On Bioshock Infinite

I know I need to post part 2 on audience at some point, but I feel the need to talk at length about Bioshock Infinite.

If we judged a game by how much has been written about it since release, Bioshock Infinite is already pretty up there. There are the usual reviews and the spouts of praise from drowning faucets, of course. There’s also the hotly-debated and oft-misunderstood ending. I’m here to throw in my two cents.

Bioshock Infinite is a poster child for the terrible state of video games this generation. No game comes even close to illustrating everything wrong with this industry – not even the woefully poor interpretation of market trends EA likes to call Dragon Age 2. At the same time, Bioshock Infinite is a work of auteur genius I consider on par with Metal Gear Solid 2 – flawed, and completely relevant. So play it, by all means.

Elizabeth: “A choice is better than none, Mr. DeWitt. No matter what the outcome.”
Booker: “Yeah? What if you woke up one day and realized you didn’t like what you chose?”

It’s worth mentioning, I think, my stance on Bioshock before I venture into Infinite territory. Bioshock wowed everyone when it first came on the scene way back in 2007. A slow-paced FPS with magical elements, with a focus on exploration and discovery, all wrapped up in a fantastic setting and intriguing objectivist themes, it gained the most critical of accolades and had everyone falling over themselves lining up to praise it. For my part, I enjoyed everything about Bioshock except playing it.

I consider Bioshock 1 to have one of the greatest opening sequences in videogames ever. I’ve even on occasion shown it to some of my students, asking them about how information is being conveyed to the player. I love the opening sequence of Bioshock so much I try to force myself to play the game every couple of years, only to give up three or four hours later after trudging through another dark, flooded area and going through the tedious motions of checking every trashcan and shelf for items.

Story in Bioshock is conveyed through the environment. Every single area the player enters is painstakingly put together by teams of artists, all concerned with conveying to the player the horror of the situation. It’s a wonderful way to convey story through experience. Not much is explicitly shoved in the player’s face, aside from the audio logs left scattered about the place. It’s up to the player to piece together the story of Rapture’s fall and inferring what went wrong. On this point, Bioshock is an unqualified success.

Second, the player character in Bioshock is a moratorium on choice. Halfway through the game, the player is revealed to have been under the control of an NPC all along; following the narrative of the game, you are revealed to have done none of the last few errands by choice. Using a control phrase subtly slipped into conversation, the player has been hoodwinked into doing everything by the NPC. It’s a monumental twist, and crucial to understanding both Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite. It set new standards for storytelling in the genre – even if that standard involved flat-out admitting that the player was just a pawn to be shuffled to and fro at the will of the game.

The ending of Bioshock Infinite does largely the same thing, only more explicitly, and in such a straightforward, black-and-white way that it had to have pissed some people off. Only a Sith deals in absolutes, after all, and the message of Bioshock Infinite is uncompromisingly both bleak and Sith-like: you have, and always will have no control. You’re a monkey pressing levers, and you’ll do it because you’ve always done it.

From stories of this game’s development, I’m not surprised at the amount of high-profile departures; director Ken Levine’s vision for this game goes in a thousand different directions at once, no doubt giving the entire art and development team frequent migraines. I could of course say that I think Bioshock Infinite is a failure on multiple levels, but that would serve no purpose other than to anger fans or people convinced Bioshock Infinite is great art.

Instead, let’s merely compare it to Bioshock, another game people consider great art. It’s completely fair to compare both games, of course – if 2K are willing to sell them under the same brand and build “Bioshock” as a franchise, then I’m perfectly willing to judge Infinite on Bioshock’s terms.

In Bioshock, as already discussed, the design and the game’s themes serve to reinforce each other. The player character arrives in a Rapture gone to hell, and through understanding of the themes that drive the populace of Rapture it’s possible to piece that into a coherent understanding of exactly why the place has gone to hell.

In Bioshock Infinite, the player character, Booker, is directly responsible for the place going to shit. Columbia is depicted as a white man’s paradise, lifted straight from the idllyic pages of the Household Guide to America, tied up with nice little bows of religion, racial segregation, and jingoism. These are fantastic new strides for themes in videogames, surely – but Infinite commits the hubris of merely bringing them up without having anything interesting to say about them. It’s the equivalent of someone namedropping Descartes and expecting other people to find him or her more intelligent despite not actually proving that he’s read any. The difference between Infinite and its predecessor is obvious, and yet so many seem to have missed this entirely. Bioshock portrays a society taking objectivism to its logical extreme and explicitly how screwed up that society has become as a result of said objectivism. Irrational Games is saying that Objectivism Doesn’t Work, and is doing it in game form. Bioshock Infinite is saying… what exactly about these themes? The closest thing it has to a logical point seems to be that Religion Is Bad. The strangeness of it all is compounded by that Columbia –at least superficially – seems to work and function as an actual society! The player is brought into a world of wonder and beauty. Blue skies and gold-tinted lighting emblazons everything. People offer you hot dogs and the opportunity to win prizes at a game fair. Moneyed people stroll about, having a good time. Children play in the street.

It’s not enough to merely depict racism. We all know racism exists. It’s not a speculative theme. Yet Bioshock Infinite seems to believe clapping colored people in stockades is the height of artistic vision. This is at odds with the actual events of the game – Everything that goes hideously wrong in Columbia is not the result of religion, economics, or race politics – it goes hideously wrong directly as a result of the PLAYER.

