The marketing behind Bioshock Infinite would have you believe it's a First Person Shooter. And yes, you can kill lots of people in quite horrid ways. A lot of these ways involve guns. But I can’t help thinking, more and more, that this isn’t simply another “machine gun” game.
I’m Booker DeWitt and I’ve been sent to the floating city of Columbia to find a girl. With her I can return to New York and wipe my debts clean.
I’m running through a courtyard. It’s 1912. Animatronic barbershop boys sing on a floating barge as two islands lock together with metal clamps. Parts of this city float away; everything is sky and utopian smiles. Sometimes I go to the edge and stare at the angelic Columbia Statue watching over the city. Later on I will find Battleship Bay. A beach and shore above the world.
Much later, it’s a similar situation, but instead there’s a motorized George Washington coming at me. I’ve absorbed his fire with my Return to Sender Vigor (a sort of magic, effectively) and with a flick let loose the absorbed charge back at him. He falters. Staggers. Gets back up again.
I signal Elizabeth (that girl, the one I’ve retrieved to clear the debt) and she yells at me, shouts that she has something to help. I press the button and she throws me a vial of Salts – the chemicals, I guess, that fuel my power.
George is moving towards me. I switch powers and with a long press chuck a tendril of water (Undertow) which hooks around ol' Washington and whips him forwards in front of me. I jab my Skyhook at him – a device which lets you rollercoaster around the city on monorail-type tracks. As it hits his face it registers a critical hit and electrocutes him, conducted quickly by the water.
He gets up, weary and almost dead. I decide to play with him and order Elizabeth to call through a turret from another world - these “Tears” integral to the plot and gameplay. The turret blasts George dead.
After, Elizabeth looks at me with a kind of distrusting glare and, as we walk onwards, says something about my morality.
See, even the 'shooter' part of Bioshock Infinite addresses key narrative questions within gaming. The creators have designed an AI in Elizabeth that counters the main character, toys with him, bounces off ideas. She's like someone from a book or a TV show, a character you care for more than just another string of code and animation files. If there was ever a question about whether games are art, Bioshock Infinite confirms they are.
You learn about the world by searching. There are voxophones (audio files) littered throughout that explain the science, philosophy and unrest behind Columbia. Propaganda posters decorate the outsides of buildings. Stand near two characters on the pavement and they are likely to have a conversation. It's these little nuances, as much as the wider plot, that make the world so alive.
It’s a game that will likely change how game designers make games just as the original Bioshock did. It’s a game that defines our generation: it’s about the 1 per cent and the other 99. But it’s more than that. It’s a game that dares to delve into quantum physics and tackle contemporary nationalism and the grey morality of revolution. It shows us racism in a way I've never seen before in a game – a way that makes us care about our character's beliefs as much as everyone else’s.
It's about you, Booker DeWitt and the girl you've come to collect, Elizabeth, and this out of kilter world of Columbia. It's about what people will do to wipe their debts. And it holds up its grim mirror at us today.