a review of BioShock Infinite
a videogame developed by Irrational Games
and published by 2K Games
for PC, the microsoft xbox 360 computer entertainment machine and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
~if you would like to view a video of me reading this review — with question-and-answer periods at the beginning and end, please click here (audio-only version forthcoming)~
A Steam banner advertisement for Bioshock Infinite declares:
“10 out of 10. Unforgettable.” –Game Informer
This tells me one thing: the world’s largest videogame retail establishment owns a magazine, and that magazine cannot forget about Bioshock Infinite.
This tells me that money and mouths crouch silently in wait for this game’s release. It is a great experiment, wrapped in mainstream appeal, wrapped in artistic appeal, wrapped in mainstream appeal — just a never-ending (infinite) sometimes-downward, sometimes-upward, cyclone-hugging twisting torpedo forged by the unholy fusion of casual (curious non-gamers who find the sophisticated veneer attracting) and hardcore (shooting fans (and art appreciateurs)).
Bioshock Infinite is The Best Game Ever and The Worst Game Ever, inserted into opposite ends of a transdimensional nuclear supercollider.
Before I can (indirectly, weirdly) address the above nebulous statement, however, I will need to talk about the box art for around four thousand words:
The Bioshock Infinite box art “controversy” was one of the more interesting videogame-related events in recent memory. Fans of the game series torrented the internet with their words of disappointment that this game series they so loved for its ornate production design and fruitcake-dense atmospheric plotting (“plotmosphere”?) might show itself to the shelf-gazers of the world’s videogame retail establishments as yet another picture of a guy with a gun.
Ken Levine, the Bioshock series mastermind, apologized to these fans through press interviews. He communicated that they focus-tested the game with “frat boys” — yes, that exact phrase: “frat boys” — because the humans who videogame companies pay to know math stuff estimate that the billion-some money sacks big games grappling-hook and/or kraken-tentacle in year after year largely originate in Abercrombie cargo-short pockets.
I watched the backlash to Levine’s comments in a state of morbid, heckish, lonely bemusement reserved only for people who have started and ended careers in finance, game development, and advertising multiple times throughout their lives. Many peanut gallerians believed that pandering to “frat boys” was the “renegade option”, to borrow a phrase from Mass Effect. It was the low-hanging fruit. By pandering to frat boys, the game’s creators were putting off players who were tired of so many games about guys with guns. By putting a guy with a gun on the box, they were excluding the other interesting characters and environmental elements. The game also stars a cute girl — with visible cleavage (which might have interested the frat boys, right?) — and among its enemies are 1912 animated gun-wielding robotic George Washingtons. Also, it takes place entirely on a city which is literally flying in the clouds. Also, there’s a big menacing robot bird thing which screams, tears things apart, and shoots lasers. And the main bad guy has a huge beard — don’t dudes love huge beards, these days? Huge beards are about as hip right now as the word “bacon”.
None of the comments that I saw explicitly came out and said it, though I couldn’t help thinking that an “Indiana Jones” movie-poster-style cover could have fit this game perfectly, and appealed to both sides of the weird argument.
The most common detailed negative reactions were lamentations that big game companies will never try to create a “new” audience. They’re doomed to keep sequelling Call of Duty or Halo. A glimmer of understanding tinged these complaints: here was a game a large group of people had used One Hundred Million Dollars to make over the course of five years. Those who scream loudest that games are art once yearned for a world in which all of their friends were able to get to the end of Bioshock; alas, many peoples’ friends only lasted an hour or two. Here was Bioshock Infinite, another chance to redeem games as art, another chance to show The Uninitiated that, “Hey, look at this! We’re not all the same”, and it looked even better and denser and richer than the first . . . and the most daring maneuver the marketers were willing to pull off was to make the game look “Kinda like an old-timey Uncharted I guess?”
And so, once again, according to the loudest booers, The Uninitiated remained The Uninvited.
So one conspiracy theory goes: there was a time, before Uncharted came out, when the black-robed, silent, telepathic octogenarians in the videogame corporate boardrooms of the world would have shot down any game that looked like Uncharted: “The kids want space, or the kids want real god darn marines,” they’d have said. Believe it or not — and it’s wholly your choice, as this is yet an Urban Myth — Uncharted was a bold new frontier (in addition to being “Sort of Tomb Raider with a guy”).
We could say that electronic games are buying their “certifiable mainstream entertainment” status one molecule at a time.
If Bioshock Infinite meets financial success, we might see yet another big-budget action game set it an interesting place. We might see another game with as meticulously positioned three-dimensional art assets. We might see another hundred-million-dollar game that isn’t about marines, space marines, swamp marines, war marines, or even Navy SEALs.
If Bioshock Infinite trips and falls on a tree root full of gold, we might someday see a far better game than Bioshock Infinite.
Today, the only game we can compare to Bioshock Infinite is Bioshock Infinite. It is here, it is in our living rooms, and it has bills to pay.
It has two hundred million dollars’ worth of bills to pay.
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”, says a blood-spattered note on a lighthouse door at the opening of the game. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”, says big, italicized font on the back of the box. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt”, say all the eager players. Oh, Bioshock Infinite — will you bring us the girl?
