The Bioshock franchise has always been somewhat calculating and somewhat cold in how it uses young humans: the Little Sisters of the first two games served as player motivation and articles of morbid curiosity in the first two games, given just how terrible the treatment that they have been receiving at the hands of Rapture’s most affluent was. If fully grown males were being harvested for their ability to adequately host sea-slugs, perhaps the player may not have felt this drive towards the defence of characters so overtly defenceless as a young girl prisoner to her own modified biology and drive to collect ADAM. Infinite picks up very much in this tradition where the previous two games left off: after a little bit of introduction, we are expected to look after maligned female youth in what turns out to be a game-long escort mission that deals with key themes of guardianship including remorse, duties owed to others and the limitations of mitigation of harm that may come to those to whom we have such duties. There is much of worth in Infinite, but also a large number of failings that blight what could have been a moment of brilliance in video game writing.
The player’s charge of trusteeship is made to a religiously venerated teenaged woman by the name of Elizabeth who, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of Grimm’s Rapunzel, is trapped in a tower from infancy due to an arrangement made by her father to be free of a debt. The story’s start is nothing short of a demonstrative case of Aarne-Thompson type 310, “The Maiden in the Tower”, and does little to deviate away from its early commitment to this trope: the protagonist, Booker DeWitt, is committed to freeing this maiden from her tower to the point of potential self-destruction. His reasons for doing so throughout the game may change – from self-interest in the beginning to genuine concern by the half-way point – but the overarching goal of enabling this young woman to experience a world away from her tower serves very much as the spine of the narrative.
If we abstract away any of the elements of the story concerned with metaphysical meddling for the moment, the narrative direction of the game, for something that has been so critically lauded as a high-water mark, leaves a fair amount to be desired. One moment in particular is incredibly jarring: DeWitt is upfront with Elizabeth in admitting that he frees her with solely selfish intentions in mind, and for the sake of a third-party. Elizabeth’s sense of outrage and betrayal at this aboard an airship that is directed towards New York rather than the previously agreed Paris seems somewhat misplaced in the face of this: she was aware of DeWitt’s less than selfless intent, but is surprised by this going back on his “promise” made that they go to Paris. Scepticism would be more than reasonable in this situation. It may be argued that she was deceiving herself, given her carefully demonstrated affections for Paris, but she also demonstrates herself to be very perceptive as well as intelligent. Blind faith does not seems something that would motivate her, much as her hope for a better future becomes thematically important later. More ridiculous is the speed with which she forgives DeWitt this act of treachery that was rewarded with a wrench to the head above the airship: very shortly afterwards, the two appear to have made amends with no further mention of DeWitt’s misdeed.
Things become murkier around the issue of the “tears”, rips in space-time that Elizabeth is able to control. While delightfully useful in combat to make an automated turret, for example, appear, and while the explanations for the anachronistic music playing through certain red tears found in audio diaries answer questions one might have about this in an amusing manner, there is something somewhat theoretically troubling about all of the hopping between worlds and times that goes on that potentially undermines all of the work done in narrative. Towards the end of the game, it is established fairly strongly that multiple DeWitt’s can exist in the same space and time: Columbia is overseen by Comstock, who we find out is an alternate, reborn-Christian DeWitt. With this being the case, DeWitt’s baptism/no-baptism choice after Wounded Knee seems an impossibility: he should be there as another DeWitt, not the sole DeWitt in this scene. This is made all the more confusing the presence of multiple Elizabeths/Annas: there’s a metaphysical impossibility here that serves to undermine the excellent dramatic work that the prior discussions between Elizabeth and DeWitt had done: the death of DeWitt/Comstock through the use of tears is an impossibility that assumes one true world amongst all of the universes presented. The game never gives us a reason to believe this to be the case.
However confused the story may be, the gameplay does it a great service. While the linear feel of the game and literal feeling of being “on rails” when using the wonderfully designed skyline system present in the game’s realisation of Columbia would usually be something to be criticised, it does something wonderful here given the shift in theme to “breaking the cycle” that occurs towards the end of the game. Of course the game is linear: these events had to happen; things had to be this way because the universe is fundamentally deterministic. DeWitt had to give Elizabeth up; he had to go to Columbia; he had to try to save her. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have scope to attempt to break the cycle: we are human, we attempt to undo the terrible things that we have done. That element of the human spirit is wonderfully captured throughout Infinite: as well as protecting something weaker than ourselves, the game is about atonement.
Heaping praise on the game is something that only the most cynical human being would refrain from doing: we are talking about a game that is not afraid to touch on some terrible subject matter with maturity and is exceptionally mechanically competent – more so than it’s predecessors in the series. We have another example of post-modern storytelling in video games, and that is no bad thing. Following the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid 2 in this regard is no bad thing: this too is a game that has and will continue to raise much discussion for some time to come. Kojima’s conclusion, however, just seems far more coherent than Ken Levine’s here, and it’s rare that that is said with regard to anything. Infinite presents no big revolution for storytelling in games, merely an evolutionary step; a step that is all too welcome for a big-budget game however.