- Written by Brandon Perton
Note: spoilers for the two games being discussed are all over this article.
Forty-five years ago tomorrow (as I write this), humans set foot on an extraplanetary body, the moon, for the first time. But today we’re here to talk about a more critical (if vaguer) anniversary: it’s been a little over one year since both Bioshock Infinite (March 2013) and The Last of Us (June 2013) were available for our playing—and comparing—enjoyment. They were easily my personal most anticipated games of 2013, so why not revisit them a year later 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.
The rules of engagement: this is a rematch in which I focus on how the games have stuck with me several months after my initial playthroughs. It is not about replaying them now—only a year later, I’m not sure that would be particularly interesting. Nor is this about which game has more replay value. This post (Part One) will compare visuals, sound, and gameplay. Part Two of this article [here] will explore acting/character design, plot/narrative, and my overall conclusions about which game has remained with me more powerfully a year 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 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.
For my thoughts on acting/character design, plot/narrative, and my overall conclusions about which game has stuck with me more meaningfully a year after I played them, you can find Part Two of this post here.