Oh brave new world, that has such Bioshock Infinite.
(Be right back, everybody — I need to grow a mustache and then twirl it for six nonstop hours.)
I’m having another look at the box art right now. Personally, I think it’s not so bad, in the grand scheme of things. It’s a guy with a gun, sure. However, the guy is wearing an interesting coat, and he’s holding an interesting gun. The logo is more dramatic and bizarre than a Call of Duty or Halo logo would ever be. An American flag is burning in the background. Sparks are flying in the foreground. The guy is wearing one of those old-timey ties. There’s a Big Daddy from Bioshock One looking angry in the lower-right corner, for appeal to players of the original . . . oh, wait, I’m looking at the PlayStation 3 version, which includes Bioshock on the disc.
Okay, now I’m looking at the Xbox 360 version. We can see the guy’s belt. He’s wearing khakis. He has a bandage on his right hand. The color palette of the illustration works well with the green plastic of the Xbox 360 case.
I suppose I’m sort of “the right audience” to genuinely appreciate this box art. Many emails arrive in my inbox daily, either telling me that my tastes are too mainstream or too niche. I gave Gears of War and Gears of War 2 four out of four stars, I gave Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare four out of four stars, and I gave Bioshock just two out of four stars, so obviously, yes, I’m too mainstream. I gave Super Mario Galaxy two out of four stars, so I must be the devil. However, I gave Super Mario 3D Land four out of four stars, so I must be one of those “contrarian” “art-gamer” “niche” “jerks”. I said Cave Story was “better than Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night combined”, so obviously I have “soul cancer”, as one comment put it. I plead not guilty on all counts — for example, souls aren’t real, so “soul cancer” isn’t even a thing. It’s just that I like what I like. I like holistically complete experiences. No one element ever gets my perfect score — except sometimes.
I like what I like.
I don’t dislike Bioshock Infinite’s box. Those who say it makes the game look “just like any other shooter” are dead wrong. The color palette is subtly subversive — sporting red, yellow, and blue, all at once. The gun is interesting; the coat is interesting. The burning American flag? Hel-lo, that is interesting, given the patriotic “fuck ‘em all up” mentality of nine out of ten games that score a nine out of ten from NRAGamer.com. And the bandaged hand? Well, that’s a reference to what “true fans” will ultimately agree is the most interesting part of the whole game. If a group of marketers is going to paint by the (demographical) numbers, if they are going to tick every box on the checklist, I can’t imagine they could have done it in a classier fashion. I dare say I detect the creative-directing hand of Ken Levine somewhere deep in the background of this box art: if he was going to follow someone else’s rules, he was going to make sure he got away with as much as he could get away with.
And I like Booker DeWitt’s haircut. I like it so much, I got that same haircut about a year before I saw Bioshock Infinite’s box, and I still have it today. On the other hand, I got this haircut because I’m one of those weird jerks who shaves after lathering up with ocean kelp soap applied with a badger-hair brush. On the other other hand, I own a $400 Burberry scarf. On the other other other hand, I understand that that scarf is Just A Scarf, and that a $4 scarf would perform the same function — a Uniqlo Heattech scarf would actually generate heat, and those only cost $10; that’s superior performance at superior value. On the other other other other hand, I found that scarf in a bag on the street, so it’s not like I paid $400 for it — and it’s not like I still don’t wear it.
So: that’s me. That’s the kind of person who likes Bioshock Infinite’s box. As this particular person, I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the world who could properly review Bioshock Infinite — which is, in all likelihood, what the game wants me to think. I’m sure everyone else on the internet thought the same thing immediately upon completing the game — the internet, don’t you know, is a fantastic place if you’re into seeing smart people talking at length about Bioshock Infinite.
See: in an alternate universe, I would have grown up to develop Bioshock Infinite. I would have done a few basic things differently, and probably written punchier dialogue in parts.
Then I would have released it with the exact same box.
The pre-installed fans’ outcry surrounding Bioshock Infinite’s box art penetrates to the deepest spiritual layers of the game. Here is a game that is showing itself to the world as “definitely some kind of action game”, meanwhile hinting at some colorful creativity. One of the quietest critiques of the critics of Bioshock Infinite’s box art was that, well, this is, in fact, a game in which you play the role of a white man who shoots people in the face — to death.
I remember seeing that particular critique and letting out a sub-verbal “Excellent”.
Now that I’ve played the game — lord. Lord is this game ever a game about a white man shooting cops in the face with high-powered weaponry.
As a concession to the most violently vocal critics of the “shameless” shooter-y box art, Ken Levine announced that his crack art team were cooking up a variety of “artistic” alternative covers, and the fans would be able to vote on which of these alternate covers would appear on the inside of the game’s sleeve.
The developer stressed that the winning illustration would go inside the game’s more fratboyfriendly sleeve; players wishing to elevate their shelf of dumb games a notch higher toward “Criterion Collection” could choose to flip the sleeve around, slide it back in, and then receive a knock on the door. It’s [your favorite eighties band name here]: they think you’re cool, and they want you to hang out with them.
