Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of one of the most hotly discussed games of the last decade, Bioshock: Infinite, brought together by Dante Douglas. Dante is a writer and game designer. You can find his work at Paste Magazine, Waypoint, and Polygon, among other places online. His twitter is @videodante.
There is, quite possibly, no game in the modern games criticism sphere that has inspired as many words as Irrational Games’ 2013 Bioshock: Infinite.
It followed in the lineage of a game that was nearly universally adored (2007’s Bioshock) which spawned a sequel that had its own storied history of acclaim (2010’s Bioshock 2) and traced its development back to one of the giants of the 1990s “immersive sims”, System Shock. Infinite, in every way, was poised to take the throne of an entire genre, whether or not it deserved it.
And when it came, it conquered. There is no way to tell the story of Bioshock: Infinite’s release and subsequent discussion without starting from the understanding that this was a game that released to massive critical acclaim on almost every front. It was, in the words of reviewers, “important.” Infinite was “required reading [in] the gaming medium.” It was a game that was “an experience that could only ever be achieved in a videogame […] and in doing so soars far above so many other games.”
But like all giants, Infinite fell. And, like all giants, it didn’t fall evenly. Re-reviews were ran. New voices pointed out inconsistencies in the game’s story and mechanics. Minutiae and major characters were debated alongside one another in series of propositions, rebuttals, counters, and arguments. The game once thought untouchable was, in the eyes of some, mortally flawed, doomed from the start. A gargantuan effort turned gargantuan tragedy, like the city of Columbia itself.
Without further ado, I am proud to present Critical Distance’s Bioshock: Infinite Critical Compilation.
1. There’s always a lighthouse, a man, a city: The Launch of Bioshock: Infinite
Before the release of the game proper, a longform interview with Infinite’s lead designer, Ken Levine, was ran on Polygon, with reporter Chris Plante. Among other things, they discussed the journey that led to the creation of Infinite, including some quotes by Levine. “The way I create video games, it’s more like sculpture.”
On March 25th, 2013, one day before the game’s public launch, major reviews ran in several publications. Evan Narcisse, at Kotaku. Kevin Van Ord, at Gamespot. Tom Francis, at PCGamer. Arthur Gies, at Polygon. Joe Juba, at GameInformer. As a general rule, these reviews were positive, although Juba criticized the game’s underutilization of the Songbird, and Gies remarked that the game’s political ambitions seemed unmet by the game’s execution:
By the end of BioShock Infinite my understanding of its world had been blown so wide-open that it was all I could do to navigate the final twenty minutes in stunned silence, which followed me through the credits and for the rest of the night.
Also on the 25th, Yannick LeJacq at Kill Screen spoke to Levine about the upcoming launch and the pressures of game development. Among more specific questions about the game’s development, LeJacq asked Levine if the game had been influenced by recent American political movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. “Remember, we created Vox Populi—the characters in the game—before Occupy Wall Street, and the Founders before the Tea Party. And the reason that is is not because we saw the future, but because we were students of the past. Occupy Wall Street is nothing new.” said Levine at the time.
On the date of the game’s launch, on March 26, 2013, more praising reviews were released, at GamePlanet by James Cullinane, and at The Guardian by Nick Cowen. Cullinane praised the game for “demonstrating the true power of the medium to inspire us,” and Cowen noted that “Bioshock Infinite has an unshakable claim to be challenging what we think games are capable of.”
The first notable negative review was also released on the 26th, at The Gameological Society, by author John Teti. Teti wrote of the game’s dissonance in themes and narrative, and of the frustrating moments when the game runs up against its own systems:
Whatever the merits of its component parts, BioShock Infinite has a larger problem of coherence. The game takes a preexisting structure, with surprisingly little modification, and grafts a new set of ideas onto it. The surgery is expert, but the seams still show.
On the 30th of March, 2013, a thematic analysis of Infinite was posted on the Peri Psuche blog, which included criticisms of the game’s clumsy handling of the Vox Populi but praised the game’s treatment of Booker & Comstock as competing versions of the American ideal. On the same day, Tom Bramwell at Eurogamer compared Infinite’s Hall Of Heroes to the original Bioshock’s Fort Frolic.
