BioShock was about the twist. Every little thing was geared towards being some warped, twisted version of reality—or at least something close to it. You have the very literal twist that comes up in the story where what you assume to be some very large thing turns out to be a very small thing (are we still not spoiling BioShock? I’ll give it time since I feel like the copy that comes with BioShock Infinite might be the first time some people have had a chance to play it). That’s the easy one, but you also have the details.
The relationship between Big Daddies and Little Sisters, for example, plays on the expectation of who is leading whom. The world of Rapture itself takes a sharp left on the way to an underwater utopia. It all stacks on top of one another until Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland feels about as messed up as a piece of tofu.
BioShock Infinite is not about that. Yes, there are twists such as the opening of the game, a wonderfully crafted 15-minute pre-Columbia introduction that takes what you remember from BioShock and just wretches it harder than a wet towel. And the traditional (if you can call two games a tradition, only one of which was helmed by the iconoclastic Ken Levine) BioShock sensibilities where everything—and I mean everything—is larger than life from the physical standpoint of 30-story statues and grand displays of sin and phobia to the conceptual influences of chopped and screwed bits of history.
BioShock Infinite, though, is not about that. It is about an overflowing sense of beauty washed up on the sandy shores of tragedy (at one point, literally so). It is not about twisting expectations and warping your understanding of the world or ripping your perspective in twine but rather showcasing what it means to be a tragic beauty.
Columbia is, visually speaking, Rapture pre-fucked, to put it mildly. They both herald from the gilded age of jazz and Art Deco but Columbia maintains its ostentatious core, which is an important distinction. There is a veneer to Rapture, a layer over the filth that was again covered up by despair. It makes the world feel lived-in and worn like a ratty pair of jeans. Columbia, however, is still fresh and new as if its plastic wrap still lay on the floor, yet to be thrown in the trash. The box that it came in is itself still a treat to behold.
There’s a shine to the architecture and design that informs your inclination to tread lightly through Columbia. Even the decrepit areas like Finkton and Shantytown aren’t all the way worn down. They just have that first layer of grime that, given a good scrubbing and a fresh spray of Febreze, would be just as good as new. The gold still shines, so Comstock’s prophecies seem less like lies and more like promises.
The tragedy, of course, comes in where you slowly begin to unravel the wool that he has thrown over the eyes of these skyward citizens. I’ll only speak to the first bit of the game, but you do begin to understand that through the schemes of the prophet that many have turned a blind eye to the truth and, as an outsider, you see more than those in the thick of it. They have been lost in the forest for so long that all they know is trees while some grounding, a spatial reasoning, still exists in you.
This juxtaposition is a consistent thread in the game, a running theme that you will not only see revisited but continually infused throughout the design. Let’s examine the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, for example. Booker, a former Pinkerton heavy in debt and lost in his way with the world, is a shield and a sword for Elizabeth. She, a sheltered yet worldly and knowledgeable young woman with a strange and inscrutable power, also functions as a utility for Booker and the player. They are an intertwined melody and harmony that take each other to make a song. It’s beautiful in that way.
Elizabeth doesn’t really need Booker, however. Not as much as he needs her, anyways. Right from the get-go, the only true necessity of Booker entering Elizabeth’s life is the key he brings to unlock her from the tower on Monument Island. Scene analysis would afford Elizabeth her own chance to be a protagonist, the Pinkerton nothing more than an impetus to incite her journey just as the note to “get the girl” was Booker’s. It’s the parallelism that makes only half the equation redundant and the entire thing tragic because it reeks of Shakespearean drama.
Then there are the visual designs, of course. These are literal interpretations of the risen adjacent to the fallen. The best example, perhaps, is the Handyman. This gigantic mechanized foe is a behemoth of strength and impunity. A shiny building of a man, he stands at maybe 12 or 15 feet tall with dangling gorilla-like arms that have Volkswagen-sized hands at the end effectively equipping him with two of the biggest god damn hammers you’ll ever see (so the name “handyman” actually works on two levels. Levine, you devious bastard). He is a motorized wonder that inspires as much fear as it does awe at its construction.
The Handyman, though, is actually more man than machine. Much like the Big Daddies of Rapture, he is a human man stuff into a mechanized suit and reduced to primal creature. The difference, however, is that the Handyman is still very much aware. He is aware of his actions, your actions against him, and his crumbling perception of the world and humanity. His human head still pokes up from the metallic, ambulatory parapet, and the oversized body now forces every scream and plead for mercy to boom and echo in a low rumble through the air and into your heart.
And his heart. He will ask why oh why do you attack him, question his existence, and every movement and sensory input overloads his simplified but still working mind. And his family still feels for him, a wife’s lost affection told through found Voxophones, and he is unable to do anything. His body is bound to serve those that make it but his heart beats on for what he left behind. It’s fitting that it’s the first thing you see on him, and just about the only thing that will hurt him. Beautiful, terrifying, and tragic.
That is what BioShock Infinite is about. The beauty of the aureate, rutilant glow of Columbia outshines the tragedy of its shape, the bleak nature of the world. It’s the hope of the masses and promises from prophet placed in the sky—the literal sky where many look to pray for hope and change—where nothing more than a city of latent despair is tied together by Sky-Lines and holy lambs. BioShock Infinite is about the beauty in tragedy.