Spoiler-Free: Thank You Irrational, For Daring To Go There
It might be a little late to do this and indeed for some of you, this is an extremely delayed entry into the annals of BioShock Infinite in all its splendour; I apologise for not having as much time, freedom and forward thinking as some of you, but I nevertheless wanted to talk about the game, now that I have finally played it to completion. (Insert sex joke here.)
Now we obviously already have a review out, so I’m not going to re-hash everything that’s mentioned there. I could well use this opportunity to point reference to certain criticisms I had of the game, but that would be nitpickery of the highest order… and I’ll come back to that once I get to the meat of my point.
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I’m going to go right ahead and call BioShock Infinite one of the best games in the history of gaming, at least as far as I’m concerned. As well as, I’m sure, a lot of others.
Critics have been hailing it as an important game for this generation, if not for gaming as a whole, and I’m inclined to agree with them to some extent. I think there are other games which are equally important, but this one here, this one is important for a very specific reason:
It dares to challenge us.
See, I’ve played a lot of story-based games, and I’ve played a lot of things which leave you as the player pondering for hours thereafter. But not since Half-Life 2 have I played a game which so eloquently presented me with a story where I didn’t sit there scratching my head and wondering what just happened, but rather I sat back on my gaming throne, exhaled slowly and thought to myself, “Thank you Irrational. Thank you for meeting me on my level.”
This game… I have spoken about it now, in emails and on social networks, and now I am attempting to cohesively present all the points I’ve made without spoilers, but I think that even if I was to successfully do all that, I could never hope to say it in a simpler way than this:
BioShock Infinite is the quintessential game for the intellectual.
It is the magnum opus of games for thinkers.
It is art.
There are elements of this game which resonate in others, sure. There’s a whole lot of emotion tied to the main characters, there’s the beautifully imagined idyllic world of Columbia to explore, and there is smooth and seamless gameplay done differently enough that it feels fresh but with familiar elements. But all of that can be found in other games, so why celebrate Infinite for any of them? No. What I want to celebrate about Infinite is not what it does, but how it goes about doing all of it. What I want to celebrate about Infinite is the execution. It is perfect.
Do you remember how in the first BioShock, once you got to the big plot twist, the game practically fizzled out thereafter? A lot of people will happily consider BioShock over after meeting Andrew Ryan, stopping and going about their lives after reaching that point in the game. Perhaps a little less Atlas Shrugged meets System Shock 2 would have helped Irrational in that case, but it was still something of a cult classic. Infinite has more adventure elements than horror, like with the previous aforementioned Irrational titles. This is basically because whereas in the other two, you arrived in a world already all kinds of fucked up, in Infinite you arrive in the world and effectively fuck it up.
I realised pretty early on that even though this time around it wasn’t a dystopian ruin, I wasn’t enjoying what I saw when I first arrived in Columbia. And it was this realisation that led to another: That was exactly the point. The feeling that it seemed almost too good to be true. That underneath the presentation layer, was a city that seemed almost doomed. And sure enough, it happened and I felt almost vindicated for not enjoying the peace and sanctimony, embracing some form of schadenfreude and wanting some chaos to break up the pristine order, and Infinite delivered. And it kept delivering.
It’s very rare that you find a game with a perfect beginning, a perfect middle, and a perfect end.
BioShock Infinite, somehow, managed it.
Now that’s not to say it wasn’t without faults. Whereas in Rapture, the game very elegantly tied Adam and Plasmids into the fall of the city and therefore allowed you to immerse yourself in the world, here there was a larger disconnect between Tears and Vigors, the Infinite equivalent. Nobody explained to you why Vigors exist and where they came from, and certainly nobody explained why Elizabeth is able to manipulate Tears in the first place. Having time to read books is not enough, trust me I know. It would have helped to have some explanation here, but the way I rationalised it (heh), all of these things made perfect sense after the ending.
And that’s kind of the thing about Infinite, you go along being drip-fed a story on top of a story, where one part of it revolves around freeing Elizabeth and fighting Comstock, but there is a deeper, almost sinister tale to be told underneath all of that and it is fed to you in the tiniest of chunks, with A Man and A Lady lending a hand along the way, to ensure your interest is refreshed but never sated. It does this excellently throughout the game until one story concludes, more or less, you know the one that was obvious to everyone, and the deeper, almost sinister tale slowly begins to unravel. And from there on, like jumping off a cliff face, it’s a straight free-fall of story elements which ends in a huge splash and you completely immersed in water.
And when you surface for air, nothing will ever be the same…
I fully believe that the ending of the game is the reason BioShock Infinite has received so many perfect scores, but how I can fault anyone for that? It really is, absolutely one of the finest executions of an ending ever. This so soon after 2012, or, the year of bad endings. It’s especially telling that there will be a rather large amount of people who just won’t get it. They will either sit there and stare at their screens and think they get it, or they will go off feeling relatively satisfied but never truly understanding what they had just experienced. I hope they play the game through again and take note of more things as they go along, for their sakes.
In the end it doesn’t really matter because this game isn’t for them. This game is for the thinkers of the world. The ones who don’t simply want popcorn action titles all the time, and to their credit Irrational have tried, with BioShock Infinite, to cater to this audience, with navigational help and a very workable first person shooter mechanic that takes things vertical with style, but when it comes to story and delivering a satisfying narrative, they have not held back, and I am so proud to call myself a gamer after having experienced Irrational Games at their best, as a result.
Thinking about it now, I just don’t see how this game cannot be revered as a stepping stone for future titles. Because it dared to reach a level of intellectual stimulation that most publishers would not even allow. Every story must be somewhat basic, the twists somewhat generic, the characters somewhat standard. Here, the rules were not just broken but shattered and then heaved out the window to fall many, many miles.
So thank you Irrational Games. Thank you Ken Levine. Thank you for putting faith in gamers, and for showing us that we need not lower ourselves in order to feel fulfilled.
Thank you for daring to go there.