4 Hours With BioShock Infinite, Part 1: Columbia

By Alec Meer on December 14th, 2012 at 5:00 pm.

Earlier this week, I played around four hours of BioShock: Infinite, which is due for release next March. While this was at a publisher-held event (disclaimer – I ate some free salt and vinegar flavoured Hula Hoops and a small bowl of Moroccan tagine. Alas, I hate aubergine) and I was part of a gaggle of journalists, I was not guided or observed during my playthrough, so I approached it at my own leisure and pack-rat pace.

It has given me much to think upon, a few examples of which I shall share with you below. I will avoid all spoilers as regards to the events of the plot, but please be advised that I do talk in detail about the setting, its population and its backstory as presented by these initial hours of the game.

1. Before we begin proper, let us talk of matters technical. I was playing on PC, with a keyboard and mouse, and found little to complain of even if this could not be said to be the highest tech of games. The colourfulness, stylisation and setting made it a very pleasant sight for jaded eyes nonetheless, and there’s a density of small details that will likely make many developers deeply envious. Immediately rummaging through the options menu, as is my wont, I spotted these alterable features:

  • Highlight important objects
  • Highlight searchable objects
  • Art subtitles
  • Adjust visual margins
  • Enemy health bars
  • FOV
  • Unlock framerate

So we shouldn’t be hinted at and gleamed at too much if we don’t want to, and it won’t feel like looking through a Big Daddy’s helmet on our big monitors.

2. The first few minutes of the game are almost a shot-for-shot recreation of BioShock 1’s atmospheric and unsettling intro, though where that started in fire, disaster and menace this begins with a peaceful boat ride in the company of two posh strangers who barely acknowledge protagonist Booker DeWitt, a tranquil lighthouse and, playing inside it, a calming old-fashioned hymn. Where the statue of Andrew Ryan demanded we cower, here we’re met with a bowl of water and a hand-stitched sign asking that Booker wash himself of his sins. “Good luck with that, pal” he mutters cynically to himself as he douses his face (which is optional, making for an interesting test of one’s attitude to this world).

It’s not all peace and light, however, for Booker is clearly on his mission under some duress. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt! This is your last chance!” reads a letter in the box he carries with him on the boat – very similar to the case held by Jack in BioShock 1 – and soon he finds other, rather more distressing messages in a similar vein.

The Bioshock 1 beats continue as Booker makes his way to a sort of inverse Bathysphere which fires him into the skies – and to the airborne city of Columbia. ‘ASCENSION’ chants an electronic voice, then… ‘HALLELUJAH.’ An appropriate word for the resultant heavenly vision of this city in the clouds. The iconic guided tour of underwater Rapture is recreated with the floating, sprawling settlement known as Columbia, an enormous zeppelin taking the place of the blue whale which greeted Jack’s eyes. The sense of familiarity is eerie, even though everything here is different in ways both big and small. This new game seems to be setting out its Bioshock stall immediately and overtly, and perhaps offering an early hint of what that ‘Infinite’ really means.

But where Jack’s first encounter with the living in Bioshock quickly required him to make the Splicer not-living, in this instance Booker is soon met by a friendly blond chap wearing some manner of vestment. The cathedral atmosphere is writ-ever larger as Booker then wanders through a sort of religious wonderland of candles and water-soaked aisles, eventually reaching a reverent congegration and its priest, who chummily but forcefully demands he is baptised before he can enter the city proper. Not for the last time in my three or so hours with the game, Booker’s submersion appears to almost cost him his life. Water seems to play an important part in Infinite, even though the series has relocated from the sea to the sky. Something to think about there, perhaps.

Booker comes to in a black and white vision of his office, angry men hammering at the door and demanding he bring them the girl. When he opens his office door and exits from this apparent dream/nightmare/flashback/who knows, he’s back at the baptism site, but the priest has now let him past. So he’s finally met with Columbia in all its almost overwhelmingly colourful glory.

