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Review

What You Bring With You: A Review of BioShock Infinite


The BioShock games, says creative director Ken Levine, are a Rorschach test. What you see will depend on who you are and what you believe. There are no right answers. When I look at BioShock Infinite, I see three things. I see a masterpiece of video game storytelling. I see a woman who needs rescuing, and who challenges my expectations of what that means. And I see a risky, disturbing exploration of American racism, which led me to acknowledge how ill-equipped I am to say anything on that front at all.

I don’t know how to write about BioShock Infinite. The first two things, yes, I can muddle about those just fine. The third, however, is not a matter I have ever written on, and I doubt that I am the right person for the job. But to leave that aspect out of any discussion of this game would be missing the point entirely. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from BioShock Infinite, it’s that trying to avoid mistakes never ends well. So here goes.

(Minor spoilers ahead.)

As you first arrive in the flying city of Columbia, set in a revisionary version of 1912, you’re eased into a false sense of nostalgic wonder. There is a nagging feeling that all is not right here, but even so, it’s impossible to not be seduced by the bright sunlight, the lush gardens, the red-white-and-blue banners draped around tidy shopfronts. This is classic Americana at its most sugarcoated, and the downright stunning design serves up one delight after another. Airships! Mechanical horses! Barbershop quartets! Even the tutorial lures you in, teaching you combat mechanics through carnival games at the town fair. I was reminded of Disneyland’s Main Street USA — a polished, too-clean place that hands you an ice cream and soothes you with tales of how wholesome things were in the good ol’ days.

You exist in this state for forty-five minutes or so until the rug is mercilessly pulled out. The front end of Columbia is America as we want to remember it, but it is an America that never was. Turn away from the cheerful lights and trimmed hedges, and you’ll find squalid bathrooms, set aside for “Colored and Irish.” Enter one of these, and the man inside begs you to leave, afraid that you’ll get him in trouble. A charming beachfront scene is marred upon discovering the poorly treated worker sweating over the water pumps, far out of sight. The upper class knows these things exist. They’re complicit in it. The emblem of the police force reads “Protecting Our Race.” Military recruitment posters show a dapper blond-haired boy chasing away historically accurate racial caricatures with his rifle. I felt sick to look at it. What made me sicker still was to realize that the affluent residents of Columbia were not monsters. They were all too human. They had chosen to ignore the inequalities surrounding them not because they were inherently evil, but because it was easy. Life for them was perfect, and they saw no reason to rock the boat. They could choose to dismiss the struggles of others, and they would suffer no consequences for it. I considered this privilege of choice, and knew that it was one that I, as a white person, share — not just in life, but as a player of this game. I did not see my face cruelly distorted in those posters. I did not see my heritage reflected in the segregated public spaces. I could disconnect from that ugliness, if I had wished to. I cannot say what it is like to lack that choice. I cannot say what this game would be like for those who do. And I strongly believe that anyone going into this game, regardless of who they are, should know what they’re getting into. This is not just some fantasy shooter to be picked up on a whim. This is an aggressive depiction of horrors that are all too real.

Which is not to say that racism is the only theme explored in this game. No, there’s religion, nationalism, manifest destiny, and a side order of quantum mechanics — for starters. It is, in its way, the most American game I’ve ever played. Perhaps that’s why the issues of race have stuck with me more than the rest. It’s an aspect of our country’s history many of us are taught poorly (I certainly was), something rarely shown with this level of bluntness. I’ve spent the past several days reading about American expansion and nativism, trying to understand how much of what’s there in the game is true. Much of it, it turns out. Too much.

I’ve heard the institutionalized racism portrayed by BioShock Infinite dismissed as the trappings of a time gone by, a wrong that we have long since righted. But early in the game, I found myself in a Masonic-style fraternal house belonging to the Order of the Raven, a society that mirrors the KKK (the dining hall features a painting of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, complete with a haloed John Wilkes Booth). I picked up an audio recording made by Father Comstock, Columbia’s leader and prophet. “What exactly was the Great Emancipator emancipating the Negro from?” he says. “From his daily bread. From the nobility of honest work. From wealthy patrons who sponsored them from cradle to grave. From clothing and shelter.” As I listened, my stomach sank. I recognized that appalling argument, but not from fiction, and not from a history book. Similar words were spoken just three weeks ago by an attendee at a CPAC panel on minority outreach. We need to be talking about racism in America. Now. Today. Is BioShock Infinite a good way to go about that discussion? I don’t know. For my part, I found that the directness with which the subject matter was presented led me to consider my own social status and racial privilege in a different light. But just because I found value in what this game had to offer does not mean that others will, or that they should. As I said at the start, it’s all a matter of what you bring with you — or, more to the point, what society and history have forced you to bring.

