BioShock Infinite (2012) is a rare example of a popular modern videogame that focuses not on the action and spectacle but rather on deep storytelling. The choice of the game designers to concentrate on the story and social commentary influenced their creative decisions, thus, a number of additional layers were added to a traditionally conventional genre. Bioshock Infinite, while remaining a first person shooter, provides the player with a possibility to observe, investigate and reflect on political and philosophic aspects of the game’s narrative without significant damage to the action gameplay.
BioShock Infinite is the most recent game in a franchise created by Ken Levine, a successor to System Shock (1994 – 1999) series and a sequel to BioShock (2007) game. All games in the series were considered revolutionary in the first person shooter genre, adding tactic and complex RPG elements. The series is mostly famous for its storytelling, plot twists and complex ideas. System Shock raised the questions of artificial intelligence and used the elements of sci-fi subgenre, known as cyberpunk. BioShock changed the future setting to an alternative version of the 1960s and created a dystopian society of the underwater city called Rapture that became a giant failed experiment of a society based on consumption and science without morality. BioShock used art-Deco style in its design and changed a cyberpunk setting for a more stylized technology of steampunk. The game criticized the so-called “super capitalism”, the ideas of a famous philosopher Ayn Rand (Bosman). The most substantial element of the game was its morality system, as the player was forced to make difficult moral choices that included murdering children. In the final act of the game, the player faced a plot twist that questioned the core concept of choice in the video games. BisoShock Infinite is the latest game in the series, it was designed to become more “spectacular, memorable and important” than the previous games in the series, with its creators having a large production budget and a full creative freedom (Plante). While the production of the game was troubling and it supposedly indirectly led to the closing of Irrational Games company, the result is still a significant achievement (Plante).
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The game tells a story of Booker DeWitt, a private investigator, who is hired to find a girl – Elizabeth, in a flying city of Columbia. The city appears to be dystopian society with ultra nationalist white supremacist ideology, led by religious fanatic Father Comstock. As the story unfolds, the city is driven to disastrous revolutionary events led by Vox Populi, a revolutionary organization consisting of racial minorities. There are sci-fi elements in the plot, including inter-dimensional and time travel, genetic and mechanical modifications of human bodies, robotics, etc. The sci-fi ideas in the game are grounded in popular modern scientific theories. While the first BioShock game focuses on the philosophic aspects of player’s choice, BioShock Infinite is more concerned with predetermined decisions. None of the character choices in this game redefines its outcome. Another difference is that the protagonist in the previous games did not have any character, so that the player could identify with him. Booker in BioShock Infinite is a fully realized character whose story is pivotal to the plot of the game and who goes through a character arc as well as the second major character in the game – Elizabeth.
The gameplay in BioShock Infinite is a combination of two concepts: paidia and ludus (Tarnowetzki). Paidic elements of the gameplay include freedom of the player to go almost anywhere in the borders of the games’ map, to choose his own style of play and combat strategy. The ludic nature of the game means that it is story driven, and despite the freedom to choose the manner of gameplay and personal approach, it is still led by the narrative with defined objectives (Caillois). BioShock Infinite is a first person shooter at its core; however, there are a number of other game mechanics, which make the game process more diverse. The RPG elements give the player a possibility to develop his abilities and to buy modernizations for weapons using the in-game currency. The shooter mechanics in the game are also diverse; in addition to weapons and powerful telepathic abilities, the player can use skylines to travel across the city. Elizabeth has a possibility to teleport additional elements from another dimension, which the player can use in different combinations according to his style of play. As BioShock Infinite is a first person shooter, it contains problems characteristic of this genre. First, the over reliance on graphic violence is the main problem. As researcher Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter mentioned, shooters rely on violence because it is an easy way to keep the attention of the player. The creator of the game Ken Levine, himself admitted, that:
Violence is relatively easy to simulate, and, like action movies, there’s an obvious market for it. Making a game like BioShock Infinite without the violence would have been hard for Levine, who has been in the industry for a long time. (qtd. in Takahashi)
As the game relies so heavily on important social and moral issues in its narrative, it is surprising how much graphic violence is performed by the player. The player is meant to take a high moral ground in the story, facing racism, social inequality, and other elements of totalitarian society. Thus, it is strange to witness and act out sadistic murders, being the supposed hero, with more progressive morals. When looking at violence in video games, researcher Brendan Keogh singled out the first BioShockgame as a milestone in the depiction of morality of player’s violent actions. In this context BioShock Infinite is a step back from the deep philosophic ideas of its predecessor. However, this choice is made purposefully, as the game is more focused on the storytelling. Moreover, the gory kills in the game are glorified with graphic kill animations, where the player can act out even more brutal finishers. The players are encouraged to perform quite inventive kills in the game by making combinations of different weapons and abilities. These kills are both effective and visually entertaining. Thus, there is a dissonance between criticizing certain immoral behaviors (racism) while ignoring and even encouraging other (relentless violence). While the game did not invent anything substantially new in terms of gameplay mechanics, it continued most of the progressive trends, started by its predecessors from the series. Still, it deserves the definition of a “smart” or “intellectual” shooter, mostly due to its deep and thought provoking story and attention to detail in creating the environments. Unlike in other games of the genre, like Call of Duty series, where the player is supposed to run through the environments, BioShock encourages a different approach. The player is supposed to explore the game, listen to the dialogue of the background NPC’s, in many cases to stop and observe. This approach to the narrative makes the game much more engaging than its counterparts. Simply put, the game takes a genre, which does not require much thinking, and fills it with cultural, historic, philosophic and other intellectual content, pushing the casual gamer to analyze and explore.
