An American Experience.
The moment I realised that BioShock Infinite was something really special was not the Close Encounters-like summoning of the floating city of Colombia or the Inception-styled fever dream-like ending, but instead it was when I picked up one of the audio journals dotted around that shared the views of the game's primary antagonist, Prophet Zachary Comstock, on Baptism. He asks whether baptism erases a sinner and makes a righteous man or if each person remains “both sinner and saint until revealed by the eyes of man”. This, I realised, was a religious take on superposition in quantum theory.
BioShock Infinite's story and world so seamlessly blend ideas that circle around turn-of-the-century American Exceptionalism, rebellion, racism, religion and quantum physics that it almost defies the type of summary that a review like this is designed to give. I keep looking at my notes, hoping they'll save me, but they wont. I've jotted down references to other books from Feynman's lectures to Hitchens' polemics on history of America and religion. Both are replete with great perspectives to offer and insights to draw from but do nothing to help me distil down the fascinating and trilling experience of being in Colombia.
Mark Twin's thoughtful and funny take on dark ages England, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Bioshock: Infinate. Twain's titular Yankee finds himself hurled back in time to the fantasy-inspiring world of King Arthur, only to discover the shocking reality that dark-ages people were ground under the twin boots of superstition and authority, in what amounts to a brutal, ignorant and fearful regime. I am, like the main character in Twain's book, a man out of time and location, travelling back in time and across the Atlantic to the very time and situation of that of the Yankee himself – turn of the century USA.
The xenophobia, isolationism, jingoism, shores of Tripoli, native-American massacring, American Exceptionalism…experiment of enlightenment philosophers. America was perhaps during its own time better than most other places in the world, but to modern London multicultural eyes they seem as backwards as Camelot's brutally naïve knights. Much like Twain used his book to take pot-shots at the hypocritical notions of chivalry and aristocracy, Irrational Games highlight the misuse of words, such as "liberty" and "freedom". King Arthur is a buffoon and the church is evil in Twain's mind, but Jefferson was no saint either, replies Irrational.
America's founding was infused with a religious "chosen people" attitude and a "new Eden" belief. BioShock Infinite's Colombia is an exaggerated version of all these things; a super-New Eden. But as with any Eden there usually lurks a serpent of original sin, in America this was slavery but in Colombia the rot lies far deeper and is partly expressed as indentured servitude and jingoism. But this reflection on American's own idealised past is only half the story, BioShock Infinite is equally a grand sci-fi story that asks questions about our own ability to act freely and independently and whether our choices have any impact on the world or not. This is best encapsulated by the eccentric British brother and sister who seem to possess a supernatural ability to turn up and disappear at just the right times to help and taunt you, as well as the the most significant addition to this game: Elizabeth.
While Bioshock Infinite's combat and powers, named Vigors, in this outing are almost identical to those found in its Rapture-based predecessor, the inclusion of Elizabeth marks the series' greatest point of growth. She is the emotional core of the story, someone you can empathise with, understand and puzzle over as she also represents one of the game's biggest mysteries. However, Elizabeth is also a useful companion to have in a pinch. While battling off dozens of super-powered or super-armed enemies, Elizabeth will roam around environments picking up ammo, aid and weapons to help you out. She flings them to you, just in time for you to wheel round, capture them, and use them against opponents. At it's best this system feels as fluid, dramatic and fun as any action scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. Elizabeth's utility in gameplay and her vital and effective role in the story really make her the most significant improvement in videogame companions since Alex Vance in Half-Life 2.
As down-and-out hired tough-guy Brooker DeWitt you're sent on a quest to save her from captivity, but you soon form a bond with Elizabeth. Her child-like naivety, the harsh hand she's been dealt with in life and the sheer power she seems to possess combine together to form a unique character. These powers, to form tears in this reality and pull through items from another, starts off as a clever gimmick. Elizabeth can pull in cover to protect you during a gunfight, provide you allies or pull in aid to heal or regenerate you. However, as the game progresses, Elizabeth's ability to toy with these tears begins to shape the reality of the world you're in. Past events never happen, granting you victories you never directly experienced and presenting new obstacles that shouldn't exist. It's all very mind-bending stuff, but wonderfully executed and builds up to a stupendous finale.
The ending is something that has to be tread upon lightly. It's shock value was literally jaw-dropping for me and caused an instantaneous pausing for reflection. During my preview for this game, I spent some time talking about the Hall of Heroes staged-fight, which was so spectacularly presented it exceeded my already high expectations. Following the big reveal at the end of the game, this sequence has taken on new significance and I suspect that all the events that seemed either random or even a little shallow will take on a new meaning once played again. To say that BioShock Infinite lends itself to replays is a dramatic understatement; BioShock Infinite is a game that almost has to be replayed.
Earlier in this review, I compared BioShock Infinite's world to that of Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Like Twain's character, Brooker finds the rug has been pulled out from underneath him at his moment of victory. And like both of them, you'll likely end your adventure in this strange world rattled but eager for more.