The thing I admired most about BioShock Infinite was that for all its difficult themes, it refused to provide catharsis for them. For a while, I thought I could see the setup for the tired parable about the good-hearted white person who witnesses racial injustice and swoops in to make it all better. But thankfully, that never comes. Not all stories have a happy ending. Not all revolutions are good. And most importantly, you can never change the past. We see that theme play out again and again, on scales both grandiose and achingly personal. The game asks hard questions about the darkest aspects of American history and human nature, but delivers no opinion on why such things happen. It trusts its players to come to the answers on their own.

The player character, Booker DeWitt, is a well-chosen instrument for carrying out such a story. I can’t call him the hero, for he isn’t one. He flinches at the term early in the game, but modesty has nothing to do with it. He was a cavalryman at the Wounded Knee Massacre, and his actions there have left him deservedly haunted. Though he is a sympathetic character, he is not an admirable one. I don’t think the player is ever meant to become him in the way most games intend. We’re only meant to walk a mile in his shoes, to feel the weight of sins that have no hope of redemption. “You think a dunk in the river is gonna change the things I’ve done?” he says. He is a sharp contrast to Father Comstock, who is only too happy to blame the evils of the world on everyone but himself. He obsesses over the idea of Columbia as “another ark for another time,” with himself as Noah, and his successor as the flood. But though Booker has chosen a more honest path, his admission of guilt does not make him a good person. Some things, the game tells us, can never be fixed.

For a game this aware of the player’s expectations, it is no accident that it begins as a story about rescuing an innocent girl locked away in a tower. The trope is deliberately used, then tweaked into something I can’t quite categorize. No, Elizabeth cannot fight. Yes, the mission objective “Rescue Elizabeth” comes up more than once. But never did I feel that it was a comment on Elizabeth’s strength or competence, nor was she painted as a prize to be won. The key here is that her relationship with Booker is not romantic, even remotely. We can only look at her through his eyes, after all, and what we see is a person he respects (eventually) and cares about. She enters the game with all the naïveté you’d expect from a young woman who has spent her life in isolation, but she is quickly revealed to be something complex and powerful. As the game went on, I began to feel that I was her sidekick, not the other way around. This is not to say that I felt railroaded or that I lacked a sense of control. Rather, I felt the story belonged every bit as much to Elizabeth as it did to Booker. Their narratives are inextricably intertwined.

Elizabeth is one of the best examples of how to blend game mechanics with storytelling that I have ever seen (perhaps the best). The bond between her and Booker is vital, and the game backs it up in every way it can. During combat, Elizabeth scrounges for healing kits and ammo, and brings you back around when you get knocked out. The way that it’s executed is a constant reinforcement that Booker and Elizabeth are in this together. It’s the little things, like the way she yells “Booker, catch!” before tossing you a reloaded weapon. Rather than Booker accepting this help automatically, the player must take a moment out of fighting to respond to her. Elizabeth doesn’t feel like a combat pet, or a support class. She felt like a partner. I felt safer with her there, and I never got the impression that she wasn’t capable of holding her own in a fight. She’d simply never learned how (in contrast, female police officers and revolutionaries can be encountered throughout the game). And out of combat, Elizabeth behaves in an amazingly organic way. She is autonomous, but she never gets lost or stuck or triggers enemies. As you run around, she explores on her own, examining objects and leaning against furniture. Her clothes tear and grow dirty as the game goes on. Depending on her mood, her body language changes. At one point, I found her crouching solemnly over a man’s corpse. She took a moment, then lay his hands across his chest. Elizabeth felt real, so much so that I found myself nearly shaking with anger on her behalf during one particular sequence (for those who have played it: Comstock House). She was a character I truly connected with, and her story kept me riveted from beginning to end. If she hadn’t worked, the game would’ve fallen apart.