2. The False Shepherd: Discussions of Bioshock: Infinite throughout 2013
The dawn of April, five days after the launch of the Infinite, would mark the beginning of a critical backswing that came to define the game’s place in critical gaming history. An anonymous tumblr post by starburp scathingly criticized the game’s lack of historical context in its usage of racism and black characters, crucially through the game’s portrayal of the Vox Populi:
but none of the history “lesson” in bioshock infinite teaches about the intense civil rights struggle black people were already embroiled in in the early 20th century, the sugar spot where booker t. washington, w.e.b. dubois, and marcus garvey converged, the organizations formed that were dedicated to our struggle, the movements in art, literature, music, and dance that were in their nascency, the enlisted soldiers who were rebelling, the every day people who were screaming ENOUGH.
On the game’s agency (or lack of it) for various characters, tumblr user flutiebear wrote about how Elizabeth’s choices ultimately are undermined by the game’s sense of destined outcomes, to the service of Booker’s personal journey. Alex Raymond at While !Finished echoed these thoughts, and further criticized the game’s use of parallel/infinite universes for not properly logically situating them.
Cameron Kunzelman, on his personal blog, wrote in early April about how the game expertly integrated Elizabeth into the narrative, and how the game exemplified growth from its predecessors in the Bioshock canon, while criticizing its politics, for not being “interested in change. Rather, they’re interested in mixing things up to prove something that’s taken as a law of the Leviniverse: power, when gathered, is abused.”
Austin Walker responds to Cameron Kunzelman’s piece (cited above) regarding the role of player agency in Infinite, in the wake of the original Bioshock games, and expounds on what that player agency could mean in the future for games “post-Infinite”. Relatedly, Chris Kohler at WIRED led a three-way discussion with Jensen Toperzer and John Mix Meyer largely about the nature of choice in Infinite.
Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed News criticized Infinite for being a first person shooter, and relegating its exploration of Columbia to a few moments at the beginning of the game. This discussion, and the related conversations regarding the game’s use of violence, continued on throughout the month. Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku wrote two pieces about the game’s violence, and Chris Plante at Polygon lamented how it could turn away potential players.
At TechReport, Cyril Kowalski wrote about the game’s monotonous gameplay, saying that he “loved everything about Bioshock Infinite. Except for the gameplay.” In contrast, Kieron Gillen at RockPaperShotgun applauded the game’s play, comparing it to the original Bioshock’s anger at traditional videogame design.
Daniel Joseph wrote about how the game’s chief flaw was in its undying belief that “power corrupts all”, and lacked a coherent moral design due to this:
And that, I think, is why the moralizing of BioShock: Infinite is limiting. It sets you up for Tough Questions but we get the same line we have been fed ever since the Washington Consensus became a thing on the world stage: power corrupts; armed struggle is always wrong; radical change results in horror; things as they are are preferable to things as they could be, because as they could be is always worse.
Darius Kazemi wrote about how the game relates to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, both being works influenced by the early 1900s, and relating to the topic of bifurcated identities. Andreas Ahlborn at Gamasutra related it to a musical contrapuntal composition.
Reid McCarter, at Digital Love Child, wrote of how the game uses baptism as a central theme to underscore a message of Booker being a foil for the guilt of American expansionism, unable to be released. SnakeLinkSonic wrote about how they were disappointed with Infinite’s narrative and use of Elizabeth, along with feeling like the game did not respect them as a player.
Claire Hosking wrote about the game’s uneven portrayals of racism and sexism, as well as the game’s overall worldview on power and privilege:
Daisy shouldn’t have to be the one who fights this fight, after a lifetime of oppression already. Why should she have to do *more* work? Booker should die to avoid being a racist arsehole and oppressing people in the first place. The responsibility of the privileged to make right is a hot topic right now, but the game barely puts any emphasis on this aspect at all, when it has a perfect set up for it!
Austin Walker continued his series (part one cited above) on Infinite with a piece interrogating the game’s views on nostalgia. Video critic Chris Franklin made a critical video about the game’s lacking combat, and overall criticisms of the game’s story arc (transcript here).
As April continued, further writers drilled into the game’s disconnects and identified greater critiques. Thomas Grip, designer with Frictional Games, wrote about Infinite’s ludonarrative failings, calling the game a “wasted opportunity”. Michael Abbott at BrainyGamer wrote about the game’s frustrating disconnect between ludic and narrative goals.
