BioShock Infinite Is Still a Masterwork, Ten Years On

BioShock Infinite Is Still a Masterwork, Ten Years On

Josh Wise

In one of those nasty little slippages of time, BioShock Infinite is ten years old this week. This really shouldn’t be the case, given that much of the game feels like it could come out next week. The story spins around Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who is hired to rescue a girl named Elizabeth. And boy does it spin. The job takes him to Columbia, a city that floats in the firmament, high above America. The science that keeps it up there soon gives way to cracks in time and space, and to grapple with the intricacies of the plot, even now, I need a pen and paper, a pair of compasses, and a couple of aspirin.

BioShock Infinite was the last in what is, at the time of writing, a trilogy. (There is another game on the way, of which we know very little.) It followed BioShock and BioShock 2, spurning the drab predictability of the number “3” in favour of the endless. It also departed from those games in its setting. They took place in Rapture, an underwater metropolis whose citizens prospered behind double-thick glass, riveted to the ocean floor. Columbia, by contrast, was light and bright; with its facades as white as marzipan, it resembled an airborne wedding cake, delicately frosted by the altitude. For anyone who struggled, squinting through the brine and gloom of Rapture, to make out anything that would identify it as a former utopia, here was the thing. Columbia showed us why people may have wanted to actually go there; who wants a blue whale bruising past the window, when you can look down on all creation, coughing along through a tide of cloud?

Other changes brought by Infinite, ironically, include the paring down of mechanics. Booker could wield only two weapons at once, flipping between them and swapping them on the fly. Far from an impediment, though, this gave the action an improvisational air that seemed in keeping with the breezy Columbia, where all life was lived on the fly. The Plasmids – superhuman gifts from the previous games, imbued by plunging a harpoon-sized syringe into your wrist – here took the form of Vigors, quaffable tonics that bestow similar perks. But there weren’t as many of them, totalling only eight. The first game boasted twelve powers, and the second added another four; but again, you don’t feel short-changed. What’s here are the core abilities, none of which blur together or go unused.


The best of them has to be Murder of Crows, which allows the unflappable Booker to summon a blizzard of vicious birds. Though special mention has to be made of Bucking Bronco, a riff on Telekinesis that saddles your foes with stasis, holding them aloft and defenceless while you pick them off. But what of the curious power, glimpsed in the first trailer for the game, which allowed Elizabeth to rescue a falling Booker by catching him on a bed of roses? The prevailing theme of BioShock Infinite is the confluence of paths not taken; Elizabeth has the knack of opening rifts between dimensions and pulling in possible outcomes from other realms. It is fitting, then, that the theme of strimming and trimming would define the game’s thorny development.

Rod Fergusson – currently overseeing the progress of Gears of War, at The Coalition – was brought in, late in the day, to heave the game over line. Part of that painful process was the culling of ideas, the pruning back of sights that had bloomed in trailers and screenshots. Elizabeth looked different. Columbia’s public transportation system, the Sky-Line, was cut short. Whole scenarios, such as Elizabeth opening a portal into a Paris street and nearly getting run over, were removed. And yet, the end result feels anything but incomplete. In fact, perversely, the troubles of its begetting seem to have invested BioShock Infinite with an extra layer of myth. Look closely, at the end of the adventure, and you will see that earlier version of Elizabeth, cleverly presented as an extra-dimensional facsimile. There is no cut content, you see; we are simply not equipped, in our dull and neighbourless dimension, to see the other versions of the game that did come out and is, presumably, delighting our other, infinite selves.

Ten years on, the legacy of BioShock Infinite is elusive. Yes, the series isn’t finished – though you can’t help feeling that, really, it is – and, yes, Ken Levine, its director, has just unveiled Judas, his new studio’s debut, which bears a few visual similarities to the BioShocks of old. But what, exactly, was its impact? The likes of Prey, Dishonored, and, more recently, Deathloop all sprang up around it, but, despite a few Plasmid-like powers, their influences can be traced further back, to System Shock 2. (That game was made by Looking Glass Studios, where Levine began his game development career, and the shattering of which led to the formation of Irrational Games, which gave us Rapture and Columbia.)


Where BioShock Infinite remains almost unmatched is in its attention to setting, and in the vigor of its imaginative powers. The series is a tale of two cities that wraps itself around one true subject: the American Experiment. Rapture was soaked in the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, its founder, Andrew Ryan, beseeching us to ponder whether a man was not entitled to the sweat of his brow. He built a haven at the bottom of the sea (“It was impossible to build it anywhere else”) to drown out the rest of the world. Columbia, meanwhile, coasting through the heavens, sees itself as being more than geographically above the rest of the planet. One character, exploiting the inter-dimensional fracture, peers through time and plunders shards of American pop culture – the music of Cyndi Lauper, R.E.M., and The Beach Boys, hence the anachronistic cover versions that you hear throughout.