The illustration that won the fan-off is a mystical depiction of the bizarre robotic Songbird — flying, humanoid-ish, birdoid-ish, hulking, mysterious protector of the flying city of Columbia. In the background, we see some floating buildings, some wispy old-timey ink-illustrated clouds, and a quaint and stately zeppelin. Surrounding all this is a stoic picture-frame. The logo is a minutely shaded vintage-magazine-cover-worthy ink illustration. Looking at it, the person deep inside me who once owned enough Criterion Collection releases to tile a middle-class bathroom floor lets out a quivering little, “Hey, thanks”.
However: this quiet red print is not the game I played. The game I played looked a lot more like Cool Haircut Guy With A Cool Gun And Fire.
In a fit of reflex that has roots in my childhood — during which I read rented games’ instruction manuals cover to cover at the dinner table while eating a bowl of cereal before I’d let myself play the game — I removed Bioshock Infinite’s instruction manual my first time opening the case, and there, behind the manual, was a line of text. If I were to flip the cover around, this line would be on the back of the box.
This is the line:
“The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist . . .”
The line is attributed to “Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel, R. Lutece, 1889″.
The attribution contains the words “Trans-Dimensional Travel”. Well, I managed to avoid any sort of media that would contain spoilers, so I sure didn’t know this game was going to have any trans-dimensionality in it. So those two words there shoved my brain kicking and screaming right into Sherlock Holmes mode.
The quote itself is sloppy both mechanically and structurally in a way that serves as a perfect top-down analysis of Bioshock Infinite itself:
1. It’s attributed to a piece of extra-diegetic lore (in this case a book or an academic paper)
2. It appears on the back of the “alternate cover”, which the player has to consciously remove from the game box and slide in backward in order to truly experience
3. The people who flip this cover around likely hate and resent the Action Man Guy on the front of the actual cover
4. The people who flip this cover around would probably rather play a modern Final Fantasy than Call of Duty, even though each of those things is precisely as idiotic as the other
. . . by now I’ve lost my composure. Uh —
“The mind of the subject –” Who is the subject? Am I “the subject”? Oh good lord I better not be the subject — I mean, me the person, not me the character I’m controlling. If this game tries to talk about me being a “player” or “controller” of this guy I am going to shriek —
“– will desperately struggle –” Whoa, haven’t you guys read Stephen King’s “On Writing” chapter about adverbs? “Struggle” implies desperation. If the author of this sentence is a scientist — especially one back in the late 19th century, when people read books, and authors composed prose with a nod to the backbreaking work of the manual printing press typesetter — concise precision likely would have come naturally.
“The mind of the subject will struggle” — . . . actually, it’s more economical to say “The subject’s mind”. An apostrophe-S is not always, don’t you know, a sign of lack of sophistication. (They were in fashion in the late 19th century — in the time of the printing press.)
“The subject’s mind will struggle to create memories where none exist.”
Wait, has this game already got me? Am I already struggling to create memories where none exist?
I get worried for a second; then I cut off the “where none exist”: obviously, “create” means “to make something from nothing”. “Create” also implies action — willful, voluntary, concentrated action. These memories the subject’s mind are creating are results of a struggle — a desperation to make something. Making a memory of a fun day at the beach, for example, is effortless. For what reason would we struggle to create a memory? Because one does not exist.
“The subject’s mind will struggle to create memories.”
I have now discerned the relative unsophistication of the game’s narrative. I gear-shift down from Sherlock Holmes Mode into “I’ve seen a couple of M. Night Shyamalan movies” mode.
It’s time to play the game.
Bioshock Infinite begins with a surprise birthday party.
This is a metaphor: it’s my birthday, all of my friends are busy, and two of them mention dead grandmothers. One friend isn’t busy. He calls me and offers to take me to a restaurant I’ve never been to. The restaurant has no windows. As we approach the door, I can’t see who’s inside.
At the beginning of Bioshock Infinite, my mind is the Indianapolis 500 (by which I mean it’s racing):
The hero’s name is Booker DeWitt.
Booker, as in book. Book, as in something someone working on this game might have given careful consideration to reading at some point before they decided “Sesame Street” was probably education enough.
DeWitt as in “De Wit”, as in “Of Wit”, as in “imaginary”? By god, if this story turns out to be “just a dream”, I am going to throw up all over my shag carpet. I am going to turn my shag carpet into a vomit swamp. I am going to turn my shag carpet into a diarrhea marsh. If it turns out that girl character, Elizabeth is just the schizophrenic voice in my main character’s head, I am going to scream so hard the neighbors kick my door down. If the “twist” here is that I’m mind-controlling the main character — that I’m both the good guy and the bad guy, I’m going to go outside and shriek until all the birds fall dead from the trees, I swear to god —
(It turns out that “DeWitt” is a Dutch name, and it means “Of White”. Oh, so it’s probably a comment on race.)
We’ve come a long way since 1994: we’ve now got first-person shooter action videogames that we’re expected to talk to adults about — as adults ourselves. They say you have to walk before you can run, so I’m guessing videogames need “The Sixth Sense” before we get “The Fifth Element”. Stories you can spoil in a sentence are the ones that get people talking (either straight at, or dancing around) — they get people Two Hundred Million Dollars’ Worth Of Talking.
