Warning: Super-duper spoilers for both games to follow. Tyler Durden isn’t real.
It is exceptionally rare—especially this early in the year—for two critically lauded games to come out so close together. In March, Irrational Games finally released what many consider to be its magnum opus with Bioshock Infinite. The game built on everything that made the original Bioshock a generation-defining experience, while also improving upon the few complaints (such as combat and control) that the original received back in 2007. Of course, the incredibly complex and engaging narrative that Ken Levine and his team created overshadowed these improved mechanics. It was quite common for those who finished it to spend even more time discussing the game than they did actually playing it. Did that final version of Elizabeth disappear when the screen went dark? How do the cities of Rapture and Columbia connect with each other? Would Booker be able to live a happy life with his daughter after eliminating the possibility of Comstock existing?
Roughly three months later, Naughty Dog, the Sony-owned developer famous for the Uncharted and Crash Bandicoot series, managed to garner an identical level of acclaim for its somber, post-apocalyptic tale The Last of Us. Far removed from the adventures of Nathan Drake, The Last of Us features a dead serious narrative that lasts almost twenty hours, and the relationships between characters within its dark, desolate world are unparalleled within the medium. Its dialogue rivals the best works from Tarantino and Fincher, and its tensest moments add a level of anxiety so uncomfortable, it’s almost unbelievable to think that it was made by the same developers of the popcorn blockbuster-adventure Uncharted 2. As reviews started pouring in, the inevitable question started to be raised: could The Last of Us be even better than Bioshock Infinite?
The question was inevitable for two main reasons. Of course, it has been almost unheard of to have two titles receive such high levels of praise in such a short amount of time, but perhaps more importantly, the games share some elements that make them appear far more similar than they actually are. While The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite are undoubtedly going to be considered masterpieces for years to come, here’s why it isn’t fair to directly compare the two, and a few reasons why some do it anyway.
The Last of Us Is About Two Characters. Bioshock Infinite Is About One.
Even for those who have already completed both games, this first point could lead to some confusion, especially considering that Troy Baker played both Booker and Joel. The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite were advertised as stories about two characters working together to achieve a goal and how the experience would affect them. The Last of Us, once completed, can still be described in this fashion. Joel and Ellie’s journey may be from the perspective of Joel for the majority of the game, but Ellie’s psyche and emotions are still on full display. It was Ellie who saved Joel from almost certain death after his gruesome wound, and it was Ellie who brutally killed cannibal David before Joel could intervene. And while the ramifications of Joel’s final decision to not let the Fireflies kill Ellie to discover a vaccine (and his lying about these events) mean that the extinction of humanity may be on his conscience alone, had Ellie not been immune to the infection-spreading fungus already, the adventure would not have delivered the same impact by the time the credits rolled. More importantly, however, is that had Joel not been involved in the story, Ellie’s journey would have continued with someone else at her side. Of course, this journey would certainly be quite different from what occurs in The Last of Us, but it would have taken place nonetheless.
In contrast, although Elizabeth is present for the vast majority of Bioshock Infinite, the game is Booker’s story alone. There was initially controversy surrounding the decision to place only Booker on the cover of the game’s box, but after it is revealed that Booker became Comstock in a different universe, this decision seems far more justified. Had it not been for Booker’s decision to be baptized in one universe, he never would have become Comstock and thus the city of Columbia would not exist. Had he not chosen to refuse the baptism in a separate universe, he would never have been forced to sell Anna Dewitt to Comstock and create Elizabeth in the first place. And to answer the question posed earlier, the final Elizabeth does disappear when Booker is drowned at the conclusion of the game. Without Booker, not only does Elizabeth not matter; she doesn’t even exist. The argument can obviously be made that without Elizabeth, Booker would not be able to right his wrongs, but without Booker, there would be no Elizabeth to help.
Violence Serves A Different Purpose In Each Game.
While the body counts in both The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite are extremely high, the violence serves a very different purpose in both games. The Last of Us puts great emotional weight on life and death. With key characters such as Tess and Sam falling victim to the infection, Joel and Ellie are immediately distressed, and this also affects the player; both of these characters were side by side with Joel and Ellie for hours, and given the dwindling number of healthy survivors left in America, the fact that they were essentially dead for no reason following Joel’s final decision resonates with the player.
In contrast, the violence in Bioshock Infinite feels casual from the beginning. Following the extremely graphic mauling of several police officers during the infamous raffle scene, Booker rarely goes several minutes without killing waves of both Founders and the Vox Populi. When they find Chen Lin dead in a torture room, Booker shows no sadness, only anger. Given Elizabeth’s initial shock to Booker’s actions—including proclaiming that he is a “monster”—some may see this as a disconnect between the narrative and the violent combat sandwiched within it. However, following the revelation that Booker had sold Elizabeth to Comstock in order to “wipe away the debt,” this violence can be seen in a different light. Booker was a monster, and until he makes the decision to die in order to erase the possibility of becoming Comstock, the men and women killed do not matter. The illusion of choice emphasized by the lack of difference between the “bird” and the “cage” also apply to the violence. Had Booker never become Comstock and created Columbia, those people would have never been killed. In fact, some of them could have not existed altogether.
The Games’ Conclusions Perform Two Different Functions.
While, without question, the most memorable moment in Bioshock Infinite is the game’s mind-blowing ending, The Last of Us doesn’t necessarily have one key moment that is designed to stick in the player’s head more than others. The game is roughly twice as long as Bioshock Infinite, and much of its narrative emphasizes the level of endurance and trust that Joel and Ellie must possess in order to achieve their goal. When the screen cuts to black, the player is left with a feeling of self-reflection. “Could I doom humanity for the sake of someone I loved? Did any of those people have to die for us to get to this point?”
Bioshock Infinite’s ending is not supposed to perform this same function. Instead, the questions that Booker has been asking since waking up on the rowboat with the Lutece twins are all answered in the course of just a few minutes. While The Last of Us largely focuses on emotion with its ending, Bioshock Infinite aims to make players think about how the game’s previous events tie together, and both endings achieve this with flying colors. The main similarity in the endings is not what it makes players think about, but rather that it makes them think at all.
Individual tastes mean that most gamers will pick a side about which game they personally prefer, but that doesn’t mean that either game has to be better than the other. These are two of the deepest and most complex experiences ever created in video games, and to attempt to rank one above the other as the clear-cut superior title is doing them both a great disservice. It’s an excellent problem to have as we enter the next generation, where Irrational and Naughty Dog are almost certainly going to deliver more amazing experiences.