4 and 1/2 out of 5 Cookies!
Warning: Herein There Be Spoilers
When I started reviewing games on this blog I never thought I’d actually rate one a 5 cookie game. A 5 cookie anything – movie, book, album – is pretty rare. It means it comes pretty damn close to absolute perfection. I would even argue that rating something that high can only be done in hindsight, after a few months, or more realistically YEARS of living with the piece of art or media and still not coming up with any particular weakness or flaw in it.
Hence the 4 and ½ cookie rating for Bioshock Infinite. It quite possibly is a 5 cookie game but not enough time has passed yet to warrant that. Bioshock Infinite does have a few slow spots, particularly in the 3rd and 4th hour of gameplay, but really – even to fault it for that is to go out of your way to find something wrong.
This cookie’s chips per inch quotient is off. Off with the baker’s head!
Gaming is generally seen as a mindless entertainment. At its best it’s an exercise in ersatz visuals and twitching reflexes, at its worst an anti-intellectual time killer, a relief from the boredom of existence. And it can be all of those things. Which are not necessarily bad. But Bioshock Infinite, which I completed on Thursday has stuck with me in the ways the best media do – by keeping my mind going back to the plot threads, the narrative, and the ideas and ideals on display, much like the best movies, music and writing do. In short, it’s an amazingly written game, full of depth and challenge, and open to interpretation and deconstruction.
As a gaming experience it has everything a gamer could ask for. Gorgeous pastel graphics, multiple weapon combinations, some pretty thrilling capabilities such as sky-line riding which comes off as so roller-coaster-esque that when you first do it you can almost feel your stomach lose itself. All of this complements the intriguing story which is at once engrossing, but also challenging in a truly aesthetic sense.
As Booker Dewitt you are thrust into the 1910’s world of a floating cloud city. A city built by one hardcore Christian cult leader Zachary Comstock (no doubt named after Comstock anti-obscenity postal laws of the late 1800’s which proposed to dictate morality) and suspended far above the United States. A city that has seceded from the Union as the Union itself refuses to recognize moral rightness and, most importantly, the racial superiority of the white race. In this ciry, Abraham Lincoln is a race traitor, a tool of the devil even. John Wilkes Booth? A hero worthy of giant statues and fine art celebrating his heroic act. Even George Washington and Ben Franklin are carved in giant statuary portraying them more like Greek gods, rather than mere men.
Hardly anyone notices Mary Lincoln’s beautiful blue bonnet she bought just for the occasion.
Now video games have been thrusting racism and Nazis into their mix for a long, long time. I mean, racists are the go to bad guys. But rather than just having this world exist for the player to have someone to righteously kill, wandering around the city of Bioshock Infinite, Columbia becomes an exercise in the propaganda and brainwashing that go into making such a society. There’s nary a soldier to kill in the first couple hours of the game, as most of the people wandering around the beautiful city are its white citizens and their polite black servants. Parades appear out of nowhere celebrating Comstock the great leader, barbershop quartets sing “God Only Knows” – yes, The Beach Boys song – in the tightest harmonies you’ve heard, with the most sinister undercurrent flowing beneath as the song becomes an ode to a dangerous cult. You’re even given a chance to play racist yourself as you get to throw apples at a mixed race couple who’ve been caught, well, mixing the races. It’s a simplistic message of racism is bad – well no shit Sherlock – but how they get the message across, displaying the indoctrinations methods, the group think, that make it interesting.
And then it gets really interesting. A few hours into the game you are introduced to the Columbia underground, a group of black rebels who have every intention of bringing the city to its knees, led by Daisy Fitzroy. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a horribly racist place built on the backs of people who are figurative and literal prisoners of its racist ideology. Columbia turns into a political and literal war zone between these two factions half-way through the game. Believe it or not, you’ve got other fish to fry that I haven’t even broached yet – mainly you’re in Columbia to rescue a kidnapped girl – so essentially all of these politics are merely a sideshow to your main quest. And yet, it is the politics and this war which elevate this game and its narrative to heights not usually seen in videogames. Daisy, at first a sympathetic figure becomes more and more of a frightening propagandist herself, leading her once-righteous revolution against the racist tyranny, she herself becomes an advocate for genocide against the white citizens of Columbia. And as racist as they are, when you see these misguided white citizens clamoring to escape ships – frantic, screaming, terrified – men, women and children it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. All of this crescendos into a moment when Daisy, once the righteous leader of a much-need revolt, but now tyrant herself, holds a white child in her arms with a gun to his head and screams in bitterness and hatred why it makes sense to murder children: “You need to cut it out at the root!”
And yet, all this spoilerish detail regarding the politics of the game doesn’t even touch on its philosophical entanglements. What is the nature of time? Does predestination exist? Are we constant or are we a result of the decisions we make, the doors we walk through? The game stakes out much of the same territory as Fight Club and Apocalypse Now – and like most great art throughout the ages asks the basic unanswerable questions about what it is to be human. What it means to be born, and what it means to die, and the nature of the time we spend in between those two events. As two of the recurring characters say over and over again, “Lives, lived, will live, Dies, died, will die” Do we make our choices, or do our choices make us?
There’s a lot here, and it’s all presented in such a way that the player never feels lost as to what is going on. Honestly, a lot of games present an outlandish plot leading from one set piece to another – the set pieces being the focus of the designers and the plot being a mere way to link them all together regardless of whether or not it makes sense, and often times it doesn’t. Bioshock Infinite makes sense always.
In closing, in addition to crafting an amazing narrative and a luscious, visually arresting world in which to unfurl it, the creators of Bioshock Infinite have also paid careful attention to the soundscape and music that accent the gaming stage. The standard Mozart is here, as well as Scott Joplin. In addition to this, the creators have also inserted several contemporary songs redone in the jazz stylings of the early 20th century. I’ve embedded some of these below as well as the aforementioned barbershop quartet version of God Only Knows.
I fucking loved this game. You should play it.