3. Ah, Columbia. While it doesn’t have the immediacy and strangeness of Rapture – I think, perhaps, experienced gamers have been up in the clouds many more times than they have on the ocean floor, so it’s a less destabilising sight – what it does have, and evocatively so, is life and colour. There are people everywhere, and the game makes a point of quickly dropping us into a busy funfair, celebrating an important date in Columbia’s calendar. No weapons and no violence as yet, and there’s scope to spend a long time looking around the fair, looking at posters and watching performances, trying sideshows which disguise refreshingly optional combat tutorials and being introduced, non-lethally, to the technologies and magicks which will soon prove major parts of the action. There’s huge attention to visual detail, and most characters chummily greet Booker as he wanders past. The idea of shedding blood in a place this happy and peaceful is already disturbing. Though there may be unsettlingly exaggerated patriotism and puritanical righteousness on display, Tthere is innocence here. There are children here. It seems safe.

At the same time, there’s a slightly dreamlike air, a sense of something off-kilter – and it’s not merely that we’re floating in the skies. Certain characters keep reappearing, and some appear to know Booker even though he does not know them – or Columbia.

As well as this strange vibe of disassociation, signs and old-timey video machines reveal bits of the city’s back-story and how the state of affairs here may be darker than this happy funfair suggests. Religious fear, armed rebels, anger at the homeland and references to razing Peking all crop up on the periphery. Then there’s the issue of race, and what may likely prove to the biggest, loudest talking point around Bioshock Infinite.

4. I want to be very spoiler-averse here, as there’s a critical moment in these early, apparently peaceful moments of the game which proved a big shock, and one you should experience for yourself. But, beyond that, even if you haven’t noticed yourself that Columbia’s population, at least in this festival area, is entirely white, later in the game it openly discusses segregation. The few black people here work in menial jobs, are restricted to seperate, shoddier bathrooms, leave audio diaries discussing their poor treatment, and treat you with cowed, servile fear. Columbia might be a science-fictional city in the sky, but nonetheless this is still a tale of America’s dark history.

There is a secretive and illegal black rights movement here, but also demonstrating how little-desired equality is by Columbia’s white population is the open, hateful xenophobia towards the Chinese and the native Americans to be seen in a museum documenting the ‘heroic’ exploits of their leader, Father Comstock. We are told, often, that he is the very best of men, a saviour and a saint, but to any right-thinking person it is soon all too clear that he is a bastion of intolerance and oppression.

5. He is also known as Zachary Hale Comstock, the Hero Of The Battle Of Wounded Knee and The Prophet. He is Columbia’s Andrew Ryan, but a little more public and a little less mysterious, at least for now. His motivations are apparently religious rather than philosophical/societal, but he’s no less of a lionised authority figure. From his talk of faith and honesty has spawned insidious concepts of purity and sin, but this city appears to love – revere – him despite, or perhaps because of, this. Before too long, once Booker’s presence is made violently known, we get to meet Comstock more or less face to bushy-bearded face. Suffice to say he does not ooze kindness. Like so many others in Columbia, he seems to already be very familiar with Booker – but Booker does not know him. Comstock considers and proclaims our hero the very devil, and means to keep him from reaching his goal, the girl, at all costs.

6. Interestingly, perhaps as a consequence of the relatively limited technology in Columbia or perhaps for other reasons, the city does not automatically know what Booker looks like, so despite his encounter with Comstock he is rarely attacked on sight. Speakers throughout the city blare strident but vague warnings that an evil man walks its streets, but can only report rumours that he might be a dwarf or, worse, a Frenchman. Thus, Booker is often left alone, at least until he fires a shot or encounters particular characters. This too adds to the dreamlike feel – ‘shouldn’t I be shooting something?‘ Not necessarily. Not always.

Part two, with thoughts on Elizabeth and combat, to follow.

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73 Comments »

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  1. Ian says:

    This sort of sickening, Hula Hoop-based corruption needs to end.

    • Mirqy says:

      Speak for yourself. I want in on the hula action.

      • kathyswenson8 says:

        uptil I looked at the receipt which had said $8179, I have faith that my brothers friend was truley taking home money in there spare time from there computar.. there sisters roommate haz done this less than a year and just cleared the morgage on their condo and got a new Lotus Elan. this is where I went..Read More

  2. Premium User Badge

    PoulWrist says:

    Who likes aubergine ;(

    • Ian says:

      Moussaka is superb and I’ll frown very sternly at anybody who says otherwise.

