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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

10 Years Later, BioShock Infinite Remains One of the Boldest AAA Shooters Ever Made

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A decade ago director Ken Levine and his studio, Irrational Games, introduced us to the rotting society of Columbia with a choice: would you like to throw a baseball at an interracial couple, or instead hurl it at the bigoted announcer goading you on? Will you commit a hate crime, or stand against oppression? Regardless of the option you pick, the scenario plays out identically, with the ball left aside as protagonist Booker DeWitt uses a power tool to obliterate the face of a police officer. The sequence is both a bold introduction to BioShock Infinite’s exploration of America’s sordid relationship with race and an indication that such an exploration is going to be deeply flawed.

The mishandling of this moment telegraphs all of BioShock Infinite’s problems; that it will eventually descend into a situation that paints Black revolutionist Daisy Fitzroy as a monster no better than Columbia’s ultra-nationalist leader, Zachary Comstock. That you will spend the final half of the game gunning down the oppressed working classes. That its message will eventually be lost among its multiverse ambitions. And so BioShock Infinite doomed itself to live in the shadow of its greatest mistake.

It’s impossible to forgive those mistakes. But BioShock Infinite is not just the sum of its errors. On its tenth anniversary, it remains an admirably bold FPS that confronts topics of racism and classism in a manner that few AAA games have attempted since. While those explorations falter in the second half, Infinite’s first chapters tackle its themes with unflinching confidence in both its own convictions and its audience. It deplores the opinions of Columbia’s ruling class and industrial leaders, and uses deeply uncomfortable language and imagery to depict the rancid heart of this cloudbourne city. Ten years ago, such themes in a video game were considered topical. But in 2023, as multiple prominent battles over human rights are fought in the real world, the city’s approach to evangelical populism makes Columbia more haunting than it's ever been.

Bioshock Infinite remains an admirably bold FPS that confronts topics of racism and classism in a manner that few AAA games have attempted since.


Many of Infinite’s victories are in worldbuilding, with the lore of Columbia depicted through museum exhibit-like scenes that play out dystopian vignettes. These are showing their age – hang about too long and the illusion is shattered when you realise these characters stand in place for eternity – but they remain powerful observations of society’s crimes. I still often think about the industrial district, where workers fight a bidding war over low-paying jobs in a prescient condemnation of the gig economy.

Sequences like these are the result of Irrational’s surprising pivot from the systemic design of the original BioShock to a heavily scripted approach, crafting what is essentially a steampunk Call of Duty campaign. And I don’t say that disparagingly; while Infinite’s precise direction abandons the mechanical ecosystem of Big Daddies and Little Sisters that made Rapture feel so organic, it replaces it with a focused and purposeful rollercoaster. This provides a fair share of Infinity Ward-ish dramatic setpieces, but just as frequently uses its iron grip to slow down the ride. The first half of the story is surprisingly light on shootouts, instead content to let its examinations of oppression breathe while Booker and his NPC companion, Elizabeth, soak up the horrors of the society around them.

Using a show-don’t-tell approach, Infinite’s messages require piecing together from the cues found in its satirical, hyper-nationalistic visual design and flawed characters. The best example can be found in the Hall of Heroes, a deeply ugly monument to Columbia’s involvement in two real-world events: the Boxer Rebellion – where the US aided in the violent quashing of an anti-colonial uprising in China – and the massacre of nearly 300 Native Americans at Wounded Knee. Booker had a direct hand in Wounded Knee, and has since come to regret it. But despite making him aware of his poor choices, Infinite refuses to redeem him. “If you take away all the parts of Booker DeWitt you tried to erase, what’s left?” asks Cornelius Slade, Booker’s former comrade-in-arms. The answer is a man who recognises the world’s injustices and his part in them, but who does nothing about it beyond severing his connection to those problems. DeWitt is a messy reflection of our society’s own failings, brushing aside responsibility despite there still being work to do.

The delicate balance of story and shooting is lost in the second half. As Daisy Fitzroy’s Vox Populi rebellion kicks off, so does Infinite’s transformation into a full-bore shooter. That causes its own problems, but also acts as a showcase for a surprisingly swift and satisfying combat system that remains terrific a decade later. Multi-tiered arenas are linked by the zipline-like Sky Rails, which inject a significant amount of motion into each fight. While most shooters of the early 2010s were still obsessively following the hunker-down model of Gears of War, BioShock Infinite wanted you to leap from floor to rail to balcony to rail again in a display of athletic violence. In hindsight, it recognised the importance of continual movement years before Doom 2016 and Titanfall 2 embraced the trend and made it their own.

That momentum is paired with weapons that still largely retain their punch, but the real ballistic spice is the combination of ordnance with supernatural powers. Infinite’s vigors lost the immersive sim qualities of BioShock’s plasmids – fire won't melt ice here – but their recalibration as a purely offensive tool is still successful. Lifting a crowd with Bucking Bronco and blasting them from the air like flailing clay pigeons is still a treat, and discovering which combinations of vigors produce special effects means combat stays layered throughout the campaign. It takes longer than ideal to hit its full potential, but when it does it proves itself as quite a singular experience. While games like Deathloop take similar delight in combining guns and magic, Infinite’s strong array of powers and the way all eight can be used in combination has yet to be equally matched.

But, as previously mentioned, as BioShock Infinite reaches its combat highs it succumbs to its story lows. In the early hours, Booker explains to Elizabeth that there’s “precious need of folks like Daisy Fitzroy… ‘cause of folks like me.” It’s his most poignant revelation; a recognition that his former years as a Pinkerton union buster caused immeasurable pain for the working class. But by the time of the rebellion he considers Fitzroy no different to Comstock, and so too does Irrational; the Vox Populi become the aggressive defacto foe to be shot on sight. It's a baffling turn around from Infinite’s strong first half.

By ratcheting up the action there’s no space for nuance, and so the whole thing comes across as a poor reading of Malcolm X.


Thanks to Elizabeth’s obsession with Paris and Les Misérables, it’s clear that this was supposed to be an exploration of the French Revolution and the dangers of violent movements fuelled by hate. But by ratcheting up the action there’s no space for nuance, and so the whole thing comes across as a poor reading of Malcolm X and the US civil rights movement rather than any kind of interesting dissection of classism. And before you know it, Infinite has moved on to its grand multiverse-hopping finale; a wonderfully dramatic conclusion that sadly leaves its more serious story threads as little more than frayed ends.

Nonetheless, I still love BioShock Infinite. It challenges the idea of what a sequel should be – narratively and mechanically – which positions it as more of a BioShock from another plane of the multiverse than it is a direct continuation of what came before it. But more than that, to play a AAA game that is transparently about something is a rare treat, and to play one with the depth of world design as Irrational’s work is even rarer. Ten years later it remains bold, compelling, and arguably incredibly foolish. And I hope that Ken Levine and his team at Ghost Story Games tries to do it all over again with their upcoming FPS, Judas. There is value in a mainstream shooter that tackles society’s ills, even if it takes a few attempts to get it right.

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Matt Purslow is IGN's UK News and Features Editor.

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