‘Bioshock Infinite’ review: Violence, with a social agenda

April 01, 2013 | 7:55 a.m.

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

A scene from "Bioshock Infinte." (Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

Unforgettably disturbing images populate “BioShock Infinite,” the most anticipated first-person shooter game of 2013. In the game, set largely in 1912, an interracial couple is nearly stoned by an angry white mob, a Chinese man is killed simply for being Asian, and Irish and blacks are relegated to separate bathrooms.

Out for a week, the third installment in a series from famed game designer Ken Levine has already been decreed a masterwork, and on the surface it’s easy to see why. Its mechanics are nearly flawless, and the narrative promises to realistically grapple with issues of racism, religious persecution and inequality. As with its two predecessors, it seems entirely possible that this installment is evidence that games can be thought-provoking.

“BioShock Infinite” is set on a magical floating city in the sky that seceded from the union around 1901. The city, dubbed Columbia, is a place where patriotism and religious fanaticism have run amok and moral values are questionable (thus the city’s revered statue of John Wilkes Booth). The protagonist players control in this fantasy nightmare is hard-boiled detective Booker DeWitt. His mission? “Bring us the girl,” he’s told, “and wipe away the debt,” a goal that isn’t all that easy considering he has no interest in the place’s nationalistic ideals and his memories have been stolen.

bio5

(Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

The game offers proof that shooters can make for a compelling narrative. Still, there’s the nagging sense that for all its ambition, for all the care in crafting a fully livable world, “BioShock Infinite” is hesitant in what it wants to say. And raising tough questions is not the same as dealing with them.

The player is subjected to so much ugliness — propaganda preaching “racial purity,” murals that call for keeping “foreigners” out of the city — that it starts to feel irresponsible having a character blast through Columbia without making any real choices about what he sees. The game, in fact, argues that individual choice matters little in the grand scheme of the universe.

Whether you chose to throw a stone at a couple because of their race or you attempt to save them from those who want to, the outcome isn’t all that different. Yes, the couple will thank you later for making the clearly right decision, but it isn’t integral to completing the game. The result is that the distressing realities of America’s past — and present — are downplayed as they are turned into one-dimensional set pieces.

Many will play “BioShock Infinite” simply for its shootouts, and there’s an assortment of vintage guns and magical potions to discover. As hectic as these scenes can get, it’s one character — a woman — who adds depth to the action. Forget the fight scenes, watching a nonplayable character come alive and essentially drive the game forward is the most impressive aspect of “BioShock Infinite.”

bio4

(Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

Elizabeth, the woman identified as DeWitt’s debt eraser, turns out to possess the conscience that the cynical protagonist — and the game — lack. Much of “BioShock’s” narrative unfolds through conversations between Elizabeth and DeWitt. Moments, such as when the two stop and sing a hymn to comfort a child, are the heart of the game. It’s so unlike anything seen in other action games that the go-to fight scenes actually become momentum killers.

She wants to save the world; he wants to save himself. “There’s going to be revolution, just like ‘Les Misérables,’“ she excitedly says after discovering a rebel group ready to take down Columbia. To which DeWitt shoots back, “I don’t want to be a part of it.” Her round eyes shrink to a scowl, one of the all-too-rare moments where Elizabeth allows the player to feel ashamed of DeWitt. In a game where a magic elixir can summon a gaggle of murderous crows, it’s the burning gaze of Elizabeth that has all the power.

Equally engrossing is Columbia’s music. When a barbershop quartet or singer appears to pass by at random in this vibrant city, stopping and listening is advised. Though it’s the early 1900s, they’re performing old-fashioned renditions of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Later, a beggar sings Creedance Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”

As it nears its action-heavy final acts, “BioShock Infinite” moves from attempting to make some sort of political statement to raising philosophical questions. Perhaps this is a function of form, because it isn’t spoiling the game to say that it isn’t long before DeWitt starts to feel like its central villain because of his cynical isolationism.

bio2

(Irrational Games / Take-Two Interactive)

Players, for instance, hear the Chinese man being tortured, but they are too late to save him. When his attacker is hunted down, his corpse, as with any dead body in any first-person shooter, is simply raided for inventory — cash, weapons, potions, etc. The hunt for loot renders earlier shocking images as routine as the point-and-shoot games with little to say.

