The original Bioshock is one of the most critically acclaimed games of the past decade, with an aggregate Metacritic score of 96 out of 100. It’s typically praised for its implicit criticism of Objectivist philosophy. The game is set in the hidden, underwater city of Rapture, which was established by an eccentric billionaire as a refuge away from the “parasites,” similar in concept to Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged. Of course, everything goes to shit and the city becomes overrun with psychotic killers who’ve been altering their genes to gain superhuman abilities. Unfortunately, the game is more clever than intelligent. Its critique of Objectivism is undermined by the gameplay’s emphasis on repetitive violence and overcoming all obstacles and opponents. In effect, the game suggests that Great Men who rely on money are foolish and/or wicked, but Great Men who slaughter their way through an entire city are still worthy of being the hero.* Bioshock Infinite adopts the same gameplay and storytelling approach as its predecessor and suffers from the same problem.
The sequel is more accurately described as a prequel, because while the first Bioshock takes place in the 1960’s, Bioshock Infinite is set in the second decade of the twentieth century. And instead of an underwater city Bioshock Infinite is set in the floating city of Columbia, hidden somewhere in the skies above the North Altantic. To picture Columbia, imagine a fusion of the Confederacy, Puritan New England, and Disneyland. Columbia was founded by a fanatical preacher named Comstock and an enigmatic scientist named Lutece. Lutece helped Comstock build a city away from the fallen “Sodom” of the surface, where he could create a fantasyland for WASPs: all white, all Protestant, and all middle class. But no pseudo-Confederacy could function without slaves, so Comstock was forced to purchase black and Irish prisoners from the mainland. Needless to say, this servile class resented its oppression, and as the plot begins the city of Columbia is already on the verge of a revolution.
The story follows Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton, who is hired by mysterious figures to rescue a girl name Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a prisoner in Columbia, but she’s also blessed with the power to open tears in space-time, and Comstock intends to use her in his master plan to rain fire on the corrupt world below. Excepting a few twists and turns, the story is basically an effort by Booker and Elizabeth to find a way off Columbia as they’re being pursued by Comstock’s men. Halfway into the story, Booker and Elizabeth aid the rebels, known as the Vox Populi, and help spark the revolution. And soon Booker and Elizabeth are also being pursued by the Vox, who view Elizabeth as a threat to their plans.
Video game critics have generally given high marks to Bioshock Infinite. IGN gave it a 9.4 out of 10. Game Spot gave it 90 out of 100. Adam Sessler of Revision3 gushed about its awesomeness. When looking at the competition, it’s not hard to see why critics would be so easily impressed. In comparison to low brow sci-fi like Halo, or militaristic propaganda like Call of Duty, Bioshock Infinite seems to be a thoughtful work of popular entertainment. And the game developers were genuinely interested in political theory, race relations, and the darker side of American history. In other words, the game has a shiny veneer of intelligence.
But a veneer is all there is. Bioshock Infinite is still a first person shooter, and like all FPS’s the whole point of the game is to run around and kill everything that moves. And gameplay can never be wholly separated from story or themes. The game developers are not kind in their depiction of Columbia, which embodies nearly every negative aspect of American culture: pervasive racism, jingoism, and a hostility toward anyone at the bottom of the economic heap. And the game developers have an unforgiving view of the Vox Populi as well, who are modeled after the Bolsheviks. The Vox may be slightly more sympathetic than Comstock, but their revolution has less to do with justice than with revenge and mass murder. In another context, this storyline might be taken as a general criticism of political violence, whether to oppress or to overthrow oppressors.
But Bioshock Infinite would never be mistaken for a pacifist manifesto. As Booker, the player spends nearly the entire game shooting, burning, electrocuting, and otherwise horribly mutilating anyone who gets in his way. Early in the story, Elizabeth objects to Booker’s casual approach to violence, but her objections are quickly swept aside and forgotten, all so the player can get back to the gory bits. Using violence to oppress your fellow man is bad, and using violence to overthrow the system is bad. But using violence to save the girl is just good clean fun.
The game’s incoherent view of violence is just one example of its shallowness. Another example is the ridiculous finale. By the end of the game, Columbia is thoroughly wrecked by the war between Comstock and the Vox Populi. Rather than dealing with the consequences of the war, the game writers took the easy way out. They used an approach that’s been popular with hack sci-fi writers for decades. They created a multiverse, hence the name Bioshock Infinite, and thanks to Elizabeth’s powers the entire conflict was resolved as if it never happened. No doubt this ending was meant to be cerebral, but like too many other works of popular sci-fi it simply used technobabble and superpowers to avoid dealing with the complex issues raised in the story.
Strangely enough, a more low brow game would have been more enjoyable, as it would be lacking any pretensions besides offering a few cheap thrills. But Bioshock Infinite, in the less-than-sterling tradition of middle brow entertainment, aimed to be both entertaining and intellectual at the same time. It was only intermittently successful at being the former, and completely failed at being the latter.
* And I’m not inclined to give the game that much credit for pointing out that Objectivism is terrible. If you’re looking for an ideology that deserves being eviscerated, Objectivism is the low hanging fruit.