Bioshock Infinite vs The Last of Us - Which Game is Better?
Were easily my personal most anticipated games of the seventh generation of gaming, so why not revisit them in order to make them fight to the death for my long-term affections? In the tradition of the Old School, Game Vault blog’s earlier comparison of Bioshock Infinite to the original Bioshock.
My comparison is based not on replay value or how the games have aged, but on how influentially they’ve stuck with me a year after my initial play through of each.
The Last of Us Vs BioShock Infinite: Who Will Win?
In which I focus on how the games have stuck with me several months after my initial walkthroughs. It is not about replaying them now—only a year later, I’m not sure if that would be particularly interesting. Nor is this about which game has more replay value. This post anzlyzes will compare visuals, sound, and gameplay, acting/character design, plot/narrative, and my overall conclusions about which game has remained with me more powerfully a years after its release.
I’m not going to call this category “graphics” because, particularly with Bioshock Infinite, it’s less about visual realism than the aesthetic effect of a non-realistic art design. The Last of Us does visual realism excellently, and it works very well for what that game is: a darkly realistic near-future post-apocalyptic America peopled by disturbingly plausible and imperfect human beings.
The game’s ruined cityscapes—Boston, Pittsburgh, and Salt Lake City—as well a depopulated town/suburb (Lincoln, MA) and (fictional) university are haunting for the plausibility of their decay. Creeping through the university dorm avoiding Infected (zombies) and reading about the last days of the students who lived there and becoming paranoid about the dangers of simply traversing a few miles of city were delightfully unsettling experiences, and the game’s quieter moments, like hunting the deer or, especially, seeing the giraffes roaming the parks of Salt Lake City, have stuck with me for the past year.
And yet, I have to give this category to Bioshock Infinite
BI’s Columbia is a game world that brilliantly mixes the real (and historical) with the stylistic and imagined. The departure from visual realism allows highly stylized visual effects and the use of an imagined location in an alternate version of our past allows historical context but doesn’t tie the designers down to realistic city geography, allowing the creation of striking tableaus, views, and backgrounds.
So far, though, this is a matter of two games doing two different visual designs really well. What seals the deal for Bioshock Infinite, in my opinion, are the echoes of the original Bioshock. The many, many connections between the two gameworlds defy full analysis here, so I’ll just cite the key examples of Elizabeth and the Songbird’s visual echoes of the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies and the general visual look of the game interface and in-game items and menus, which received little more than a facelift since the original.
When first playing, I thought the interface similarity was maybe a little lazy, but later I realized that, like with Elizabeth and the other visual parallels, it was a way that the game ensured that the parallel universe clues were there all along without me (or most players) suspecting what they truly meant until it was revealed. This unique and rewarding use of visual design to hint at a major plot twist (and connection between games) makes Bioshock Infinite my choice for winner in this department.
I’m going to give this one to Bioshock Infinite as well. The soundtrack here, like the visual echoes, works well on its own but also does some narrative work, as when the barbershop quartet version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” tells you that something is not quite right with Columbia’s timeline. Elizabeth and Booker’s version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” is probably my favorite Easter egg I’ve ever found in a game (and one that’s appropriately not particularly hidden, because it’s too good to miss).
The songs through the spacetime rifts and the general soundtrack work very well, too. To be honest, a year out, I can’t really remember the soundtrack of The Last of Us. When I played it on Spotify, I remembered it, and remembered thinking that it fits the world well, and a few of the songs in The Last of Us, now that I relisten to them, did work really well for their moments in the game. But to me, sound is just not as integral to the experience of The Last of Us as the soundtrack of Bioshock Infinite is.
I’m going to go with The Last of Us on this one. Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is really fun, but it felt like an iteration of the existing Bioshock series gameplay whereas The Last of Us, though obviously part of a well-worn genre of over-the-shoulder survival shooters, felt fresher. I enjoyed the gameplay of Bioshock, but played it more for the world and the story.
I was compelled by the gameplay of The Last of Us. The surprising difficulty of hunting the deer two-thirds of the way through the game was a fresh gameplay moment that drew me further into the story. The gameplay and story in Bioshock Infinite (and the Bioshock series more generally) are both good but feel a little less inseparable than the gameplay and story of The Last of Us, where the experience of combat really adds to my feeling of being steeped in important parts of that world and its experience.
I’m putting these together because character design is great, but without good acting it could be easily spoiled. This category goes to The Last of Us. On the one hand, acting shouldn’t be a huge factor in that the player characters of each game, Booker Dewitt and Joel, are both voiced by the superb Troy Baker. The other actors in each, notably Courtnee Draper in Bioshock Infinite and Ashley Johnson in The Last of Us, are also excellent. And even counting all the minor NPCs, I can’t think of a performance in either game that stuck out as subpar.