So when “BioShock Infinite” in its final scenes abandons Columbia’s richness for one of time traveling and multiple dimensions with enemy ghost-like creatures, it isn’t a surprise, but it is a disappointment. No longer is this a story of two disparate people and how they navigate a senseless society.

As Elizabeth says, someone can be viewed as “a great hero, or the worst of scoundrels, depending on who’s doing the telling.” Some will view “BioShock Infinite” as a cruel social commentary, others as a relentless action shooter. But ultimately, it’s a cop-out, where complex questions about injustice, hatred and right versus wrong can be forgotten by simply jumping through a rip in time.

– Todd Martens

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Comments


19 Responses to ‘Bioshock Infinite’ review: Violence, with a social agenda

  1. John says:

    Spoilers ahoy in this comment, don't read on if you haven't finished BI yet.
    .
    .
    .

    Firstly, the point of not having any meaningful choices is the whole idea behind the multiple universes in Bioshock Infinite. Some things are constants in the universe that Booker and Elizabeth originate from, no matter if you alter small variables like the bird vs the cage, throwing the baseball at the captors or at the guy on stage etc – the story will always pan out the same way. This is only really explained when two events happen: you see that the flipped coin will always be heads very early on, and when Elizabeth tells Booker that no matter how long he waits, eventually he WILL give Anna away right at the end. It's just how that universe happens/ed, and nothing will change it.

    Second, I would advise you to replay the game if you honestly think that it forgot about the social issues It actually explored them as far as it could without destroying the pacing and in the end it gave the same answer as the other Bioshock games – extremism of any kind is equally bad for humanity and not a single person is incorruptible.

    As a final point, that very last phrase in this review is absolute proof you have no understanding of what you have just played.

  2. Roy J says:

    The game is NOT about the religious, exceptional-ism, and racist themes. It's not supposed to be. This is where some people misjudge the game. They think that it's supposed to say something important about those subjects. It doesn't have to. We don't live in that world. We live in a more advanced society and the way we were brought up gives us the ability to realize exactly what's wrong with Columbia in the first place. It doesn't have to throw such things in our face and tell us "THIS IS WRONG". We can make such a conclusion ourselves. The game trusts the player in this area. What the game is really about is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. And it's about the choices that Booker made in his life. Sure, the game doesn't give the player choices to make during the game. It's set for us. But the game itself is ABOUT choices. The game shines because it takes all these different themes and subjects, puts them into one world, but still not bash us over the head with them. I'm not stupid. The game doesn't treat me as such.

  3. aperdude says:

    what a horrible review. the best thing about this article is that video games are beginning to be looked at with the same critical eye as other art forms such as films, but Martens only focuses on the premise rather than the story. The social extremes presented in Infinite are merely the setup for a story about so much more – I almost question if he got to the final 25 minutes of the film.

  4. Cac says:

    There are some minor spoilers below, but nothing that is going to ruin the game completely for anyone who has not played it yet. If you don't want anything at all spoiled or haven't finished the game yet, please don't read below.

    Did the writer even play the game? I think what you're forgetting is that Booker has done this over 100 times and has yet to get it right. The Lutece twins clearly start that there are constant and variables. The flipping of the coin is a constant. The choice to throw the baseball (not a stone) at the couple or Mr. Fink is a variable. The choices given to you throughout the game are meant to exemplify that.

    Also, nothing is magical about the floating city. Rosalind is a quantum physicist who helped Comstock create Columbia. It's a marvel of science, not the work of a wizard.

    How does the fact that Booker and Elizabeth play and sing 'Will the Circle be Unbroken' drive the narrative? It's a great moment, but such a minor one that doesn't reinforce the narrative. While their conversations do add to the narrative of the game, what really makes everything unfold are the Voxophones; which for some reason you left out of this article. Those really flesh out the world, the events, and the people involved in the story.

    The game is about choices. It is about alternate realities and how when you make one choice, the opposite choice is made in another universe. It's not a social commentary. It's not about racism, religion, or nationalism. You either didn't play the game or you just didn't pay attention to anything during your play through. Did you even pick up a single Voxophone or watch the last 25 minutes of the game?

    I cannot even take this article seriously because it is obvious the writer doesn't even know what he is talking about. He got so many of the details wrong and he left are some major things about the game. I advise anyone else reading this, who is considering playing Bioshock Infinite, not to take it seriously either.

