Bioshock Infinite Proves There's More to the Series Than Just Rapture
It retains series' trademark combat and emphasis on theme, but Bioshock Infinite handles world design and storytelling in an entirely new way,
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Say goodbye to the confined, melancholy remnants of Rapture, and hello to the unbounded beauty of Columbia. The “heavenly,” strictly American society, sequestered from the unworthy foreigners below, exists thanks to Father Comstock, the prophet who, amidst the darkness of uncertainty and external pressure, lit the path towards a brighter future for Americans. In his vision of the future, they are the chosen, and they are the deserved.
Bioshock Infinite opens with you, Booker DeWitt, en route to Columbia on a mission to either rescue or kidnap a girl in exchange for the forgiveness of past debts. A chest of your personal belongings is revealed: a pistol, a key featuring an etched birdcage, and a note containing symbols. When your boat arrives at a lighthouse in the middle of an angry, stormy sea, your porters depart.
Inside the lighthouse, Booker sits down in a conspicuously lonely chair. The floor opens beneath your feet, and whirring, powerful machines begins to stir. The lighthouse comes alive, bellowing and flashing an ominous red light. Gyrations cause your gun to slip away into the chaos below. Without further warning, the lighthouse skyrockets. The ocean disappears from view and turbulence increases as the lighthouse passes through the rain and clouds. The cocky Booker is shaken, and uncertainty overcomes any remaining shreds of confidence until suddenly, a serene blue light washes over the lighthouse interior. Columbia’s fabled airships and monuments come into view. Despite its idyllic appearance, Booker knows there’s more beneath its glossy veneer. If his mission is worth the forgiveness of his debt, and requires a pistol, there’s a fair chance Columbia isn’t as peaceful as it appears to be.
The lighthouse docks, and the door opens. Booker find himself in what appears to be a flooded chapel. Robed men with blank stares and clasped hands line the halls. After a set of stairs leads you past religious iconography and architecture, you enter the chapel hall. More men in robes tread through knee deep water towards a congregation lead by a priest. You work your way to the front of the line, and he sees that you are burdened under the weight of past sins; sins which must be cleansed prior to your acceptance into Columbia. Once, twice, are you baptized in the holy waters of Columbia’s chapel. Initiation complete, your entrance to the city is finally granted.
The opening to Bioshock Infinite is heavy, foreboding, and a clever introduction to Booker and his past. You’re given just enough of his backstory to understand his motivation and personality. Columbia, too, is presented in such a way that paints a picture rife with hints and clues of its origins. You see that it’s a utopia, you’re told that it’s lead by the prophet Comstock, and you observe that his sheep are utterly devoted to his vision for America. Citizens figuratively refer to it as a heavenly place, or simply, as heaven. As the player, it’s easy to want to connect the dots that are given, but inferences only tell so much of the story.
Upon arrival into the heart of Columbia, Booker finds himself wandering into the middle of a carnival. Men, women, and children are enjoying attractions, games litter the boardwalk, and the city is bustling with anticipation for the upcoming raffle drawing. Your first objective is to obtain a ticket, but the vending machine refuses your request. After exploring the area, you happen upon a woman selling Vigors, tonics crafted from technology that grant the consumer with new abilities. She offers you the Possession Vigor, giving Booker the ability to control machines and robotic contraptions. After a quick zap with your newfound possession power, the raffle machine dispenses a ticket, and it’s off to the drawing. Before you arrive, you notice a billboard warning people of the beast that bears the mark, “A.D.”, the same mark that appears on the top of Booker’s right hand.
Up until this point, Columbia’s darker tendencies have yet to reveal themselves. Once you arrive at the drawing however, it becomes clear that Columbia is built on a foundation of exclusion, religious persecution, xenophobia, and racism. While it’s immediately shocking to hear a character utter lines such as “Have you ever seen such a pretty white girl?” as she presents the basket of raffle drawings, it's even more unsettling to learn that the winner earns the ticket holder the “privilege” of publically stoning an African American. This spectacle definitely drives home the notion that Columbia is unwelcome to anyone who defies their ideals. That is, anyone like Booker.
Of course, Booker wins the raffle. The host of the drawing offers you a basket of baseballs intended to be thrown at the bound, mixed race couple who are pleading for your mercy. As you wind up, prepared to lodge the ball into the hateful mouth of the host, a policeman notices the mark on your hand and grabs your wrist. In that moment, your cover is shattered, and the game truly begins. You wrench a hook from the hand of an officer and gouge the face of his partner in order to make your getaway.
