Strip an excellent first-person shooter video game down to its core and you find two components: great gameplay and a well-told story. In BioShock Infinite, the mind of its creative director, Ken Levine, has created a twisted, disturbing and morally challenging narrative overlaid on to impressive animated graphics and games engine.
Levine’s world is the racially segregated Columbia: a 1912 airborne city state that has recently seceded from the US. To further complicate the mash-up of historical references, Columbia is a theocracy ruled by the all-powerful Father Comstock.
As well as the usual scenarios testing your fine motor skills, Infinite sets a series of moral dilemmas – challenges so gruesome I fear they may put me once again in a real-world conflict with the chairman of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who takes a less benign view of video games than me.
While Vaz usually uses the Call of Duty series to promote his strongly held views about the portrayal of violence in games, this is perhaps only because he has never heard of the BioShock series, with its repulsive graphics for an accurate head shot and the ability to kill unarmed acolytes in a place of worship. Early in the game, you win a raffle and are asked to throw the first baseball at a manacled interracial couple, on stage for a public stoning. Do you hurl the missile as requested, or break the laws of Columbia and hope you can escape by throwing the ball at the compère instead?
Being a socialist, and wedded to the principles of fairness and equality, I chose to break the laws of Columbia and quickly ended up in a melee requiring me to slay numerous police officers.
The fight was too frenetic to spend time pondering the game’s ethics and contrasting them to real-world principles. I quickly rationalised the act as the first combat in an adventure that would emancipate the people of Columbia from their evil overlord, Comstock.
Infinite’s protagonist is Booker De Witt, a world-weary bad debtor with the kind of physiology that gets you hired to save heroines from locked towers. Which is just as well, because this is the first task he faces. You are to rescue Elizabeth, a young woman who can tear holes in the space-time continuum, allowing you to grab weaponry and supplies from other dimensions, which come in handy when the two are escaping from Father Comstock.
Returning Elizabeth to the unnamed people in New York who are going to pay off De Witt’s debts is your stated goal. But Elizabeth, liberated from her gilded cage, has different ideas. She wants to go to Paris. And she doesn’t like De Witt racking up the body count – another one of Levine’s tiny moral challenges to the gamer.
As the adventure unfolds, De Witt develops his powers, from telekinesis to firebombs and electricity blasts. A minor irritation is the inability to carry more than two weapons at a time, which is particularly frustrating when you wish to use sniper fire. The design team seems to have simplified the character inventory from earlier versions of the game, perhaps anticipating a wider audience of less fanatical gamers. Experienced players will also find the “normal” difficulty setting a little tame.
Whatever the tiny defects, there is little doubt that BioShock Infinite will count sales in the millions. The attention to detail from the animation director, Shaun Robertson, and his team should win awards – just take Elizabeth from her Irish jig on the beach and let her explore, and you’ll see her independently execute animated routines. It must have taken hundreds of hours of artist time to achieve this tiny piece of colour.
I don’t think I have ever played a video game that has confronted racism in such an upfront manner as BioShock. There are segregated toilets, exploited black workers and prejudice. Will this portrayal serve to challenge the less informed gamer about the dangers of apartheid? My hunch is that many will just see it as another shoot ’em up with an interesting backdrop as a storyline. It fails as a breakthrough polemical first-person shooter because the plot doesn’t adequately integrate with the gameplay.
That said, beyond the moral dilemmas, BioShock Infinite is an impressive game. It has a powerful storyline that will leave it lingering in the memory of gamers when lesser attempts have long been forgotten.
Tom Watson is the Labour MP for West Bromwich East