I started playing BioShock Infinite a month ago, after years of avoiding spoilers and reviews. Upon reaching Battleship Bay, I wrote down my first impressions. Now I’ve finished the game, I’ll share my final thoughts:
BioShock Infinite was a visually beautiful video game with some fun moments, overshadowed by crappy game design, a skeevy protagonist, and a muddled mess of a plot, that demeans women and trivializes racism.
No game is perfect. Some of my favorites, Skyrim and Fallout 4, have glitches galore, plot holes and other problems, but there’s enough good content to make up for the bad. I loved BioShock and BioShock 2, and I wanted to love Infinite, but it just didn’t work for me.
I have played Burial at Sea, parts one and two, but this article addresses Infinite, because a game should stand on its own merit and not need an expansion to fix or explain its failings. I’ll talk a bit about the DLC at the end.
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WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS
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Crappy game design
Shooting dominates Infinite, when you’re not busy looting garbage cans for money, cash registers for cotton candy, and robots for oranges. Sure, there’s shooting in BioShock and Fallout 4, even in Dishonored, and those are all games I enjoyed. So what’s the difference?
In BioShock, enemies were monsters, spliced, twisted, barely human, and beyond redemption or cure. Killing them was a piece of mercy. But, in Infinite, enemies are human. A compelling argument could be made that white supremacists are barely human monsters beyond redemption, too, but I also had to shoot the Vox Populi, an army of Columbia’s oppressed. Despite the best efforts of the game to make them out to be as evil as their oppressors, all that killing just felt wrong.
With Fallout 4, most enemies were dangerous animals, irradiated monsters and morally-bankrupt raiders. Aside from shooting, there were towns to rebuild, characters to befriend or romance, an open world to explore, crops to plant, junk to scavenge and sell, people to rescue, factions to join, armor to upgrade, unique weapons to find, recipes to cook, and more.
In Dishonored, I had the option of stealth to avoid conflict, or I could choke my enemies with a non-lethal takedown. There were no non-lethal options in Infinite, and no stealth, except for the asylum level near the end of the game, with a whopping total of two Boys of Silence I could dart past.
I felt as if I killed ten times as many people in Columbia as all the splicers in Rapture, Bioshock and BioShock 2 combined. And I probably did, considering how many BioShock Infinite trophies were based on killing people:
To get all of the achievements in BioShock, a grand total of ten people were required to die. In Infinite, hundreds. Most of the trophies in BioShock were based on using the research camera, hacking, inventing, upgrading, and collecting. Infinite featured no research, inventing nor actual hacking, at all.
The game’s constant reminder, “remember to use your vigors,” felt like a plaintive request rather than genuine assistance. I managed to get through most of Infinite with my machine gun and RPG, when I wasn’t playing “shooting gallery” with a conveniently-placed sniper rifle.
Possession was useful for saving ammo and distracting enemies, but I was only required to use vigors for powering one gondola and unlocking a couple areas for extra loot. Whereas plasmids were integral to the level design and to the player’s survival in previous BioShock games: Door controls zapped with Electro-Bolt; frozen areas thawed with Incinerate; dark corners explored with Scout; hidden goodies grabbed with Telekinesis; cameras and turrets tricked with Security Command; or enemies flushed out of hiding by bee swarms.
In the very last battle of Infinite, I did need to use Shock Jockey traps to keep the Vox away from the airship’s power core, but can we just stop right there for a minute and ask: Why could Elizabeth conjure walls on either side of the power core, to protect Booker, but somehow couldn’t conjure walls to just protect the damn core itself?
The game was inconsistent, incoherent, contrived and chaotic. Elizabeth, voxophones and loudspeakers often talked over each other, so none could be understood, and it was all so muddled even the captions couldn’t sort it out. Possession turned some turrets friendly forever, while others were only friendly for a few seconds. Tantalizing coins shimmered behind invisible walls and couldn’t be collected. A ghost couldn’t be killed, yet suffered critical damage from headshots, and despite floating everywhere, left footprints for me to follow.
The square button drove me crazy. I frequently found myself going through a dead man’s pockets instead of reloading, or reloading instead of catching a health kit from Elizabeth. This was even worse during the final battle when, on top of everything else, I had to press square to control Songbird.
The tears — or as I call them, the singing space-time vajayjays — were described by Elizabeth as a form of “wish fulfillment,” yet she couldn’t seem to imagine much more than hooks, sniper rifles, water puddles and the odd motorized patriot. All her bragging about the books she’d read, and that’s the best she could come up with?
The excuse given for her limited ability was a siphon machine that somehow prevented her from using her powers to the fullest, at least until the plot called for her to take Booker into an alternate timeline, pick a rose in an elevator, or summon a tornado. I was reminded of the mechanics of space travel in science fiction: “At the speed of plot.” That’s how the tears seemed to work, as well.