Leaving with the hook, your search for an escape route and come upon the skyline: a series of tracks in the sky connecting the numerous islands that make up Columbia. An in-game prompt encourages you to leap toward a coupling on the line, and a magnetic force draws your hook to the tracks. Booker is whisked along as he circles around his pursuers below. The track stops above a platform, and a new prompt instructs to dismount the skyline. An unwitting enemy patrols nearby, and a swift blow to the head renders him a non-threat. Booker acquires the man’s pistol and continues his escape.
At this point, Bioshock Infinite has introduced its setting, theme, and gameplay mechanics, and it’s up to you to avoid capture while searching for your target. The girl in question is held captive atop the statue of Columbia, America’s “goddess,” in the middle of Monument Island. At first, Columbia looks like a completely open world, but it’s fairly linear at this point in the game. In true Bioshock fashion, there are plenty of alternate paths to explore, but they never take Booker far off the beaten path. Ultimately, your curiosity is rewarded with missing links to the story and occasional coinage or health pickups.
Eventually, you find your way to the tower, and gain access by entering the symbols from the note found inside your chest of belongings. Along the way, Booker is introduced to Elizabeth by way of two-way mirrors. When you finally meet in person, she’s startled by your unfamiliar presence and tries to fend you off. Even after you reveal that you’re there to free her, she doubts you and your intentions, until you show her the key with the bird cage etching. Only then does she accept that the time to flee has finally come, but no sooner than you unlatch the door to freedom, the tower shakes, and a harrowing shriek resonates through its steel walls. Elizabeth knows this is her keeper, the giant mechanized Song Bird, and as you two sprint for the ground floor, it begins to tear away at the tower in a desperate attempt to prevent her escape.
As the Song Bird rips a staircase, you tumble from the height of the tower only to catch your hook on a skyline momentarily before plummeting into the waters below. The Song Bird dives headlong after you, but seems to give up as Booker loses consciousness. Everything fades to black.
You comes to in a dreamlike state. You’re in an office, and someone is banging at the door, demanding you repay your debt. Answering the door brings you back to life as you see Elizabeth trying to resuscitate you. You’ve washed ashore, and though you’re worse for the wear, you’ve escaped for the time being.
For the first time in her life, Elizabeth experiences freedom. A ragtime cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” plays in the background as she dances around the beach, taking in the sights and sounds of a world she’s only experienced from a distance. She’ll generally follow Booker, but she’s always up to something, usually out of frame. Sometimes, she’s captivated by an unusual sight in the environment, swaying to the sound of music coming for a nearby radio, or perhaps she’s searching for loose change under an armoire. She’s every bit a living, breathing part of the world, and not a typical video game companion tucked away in a robotic NPC with minimal AI.
As the rest of the demo plays out, Booker and Elizabeth continue their journey, all the while confronted by Comstock and his hordes as they try to recapture Elizabeth and do away with Booker. Elizabeth doesn’t possess offensive capabilities, but she can control tears, rifts in time space that allow her to access alternate realities and dimensions. Through these tears, she’ll reveal secrets and items to aid your mission. Sometimes, she can open rifts that alter the world of Columbia, influencing battle sequences and environmental puzzles.
Though you can occasionally direct her use of tears, she usually has an agenda all her own. When she discovers items in the environment, she’ll call out for you attention. A quick button press will turn your focus to her so she can flick a coin or underhand toss a health item your way. As much as you are her protector, she’s your trusty sidekick.
Our demo concluded shortly after this extended, multi-hour introduction. Like the first Bioshock, the opening draws you into the game’s world, revealing just enough to captivate your curiosity and send you on your mission’s path. The heart of the gameplay is again focused on finding creative solutions through the use of varying super powers, but the open environments of Columbia and implementation of skylines in Infinite dwarf the relatively restrictive confines of Rapture from Bioshock and Bioshock 2.
What’s most intriguing about Infinites evolution is the introduction of Booker and Elizabeth as conduits for the narrative. As you learn about Elizabeth and Columbia, you also learn about Booker. Infinite feels like a Bioshock game, yet it expands upon the elements that made the first game so successful years ago, rather than simply adding to them. Columbia still conceals many mysteries, and uncovering them should make for a truly engaging experience. After another brief delay, Bioshock Infinite’s newly scheduled release is now set for March 26, 2013.