Video games just aren't great fodder water cooler conversation the way that television shows or movies are. Probably because most games just don't generate much worth debating: There are, after all, only so many conversations that anyone can have about which gun you used to shoot which guy. But every now and then, a game with actual depth comes along and breaks that convention, indeed prompting the sort of armchair dissections usually reserved for Lost episodes or Christopher Nolan movies. BioShock Infinite is one such game.
The third entry in what has been billed as the thinking man's (or woman's) first-person-shooter series, Infinite is that rarest of gems that serves up not only fantastic gaming action, but also a story filled with memorable characters, a twisting-turning plot and deep, thought-provoking themes. If all games were like this, people might never talk about television or movies at the water cooler again.
Infinite shifts the BioShock franchise out of the Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian undersea world of Rapture and into Columbia, a utopian city impossibly suspended above the clouds through the magic of giant balloons and propellers. Players take on the role of Booker DeWitt, a debt-ridden detective who has been hired by a mysterious benefactor to come to Columbia and retrieve a young woman named Elizabeth.
As DeWitt arrives in the cloud city, he is greeted by a man and a woman who are about to flip a coin. They ask him to call it and it turns up heads. The man wears a sandwich board displaying the results of their ongoing game; it always comes up heads, never tails. It's the first sign that something weird is going on in Columbia.
The city is actually a floating weapon and independent state in its own right. Infinite is set in 1912, at the height of an era when the United States started to believe in its role as leader of the world. Columbia itself is presided over by founder Zachary Hale Comstock, a zealous supporter of all of some hard-right ideologies: racial purity, class segregation and religious fundamentalism.
His views, we learn, proved to be a little too far right for the American government, which censured him after he used Columbia to attack China during the Boxer Rebellion in the late 19th century. In retaliation, Comstock seceded from the union. Now, the city floats freely around the world as his own personal Death Star-like fiefdom.
Elizabeth is somehow the key to his power, a fact that DeWitt eventually discovers. The young lady is held prisoner in a tower in the middle of Columbia, where Comstock's scientists study her ability to open tears in the space-time continuum. The action really begins when the duo make their escape.
At the heart of the story is the evolving relationship between DeWitt and Elizabeth. What starts as business for the erstwhile detective eventually turns personal as he learns about his charge, her importance and her possible connection to him. In their effort to flee, they also learn that all is not well in Columbia. Comstock has created a society of vast inequality, racial and religious strife and deep general malaise. The utopia is, in fact, more of a dystopia, much like Rapture from the first two games, and it's hard to miss the obvious commentaries on current American society.
The duo encounter memorable characters amid this unravelling discontent, from the hardened soldier Cornelius Slate, who feels Comstock is unfit to rule because he's never seen battle, to the Malcolm X-inspired Daisy Fitzroy, an African-American agitator fighting the dear leader's injustices. As the story progresses, allies become enemies and enemies turn out to be something different altogether. Through it all, the relationship between DeWitt and Elizabeth deepens and complicates into something heartfelt and believable.
Sprinkled throughout the story are tidbits that hint at further weirdness. Why, for example, when Elizabeth was looking at Paris through a spatial tear, was Return of the Jedi playing at a nearby theatre? And why was that gramophone that DeWitt passes by playing a crackly, swing version of Soft Cell's Tainted Love ? This is still 1912, right?
It's in its last hour or so that BioShock Infinite really delves into metaphysical themes – the sort of mind-bending questions that made the movie Inception so frustrating, but also so much fun. Without getting into spoilers, let's just say that Elizabeth takes DeWitt on something of a roller-coaster ride through time, space and reality that will leave you wondering just what the hell has happened. Some of it is annoying in its purposeful vagueness, like when Elizabeth tells DeWitt, "You don't leave this room… until you do," but most of it hints back at things previously revealed.
By the end, I found myself questioning every bit of prior weirdness, starting with that coin toss at the beginning of the story. Congratulations are due to Irrational Games – the developer has created a game that compels people to replay it in order to connect those dots and make sense of things. Either that, or they're going to have to talk about it at the water cooler.
But wait – there's also an actual game underneath all this story, thematic disposition and metaphysical musing. And the good news is, even if you can't be bothered with all that head-scratching stuff and just want some good, old-fashioned shooty fun, Infinite has you covered in spades. There's a wide assortment of upgradeable, standard first-person-shooter weapons, from shotguns and sniper rifles to grenades and missile launchers. There's also a wide variety of enemies, from the expendable goofs who charge at you with cleavers in hand to the imposing, mechanized Patriot automatons who grind away at you with deadly chain guns.
Spicing up the action are vigors – basically super-powers – in the forms of potions scattered around Columbia. Similar to the plasmids of the first two games, Infinite's eight vigors give DeWitt the ability to shoot electricity, water tendrils, fire bombs and even murderous crows out of his hands, among other powers. Combined with the variety of guns, the vigors give players a seemingly infinite – forgive the pun – number of ways to play. I gravitated toward a shotgun-electricity combo, but truth be told, I felt like I missed out by not experimenting more with other weapon-and-vigor combinations. That's another reason to replay the game.
Elizabeth also adds to the battlefield fun, both by tossing you health or ammo just when you need it most, and also by adding cover, allies or supplies through her spatial tears, which she does on request. Rounding out the fun is the Skyline, or the roller-coaster-like rails that link up the various sections of Columbia. The heroes ride them to get around, but they can also be used to perform slide-by shootings. Put all of this stuff together and no two fights are alike.
All told, BioShock Infinite is among the rarest of games that is a ton of fun to play, yet also one that asks players to think beyond the action. The only thing keeping me from giving it a perfect score is my own personal cynicism that the deep message it claims to have might not actually be there – it's a question I'll only be able to answer after multiple play-throughs. In other words, part of me doubts that games can be this good. I'm not sure what that says about me, but it certainly means BioShock Infinite is in an elite class.