BioShock Infinite: First Impressions

Since I’ve written about BioShock quite a bit, I’ve been getting a lot of questions here and on Twitter and Facebook about the newest title–Bioshock Infinite–which just released yesterday. I’m wrapping up an issue of Games Magazine this week, and only just managed to get about four hours of play in last night.

So, here are some loose first thoughts about it:

Rumors are circulating that it cost $100 million to make, and I can believe it. This is the first title from Irrational Games since the original BioShock in 2007 (Irrational didn’t make BioShock 2), and they’ve been working on it about that long. The game, which uses the Unreal engine, is not just gorgeous. That’s to be expected in 2013. The wonderful thing is the staggering amount of visual style and invention on display. This is a dazzling act of world-building. Just take a look:

It offers a world that is familiar in our imaginations–early 20th century, World’s Fair-inspired Americana–and adds equal parts steampunk and dystopia. Unlike the dripping, dark, decaying, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original BioShock, this is a sunlit paradise. Project head Ken Levine said they looked not only to the 1893 World’s Fair for inspiration, but to movies like The Music Man, and it shows. Men in straw boaters, ladies in long dresses, carnival midways, and barbershop quartets: there’s color and life everywhere, all seen through a nostalgic haze.

Are you familiar with the Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” or the books of Jack Finney? It’s like that.

Except … it’s not, because the entire city is floating. Buildings dock and separate, dirigibles dot the air, and skyway rails link locations.  The city of Columbia lifted off from America, announced its independence, and disappeared into the clouds. Some things connect our world to this one. At one point, an air barge drifts by with a quartet singing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. It’s a wonderfully whimsical moment, but like everything in Columbia, it’s tinged with darkness: you soon learn that their idea of God isn’t quite ours, and that this idea has drives much of the madness that ensues.

Thematically, there is something to make everybody uncomfortable. Just like the original BioShock was built on a critique of Objectivity taken to its logical conclusion, so BioShock Infinite uses turn-of-the-century American Exceptionalism taken to extremes.

Columbia was actually created  by the US government as a kind of floating world’s fair dedicated to spreading a Pax Americana. Unknown to many, it was bristling with weapons, which came to light after an international incident. America disavowed the city, and it disappeared. A power struggle ensued between radical racist theocrats led by a Joseph Smith-like figure and a group of resisters who started out with lofty ideas of equality, but soon descended into factionalism and violence.

When the main character arrives  (via rocket) in Columbia, “the Prophet,” Zachary Hale Comstock, has total control over the population, and preaches a twisted and blasphemous inversion of Christianity in which the Founders (Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin) are revered as a trinity of almost godlike figures. Trinitarian formulas crop up in several places, from a baptism at the beginining, to a group of Klan-like radical who worship … John Wilkes Booth. As you can see, they don’t think much of the Great Emancipator:

The game lures you into this dark world gradually. All appears to be relatively okay in Columbia, at first. It seems like a place you’d like to live, until you get to the drawing of the “lottery,” which you win. The curtain on the stage opens, to reveal … an Irishman (presumably Catholic) and his black wife. Your prize for winning? You get to be the person to cast the first stone in their execution. At this point, you have a choice: hit the couple, or the lottery leader. I’m not sure what happens if you choose the former, but I imagine the story takes a darker turn. At that point, all hell breaks loose and the people realize you are the False Shepherd warned of by The Prophet.

Comstock has been purging Columbia of undesirables. Blacks have been reduced to a slave-like servile class. “Papists, Gypsies, Irish and Greeks” must wear special tags to travel about the city.

This is powerful stuff. You’ll come across a black man washing a floor and complaining, in perfect English, of his sorry lot. When he spots you, he immediately goes into a servile “yes massah” routine and begins acting ignorant and happy. It’s a deeply disturbing moment, moreso because you have no doubt it’s grounded in the real experience of minorities in America at one point in our history.

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The game doesn’t flinch at these moments: it relishes them. Patriotic Americana is twisted to serve a dark and racist message. Automatons of George Washington are made to spout The Prophet’s message. Principles of American freedom are used to promote hatred and oppression.

Some gamers may see this as pure anti-American, anti-religious bigotry. I won’t make that call until I’m finished, but I’m not inclined to agree, yet.

This is imaginative alternate history, along the lines of “What would America be like if the English/Nazis/Commies had won?” Taking treasured and precious images and deploying them to make a point is risky business, and I’d be lying if I said I was wholly comfortable with it. At the same time, I know that’s the whole point. We’re not supposed to be comfortable with it. We’re supposed to think differently about familiar things.

What I need to see–and what I can only know after I finish it–is if there was really any point to it. Objectivism is ascendant, particularly in technolibertarian quarters, and radical individualism was worthy of critique. Is American Exceptionalism and antebellum racism really a pressing issue?

Obviously not, thus the critique must be about something else. Iraq and Afghanistan? Maybe. Bush, and now Obama, were certainly looking to spread a Pax Americana to the middle east, if only to keep them from plowing airplanes into our skyscrapers. That it was, and is, a misbegotten mess doomed from the start doesn’t change the idealism undergirding it: liberate the Muslims, make them more like us, and they won’t want to kill us anymore. Except it didn’t work, and never could.

Is it a critique of Occupy Wall Street? Ken Levine admits that the protests were an influence on the developing story, but to what degree remains to be seen. If the Vox Pop of the game are supposed to be an OWS proxy, I can’t see the OWS folks being particularly happy about it.

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If it turns out to be another tired anti-religious screed, I’ll be disappointed. Kicking religion is just about the lowest, cheapest thing an artist can do. People who start from that old lie about religion causing more misery and death than anything else in world history rarely have anything of interest to say, because they’re working from a false premise.

I find it interesting that Levine admits that one of his employees (described as “very religious”) played an early build of part of the game and immediately tended his resignation because of the way religion was treat. Levine, who admits to not being religious, welcomed the input, and says the employee (who stayed) gave him new perspectives that changed the game’s treatment of religion.

My response to that is: I guess I’ll have to wait and see. I’ve respected Levine’s work since his days with Looking Glass, which I covered quite a bit when I was lead writer for PC Gamer. I remember seeing an early version of a game called System Shock, and immediately started flogging it as The Greatest Game Ever in PCG and elsewhere. BioShock was a continuation and perfection of many of the ideas in System Shock, and I consider it the most profound work of interactive fiction to date. It tackled difficult ideas and situations with intelligence and style. And it was fun.

BioShock Infinite ups that ante considerably. The gameplay is a fairly direct updating of that found in the original, but the narrative, character, and thematic elements are far more explosive. In the original, you faced the decision of weather or not to kill children. The proper decision was clear, but you still have a choice. In this, you’re forced to choose whether or not to stone a black person on a stage in front of a mob of howling racists. That’s potent stuff. Dynamite, in fact. By the time I finish, I hope I have a sense of whether or not the developers were deploying it some effect, or just playing games.

You can buy  Bioshock Infinite here.