So here I am, spending my whole first ten minutes with the game trying to find that sentence.
I realize that they made this game in the Unreal Engine, and I’ve made some 3D first-person shooter levels, myself, so I know how easy it is to just go back and polish, to add details. Right off the rowboat, I’m seeing a billion little tiny things in the lighthouse area, and a bunch of huge ones. There’s a jar of pickles on a bookshelf . . . there’s a dead man in a chair. Outside, there’d been a note on the door: “BRING US THE GIRL AND WIPE AWAY THE DEBT”. In the lower-left corner of the note is a brick-red blood stain. Is this a clue? Is it a red herring? Or is the game just being wild and reckless? Is it supposed to be a detail that hammers into my Player Brain that This Be Serious Business? I’m guessing it’s the latter.
Before I saw the note, when I got off the boat, I noticed a second boat, under the pier.
While I was on the boat, the man rowing the boat asked the woman to row; she said she didn’t want to row, because coming out here was the man’s idea. She asked why he doesn’t ask Booker DeWitt to row, to which he responds, “He doesn’t row”. She asks him to clarify. He says, again, “He doesn’t row”, emphasizing the “doesn’t”, and I think, “Time travel?”
“OF YOUR SINS I WILL WASH THEE”, reads a quaint, embroidered sign over a bowl of water inside the lighthouse. DeWitt looks at the sign, yanking our camera in the direction of his head. “Good luck with that, pal,” he says, the first of many to-come dialectical anachronisms.
My detective hat materializes on my head, and I ponder: “This man sounds like he feels guilty about some things that have happened in his past, like he feels that his guilt and sin is unwashable, and he seems simultaneously skeptical of religion and averse to the idea of baptism.”
So I realize that I’m headed — upward (the only way) — toward a place where religion and its varying symbolisms are important.
I get to the top of the lighthouse, and there’s a door with three bells that have symbols on them.
Booker removes the photograph of Elizabeth, flips it over, and there’s the combination written right on the back of it. It says to ring one bell once, the second bell twice, and the other bell twice. I do this, and the door opens. What the heck was that? It’s like, “Here, if you weren’t born with painted-over wood shop goggles glued to your head, we’ll let you play our game here.”
Inside the room is a rocket chair.
“Looks like they expect me to sit in that fancy chair,” Booker says, as a “SIT IN CHAIR” tutorial button prompt materializes on the screen.
Thanks for the tips, guys.
So here’s where I settle fully into “Oh, I’m playing a videogame” mode: I press the indicated button to sit in the chair, and Booker DeWitt rodeo-jockeys his way right into the thing. He rides it like a pommel horse. He slams each hand down on an arm of the chair and wheels himself around with garish abandon. All that’s missing is a Super Mario 64 “Let’s’a Go”.
It is not 1993; this is not DOOM. It is 2013; it is twenty years after DOOM. I’m still a floating head with floating hands, though now the game makers are courteous enough to give me some circus clown theatrics along with every insignificant motion of my character. He doesn’t just sit in a chair — he wheelie-pop-glides his way around and down into it. He doesn’t just press an elevator button — he jerks his head to one side, pulling the camera into a canted angle, he makes a fist, he cocks that fist back to his chest, and he murder-stabs at it like he were holding a knife.
The rocket chair explodes into the sky, in a scene uncannily reminiscent of the original Bioshock’s descent scene: we watch through a window, with limited movement control of the first-person camera, as a mysterious, majestic, enormous, expensive-3D-arted city descends (ascends, in the first Bioshock) into view. My intrigue switch is flipped “on”.
There, outside my dirty little window, is a several-stories-tall billboard, with the face of an old, bearded man on it: “COMSTOCK: OUR PROPHET”, it says.
“Aha. That guy must be important. He must be the guy responsible for the John The Baptist imagery downstairs.”
The Intrigue Switch stays on for a while. I’m in a hall with a high ceiling, full of statues and candles and a slow, spooky chant of “Amazing Grace”, and I’m remembering the Catholic cathedrals that were our only tourist destinations (always for Sunday mass) during the eighteen years of my life I spent moving every three months with my Army family, and — [“Law and Order” Sound Effect!]
Appears at the top of the screen. Oh — okay. Now I’m back in I’m Playing A Game Mode, and I look down, and see I’m standing in water, and that I can’t see my reflection in the water, and this makes me wonder how they got all this water up here into the sky, and I freak out about halfway and then —
The first person I meet in this moody hall in this city up in the clouds tells me that I’m in Heaven — or, the closest we’ll get to heaven while we’re alive. This is where Bioshock sinks a robotic bird talon into the meat of my soul: this is a weird, little, pebble-sized, interesting concept for a science-fiction short story, the kind I’d come up with while hanging out with good friends, over delicious pizzas and tasty root beers. “What if some rich weird guy built, like, a flying city, and it was, like, meant to be a replication of the Christian Heaven?” One of my friends would tell me that sounded sort of like Hayao Miyazaki’s “Laputa [Castle in the Sky]” (excellent film, by the way; if I were a movie critic, I’d give it four out of four stars), and I would be like, “No it doesn’t! I’d defamiliarize it — I’d make the guy, like, American. And I’d set it around the time of the Civil War!” We’d laugh about it a bit, and I’d probably find a way to say that if they made a movie Sean Bean could be in it, and then we’d be talking about “Game of Thrones”, and then I’d talk about my Big Hollywood Dream to someday direct a nine-hour three-part big-screen adaptation of “Moby-Dick” starring Sean Bean, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Tom Hardy (audience participation: guess who plays what role) . . . and that’s the end of that.
