Why Bioshock Infinite is a masterpiece

Written by Vince Abella

Bioshock Infinite is one of the greatest video games of all time, and in light of recent reports about Bioshock 4, I think it is time we returned to Columbia. The basic parts of the most recent title in the acclaimed first-person shooter series provide an engaging and exciting action title, but the deeper messages provide an expectedly meaningful examination of a world and how it deals with privilege and race, in addition to a twist-filled tale about wiping away the sins of the past. Beware of spoilers.

The Basics

Image from Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite’s core gameplay doesn’t just improves on the previous two titles, but it evolves the series formula from the slower paced gunplay to being heavily action-oriented, and yet, it retains the feel of the combat needing careful, precise aim in addition to knowledge of the plasmids, which are now known as vigors. Unlike previous games, Infinite thankfully doesn’t feature hacking minigames, and while they were decent, they didn’t add much to the overall experiences, and sometimes, even added unnecessary frustration. Infinite’s new vigors provide a fresh experience, and instead of simply adapting the old plasmids, they create brand new powers to be used, with an added bonus of having a shocking effect on Booker Dewitt’s body upon first use.

The Sky-Hook is another wonderful addition to Bioshock’s iconic weapon set that includes the Wrench and the Big Daddy’s drill, but its many functions provide more fun than one would initially assume. Travelling on Columbia’s Sky-Lines using this tool gives a sense of speed and weight simultaneously that is nearly unmatched in the genre. Brutal executions and bloody deaths add to the sheer awe of the Sky-Hook, proving itself to be one of the games’ biggest assets.

The enemies don’t pose too much of a challenge, at least until the latter half of the game, and none of them are as memorable as the Big Daddies, though fine on their own. In Comstock’s House, reside the truly noteworthy enemies that are known as the Boys of Silence, brainwashed by an alternative Elizabeth and turned into stationary watchers, who will alert some shockingly powerful minions of Booker’s presence. These Boys of Silence harken back to the times of Big Daddies, with the fear of alerting one and bringing upon what is likely to be certain death. As a young kid, on my first playthrough, I almost didn’t want to return to the game ever again because of how purely terrifying these enemies were, especially when they provide one of the most unexpected jump scares in any game.

Elizabeth’s presence in the game allows for another brand new mechanic known as the tears, which allow for refreshing twists in combat. For its time, Elizabeth was a shockingly useful and helpful aid in combat, not just hiding, but instead providing important supplies and opening up supplies for Booker to utilize. With her to aid the player, there is rarely ever a sense of isolation, which makes it even harder when you do get separated from your companion, forced to make do without the assistance of Elizabeth.

Infinite feels more fast-paced in comparison to previous titles, and its weapon variety is welcome. Weapons are powerful, almost to the point where they feel too powerful, but enemies are formidable enough that it never feels too easy or unearned. Every new enemy presents a new challenge, yet despite the enemy variety, it never feels too overwhelming for the player given that they have Elizabeth on their side in addition to the plasmids, now known as “Vigors.” With the last games, you feared the inhabitants, here, you are the one from whom they cower from, and while it is a shocking shift, it is very much a welcome one.

Vigors come from little bottles that transform Booker Dewitt into a living weapon, able to throw fireballs that function as grenades in addition to laying down traps for enemies to walk into, though it is admittedly difficult to catch someone with it. These new abilities are a welcome presence in the game, and while it is possible to just use guns mostly, Vigors made combat more fun and exciting. Different abilities, such as Bucking Bronco (allowing players to make enemies float) and Possession, which really needs no explanation allow for a lot of different options in combat. Especially commendable is the way the environment can be used, from oil on the ground being flammable, to deadly mix of water and Shock Jockey, another Vigor that needs no further details. With each new Vigor comes a brand new exciting way to eliminate enemies, with many abilities even rendering them to nothing but piles of ash.

The Setting and Visuals

Gun from Bioshock Infinite

Now it is in the city of Columbia, within which one can understand the political themes of Bioshock Infinite, despite it all taking a backseat to a new level of confusion for video games. Set in 1912, there are obviously many signs of the times, including racism and nationalism being prevalent in the predominantly white floating city. While not initially visible, it is slowly revealed how hateful the city is, with enemies in the fair games being people of color, and the winner of a raffle being the first to throw things at an interracial couple.

Bioshock Infinite’s handling of race is powerful, in that it doesn’t try to give a clear solution, but instead, shows the harsh realities of such a time not too long ago. With the brutality of the upper-class white folk, as they treat minorities with hatred and disgust, they are met with the rage of the Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy, a black woman framed for the murder of the “Prophet” Comstock’s Wife. The ongoing civil war in Columbia is different from that of the one in Rapture, in how Rapture’s was brought upon by the greed and lust for power, while Columbia’s is a result of the cases of racism and discrimination within the divided city.

