BioShock Infinite’s Ambitiously Flawed Perfection

Games are still in a place where you can say, “Oh, a sneaker! Cool.”

Ken Levine


That was my whispered, slack-jawed reaction to the final 30 minutes of BioShock Infinite, arguably the most compelling video game experience I’ve ever had, going all the way back to my days of stealing copies of USA Today from sidewalk boxes to sell them for quarters I’d pour into games of Space Invaders, Asteroids, Donkey Kong, etc. Back then, it was pure adrenalin, with no thought to immersive storyworlds, ludonarrative dissonance, or any of the other crazy shit that goes with gaming nowadays.

BioShock Infinite Blew My Mind

BioShock Infinite is not a “perfect” game by any stretch of the definition, and since finishing it last week, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading everything I can find about it, including some of the more measured, less-than-fawning reviews that haven’t been afraid to point out its flaws while still acknowledging it’s a game worth playing.

To borrow a phrase from Grace Jones—it might not be perfect, but it’s perfect for me.

What follows isn’t really a review of the game, as much as an untangling of some of my thoughts about the overall experience. I’m going to avoid any outright spoilers, but if you haven’t finished it yet and you’re the least bit sensitive about that sort of thing (and assuming you didn’t just end up here via Google), bookmark this post and come back after you’re finished because more than any game I’ve ever played, I want to talk about it with people.

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?

As the credits rolled at the end of the game, I eyeballed the various departments listed, impressed at the massive undertaking, and noted the relatively small marketing team with a bit of surprise. More than anything, the main reason I was able to get to that point was the strength of an impressive marketing campaign that not only sold me on the game itself, but on the BioShock brand overall.

By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists — that’s for the fans. For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for.

Ken Levine

From my not-quite-casual, not-quite-hardcore gamer’s perspective—and especially as someone who isn’t a fan of first-person-shooters—the marketing for BioShock Infinite was absolutely stellar, and I ended up reserving my copy a couple of weeks ahead of its release, convinced it was going to be something special and live up to its hype. I even bought the Season Pass on the first day, partly for the day one bonuses, but mainly because, at that point, I was all in.

Rumors claim the game cost more than $200 million to produce and market, with approximately half of that dedicated to marketing, and while obliquely denied, it’s undeniable that a lot of thought, effort, and money was put behind its launch, and I suspect the final tally for the game will suggest that whatever the amount was, it was well spent.

Even the “no duh” release of the “Ultimate Rapture” edition combining Infinite’s predecessors was smart, because while the original BioShock is widely considered one of the greatest video games ever, not everyone has played it. I was one of those people, finally buying an Xbox 360 over the most recent Christmas holiday (sorry, Wii U, but my kids have grown up and my wife’s not interested anymore), and the more I learned about BioShock, the more I was sucked into its Levine’s world, so I bought it and started playing it ahead of Infinite’s release, and was completely and totally hooked.

From the various teaser videos that only hinted at what was to come—including as immersive a soundtrack as any movie has ever had—to creative director Ken Levine’s various media-savvy interviews, its underlying promise was clear: you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The “Beast of America” trailer does what Hollywood dreams of, giving a compelling taste of the story and action, but leaving out so many details that by the time you get to the end of the game, you’ve been taken on a journey that far exceeds what you thought was promised. Even if you don’t want to play it, you want to know what it’s about and how it ends. Plus, I had that song stuck in my head for weeks, until it was ultimately replaced by the one that’s haunted me for days since I finished, even now savoring the entire experience like an especially satisfying meal accompanied by good whiskey and provocative conversation.

Is a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

You might guess the “ending” of the story, but I wholeheartedly believe the whole of BioShock Infinite is an experience that fully embodies the old cliche: It’s about the journey, not the destination. As a result, I’d also argue that, unless you’re looking for a mindless shooter (in which case, you’ve not been paying attention), it’s actually difficult to “spoil” the ending.

I would rather try something and not hit it 1,000 percent than do what the other guy is doing and hit it on the mark… as the president of Irrational, I think that’s probably easier for me to say, because I’m the one who decides what stays and what gets thrown away. But I certainly throw away my own stuff with abandon. If it’s not right, it goes. It’s not without cost, but I find that the people who are the most experienced at Irrational tend to be the most comfortable with throwing stuff away.

Ken Levine

In my years of blogging about comics and other nerd obsessions (yes, I include publishing in that group), I’m pretty sure I’ve never used the phrase “nerd crush.” In fact, I kind of loathe it and its many variations, and yet, I’m going to use it here: I officially have a total nerd crush on Ken Levine.

I haven’t been this taken by anyone’s creative ambition since my pre-Internet discoveries of Stephen King and Ian Fleming, when I scoured the library for everything I could learn about them. I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the many interviews I’ve read with him, particularly those that have delved into his creative process, but especially by the singular experience he’s delivered in BioShock Infinite.

In a lot of ways, the flaws in the game make it even more compelling, as they demonstrate where Levine and his team pushed against the constraints of the first person shooter framework to deliver something more compelling, more accessible, and ultimately, more personal.

If you take the time to engage with the story rather than just barreling through to the end, guns and vigors blazing, and actually explore Columbia’s nooks and crannies, seek out as many of the voxophones as you can find (I dug up an extremely satisfying 73 of the 80), and pause now and then to note how your companion interacts with the world around you, the conclusion of the journey will be most rewarding.

And even then, you’ll likely find yourself realizing there was plenty that you missed; that some of those sneakers weren’t just there because they were cool, and there’s additional layers to uncover.

Scenes you didn’t fully grasp, or music you missed.

A different strategy with weapons and vigors you want to try out.

Sections of Columbia’s Sky-Line you didn’t fully leverage.

You might even find yourself compelled to dig deeper, inside (DLC? Yes, please!) and outside of the game, tweeting about it like crazy and realizing there are other gamers like you in your circles. Writing long-ass blog posts because it’s all so heavy on your mind, like a lingering dream you don’t want to end yet, that you can’t even begin to think about playing anything else.

Or, maybe that’s just me?

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