by Irrational Games
Rating: PEGI 18
BioShock Infinite is the much anticipated first-person shooting video-game that follows up Irrational Games’ breakout success with the original Bioshock. But that really doesn’t tell you much about it.
That it is set in a floating city steeped in the politics of American exceptionalism and we play Booker DeWitt on his mission to save Elizabeth from her Rapunzel-style incarceration gets us closer. That Elizabeth has a prophesy about her atoning for the sins of the world, is the child of the city’s founding prophet and (as if that wasn’t enough) has the ability to open doors to other places gets us closer still.
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 its grown-up interest most grown-ups would need considerable coaching and practice to be able to experience it in full. In fact it is one of the most violent games I have played in recent years.
Irrational Games tackle the problem of this “shooter-tainment” by weaving the violence into the narrative. Elizabeth, our computer-controlled companion, is genuinely shocked and repulsed 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.
This notwithstanding, Bioshock Infinite takes big budget video-games another step beyond entertaining target practice. 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.
This 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. Elizabeth is particularly impressive and deftly channels the adrenaline from battle sequences into quieter emotional moments where she is found ruminating on her plight.
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 creature programmed to keep her “safe” in the tower.
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.
A step removed from the shooting, we find a painful paradox in Elizabeth’s fear and appreciation of Songbird’s overpowering protection. 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 these relationships for human life and hope. Whether that is god and creature, parent and child or even an abusive love affair, it is Elizabeth’s will to face and negotiate this mountain that is emotionally engaging in Bioshock Infinite.
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 let Booker escape. This mastering of her fear in turn changes Songbird, from stalker to ally and even a final sad parting.
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 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 found in the bible, which almost make the death and killing worth it.
Andy Robertson appears as a gaming expert for the BBC and runs the Family Gamer TV channel.