'BioShock Infinite' review: A great game...but there's a catch.
Here is the review of BioShock Infinite that I wrote for this week’s print edition of Entertainment Weekly:
The original BioShock is a definite contender for the Greatest Games of All Time list. The 2007 undersea dystopian adventure could have been just one of the niftiest first-person shooters ever. But creator Ken Levine infused the game with a surprising amount of intellectual depth. (How many games do you know that deconstruct Ayn Rand?)
Now Levine has delivered BioShock Infinite, less a continuation than a far-flung variation. Where BioShock took place in the depths of the ocean, Infinite sends you to Columbia, a city in the sky circa an alternate-universe 1912, where an all-American powder keg of religious fervor, economic discontent, and jingoistic exceptionalism threatens to explode. You play as Booker DeWitt, a Bogart-y Army vet sent to Columbia to rescue Elizabeth, a mysterious woman with a mysterious past and mysterious powers. To say more would spoil the tale; suffice it to say that the whole flying-city thing might be the game’s least crazy sci-fi element.
Infinite doesn’t radically alter BioShock’s basic mechanics, though there are some cool new powers and multilevel air combat. But if the gameplay sometimes feels a bit too familiar, the ambient pleasures of Infinite are, well, practically infinite — tutorials that look like Georges Méliès films; animatronic chaingun-toting George Washingtons; a barbershop quartet on a dirigible singing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.”
Like its predecessor, Infinite is a cocktail of dreamlike world-building, philosophical skepticism, and shoot-’em-up adventure. Difficult to stop playing and even harder to stop thinking about, BioShock Infinite is the videogame version of the novel of ideas, the kind of thing that would be incredibly silly if it weren’t so big and bold and scary and thrilling.
ADDENDUM: Every word of that review is true. Or anyhow, the opinions it represents are as true as opinions can be. BioShock Infinite is without a doubt one of the most interesting videogame experiences in this dying videogame generation. And since the whole notion of massive-length megasized-world, AAA-blockbuster, single-player videogames might be going out the window pretty soon, Infinite feels like an important end-of-empire representation of everything that has been great and weird and introverted and flawed about the great games of the last decade or so. When BioShock came out, it felt like the future — proof that the booming videogame industry could combine mass-market entertainment with whatever it is we mean by “art.” Infinite arrives with the industry in an existential moment, struggling through technological advances it used to define and conservatively doubling down on the franchise audience. Auteurist analogy: If BioShock was The Godfather, then BioShock Infinite is Apocalypse Now.
So by all means, you should play BioShock Infinite. But I feel there is an important point missing in my review. It’s about the ending. Some further discussion is required. Let me try to explain — without spoilers, at least at first.
Whenever people talk about the first BioShock, they inevitably wind up talking about The Twist. I assume you know what The Twist is, since you’re the kind of person who reads videogame reviews. (If not: Quit your job, go play BioShock, and get a better job after you reassemble the exploded pieces of your head.) To recap in brief: In BioShock, you thought you were playing as a random faceless protagonist, helping a heroic freedom fighter defeat villainous tycoon philosopher Andrew Ryan; in actuality, you were a sleeper agent with a past that tied right into the game’s mythology, the freedom fighter was a villainous thug, you didn’t have any free will, and Andrew Ryan forced you to kill him in a proud act of suicide-by-proxy.
If you dug in deep, it wasn’t the cleanest twist ever, plotwise, depending as it did on various supervillain genetics and a remarkably well-placed plane crash. But The Twist was absolutely brilliant, for two reasons: 1) It effectively foregrounded many of the ideas central to BioShock — and, maybe inadvertently, directly addressed a number of ideas central to the whole first-person-shooter genre. 2) Like everything in BioShock, it wasn’t totally logical, but it was perfectly dream-logical. (At an earlier point in the game, you saw a dead woman in a bed. Once you learn The Twist, you realize that woman was your mother, killed by your father, maybe even on the bed where they copulated, which makes the vision of the dead woman on the bed one of the most grotesquely twisted primal scenes in the history of popular entertainment.)