The weaker element, I felt, was the handling of Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi, a revolutionary movement vying for control of Columbia. She is incredibly difficult to discuss without venturing deeper into spoiler territory. Skip ahead if you want to go into the game fresh (which I recommend that you do). Otherwise, highlight the following:

From the start, I was on Fitzroy’s side. Her movement begins as a fight for labor rights and equal treatment — things that cannot reasonably be argued with. By the time I caught up with her, I’d been wading through Comstock’s supremacist filth for long enough that I was more than willing to do whatever it took to bring him crashing down. But Fitzroy is not one of the good guys. She loses sight of what the cause should be, and her notion of revolution becomes increasingly ruthless. Her story has roots in the real-world anarchist violence of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and as far as the intent goes, I found that arc to be a believable one. But the shift happens too fast. Without picking up the optional (and well hidden) audio logs that give insight into her backstory, I’m not sure that the player would be able to keep up. And even with the logs, I was still feeling sympathetic toward her by the time Booker was saying “she and Comstock deserve each other.” Do they? They’re both violent, unstable, and manipulative, sure. But Comstock has built an oppressive society around his own self-interests. Fitzroy is reacting against that society, one that has gone out of its way to dehumanize her. And as for the Vox Populi, the fact that they all were on board with Fitzroy’s bloody turnaround gave me pause. Even in upper class Columbia, you can find underground support for the oppressed, and I would’ve liked to have seen similar depth in the Vox Populi. I know the takeaway here is not that labor movements are inherently bad, but I felt the lack of layers muddled the message. Perhaps dissent within the movement would have been too much to cram into one game. Or perhaps this is just one splotch on the Rorschach test that does not sit well with me.

Regardless of however I might feel about the themes and the content, the skill with which they were delivered is unparalleled. Even if you took away the combat, this would still be a story that belongs wholly to video games. It’s too intimate for anything else. The constant sense of discovery, the rapid oscillation between wonder and horror, the sense that this is a world you yourself are inhabiting — it’s all reliant on an interactive form of environmental storytelling that can’t exist elsewhere. I spent hours pawing around all the nooks and crannies. I was constantly rushing to grab screencaps. I could write pages and pages more on all the marvelous little details I don’t have room for here (the songs, the foreshadowing, the twins — god, I loved the twins, and not just for the line about chromosomes). This is the kind of storytelling the medium was meant for. Whether or not the story itself was worthy of that is entirely up to each individual player. I felt that it was, for the most part. You may not. And that’s okay. The experience of playing BioShock Infinite is one largely determined by the history you’ve been made to carry. As the game says, that’s not something any of us can change.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also always be found on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    Daisy was a fucking awesome character but yes, I can say that the racism got to me. I understand that point, that our country really was that horrible at one time, but it gets to a point where it’s like “I get it. I get it. I fucking get it.” When it pops up like every three seconds it just gets annoying.

    I deal with enough racism in real life, sometimes I want to just play a fun action game and unwind. So yeah, it was an absolutely great, breathtaking game, I just wish they dialed it back a bit with the casual racism just to make a point.

    The lack of depth for Daisy’s group, as you mentioned, was another little thing that bugged me. I had the same complaint with the Equalists in Legend of Korra, truth be told.

    I saw someone saying that they hope there is some DLC released allowing you to play as Daisy or a member of her movement, and I second that wholeheartedly.

    EDIT: This was an excellent article BTW.

  • Betty Windsor

    I remember when I picked up the game and realized the hardcore racial elements, thinking “I wonder how many non-white players are really disappointed right now to realize they have to deal with this shit.” But then I thought about playing the first Bioshock and realizing how many sexist undertones there were, I was slightly disappointed but after examining the time frame and how Andrew Ryan was offending EVERYONE, just as Comstock does with Infinite, I understood much better. Besides these people are not played in any positive light. In that regard I see it as the same. I mean if you didn’t pass inspection according to Pierce Hawthorns dad (random Community reference), then you and society were not equal.

    As for Elizabeth, I think you’re right. I feel like I was only there to watch her. Next to her I felt like a harsh ghost. Booker didn’t even decide to CONSIDER not taking her to New York until the very last part of the game. I’m amazed at how well they did the character motivations and dialouge.

    SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER (KINDA)

    Daisy Fitzroy’s sudden “reveal”. To me felt necessary and was already some what obvious. I mean Booker never trusted her to begin with so a sudden anything in regards to her loyalties, motivations, or actions would have felt redundant . The audience I felt saw that one coming

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dessa-Brewington/721495970 Dessa Brewington

    Huh. I was never a huge fan of the first Bioshock. For all the kudos it got, I felt like its story was shallow and its gameplay too repetitive (though it did a few things really well). But Infinite, based on this review, might convince me to give Bioshock another try. A story from the perspective a white guy that isn’t another CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED tale of white guilt and absolution (Crash, Avatar, the Help)? Something with actual genuine honesty and no easy answers? I doubt it will be the next “Do the Right Thing,” but it intrigues me nonetheless.

  • Anonymous

    I’d love to see a deeper article analyzing Elizabeth’s role as companion. Because (while I’m not yet all the way through) I think she’s the best ever. And it’s more than the mechanics. The points you touch on here are exactly right. I just think an analysis of other companion characters (particularly female) would be outstanding.

  • Anonymous

    I’m only a couple hours away before I can finally read what’s in the blocked-off text :

  • Anonymous

    Between the nonsubtle narrative methods and the Frat-recruiting box art, I really get the sense that Levine (or someone above him) tried very hard to sell this game to 13-year old boys. At some point, someone’s got to go up to him, get in his face and say, “Look dude, your primary audience for this game are fuckin’ adults!”

  • http://twitter.com/meliciousness Melynda

    This comment is going to contain spoilers:

    I have been waiting 3 years for this game and I’ve already finished it twice. I agree with almost everything said here. Elizabeth was so much more than a girl who needed saving and I didn’t realize it until I read it here, but I really did start to feel like her sidekick. The story we were exploring in Columbia was HERS, not Booker’s, although he has just as much to do with it. I also agree that Daisy Fitzroy could’ve been an amazing character. She had loads of potential and honestly I would have liked to have seen Comstock called out on his lies to the people just once, to see their faith in him falter at least a little, but he got the upper hand on Lady Comstock AND the Luteces which drove me bonkers. But the shifting and traveling through tears brings about the Vox revolution too quickly. Just stepping through those tears escalated the story so much each time that by the time you come face-to-face with Fitzroy, there’s not much there that could be recognized from her voxophone recordings. That’s probably the biggest disappointment in the game for me was the whole “well that escalated quickly” aspect of something that was so important to Columbia and the game’s storytelling.

    I really don’t think the racism and classism that is encountered in the game is – as other comments have put it – casual at all. It wasn’t put there because it could be put there. It was put there to show the underbelly of what seemed so perfect on the surface. Racism and classism in the United States has always been something painted over or ignored by schools and politicians and churches and individuals for as long as the country has existed. I hated wading through Comstock’s view of the world but that’s the way it was viewed by a lot of people for a very long time around the turn of the century and the way it could parallel the way some things HAVEN’T changed is just a poor commentary on us today.

    I like how this review of the game managed to not mention key aspects of the game such as the Luteces who were extremely important to the plot and what they were doing whenever they reappeared (especially early in the game). The doorways and parallels to the first games as well. It’s mentioned that people might not know the backstory to Daisy Fitzroy without picking up the voxophones, but that’s why they are there. The same goes with the original Bioshock. If you don’t collect the audio recordings (or in this case watch some of the kinectscopes) you have no idea what’s going on and if you are playing just to shoot things up, you don’t deserve to complain about the plot of the game. I actually thought there was too much fighting in this game. I know its a FPS, but the story and characters were so interesting, it would’ve been nice just to have been able to explore that even more that we could.

  • Nick

    Levine addresses the point about the box directly in this interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwsjALh2vYA at 19:55… but the whole thing is a great interview.

  • http://www.facebook.com/manicmari Mari Johnson

    Maybe it’s just me, and maybe it’s just because I’ve only barely got to the Comstock House portion of the game, but I assumed Daisy’s sudden change to support horrible was simply a result of Booker and Elizabeth entering the tear in to another world. Maybe in this world, Daisy was just a horrible person from the beginning? Maybe she and Booker had a deeper bond, and his death that she witnessed made her crazy? So far, I love everything about this game. I love it like I loved Tomb Raider just a few weeks ago, but for different reasons. (Btw, video games this year? Amazing. Especially for me, a girl gamer who finally had the courage to call herself just that.) Regardless, I would hate to think that it was just convenient for the game designers to make Daisy into the easy “other villain” simply for momentums sake.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Absolutely. Anyone that played this game thinking Daisy, 1.) the leader of a revolution was going to turn over an airship to a white man 2.) whose very presence so obviously filled her with bile was fooling themselves.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, but I think the thing is, a lot of us STILL have to deal with it today. So I can very easily see why a black person or an any other person from a minority group would find this to be unsettling. It’s easy to say “That’s just the way things were!” but when it isn’t actually about your race, it’s an entirely different narrative experience.