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The world building is one of the core elements of the game. In all of the games in the series, the setting plays an important part in the narrative. With the help of overall design, pieces of advertising, and propaganda placed in the background plenty of information about the fictional universes of the games is provided. This can be considered an example of environmental storytelling (Tarnowetzki). BioShock Infinite has large parts of gameplay without any combat, during which the player can interact with NPCs, look at beautiful landscapes of the flying city, engage with interactive world elements, and observe the reactions of Elizabeth to the world around her. The player can also collect information about the history of the city and its inhabitants through “voxafones” – audio recordings and agitation films. This gives the player a possibility to immerse deeper in the game’s world. Thus, the player can witness society of Columbia both in the time of its glory and during its collapse, to understand how the city functioned, and what caused its decline.
The game is focused on the plot and the social commentary that comes with it. The game depicts a dystopian vision of American society, criticizing the notions of American exceptionalism and religious fundamentalism (Bosman). American exceptionalism is an ideology based on the idea that the USA is a unique country with a special mission in the world. The city of Columbia demonstrates this idea taken to absolute absurdity. The authors speculate on how America would turn out if the South had won the American Civil war. The society of Columbia is driven by Christian fanatics and racists. In the game, propaganda depicts people of nationalities other than white as disgusting caricatures, as a menace to white American society. The revolt organization Vox Populi opposes the tyrannical society; however, they are depicted not as a force of good but as the other extreme – a terrorist organization that uses violence to fight the oppression. The religious themes are also evident in the game, as American exceptionalism is ideologically linked with Christianity. This artistic decision is rooted not only in American history but also in modern political tendencies such as the rise of “neo-conservatives”. The representatives of this political movement promote the importance of Christianity in government. Thus, there is great amount of religion-inspired imagery in Columbia such as the founding fathers depicted as saints (Bosman). In addition, the ceremony of baptism plays an important part in the game’s plot, and it has a symbolic meaning. Booker is ‘reborn’ through the act of baptism into the game’s antagonist Comstock, who takes the religious ideology to its apocalyptic extremes. Overall, the authors depict the dangers of radicalizing any ideology no matter how good the initial intentions are (Tarnowetzki). The mere specter of ideas and concepts raised in the game makes its story comparable to the best examples of science fiction literature and film. The issues raised in the game can give the player a possibility to make parallels with current political situation in the USA. While it is difficult to predict if the game can change someone’s mind on such issues as racism, it has already started an important discourse in the gaming community.
BioShock Infinite is an example of an attempt to create a large-scale action video game with a deep thought provoking story. Unlike in most of other games, which focus more on action, the authors of BioShock Infinite were not afraid to tackle complex ideas and controversial concepts, sometimes in an unconventional matter. Some of the images in the game can be considered controversial, shocking, and not politically correct; however, all of these images are based on historic facts. The game avoids “whitewashing” of history, offering the player a possibility to reflect on these dark pages of American history. Although sometimes the decisions the creators made, like overreliance on gruesome violence, can be considered questionable, the game’s narrative remains its biggest achievement. The game’s story is among the best examples of sci-fi fiction, even outside the context of video games.