But as valiantly as it tries to explore social-political issues, Infinite is tethered to its mechanical nature as a shooter in ways that undermine its aspirations. It’s possible to love the game for all it tries to do, but still feel smothered by its insistence that so much of our experience is delivered staring down the barrel of a gun or other deadly weapons. The issue isn’t about being pro- or anti- shooter games; it’s about how standard FPS design limits the narrative possibilities of a game that clearly aspires to dig deep.
Kevin Wong, in a featured Gamasutra blog, looked at Infinite as a “metacommentary on game narrative”, and argued that the game’s usage of games, choice, and illusion was meant to comment on video games’ use of choice as a medium. Todd Harper also wrote about choice and lack of it, specifically in the ways that the game comments on violence as a choice. Erik Kain compared the availability of choice in Infinite to that of another recent release, Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall.
Luke Maciak, at Terminally Incoherent, wrote the first of three pieces about Infinite, the first specifically about the game’s use of art direction and visual storytelling. on April 10. He followed up on April 15 with a piece looking at Elizabeth specifically.
Austin Walker’s third piece in his triad of Infinite critical writings dove into the role of Elizabeth in the game, and how her presence is for the player’s benefit more than Booker’s.
Leigh Alexander’s essay “‘Now Is The Best Time’: A Critique of Bioshock Infinite” was republished (with permission) to Kotaku on April 11, and is remembered as one of the first hard criticisms of Infinite on a mainstream games website. Her essay covered the game’s use of violence, its commentaries on racism and power, the role of Elizabeth, and the position of Infinite in the Bioshock canon, among other topics:
The spectre of Lady Comstock has loomed over us for this entire game, in legend and in portraiture, but we have no intimacy with her cartoonish corpse before we are literally chasing a spectre. This is not a game about American exceptionalism and the choice between obedient prison and chaotic freedom. This is a game where you have to chase a ghost among parallel realities. This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.
Also at Kotaku, Patricia Hernandez wrote about how Elizabeth was allowed to be human in ways that the player was mechanically not; and Jordan Ekeroth wrote how Infinite was the “most deeply Christian game [he’d] played in recent memory.” Ben Meakin at Gamer Theories looked at the ways in which Infinite felt like an auteur work, in a tradition of auteur Bioshocks.
On April 19, Tim Rogers released his review of Bioshock Infinite, in the form of a three-hour long Youtube live-read or a sprawling, thirteen part review on Action Button (available through archive). His bottom line on the game was that it was “The best game of all-time, and the worst game of all-time, inserted into opposite ends of a transdimensional nuclear supercollider.”
Non-gaming websites also took note of Infinite in mid-April. Phil Hartup at the New Statesman viewed Infinite’s success as a damning indictment of the gaming world’s idea of an “epic,” calling it “the world’s most successfully polished turd.” Paul Meekin at Hollywood Chicago writes about how the game’s drive to be cinematic is damaged by its desire to remain violent.
At PopMatters, Nick DiNicola interrogated the ways in which Booker’s narrative is given short shrift in comparison to the story of Columbia as a whole, and how is conflict with Comstock is weakened due to this lack of characterization & specificity.
On April 28, Jason McIntosh compared the environmental design in Valve’s Portal 2 and Bioshock: Infinite, comparing the way that the world designs intermesh with each game’s verbset and actions available to the player.
Alan Williamson, at Split Screen, wrote about how Elizabeth’s AI design failed her character building.
I expected Elizabeth to help me in these fights: to open tears of her own accord, to shoot lightning out of her fingertips or something. Through the course of the game, she shows no hesitation to use violence – except when we’re meant to be shooting instead of watching the story unfold, and she ducks behind a crate. You won’t even remember she’s there until you run out of bullets and she throws over a rifle. But that’s no more intelligent than a game highlighting your ammunition counter in red when you reach your last magazine.
Also on Elizabeth’s role as a tool, Nicole Marie at NYMG wrote about how Elizabeth’s AI being lauded for its unobtrusiveness also lent to her fading into the background both textually and mechanically. Later in the year, Justin Freeman at Ontological Geek would write about the same frustrations with Elizabeth’s lack of character (and thus lack of emotional impact) in comparison with Ico.
