Shortly after I finished BioShock Infinite I somewhat foolishly declared it as the best game I ever played. I had convinced myself into believing that for a day under the influence of hype and very good story twist. But I wasn’t ready to really give an opinion. A week has passed, the hype worn off and I return to really think about it all. Turns out that BioShock Infinite is ‘just’ a good shooter with a better story that falls short of its ambitions. Mild story spoilers ahead.
BioShock Infinite is a really remarkable game. The last time there was this much hype for a video game was when Skyrim was coming out, and when it did, it was declared to be the best roleplaying game of all time throughout the internet. After a few months, after all the hype had died down, it became clear that Skyrim was merely the next logical iteration of the Elder Scrolls franchise. It was a good game, but the core issues that plagued Oblivion before it were present here as well. A huge world to explore, yet it wasn’t actually alive. NPCs had day and night cycles, yet they had no dynamic interactions between them. Skyrim was Oblivion, with smoother combat, a prettier world and more raw content.
So BioShock Infinite is somewhat similar, if not an even more extreme case of post-hype disillusionment. I had been waiting for the game ever since the first trailer was published, and played the original in anticipation before hand. Here we have a game, now building towards a franchise, that promises to be better than the rest, to deal with more sophisticated themes than the usual tropes like space marines. BioShock was a game that contained some commentary about objectivism and even an elegantly woven comment on the nature of a game and the player’s role in it, delivered with a twist that seemed to come out of nowhere (for those who hadn’t played System Shock 2). BioShock was better than its peers, and while not actually offering something completely new in terms of gameplay, it was unique in setting. But it was also an under-achiever in terms of sales.
Thanks to its critical success and internet fame though, it was decided the next core BioShock game must be marketed and become as big as Call of Duty. It had to be a landmark game both critically and commercially, so the pressure was on. Leaving Rapture behind and going up to the skies then, was a very bold and confident move by Irrational Games. After playing it and thinking about the game for a week afterwards, I’m inclined to say that Infinite is as enticing and flawed as the place it presents us with.
Going to Columbia is a gaming experience unlike any other. While symmetrical to the original, it has a completely different tone. The grandeur of the city in the skies is overwhelming, magical and sickening at once. The sheer visual impact felt almost brutal. It’s like the people at Irrational tried so so hard to beat the player over the head with the message that Columbia is bigger than life, it’s over the top, it’s a caricature of American exceptionalist heaven. I felt transported into a different reality, one that felt dreamlike with its out-of-touchness from reality. It’s a lot to take in, so thankfully, the first hour or so lets you wander the streets and appreciate the world around you. But it isn’t all positive. In retrospect, I realize that at points I felt annoyed at the people who designed this place. It’s as if they were trying to say: “LOOK AT THIS PLACE! AREN’T WE THE BEST AT MAKING CREATIVE WORLDS? OH AND IT’S SO PERFECT, SOMETHING JUST HAS TO BE WRONG HERE RIGHT? LOOK AT THE POSTERS EVERYWHERE, IT’S PROPAGANDA YOU KNOW?”
Yes, I get it, okay, okay. OKAY!!!
What is interesting though is that at the time I played it, after looking forward for this experience for a year or so, I hadn’t formed that opinion. I wanted it to be like this, because hell, after all this hype, it BETTER be bigger than life. It BETTER live up to these horribly bloated expectations. So in a way, it’s like this heavy strike to impress me was necessary to lower my guard for the rest of the game. I was intoxicated and had already decided that this was one of the best things ever. It even managed to make me feel smart, what with all the ‘thought provoking’ propaganda layered on top of EVERYTHING in the world.
It’s a game…
As if in fear of appearing like a non-game, it then escalates into a shooter. A very pretty one, but still a rather normal shooter. With powers, to be sure, because powers are cool. It’s a crying shame really, because it reminds more of a drug addict trying to come clean. It tries hard, really hard, to fulfill its ambitions of being better than it is, because it believes it can. But play on another 5 minutes and it falls back to the old habit. Shooting many virtual men in the face. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-shooters. I just believe that it shouldn’t be the default type of interactivity when traversing a world in the first person perspective. I’m not even offended by the violence on display here. I didn’t even know that Booker could perform these over-the-top execution moves until after I finished the game. And even then, it is entirely the choice of the player to press the button to execute.
