Easter in Columbia

It seems like I’ve been talking about work a lot lately, but, honestly, it’s what I’m doing a lot of these days, which is good. This is my “working weekend”, where I only have a few short shifts at GameStop, which lets me catch a breath.

But other things have been happening, too. Yesterday we headed up to the Rix place for Easter “dinner”, (though it was early afternoon, to accommodate my work schedule) ham, duck, rabbit, potatoes, and salad, followed by one of Buff’s famous cake creations, shaped like a bunny. All in all, a fantastic meal, and I appreciate the ability to be there even on a day when I have a night shift. A mostly superfluous shift, since even in Eagle River, not that many people are buying booze late on Easter night.

Normally, I am not one to gush openly about things, especially video games, despite (or maybe because of) my job at GameStop. I’ve seen, owned, rented, and played many in my time, and they’re fun little diversions. I say this now, so when the rest of this entry devolves into a lengthy glowing description of the newly released BioShock Infinite, you know it comes from somewhere sincere, and that this is kind of an unusual reaction from me for a XBox game.

I don’t like “first-person shooters” on the whole. Call me a pansy, but running around shooting aggressive enemies while the rear-end of a gun takes up a quarter of the screen just doesn’t appeal to me as much as it does to the rest of my demographic. But 2007’s BioShock was different. Focused more on exploring a unique setting, in this case the Ayn Randian dream-turned-nightmare of the underwater city of Rapture, than downing waves of bad guys, it was a “thinking man’s shooter”. Sure, at the end of the day, you were still clearing rooms with a weapon of some sort, but your digital left hand got something to do in the form of “plasmids”, spliced-in genes that meant you could generate fireballs, electric shocks, and so forth. That added another layer to the gameplay, and made things a little more interesting.

Also, the ratio of poking around the level to “OH NO, things that hate me!” was higher than in most games of the genre, so you had time to learn something of this place, rather than fend off endless hordes. I wasn’t exactly in love with the game; it focused a little too much on it’s gory horror aspects for my taste, and there were a few “jump out of the closet” scares that I didn’t care for. The game was a certified hit, though, both with the critics and the average joes. (and yes, video games work much like movies, in that “critics” and “audiences” have different expectations) A few years later, BioShock 2 was pretty much just a rehash of the same thing. Fun to play, but I’m glad I just rented it.

Now, though, BioShock Infinite completely changes the game, so to speak. Everything but the core combat gameplay (superpowers in left hand, gun in right hand) is different. The setting is now the turn of the 20th century, rather than the 1960’s, the city is Columbia, a floating monument to American ideals at the time. The playable character is no longer a generic silent protagonist, but a fleshed out person with motivation, history, a personality, and emotions. Booker DeWitt is a down-on-his-luck private investigator, a former Pinkerton, tasked with rescuing a mysterious teenage girl, Elizabeth, from Columbia and bringing her to New York. So, in that sense, the plot is your standard “rescue the princess” affair. But then it does so much more than that. Elizabeth is presumably valuable to Booker’s employers because she has the ability to open “tears” in the fabric of reality (see, it gets weird) and interact with parallel universes. The mystery of the game is how she came by this ability, and the answer almost completely blind-sided me.

In gaming, few objectives are as loathed as the “escort quest”, having to protect a friendly, usually defenseless, computer-controlled character as well as yourself from the game’s enemies. And in the early going it looked like BioShock Infinite was going to be one long escort quest. But, Elizabeth is smart enough to stay out of the way when trouble starts and actually helps you in a couple ground-breaking ways. She can use her ability to open up other realities to bring in supplies, cover, or allies, and will find the health, ammo, money, or salts (which are what “powers” your “vigors” which work similarly to the “plasmids” of the original game) in the area. She has the uncanny ability to offer you one of these supplies right when you need it most. It is a fantastic feeling when you are facing down a group of bad guys, low on ammo, when out of nowhere Elizabeth cries “Booker! Catch!” and tosses you a new gun.

The combat gameplay is all well and good, but for my money, it’s the story that I’m interested in. For a purported FPS, a lot of the game is still finding your way around, and discovering the politics and behind-the-scenes drama of the idyllic-appearing Columbia. The characters of Booker, the bitter cynic and Elizabeth, the naive optimist play off each other very well, and Elizabeth in particular is one of the best-written companion characters I have ever seen. There’s even a point early on, when you get into your first combat since finding her, where she reacts by fleeing the scene, as any sane person would do. When you find her again, she calls Booker a “monster” and calls him (and by extension, the player) out on the wanton destruction she just witnessed. It’s that kind of game, where it gives you a fun toolbox for violence, but then brings to your attention that you shouldn’t really be enjoying that.

BioShock Infinite is still very much a “thinking-man’s shooter”. It gives you the action you expect, and a fascinating place to explore, but also has points to make about patriotism, racism, classism, and fundamentalism. The eventual reality-jumping that ensues leads to an incredibly deep finale I was thinking about long after I’d turned off the XBox.

I just want to thank the developers, Irrational Games, for making my job at GameStop that much easier. I have never had a game that was this easy for me to sell.

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