So I had an “It’s A Wonderful Life” George Bailey Jimmy Stewart “What do you know about that?” moment, right there, at the gates of Columbia, thinking, hey, it’s pretty god darn cute that someone went ahead and spent a hundred million dollars on the sort of thing I’ve been writing sci-fi novellas about since I was fourteen. (I’ve written so many of them that if I started printing them out and burning them, one at a time, it’d take me until I was forty-five to finish burning them.)
Then the first big theme beat rains down: in order to enter the city, you must accept baptism from a saintly raving robed priest. Booker DeWitt has already expressed skepticism at the idea of baptism. He’s already scoffed at the idea of his sins being washable. He had said “Good luck with that, pal”. Now this guy is strong-arming him into the loving embrace of The Lord. Booker panics. He’s like, “Get your hands off of me!” He’s like, “I just need to get into the city!”
And then the guy dunks him. The camera quickly cuts to a scene in a river. Believers are applauding in a circle. Booker is screaming.
I think of the film “The Cell” — boy oh boy there was a J-Lo in that one — where Vincent D’Onofrio’s serial killer character’s particular type of schizophrenia activated during an early childhood incident involving water. The story explains that this particular type of schizophrenia’s activation is almost always associated with near-drowning experiences —
For a sixteenth of a second, I figure out the whole of the game’s plot — it grows for this time like a pea-sized cancer on the bottom of my brain. Then I narrow my eyes and scrunch my nose and pucker my lips and I’m like, “Nah, that can’t be it”.
Days later, when the deed is done, my friend Christian Nutt is in my house. We’re talking about Bioshock Infinite — he’s come over to borrow my copy.
“Try as hard as you can,” I tell him. “Just set your brain into overdrive for those first couple hours; see if you can figure out the ending. I was M. Night Shyamalan-viewering as hard as I could, and I didn’t see the ending part coming. It rubed me right through.”
It’s true; Bioshock Infinite’s surprises managed to rube me. If only I’d stuck to my initial suspicion, and refreshed my memory of it repeatedly during the middle third of the game, I’d likely have felt like a genius when revelation time came around.
Instead, I feel like a loser: Bioshock Infinite rubed me the way Bioshock didn’t.
Oh my lord, how easy it is to spoil this game! You can do it in a couple of words! It wouldn’t even be a real sentence — it’d be a tiny decrepit thimble-wearing mutilated pinky finger of a sentence, with the brain of the listener filling in all the holes.
Oh, well: my perfect spoiler guess pushed aside, I entered Columbia. Booker DeWitt was face-down in a fountain in a garden. The first big detail to greet me was the hummingbirds swarming around a fragrant shrub. Okay: those look cool. Then came the three massive statues: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. At the feet of the statues, worshippers had gathered; if I drew near, they talked about the statues. Benjamin Franklin was “The Key” — because of his knowledge and/or his electricity experiment — and George Washington was “The Sword”, because he was a military guy. Thomas Jefferson was “The Scroll”, et cetera.
“These religious guys are real religious about America.”
I started to walk in the only available direction, immediately noticing the Disneyland structuring of the game’s environment design. I’m all for a good Virtual Disneylanding, as long as it’s dressed up well enough. Half-Life 2 is hecka Disneylanded, and I don’t mind one bit.
The first pedestrians I happen upon outside the garden aren’t dressed in any fancy religious clothing. They’re just regular city jerks. If I approach them, I can hear them talking. Some people outside of a cafe are talking about “The Vox Populi”, and a lady asks, “What does Vox Populi even mean?” And I say, aloud, “It means ‘The Voice of the People’”, and another guy at her table says, “It’s Latin”, and she scoffs, and spits out the word “Latin, huh?” This interests me because I know that Catholic masses were conducted exclusively in Latin well into the twentieth century, and I also know that these people are some offshoot of Protestants, which means they wouldn’t necessarily be Latin fans, and also that modern American Christians in my acquaintance have that same eerie ignorance of that particular ancient language. I start thinking that this game is clever.
I also start thinking it’s better than Bioshock — instead of audio tapes lying around all the place explaining the story to me, I have actual animated human people conversing with other actual animated human people.
This is also around where I notice a life bar has appeared on the screen. Uh-oh. I wish I’d noticed it earlier, because I’d love to be able to time the “appearance of life bar to first dangerous obstacle”.
Let’s go ahead and spoil that: the life bar was on the screen for about an hour before I encountered the first dangerous obstacle.