There were lots of great things about BioShock. But I would imagine that if you heard a conversation between two people who played and loved the game, it would all circle back to The Twist. (Most people probably forget that there was actually a ton of game left in BioShock after The Twist. Even Ken Levine admitted that the story “loses some steam” afterwards.)
Now, BioShock Infinite is not BioShock. The narrative is similar: Man goes to utopian metropolis, fights against the overlord of that metropolis, learns to shoot fire out of his fingers. But all of the particulars are excitingly different. The city is in the air, not the water. The overlord is a religious zealot who trades in American exceptionalism, not a libertarian businessman who broadcasts objectivist philosophy. And where BioShock was a solitary experience starring a protagonist whose main character trait was that he was slightly less faceless than most faceless videogame protagonists, BioShock Infinite lets you play as an actual character (Booker DeWitt) and gives you a talkative traveling companion (Elizabeth.)
But BioShock Infinite very clearly feels the shadow of The Twist. Because Infinite has an ending that feels like an attempt to one-up The Twist. Heck, it feels like an attempt to one-up all other twists, to do an ending that will end all other endings. And I’m not quite sure it works.
To be fair, I’m not sure that the ultimate endings of most serialized narratives actually work. And videogames are serialized narratives, really, built on levels and subplots and mini-bosses. A typical playthrough of BioShock Infinite will probably take somewhere between 15 and 20 hours, depending on how much you explore and how quickly you get the hang of jumping between skylines while switching between vigors and weighing the benefits of the sniper rifle versus the shotgun. I’m decent at shooters; I played Infinite on the Hard setting; beating Infinite took me about as long as watching two seasons of Breaking Bad.
On one hand, I’m tempted to say that endings don’t really matter when you’re talking about stories of this length; if judging a book just by its cover is wrong, then so is judging a book just by its last page. But endings do matter to people — just look at the furor over Mass Effect and Lost, or the deathless jokes about the protracted conclusion of Lord of the Rings, or the fanboy hypertension about the possibility that George R. R. Martin will never finish A Song of Ice and Fire. (In death, The Sopranos has basically been retitled The Sopranos: WTF THAT ENDING?. Even people who still like Sopranos have retitled it The Sopranos: No But That Ending Totally Makes Sense In Context.)
To get just a little SPOILER-y — and I’m going to be abstract here, but I recommend playing the game and deciding for yourself, unless there is no such thing as free will but no really there is — BioShock Infinite has a closing sequence that is interesting for a number of reasons. It openly uses Christian imagery in one of the most twisted ways I’ve ever seen. It also follows through on one of the game’s clearest ideas: The notion of being “born again,” which is simultaneously a very religious notion and a gameplay mechanic familiar to anyone who has ever died in a videogame and hit “Continue.” But the ending also falls into a trap common to fantastical deep-thought series: By attempting to make a huge statement about life, it winds up actually just making a weirdly navel-gazing statement about its own creation.
You might find the parade of revelations that round out BioShock Infinite profound. To me, they were at once inexplicable and unsurprising. It’s the kind of ending that circles back on itself while also explaining that there are many worlds, and also weirdly ignoring much of what made the world of BioShock Infinite so interesting. (In hindsight, all the intriguing visual riffs on American history may have just been visual riffs; sometimes an animatronic chaingun-toting George Washington is just an animatronic chaingun-toting George Washington.) I can’t even really compare the ending to other things without spoiling everything and being a jerk, but suffice it to say that it’s similar to a lot of other long-running fantasy narratives in that it ultimately comes down to a weirdly mushy cocktail of religio-humanist notions about how All This Has Happened Before/Will Happen Again/Everything Is Connected/We Are Everyone.