It’s a hell of a thing to hit upon just to get the noise of the Twentieth Century humming through the streets. The clear comparison is to Rockstar, which rattles the air of Grand Theft Auto with licensed music from the in-game radio stations. Rockstar may be the only other big studio to take America as its grand subject, working at it from various angles (satire, excessive detail, violence, freedom) in order to capture it in different lights. BioShock Infinite came at it through pulp genre (science fiction, film noir, serial adventure) and arrived at the same vision of unified crack-up. There aren’t many big games that would attempt, let alone pull off, such a big picture. Credit to Ken Levine and to Irrational Games for delivering something this strange and striking, as difficult to imitate as it is to grapple with. A decade has gone by since Booker landed in Columbia, but to say that his trip is now over doesn’t seem quite right. It feels as if he is there now, looking for Elizabeth, with the future still up in the air.

  • Agreed! Absolutely love this game and it's amazing 2 part DLC: Burial At Sea, great gameplay but more importantly amazing story!
  • Completely wrong. Bioshock infinite was bad 10 years ago and is more obviously poor now.
    Gameplay wise it was a complete step down from the previous games.
    The story is poorly written. Remember "I like things that make me feel stupid"?
    The fact that reviewers were treating this game as proof that games can be art was a joke.

    Wait a minute, that card.
  • @2 Think you must have played a different game
  • Still haven't played the DLC. I honestly wouldn't have minded another in the sky
  • @2 DruidicMystery
    Can not agree more, it feel like you playing PS2 in bad way. And if the reviewer said its "art" do not be surprise if the get payed to say it.
  • The game does a lot well, but also does a lot very poorly compared to the past two games. I can see why the surface takeaway from the game for the article was good, but I think the first two games stood the test of time far, far better.
  • It was a good, not great game. Bioshock 1 & 2 did just about everything better imo
  • You have to be trolling if you're comparing this to a PS2 game.
  • First game was great in story and atmosphere with great gameplay. Second iterated nicely on that.
    Infinite ... was a shit show in my eyes.
    The story was incredibly construed, didn't really make sense with all those alternate dimensions and gameplay was hampered. Most of my memories of it are either hooking up to the rails or being hunkered down in cover for the fights.
    If anything it was an excersise to see how much pseudo-science and philosopical BS you can pack in a game and have players call it deep and artsy to pretend they "got it" when there never was anything to get.

    Plus points for a rather colourful environment most of the time, though. See, big studios, games can be bright and friendly instead of grey and depressing.
  • Infinite was pretty awesome, but I find it hard to sing praises for it since it had to follow Bioshock 1 & 2. I think if Infinite came out, it would hold a higher status to me. It just had too much to live up to.
  • To each their own but I enjoyed Bioshock 1&2 much more than infinite.
  • @8 His name has troll in it. He’s here just for attention.
  • Bioshock Infinite has some of the worst writing in video game history. The only game since then that has been on the same tier of poor writing since then has been TLOU2.
  • @12 Radford999
    What attention? I simply replied to him, end story. Beside, its not always when some want an attention is mean bad thing, like me, {Thank God Almighty for it first} I always use a prefumes everyday at less twice, so any person sit next to me he will be on treat.
    Example of Bad attention: when a person think there is more then a two genders and fight for this lie too.
  • @8 Creasy007
    Why not if this game compared to PS2 games (the bad ones)? after all between PS2 games and PS3 games is just ONE gen era, so there is no big different between eras rarely, in matter fact I can think at less of three games from PS2 can put this BioShock Infinite graphics to shame,

    and the game-play wise is just a basic... first person shooter with just little super powers and that's it.
    Story... is there anyone can remember the story fully, the second you finished the game is the second you forgot it, do not let me talk about that bad ending... it was so bad.. that they made a payed DLC just to let you see the real ending.
    And do not let tell you about the racism in this game.
  • And do not let ME tell you about the racism in this game.
  • I was not a fan of 1 or 2 because they just weren’t my kind of games. Infinite thought I actually did enjoy. It’s weird I know and probably not the popular opinion but I was shocked I even liked it when I played it years ago (and later replayed it on ps4 or 5 idr)
  • I enjoyed the colorful shift from the previous two, but found the combat rather boring, especially compared to the previous two. In Bioshock 2 in particular I loved just experimenting with different plasmids in different situations, or getting a Big Daddy involved with a Big Sister fight and creating absolute chaos. But Infinite was what c1ned1ne said earlier; just being in cover and using hook rails.
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