Opening time is the only big part of BioShock Infinite

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BioShock Infinite begins like all great shooters should: with the player character riding a vehicle they can’t control and heading towards a destination they can’t imagine.

When we first meet Booker DeWitt, he’s sitting in the back of a rowboat heading for a lighthouse. It’s kind of an intro that fans of narrative shooters may recognize. The first Half-Life began with Gordon Freeman on a tram heading to the Black Mesa Research Facility. This game’s Blue Shift DLC started with Barney Calhoun, a Black Mesa security guard, making the same trip, and Opposing Force, Half-Life’s other DLC, opened with a helicopter full of marines who rushed to Black Mesa. Half-Life 2 doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, throwing Gordon on a train bound for dystopian city 17. Episode 2 even gets a meta with him, opening with the wreckage of the crash train that ended episode 1.

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Reading this list, it may seem identical, repetitive. But Valve developed some of the best FPS games ever made and practically invented the narrative shooter. So it’s worth asking why so many of his games start out the same way. What does it do to open a game like this?

In BioShock Infinite, the on-track intro gives us a moment to get our bearings. Although there is a thick fog in front of us, we finally see the lighthouse passing through it. When we enter we see a spiral staircase going up. The first BioShock began with the player, having survived a plane crash, swimming to a lighthouse and boarding a bathysphere to descend into the underwater city of Rapture. Infinite reverses this dynamic. Although the player, again, approaches a lighthouse from the water, his journey will take him into the clouds.


The opening hour is filled with intriguing images. As we enter the lighthouse, we see an embroidered sign that reads, “I will wash away your sins,” hanging above a basin of water and a stack of hand towels. A few floors up, a corpse with a bag pierced by bullets on its bloodied head, sits on a chair, with a cardboard sign stapled to its sweatshirt, reading: “Do not disappoint us”. At the top, three bells, each marked with a symbol, must be struck in a particular order to open the door to the mysterious chamber. Inside, there’s a chair with arm restraints that you sit in, only for a cage to form around you, rocket boosters to appear below you, and liftoff to be achieved.

Then there are the brief glimpses of Columbia that we see through the small window of our dilapidated flying capsule. Zeppelins fluttering nonchalantly. An angel statue that towers over the Airborne Archipelago. A massive portrait of an imposing man with a thick white beard, labeled “Father Comstock, our prophet”.

Once we step out of our flying machine, we are in what looks like a church, but with flooded floors and a haze of clouds rolling over the surface. A man baptizes us, holds us underwater until we pass out, and we wake up to see Father Jefferson, Father Washington, and Father Franklin, the holy men of American Christian nationalism reimagined, across the marble sculpture, like the founding fathers of a new faith. We hear their supplicants pray as we walk through the garden that stretches beyond them, prayers to “He who walked through Delaware with a flaming sword and angel’s wings” and “a paragon of virtue, rebel against ignorance and tyranny”. Continued faith in American exceptionalism in the face of constant evidence to the contrary requires a catechism, a repetition of the things we are to believe to be true, and BioShock Infinite, in these early moments, seems to understand that.


The ways BioShock Infinite sucks have been well documented. But it’s the strength of this opening hour and the power of the imagery it plays with that makes its fall into bilateral centrism so hard to watch. Infinite’s opening hour sets up stakes that seem disastrous, on their own. The game shows us a city in the sky where white supremacy, Christian fundamentalism and the cult of America are inextricably, violently linked. It pushes you to take sides, forcing you to choose between throwing a baseball at an interracial couple or the carnival barker terrorizing them. Then, much later in the game, his player character definitively declares that there is no difference between the white supremacist head of state and the black woman fighting to overthrow him. The game seems to retroactively condemn us for wanting to throw the baseball at this racist peddler’s head. Infinite lays out the full extent of the problem – with stark and often loaded imagery – then concludes that anyone who would take the threat it presents seriously is just as serious as the threat itself.


But, at the opening hour, as the game shows us embroidered messages urging repentance as “Old Time Religion” timidly plays on the radio, as it shows us a beautiful city in the clouds, so that we’re dominated by Benjamin Franklin and George Washington styled like Greek gods, as a quartet of barbers sing a gorgeous rendition of “God Only Knows,” it conjures up something superficially beautiful, but rotten to the core.

NEXT: To Make A Good BioShock Movie, It Can’t Really Be BioShock

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