Short takes  — BioShock Infinite

There’s so much that BioShock Infinite gets wrong. Its satire of the peculiar mix of politics, religion, and xenophobia that fuels American exceptionalism seemed to hold such promise, but the real human cost of history has been so often flattened into two dimensions that even the unapologetic racist militarism of Columbia’s Hall of Heroes is difficult to read as parody. Failed ambition can’t excuse, however, the moral indifference of Infinite’s later levels, and the facile moral equivalence between Columbia and the oppressed people who would rise up against it. Draping itself in the cliché that violence makes monsters of us all, the game creates a slaughterhouse where faction only matters insofar as it determines which weapon the player can reload.

It is, perhaps, not accidental then that the best parts of BioShock Infinite are when the player isn’t shooting, but discovering songs that are familiar but not quite recognizable, and the most powerful commentary comes when the player walks through the literal architecture of oppression. BioShock Infinite is rightly criticized as a game with a story built on concepts of choice and contingency but whose play doesn’t allow for either. It’s all almost redeemed in the moment near the end where a door opens and the game becomes just for an instant about narrative itself, the way that we tell stories again and again, always the same and always slightly different. Almost. Maybe we’ll get it better next time.

This piece was originally published on Kill Screen as part of “High Scores: The Best of 2013” on December 19, 2013.