Michael Lutz compared the tragedy in Infinite to the tragedy in King Lear, and looks at the game’s use of doom and tragedy and the role of the Lutece twins in being the plot’s primary actors. On a similar topic, Maddy Myers at Paste Magazine wrote about how playing Infinite compared to her experiences living through the 2013 Boston marathon bombing, and how the game uses fate and destiny to underscore its message.
Drew Byrd looked at the use of choice and player narrative freedom in Infinite in comparison to two other games, Mass Effect 3 and Deadly Premonition, and interrogated the role of interactivity in the medium as a whole.
Francisco Dominguez, at Haywire Magazine, examined the ways in which Booker is denied videogame humanity whereas Elizabeth is allowed it, in a limited manner:
There can be more to systems than gear and loot, gunfire and magic. Elizabeth understands this, why doesn’t Booker? He shows he can be more than the efficient soldier and dutiful debtor during one optional aside. While exploring a cellar, Elizabeth spots a guitar and says “Wish I knew how to play… might dispel some of the gloom.” A chord strums. Well, what do you know? Booker can play! Elizabeth accompanies a sweet but short take of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, piercing the foreboding menace with melody and handing an apple to a terrified child like a socially conscious Disney princess.
Robert Yang examined Infinite’s use of a “use key” and the history of it in games, specifically how it relates to the game’s level and story design, and how it constrains moments of emotional climax by only being able to relate to them through the same tools it uses to root through trash for health items.
Soha El-Sabaawi, at re/Action, wrote about her history with games and why Daisy Fitzroy felt like such a betrayal of her hopes for the game.
I was crestfallen and ashamed, but mostly I was angry. I could not believe how poorly oppression and racism was handled simply to advance the stories of a white man and woman. Daisy and the Vox had been robbed of their voices to shout for their rights and freedoms. I found myself wondering, “Did the writing team even consider how offensive this is to black people?” And I decided that the only solution to properly represent stories of colour is to have people of colour write them.
As 2013 found its close, two important pieces regarding the critical response to Infinite were posted.
The first, on October 9th, was a second review of Bioshock Infinite posted to Gamespot, by Tom McShea. McShea, in contrast to Kevin Van Ord’s first review on the site, criticized the game for its lack of attention to the segregationist world it set up, and lambasted it for being a “mindless shooter buoyed only by its stunning artistic design.” Van Ord had scored the game a 9/10, McShea gave it 4/10.
The second, on October 16th, was Tevis Thompson’s “On Videogame Reviews”, a piece which attempted to contextualize and explain the variance in critical response to Infinite. Broken into 15 sections each roughly summarizing one angle of critical discourse, Thompson attempts to both chronologically and topically tackle why the game’s critical response looked so fragmented when looked at in aggregate, as well as to look at it as a case study for game review differences.
Reviews are not about finding agreement. They are not based on commonly held values. As if anyone is sure just what makes a videogame great. It’s all contested ground. It’s our values as gamers that are exactly at stake in reviews. We shouldn’t be asking whether BioShock Infinite deserves a 9 or a 10. We should be asking whether it deserves a 2 or a 10. That’s a real debate.
3. Lives, lived, will live: Discussions of Bioshock: Infinite after 2013
Discussion about Infinite slowed after 2013, but a few notable articles were still published in the years after release.
But the more I tried to wrap my head around it, the less impressive it became. It is still impressive, and still really solidly written, but as my the honeymoon period with the game passed, I started to realize a lot of the magic was just smoke, mirror and sleight of hand. The depth I felt when I was blindsided by the ending and at my desk slack-jawed, dazed and confused, simply wasn’t there. Complicated doesn’t always mean deep. Conversely, lack of great depth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It definitely didn’t make the game any less fun, or any less impressive. But, it didn’t really give me much to write about.
In February of 2014, Stephen Beirne compared Infinite to Spec Ops: The Line, and how each game plays with expected behavior and rules. Maddy Myers at Paste Magazine looked at a fan-made porn parody of Bioshock Infinite and how it comparatively allowed Elizabeth more agency than the game it was parodying.
At Ontological Geek, Albert Hwang interrogated the game’s use of baptism, especially in relation to Booker’s past as a participant in the massacre at Wounded Knee, what that says about the game’s bifurcated timelines, and what it says about Booker’s forgiveness (or lack thereof) as a player avatar for the horrors of American past.