Still, The Last of Us gets the nod because I think it gives the actors more to work with, which gives rise to more compelling characters. The character design of Bioshock Infinite is very interesting, working as it does with parallels to the original Bioshock and to the various iterations of Booker (as Comstock, etc.), but these are to a significant degree of intellectual rather than emotional interest.
Bioshock’s Lutece twins are really cool characters, too, but Rosalind Lutece is hardly on the same level as FemShep for Jennifer Hale as far as great roles go. All in all, the characters of Bioshock Infinite feel to me like an indispensible part of a larger, fascinating thought experiment, rather than like the central focus in their own right. The characters of The Last of Us, while raising interesting intellectual and moral questions, but do so in the context of a much more emotionally compelling story that makes me care about them as people in a way I don’t as much in Bioshock Infinite. Highly subjective, of course, but that’s how I feel a year out.
Tie. I cannot, will not give this nod to one game over the other. They’re doing such different things, and they each do their thing amazingly well. Bioshock Infinite is a game that blows your mind with its questions about the game universe, raises interesting questions about the ability of people to change and the justifiability of preemptive action, and delves deeply into a breathtakingly detailed world of meaningful historical context and troubling social problems. Like Bioshock before it, it’s a great game, a richly designed world steeped in history, and a fascinating thought experiment.
The Last of Us focuses on a much more intimate story about the relationship between Joel and Ellie, but makes that story inextricable from the wider stories of their relationships (especially Joel’s) with the secondary characters and the relationship of this central relationship to the wider world and its fate. The climax’s exploration of the two-way impact of personal and social relationships, responsibilities, and loyalties is, for me, unforgettable. Both games are at the forefront of what video game storytelling can be. I Will Not Choose.
OVERALL IMPACT FEW Years Later
Both of these were games that I knew, unquestionably, would compel me to finish a playthrough as quickly as possible—no chance of losing interest or even getting too busy to stick with them until I saw them through to the end. Both also passed my personal litmus test for a perfect story: when I woke up the morning after finishing them, did I spend my whole morning routine—shower, breakfast, getting ready for work—continuing to think through their implications?
With The Last of Us, this effect was so intense that I spend half the next day (a weekend, happily) writing a pair of blog posts about my reactions to the game because I had a hard time concentrating on anything else until I’d thought through it all in my head.
Which is why I’m returning to these games now to think through the question, between these two great games, which has stayed in my head past those first few days and weeks to remain with me more powerfully a year later?
My answer is The Last of Us.
The story of Bioshock Infinite is great and raises interesting questions and social issues. It’s also creative and entertainingly and thought-provokingly tied to its predecessor, Bioshock, in rewarding ways that I never expected. As an exploration of the richpossibilities of storytelling in video games, it’s terrific. But with the focus on multiple universes and timelines and the long-term repercussions of key moments in our lives, it’s quite abstract in a way that is stimulating but harder to latch onto than The Last of Us.
The terrible crises and consequences explored in The Last of Us work on an interpersonal emotional level that I don’t find as fully developed in Bioshock Infinite. It’s the contrast between the games on this level that finally gives The Last of Us the edge and has made it the game I’ve thought about more often over the last year.
When I think about Bioshock Infinite
I remember it as being good for my brain. It’s beautiful, masterfully designed, richly detailed, full of thoughtful social commentary, mind-bending, and centrally concerned with a few key meaningful questions about the consequences of how we choose to live our lives. Its gameplay I remember as being an update of Bioshock—Sky-Hooks and whatnot. I remember the moments of epiphany when twists were revealed and my mind raced through the implications of a new perspective on events. And I remember a couple hard moments when the story took a turn toward the unsettling or tragic.
But when I think about The Last of Us
I feel conflicted. I continue to work through the terrible choices characters were forced to make, and ask myself what I would do in a similar situation. I think about it in terms of people I love and my own ideas of social responsibility. In my mind, The Last of Us occupies a place uncomfortable close to the real world and real (if smaller-scale) choices about relationships and conflicting loyalties to individuals—to family—and to the wider world.
Key moments brought to heartbreaking life by superb animators, actors, and directors remain vivid in my mind. I remember the gameplay as an indispensable part of the overall tension of the experience, and look forward to definitely completing another play through within a year or two, to revisit both the story and the gameplay.
What do you think of my conclusions?
Are any of my verdicts off the mark? Have I ignored a third game that obviously needs to be in this conversation? Am I overlooking any key categories (multiplayer, level design, etc.)? In what ways, and how powerfully, have these games stuck with you a year down the line?