“There's always a lighthouse. There's always a man. There's always a city.”
Where do I even begin with Bioshock Infinite? When it comes to narrative driven first person shooters, it is a game that frankly has it all. Intuitive and responsive controls, action packed firefights, an expansive suite of weapons and abilities that allows you to choose your personal approach to any combat encounter, engaging and well written characters, an endearing and truly helpful AI companion, a fantastically paced and thought provoking story, truly I could go on endlessly listing what I consider to be its strongest features. Rather than wax poetically for hours and ramble aimlessly though, let's touch on three more specific aspects: Combat mechanics, Elizabeth and Booker, and the ending.
SPOILER WARNING: I will be discussing narrative spoilers for Bioshock Infinite in detail in this post. You have been warned!
Let's start with what Bioshock as a series is at its very core, a first person shooter. Overall, I found myself enjoying the combat in Infinite far more than I did in the previous installments of the game, mostly due to it taking a more "arcadey" feel to firefights. Rather than severely limiting ammunition as a resource, Infinite gives the player far more agency in fights by providing a steady stream of ammo to fuel your favorite guns. Very rarely did I find myself scrounging around for bullets or dumping tons of currency into the vending machines to restock. This allows the player to more easily invest in customizing their weapons and Vigors so they can tailor the gameplay to their personal style of play.
For me, this allowed me to spec heavily into the Run & Gun style of FPS action that I prefer from games like Halo. By the end of the game, I felt like I fully realized this style of combat by indexing hard into Shotgun upgrades and both Charge upgrades to reward being up close and personal as well as enabling me to quickly close the gap with deadly ranged enemies. Honestly speaking, I feel like this is the most optimal way to play the game, but that's the true beauty of the customization systems the game offers. Being a Mass Effect Vanguard may be the most optimal FPS strategy for me personally, but Infinite's customization allows for the player to take virtually any approach to combat and be successful at the end of the day. Additionally, Elizabeth's powers and contributions add additional complexity to combat that only serve to benefit the player, but we'll discuss those more in her section of this post.
Admittedly, giving the player so much agency in their approach to combat does detract from one of the greatest strengths of the original Bioshock. Combat is overall less terrifying and there are far fewer moments where players are forced to make difficult decisions regarding whether to attempt a difficult encounter with their renewable resources (Melee and Salts) or using what precious little ammunition they have left. By the end of the game, combat can start to feel "samey" and more like a chore than a legitimate challenge. Again, I personally prefer this approach, but I agree that it made a significant detraction to the latent lethality and terror that hung so heavily in the first entry of the game series.
ELIZABETH & BOOKER
As much as I enjoy the combat mechanics of Infinite and its amazing narrative, the game would ultimately be so forgettable and run of the mill if it weren't for Elizabeth. Collectively brought to life by Ken Levine's direction, Heather Gordon's motion capture, and Courtnee Draper's voice, Elizabeth arguably stands as the most endearing, memorable, and helpful companion in any game that I've ever played. I'll try to break down why I feel this way.
Standing in stark contrast to Resident Evil 4's infamous Ashley Graham, Elizabeth is a companion that you DON'T have to constantly worry about. She's self sufficient and doesn't randomly die during tense or difficult situations, instead offering incredible help to the player during combat. Her ability to open rifts and alter the field of combat, her helpful "You're low! Here's more of X resource!" moments, and helpful enemy callouts all serve to help the player survive the more action oriented approach to combat that Infinite decided to take without feeling forced or out of place. In fact, her resourcefulness is one of Elizabeth's defining character traits that is consistently built upon by the game both in and out of combat.