I’m not complaining: it was a lovely hour. Nor am I trying to say that it’d take everyone an hour to get to the first fight. I took my time. I treated the game like a stroll in the park. Here was a weird, fancy, elaborate, deliberately bizarre imagined place, alive and delicious with 3D art and colorful colors. Signs abounded, and the signs had words — more than two or three words. Sometimes there were a dozen words. Sounds of fireworks and electricity and excited humans filled the air: it was the day of a festival, an anniversary of the city’s founding. For three whole minutes, I stand by a flower-pot-lined railing overlooking a blue-skied cloudy abyss, listening to an animatronic-like tin soldier-y robotickish barbershop quartet singing an earnestly, fabulously creepy cover of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. The barge atop which this ghastly grinning quartet perform floats with merry yayness; upon it are signs, declaring the quartet the “Most Popular In Columbia”. I feel like I’ve stepped into a nightmare world — and not the kind of world most people are talking about when they joke about nightmares. This is literally the kind of nightmare I actually have in my real sleep. When the song is done, the animatrons and their barge descend beneath the sill of the world, and I’m a little humbled for a minute, impressed with how sincerely and straightforwardly this game is Being Disneyland.
The stroll through the Columbia parade is remarkable. I loved every third or fourth second of it, and liked every other second at least a little bit. At first it weirded me out because the trees looked like jumbles of flat polygons, and then I stopped being a jerk: they started making this darn game five years ago. For five years this game was several hundred peoples’ lives. It was their rent and grocery money. I stopped actively searching for technical inconsistencies and let the game absorb me.
I was having an exceptionally good time, letting that game absorb me. It sucked me right up and into itself. The world was so terrifically dense. If I entered buildings, magazines or newspapers were open on tables, and I could read actual words on them. Posters were all over the place: I read all of them. I stared at statues from all angles. After thirty minutes of this, I realized I hadn’t seen the same male haircut twice.
What an unthinkably visually dense piece of entertainment! What a confidently, virtuosically jam-packed imaginary world! Scenes like that first hour of Bioshock Infinite are enough to give me extreme confidence in the videogame medium: here’s how it can be as strong as film: it can let me walk around in a beautifully rich and unquestionably imaginary place, bursting with tiny, medium-sized, and huge details, dripping with the conversations of humans with cute little outfits and hats and shoes and haircuts and cute little roles to play in this densely imagined virtual world. Here’s all that I wanted in games like Skyrim or Fallout: a brick-dense fantasy environment that feels too real to be real, a hyper-real mega-scale Disneyland attraction.
That’s a powerful declaration for me: I don’t even like Disney.
Meanwhile, in the corner of my eye, the health bar lingers . . . it’s winking at me. It’s a silent specter of my otherlifely recollections that this game is about shooting people in the face. I see that life bar, and I think about the box art, with its haircut, its shotgun, its burning American flag . . .
Well, write today’s date down in the ledger: this is the day on which I accidentally, finally, almost painted myself into a corner wherein I’d have to use the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance”.
I try to keep myself plain-spoken, writing whole paragraphs instead of using buzzwords. This gives me a . . . well, I can’t say so objectively, though I think it gives me a “charming” demeanor in business. Here’s a conversation I had the other day:
“We’re just kind of shopping around these days, trying to find the right project that’s worth our while money-wise, meanwhile working on our own little stuff, trying to whip our own stuff into something maybe someone would be interested in putting up a little money for.”
“So you’re bootstrapping?”
“Boot– . . . what?”
“I don’t know what that means.”
(Hint: I actually know what it means.)
“It means you’re — I mean, it means what you said you were doing, about trying to find out what thing is . . . what thing you’re interested enough in to focus on . . . you know, doing.”
Now the other guy thinks I’m stupid — I’m Columboing him, and Columbo always wins.
Et cetera. If I continued citing examples, I’d end up with an essay longer than my review of Bioshock Infinite is going to be.
So here I was, today, faced with writing the following section, and I realized the word count would grow stupidly huge if I didn’t cut to the chase and use the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance”.
Then I actually read a little bit about “ludonarrative dissonance”, and realized that it doesn’t mean exactly what I thought it means.
I thought it meant something along the lines of that special quality that Conan O’Brien exudes in his “reviews” of videogames — where he asks the dumbest questions at the smartest times. Asking those dumb questions has been, in fact a founding mission of Action Button Dot Net, and it is one of the pillars of our “brand” of “criticism”.
So now I don’t know what exactly to call this exact thing. I can’t very well name them for Conan O’Brien, because we’ve been championing these dumb “Non-Gamer Questions” as a pillar of game criticism since our foundation.
Since this thing we’re dealing with is a close relative of ludonarrative dissonance, I figure, for now — until I come up with a snappy (awful) Action Button Dot Net brand name for it, I’ll call it “ludonarrative interference”.
Ludonarrative interference is a convenient phrase for pointing out instances of game-mechanicky elements flopping dead-fish-like at the feet or into the face of the story a game is trying to tell. Ludonarrative interference is when a little taken-for-granted videogame design trope unceremoniously bubbles corpse-like to the surface of a game’s story’s otherwise pristine ocean.
“Gamers” don’t appreciate acknowledgement of ludonarrative interference, the way some of them also don’t like the word “shower”, the way the manager of a candy shop doesn’t like the word-combination “Whole Foods”, or the way a guy who owns two “Fangoria” T-shirts doesn’t like the word “sexism”.
