To infinity and beyond: Invigoration for the thoughtful gamer
By Chris O'Neal 01/03/2013
Bioshock Infinite available for pre-order, $59.99 for X-box, PS3 and PC
The new year has come. New being the key term here. How often does one hear the words “new”and “innovation” when speaking of technology? Every day? Probably. The video game industry thrives on creating the illusion of innovation, when in actuality most new titles borrow a little bit here, reference a little bit there; in other words, it’s hard to find true innovation. Leave it to Ken Levine — creative director of Irrational Games — to revert the oft-hijacked-for-marketing term back to its original meaning. In Bioshock Infinite, Levine has reinvented the way games are played.
You may recall, way back in the last decade, Bioshock was the first-person action/role-playing game that allowed you to skirt the boundaries of Rapture with its Ayn Randian concept — an underwater city built on libertarian ideals months after it fell apart. Bioshock was such a different game that it spawned countless clones and became part of the gaming narrative: Is it possible to strike a balance between story and game play in such a way that neither affects the other negatively?
Levine taught us that, yes, it is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s possible to do so while making a very good and successful game. It was such a good game, in fact, that Levine refused to work on Bioshock 2, a move that saw the sequel made by an entirely different team. No surprise that it fell short of its predecessor and missed the point entirely by adding an unneeded multiplayer aspect.
When Levine returned to Irrational Games, he brought years of study with him. One rarely thinks of politics or philosophy in the same sentence as a video game (though now is the golden age of such), but Levine does. Bioshock Infinite shows us how Levine’s years of study have paid off in a morality play similar to the fairy tale Rapunzel.
In Bioshock Infinite, you play as Booker DeWitt sent on a mission to rescue a missing girl by the name of Elizabeth. The city you’re sent to is Columbia — a not-so-subtle reference to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, also known as the World’s Columbia Exposition. Unlike its real-life counterpart, the city of Columbia floats in the sky as a flying island of sorts. The setting is steam-punk meets posh, with a bit of Les Misérables thrown in for good measure.
Unlike many nameless characters one plays in the vast number of first-person action titles available, Booker DeWitt is his own person, acting as a lens through which to experience Columbia. His choices might not be the ones you’d make, and you may disagree with him. In other words, the character is not you. A novel idea for a genre plagued with John Everyman types.
Expect battles similar in style to Bioshock, in which you incorporate heavy weaponry with supernatural powers. Enemies are larger than life and based on historical figures. Motorized Patriots, as they’re referred to, are puppets from your Disneyland nightmares, George Washington with machine guns. “Four score and I’ll blow your head off,” he says. But not really; I’m unsure what he says. He should say that, though.
You might ask yourself, is it possible for a video game to overstate its intentions? Does Bioshock Infinite reek of being a little too much? For all of the complaints gamers get about their medium not being able to stand up against a book or a film, it’s high time that critics pay attention to the true innovators; the Ken Levine’s of the world who, despite the cry for redundant video gaming (Call of Duty will be in its 20th sequel by the time Infinite is released), ignore the siren call and choose to release an action title based on philosophy and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
We’ve been promised innovation before (cough, Fable, cough). This time it comes with delivery confirmation.
Chris O’Neal is waiting for his chance to visit the Chicago World’s Fair. Follow him on Twitter @agentoneal.