Bioshock is frequently held up as an example of games being a genuine art form and not simply populist entertainment. The 2007 original was a critical smash hit, beautifully designed with Art Deco architecture and lavish set pieces. The player experienced a strong sense of foreboding as they walked through the halls of Rapture, the sunken city of the first game’s setting. However, apart from the game's design, what players really remembered about Bioshock was the gripping storyline and strong characters. Rapture had mystery and shocking revelations. As the player explored the game's setting, so too did the narrative develop.
Bioshock was brilliant, but how do you follow on success? With more of the same - this prompted criticism that Bioshock 2 was just a carbon copy of the original. Now Irrational Games are back with a third instalment, Bioshock Infinite, and things are a little different. This game is set in 1912 in Columbia, a city floating in the sky. The player inhabits the role of DeWitt, a man with a mysterious past and the series staple special abilities. As before the player uses a series of historic weapons and super powers to fight through an usual and beautifully designed setting.
In some ways, the narrative techniques in Bioshock Infinite are the same as the previous titles. In all three games, you arrive in a setting where significant story events have already taken place. These events are filled in by recordings, which the player collects as they explore the environment. This allows for backstory and development of the supporting characters to be filled in around the main plot. Also like before, the game's principal villain is developed through booming addresses, as the player fights their way through hordes of minions.
The key difference between Bioshock Infinite and the previous titles in the series is Elizabeth, a woman who accompanies you throughout the game. Her character is partly built up through recordings hidden around Columbia, but also through dialogue scenes with the protagonist, which are some of the game's strongest moments. Elizabeth is a well-developed heroine with strong motivations and emotional responses to the player's actions. The first time the two of you experience combat together, Elizabeth is visibly repulsed by DeWitt's slaughter of NPCs.
The story unfolds similar to before. It is structured around a series of set pieces in confined spaces, where game challenges must be overcome to advance both plot and character. The player is guided between these set pieces by objectives that must be completed in each location. As before, the player is offered choices along the way which alter the outcome of the narrative. This gives the player the ability to shape the outcome according to what they feel DeWitt's personality is. Our understand of DeWitt as a protagonist is developed through flashbacks, dialogue with Elizabeth and recordings but ultimately the player gets to decide what sort of person he is and receive an ending which reflects this.
As before, the dialogue is well written, with period detail, and the voice actors do fantastic work bringing their parts to life. The recordings hidden throughout Columbia have especially strong dialogue, despite the fact some of these characters have limited screen time, their personalities are effectively built up through these short monologues.
Many of the strong storytelling elements from previous Bioshock games are present in Bioshock Infinite, but new features have also been added to develop the narrative and setting. Having two protagonists and dialogue between them allows for greater character development and a more complex story. The relationship between DeWitt and Elizabeth is more complex than Delta’s relationship with his daughter in Bioshock 2, and Jack’s relationships in the original. There is a lot here to delight fans of previous Bioshock stories, and a lot of new ideas which push the envelope further.