Which can be good or lame, depending. Long-running fantasy series spoiler speed-round: It worked for this videogame trilogy, because the series was actually about choices and the ending was about the biggest choice of all. It didn’t work for this movie trilogy, unless you’re a Slovenian philosopher, in which case nobody will ever agree with you anyways. It didn’t work for this long-running TV series, but only because that series was about characters and the ending was about archetypes, which is why many of the most interesting characters had nothing to do for the last two seasons. It almost worked for this other long-running TV series, which was a weird quantum narrative about characters who were also archetypes, and which seemed to be sailing just fine right up until the flashforward non sequitur Jimi Hendrix robot montage. I still can’t decide if it worked for this long-running book series, which had the advantage of transforming into metafiction at the two-thirds point — if you went along with that, then the ending makes perfect sense, and if you didn’t, then you probably stopped reading anyways.
Common to all of these endings, I think, is the sense that the anxiety of the creator to end everything results in an ending that feels like it’s much more about the creator than it is about the characters, the story, the world, the ideas, or anything else that was circling through the text. (Many of these endings actually feature explicit stand-ins for the author; many of them also force lead characters to go Messiah and die for the greater good.)
Now, BioShock Infinite‘s ending is weird and a little bit moving, but I think it fails for one main reason: The nominal power of it rests almost entirely on the character of Booker DeWitt.
The choice to make the player-protagonist of BioShock Infinite was admirable; certainly, Booker is a more vivid creation than BioShock‘s “Jack.” But Jack worked so well specifically because he was a cipher, which made it that much easier for the game to indict the audience (you) for everything Jack did and was forced to do. But BioShock tries to have its cake and eat it, too; it tries to turn Booker into a real “character” while crucially withholding a considerable amount of background information about him. This is information that, as near as I can tell, he should know (unless he had amnesia, which is an even more problematic narrative strategy.) The effect is of locking the player out of their own character at the most crucial moment in the story.
And it doesn’t help matters that — okay really kinda spoiling things in this paragraph now — this highly personal sequence of traumatizing memories is revealed right in the midst of an extended multiverse journey which includes a trip to the world of the original BioShock. Like that book series I mentioned, it feels a bit like the creators of BioShock decided to literalize something that was already obvious to everyone. We know that BioShock Infinite is tied to BioShock in so many ways; did we really need the characters to walk through a door, say “Guess what, guys, there’s a multiverse!” And did it need to happen right at the climax? It feels like something that should have been an easter egg and wound up being a lodestone around the new game’s neck. (Imagine if, during the climactic scene in The Dark Knight, Tommy Lee Jones suddenly walked by in his Batman Forever makeup and said, “Say, talk about two faces!”) END ALL SPOILERS.
Listen, BioShock Infinite is a brilliant game. Few videogames withstand (or deserve) any real narrative analysis. And unlike a game like Journey or Shadow of the Colossus or Braid, Infinite is a genuine story with characters who speak and a plot that moves in a non-abstract direction. (Although part of the problem with the ending might be that it goes abstract at the worst possible time.) I worry that even by examining the ending so closely, I’m going to wind up sounding like the internet madman who always raves about how the ending of [insert game/TV show/movie series here] totally ruined the experience.
My experience was not ruined. But it was complicated. To return to my initial analogy, BioShock Infinite really does feel a lot like Apocalypse Now: It’s a massive, dark, weird, gloriously aestheticized, often scary and occasionally quite funny fantasy that asks all kinds of tough questions about violence, power, and America. And like Apocalypse Now, it ultimately seems to suggest that just asking those questions is equivalent to saying something meaningful. Before I got to the final couple hours, I suspected BioShock Infinite was going to be a masterpiece; now, I would downgrade it to the maybe-more-interesting level of “flawed masterpiece.”
In some ways, this might work in the game’s favor. When I remember BioShock, I will always think about The Twist. But when I remember BioShock Infinite, I will always think about everything besides its somewhat bungled attempt at The Twist: Things like the waterfall in the sky, the sound of a shotgun reloading, the tantalizing suggestion that the game was comparing religion to national pride and arguing that both led to moral chaos, the dawning suspicion (never fully validated) that I was experiencing what would happen if David Simon remade The Wire set entirely in Disneyland, the mournful war cry of the Handyman, and a lonely girl’s dream of Paris.
In conclusion, here’s some cotton candy:
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