For Columbia, instead of uniting as one place for people to be safe and prosper, they are bound by their devotion and faith to the “Prophet” who exerts his will upon the citizens underneath him. Comstock shows himself to be the worst of the oppressive leaders in his relentless desire for an heir to be made out of Elizabeth to continue on his brutal legacy of prejudice and “purity.”

Knowing all of this,Columbia is a gorgeous and beautiful city, with fitting architecture for its time period. Each building and location displays a shocking amount of detail, with pristine bathrooms for white folk in comparison to the broken down, dirty washrooms of the “colored” people. All of the locations traveled to feel both uniquely distinct yet fitting and unified inside of Columbia, without any of them feeling out of place. The environment reacts wonderfully to the hectic combat, and the verticality and variety of each combat zone adds a layer of depth to traversing the floating lands.

The graphics of Infinite haven’t aged a day, with the style still somehow holding up greatly, its timeless quality a result of the unforgettable artstyle. Each kill is bloody and brutal, yet there is a certain sense of beauty to the surroundings. The facial expressions on so many characters, especially Elizabeth, have barely shown signs of age. Animations of Vigors are done amazingly with each one having a unique appearance and feel to it.

Characters, Plot, Themes, and Ending Explained

Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock Infinite’s biggest strength is not in its admittedly stellar gameplay and worldbuilding, but in the characters at the heart of its story, and the complex themes that the game provides as the backdrop for the events that transpire in Columbia. With it set in 1902, there is no doubt that the game provided an interesting look back into how discriminatory and hateful such a period was.

The racism rooted deep within Columbia is the backdrop of some of the game’s best moments, as the aforementioned nationalism serves as an excuse for some people to bring upon harm to those who have done nothing except go about their lives. Commonly seen in the game is how white, upper class people mock and fear the Vox Populi, composed mainly of people of color fighting to overthrow the oppressive government, especially their leader, Daisy Fitzroy. Daisy was framed by Comstock for his wife’s murder, resulting in her rise from a simple worker to the leader of a revolution.

However, one of the game’s best revelations is that the Vox Populi are brutal and merciless like their own oppressors, clashing the violence of the privileged part of Columbia with heartless killing of innocents. One particular scene involves Elizabeth being forced to kill Daisy Fitzroy who was preparing to kill a child. Later on in the DLC it is revealed that she was told to do this so that Elizabeth would gain the strength to kill Comstock, and while it doesn’t enhance the themes, it shows that there are more to the monsters we see sometimes and that a true leader is one who recognizes that the cause is worth more than

they are, and are ready to commit the ultimate sacrifice for it. The only way that a cause can be furthered and peace can be achieved is through the hands of those who seek kindness and care for others, demonstrated wonderfully through Elizabeth’s desire to help the people of Columbia.

From the politics of Bioshock Infinite, we move into the more personal and contemplative themes. In a moment that I missed in all of my playthroughs prior to the one I did in preparation for the article, Booker and Elizabeth sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” as she gives a little kid some food. Within this song, one can find one of the game’s most important themes: Redemption. One of the first moments of Bioshock Infinite features a baptism, as they “wash away” Booker’s past sins and have him reborn.

It is discovered that all the Comstocks are versions of Booker that let himself be baptized, and initially, though it may seem like being able to wash away your sins as a new man would do good for the world, Comstock ends up becoming a hateful man through believing himself to be a Prophet. It is not merely through baptism that he went down a darker path, but in how he saw himself as a savior of white people in his creation of Columbia.

Bookers are those who reject the baptism, and this lets him wallow in his grief and over time, come to terms with the things he did at Wounded Knee. Instead of running from the things he has done, he forces himself to live with it, and eventually, he is given a chance to redeem himself through Elizabeth and is finally able to save himself. Here it is made clear that to wash away the sins of the past, one would wash away his own history, not learning from his own mistakes, and that we must not call upon redemption to come to us, but for us to find redemption in our actions.

One other thing that is commonly found in the game is the concept of constants and variables. In many moments, the Lutece twins present this concept through the flip of a coin and the choosing of the bird or a cage. With constants and variables, as Elizabeth stated, “There is always a lighthouse, there’s always a man, there’s always a city.” This speaks to the connection of Rapture and Columbia in a very big way.

In all the Bioshock games, there is always a lighthouse and a man, but the city is where everything changes. In the first two Bioshock games, it depicts man descending into the madness and chaos below, with Rapture a hollow, broken shell of what once was a thriving city for the dreamers and the talented, now ruled over by the selfish and greedy. In Infinite, it depicts a man ascending into the heavens to find it burdened by the issues and problems it has brought upon itself because of its history of hatred and inability to change. There are the constants of having a hero, the constants of having a lighthouse, but there is the variable of where that lighthouse leads to.