Ludonarrative interference is something that, more often than not, persons unfamiliar with games will be able to point out with striking, horrendous frequency, to the point where, sometimes, the True Gamer has to pause the game and offer the non-gamer a book. The non-gamer makes a face like they’re seeing an oasis in the desert, and then promptly returns to picking apart the game, after seeing that — duh — the True Gamer’s bookshelf only contains coloring books, issues of Maxim, and Skyrim strategy guides (like, forty of them).
A perfect example of ludonarrative interference is this one: Link in The Legend of Zelda: Twlight Princess falls into a lava pit. He shouts a squeaky shout. The screen cuts to black. When the screen fades back up, Link is lying on the ground. He gets up, rubbing his head. His life energy depletes by one “heart” unit.
The Non-Gamer in the room asks, “Wait, didn’t he just fall into a lava pit? Shouldn’t he be dead?”
The True Gamer says, “What? No. Lava doesn’t kill you in Zelda games.”
The Non-Gamer asks, “Why not? Does he have a magical spell that makes him immune to lava?”
“What? No — he just . . . it takes off one heart. If you died you’d have to reload the save; it’d be annoying to have to keep starting the whole dungeon over.”
“So he’s magically immune to lava so the game can be easier?”
“I mean, he’s rubbing his head when he gets out. Maybe it was just a dream that he fell into the lava?”
(Here the Non-Gamer is trying to think of in-game-world explanations for the curious incident they witnessed befalling this human-like character.)
“No, it’s not a dream — it’s just — it’s not a dream.”
“Well, it’s a little weird.”
“Lava doesn’t kill you in Zelda,” The Gamer says. “And that’s it.”
“Do you want to read a book, or something?” the True Gamer says, ending a sentence in “or something” — a sure sign of a person who thinks not offering an alternative is horrible or impolite, even if one doesn’t have an alternative in mind specific enough to match their one specific example.
Ludonarrative interference graduated from disease to plague thanks to games like Bioshock, whose opening hours I once criticized for presenting me a lovingly crafted world . . . and then sending my disbelief burrowing toward the core of the earth when my character, not eight milliseconds (I counted) after clicking “search trash can”, began crunching on potato chips which he had found in the garbage. “Potato chips”, read the text at the top of the screen: “+Health”.
My disbelief penetrated the core of the earth when My Bioshock Guy, upon inspecting a vending machine, grabbed a syringe full of glowing green liquid and jackhammered it into his arm, causing him to leap back explosively and fall backward off a balcony onto a concrete floor.
The ludonarrative interference in that moment was three-fold:
1. Whoa, I just barely pressed the darn button in response to an “INSPECT” prompt, and he grabbed that thing and needle-jockeyed it right into himself
2. Why would this guy be that willing to stab a needle into himself?
3. Wait, this needle syringe glowing radioactive-ish drug-thing gives my guy the power to shoot deadly electricity from his fingertips? Why, uh, are they selling that in a vending machine in an underwater utopia full of poets and artists and philosophers? Isn’t that just kind of asking for trouble?
Bioshock, in those opening hours, reminded me of why I kept my videogame collection secret from even my friends until around age 20. It was just a weird, nonsensical world, where a dentist’s office drawers were full of potato chips and shotgun shells, where an audio cassette tape reel — sitting in a portable player device — sitting right next to a couple of frozen pipes contained a janitor’s voice, as he explained that maybe with some fire powers, he could melt the pipes, which would get the water flowing again, and allow him access to the area the player is trying to gain access to as well.
By the end of Bioshock, ludonarrative interference graduates from plague to pandemic, when the game reveals that everything your character did, up until now, was the result of mind-control. The Real Bad Guy was controlling the hero. Wait, you’re controlling the hero! Whoa, you’re The Real Bad Guy! That’s why your guy didn’t care about eating out of the garbage: his callous controller only wanted to keep his physical spirits up long enough for him to finish the job.
For the record, Bioshock didn’t rube me: not an hour in, I wondered, “What if the whole story is that someone is mind-controlling my guy?” I didn’t let that thought out of my head, not once.
It didn’t matter that I’d figured that part out, because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out
1. Why do they sell guns in vending machines in this artist’s utopia?
2. Why do the vending machines for guns and destructive psychic powers have slick and polished product design?
3. Wait, how can this guy eat a bag of potato chips in less than half a second?
4. How can this guy teleport the potato chips out of the garbage can in less than half a second?
5. Whoa wait hold on why can this guy recover partially from multiple gunshot wounds within seconds of eating a bag of potato chips (which he found in the garbage (in less than one second))?
At another day, on another sofa, some non-gamer is asking a True Gamer, “Wait, how can your guy carry all of those guns? Wouldn’t that be like 400 pounds of guns?”
Elsewhere, it’s “Wait, how can you buy ammunition wirelessly in the middle of a battle just by opening up a menu? Isn’t this game [Metal Gear Solid 4] being sort of realistic in asking you to lie on your stomach under a car while waiting for the person you’re fighting to come near?”
Elsewhere, and many years ago: “Where does Mario go when he falls off the bottom of the screen? Does he die? If he dies, how does he come back?”
