March, 26th must have been a good day for Ken Levine, co-founder of Irrational Games, as well as creative director and lead writer on Bioshock Infinite. On release day, if you scrolled down the game’s Metacritic page, you’d be witnessing any developer’s wet dream, with perfect scores lining-up, review after review. And even though the game might not be flawless, it is definitely worth it.
It’s 1912, and you play the role of Booker DeWitt, a private (and alcoholic) detective, haunted both by his past in the military and his gambling losses. However, he is offered a chance to start anew. “Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt”, they said, and to get to her, you must first set foot in the flying city of Columbia, which seceded from the United States on the eve of the nineteenth century.
This is how it all starts.
I finished Bioshock Infinite about two days after it came out and, even during my first playthrough, I was thinking “Oh God, this is so good I can’t wait to play it again”. Because, yes, it is first and foremost fun to play -and not just because Bioshock’s controls felt a bit too awkward and too cramped. Fighting in a city underwater, there obviously wasn’t a lot of space to move around, but as the story now takes place in the floating city of Columbia, fighting got a lot more fun.
Adding verticality to a game world makes a huge difference (think of Deus Ex or Dishonored) and, in Bioshock Infinite, you experience this third dimension through the glorious use of skylines, steel cables running all over the city, allowing you to get seamlessly from one point to another. You will encounter enemies ranging from simple policemen and policewomen to motorized versions of Thomas Jefferson with a sprinkle of bigoted citizens and workers sick of their assembly lines, and you will take them out with WWI carbines or surreal superpowers.
So, yes, the game is really fun to play, whether you’re an experienced player or not, and that’s always nice. But that’s far from being the game’s strongest suit; which is why Bioshock Infinite is the greatest interactive storytelling experience yet.
All of the technical details and improvements serve this greater purpose of grabbing the player into a completely new, fully original, completely believable and yet insane setting. The lighting effects help the player notice in a beautiful and natural way the most important points in the game. The character animations allow us to perceive NPCs not as animated structures anymore, but as fully fleshed-out citizens of Columbia. The textures tell us that the game’s ambition wasn’t to make you believe that this could be reality (as in the latest Crysis or Tomb Raider), but rather that this is above all a work of fiction. If fiction cannot be taken realistically, it doesn’t mean it cannot be taken seriously, and, as the player acknowledges that Columbia only exists in our imagination, he or she dives deep into the most coherent and detailed world video games have to offer.
As you walk along the streets of Columbia, you will stumble across citizens worshipping the statues of Father George Washington, you will find find robotic puppets bidding for laborers work hours, not bothering whether you are here to listen or not. You will witness racist jokes made by couples during a beach picnic. You will discover what patriotic propaganda looked like in the beginning of the last century. But all this is never for you to judge. Columbia isn’t a critique of the wrongdoings of America, it just is. There is no politically correct (or uncorrect) sub-text. Columbia is presented to you the way Tatooine was presented to you in Star Wars, as a background so believable any story taking its place into it would be magnified tenfold.
And in this universe, you are not alone. The girl you are sent to bring back, Elizabeth, will accompany you both during combat and exploration. Far from a regular “princess-you-painfully- have-to-escort-out-of-prison”, she is the most believable AI I’ve ever interacted with. She looks around, enters rooms without following you, throws you money and ammunition in the heat of battle, eats cotton candy, talks to NPCs, leans on walls when you’re taking too much time scavenging items, dances, laughs, shudders and screams so believably she makes a single-player game feel like a coop-game.
Bioshock Infinite is a compelling story, fun to enact, in a carefully crafted setting in which you, Booker DeWitt have nothing else to do than bring a girl back, and wipe away a debt.