Reading The Game: Bioshock Infinite

Apr 9, 2017

For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we've been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we're running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective.

Booker DeWitt is a bad, bad man. A veteran of Wounded Knee turned Pinkerton thug and private detective, he is as classic a noir antihero as has ever existed. He's a drunk and a gambler with a terrible debt hanging over his head; comes complete with half a ton of baggage, a pistol and one last chance to get right with those he owes. All he has to do is go to a flying city in the clouds, fight robots, murder his way across multiple dimensions and rescue a literal princess from a literal tower, all while shooting lightning and murderous crows from his hands.

This is Bioshock Infinite, the Citizen Kane of video games.

Actually, scratch that. It's not the pixelated Kane. I'm not sure that game has actually been made yet. Maybe Infinite (developed by mad genius Ken Levine and his team at Irrational Games and released in 2013) is more like the Taxi Driver of video games. Not the revered, vacuum-packed beauty, but the mad, bloody, disturbing and ragged masterpiece that takes every rule laid down by its predecessors and stretches them to their limits. That looks dead into the camera, shows all the blood and guts, climbs right up into your lap and shakes you.

Arguably, one of the worst ideas in the history of video game writing was the decision by Levine and Irrational in the early 2000s to develop a big-budget prestige shooter based on the wilder fringes of Ayn Rand's theories of objectivism and axiomatic truth. I imagine the pitch going something like: It's a game about the complicated relationship between socioeconomic theory and the psychological underpinnings of free-market, amoral capitalism, only underwater and with ZOMBIES.

That game — the original Bioshock — made dump trucks full of money and became not just a hit, not just an Art Deco Atlas Shrugged in bang-bang drag, but a paradigm-shifting triumph of narrative-driven storytelling told at the business end of a smoking shotgun.

Infinite is bigger. Infinite is prettier. Infinite has ambitions that make its predecessor look like small potatoes in comparison, because Levine is a man who seems perennially unsatisfied with only changing the world once. What he wanted was to make a game that entered the cultural conversation through the same door that serious film and literature did — one that existed without the guilty, nerdy baggage of being just a game.

So we have Booker, the damaged antihero. And we have Elizabeth, the princess in the tower who becomes the most powerful creature in the universe. Becomes, in essence, a god with the power to shape reality and time, and in whose brilliant light the game's hero becomes just a tiny shadow. We have the simplest, most ancient storytelling frame in existence — a man, a gun and a girl — used to animate a narrative that becomes one of the most mind-bending and groundbreaking in the history of this young form.

Infinite plays like a game when it's in your hands, but settles like a great novel or brilliant movie in your head when you walk away. It begins in the rain, on the water, approaching a lighthouse — and ends the same way — but in between tells the story of Booker and Elizabeth. It presents to us Columbia, the city in the sky, stuffed to the neck with all the bitter harvests of American exceptionalism and ruled over by a quasi-religious demagogue called Father Comstock who has turned worship of the Founders (Washington, Jefferson and Franklin) into a twisted political vision stinking of jingoism, white supremacy and extreme xenophobia, and then it makes us think about all those foundational sins by having us live within and through them, over and over, showing them from different angles and with different results. It gives us the power to change reality (and to throw fireballs) while, at the same time, forcing us to confront the sacrifice that any true change demands, showing us infinite ends to infinite worlds (including, briefly, the world of the original Bioshock).

There is no game more of this sociopolitical moment than Infinite, but that's just (mostly) coincidence. It's the trick that great science fiction can sometimes pull, looking prescient when, really, it is just showing us our own worst selves, best selves, and all the selves in between. And to play through Infinite now, four years gone from its original release, is to see the flex point where video games became, as Levine wished, more than just games. Where narrative, character, depth and arc (rather than gameplay and the shine on a gun) became the foundational concerns. Though flawed (by a dragging middle, a weird ghost story that resolves clumsily, and some SUPER heavy-handed philosophizing), it is a groundbreaking achievement — as bloody and beautiful as anything ever made.

And like the great visual novel it truly is, once stripped of the adrenaline and the momentary clatter of gunfire that define its active, playable moment, Infinite will haunt you for years with the questions it asks and the choices it offers.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

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