Caring About Not Caring In BioShock Infinite

This is it. This is the last post of my unofficial BioShock Infinite week. I hope you’ve stuck around for it because I’d like to think that not only does the game warrant such discussion and analysis but so does my writing. Ken Levine and the crew at Irrational Games have crafted a deep, multilayered dip and it’s going to take the whole bag of chips to reach the bottom, though I doubt we’ve even made it past the cheese.

Just like a person’s predilection for certain tastes of guacamole or beans or sour cream, their take on certain themes of the game may come across so differently, which may be the greatest genius of all of Infinite. I stand by everything I’ve said about the game so far and will, if need be, fight a baby grizzly bear to prove it. I truly believe that the theme of the consequence and merit of choice stands in stark contrast with the singular question of being able to even make that decision in BioShock. I wholeheartedly throw myself behind the notion that the combat is flawed when the personal and nuanced encounters of the first half (which mirror the personal and nuanced world they take place in) are overpowered by the deafening roar or 20- to 30-person battles in the second half.

That, of course, is the important part. It doesn’t matter if you read any of it or agree with all of it or what; what matters is that I stand up beside what I’ve crafted to care for and look after my insights and words and not care if anyone can hear my voice as it gets lost in the cacophony of the Internet.

Caring and not caring is an understated current that courses through Infinite‘s circuitry. The world it builds (not just Columbia but the actual world it settles itself in as well) is so incredibly rich and dense that you could turn diabetic from its overwhelming completeness. It’s a subtle but important tell to convey that this floating city is new, but it is somehow managed with aplomb. Things shine with a brightness you only get from car fresh out of the factory. And even when it gets dirty, you can still easily wipe away the grime and see yourself in the reflection underneath.

The engine, however, is a broken one, as is the one to Columbia. Everything—even the slums and working class factory land—is so pristine it inspires a certain sense of malaise, something not easily done in video games. Games often deal in extremes, trading exclusively in bashing you over the head with dread or excitement or even art. But to gently stir the pot, for the ripples to barely show and only hint at the impending trouble, is masterful. My compliments to the chef.

And that is where the brilliance perhaps truly shines. It’s the nigh imperceptible notes of basil or the barely-there scent of mint in the dish that makes it because you don’t notice it and they don’t care. Levine has put together and hewn down this marble slab into a monolithic structure that, when you closely examine it, the most minute of details begin to come through, but he genuinely doesn’t care.

So much of the game could be missed despite there being enough design and art and heart and soul in one level to have filled out another (albeit lesser) game. When Elizabeth asks if you would like to go through the turnstiles or go checkout the bookstore or if I think going straight to the yard would be better than dipping into the bar first, it’s a nudge to the side that says, “It’s okay. Go on.” It’s saying that someone(s) spent months—maybe years—building this little bit but if you want to skip it, that’s your loss. The game doesn’t care because its quality is not dependent on someone interpreting or consuming it.

Take for example the voxophones. 80 of them litter the world, strewn about in desks and in vaults and across innumerable benches, and most of them will be missed. I scoured what felt like every inch of Columbia and I still missed two when all was said and done (along with four infusions and I’m guessing several pieces of gear) and I’m considering going back just to get them. They add so much context and flavor to an already rich stock that it borders on just being a god damn steak. And you are probably going to miss a few and no one will care. The game won’t care. Levine definitely won’t care. But you will.

It’s not even collectibles. The ambiance of your adventure is just as discreet and purposefully attenuated. Chris Plante of Polygon pointed out during a Reviewers Roundtable that R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” plays in the game. Three times. And no one else heard it but him. The first time is when you first enter the tower to rescue Elizabeth. If you stand near the Siphon (the stuff that look like giant ethereal speakers), you will hear it.

And then if you speed up the white noise—the background din—of one of the early, optional houses just as Sky-Lines are introduced to you, you get a song. And no one caught it except Arthur Gies. And (Spoiler Warning: just skip the rest of this paragraph) then the priest in the last baptism of the game asks as you approach, “Is it someone new?” That is a direct callback to the first BioShock when the very first Splicer you encounter right out of the Bathysphere says, “Is it someone new?” And no one noticed except Russ Frushtick.

Everyone will have these moments where they feel like they’ve discovered something that surely no one else will have noticed. I had it that moment. Every other writer and gamer I’ve talked with had that moment. And they were all different. The buffet before us is so vast that it’s hard to see past where we look first. That is what lends credibility to a video game world and makes it feel authentic. It mirrors the real world in how reality is painfully neutral in regards to what you feel or do or whatever. It provides and you can do with it what you will. It’s how Fallout 3 felt so real and lived-in and it’s how discovering tombs and lost diaries fleshes out these huge gaps of knowledge in the world.

You know how back in the day when you would go to a supermarket or a doctor’s office and pick up a magazine and it would instantly dump out an entire tree of subscription cards at your feet but then you’ll shake it and more would come out and the more you shook it, the more would come out? BioShock Infinite is kind of like that. There’s just so much in there that you have to actively dig it out to mine all the gold, but even then, you probably won’t be able to get it all. There aren’t just nuggets to be picked up off the ground but ore to bombed and walls to be axed. And then you look around and you realize that it’s not about finding the gold but deciding where to start.

And you know what? The mine doesn’t care. The gold doesn’t care. BioShock Infinite and Ken Levine don’t care.

But you should.

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