BioShock is celebrating its 10-year anniversary today, March 26, 2023. Below, we reexamine the game with modern eyes, in the context of its place in the series as a whole.
If you’re reading this, odds are that you have some opinion of BioShock Infinite, and it’s likely to be a passionate one. When it released in March 2013, it generated enormous fanfare, inspiring strong stances from both excited series fans and those who felt let down by the final product. It continues to garner polarized reactions 10 years later, perhaps to an alarming extent. Once you go beyond the social media furor and the thwarted expectations, you have a game that ultimately failed to live up to the identity of its own series–and one that deserves neither the seemingly-bottomless stores of love and hate that some still heap on it.
The by-the-numbers nature of BioShock Infinite is perhaps most apparent in its moment-to-moment gameplay. Though ostensibly intended as the true successor to the original BioShock, Infinite simplifies the mechanics of the “immersive sim”-inspired series to the absolute minimum. The FPS part of this so-called “FPS RPG” series is tuned to max, and the RPG part is nearly cast away entirely.
Not only does it have fewer Vigors than both previous BioShock entries had Plasmids, it replaces the Gene Tonics system with a generic Gear system that allows for much less customization than in BioShock 1 and 2. Infinite also lacks the research camera system, a key non-combat mechanic of the original two games, and an important part of their identity. Infinite removes several other staples of the immersive sim genre, including the ability to hack objects–there’s no Pipedream-inspired minigame here.
While there’s nothing wrong with changing the mechanics of a series, Infinite doesn’t add much to replace them. Sure, there’s the Skyhook traversal system, which allows the game’s gunfights more scale and verticality, but it’s not used to its full potential. Elizabeth’s tear powers are somewhat interesting at first glance, but they basically boil down to giving you either cover or resources, and it gets old fast. Similarly, the fact that Booker is limited to carrying two weapons at a time (one of the all-time worst design conceits in FPS history) means that you’re usually stuck using the same guns over and over, even when you’d prefer to try something new.
Over the years, director Ken Levine and others have acknowledged that BioShock Infinite experienced significant design troubles during its lengthy development. For example, originally, the player would pick up individual Tonics by exploring the world, with each bottle being a single use. This was replaced with a more generic mana pool system in the final game. Other major changes included the reworking of Nostrums into Gear, which were set to be Infinite’s version of Gene Tonics, as well as additional weapons, enemies, and levels left on the cutting room floor.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of the game’s final stretch of development was Levine’s ambitious plans for 1999 Mode. This would have transformed the game into something like System Shock 2, complete with the player choosing a class at its outset, and being unable to remove the Nostrums/Gear that they equipped, making every choice a major commitment. In the final game, 1999 Mode is a fairly standard ultra-hard difficulty that has very few of these aspects, retaining only a mild monetary cost for death.
It’s easy to understand how these RPG elements were stripped from BioShock Infinite. In 2013, the immersive sim genre was at its lowest ebb, and it wasn’t clear if there was much demand for these kinds of mechanics in FPS games. In the years since, games like 2017’s Prey, Deathloop, and indie shooter Cruelty Squad have shown that there is indeed a market for more crunchy “imsim”-inspired fare. The System Shock reboot coming in May 2023 will be another test for the genre, which has always had question marks around its sales numbers.
This isn’t to say that BioShock Infinite doesn’t have its strong points, of course. Columbia is an extremely well-realized setting, all gilded streets and bright banners. The game also features some of the best-written characters of its era, from heroine Elizabeth to the delightful insanity of the Lutece twins. Spectacle is Infinite’s strong suit–but nuance is its greatest weakness. The political themes that the series is perhaps best-known for are perhaps the most widely criticized aspect of its third entry, but that’s for good reason.
One of BioShock Infinite’s most telling scenes occurs less than 30 minutes into its runtime. Our intrepid hero, Booker DeWitt, wanders into a raffle in the floating marvel that is the city of Columbia, where he draws the winning ball, lucky number 77. When he steps forward to claim his prize, the curtain rises to reveal a bound interracial couple amidst clearly racist carnival imagery, such as monkeys carrying wedding rings. The ugly truth is revealed: This raffle is nothing but an excuse to punish those who refuse to bow to white supremacy. The game then prompts you to either throw the ball at the couple or at the announcer. Regardless of the choice you make, a nearby guard grabs Booker’s arm, recognizing his tattoo as the sign of the “false shepherd,” and the first-person shooting begins in earnest.
On paper, this scene is intended to serve as an early revelation as to the true nature of Columbia, similar to the famous twist at the end of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.”
Like many other moments in BioShock Infinite, however, the scene is so one-note and over-the-top that it feels that it’s the game hitting you over the head with the ball. The studio behind Infinite, Irrational Games, seems so committed to reminding you that racism is bad every five minutes–a statement so bland and uncontroversial that it’s barely worth saying more than once–that it ends up drowning out almost anything else that the game has to say.
This scene reveals one of the fundamental problems with BioShock Infinite: It has very little to offer about racism or America beyond this obvious truth. Sure, the seminal BioShock 1 is not exactly subtle in its critique of libertarianism and writer Ayn Rand’s greater worldview, but there are many people in the world who sincerely believe in that ideology and would like to see it enacted. Though there is no doubt that we still live in a racist society, the faces and parties that promote those policies are those that oppose open, more overt racism–for now, at least.
Though there’s plenty of room for video games that explore the particulars of structural racism, BioShock Infinite is not one of them–instead, it’s blaring a klaxon that’s so uncontroversial that its political edge is hopelessly blunted in the process. And when the game descends into “both-sides” pandering when the Vox Populi plot becomes a wrong-footed critique of revolutionary politics near its conclusion–an aspect of the game that has been mocked and dissected and retconned so thoroughly that it hardly seems worth discussing–you can’t help but wonder if the game had anything to say in the first place.
When played today, more than anything, BioShock Infinite feels like the product of its era. A well-made but ultimately compromised AAA series entry that tried to appeal to everyone, it could be convincingly argued that Infinite succeeded in its aims: It sold millions of copies and garnered rave reviews on release. That said, the passing of a decade has not been kind to Infinite, and I doubt the next will be any nicer. The industry has changed a lot since 2013, and I suspect that a BioShock 4 that leans more into the series’ core identity would do better today than revisiting the half-hearted Infinite approach.
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