    • Choca says:

      I second the aubergine rocks mention.

    • Brise Bonbons says:

      What madperson doesn’t like aubergine? It is the spongiest of vegetables!

      Mmmm spicy Thai Basil Eggplant. Baba Ganouj? Grilled with olive oil and sea salt!

      Well I know what I’m making for dinner.

    • Premium User Badge

      felisc says:

      aubergine is the real deal. it’s delicious. yes.

    • Tams80 says:

      Aubergine is the the (fruit?) of the the gods themselves.

      • Vorphalack says:

        Actually they are mostly the vegetables of the gods, apart from a few sub species. Had to look that one up, I always thought it was fruit as well. Also replace with a Squash in Tagine if you don’t like the bitter aubergine, just be prepared to cook for at least 1.5 hours.

        • Brise Bonbons says:

          If your aubergine is bitter you can also try getting the small white variety. They’ve a reputation for being more mild in flavor.

          Or the long purple Asian variety.

          SO MANY CHOICES.

        • Premium User Badge

          drewski says:

          Slice aubergine, place on paper towel or a clean cloth, lightly salt the sides and compress to draw out the fluid. It will remove the bitterness.

          • Eddy9000 says:

            This. Leave the slices between two plates if they need pressing for a little longer.

    • The Random One says:

      Aubergines are evil, conniving vegetables without honour. Most food tastes good when fried, but not only does aubergine retain its leafy flavour, it also disguises itself as a hamburger patty, making its foul taste even more revolting when compared to the expected juicy beef. Its unquenchable thirst for evil does not subside if placed in a salad; while most greens can mix together perfectly well, the evil aubergine commits the greatest of sins, which only itself and the dire tofu dare: pretending to be cheese. If only one sentence I say is to be heard, let it be this: mistrust the aubergine.

      • Brise Bonbons says:

        Your opinions are wrongheaded, but expressed with such panache that I must grudgingly salute you, sir.

        /Chortle.

    • CMaster says:

      Surely in a well done Tangine, the aubergine just tastes of the sauce flavours it has soaked up, rendering opinion on the flavour largely moot?

      • Arglebargle says:

        Moot-flavored? Is that a good thing?

      • Cyotik says:

        That may be but it does have a very distinct texture which would survive the cooking process. It’s difficult to imagine but perhaps a person gripped by the depths of insanity could find that texture distasteful.

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      Jackablade says:

      I’m not sure I can trust the opinion of a man who dislikes eggplant.

  3. GreatGreyBeast says:

    What does “adjust visual margins” mean? I might have assumed it was a funny way of saying FOV, but that’s listed separately.

    Btw, I really love this new trend of games including FOV sliders in the PC menus. That’s been a long time coming.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Probably referring to overscan/underscan correction for those types who like to connect to TVs.

    • Premium User Badge

      Vandelay says:

      I believe there is an option to adjust the size of the HUD. That could be what this refers to.

      It is not just FOV that has been appearing in options menus of late. Borderlands 2, Dishonoured and now this have been excellent in providing a range of customisations. It really is lovely to see.

  4. fluffy says:

    How is the scale of everything in the world: rooms, objects, persons etc? The world of Rapture never really felt believable to me since it seemed to be built for Big Daddies, this includes bathrooms. The city under the sea where houses are built for 4 apartments, the mike stands sits above your head and walls are as thick as a concrete bunker. It might be nit picky to some but I ruined the immersion for me.

    • Premium User Badge

      maninahat says:

      The design actually makes some sense to me. With hundreds of tons of pressure, buildings would have to have absurdly thick walls and a limit on size. Considering how impossible the skyscrapers of Rapture are, I’m surprised that interior walls are what break the willing suspension of disbelief.

      • fluffy says:

        You are right about that actually, some of the buildings get away with it. But it doesn’t explain the levels like the square with the tram tracks if you remember that one. It’s the poor quarters and all the houses are encased in a big glass bowl or something.
        Anyway it’s just the one thing that really stands out as something after I played that game and I hope they made this one better. The building and “land” value should be extreme in these locales and the scale should somehow reflect it in my opinion. I know it’s not a design choice it’s usually because UE3 is built for third person console games and Gears of War is sent as examples for the SDK. But Valve does scale perfectly in source for third person as well as first.

