Oustanding or Overrated? Why BioShock: Infinite Holds up to Scrutiny

It may have been popular, but BioShock: Infinite didn't escape criticism. Gerry Hart explains why he still loves Irrational Games's smash hit four years on.

Gerry Hart
27th November 2017
Image: Flickr.com

There are few games that have sparked quite as much debate as BioShock: Infinite. Though it was a critical and commercial success, the game has faced multiple criticisms for both its gameplay and its narrative design, particularly from gaming’s self-appointed intelligentsia (which I pretend to be part of). This is why, in spite of the praise it has received, I feel somewhat reticent to admit I like Infinite. I kind of feel like I should know better.

Let’s start with the negative, as for all my later defences of BioShock: Infinite, many of its criticisms are deserved. I feel Infinite’s biggest drawback is its level design. Though linearity isn’t a bad thing, linear games need to make navigating from point A to point B an interesting challenge, something games like Undertale or the Half Life series master perfectly. However, compared to its slightly more open ended predecessors, Infinite plays along the lines of a typical “corridor shooter”, with restrictive levels interspersed by combat in more open areas. Little opportunity is afforded the player for exploration. Though the non-combat segments seem purpose built for it, exploration during the more linear, “combat” segments yield little reward, which is a shame due to the game’s uniformly gorgeous visual design. Nor for that fact is the combat helped by the fact you only have two weapons, again making the gameplay feel much more restrictive than previous games.

[pullquote]Though it was a critical and commercial success, the game has faced multiple criticisms for both its gameplay and narrative design[/pullquote]

Some criticisms could also be made of the story as well. Despite depicting the in-game ruling elite as aloof, callous and cruel, the game has you fighting both their forces and that of the underclass resistance, who are shown to be every bit as bad as their masters. And as if that weren’t bad enough both factions function the same as one another mechanically, with the same enemy types being reskinned to fit one faction or another. It is a quite literal mechanical and narrative realisation of horseshoe theory.


One criticism Infinite does not deserve however is the charge of ludonarrative dissonance (i.e. where gameplay and story contradict one another). This stems from the game’s gratuitously violent combat and how, unlike the anarchic Rapture of the first BioShock, this feels out of place in the gentile civility of Columbia. Such arguments fail to take into account that BioShock: Infinite’s Columbia is an inherently violent place. Like the early 20th century it is set in, the power structures of Columbia are predicated on a racialized, class based violence in order to maintain its status quo. The stability of Columbia is maintained by the dehumanisation of and use of force against those who don’t fit within Columbia’s white, Christian worldview and all protagonist Booker Dewitt did was bring this violence out into the open. Indeed this mirrors the real 20th century, where events such as the First World War and the Russian Revolution shattered the Edwardian veneer of peace to reveal how unjust the world truly was. Granted such charges might’ve been quelled if the transition into combat wasn’t so jarring, but that doesn’t mean they’re founded in the first place.

[pullquote]For all its flaws, BioShock: Infinite is still a compelling and powerful experience[/pullquote]

You know what, fuck it. I don’t feel guilty for liking BioShock: Infinite. For all its flaws, Infinite is still a compelling and powerful experience that forces us to examine a hideous period of our history, albeit through a fantastical lens. Granted, it could’ve been better designed, and it shouldn’t have underclass as villains, but after giving it some thought, I have no compunctions about singing BioShock: Infinite’s praises.

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