Memorial Day weekend this year found me catching up on 2013's BioShock Infinite, the follow-up to 2007's groundbreaking BioShock and, as we now know, swan song offering from Ken Levine's Irrational Games. Although Infinite's Columbia City has a lot of anti-American undertones to its politics, its visual aesthetic oozes patriotic fervor.
With that in mind, I wanted to share a few pictures I snapped of the quieter moments in BioShock Infinite that really capture the turn-of-the-century Americana that Ken Levine's team captured so well and share my thoughts on why the game presents a uniquely-realized world for players to explore.
The luminescent spires and towers floating in the twilight sky are, as you can see, quite breathtaking. To live amongst such beauty...well, one can only imagine the inspiration of inhabiting such a unique setting.
But BioShock is a series that delights in showcasing the corruption of man, no matter how high or idealistic the original intentions. Columbia is a tragically flawed paradise, and the melancholy color palette only serves to underscore the irony. I am constantly amazed at the love and care that is evident in the way each detail is constructed, but it's ultimately necessary because the game uses the world to tell its story in such a fundamental way that getting every set dressing just right was clearly an even more profound task than during the construction of its predecessor.
Yes, the audio diary/log entries are back, but so much more of this game's story is conveyed through the people and places you encounter as you work through the many areas of Columbia. Many characters have dialogue or animation sequences that help you experience the setting in a way that simply wouldn't be possible in film, TV or books. This is a smart and effective showcase of games as interactive storytelling.
While the combat encounters in these games are bombastic and exciting, I love the world-building that Irrational Games was able to achieve with both BioShock games. These come in the moments you spend soaking in the statues, the architecture, and the otherworldly cities above and below the sea. Both games smartly give you chances to enjoy the view, and it's part of why they both work so well.
Many gamers will cite the original BioShock's underwater city, Rapture, as one of the most memorable settings ever portrayed in the medium, and it certainly was a veritable "character" in the game. It was, in fact, so much of a character, that the game had a purposefully lonely overall vibe. You were alone in a decrepit, crumbling, dying city at the bottom of the ocean with only lunatics and monsters to keep you company. Infinite's Columbia is no slouch in this department, but it's a decidedly different take on the concept.
Where the original BioShock sought to keep you alone and bewildered, Infinite centers around your relationship with your companion, Elizabeth, a mysterious and powerful young woman who accompanies you through much of the game. Even though the game has been out for some time now, I will keep much of the plot lines surrounding Elizabeth spoiler-free in the post, as I'd prefer to focus on the world of Columbia--but, suffice it say, there's another post's worth of material in discussing the larger thematic issues covered in Infinite.
In fact, the only reason I mention Elizabeth so much in a post about the world of this game is that she figures heavily into how you discover the floating city: as you walk through the streets, she will comment on the world and its people; as you discover new rooms or clues, she might have a quip or comment; and as you engage in battle, she won't hesitate to give you a piece of her mind. This interplay becomes a key factor in shaping your perception of the city, especially as you start to unearth the city's darker secrets.
Unlike BioShock's Rapture, which had already seen its best years, much of Columbia is still intact and full of normal citizens enjoying the wonders of living in a city in the clouds. This difference is a key factor in why Infinite has such a different feel: you get these moments of just getting to blend in and enjoy the world in-between moments of fighting for your life. Elizabeth is just as likely to get carried with a group of dancers as she is rummage through old files to learn the awful truths of The Prophet's deception. The variety keeps things interesting and moving at a great pace.
Take, for example, Monument Island: never before in a game have I felt so much like I was in a video game version of a Disney theme park (outside of the Kinect title Disneyland Adventures, which actually takes place in a virtual recreation of the Californian theme park).
It's Main St. USA in so many ways: the ice cream parlor, the book store, the toy shop, the carousel, the street performers, the cotton candy...the similarities are uncanny, but Irrational's artists have crafted every detail in a specifically BioShock way. I was particularly taken with their use of a "glow" effect on the buildings and lights, which give everything a fairy tale feel--which, of course, is a stark backdrop to the lurking prejudice and evil behind the shiny façade of this too-good-to-be-true metropolis.
There's something unnerving about being able to buy a toy version of a hulking monster that just attacked you or share ice cream with the twisted, Stepford-esque denizens of this bizarre world, but Infinite gives you the chance to just exist within these quiet moments, assuming you play the part. Steal or cause any violence, and the police will hunt you mercilessly; but I enjoyed the option to merely observe the concealed insanity.
Of course, it's all just a veneer masking a diabolical and dysfunctional society; the only difference between Columbia and Rapture, ultimately, is the point at which we, the player, are experiencing the cities.
Columbia hasn't fallen into decay yet, but it's clearly not designed to last.
Even though I'm only about halfway through the game's campaign, it's obvious that the lies and corruption are already tearing at the city's underbelly, making it ripe for a fall. The "theme park attractions" of Columbia's founder past as a soldier highlight the eerie beauty of this disturbing culture while reminding us that history is so often written by those in charge. These sort of conspiracy theories aren't quite new ground for Ken Levine, but he develops his societal commentary so effectively that it's hard to be upset.
Again, experiencing all of this alongside Elizabeth only makes the game more impactful; instead of what would have been quiet scenes that some players might run through, the occasional gasps, "hmms," and even commentary from Elizabeth ground these bizarre (and sometimes horrific) scenes in new and exciting ways. While she may be a glorified helper/gopher in battle, she is an emotional beacon centering your experience of Columbia.
I still have a good bit of BioShock Infinite yet to play, and I'm curious to see how some of the truly fascinating themes in the game's first third evolve through to the inevitable conclusion. I've heard that some of the riskiest ideas fizzle out in favor of an action hero conclusion, so I'll reserve judgment and/or thoughts for a later date. I've already seen some of the early shock value fade into the background, but I haven't yet hit a point of monotony.
For now, though, I'm just enjoying the view more than anything else.
Few games capture mood and setting as well as these two BioShock titles (note that I'm skipping BioShock 2, mainly due to reusing the same setting as the first). I love when games reward you just for looking--not just with loot (although this game does that, too), but also with details about the lore and culture of a world. These are the gaming equivalent of novels that give us meaty environmental descriptions, purposeful side character dialogue, and all of those extra bits that go the distance to crafting a fully-realized world.
My only question, then, is: are the interactive toilets still necessary?
What are your thoughts on BioShock Infinite's world? Since there aren't any spoiler tags on this post, keep it to thoughts on the city, the architecture, the details, etc. Leave them in the comments below!