“The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist.”
For part 1, click here.
Bioshock Infinite is a very different beast to what came before. The contrast between the dimly lit, creaking interiors of the underwater Rapture, and the sunshine-bathed streets of the floating city of Columbia, is stark. As such, it does distance itself quite distinctly from the first two. That is, until you factor in the two-part DLC, Burial at Sea, which draws its protagonists to the city of Rapture on the eve of its fall. We’ll come back to that …
Infinite throws us into the shoes of Booker DeWitt. As we begin, he is being rowed across a choppy sea by two rambling strangers (“He doesn’t row?” “No, he doesn’t row.”). He’s deposited, without much by way of explanation, at a pier leading to – of course – a lighthouse. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt” – these words ring loud in his mind; the only indication of the task ahead.
This opening segment is bold and beautiful, visually as stunning as anything else in the series; most particularly in the ascent to the floating city of Columbia, a voyage deliberately mirroring that first, fateful descent into Rapture. Here, greeted by a wondrous chamber of angelic sight and sound, it’s hard not to think of O Brother, Where Art Thou?. You could easily picture the Coen Brothers, or Paul Thomas Anderson, directing a cinematic version of this. It’s the kind of intro that will have you returning over and over again, especially when viewed again in the context of the main game’s own ending.
From there, Infinite takes its time introducing us to this new, seemingly idyllic, world. And this is where we encounter a couple of its biggest problems: Columbia is a beautiful creation in its own right, but it doesn’t quite match up to some of the finer nuances and atmospherics of Rapture. Chief amongst these is the fact that there are only a certain number of variations in its citizens’ facial features. It’s a little creepy, and distancing. In this, they lack the lasting appeal of the Splicers in the earlier games. Perhaps intentional but, if so, it’s a little muddled.
However, using Rapture as a stick to beat the developers with is probably unfair. It’s only because that world was so expertly crafted and endlessly appealing that Columbia suffers in comparison. The city in the clouds is, in its own right, a brilliant achievement, especially once the game gathers steam, and events inevitably unravel.
Its biggest strength, though, lies with its protagonists: Booker and Elizabeth. It’s telling that they remain two of the series’ most enduring characters. Many of Infinite’s conceits are embedded in the interchanges between them: Elizabeth’s strong (and slightly naïve) moral code clashing with Booker’s own indifference to violence and cynical world-view. As the story unfolds, Booker’s chequered history comes to the fore, and once again we encounter one of Bioshock’s strongest themes: choice, and how that defines not only our own fate, but also those closest to us. More acutely, how love doesn’t necessarily set us free. It can just as easily chain us irrationally, flying in the face of logic, to the detriment of the bright futures we seek so hungrily.
Infinite is slow-build but, then again, so are each of the three games. Invest the time, lose yourself in the story, and it will reward you with an absorbing, thought-provoking tale, examining some prominent, shameful elements of America’s own past: the culling of Native Americans, racism, the Pinkertons, the influence of morally-repugnant evangelists on the populace. It all leads to a mind-bending conclusion that remains hotly debated and discussed.
And so, on to Burial at Sea – this is very much Ken Levine and Irrational Games crafting their own carefully layered farewell to the series. Citing a desire to return to narrative-driven, digital-only indie gaming, it was clear that this would be their denouement for the universe they had birthed all those years ago.
And it’s also clear how the years have moved on. Gone are some of the rougher edges present in Bioshock; a natural progression graphically. But the biggest difference is tonally. While the first half of this epilogue revels in its noir-detective stylings, viewed through the eyes of Booker, its latter half switches to that of a stealth, survival horror game, as experienced by Elizabeth. Story-wise, this is where the loop is truly closed, creating an almost-perfect circle, leading directly into Bioshock’s opening chapter. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that it then seems imperative to start the journey all over again. Except, with perception now realigned, is there really a beginning or an end? Thematically, entirely in keeping with some of its more prominent SF ponderings: of parallel realities, divergent time paths, and all their relative connotations.
So what next for Bioshock? It’s entirely unclear, despite it remaining one of 2K’s most valuable, and popular, franchises. But there’s no indication of an extension in the works anytime soon. Though fans continue to cry out for more, perhaps we should be grateful that, for now anyway, it continues to be treated with respect. A hurried, forced follow up to cash in on Infinite’s success would most likely have resulted in a muddying of its legacy. In this, Bioshock: The Collection is a vital celebration of a ground-breaking series, whether it be a first, or repeat, foray for you.