Taken out of context, it may look like video game Bioshock Infinite is an attack on American history, patriotism and the Tea Party. In fact, for the first few hours of play the game does feel like that. You play as Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton officer who has a massive debt he can only repay by fulfilling a mission to rescue a teenage girl from a tower prison. There its resemblance to fairy tales ends and its horror story begins.
The game is set in 1912, in a city called Columbia up in the sky. It’s a city of separatists who see themselves as true patriots and their leader as a true savior. A few hours into the game, and I’ll try not to spoil anything until page two, you run into these mechanized boss characters.
If this is an attack on the American founders, it isn’t subtle. Notice the sign behind the beast. Called a Motorized Patriot, it’s a combat robot George Washington wielding a crank gun against the protagonists while he spews phrases that sound vaguely Biblical. During chapter loads, the developers offer a helpful hint for killing them: You should shoot them in the back. How nice.
So is this game, then, an attack on patriotism?
I haven’t played it all the way to the end yet (but I’m very very close), but the answer has to be no. Bioshock Infinite is first and foremost a first-person shooter’s science fiction take on the multiverse theory, with some color taken from the mess that is American politics.
I don’t want to give too much of the story away to those who have not played it yet, so if you’re playing the game and don’t want anything spoiled, don’t click on the next page.
Ok, now that the noobs are out of the room, Bioshock Infinite is very easy to misunderstand. In fact, NPR misunderstands it entirely in its review of the game.
In one scene, you’re directed toward a raffle in front of a stage. You take a baseball from a basket with the number 77. You win! The curtain opens to reveal the prize: You’re offered the chance to be the first to throw a baseball at a captive interracial couple.
And you have to make the choice to throw the ball at the couple or to throw the ball at the announcer. But here’s the tricky part. If you throw the ball at the announcer, you will be revealed as a traitor and it may compromise your mission to find Elizabeth.
Levine says everyone he’s watched play has made the same choice. “It’s an ode to human nature and where we’ve come as a society that I’ve never seen somebody choose to throw the ball at the couple,” he says.
But when you try to throw the ball at the announcer, the battle begins. And, after all, Aristotle considers spectacle an element of tragedy.
If NPR’s writers bothered to play the game, they would know that the battle begins the moment you raise your hand to throw. It’s a tattoo on your right hand, not the target you throw at, that gives you away. The choice is just an illusion. The battle will begin no matter what you do. That’s a hint at where the game’s real story will take you.
The false and racist religion in the game’s plot is not Christianity, it’s more akin to the David Koresh or Aum Shinrikyo cults of the world. It’s a personality cult that later in the game turns out to be anything but patriotic. It sets itself above and then wages war against the United States. Its patriots are not real, living men who love the ideals of their country, but mechanical monsters dressed up in the trappings of patriotic imagery. They’re frauds. The great villain also wraps himself in the flag, and his own mythic patriotic and heroic past. In that, he’s more like North Korea’s Kims than any American leader. Or, well, I’ll just leave this right here.
Bioshock Infinite takes its jabs at the race baiters in America, too. A group calling itself the Vox Populi (voice of the people — they sound very much like Occupiers) launches a rebellion against the false cult state. But once they take power, they turn out to be just as brutal and evil as the power they overthrew. Their leader, a black woman, is a dishonest thug.
If it’s telling any political story, Bioshock Infinite is telling a story similar to that in the original Bioshock: All political movements are vulnerable to the will to power, even those movements that are supposedly dedicated to individual liberty, and those who seek power most ambitiously are probably least fit to wield it over others. That’s not a bad story to tell. Another story that Infinite may be telling, which also lurks in the first game, is that science meant to benefit mankind can also become a curse. Neither story is original to the series, and neither is particularly controversial.
Overall, Bioshock Infinite is not deserving of the accolades the gaming press is giving it. I grade it at 3.5 stars out of 5. It’s not a game for kids, as the folks at The Blaze note. It’s also not the political allegory that some in the media seem to think it is. It’s a solid if confusing sci-fi yarn, a little too similar to its predecessors in appearance, tone and action, but set apart from those by its unique skyline travel and the combat that the skyline demands and the role that Elizabeth, the damsel in distress, plays during combat. Its bosses including the Patriot and the Handyman are tough kills, much like the Big Daddies in the original but without the creepy Little Sisters to deal with. Bioshock still stands as the best of the three-game series, with Bioshock Infinite a very strong second. Of Bioshock 2 we shall not speak.
I felt like I’d played much of Bioshock Infinite before, and I had, several years ago when I played the first Bioshock. Or maybe I played Bioshock Infinite elsewhere in a different life in the grand, infinite multiverse.