Bioshock Infinite is special. Like Bioshock before it (I didnít play Bioshock 2), Infinite is a fully realized work of literature. It has ideas and themes, and it expresses them through storytelling. A Gamespot interview with creative director Ken Levine is very telling in this regard: ďWe tried to honor the story all the timeÖ The story is your boss.Ē Telling a story is the priority here. It just so happens that the chosen method for doing so is through a first person shooter video game.
Thatís a strange mode of expression, to be sure, and it doesnít always jive. A novel or a film asks virtually nothing of the reader or viewer, but a video game demands mastery. When narrative becomes a reward for performing well, there are inevitable emotional disconnects. What if the player just isnít in the mood for an intense fire fight? What if the player finds the storyís themes and characters fascinating, but the gameís challenges utterly boring? In such cases a player is left with no choice: slog through the ďgameĒ portions in order to obtain what he or she really desires.
I felt that frustration often while playing Infinite. On one hand, itís a huge testament to the gameís story and world that I became so interested in them; I could never learn enough about the floating city of Columbia or its philosophically charged inhabitants. On the other hand, though, what does that say about Infiniteís status as a video game? I honestly donít mean to degrade its worth as an action game, because Infinite is a good one. It is fun, challenging, and rewarding of creative thought and experimentation, but it begs a difficult question. If winning the game isnít as compelling or satisfying as the storyís revelations, should Infinite be a game at all?
There is no easy answer. The authors chose to make a video game rather than a film for a reason, surely, and I must respect that decision. Still, Iím very tempted to say yes. I think Infinite could have very possibly existed without challenges and objectives. The more difficult and interesting question to me is whether or not it could have existed without being interactive. I donít think I can say yes to this. Again, my single favorite feature of the game was its literature, but more specifically, the process of learning. I played to learn and to discover. I played for discovery of people, places, and ideas. Discovery through exploration. Thatís interactive, isnít it? Perhaps learning and discovery are quintessentially interactive. So too is Infinite.
For example, a major theme of the game is the negative effects of adherence to dogma, and so, perhaps inevitably, it deals with religion. I need to preface this example by establishing that Iím not a religious person (Neither is Ken Levine, for what itís worth.) At the beginning of the game the player character, Booker, is asked to undergo a baptism. He plays along, because he wonít get what he wants otherwise. My feelings more or less mirrored his; I donít take baptisms very seriously. At the end of the game Booker is again asked to undergo a baptism. This time, his feelings are different. Mine were, too. I had learned a lot about Booker by this point, and I knew that he had done some horrible things. Iíd also helped him kill countless people in weird, disgusting, and hilarious ways (so there may indeed be something to Infiniteís being an action game). This time, when the preacher asked him if he was ready to wash away all of his sins, Booker sincerely said ďyes.Ē Because I had played as him, because I had become involved with him in an interactive way, I understood where he was coming from. I could sympathize with him. By extension, I can now also sympathize with religious people in real life. I know a little bit about where they are coming from. It was a valuable lesson that I wonít forget, and one that could not have been taught through non-interactive means.
There are many sequences like that in Infinite, and I wonít spoil them. They are the gameís best moments. I wish that there had been more emphasis on these moments of pure interactive storytelling and less on shooting people, but so be it. Even with that imbalance Infinite is a stunning achievement. It is bold, fresh, and uncompromising. It isnít afraid to experiment and to try new things. It hints at endless possibilities and makes me excited to see what the future holds.