Bioshock Infinite: With Vim And Vigor, But Why?

by Scott Nichols

***First of all, spoiler warnings and all that fun stuff. I’m going to write about Bioshock Infinite assuming you’ve played it and completed it. I won’t be extensively examining the ending or some of the major plot twists, but there’s a good chance I’ll make casual reference to them and just assume you know what I mean because you played it.***

It’s interesting having just recently written about thematic consistency in games and then playing Bioshock Infinite. The first Bioshock is one of those games that I would hold up as an excellent example of thematic consistency, where the environment, characters, combat, exploration, plasmids, and pretty much everything except the hacking minigame all reinforce the same general themes about freedom, choice, and having fun at Ayn Rand’s expense.

Bioshock 2, well, to be honest I stopped playing halfway through because those parts where you have to protect the little sister as she collects adam from corpses are just plain annoying. So let’s not talk about Bioshock 2‘s themes right now.

Anyway, back to Bioshock Infinite. Simply as a game, I love it. I literally played the entire thing in one sitting. One 14-hour long sitting from around 10pm to a little past noon the next day. The pacing is kinetic to the point where I just didn’t see any reasonable stopping points. Almost every goal that I thought would be a good stopping point turned out to just be another unresolved launching point for the next objective, and I loved that. Bioshock did the segmented story, with levels that embody particular characters, very well, and I was happy to see that Irrational wanted to experiment with something new for the structure this time. Well, the experiment payed off, for me at least, with the jumbled timelines/dimensions offering plenty of what-the-hell-is-going-on-ness to keep me curious mixed with a sense of continuity to keep me grounded enough not to feel completely lost.

But while I loved the act of playing Bioshock Infinite, there were also a lot of thematic and world-building loose ends by the time the credits rolled.

At first, I was quite shocked by the degree of violence in the game. Booker’s first fight comes as he’s about to be arrested, which he responds by ripping half of an officer’s face off with a skyhook. Dear god, that seemed a bit excessive, didn’t it? I mean, sure they have their weird racist cult thing going on and calling him the “false shepherd,” but the sense of danger felt more along the lines of “come along now, we’re going to question you for hours and it’s going to be really tedious and uncomfortable” rather than a violent angry mob in need of immediate facial surgery. If Booker is going to get violent, a simple gut punch would have sufficed, is what I’m saying.

It created an immediate disconnect between me and Booker. Now, that disconnect can be a good thing, but it just felt weird here. Had that finishing move been introduced a few hours later, after several encounters with Columbia’s citizens trying to kill me, I would have accepted it. But as the very first action it sets a bizarre precedent for violence that the game didn’t even really live up to (I only remember one death more gruesome, and that was when the first crow-summoner killed the chained-up guy, so I guess the first skyhook was still the most graphic violence enacted by Booker).

A few hours later I overheard a radio broadcast describing the scene as a brutal and unjustified massacre, and I found it difficult to disagree with their portrayal of me as the villain. Yet somehow I had developed an interpretation of Booker that he did disagree, and that he would think he was being depicted unfairly. I felt like I understood that much about Booker, so the scene was effective in that sense, but I was still missing the why.

Eventually they tried to earn Booker’s immediate and excessively violent response by portraying him as having been some ruthless monster at Wounded Knee. This could have worked, especially with the weird timeline stuff going on, if there were a flashback scene where I was forced to re-enact the battle much like the flashbacks that come later where I re-enacted Booker’s baptism. In fact, a flashback of Wounded Knee would have been a spot-on way to balance out the baptism flashback, since it would have helped the player understand the horrors and violence that drove him to that point.

Now, an effective fiction technique is to withhold information because our imaginations will usually fill in more interesting details anyway. It’s a technique that works especially well in literature, but not quite as well in a game when it’s an action that involves the player character.

Instead of a flashback we get the museum exhibit. The museum is actually effective in how it throws needless combat at you in exhibits depicting horrific and needless battles. It’s tedious, but in that good metaphorical gameplay way that hightlights the commentary it’s trying to make. But what that scene doesn’t do is act as a retro-active justification for Booker’s behavior, and I feel like that is something the scene needs to do.

The other comment I want to make about Bioshock Infinite is regarding vigors. I get why they’re there from a gameplay perspective, but I am at a complete loss as to how vigors fit into Columbia’s narrative. There is an oppressive dictatorial tone throughout Columbia, and I just don’t see how the theocratic government giving its citizens super-powers fits into that. Bioshock‘s Rapture was all about striving to reach the limits of human potential, so plasmids and genetic modification made sense there. But Columbia is a floating city built on the ideals of maintaining the status quo.

Perhaps that explains why hardly anyone in Columbia uses vigors while fighting you (the crow-summoners are really the only ones I can remember who did), despite vigor vending machines popping up on every corner like Starbucks. But it doesn’t explain why the vigors are even there in the first place. Even if the vigors are being pulled through tears like the music, so Columbia isn’t technically inventing them, I’m still missing any thematically consistent justification for why, after sumbling across vigors, they were allowed to continue to exist. And don’t use the excuse that because there are infinite parallel worlds that vigors would be mass produced in at least one of them. Even in that one world, there would have to be culture that supported that kind of innovation, and we never see that aspirational version of Columbia where it would make sense. The Columbias we see think they have already reached the pinnacle of advancement, and there is no place for admitting room for improvement in that culture.

Oh jeez, that totally came across as an over-attentive fanboy rant, didn’t it?

Like I said early on, I absolutely loved playing Bioshock Infinite, but on a thematic level, the combat is problematic. Melee fighting is brutal in a way it never quite earns, and the entire existence of vigors is never quite earned in a way that makes sense. This is surprising to me after Irrational Games did such a fantastic job weaving both of those aspects into the first Bioshock, but seems to have forgotten how to do it for their sequel. Is it a minor issue in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps. But if I’m advocating for more thematic consistency then I’d be remiss not to point it out anyway.