The player is what is wrong with the game world. Posters and signs emblazoned all over Columbia paint the player character as the god damned Antichrist, a false prophet sent to lead the “lamb” perennial-time-and-space-rending godchild astray. One has to wonder what would happen had the player decided to not do so and simply live out his life in Columbia as a privileged white man

So to sum up, Bioshock lets you explore a world gone wrong. Bioshock Infinite says you’re responsible for everything that’s gone wrong.

Gameplay has never been Bioshock’s strong suit, the game relying on backtracking and scavenging busywork to progress. The game repeatedly throws waves of enemies at you when tracking through the same areas, some of which are complete bullet sponges and come down to wars of attrition (helped by the fact that you can never die permanently in Bioshock and continues are near-instantaneous). That was in 2007. It’s gratifying to know, then, that Bioshock Infinite has made almost no improvements on this formula.

“Vigors” are this game’s magic plasmid FPS powers, but you could care less about the name because functionally they’re exactly the same. They allow you to wave wave poof and set things on fire, shit lightning out of your fingertips, take control of people, etcetera. That’s not to say that Bioshock Infinite has nothing new of its own to add to the formula – hold down a button and they charge up a “trap” version of that power. On paper it’s a fantastic idea. In-game the reasoning behind the “trap” version of the power is merely an excuse to send waves of enemies charging at you, lemming-like, trying to get in swinging range where you can merrily smack them around for a melee execution or a shotgun blast to the face.

The setpieces where the combat – the actual meat of the game – takes place are often large, sprawling areas, far removed from the corridors of Bioshock 1. These usually take the form of “arena” battles – survive while waves of enemies swarm into the area, who all have to be eliminated to progress. Players are forced to juggle resources, frantically rooting around for health and ammunition between trying to fend off a large number of enemies and bullet-sponging, mercifully functionally retarded clockwork statues of the founding fathers with chainguns. These encounters all play out remarkably similar to each other, in which you use up whatever resource you have the most of or is immediately available to hand. Experimentation is moot when a good half of the magical wave wave poof vigor powers do largely the same things.

On a personal and thus entirely disposable level, it surprised me how dated it felt. At times it felt almost as dated as Aliens: Colonial Marines. That’s not to say a game being dated is a bad thing, but everything from the rudimentary AI to the limited weapon selection screamed of something from an older era.

It’s actually gone quite a few steps back from the first game in terms of what the player can do – you’re now limited to a two-gun system as in every other goddamn game these days and upgrades are purely stat-based. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the limited number of weapons available to the player’s disposal in Infinite – with half of them serving exactly the same battlefield role as the other half. All the gorgeously crafted upgrades from Bioshock 1, where a shotgun could go from old faithful to nightmarish steampunk death-dealing abomination are completely gone.

Why? Nobody asked for the removal of a feature that was pretty much universally well-received.

It’s because the game’s message is that choice doesn’t matter.

Booker: “There are so many choices.”
Elizabeth: “They all lead us to the same place… where it started.”
Booker: “No one tells me where to go.”
Elizabeth: “Booker… we’ve already been.”

How you get from A to B doesn’t matter. For the game’s narrative to make logical sense, A must always be A, and B must always be B. The game is built around constants. Everything in the universe may butterfly out of control, but the coin will always land head side up. It’s not important how you fight your way from point A to point B in the game – what’s important is that you end up at point B. That philosophy drives every single god damned creative decision in the game. It’s why Bioshock Infinite is both a shitty game and a fantastic, desperately bleak creative statement.

As an aside, it also means Bioshock Infinite could have been set anywhere the fuck else, even in space, without impacting its overall message – as long as the game itself admits that there’s always a man, and always a lighthouse. The entirety of Columbia is so much window dressing.

It doesn’t matter whether you use the fire power or the lightning power – they do largely the same thing. What matters is the end result – is the enemy dead? All Bioshock Infinite cares about is whether or not the enemy is dead, and whether you can move onto the next story segment or setpiece the game developers have designed for you. And then the game basically devolves into turning the player into some kind of computer, calculating the most efficient solution or key to the lock and repeating that ad nauseum until the arenas were strewn with bodies and the adorable NPC helped me progress further along in the game. Bioshock Infinite knows we’ll do this, because we’ve always done this. That’s not play. That’s running along a hamster wheel.

Do you see why perhaps I consider this the poster child for shitty videogames in this gen? Not because the developers were obsessed with the bottom dollar, because it was a yearly numbered installment or because it was a mechanically broken mess desperate to tie itself into social integration somehow in an attempt to reach today’s disenfranchised and underpaid youth. It’s because the game itself actually comes out and admits that player choice – and by extension – the player – is fucking irrelevant, because all that matters is that we keep doing what we’re doing. Irrational Games is literally saying they don’t care about what the game is like as long as they get to make their narrative statement! They don’t care what the combat is like because the combat is just what you do in between every single narrative sequence, which has and always will remain constant. They don’t care whether you choose to buy the game digitally or on physical media as long as you buy it! Hell, they might not even care about that as long as they make loads of money. I’m pretty sure some people have found a way to somehow scam money out of people for making movies nobody pays to see.

This is the game we’re lauding as one of the greatest videogame achievements of our age. Does nobody see this?

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