Speaking of character traits, Elizabeth, for me, is to this day as one of the most successfully realized characters in gaming because of how she made me feel as the player. From the moment I found her locked away in Monument Tower, to Booker's literal final breath, I found myself captivated by this stylized take on Beauty and the Beast. The most astounding part of my journey with her was that Infinite instilled an immediate paternal instinct to protect her at all costs. There wasn't ever a time where I even considered that Booker and Elizabeth might become romantically involved. In a fantastic act of foreshadowing, Booker immediately took on the aspect of the father that she never truly had, and I felt that in all of my actions as the player. When Elizabeth found out that Booker had been lying to her, I felt as awful as Booker did. When it is revealed that Booker had sold Elizabeth to Comstock, my heart broke just like Booker's. When confronting Comstock, I felt all the same rage that Booker had, angry at him for every wrong he'd done against Elizabeth.
It's very rare for a linear game to create a complete story where I felt that the player character's actions at every turn were justified and believable. There's almost always SOMETHING that happens that tears me out of the character, some stupid decision that is arbitrarily made to pad the game time that feels so far removed from the character that it makes me question why they chose to do that. Booker's actions ALL felt justified to me, and that justification stems almost entirely from the relationship that develops between Elizabeth and the player during the course of the game.
Lastly on Elizabeth, and mostly just a love letter to one of my creative idols Ken Levine, I really cannot emphasize enough how easily it would have been for the character to fall completely flat if she weren't so perfectly realized. The micro expressions in her motion capture and voice over, and Courtnee Draper's insane chemistry with Troy Baker really help to sell the idea of this truly fantastical and ultimately unbelievable character. Achieving all of what I wrote above would have been nearly impossible without Ken's direction and passion for storytelling. Every aspect of the game from combat, to music, to narrative all feel as though they were built upon the foundation of one singular character, Elizabeth. And that is so INSANELY difficult to pull off successfully.
Holy SHIT I've written way more than I intended to do so on this game. But to wrap things up, let's talk about the ending of the game. One of Infinite's many strengths is one that is shared by many properties out there. Booker, as a facsimile for the player, is experiencing Columbia from a perspective of pure discovery. Every new bit of lore surrounding Columbia, Elizabeth, Comstock, and even Booker himself is received as though we've never heard it before. It works so well because for Booker it IS the first time he's receiving that information, just like the player.
What amplifies this strength and this natural sense of discovery is how Infinite plays with what IS familiar to the player. The lighthouse, a demagogue (Comstock in Infinite as opposed to Andrew Ryan in Bioshock), a dystopian city, the covers of and allusions to modern music, all of these serve to instill a growing sense of deja vu and familiarity in a place they've never been before. That dual approach of genuine discovery coupled with intense familiarity ultimately pays off in a big way during the game's finale. Every quote, every action, every choice the player makes, everything sets the player up for the discovery that they have been brought here from a different timeline.
For me, this discovery was met with understanding rather than confusion. It all made sense, it all added up. Constants and variables, a retelling of a story I'd already heard, a sequel to a game that I'd already played. It was no less bewildering simply because I understood and accepted what I was being told, I vividly remember just staring at the rolling credits with my jaw practically on the floor as I recovered from the proverbial nuke that had been detonated in my brain. I was Elizabeth's father. I was Comstock AND I was Booker DeWitt. And the only way to stop Comstock from ruining lives was to die before I could make the choice. The choice of whether I would become Comstock, or remain Booker DeWitt.
It really was a beautiful interpretation and explanation of string theory and parallel dimensions. It is far from being scientifically accurate, given our working (and albeit limited) understanding of time. There is no way to alter the past to change the present and future. The very fundamental idea that there are infinite parallel dimensions to our reality means that even if we successfully traveled through space and time to prevent an inciting incident that created rippling consequences across thousands of dimensions, there are infinitely many more dimensions where we failed to do so.
Setting this aside and accepting that in the world of Bioshock the web of timelines and dimensions (or Worlds, as Elizabeth refers to them) is finite, the conclusion of Booker and Elizabeth's story sends a powerful message about self sacrifice. It's the story of an individual coming to understand the profound effect that they have on the universe as a whole and accepting that he needed to die in order to save the lives of others and prevent their suffering. Booker doesn't fight against this revelation, he accepts it, calmly. It had to happen, there was simply no other way. And so, the circle was broken.