  5. Chris says:

    I don't think those questions can be forgotten just because I wasn't force fed the answers. In fact, that's one thing that makes the game so engaging, and the horrors so believable. I wouldn't buy any character that preached rational thought or tolerance in this game. I wouldn't need to hear that message because I'm not an idiot. I don't want to hear that message, because I wanted a game that made me think, and Bioshock did that with plot mystery and a very frank, insightful and historically significant depiction of racism that is surprising when racism is so severely downplayed in other period games like Assassin's Creed 3.

  6. t03 says:

    Did you even finish the game? I mean really. The final scene showed that the uncomfortable, extreme culture of Colombia was insignificant in the vast multiverse that had been uncovered. THAT's the twist. That something could feel monumental yet ultimately mean next to nothing.

  7. Alex says:

    It suprises me how someone can write such a ill-formed review and still have a job as a jornalist! He has almost completly misunderstood the games themes and fails to realize that kevin levine is not trying to push his own political or social agenda. I feel bad for him because he has truly missed out on a truly incredible, bueatiful and emotional work of art.

  8. Jared says:

    Swing and a miss with this review, wow.

    I doubt the author even finished the game. That, or the entire ending just flew way over his head.

  9. Dillon says:

    I'm willing to guess that the author of this review simply has a different take on what art should do from Ken Levine's team. Irrational Games is very much about showing, not telling. For example, during an interview, Levine talked about how level designers would speak in terms of "and when the player comes into here, he or she will feel X." Levine corrected, them, saying that they had no control over the player's response, just what the player would be confronted with. On a larger, scale, then, this game is meant to be a sort of Rorschach test–to borrow Levine's analogy–where the player is free to read into the experience whatever he or she is inclined to.

    The game isn't meant to force-feed a message, especially when the message–"racism/exceptionalism/Columbianism is bad"–is completely obvious. Nothing of artistic merit would be gained by stating the obvious: art is about showing, not telling.

    Of course, there are some works where a character becoming the author's avatar to utter a proclamation such as "WAR IS BAD" and "CRIME DOES NOT PAY" may suit, but this is not one such instance.

  10. Dillon says:

    I do want to add, though, that as much as I disagree with the author of this review's criticisms, this is exactly the sort of criticism that is needed if games are to advance as an art form. We can go ahead and acknowledge that Bioshock: Infinite is a fantastic game, head and shoulders over most of its peers. That doesn't mean that the game is perfect, though: great games can still be validly criticized.

  11. Scott says:

    I agree with the author that the ending is a sort of “cop out”, but not for the reasons he saw..

    standard spoiler alert

    Now, the cop out is not the Dr. Who time travel. One of the major themes of Bioshock, especially this game, is that when you try to become a God, you wind up failing and falling hard. The point of all that was to show that, yes, even if people get so powerful they could rend time apart, they are still BOUND by their choices. That is why Elizabeth shot down Booker’s idea of going to Paris. Nothing could really cleanse the deeds, not the baptism, not whatever intentions he had as Booker Or Comstock, would stop the tragedies that happened. Think of some poor GI who got sent to Iraq because he thought he was protecting hos country, only to get boiled in that quagmire mess, like his uncle did back in Nam. The tragedy is not that evil people do bad things, but that good people, powerful heroes, who do things that should be impossible, still are done in by choices they did not even understand were bad.

    Now, the “cop out” is in the lopp of bad choices, and that neither Booker nor his duaghter can think beyond the idea of killing, the whole shade of grey. You cannot call Booker a coward, he kills himself rather than become the hero turned villain. He does nto see any other choice. You cannot call Liz a coward, but the fact she cannot think of another way, and in effect commits patricide/murder-suicide, shows she has a few dark layers in her halo. No, the cop out is that after several days of seeing how utterly fruitless violence and power can be, they resort to that yet again, because their thinking is in that same loop. Nowejher does Booker think “yes, this feels like the right thing to do, but so did what I did at Wounded knee, and all the stuff I could do as Comstock.” Truth be told, you could have made a whole other game with him trying to stop hismelf from becomign Comstock, have a Dr. jekyll try to save the soul of My Hyde. You could have had the game mock, as it does, the idea of American self reinvention, and go for actual redemption, the fact where you illustrate that while it is hard to die for a good cause, it is even harder, and more heroic, to LIVE for that cause. Yes, Elizabeth wassupposedly allknowing at the end, but the fact she looked more like a corpse should have given clues, after all, what if Liz shares Booker’s same knack from being judgmental and bloodthirsty; not like he did not get a preview of it when he saw the older version. The fact that Liz got so sure of herself, when she was not, that was the cop out; she deserved to be a lot more than some deus ex machina.

