Mike Snider, USA TODAY
The new BioShock Infinite is the latest - and perhaps the most ambitious - evidence that video games have evolved beyond mindless eye candy.
BioShock Infinite (out Tuesday, $60, for PS3, Xbox 360 and Windows PCs; ages 17-up) plays out as an alternate-history tale in an early-20th-century USA. Players take the role of Booker Dewitt, a veteran of the American Indian wars, who is tasked with travelling to the floating city of Columbia to rescue a mysterious young woman, Elizabeth, to settle a debt.
That "save the princess" story line "may appear as simple as a Super Mario game on the surface, but there's a much deeper and more interesting plot beneath the surface," says Geoff Keighley of GameTrailers TV on Spike.
Like many modern blockbuster games, there's cinematic action. But BioShock Infinite has a rich, compelling story exploring political, religious and social issues that resonate today.
"The game plays out like a great play with a few M. Night Shyamalan-style twists along the way," Keighley says. The "story and world feed off each other. ... It's not just a great game, it's a great story."
A much-anticipated release and four years in the making, BioShock Infinite is a descendant of 2007's BioShock, developed by Irrational Games. Set in a fictitious 1960s underwater city of Rapture, the first BioShock became one of the highest-rated games of all-time. But when Irrational had to decide what to do after BioShock, the team "didn't feel we really had another story to tell in Rapture in that setting," says studio founder and creative director Ken Levine.
So a direct sequel, BioShock 2, was created by 2K Marin, another studio owned by publisher Take-Two Interactive, and released to acclaim in 2010. Collectively, the BioShock games have sold more than 9.5 million copies.
Levine and Irrational opted for BioShock Infinite's turn-of-the-century setting because he and many others on the development team had been reading Erik Larson's non-fiction The Devil in the White City about murder at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. "I'm a history buff, and that's a period I didn't really know much about," he says. "The more I dug into it the more interesting I found it, from a political standpoint (and) from a cultural, scientific, architectural and fashion standpoint."
A critical juncture for the U.S., the pre-World War I time period provides plenty of tension points for game designers to use.
"American nationalism and exceptionalism is coming into its own. The issue of religious revivalism is becoming a very strong force, and you are seeing the rise of the suffragist movement, and civil rights and workers' movements," Levine says.
"And all these forces are coming into play against a backdrop of amazing innovations in technology, whether electricity or aviation or automobiles, even quantum mechanics. It really was an incredibly transformative time."
Players need not consult Wikipedia - or their college textbooks - to enjoy the game. At its heart, Infinite is a game about two characters: Dewitt, an ex-Pinkerton detective, and Rapunzel-like heroine Elizabeth, who are thrown together in 1912.
"She's this girl who's been trapped in this tower for her whole life. Basically, she has never been out, never seen anything and she encounters you," Levine says. "Booker has sort of seen everything. You are so different from each other, and there's not really been a game that's really like that. ... It's a huge story, but it's really not about events, it's about these two people and about how these events change them."
There's frenetic action, too. Booker can use magical powers ("vigors") that he finds in Columbia, such as the Bucking Bronco, which propels enemies into the air. He can then finish them off with traditional weapons such as shotguns and grenade launchers. Among the iconic enemies is an animatronic George Washington figure wielding a Gatling gun.
And there are dizzying chases on a roller-coaster rail Sky-Line system high above the ground. "It's the rare case in a first-person shooter where the story is just as important - and just as good as - the game play," says Ryan McCaffrey, executive editor at IGN.com.
"Call of Duty is huge, but it would never be mistaken for Citizen Kane," says McCaffrey, who gave Infinite a 9.4 rating out of 10 in his recent review. "Infinite, on the other hand, is as close as video games have gotten in a while. The story, game play, characters and fantastical city-in-the-sky setting all combine to pull you in and keep you engaged until it's over."
Though he and his team took pains to create intriguing characters, they also wanted a interactive landscape that would engage and wow players, says Levine, who got his start as a screenwriter before gravitating to video games.
"We firmly believe that just because you have political themes, social themes and cultural themes, (that) doesn't mean you can't have a great over-the-top action experience and this amazing world (and) huge combat," he says. "You can have it all. The best pieces of fiction have it all."