    Like I said I enjoyed the game for the most part, but I think it’s fine that some people of color were annoyed or decided it wasn’t for them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1841108884 Craig Forshaw

    SPOILERS!

    Three things:

    (1) I was a lot more impressed with the story until I realised that it is basically just ‘Fringe’ with a lot of Americana thrown in.

    (2) Straight after it tells you Elizabeth can look after herself, she gets kidnapped. Which is a hilarious fact everyone seems to overlook.

    (3) As a narrative experience, it is quite good. As a gameplay experience, it feels half-baked. The combat is quite meh, the bad guys are repetitive and rarely challenging, and the biggest threat in the game ends up on your side without any real confrontation.

    It’s good, but it isn’t half as good as the previews suggested, and it is way, way too short.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1841108884 Craig Forshaw

    I think that, like in most things, Elizabeth just shows that the gaming industry is lagging behind Valve: Alyx Vance was never really a tag-along, and was certainly far more capable than Elizabeth, when she showed up throughout ‘Half-Life 2′ and the subsequent episodes. And that was released nearly a decade ago, now!

  • Anonymous

    That’s a great point about Alyx, I’d forgotten her. But I also didn’t feel like she was really a “companion.” Maybe it was just the game mechanics, though.

  • Adam R. Charpentier

    Right? The initial surprise of the raffle (I hadn’t read any spoilers, so maybe they would have made a difference) was shocking and awful and choosing to throw the ball at the announcer, you could feel DeWitt’s anger…but then absolutely everyone you hear speak from there onward (I’m somewhere in the Vox stages now, just shy of entering Comstock House) says something racist. I love the subtlies of the workers in the background maintaining the pleasure cruise all of the white inhabitants get to experience but the constant repetitive “We are so racist!” message over and over…shit, do they have nothing else to talk about except how superior they are?

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephythegrrreat Stephanie Sacchi

    You also have to remember that when we meet up with Daisy, you’ve already been through a tear. Its not even the “real” Daisy… its one possibility of Daisy, and it happens to be an extreme one.

  • http://twitter.com/MarRav3 Working class hero

    The point of the racism was simply an honest account of 1912 Americano.

    Nothing more than that. The Daisy charater and to a certain extent the Comstock charater were used a observation on how ‘POWER’ corrupts not on religion and/ or racism per se. We see the importance of the Daisy charater through Elizibeth’s eyes.

    She first believes Daisy is a romantic freedom fighter, as she said to Booker “We can be part of this it’s just like Les Misérables” Booker says under his breath dismisively ‘yeah’ and Elizabeth body language is one of confussion and anger at Booker’s response. This is Elizabeth starting to grow up in the game as she starts to anaylise her niaivity. Eventually after seeing the consquences of the revolution and the true nature of Daisy who has by this point become a monster every bit as vile as Comstock she takes action by murdering Daisy who is about to murder a child. Elizabeth realises that Daisy is a repulsive person at the point of her development and is every bit as malipultive as Comstock.

    Also there was a romantic conection suggested on Elizabeth’s part. When a lady asked Booker for the time Elizabeth answered her sharply. Elizabeth then asks Booker if there was a women in his life in a coy manner. This was only suggested at for of course knowing the ending and in retrospect the fact the Booker is her father, it would have been in bad taste if this wasn’t only hinted at subtley but it was done really well as it wouldn’t have seemed natural for a young niave girl not to sort of fancy Booker.

  • Anonymous

    BioShock Infinite takes to a somewhat surrealistic yet familiar world – Columbiana. The fact that American exceptionalism is the main theme of the game, the issue of racism and even slavery would come up throughout the game.

    These issues are considered taboo yet the game presented them with such brilliance that you would be able to understand and somewhat admire how the pieces are put together to reveal the story to the gamers.

    Gamers would observe excellent character development throughout the game and although a BioShock Infinite Walkthrough might come in handy, this wouldn’t distract the gamers from the gameplay.