I overlooked the fact that every jump off the skyline would break Booker’s legs, because the skyhook was a fun feature of the game. In a similar way, I may have overlooked the chaotic soundscape, repetitive boss fights, constant backtracking through levels, Booker’s inane dumpster diving, the two-weapon limit, the square button, and other irritations of this game, had I liked the characters and the story. But, I didn’t, and that’s the REAL problem I have with Infinite.
In BioShock and BioShock 2, the protagonists Jack and Delta were in a bad situation due to no fault of their own, and had to fight for survival. In Infinite, Booker DeWitt is a killer, a human trafficker and a douchebag. He seems, at first, to be a rescuer, but then we discover that he’s only accepted the job because he’s got gambling debts and intends to take Elizabeth, against her will, to a place she doesn’t want to go, for money, and kill a shit ton of people while doing it.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, by the end of the game we find out it’s much worse. He not only sold his own baby, he’s somehow Comstock himself, the violent racist prophet of Columbia.
Jack and Delta were silent protagonists. Giving Booker a voice added no value. Most of his lines were either insignificant, like “holy shit” and “thanks,” or game tutorials such as, “I need to take this skyline to Monument Island.” Better dialog might have made a better Booker, and may have moved me to care about the plot twist or his ultimate fate.
The only Booker line I liked showed up somewhere around the middle of the game. He said, “Sometimes there’s precious need of folks like Daisy Fitzroy… Cause of folks like me.” When I heard that, I thought, wow, that shows self-awareness and an awareness of what’s going on around him, and there’s a sense of morality in what he said. It made me hope that he would eventually develop a personality, and maybe even get with the Vox and fight the good fight.
There are moral choices in the previous BioShock games — save or harvest the Little Sisters, spare or kill key characters — and those moments not only affect the outcome of the stories and the actions of other characters, they allowed us to bond with the protagonists, to truly become the main character.
Infinite offers only three in-game choices — stone the interracial couple or not, kill or spare Slate, pick out a pendant for Elizabeth — and those choices have no impact whatsoever on the story, the ending, Booker, Elizabeth, or anything else. They did fuck-all to help me feel connected to the story or the characters.
A muddled mess of a plot
In BioShock & BioShock 2, characters, environments, audio recordings, weapons, level design, all served the story. But in Infinite… I can’t even figure out what the story is.
What did the salts and vigors have to do with anything? Rapture was a city with scientists and capitalists, unfettered by morality or regulation, who used sea slugs and little girls to produce and gather Adam and Eve, turned humans into Big Daddies, and created new abilities through gene splicing. How does that fit the milieu of Columbia, city of rightwing religious folks who dislike Darwin and the devil?
If Booker was Comstock, then why didn’t anyone in Columbia recognize Booker? They knew him from the “A.D.” on his hand. Why? Who put up the warning posters about his brand? Why does Songbird have a connection to Elizabeth? Who’s inside of Songbird? If Songbird is trying to protect her, why does it keep tearing apart buildings and nearly killing her? And if they have something that can rip apart the city, why can’t it defend them from the Vox uprising?
“Songbird, he always stops you,” Elizabeth says in 1984. But if the realities are “infinite,” why aren’t there any where Booker succeeds? “Constants and variables,” is the phrase repeated throughout the game, like a mantra. I guess it sounds better than “contrivances and plot devices.”
Then, after the credits rolled, there was that bit where Booker pushed open the bedroom door, calling to Anna. What did that mean? Had everything been a dream?
Who the hell were the Luteces? Delightful eccentrics? Whimsical villains? Annoying red herrings? Siblings? Lovers? Two alternate reality versions of the same person, but somehow different genders? Then where’s the female Booker and male Elizabeth? Now, THAT would have been interesting.
At the end of BioShock, I cried. At the end of BioShock 2, I cried even harder. At the end of Infinite, I laughed, it was all so ridiculous. You know who did a time-warp story brilliantly? Dishonored 2, in the mission “A Crack in the Slab.”
Elizabeth seems to be a fan favorite. Digging into my dusty old psych degree for a moment, I can only assume she appealed to players who related to her youth, and to the restrictions and expectations placed upon her by the adults in her life. Or… I dunno, there may have been something else about her…
She seemed, to me, to be presented as a romantic interest, from her trope tower rescue, to her cleavage window, to her Princess Bride-like “I’ll go with you if you spare him” scene. At one point, I wondered if she would somehow turn out to be Booker’s dead wife, who — if I recall correctly — was also named Anna. That would connect Elizabeth to Lady Comstock in more ways than just a dress.
But then we found out she was actually Booker’s daughter? Ewwww.
Giving Elizabeth special abilities doesn’t make up for her blatant objectification. It is Booker’s narrative, not hers. She serves his physical and emotional needs. She finds him health kits, ammo, money and salts. She is the motivation of his actions and his inner turmoil. She requires him to rescue her (again and again and again), and when he doesn’t, she becomes what Comstock (who is also Booker) wants her to be. The developers contrived a storyline in which she couldn’t even use her amazing superpowers to save herself. Nope, her fate depends on a gambling, child-selling asshole whose alter-ego is a white-supremacist wife-killer.
