own repressive regime, despite claiming Rapture would be a place of complete freedom. But BioShock Infinite confronts this in a more obvious way and makes the player feel as though their actions actively making things worse. It is rare that a huge AAA game makes the player question their own motivation and perspective. Infinite must be given huge credit for the guts and conviction in its writing.

The actual presentation of Infinite is lavish and over-the-top. With it's bright visuals and skyhook-focused combat, the whole game feels like a rollercoaster ride. The combat is nothing particularly remarkable, but it's perfectly serviceable. A large complaint with the game is that the combat feels completely separate from the rest of the game and that these two aspects don't link together to create a cohesive whole game. This point is broadly true, but is also true of most AAA titles. Take Uncharted 4. It sees you dodging millions of bullets, climbing up cliff edges with your bare-hands and jumping impossible distances. It then tries to tell an an emotional story during the cutscenes about how Nathan Drake should quit this lifestyle because he might get himself killed. This is despite the fact that he is clearly immortal if the gameplay is to be taken literally. Or the Grand Theft Auto series, which again tries to tell stories about morality and crime despite the fact that between each mission the player will go around murdering pedestrians, flying helicopters into buildings and ploughing through beach-goers in their car. There is a distinct disconnect between the gameplay and the story.

BioShock was a rare example where the story, the world and the gameplay all married together perfectly. Once you get past the initially eyebrow-raising premise (man builds underwater city in the 1940's where everybody goes around shooting bees out of their hands) the internal logic is consistent. But even with BioShock there is still a level of disconnect. As the player you kill an entire city of people single-handedly, just like in Uncharted, you are immortal. As long as a game features death it can never really make sense. Infinite does have silly combat, and the use of vigours doesn't really make sense with a place that prides itself in purity. But as suspension of disbelief goes it by know means one of the worst culprits in videogames. If Infinite was not the follow-up to BioShock it is doubtful that this aspect would be scrutinised in much the same way.

BioShock Infinite is best treated as unrelated to the original. A successor in name only. It tells a different story in a different world, with different ambitions and different themes. The story at the core of Infinite, it's main focus and selling point, is incredibly well done, turning the emotional screw to heart-wrenching levels at the end. Both Booker and Elizabeth are impeccably written which is sadly still a rarity in blockbuster game releases. The story drip feeds its information slowly but without frustrating the player, never trying to deliberately confuse you or appear more clever than it is, never descending into Stephen Moffat-levels of frustration. The driving force behind Infinite is this story at the centre, just as the driving force behind BioShock was the world it put you in. It's about the characters as much as Columbia, where BioShock was entirely about Rapture. Different games, different ambitions.

It is for that reason Infinite's Burial At Sea DLC was not success. Burial At Sea's focus was trying to tie to together both games, with Elizabeth using her powers of parallel world travel to sew the seeds that set the original games plot in motion. At this point the chronology becomes too messy, the logic of one world doesn't make sense with the logic of the other. The two games work best when they are viewed as completely separate worlds. The attempts to tie them together does neither one a favour and adds an extra layer plot that makes the whole thing overly convoluted. 

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Both the original BioShock and BioShock Infinite and remarkable feats in gaming for very different reasons. Using modest technology, BioShock created a world that explored ideas never seen in games creating the allegorical setting of Rapture to explore these ideas. While Infinite didn't have the same logic in it's world building with Columbia, it used the stories themselves to explore different ideas, confronting them more up-front rather than just through audio logs and environmental storytelling. If BioShock is an interactive museum, Infinite is a rollercoaster. Both games have their merits and strive to affect the player in unique and original ways. BioShock Infinite shouldn't not be written-off simply for pursuing a different path to its predecessor. Both should be heralded as the shot to the arm that AAA games that they were.