Perfection is a funny thing. It’s a concept that artists, writers, directors, actors, coaches, players, and pundits across countless professions, art forms, and mediums talk about, and yet it’s not a concept that is easy to define in any given context: what is a perfect basketball game? No team has ever hit 100% of their shots or made 100% of their passes, though the unstoppable machine that was the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals came close. Is it sufficient for a work to be holistically complete and pure even if many of the constituent parts don’t work? I regard Lord of the Rings as the finest piece of filmmaking ever created, and yet there are very obviously parts of the gargantuan project that seem flabby and unnecessary (I’m looking at you, Pippin-Merry-Treebeard Road Trip). Even more debatable is whether perfection necessarily translates to commercial success, or indeed whether it should: the highest rated film on IMDB is The Shawshank Redemption (rightly so), yet its box office run was mediocre and its early reviews good, but not great, and certainly not “this movie is life-changing and I could watch it over and over and over and end every viewing with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes”-good. While there isn’t a consensus on what perfection is, those who excel across multiple fields speak almost uniformly about how to reach it, or to at least chase it: get the simple things right; value precision; tweak and fix and rethink and fine-tune until it’s exactly right.
Ken Levine is widely regarded as the gaming industry’s mad genius: his works routinely run over-budget and behind-schedule, cause half their staff to quit due to burnout, and are then hailed as among the greatest games ever produced, with particular attention to their visual design and immaculate storytelling. System Shock 2 wasn’t that commercially successful, but it set standards in terms of gameplay, control mechanics, and visuals and sound design that would become the norm in first-person-shooter games a decade later. Bioshock was revolutionary: a shooter inspired by the warped, twisted objectivism of Ayn Rand and littered with elements of steampunk and philosophical questions about technology, morality, choice, and personal agency. “A man chooses, a slave obeys” remains one of the finest plot twists in gaming history – a totally unexpected sucker-punch to the solar plexus so well-crafted that it completely floors you the first time you play it, and then makes you spend subsequent playthroughs wondering why the hell you didn’t spot it among all the clues and subtle nudges laid out for you. His games have always sought to do big things and to tackle big ideas; if games don’t move you to ask questions of yourself and our universe, he reasons, then what was the point of creating them? Games should be fun – and the plasmids and vigours of the Bioshock universe surely are – but they should also strive to be something more.
I have been thinking a lot about our understandings of perfection, and how to reach it, as I work through my biannual replaying of 2013’s Bioshock Infinite, Levine’s philosophical sequel to the first Bioshock. The first set the standard for linear storytelling in the Xbox 360/Playstation 3 console generation – a claustrophobic, fast-paced survival/suspense game that combined brilliant character writing (the egoist hubris of Andrew Ryan, the creative insanity of Sander Cohen) with depth, nuance, and brilliant world-building. For all the spiritual and philosophical similarities between the two games, Infinite’s ambience is nothing like its predecessor. It starts the same: you are deposited at a lighthouse in the midst of a stormy ocean, a gateway to a promised utopia cut off from the world. Yet where Bioshock goes deep, journeying to the bottom of the ocean and Rapture, a world of varying textures of black, grey, dark grey, and rust, Infinite soars, sending ex-Pinkerton agent Booker DeWitt to the city of Columbia, a hyper-nationalist city-state that soars through the clouds clinging to fanatical visions of American exceptionalism and white supremacy. The game’s visual palette is magnificent – hues of sky-blue, with sunlight streaming across every floating street of Columbia – and it serves to even more starkly reinforce the evil vision that controls the city.
Where Jack saw Rapture as refuge in Bioshock, DeWitt sees a job: find and deliver a mysterious young woman named Elizabeth to New York. As the game unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Elizabeth is, functionally, imbued since infancy with what amount to god powers: she can open rifts in the space-time continuum, known in the game as tears, to alternate versions of the reality that Columbia exists in – a character who is dead in one universe is not in another, an attack that fails in one universe succeeds in another. This multidimensional approach to reality serves as the foil for the most interesting part of the game’s mechanics: the battlefields of Columbia are littered with tears through which Elizabeth spawns different weapons, allies, and environments, and almost every combat puzzle can be solved in five or six different ways. But more importantly, the tear mechanic allows for the exploration of the most interesting plot points and the most compelling philosophical questions that Levine seeks to explore: are we condemned by fate to a particular path and a certain outcome? Are we doomed to live with the ghosts of our past?
Which brings me to Bioshock Infinite and perfection: the gameplay and combat are ludicrously fun and imaginative, but not necessarily ground-breaking for shooters or gaming in the way that, say, the original Halo was, and it can get to be repetitive towards the game’s end. The visuals and art design are stunning, even beautiful, and add so much depth and complexity and detail to the world of Columbia. But so do the graphics and visuals of Skyrim, and yet for as good as the fifth Elder Scrolls game is, it doesn’t stick in my mind quite the same way. No, what sets Infinite apart is that most foundational element of fiction: the story. The writing, from start to finish, borders on flawless at every level, from the background characters and ambience to the mysterious Lutece twins – whose role in the creation of Columbia’s multidimensional world is gradually pieced together through audio records – and Booker and Elizabeth’s remarkably human and deep interactions. Every line of dialogue is immaculately delivered, its timing deliberate and the interplay between characters incredible. And it does all this while interweaving a compellingly human story with questions about fate, redemption, and forgiveness with a deep exploration of American exceptionalism, revolution, and quantum physics. Any narrative that jumps between 127 parallel realities and involves time travel is rife with opportunities for holes, inconsistencies, and mistakes. But it all works; perfectly. It is compelling and rich and deep and interesting and unique and a whole host of other adjectives that still don’t do justice to how good this game’s story is. The first time I completed the game, I spent close to fifteen minutes just staring, open-mouthed, trying to wrap my head around what I’d just experienced. To say more would be to spoil what is one of the truly great endings in all storytelling, let alone gaming.
I don’t know if Bioshock Infinite is technically perfect, or if its art design and scriptwriting and code are flawless, but I can’t think of a work of fiction that I’ve finished that has produced a greater sense of satisfaction and completion. In the course of writing this, I’ve tried probably two dozen times to find a way to sum it up, and yet I can’t do it, because Bioshock Infinite can’t really be described – it can only be experienced in all its glorious, perfect complexity. Go play it. Now.