  5. Fox89 says:

    Everything I’ve read about the game so far from this round of previews seems to return to the conclusion that the biggest problem it has is that it is just ‘more Bioshock’.

    If that’s as bad as it gets, I think I will enjoy this game very much! The setting sounds great, I look forward to seeing how they deal with the racial issues.

    • dontnormally says:

      I enjoyed absolutely every thing about Bioshock other than playing it.

      • Fox89 says:

        I will concur that the shooting could be done with a bit of tightening up at the very least!

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          Vandelay says:

          Definitely. Some of the footage of Infinite looks pretty good combat-wise though. It also looks to offer some nice open spaces to fight in too.

          • dontnormally says:

            I think it was the claustrophobia-inducing setting and design that turned me off Bioshock.

            As for the first: the spaces looked really nice, but all samey.

            The second: It felt like the developers wrapped you in a big, warm blanket of PERFECT GAME DESIGN that impeded actually… enjoying the world.

      • The Random One says:

        At least Bioshock’s gameplay was, at worst, inept. There are too many games that would be great if they didn’t actively resent being played.

  6. dontnormally says:

    Any image without a clever mouse-over gag isn’t worthy of RPS.
    My bar is set high.

  7. Premium User Badge

    maninahat says:

    “Magicks”

    Totally irrelevant to everything, but am I the only person who can’t figure out why games refuse to use the words “magic”? I’ve seen Magick, Magicka, Majik. For god’s sake, why do it? Is magic too childish sounding?

    • Premium User Badge

      Snidesworth says:

      More likely that they’re wary of making magic sound mundane. It’s not a trick that’s guaranteed to work, but it reminds the player that it’s meant to be something strange and unusual.

      • Alec Meer says:

        That’s just me writing that, the word is not used in the game at all. It’s strictly Vigors and they are supposed to have scientific origins, though I can take some guesses about how there’s more to them than that.

        • Premium User Badge

          maninahat says:

          “Vigors”, “nostrums”, and “tonics” make sense at least, in that they are period relevant terms for medicines (the form in which this stuff comes in). But when “Magick” looks and acts like any other magic spell, I don’t see the need for archaic spellings.

          • Zarf says:

            You know, I’ve never really noticed this before; but now that you say it, I see it everywhere. Even The Elder Scrolls series has a strange spelling for it. This is going to bring me inordinate amounts of annoyance! It’s all your fault! THANKS A LOT, YOU JERK!

          • Premium User Badge

            maninahat says:

            It’s the same for Fairy. No two stories spell it the same. How else are people going to know that your Faeries are different from the Fayerys in other stories?

        • Low Life says:

          Of course they will have scientific origins – how else would you explain summoning a murder of crows to attack your enemies?

  8. Premium User Badge

    darkChozo says:

    Hmm, having it open like Bioshock sounds like a clever bit of meta-ish writing. It ties the new setting back to the old games and probably helps with making the intro feel a bit off when the Bioshock similarities end. Hard to say for sure without actually playing it myself, but hmm.

  9. Iskariot says:

    I expect this to be a great game. It is on the top of my list.

  10. webwielder says:

    I want this world + Dishonored’s gameplay.

  11. junglist 69 says:

    Well written article , looking forward to this game.

  12. The Random One says:

    There was a line break just before the word “flavored” so I understood that they had only offered journalists free salt and vinegar. I thought maybe publishers were trying to avoid accusations of bias by making journalists as miserable as possible before showing them the games.

  13. Frypan Jack says:

    “Thus, Booker is often left alone, at least until he fires a shot or encounters particular characters. This too adds to the dreamlike feel – ‘shouldn’t I be shooting something?‘ Not necessarily. Not always.”

    I was really trying to not to get overly excited for this game, but that’s pretty much done it. Not being able to interact with Rapture’s residents in any way other than violence (aside from a handful of main characters) was one of the few things that bothered me about Bioshock 1. I get it- Splicers and all that – but surely they can’t all be psychopaths?

