March 25, 2013 at 8:32 PM ET
After four years of harried development, "BioShock Infinite" has finally arrived. The game faces impossibly high expectations from fans and critics alike, thanks in part to the legacy that developer Irrational Games made for itself with the original "BioShock" in 2007, not to mention the mammoth anticipation drummed up by gamers throughout the sequel’s tumultuous and secretive history.
BuzzFeed dubbed the new installment "the most important game of the last five years." Wired said that creator Ken Levine’s work on "BioShock Infinite" might finally prove to the medium’s skeptics that "a videogame [can] become an influential cultural artifact." And now that the game is out, NBC News’ own Todd Kenreck calls it "a masterpiece."
It's not the first time a game has been labeled a work of art. "Ico" and "Shadow of the Colossus" were released to universal acclaim years before "BioShock" saw the light of day. But at the moment, "BioShock Infinite" has captured the hearts and gamepads of the entire gaming nation. So what is it about it that gamers find particularly intriguing?
Much of this acclaim is thanks to the famously sequel-averse Levine himself, who brings a quirky kind of intellectual charisma to the gaming world. "BioShock Infinite" tackles political and social problems with an unflinching, almost journalistic gaze. When I asked Levine last year about his favorite characters from "Infinite," he started comparing Cornelius Slate, a former captain of the U.S. military who confronts the protagonist Booker DeWitt early in the new game, to Pat Tillman, the pro football player turned soldier who was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
Rather than rattle off features and specs of his new game, Levine prefers to dig into the intricacies of 20th-century American or European intellectual history. The city of Columbia was built around fierce ideals of American exceptionalism, and "BioShock Infinite" casts the white supremacist underpinnings of much of this ideology into sharp relief.
The player picks up audio recordings throughout the game from Comstock, Columbia's founder, that opine with unsettling honesty about the white man's burden. Non-player characters sneer at Booker and ask if you "like your coffee black" when you show sympathy to African-American characters, and one character jokes about being "half a Jew when it comes to silver." Games — even ones with a far more obvious debt to realism than "Infinite" — have never been this courageous when it comes to broaching the reality of race and class.
Levine openly sold the original "BioShock" not as a steampunk horror game that gives players magical superpowers (which it is) but as a critique of Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism. In a genre that spends most of its time and money showing players all the ways they can shoot terrorists, that alone could have been enough to turn Levine into an industry icon.
What's weirder about the series' success is that many gamers felt that the first installment wasn't all that great for a first-person shooter. Even a stalwart gaming publication like Edge Magazine admitted in a recent write-up of "Infinite" that Irrational never truly mastered the art of making solid guns that are fun to use.
Although our review of "BioShock Infinite" shows that the gameplay really has improved, the focus on story over software extends all the way to back to Ken Levine’s cyber-punk "BioShock" predecessor "System Shock 2," a game that was more of a role-playing game than a full-fledged shooter.
Even fans of "System Shock 2" admit that that game had abysmal graphics when it was first released in 1999. But everyone who has played it will tell you it's the scariest game they've ever experienced. No matter how flat and polygonal the zombies looked, I still remember cowering in the smallest closet spaces I could find in the Von Braun spaceship, desperately searching for some respite as these monsters continued to relentlessly taunt me.
What "System Shock 2" and "BioShock" always had that no other first-person shooter has ever captured quite as masterfully is what Levine calls a sense of "place." Shooting mechanics aside, these games always felt like living, breathing worlds, rather than simply hollow bits of code in which players could do some target practice. Without that, I would have stopped searching for a place to hide in "System Shock," and just stopped playing the game.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.