It seems as the idea of video games as an art form continues to grow in prominence, many developers are determined to prove the legitimacy of the claim. Oftentimes they are successful in showing the artistic capabilities of the medium. In other instances, developers seem like they’re trying too hard to prove the maturity of game designs, to the point that the end results simultaneously feel both desperate to prove themselves and overly confident in their own abilities. Bioshock Infinite falls into the latter category.
Bioshock Infinite abandons the undersea world of Rapture from the previous installments in favor of a city in the clouds called Columbia. The hero is Booker, a man sent to Columbia to rescue a woman named Elizabeth to ‘repay a debt.’ But rescuing Elizabeth won’t be so easy, as she’s being held captive by one Zachary Hale Comstock – a religious zealot who serves as Columbia’s ‘Founding Father’ – and Comstock’s mechanical pet Songbird, who keeps personal watch over Elizabeth.
What starts as a simple rescue mission quickly unfolds into something bigger. There are twists and turns aplenty, and social commentaries that are so overt and insistent that they diminish whatever intrigue they might otherwise have had.
Columbia serves as a commentary to some of the shadier aspects of American history. Set in an alternate 1912, Columbia’s fancy carnivals and idealistic nature serve as a thin guise for a haven of prejudice and racism. The people of Columbia demonize Abraham Lincoln for ‘leading America astray,’ while Comstock uses religion as a means to keep his people under his thumb.
It’s all a great deal ham-fisted. Never once does Bioshock Infinite attempt subtlety, its commentaries come off more like cartoonish vilifications than contemplative observations. In a more satirical game this sheer overtness might work, but for a game that takes itself so seriously it all comes off as overly simplistic and conveniently one-dimensional (and in some instances, hypocritical). Bioshock Infinite thinks itself artistically rich, but the narrative feels more like a loud agenda than something truly thought-provoking.
The gameplay is similarly uninspired, following in its predecessors’ footsteps without feeling the need to better them. When it boils down to it, Bioshock Infinite is an incredibly straightforward first-person shooter. You still get your run-of-the-mill weaponry, which are thankfully complimented by some magic spells (referred to as ‘Vigors.’ Though they don’t exactly reinvent what the original Bioshock crafted either). Booker’s movements and sense of control work just fine, but considering this same setup has been done by countless other games, why wouldn’t they?
The problem isn’t that Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is broken by any means. It’s just that, for a game that exudes such monumental pride for itself, its gameplay has very little creativity that it can boast as its own.
Elizabeth’s inclusion has been lauded for her contribution to gameplay as well as story. But Elizabeth’s actions are as redundant as Booker’s. She carries objects, picks locks, and performs other such standard actions that the player character can normally do themselves in other titles of the genre. Her AI is at least reliable most of the time, but she’s hardly a game-changer.
Credit must be given where it’s due, however, and if Bioshock Infinite can rightfully be proud of any of its attributes, it’s in its world design. Columbia is a striking place, not for the preachy thematics, but for its structure and atmosphere. Columbia is a world of strewn about islands in the sky, yet it feels like a complete place. It’s sinister and terrifying, with mechanical monstrosities that evoke some genuine dread. Columbia effectively recreates a time period while simultaneously creating a time.
It’s all the more disappointing then, that the game and the story involved in Bioshock Infinite don’t share in the genius of Columbia’s design. The world can create moods, but the plot feels the need to scream its intentions at the player, and the gameplay merely settles for the status quo.
The attempted artistry of Bioshock Infinite comes off as forced. It’s as though Bioshock Infinite is constantly telling the players that every next moment will be the new greatest moment they’ve seen in a video game. It’s so sure of itself and yet so bland in execution that the entire experience ends up an overall forgettable affair. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t insist on itself, yet there’s rarely a moment that feels truly inspired, whether as a video game or as a narrative.
There are certainly worse games than Bioshock Infinite out there. There are a great deal of better ones as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find any game in any genre that loved itself even half as much as this.