If you’ve played Bioshock Infinite, read on. If you haven’t, go no further. Go and play it, and then feel compelled to write something of your own about it.
Spoilers follow. Last warning.
I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I’ll make you so sure about it
God only knows what I’d be without you.
Bioshock Infinite is a celebration of love. Not just a celebration of love between people, between father and daughter, but also a celebration of love for an art form. Love for a story. Passion for work. Bioshock Infinite is a game that could only be made by people who love video games. It is a triumph in every sense. It is like a curio from another dimension where big-budget mainstream products can be cerebral and emotional. It is a glimpse into a future, where game-makers have stopped being embarrassed by the medium they’re working in, and have mastered the form, bending it to their own will.
The game is a dialogue between creator and gamer. It understands that you understand what a video game is, and what the limitations of a video game are. It understands that you understand that the game understands this, and the resulting tension is delicious. It’s a dance of expectation and surprise, with cold computer code transformed into charming wordplay.
Bioshock Infinite is a First Person Shooter. It feels remarkably dated at times, echoing the kind of game we might have played twenty years ago. Enemies attack in waves, as you trigger them. NPCs stand like animatronic wax dummies, only speaking when you move close enough. You fall into the automatic BUTTON BUTTON checking of every BUTTON BUTTON object in case there’s some BUTTON BUTTON money inside.
"I remember this", you think, as you examine a desk and find a pear. "This is what I do. I remember this."
Bioshock Infinite is linear. It offers some deviation from the path, but you’re always nudged back onto gaming’s most beautifully laid yellow brick road. You move past one glorious sight after another, Combat allows you to change the story a little bit. You might take out one enemy with a sniper rifle, another with a melee attack from a skyhook. But the enemies always die, and then another wave moves in. Or it all falls silent and you move forward to another glorious sight.
"I remember this," you think. "When I move into this area, bad guys will come. Until they stop coming."
Bioshock Infinite is a video game. It doesn’t try to hide from that fact. It revels in it. It feels dated in the same way the experience of reading a great novel feels dated. That experience of turning the pages, of scanning from left to right, connects you with those who read the same story a hundred years before. You understand the mechanics of reading a book completely. You understand the mechanics of watching a film completely. You understand the mechanics of playing a First Person Shooter Video Game completely.
Move forward. Trigger enemies. Dispatch. Check objects for pick-ups. Move on. We all understand this. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t even need to be changed. It’s a language we’re all versed in, and storytelling needs a common language.
But what is Bioshock Infinite about? Well, a lot of things. Can I focus on just one?
"Booker, are you afraid of God?"
"No, but I’m afraid of you."
With this, Bioshock Infinite begins. We don’t know it yet, but we’re hearing a man speak to his own daughter. And what he says is a human truth so profound that it underpins everything else within the game. Our children are terrifying. They are us, but not us. We love them so much that our own fate becomes a near-irrelevance. They hold within them the power to do anything and be anyone. We hope that they will bury us.
The Bioshock series has always had a father-child strand running through it. The Big Daddy from Bioshock and the Songbird from Bioshock Infinite are different takes on the same dumb creature. Ancient, lumbering, protective half-men. Binary states - AT PEACE, or ALERT. Fathers. Muddling through. Terrified. Angry. Ready to kill anyone who would hurt their child. Changed forever.
After the end credits of Bioshock Infinite, Booker DeWitt pushes open a door to check on his child. We hope that it’s proof that the circle is broken, and that we have our happy ending. But we don’t get to see if the child is in the cot. It’s a powerful moment that every parent will recognise. When we have a child, our life is punctuated by moments when we simply check that the child is still there. It’s a primal thing within us. Where is the baby? Is the baby still there? When our children are sleeping, too quiet, we go and check. Again and again, against our better logic. And there is always that moment, before we see them, when a million universes of horror open up ahead of us. Within that moment before we see our child safe and sound there are a million doors, or a million lighthouses, and a million versions of us and the people we might become should the unthinkable be true.
In that moment, for a parent, literally nothing else in the universe except that moment matters. That moment is one of the things that Bioshock Infinite is about.
One of the things.
Bioshock Infinite is also about the decisions that turn good people into bad. It’s also about dealing with guilt. And about growing old. And about understanding who we are. It’s about free will and determinism.
It’s about storytelling, and archetypes, and why they’re important. It’s about form, and structure, and why they are something to be embraced. It’s about videogames, and the experiences that only videogames can provide.
It’s about music, and art, and the power that they hold. It’s about propaganda, and about how beauty can be wielded like a weapon. It’s about how the wheel doesn’t need reinvented, just turned by more caring hands.
It’s about a man called Ken Levine fulfilling the potential promised by his previous work. Because the true wonder of Bioshock Infinite is that it speaks to all of us on a personal level, about so many true and painful and beautiful things, but still feels like it’s personal to the creator.
It’s a challenge to design a video game that becomes a commercial success. To make that video game a brilliant one is even harder. To tell a magnificent story is harder still. To make that story intellectually daring and yet full of heart is an incredible feat.
Bioshock Infinite tells us all that within a video game, any door can open up to any place. Any story can be told, any human frailty can be examined, anything can be possible. It’s a victory and a challenge.
God only knows where we go now.