But in there being a constant, there is the question of free will. Obviously, when bringing up the decisions made in the game, there is the knowledge that none of these decisions matter. Compared to previous Bioshock titles, Infinite features the most choices that aren’t just whether to harvest Little Sisters, but some actions involving some of the characters that seem like they would have larger repercussions, but end up becoming invalidated due to the game’s nature.

With free will, there is choice, but with the choices one makes, there is a lack of consequence. Different ways to play the game, different options for combat, different outcomes for different events, and one character’s final fate even falls onto the player, and yet none of these matter in the end, except to Booker and Elizabeth.

A lot of the choices made in the game matter, none of the multiple choices mean anything, even in the finale. All these personal choices do not at all compare to the final choice made for the player instead of by the player, the choice made by Booker Dewitt at the end of Bioshock Infinite’s story. In one of the most creative decisions made, none of the decisions made mean anything, serving as a commentary on the way linear games such as Infinite work. “We swim in different oceans, but land on the same shore.” This line from Elizabeth is exactly how Infinite and every other linear game works, we all go through different playstyles and go through each combat section in a different way, but in the end, there is always a set fate for us.

Even with these themes, at the heart of the game is the story of Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth. Their relationship is a genuine one that grows over the course of the game, as it encounters many highs, such as their resolution to fight Comstock, to their devastating lows, like Elizabeth witnessing Booker kill people. One of the strongest aspects of their characters is how human they are, as they are flawed, but still try to be good people despite their issues and enemies.

Elizabeth’s growing power is a marvel to witness, as her unique abilities allow her to do so much but also cause her pain through her knowledge of different universes. Her sweet and kind personality is a welcome change of pace in a world of gritty shooters, and the performances of Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper only serve to help prove this in their terrific voice performances.

One cannot talk about Bioshock Infinite however without discussing the ending, which I believe that I have fully understood. Booker, after selling his daughter, decides he wants her back, but thanks to the portal, is unable to get her back and accidentally causes her to be in two universes, resulting in her ability to create Tears. Approached by the Lutece twins who, as a result of a failed assassination attempt, are now able to be wherever and whenever they want to be, approach Booker, offering him a chance to redeem himself, but through crossing dimensions into one where he became Comstock, he blurred his memory and merged the ideas of rescuing Elizabeth with selling her in the first place to clear his debt.

Comstock, aware of the idea of multiple dimensions, prepared by planting Booker, who has an A.D. mark for the daughter he lost, as the False Shepherd to his Prophet status. After the events of the rest of the game happen, Booker and Elizabeth have crossed through multiple dimensions, entering one where Booker was a martyr and now he is seen as a ghost or an impostor. After making their way through the Vox Populi and the soldiers of Columbia, they kill Comstock, who reveals that Booker may know more than what has been revealed to Elizabeth.

In the end, they realize that to truly unleash Elizabeth’s power, they must destroy the tower within which Elizabeth lived for so long, and in doing so, her powers are fully unleashed, and she is able to fully explore the universe and the infinite possibilities, and also realize that while their Comstock is dead, a million other Comstocks continue to live. To prevent any more Comstocks from appearing, different Elizabeths arrive at the exact same point right before the creation of the multiple universes to drown Booker so that he cannot make a choice at all, undoing Columbia. In doing so, it creates a paradox, and only one Elizabeth remains with all the knowledge, memory, and powers of every other universe, becoming a superior figure. That story is one that is continued in the Burial at Sea DLC.

Burial at Sea manages to connect Infinite to the very first Bioshock game in a twist-filled magnificent swan song. Elizabeth, after hunting down one of the Booker Dewitts that evaded erasure, attempts to save a Little Sister named Sally in Rapture. She comes across many prominent figures, including Atlas himself, in her quest to save Sally. Eventually, she gives him the “Ace in the Hole,” otherwise known as, “Would You Kindly,” as she has a vision of Jack, the protagonist of the first Bioshock, coming to save Sally and the rest of the Little Sisters. In the end, Elizabeth dies, content with her death, much like Daisy Fitzroy, as she knows that Sally will be safe.

In Conclusion

Bioshock Infinite manages to condense so many vastly different themes that I am nowhere near educated enough to tackle into a roughly 11-12 hour game, and yet it manages to transcend the medium itself to be something more. Words cannot accurately describe how I personally feel about this game, and there is so much more to be discussed with regards to how Bioshock Infinite tackles its many, hefty themes. However, what I can accurately say is that it evolves the franchise in a fantastic way, as the series delves deeper into politics and social themes while doubling down on the personal stories of its protagonists. Bioshock Infinite cements itself as one of the greatest First-Person Shooters of all time with its steady and consistently engaging gunplay, mesmerizing performances and an unforgettable story that crafts a more unique, personal tale in comparison to the previous two titles, and may even just be one of the finest video games ever made.

About the author

Vince Abella

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