In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil explains why he finds Bioshock Infinite's opening moments so memorable.
Bioshock Infinite has its problems. Maybe minor quibbles; maybe giant, shark jumping blunders. I'm not going to defend the full thing, but I do think the opening is pretty close to perfect. It's a well told slice of mystery and wonder, and a sumptuous collaboration of design, tone and theme. It slyly teases revelations that won't emerge for tens of hours, and does so in a way that makes its world feel alien and beautiful.
We open on a boat. The Lutece twins are doing that thing they do—talking about you even as they're talking to you. Their dialogue is consistently some of my favourite in the game. It's perfectly off-kilter, giving the impression of something bigger and stranger than any of the big, strange ideas more naturally associated with a magical flying city of racists.
It's surprising how much the opening gives away. There's the opening text quote: "The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist." There's the back-and-forth of the Lutece's "He doesn't ROW?"/"He DOESN'T row." You're as good as told this has happened before, but not what that means. You're given the notes, but not the instrument to play them.
You're dropped off at a lighthouse, because it had to be a lighthouse. In Bioshock, the lighthouse was your portal to the world below. In Infinite, the world above. It's a parallel that, once you see it, couldn't have been any other way. Infinite later codifies this—"there's always a lighthouse"—but it didn't really need to. Of course there's a lighthouse.
The lighthouse is a set. It's a prop, and to see that you need to see its function as a place outside of Booker's journey. It's the entrance to Columbia—the portal to a technological marvel run by a cult-like Prophet, unshakeable in his righteous fury. The lighthouse is sparse and Earthly; filled with cross-stitch pictures and grounded trinkets. It wouldn't normally have a dead guy in it—that's an outside corruption, purely for Booker's benefit.
At the top of the lighthouse, things get weird. Er, weirder, I guess. You ring bells, and the sky bursts into life. Booming alien noise enters a call and response with the low-tech throng of the lighthouse's internal workings. I like to think that it's unnecessary—that the rocket would work without the sky being bathed in apocalypse. Pure showmanship, designed to provoke fear and humility.
The rocket itself continues the performance. You're literally being strapped into Comstock's propaganda machine. Suddenly everything is loud and industrial: a machine springing to life around you, dipping you towards its innards in a very different kind of baptism.
The ship's voice is perfectly designed. Mechanical and human, male and female. It's layered imperfectly over itself in a way that sounds like inhuman chanting.
Ten-thousand feet… Fifteen-thousand feet…
Booker's face, panicked in the mirror. The visitor is trapped, helpless, frightened and speeding into the unknown; building towards something unseen.
Light. A winged figure. Buildings nestled among the clouds. The first few notes of 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken?' play gently on a piano. You're no longer accelerating; you're soaring. When you close your earthly story, will you join them in their bliss? Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a theme up in this piece.
What I love about the opening is how it perfectly reflects Comstock's character. It's manipulative, both to the theoretical traveller and, more obviously, to the player. But the manipulation serves a purpose. It's there because it looks and feels amazing, but it looks and fits amazing for reasons that are consistent with the character that designed them. It's a memorable opening, and its every detail is carefully set to build the mythology—not of the game, but of the man at the city's centre.
Bioshock Infinite stuck with me because from its first moments it was doing something different. It was setting a tone and offering a mystery. It wasn't giving me a five-minute cutscene and a short corridor that required me to look, walk, crouch, sprint and jump. I wish more games put this kind of thought into their opening minutes.