What I take issue with is the grating contrast between the ambition in sophistication of the narrative and the conservative approach to gameplay in the first person perspective. To me, the inclusion of shooter mechanics and combat serves really just a secondary purpose. It is the filler that is put in the game to clumsily pace the progression of the story. It is the obstacle to Booker’s mission, otherwise it wouldn’t be a struggle and tension would be missing. It’s like Irrational somehow needed to make sure that Booker doesn’t just cakewalk his way through Columbia. They needed to make the player sweat and work for his victories. How else but through gunplay against hordes of armed men? Of course, the gunplay must be smooth and satisfying. It must be varied and strategic, hence the inclusion of vigors. Nevermind the complete absence of a satisfying explanation why these powers exist in the world. (Why such dangerous powers would be put in bottles and conveniently strewn along Booker’s path I don’t even want to get into. Plasmids were handled a bit better in BioShock, though it was still puzzling what use people would have to be able to shoot bees from their hands outside of combat. It’s like people were preparing for a bloody conflict in Rapture.)
The modern gamer is used to these patterns of game design and it is no surprise that so few in the mainstream media have questioned these design decisions. It’s just how shooters are made, and it plays so well, so…whatever.
…but does it serve the vision?
Thanks to Infinite being a shooter where the player buys upgrades and scavenges items to recharge his health, the unbelievable creativity poured into the world feels wasted. What use is it to make authentic decor and objects that reflect the design sensibilities of the period, when it just serves as a mere backdrop for quickly searching for a few more bucks in a garbage bin or food under a table. Sure, I occasionally would stop and take a look around to appreciate it all, but not primarily because I wanted to, but because I felt bad that all this effort by the artists at Irrational just passed me by. It feels like many parts of BioShock, specifically the art and story, strive for something more worthwhile and unique than what you usually find in other games, but is hugely let down by the requirement to also be a serviceable FPS. Sure, it is plausible that Booker would get into a lot of fights. After all, Columbia is in the middle of a violent revolution, and Booker is in direct conflict with Comstock himself. But combat shouldn’t be the only type of obstacle that Booker would have to face. Yet it is, because:
a) FPS’s are the best selling types of games and
b) Irrational didn’t bother coming up with an alternative type of gameplay other than the mechanics of movement and aiming and strategizing within a 3D space against AI opponents. I would have welcomed some puzzle solving to act as a counter weight to the constant twitchy carnage, but that’s just me.
It could be seen as unfair to fault BioShock Infinite for allowing such ludonarrative dissonance (sorry for using the term) when other games do it all the time. But it is so noticeable here because BioShock prides itself for striving to be different and innovative. As Levine said when presenting the original at E3 2006:
“What we’re trying to do is redefine what it means to be a first person shooter. Our goal is to put a stake in the heart of all those cliches you’ve been playing for years in first person shooters; the linear corridors, the very static environments and the cookie cutter AIs.”
I think it can be said that this was the intention behind BioShock Infinite as well. To be condemning (though rightfully so in my opinion) other games that came before it in such a way, only to basically do the same thing as them when it comes down to it strikes me as a big misstep.
The best narrative I ever played
All these issues aside, BioShock Infinite’s story stayed with me for days after it ended, and I felt as far as stories go in games (or any other media for that matter) it was one of the best I can remember experiencing. As sad as it is that the game doesn’t go deeper into the themes of inequality, racism, religious fanaticism, I really enjoyed that it instead decides to go on a complete tangent and turn into a complex sci-fi story of multiple dimensions. It feels like Levine was a bit of a coward to sidestep all these things and doesn’t make a real statement, but I respect the science fiction and the elaborateness of the plot. The twists and turns were at times really really powerful and the reason why I decided to play on in spite of the disappointing FPS nature of the game.
So would it make for a good movie? I recommend this little debate just to think about it.
In my opinion, BioShock Infinite would make for a great movie. The vision would be even better served than as a game. It would give the viewer some distance to observe and think about the story, better than what is afforded the player as he is rushed from one shallow firefight to the next. There’d be more emphasis on character development and the meat of what is good and unique about Infinite. Being able to actually look at Booker would in my opinion allow for better identification with the character than the irritation of him occasionally and suddenly speaking up from the first person perspective.
I’ve previously said that games should prioritize gameplay above story telling, and that stories should be an outcome of gameplay itself. This can only be achieved with smart facilitation of interactivity in games, and by that, stories can be told indirectly but organically through game design. The constant attempts to tell linear stories, no matter how great they might be, and then retroactively trying to fit in traditional model of gameplay is in my opinion a fundamentally wrong approach, and ultimately will let down the narratives they’re meant to support. While these games can be enjoyable experiences nonetheless if the execution is done well, they just won’t fulfill the potential of their vision.
I think that Infinite will continue to be debated about for many years to come and it surely will lead many game developers to fundamentally rethink game design. For that I am grateful. We need these kind of games to nudge games forward. BioShock Infinite will be seen by many as a total failure, by some to be a near masterpiece, and by even more as a really good shooter. Contrary to its appearance it’s not the game to lead us to the promised land. Without a doubt though, it is a worthwhile game to play.