Ashley Schwieger at Damsels Out Of Distress wrote about Elizabeth’s role in the game, as well as looked at portrayals of women in the game as a whole.
In 2015, Alexandra Orlando at First Person Scholar picked apart the game’s use of player motivation and character motivation, and the ways in which they conflicted and cooperated with one another, citing Clint Hocking’s “ludonarrative dissonance” as a starting point. She concludes with the note that “I hope that in the future, games will include engaging, socially responsible narratives that complement exciting gameplay.”
Brendan Vance, in March of 2015, wrote “The Ghosts of Bioshock”, interrogating the ways that Infinite used artifice, American nationalism, and Manifest Destiny in its narrative, specifically looking at Booker’s symbolic nature as an avatar of American expansionist genocide. Vance ties together history (American and global) with the game’s attempts to tell a grand story of American identity.
In the world of Infinite it is not the Sioux who rise into the air at the moment of Wovoka’s great flood, but instead Comstock and his followers taking to their flying city. Nor is it the gods of Chinese folklore who descend upon Beijing to wipe out the Christians and foreigners; it is instead Comstock’s soldiers, the ghosts of his beloved frontier, who descend menacingly upon the Boxers. In these ways Comstock declares himself to be both the messiah of whom Wovoka spoke and also the gods whom the Boxers sought to summon; in the true fashion of Columbia, he appropriates these events to create a revised history in which his tortured dreams come to pass.
At Ontological Geek, Riley MacLeod compared Infinite to psychological understandings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and looked at the ways in which Booker’s baptism was symbolic of a ritual of forgiveness, and the construction of Columbia a therapeutic exercise for Comstock.
Amsel von Spreckelsen looked at Infinite through the lenses of abuse, incestuous sexual desire, and temperance, specifically through the writings of Marquis de Sade and Karen Sanchez-Eppler. Kanane Jones also wrote about Infinite and abuse, but through a more personal focus, detailing their experiences playing the game and recovering from an abusive relationship. (Both pieces here include heavy content warnings at their start)
In 2016, Robert Rath at ZAM wrote about Infinite succeeding at a commentary on religious racism. Shortly after, Cameron Kunzelman also wrote at ZAM in the wake of Bioshock: The Collection (a combination re-release including all Bioshock games) about the renewed fervor of Bioshock Infinite criticism, citing many of the pieces I have mentioned above:
When “hot takes” on BioShock: The Collection started to appear, lots of them reiterating criticism that I had seen years ago on original release, I also saw a parallel event. Quite a few people were tweeted into my timeline with a variation on this sentiment: “no one criticized Infinite when it was originally released!” It’s the kind of statement that feels very close to this one: “these hipsters hate everything now!” It’s a rhetorical position wholly centered on reaction, but it’s very powerful. It makes it seem like the critics are appearing from nowhere, and that their position is ridiculous in its novelty. It makes critique seem like it is nothing more than a positioning to make the critic seem cool.
In September of 2017, Bullet Points ran a collection of four articles criticizing Infinite from multiple angles. Reid McCarter wrote about the game’s confused sense of meaning, and how Booker’s drowning contributes to this vacillation of purpose. Ed Smith wrote of Columbia’s nature as a beautiful, but tragic, place; caught within its own contradictions. Yussef Cole wrote about the game’s racist equivocations, and compared it to recently announced HBO series, Confederate. Astrid B reflected on each of the other pieces published, and summarized a number of popular criticisms of the game as a whole, ending frustrated with “the game’s utterly wasted potential.”
And lastly, in January of 2018, Ana Marie Cox wrote at Polygon of the experience of playing Bioshock Infinite during the Trump administration, and how the game’s auto-leveling mechanics tell a different story than the one the narrative posits.
The real message of the game resonates with the Trump era in a different way than the creators ever could have intended: All the suffering before you is just a stage for your own self-actualization. Institutionalized bigotry is a plot device and not something to overthrow.
Do you have an article you feel merits inclusion in this compilation? Drop us a line and let us know!
Alan Williamson, Riley MacLeod, and Cameron Kunzelman have previously contributed to Critical Distance. Cameron Kunzelman’s Bioshock Infinite reader also deserves special acknowledgment for helping form the backbone of this compilation.