Moving from one area to another, you progress, killing bad guys by aiming and shooting a variety of firearms. The business of overcoming enemies is rarely problematic. This pop-pop gallery is designed for you to win.
Such is the banality of BioShock Infinite's core activity that its status as one of the last generation's most notable achievements is worth investigation. How does such a simple game become endowed with a reputation for lofty sophistication?
The answer is in its shameless grandiosity. BioShock Infinite is a game that decided to be a confectionery of opulence, without any thought for restraint. If anyone in the planning meetings at developer Irrational Games advised that the shooter genre required focus or minimalism, that person was in the wrong place. BioShock Infinite is an exercise in excess.
Color and light radiate from this game, via combinations hitherto undreamed of in the gray to brown palettes of so many run-and-gun walkabouts. The world of Columbia is like a sunny day in grassy meadows while simultaneously being a childlike exploration of the grandest antique shop in the world, tinkling in the warm delirium of glowing things.
Purples and reds wrap themselves around golds and azures in a bumptious rococo burlesque that shines ferociously, daring us to scoff at its wild excess. The notion that "less is more" never seemed, well, less. In Columbia, more is never quite enough. Yet this grave lapse in taste works. BioShock Infinite embraces every color of the rainbow and makes of itself a thing of beauty.
BioShock Infinite embraces every color of the rainbow
Consider too its premise. The game is set at the height of late Victorian sophistication, when ornate complication was the notion du jour. It is 1912. Machines whirl in clockwork perfection, awaiting the deadly intervention of a scamp's screwdriver. Nations entwine in gargantuan pacts seemingly designed to lure disaster. In the engine room, the machines roar for silent icebergs.
Columbia is a vision of the nationalistic, racist bombast that, 100 years ago, almost destroyed the world. This evil lives today in the hearts of fools, and so it is a story that is always worth telling. But for BioShock Infinite, the warnings against stupidity and unfettered capitalism are not enough. The game must also warn against the reaction to come: the rage of the people against their oppression. That, too, we are told, is villainy.
Some critics have argued that the game's worldview represents a sensible moderation that we all crave, a cozy sophomoric ethics class in checks and balances. But the truth is that BioShock Infinite just couldn't live with squaring itself against merely one stripe of evil. When it is time to rage, this game wants to rage against a multiplicity of nasties. Nationalism, capitalism, religion are all excoriated, as are their antagonistic forces. Good and evil are mutable concepts, right through to the twist.
Set aboard a floating city, the story leaps from one narrative platform to another. It is an action-adventure in the strictest sense, but it is also a ghost story, historical romance, satire, war movie, existential investigation, comedy, detective fiction, noir and goofy timeline sci-fi. If writer Ken Levine could have grafted on a feel-good arc about plucky sporting underdogs, no doubt he would have.
This game is written by people who love stories and so the genre costumes are pulled out of the chest and worn in crazy combinations. It is too much to say that this is aesthetically proper, but few of us come away unentertained. If you get bored, there is always a handy space-time portal waiting to take you to into different dimension, yet another reality, a new diversion. And yet, despite its video-gamey contradictions and hyper-convoluted propositions, here is, nevertheless, a good story.
Good and evil are mutable concepts, right through to the twist
Throughout the game there are characters who flit in and out of the glare. In video game terms, they are interesting enough. Booker DeWitt, the main protagonist, works diligently as gruff leading man. But Elizabeth, his female pal, is the star of the show. She is curvy, pretty, brave and strong. She is resourceful, learned, kind and passionate. She is given to adorably feminine displays of righteous petulance. In short, she is a male construct.
The writerly love this game pours into Elizabeth is, frankly, kind of embarrassing. But we are talking here about actors in video games and, in that frame, she is a significant individual. She gestures towards the promise of a rounded character in a way that most of her kind do not.
BioShock Infinite's embrace of complexity leaks into the gameplay itself and, yet again, the overall experience somehow benefits. As well as the standard-issue weapons, there are a variety of genuinely cool magical attacks. Loot and upgrades are everywhere, yet they feel solid and worthwhile. As well as walking into convoluted rooms and shooting everyone, you can make use of fast-moving sky-lines, or magical-apparition cover devices and allies. Enemies come in surprising and often disturbing manifestations. They are not all stupid.
The city of Columbia defies three-dimensionality, offering environments that are rich and massive. It is an endlessly fascinating place and, of course, it is presented to us in a variety of states, from placid to chaotic.
This is a shooting game overlaid with stacked layers of artistic, creative and narrative diversions that allow you to forget that you have played many games like this already. Its genius is that this multiplicity is not there to hide a bad game, but to enhance a good one.