The original BioShock built itself around a semi-obscure philosophy called Objectivism and dragged it into the depths of the ocean. BioShock Infinite is one of those ‘bigger and better’ sequels which throws nuance out the window. Where the citizens of Rapture tried to escape, Columbia is a floating city, the type of place which the world cannot ignore. The city is ultra-nationalistic, formed to be a ‘better’ America. Naturally, this better America is a cult which worships the Founding Fathers and has turned racism into a beloved pastime. Thus, the central concept of Infinite leaves less room for the imagination. Every facet of an Objectivist society was explored in the original, from medicine to art to the common worker. There’s not many ways Infinite can say racism is bad which we don’t already know.
So it says something else entirely.
Something is very wrong about the experience from the beginning. Columbia is at peace when Booker DeWitt first arrives. After a forced baptism, the player is free to stroll the city streets. You will soon pass a barbershop quartet singing “God Only Knows.” As in the song by The Beach Boys, released five decades after the setting of this game. It would be easy to write this off as a stylistic oddity – isn’t it funny, these characters singing a completely anachronistic song which happens to have ‘God’ in the title? But then you encounter a calliope cover of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” CCR’s “Fortunate Son” is the hymn of the revolution. You may be stuck exploring a racist dystopia, but the question actually hanging over the experience is how these songs came to exist in this time period.
Columbia is merely the backdrop for a game which is really about itself. When people beg for sequels, certain elements are expected to carry over or else it will not be recognized as a true sequel. Pokemon has gyms, Zelda has dungeons, and BioShock has biopunk cities featuring extreme philosophies. The problem here is that no real-world philosophy has quite the same baggage as Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Replicating that feeling either requires misrepresenting a reasonable philosophy through extremism or exploring something the audience already agrees is bad. When Booker eventually jumps into a reality where the revolutionaries win and are just as evil, it doesn’t read as a legitimate statement – BioShock must intrinsically frame the dominant philosophy as negative, or else it is no longer BioShock.
That’s not to negate Columbia itself. This is a wondrous world to explore, and zipping through its skyline is a mesmerizing experience. The exaggerated displays are still compelling, simply more as outlandish nightmares than a believable dystopia. There’s something special about walking through an exhibit and suddenly having to battle robots shaped like the Founding Fathers. As the game transitions to outright acknowledging its multidimensional nature, the locations become suitably horrific. The original BioShock was defined by its atmosphere, and this is one of the few areas where Infinite captures the same magic in a straightforward way. While I’ve never been the biggest FPS fan due to the gameplay, the BioShock series makes perfect use of the mechanics to tell a seamless narrative, rarely taking control from the player.
As reality crumbles around them, the true heart of this narrative is between Booker and Elizabeth, the young woman he had been sent to rescue. While the racism which pervades Columbia is cartoonishly evil, Booker himself is struggling to cope with his own involvement at the Wounded Knee massacre. The balance between atmospheric extremity and more nuanced personal struggles is key to this experience. As Booker tears through this city, it feels as though he’s fighting against his own past horrors. BioShock Infinite is one of many great games from the 2010s exploring bonds between a guardian and the person they protect. Booker and Elizabeth are both complex characters, but what makes this bond stand out is that Elizabeth is ultimately the more dangerous of the two.
The video game industry has an unfortunate tendency to emphasize sequels over new properties. Several series have struggled to come to terms with the fact their basic concept does not support further elaboration. BioShock Infinite is not the only game to find a way out through metatextual acknowledgement, but it’s a rare experience to do so while maintaining the emotional heart. BioShock Infinite laments an experience which cannot be replicated. The magic here is that the lament itself has proven equally inimitable.