It starts on a boat. A bickering couple debates the merits of rowing as they float across a tempestuous sea. In the back sits brown haired, green eyed Civil War veteran Booker DeWitt, nervously anticipating the destination. Mr. DeWitt has debt to pay, an investigator by trade now searching for a nameless girl in exchange for his freedom.
His destination is an unassuming lighthouse. At its peak is an antiquated pod, rocketing DeWitt unknowingly into the sky, above the storm and into paradise. Columbia rests on 15,000 feet of air, suspended by physical anomalies that in this alternate 1912 eclipse the advances of our own society.
Some of America resides here. The population settles under bountiful sun and waving red, white & blue flags, their children playing on safe streets while business works on an honor system. DeWitt’s awe is only matched by the populace’s affection for their founder, a prophet named Father Comstock. This is an idyllic land of riches on the surface, the skyline a defining blue, and clouds brilliant white. Looking no further, Columbia is perfection, an economy of booming luxury and lavish celebratory parades. Everything shines.
Then the illusion shatters.
DeWitt is faced with a choice after winning a lottery, an inconceivable prize that lies at the heart of what Columbia’s mystery is, or rather, what it is built upon. DeWitt slams a hook into a guard, ripping open the man’s face, and throwing his body like a broken action figure. No one will question the violence given the circumstances.
Deep in rotting shanty towns, a rebellion is brewing. The Vox Populi stand up for all that Columbia has done wrong. Their world sees no sun, incarcerated by a leviathan of capitalism and starving under the weight of oppression. Even the mice have died in their sewers at the feet of homeless beggars.
Enter Elizabeth, a girl who experiences the same pathway as DeWitt, enamored by what Columbia offers after she escapes from decades long institutionalization. But, in the basement of a bar a little boy scatters, starving under the stairs, a suffering monument to the cost of prosperity above. DeWitt grabs a guitar and Elizabeth sings a hopeful song while feeding the child, her world now shattered too. For BioShock Inifinite, that moment is a prelude to the war, a tender shared moment before the chaos consumes all.
Together, Dewitt and Elizabeth form a bond of necessity. Each is jarred by death, mournful at something they see as their fault. They both have the same goal, to rescind the rule of Comstock and his industry behemoths, even if DeWitt keeps his ultimate intentions to himself. Their pathways to the resolution are divergent.
Columbia is passion, genuine devotion to what video games as a medium can be. It is somewhere this industry has never been, built on a foundation of publisher support and developer tenacity. This city lives for more than its location. Columbia breathes with activity, foreground or background. Exploration is a marvel as Infinite keeps giving. Its best moments never involve a gun.
DeWitt’s first kill is capped with a discordant screech, a horrifying break into misconception that will never again carry the same dramatic weight. The kills begin to spill over. Columbia begins to crumble, and Infinite becomes numb. Detachment occurs, breaking what could have been interactive fiction’s crowning achievement – our Citizen Kane if you request a broad stroke – and turns it into another in a line of slaughter fests that lose all meaning.
Infinite’s final hours are not about metaphorical repercussions; they are about killing. Masses of bodies pile on one another as the title stretches its logical base past the tearing point. What was once daring commentary on secession, civil rights, belief, and commerce is diluted. Infinite feels scared to avoid compliance with audience expectations of gunplay. All of its weapons cloud the imagery, not help it, and the influx of war in such abundance suffocates the methods that brought Columbia to life in the first place.
Fighting has a need. Seeing what this floating continent has become demands action and insurgency. Infinite refuses to hold back. The clash of mindsets is instantaneous, and then compounded by flighty, often confusing breaks into science fiction that is ill-fitted to this alternate America. Irrational Games takes this series somewhere new, without taking the risks to solidify it as such. Infinite is expected to sustain on loosely resolved allegory that exists more as an aside, not the direct focus.
Juxtaposition between beauty and disorder is grand. Used sparsely, it can repeatedly have the effect of first blood: DeWitt’s agonizing internal realization of what he must do. Then, he becomes a murderer of preposterous scale, burning guards to dust with Vigor powers that latch onto the human body. In BioShock’s new home, these are the cousins of Plasmids, although treated so casually, their purpose for inclusion is haunting. It is a shame then that neither DeWitt nor Elizabeth experience for themselves why Columbia would need them at all.
There are mountains of potential surface level discussions to have about BioShock Infinite. Shooting rifles and machine guns is a marked improvement, and the addition of play on ziplines is able to add an aerial grace unavailable to the underwater scenario. Intertwined combat systems play nicely with one another, sparking a balance that opens up battlefields to more than duck and cover ploys. Columbia is given its own menace on scale with the Big Daddy, a machine with a glowing heart meant to serve the people. If it served them at all, it was not for morale tasks.
All of that is enjoyable short term, but Infinite never reaches for boundaries. With the freedom of development afforded to Irrational, they were also forced to succumb to those who wish to pierce the veil. Opening acts can take hours, admiring the technical achievements, unless they are passed by. Thus, the game is run headlong into a wall, extending its stay to ravage the narrative pacing, only to reach arbitrary length. So much of Infinite is familiar, and that is devastating to the creative process.
Columbia must be indulged despite those discrepancies, so much here genius that is capable of rising above the generic stamp of video game. These characters, or rather these people, exist in an interactive world. They are living their lives until DeWitt forcibly removes them and not through play, but visceral brutality. That sends a message of growth to industry outsiders, but also clingy tradition loaded within the barrel of a gun.