  14. Brise Bonbons says:

    I’m really tired of this pattern. Some fellow imagining a profound statement spawns a fantastical world, stuffed full of racism and sexism to, you know, ruminate at length on how terrible it all is. All while burning millions of dollars to showcase the same faces that we see everywhere: Ruggedly handsome white men and model-pretty white women.

    Moreover, I think this sort of construction is usually more effective if the protagonist is cast from one of the oppressed groups. I see little value to be gained from having the player wander through this world and observe that “yup, them religious zealots shure are small minded bigots”. Well, other than caricaturing a bunch of political groups via dumb stereotypes.

    In short, if you are interested in race/gender issues, why not create a fantastical setting full of a diverse array of characters who normally don’t get portrayed in the media, rather than a bunch of stereotypes who exist to make some clever statement you’ve concocted?

    P.S. I am not trying to say that Infinite’s racist world (subject matter) makes the game (content) inherently racist – just bland and boring. And that stereotypes are boring and lazy and don’t actually lead us to reconsider our internal narratives very often, because by definition, they only reinforce what is already there.

    P.P.S. Sorry, I feel like I’m being tedious. I guess that’s me in a nutshell, though.

    • jorygriffis says:

      I’m curious to learn how it actually plays out in the game, but I agree that there could be some serious issues here. The game could have its heart in the exact right place, but it seems like this story sort of assumes the player is a white man.

      • The Random One says:

        While this complaint is fair, the player character in Infinite is very authorial. He is a white man because the story and setting demand it. Contrast it with Fallout 3 (which lets you play as a female character but treats you as male unless you are using the Black Widow trait) and Far Cry 3 (which is also authorial but is written with the idea that the player will identify with the character).

        I agree that we need player characters from other backgrounds (although the OP’s suggestion of a world where everyone lives together happily manages to have an even duller political message than RACIST EVIL HULK SMASH) but at this stage the game looks like it could deal intelligently with white privilege, for instance, by creating a society in which it is magnified but still recognizable.

        Yeah I’m not holding my breath either.

        • Brise Bonbons says:

          I have to question how “…create a fantastical setting full of a diverse array of characters…” became “…a world where everyone lives together happily…” Sure, my statement could describe Sesame Street, but it could also describe Star Trek or an Octavia Butler novel or the Walking Dead games.

          “…but at this stage the game looks like it could deal intelligently with white privilege, for instance, by creating a society in which it is magnified but still recognizable.”

          Here’s my problem. Infinite could very well “deal intelligently” with white privilege by examining this magnified version of it. But I’d argue that this approach itself is a product of privilege. Those of us on top of the heap pick up the shit that those lower down have had to deal with for decades or centuries – all so we can turn this little nugget of misfortune around and study it and make pronouncements about how terrible it all is while “dealing with it intelligently”.

          Unfortunately while this is going on, nothing much gets done to improve the actual representation of minorities (or women, or people who don’t look like models) in the media, which in turn means stagnant attitudes and lazy stereotypes linger on and on. We’ll use their suffering for our own edification, but won’t actually give them any sort of presence.

          Unfortunately our intentions don’t mean much.

          P.S. I realize this is a pretty harsh post, but I am willing to make it so because I feel it is directed as much at me as a sometimes-creator of comics and drawings and stories as at anyone else. I hope it is not too far out of line.

          P.p.s – Please read the above posts as exploratory offerings and not ironclad pronouncements. This is a new chunk of ideas I’m mulling through, and in the process I’m struggling to keep my tone and direction on target.

          • pilouuuu says:

            Then maybe you’d have more fun play Assassin’s Creed 3.

            Just kidding.

            I get your point. But I don’t think the game is going to be that simple. And the fact that Booker is white could be interesting, because it probably will show that at first he doesn’t care about the racism problem, being concerned with his selfish goal, like most white people in this society, but I get the feeling he may feel more empathic about that problem as he experiences things in Columbia and meets different people. It may become a really interesting view and criticism of our society.

        • ParadoxEternal says:

          Far Cry 3’s narrative was actually written hoping the player would disagree with the protagonist on several occasions. The writer said so in a recent interview, and even went so far as to say the protagonist and the player are two different actors in the game.