Her best moment, in my opinion, was when she whacked Booker with a wrench and escaped, after discovering that he lied about taking her to Paris. But her anger didn’t last long. She forgave him after being assaulted by dockworkers and having her modest dress ripped open at the bosom. Better the devil you know, I guess.
One of my viewers told me that her torn dress was meant to outrage not titillate. Was the racism of Columbia not outrage enough? The attempted stoning of a black girl and her white boyfriend? The abject poverty of Shantytown? The lifelong abuse of a child, locked away from human contact, watched and studied without her knowledge or consent? Was all of that not cause enough for outrage? A white girl must be sexually assaulted to facilitate the player’s engagement?
If the torn dress was meant solely to elicit sympathy for Elizabeth, then why did she change into a new outfit with even more exposure? If she is wearing Lady Comstock’s dress, why is it missing the high-necked lace collar shown in all of Lady Comstock’s paintings? If it’s meant to be historically accurate, why is she wearing an uncovered corset? A corset is an undergarment, and it is indeed a corset, because it is labeled as such when Booker is prompted to lace it up in Comstock House.
I have nothing against cleavage, in general, and I assume it’s meant to be shorthand for “look, her innocence is gone and she’s all grown up now,” but it’s weak storytelling that reeks of “sex sells” and fan service.
In Victory Square, there’s a conversation in which Elizabeth suggests Lady Comstock is still alive in a world where she never met Comstock, and Lady Comstock replies, “Or where I saved him?” As if it’s somehow Lady Comstock’s responsibility to fix the violent and abusive man in her life? The very man who killed her? This message is wrong wrong wrong on so many levels.
Then we have Daisy Fitzroy, falsely accused of murdering Lady Comstock. A woman of color dares to rise up against oppression, and the developers chose to portray her as a savage child killer.
The game does an amazing job setting the stage for Columbia’s conflict by contrasting its Utopian idyll with its brutal bigotry. On the way to Monument Island, I found a secret society of progressives, printing pamphlets down the street from a temple to John Wilkes Booth. I spent an hour marveling at the sights and sounds of Main Street, before I found myself in the midst of a horrific raffle where I “won” the opportunity to stone an interracial couple.
But it wasn’t long before Infinite declared it’s own political points moot, and racism was nothing more than set dressing. Just shoot everyone, they all deserve it.
“The only difference between Comstock and Fitzroy is how you spell the name,” said Booker, in the lift while leaving Shantytown, during the uprising.
“They’re just right for each other… Fitzroy and Comstock,” said Elizabeth, in another lift, in the Finkton factory. Then she said it again, in Port Prosperity, just in case you missed it. “Fitzroy’s no better than Comstock, was she?”
Infinite tries to draw an equivalency between jingoist, authoritarian white-supremacists, and the abused, impoverished, despised, exploited working class of Columbia. To say Comstock and Daisy Fitzroy suit each other, when one is hellbent on violent oppression and the other is fighting for freedom, is a bullshit conclusion to the game’s social and political setup.
I came away from Infinite with a sense that Ken Levine was trying really hard to make a great game, all the pieces were there, but it was just too ambitious and it got away from him, like Icarus flying too close to the sun. Either that, or it fell flat under the pressures of a big budget and triple-A executives who demanded he appeal to a young white male demographic: Simplified shooter, dudebro protag, boobs, and dial back the libtard SJW political themes. I could be wrong, but…
Burial at Sea
The downloadable content (DLC) Burial at Sea seemed like an apology letter, acknowledging and addressing many of the gameplay and story problems I had with Infinite.
For example, there’s a weapon wheel, so the player can carry more than two weapons at a time. Medical kits can be carried and used as needed (something I complained about in my previous Infinite write up). There’s a significant stealth component and non-lethal options for neutralizing enemies. A great deal of time is spent explaining the connections between vigors and plasmids, Handymen and Big Daddies, Columbia and Rapture.
Elizabeth is the main character in Burial at Sea, part two, and the storyline punishes Booker, acknowledging that he’s an asshole, though it later brings him back as a helpful voice in Elizabeth’s head and her “only friend,” underscoring her loneliness and her unhealthy relationship with this villain/parent. She becomes the likable if conflicted protagonist, with depth and personality, that I’d wanted all along.
Burial at Sea also attempts to change Daisy Fitzroy into a self-aware, self-sacrificing savior, who voices serious doubts about the uprising and the resulting violence, and who never intended to kill the boy at all but was only pretending, due to a request from the Luteces. Helluva retcon.
After I finished BioShock Infinite, I looked around the Internet to see what others think of the game. Here are a few articles and videos I found interesting:
The Gilded Cage: BioShock Infinite review by John Teti
BioShock Infinite Privilege by Anjin Anhut
The BioShock Infinite we never got
BioShock Infinite is a bad game by Brett Hicks
Everything BioShock Infinite Gets Wrong – VideoGamer
The Problem with BioShock Infinite by Alanah Pearce
~ J.L. Hilton