What is there left to say about BioShock Infinite?
Irrational Games' narratively-driven first-person shooter has won near universal acclaim since its release, for everything from its dramatic, city-in-the-sky setting to the quality of its story-telling. The general consensus is that this is a beautifully made, compelling game, and one that ranks as one of this generation's greatest.
So complete and overwhelming has the praise for BioShock been, in fact, that anyone with a passing interest in video games or gaming culture knows that they will have to play this game, sooner or later.
But… what about everyone else?
Is BioShock Infinite really for everyone - even those who don't, generally, play games?
Is its story strong enough to deserve their time, and the mechanics strong enough to hook their attention? In 'Columbia' terms, is BioShock Infinite the title to help those people cross the proverbial Delaware, play Infinite through, and form an opinion of the game on its own terms?
First, a caveat: much like Infinite's lead character Booker DeWitt when he arrives at the gates of the startling sky city of Columbia for the first time to 'save the girl, and clear the debt', I enter this tricky area of gaming debate with a sense of dread, and foreboding.
For who is a 'gamer', really - and who isn't? It's not obvious. Genuine inquiry aside, it's almost asinine to ask. Not only have console video games never been more mainstream, or more accessible, but anyone with a smartphone who has spent more than five minutes waiting or a train in the last decade has probably played a few rounds of Draw Something, and can thus be considered a gamer, more or less.
So instead of generalising about Gamers and Non-Gamers, let's just admit that there is a group of people who know already that they should play BioShock Infinite. And there is a group of people who don't, to put it simply, quite get why they should bother.
You can understand their concern. As a piece of entertainment, Infinite is pretty lengthy. Inexperienced gamers can expect to invest 12-15 hours to play through the game, perhaps more. That's about a season-and-a-bit of Homeland, or seven films. In some cases it will require learning how to play first-person shooters for the first time, understanding how to interact with the world and dealing with the whole 'killing people' thing, which can be unsettling for new players, and in difficulty-terms alone can become quite trying, even on 'Easy' mode. For a newer gamer, BioShock Infinite will rightly be a pretty intimidating thing to pick up.
It is to Infinite's firmly-established credit, then, that if you manage to get someone in front of the game for half an hour, much of this concern should drop away.
The game's opening is startling and beautiful. As you arrive at Columbia in a makeshift rocket, and wander slowly into a chapel filled with streaming light, it's impossible not to be hooked. For about an hour or so the game moves slowly, and doesn't hurry you to make quick decisions. Players will have time to take in the details - from the way light plays on the white-stone buildings of this early 20th-century American city, and the subtle introduction to the racism and nationalistic fervour that run in its veins. There's also a tone of portent and menace which is inherently compelling and addictive. From the very start, the game feels like the best episodes of Lost, Sherlock or the Twilight Zone. Coupled with a gentle introduction to the mechanics of moving and looking around the world, few people would fail to be hooked.
This calm doesn't last. And debate rages about whether Infinite needed to be quite as action-orientated as it is - some argue it's simply a work of genre like any blockbuster or thriller, while others have said it strays into banality at times - but once the violence starts - and make no mistake, this is a bloody game - some newer gamers might start to peel away. Add in the 'skylines' - essentially giant roller-coasters that you can latch onto during battles to move around the landscape and get the drop on your opponents - and you've got a confusing, 3D, fast-paced shooter to deal with, almost immediately. It's important to avoid condescension, but this side of Infinite will leave some behind.
Fortunately, Infinite has another side - and one which completely tips the balance in its favour: the most compelling and genuinely human relationship in video game history.
At the start of the game, Booker is tasked with rescuing a woman - Elizabeth - from a mysterious tower. That's about all you're given - and to say any more would ruin the story. But while her looks and background make her seem like a Disney cliche, this isn't Donkey Kong. Elizabeth is a fully-realised, deeply interesting character. Unlike in most games, Elizabeth is not usually 'scripted'. She can interact with the world in real time, on her own. She can talk, look at things, get bored, sit down, get annoyed, be disappointed and wander off. She joins you in battle - not actually fighting, but providing resources and 'tears' in reality to give you cover, or helpful allies. She feels alive, and it gives the game enough weight to survive its more generic moments. And she has a narrative arc that is shocking, taut and moving.
Which leads us to the point, really. For beyond - and beneath, and behind - all of its gameplay, graphics and controls, is BioShock Infinite's story. And yes, it's almost objectively wonderful.
It sounds like hyperbole - and repetition has dulled the accolade - but at its most basic, this is a hugely interesting, emotional and troubling tale which compares admirably to any Oscar winner or HBO series of recent years.
Most importantly, Infinite knows that its a game - and knows that this will be problematic the more its story delivers on its promise. As a result it actually becomes a perfect tale for a newer gamer to tackle, commenting as it does not only on itself, but what it means to have played through it, lived it, and watched it unravel.
No, BioShock isn't for everyone. It can be tricky to pick up, occasionally confusing and is a serious time investment.
But that's all fine, in the end. For no piece of art is for everyone. Not everyone likes the Godfather, either - or Pride and Prejudice, or Tom Gauld's comics, or Radiohead. Neither is it perfect. The frustration felt by those who have experienced a great work of fiction, and want to share it, but can't, is just a burden that comes with the territory of liking stuff. No matter how hard you try, your dad just might not bother with BioShock. You'll have to live with that.
But for those whom it does reach - and there will be many, and not all of them (sigh) 'gamers', Infinite will matter.
It is a fine piece of work, worthy of anyone's time. And it will reward patience and an open mind with at least as much, if not more, as you are able to give.
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