          That being said, I think you have to consider Ken Levine’s place in society. He’s a white man; whether he wants it or not, he has a privileged status. I give him and anyone else credit who attempt to deal with these issues, especially in games. As a writer myself, I can attest to how difficult it is to write about an experience that you can never fully understand yourself. So while your criticisms are somewhat true, I think just the fact that the game is looking at this issue at all is important. Sure, different viewpoints on the issue would be better, but an intelligently demonstrated portrayal can still contribute to the discussion in a good way.

    • Vorphalack says:

      It’s a pretty big assumption to assume the limit of the settings depth is ”There are religious racists in the sky. These men are bad, and we will show you how they are bad”. I have a hard time believing they haven’t put more into this whole idea of Colombia. You could look at the first 4 hours of Bioshock and assume that the games only point was ”Genetic engineering is bad, because the product of science is trying to eat your face”. That game was slow to reveal its main themes, and i’d bet a spare hat that Infinite will do something similar.

    • TheCzarMan says:

      You do know this is based on turn of the century American Exceptionalism, right? This world didn’t just come full of originality from Ken Levine’s head.

    • Eddy9000 says:

      ” I am not trying to say that Infinite’s racist world (subject matter) makes the game (content) inherently racist – just bland and boring”

      Yes, Alec’s description of Infinte just sounds no different to all those other AAA games that tackle racial prejudice.

  15. jorygriffis says:

    I have been 100% disinterested in this game from the very beginning, and none of the media hype has done a single thing to change it. Alec’s preview here has moved that a bit. Maybe, like, two percent?

  16. Shooop says:

    I love the themes they’re exploring, but the last two enemy designs they’ve revealed are just so dumb I can’t take it seriously at all. It’s like making a documentary with Monty Python songs as the soundtrack.

    How the hell am I supposed to take a game with something like this seriously?

    http://www.gamersbook.com/repository/images/_variations/1/4/14535a82bb756a2f370b25ae75e5308f_content_large.jpg?v=0

    • glock1974 says:

      HORNFACE!!

    • Zenicetus says:

      There is an actual historical model for that thing (sort of). The Bioshock Wiki says that “The Boys of Silence are blind young people fitted with large metal helmets which give them a wide range of hearing.” I guess you’re supposed to sneak around them and not make noise.

      Now, check out this page about Acoustic Locator devices from the turn of the century through WW1, designed for detecting incoming aircraft:

      http://www.aqpl43.dsl.pipex.com/MUSEUM/COMMS/ear/ear.htm

      Look familiar? Bioshock Infinite seems like more of an on-rails shooter than I was hoping for, and I’ll probably wait for a sale to buy it, but little historical nods like this are pretty cool, I think.

  17. JackMultiple says:

    If this game has the same moronic enemy AI composed of maniacal zomboids that hyperjump all up in my bidness from 720 degrees around, then… count me out. I tolerated it in BS1. I loathed it in BS2. Done.

  18. tetracycloide says:

    Comstock sounds like Atlas and Fontaine and nothing like Ryan.

  19. honuk says:

    why would I notice that the population is entirely white? the population of every video game ever made is entirely white, unless you’re killing brown people.

    • SuicideKing says:

      Not true, and even if it were, lets not notice them so that the boring ignore-most-of-the-world setups continue, right?

      I mean FFS according to CoD MW3 the whole fucking Russian military could just run free in Indian airspace and go about destroying a whole damn town without our (third largest in the world) military (or the paramilitary, OR THE POLICE) even saying “Eh, what’s up doc?”

      At least BF3 recognized there’s something called the French Police.

      I went a bit off track here but point remains: Just because games are crap doesn’t make it ok to let them remain crap.

      P.S. Do not mean to say that games have white people so they’re crap.

  20. Citrus says:

    So basically a generic FPS shooter in new art style?

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      maninahat says:

      Outside of shooting guns from a first person perspective, what’s generic about it?

  21. SuicideKing says:

    SHOCKFACE!

  22. starmatt says:

    Part 2 alreadeh !!!!

  23. Treebard says:

    Audio books? Ugh.

    (I mean, ok, it’s Bioshock so of course I expected ‘em, but that doesn’t make me any less tired of them.)