A City in the Sky


BioShock Infinite was an oddity when it comes to guided demos. Usually, one person plays through the demo while another narrates, pointing out the game’s features and offering other pieces of information where needed. Sometimes the duties are handled by one person, though BioShock Infinite took a completely different route. Someone played through the demo, but instead of a narrator leading us through the events, the demo was allowed to speak for itself. What we saw spoke volumes.

The only narration was a short piece of backstory. It is the year 1912 and the United States is a rising superpower in the world. As a way of promoting the country’s ideals, the United States builds Columbia, a sort of floating World’s Fair exhibit meant to showcase American ideals. Picture the American Pavillion at EPCOT, only floating, and you’re in the ballpark.

As with any utopia, things quickly fall apart. Unlike Rapture, which was already destroyed by the time we exited that first bathysphere, Columbia’s civil war is just kicking into high gear by the time Booker DeWitt, BioShock Infinite’s hero, arrives on the floating city. Columbia has split into two factions: The Founders and Vox Populi. The Founders represent an extreme version of the city’s founding ideals, while the Vox Populi stand to the far left of those same ideals.

DeWitt is neither. An ex-Pinkerton agent, DeWitt’s only interest on Columbia is Elizabeth, who is being held captive in a tower in Columbia. Elizabeth is protected by the Songbird, a giant mechanical beast that somewhat resembles a cross between a griffin and a Big Daddy from BioShock. Elizabeth and the Songbird have an interesting relationship. He wants to protect her from harm and will do anything to keep her safe. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is trying to escape from the iron giant’s grasp.

We’re given our first glimpse at the pair’s complicated relationship a few seconds into the demo. It begins with DeWitt already having saved Elizabeth from her tower prison. The two are held up in a gift shop filled with memorabilia promoting America. As Elizabeth searches the store for interesting items, pausing at one point to show DeWitt a giant Lincoln head, DeWitt picks through fireworks and other lethal items. He eventually finds a gun, only to hear the scream of the Songbird as it flies past the shop searching for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is clearly shaken and, before the two leave the shop, she makes DeWitt promise to kill her rather than allow the Songbird to take her back. What’s striking about this scene isn’t what is said, but what goes unsaid. Elizabeth never tells DeWitt to kill her; she simply grabs his hand and places it around her throat and, looking him in the eyes, says, “Promise.” It’s here that I finally realized what made BioShock Infinite’s presentation so different. Rather than explain, the developers just let the scene play out. It sounds silly, but that image left a massive impression. It also helps to reinforce the core of Elizabeth and the Songbird’s relationship. Elizabeth is a battered spouse. She wants to escape, but for whatever reason, she can’t bring herself to do so.

Out in the streets of Columbia, we see why Elizabeth is so important. Much of BioShock Infinite’s gameplay is built around rifts. These are tears in space-time that only Elizabeth can control. Maybe control isn’t the right word. Elizabeth is still new to her powers. At one point, she and DeWitt come across a dying horse. DeWitt is content with shooting the horse, but Elizabeth is moved by compassion. She notices a tear near the horse and attempts to open the rift so the horse can rest in a meadow. Elizabeth isn’t able to control the tear and, instead of appearing in a meadow, we’re transported to an alternate 1983 in front of a movie theater advertising “Revenge of the Jedi” as Tears for Fears plays in the background.

Elizabeth’s struggle to control her powers is central to BioShock Infinite’s gameplay. As you move through Columbia, you’ll see shadowed out objects that Elizabeth can bring into the environment. An early firefight offers two different options. DeWitt can have Elizabeth pull in a crate of ammunition, allowing DeWitt to shoot his way out of the situation, or call in a stagecoach to provide cover.

Although Elizabeth will follow you through most of the game, she isn’t helpless. BioShock Infinite is not one long escort mission. Elizabeth can hold her own and, more importantly, won’t die during combat. However, Elizabeth’s power is restricted; her powers recharge gradually over time, though she can’t open every rift. This leads to numerous in-game choices based on how you want to play. Towards the end of the demo, a zeppelin attacks DeWitt. There’s a nearby rocket launcher, but Elizabeth doesn’t have enough power to bring it into the world. You can choose hold your ground and wait for the heavy ordinance, or take another route entirely.

Columbia’s multiple sky islands are connected by a series of Sky-Lines. DeWitt has a sky-hook, which he can use to zipline around the city. Rather than wait for Elizabeth to muster enough rift-ripping power, DeWitt jumps on the nearest Sky-Lines and zooms to the zeppelin. Watching DeWitt zip around the rails was exhilarating. It’s like a one-man rollercoaster only people are shooting at DeWitt the entire time.

In addition to weapons and his sky-hook, DeWitt can also use Vigors to dispatch enemies. Vigors are BioShock Infinite’s version of Plasmids. The concept is based on old snake oil tonics. Only here they actually grant the abilities they advertise. Unlike Plasmids, Vigors have a limited set of charges before they are used up. During the demo, we got a look at a few, including one that shoots electric bolts and another that acts as a sort of “Force Push.” There’s also the already announced “Murder of Crows” Vigor that sends a group of crows flying towards enemies.

After taking the zeppelin down from the inside, DeWitt rides the Sky-Lines down to the surface, but just when the duo think they’ve escaped, the Songbird swoops in and knocks DeWitt into a nearby building. As the Songbird is about to kill DeWitt, Elizabeth intervenes and begs the Songbird to spare DeWitt’s life. Once again, we get a glimpse of the complicated relationship between Elizabeth and the Songbird. Just moments ago, she wanted nothing more than to escape, but now she tells the bird that she was wrong to leave. It’s a touching scene and points at something much bigger brewing in the background.

I can’t wait to find out what.