Bioshock Infinite could well have captured lightning in a bottle, so far as storytelling in games goes. From the ominous opening scene, capturing an atmosphere reminiscent of classic-era Stephen King, you know you are in for a treat, and from the moment you get the first glimpse of Columbia, you are well and truly hooked.
Ken Levine and Drew Holmes, responsible for the bulk of the story, have set a narrative benchmark that every game developer must surpass. Many will fail.
The world of Columbia (no doubt influenced, and not just in name, by the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893), is beautifully realised. Columbia is not a dead city like Bioshock 1 & 2’s Rapture, but a living, breathing city in the clouds, full of civilians indulging their every whim, as that ominous undercurrent slowly begins to surface, and when it does, prepare to be challenged on every level of your conscience.
For any story to work, it must acknowledge and address the facts of its chosen era, for better or for worse, and this is no more obvious than Bioshock Infinite’s handling of racism. Many storytellers ignore it; others confront it in a self-proving way that is equally laughable as it is offensive, but in Columbia, it just is. Make no mistake, it will disturb you - that is the emotional impact of a story that respects its inspiration.
I have never been a fan of the silent FPS protagonist; they always come across as ignorant and antisocial. Thankfully Bioshock Infinite’s hero, ex-Pinkerton agent-cum-alcoholic gambler Booker DeWitt, is very vocal about his feelings, and this allows a real connection to the character. Accompanying the player is Elizabeth, the Rapunzel-in-a-tower that is the motivation for Booker’s presence in Columbia. Elizabeth is a charming young lady, as well as a genuine asset to gameplay - (A helpful AI partner, another first that the team at Irrational Games should be proud of). According to Ken Levine, Elizabeth evolved from a naive childlike character with a rapidly annoying needy personality in early builds of the game. It takes a lot to take something back to the drawing board after investing so much time into it, but Elizabeth is proof that sometimes you need to let go and start over.
The real beauty of Bioshock Infinite’s story is that every decision present in the final game seems natural, nothing feels contrived. The world of Columbia is so believable and, just like Rapture, so representative of the ideologies of their respective era’s, that you never question the feasibility of the technology behind it. In fact, it encourages you to go and explore the facts and influences behind the
setting, making you realise that the floating utopia of Columbia is more
grounded in reality that you think.
Furthermore, the story understands its purpose. Like every game, the story should support the gameplay, not suffocate it, and Infinite pull this off perfectly. Exposition is not intrusive, meaning the player never feels like their interaction is significantly interrupted.
That is the lightning bolt that surely puts both Bioshock Infinite and its creator, Ken Levine, up there with the greatest.