    so,the cop out is not the sci fi; indeed, it would have been a cop out to avoid the sci fi, as too many people would ask “well, why did they not do blank?” The cop out is that they went for the Greek tragedy, instead of trying to tell a newer type of story. Granted, Greek tragedies are real,and will be real, and there will be many people who make fateful judgements precisely when they should sit down and think. I thought it would have been better to pursue this, especially because, in Bioshock one, they gave the character a chance to be a hero or villain. Bioshock 2 was weak because they went for the “oh do died noble to save your beloved”, and I was hoping they avoided that here.

  12. Bobo says:

    Wow a lot of fanboy defense here lol. The review was very accurate and not too critical. Its funny how any criticism at all provokes so many people.

    • icedawg says:

      Yes, funny. I laughed, and I laughed, and I laughed, and then I laughed some more. Eventually I forgot why I was laughing, so then I re-read everything, and much to my surprise, I realized it actually wasn't funny at all.

  13. RS73 says:

    So here's a "game" where the oppressors worship America's founding fathers in a warped way and mix that with a Christianity that is made to look perverse, dumb, and evil. And it leads off with a crude, gross example of minority and racial victimization? Wow, how subtle.

    Let's see…What group in America often talks positively about the founding fathers and the Constitution? Hmm…And who has to deal with their political opponents constantly screaching "Racist!" at them 24 hours a day?

    I wonder how many of you have heard of the movie "Jud Suss"? Bioshock Infinite isn't a video game; it's a modern American version of "Jud Suss" with, in this case, the e-e-evil Tea Party playing the part of the powerful, malevolent Jew destroying and enslaving people. I'm surprised they weren't distributing previews of this game at the Democratic National Convention.

    Bioshock Infinite is black-hearted, nasty propaganda in its purest form.

  14. scott says:

    First of all, considering that Comstock does slam Jews, calling it “jud Suss” is more than ironic.

    Second, youmus have missed the part where the leftish rebel, Daisy Fitzroy, has to wind up being killed, or the way the games makes it clear that her Vox Populi people are NOT the good guys. Ask some of your friends at OWS how much they LOVED that.

    http://kotaku.com/5854101/how-bioshock-infinite-i

    But then again, if ayone dares criticize your heroes, they are all evil, comapred to the nazis that put out Jud Suss. If anything, this game should have warned you what happens when you act self righteous and do not think about consequences.

  15. MysteriousStranger says:

    Before one can really understand Bioshock Infinite, one must consider the ending. First, I played the ending. Second I watched the YouTube channel, TheMediaCows, finally finish the walkthrough and was silent throughout the ending sequences, allowing me to me more analitical of the cryptic information and ambiguous ending. Finally I watched TheMediaCows have a separate video with the ending but as a reaction video for one of the commentators. Then I read everyones views and theories. Then I started to play again. Then the whole story was Greek to me. It was entirely different. Knowing what you know now that you didn't know then is like a feeling associated with having eatten all the apples from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. You know so much going a second time that you may or may not discover new explainations for quieries that you had once pondered as the ending credits began to roll and only grew after seeing the post-credits cutscene which is in fact the canonical, real, original, and shaken Booker Dewitt getting the true ending he deserved. Now I am going to go into major story spoilers. So beware. SPOILERS BEGIN HERE!!! The ending of the begins as Songbird destroys the remainants of Elizibeth's

  16. Crack says:

    Hmm is anyone else experiencing problems with the images on

    this blog loading? I’m trying to find out if its a problem on my end or if it’s the blog.

    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

  17. jACK says:

    As i progress through the game into part 2, every time i start the game a new, i am started again at the beginning again. Iam saving wrong or do i have a fault with my game. HOPE YOU CAN HELP

    Jack …..GUEST

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