The answer to that last one — and sort of all these other ones — is, “Look, man, these things aren’t any smarter than Looney Tunes”.
And then there was Bioshock: “Look, man, this thing is smarter than Looney Tunes! There’s a reason for all the stuff.”
Ludonarrative interference is like a hole in a jean-crotch: the harder you try to fix it, the more damage you do.
The solution to ludonarrative interference is: you suck it up and buy a new pair of jeans.
Now just let me say this: if one were to write a textbook on the subject of ludonarrative interference, it wouldn’t even be printed on paper — it’d be a ten-hour YouTube in which someone’s grandmother observes them playing Bioshock Infinite.
“Why would someone throw away live ammunition in that there trashcan?”
“Why can this guy with no feet make coins disappear from off a tabletop with a cash register sound just by looking at them?”
“Why isn’t he using his hands to pick up the coins?”
“Why are so many police officers carrying whole pineapples?”
“Why was there a hot dog, ten dollars, and a pack of cigarettes in that box labeled ‘box of chocolates’?”
“Why is there a can of beans inside that lock box in the basement of an abandoned mental hospital?”
“How can he eat those canned beans so quickly after finding them?”
(“Look, grandma — see how the little graphic next to ‘Can of beans’ shows a can which has been already opened, with the top clearly bent upward?”)
((“Wouldn’t the beans be rotten, sitting there opened for so long? Was that lock box airtight?”))
“Wait, so this guy has a grappling-hook gauntlet thing on his arm, right, and that’s why he can glide along those rails, sure, though how does that explain him being able to jump fifty feet straight up into the air to get onto the rails? Are they magnetic? Wouldn’t he at least have dislocated his shoulder or broken his knees by now?”
Nothing beats seeing clearly behind a bookshelf and into a room with a light on, and thinking “Hmm”, and then a quarter-second later seeing some hovering help text: “Press this button to move the bookshelf”.
We were talking about the health bar, just in the corner of my eye.
Inch by inch, gram by gram, the game creeps into the game. A vendor at a lovely, detailed carnival asks if I want a free sample of “Possession”. This is a “vigor” which will, at the cost of “salt”, let me control machines or people.
The first “puzzle” I encounter which requires this “vigor” involves a ticket vending machine three feet away from where I receive the “vigor”: the ticket machine says tickets are sold out, so I use the magical telekinetic psychic power, and it opens, and I have a flashback: “Why would they just hand this sort of power out to people in this here religion-obsessed city?”
I wonder this, of course, before I’m acquainted with the copious police officers in the city.
As a person who scored high enough on the SATs to go to a better school than the one I went to (Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana: heck yeah), and also as a person who played all of Bioshock, I’m remembering Bioshock’s “twist” at this point, and I’m thinking, “So help me god if they reveal that all of this game — this whole story — is about my guy being mind-controlled by someone using the ‘Possession’ ‘vigor’, I am going to call the cops until they geolocate my phone, show up at my house, and tase me.”
Later, the game will give me a “vigor” named “Murder of Crows”. This is a fourth-grade-level pun on how the name for a group of crows is a “murder” of crows, and how this power literally manifests psychic crows to peck your enemy to death.
(Here I should point out that “vigors” are beverages. They come in alcohol-bottle-like bottles with kitschy labels and ornamental caps (glass blown in the form of the drink’s chosen inspiration). Booker thooks the cap off and dook-glug-dooks the beverage down.)
Uh, what? How is a drink that, when drunk, would grant the drinker the power to telepathically manifest and then telekinetically control physical psychic murderous crows, be a thing that someone somewhere would design a package for, and then sell that package in a vending machinein a religious utopia? I mean, I know that Walmarts in the US sometimes sell guns, so maybe it’s a quirky little parallel. However, it falls flat: this would be like Walmart also selling canisters of Glade-brand Ebola.
With the introduction of the “possession” power, I deflated my expectations a little bit, realizing I was in for at least a partially silly romp. Then The Mysterious Twins showed up — two English-accented humans, a brother and a sister, who speak in weird crypticisms. The man was wearing a sandwich shop signboard around his body, with a chalkboard on the front. On the chalkboard were two columns — one marked “Heads”, the other marked “Tails”. Under “Heads” were a dozen tick marks. Under “Tails” were zero. The twins flipped a coin and asked Booker to call it. I had no choice in the matter: Booker called Heads. The coin is tails. The twins are disappointed. When the male twin turns around, we see “Heads” and “Tails” columns on the back of the signboard, with 110 tick marks under “Heads”.
This moment distracted me for a second, as I considered videogames full of David Lynch moments, or Stanley Kubrick moments. This is the kind of thing that interests me — then, with sudden vigor, I was thinking about the “possession” power again. Lord, what a stupid thing for them to be selling in a hyper-real fantasy place full of chilled-out people, even (especially) when there’s some kind of underground revolution brewing.
So it is that, even before The Racism Scene, Bioshock Infinite has impressed upon me the flimsy, jarring, shoddy construction of its world as a narrator.
This won’t be the last time we revisit Ken Levine’s famous mission statement from the original Bioshock: “The world is the best narrator”. In Bioshock Infinite, the game won’t stop slapping its hand in front of the world’s mouth.
It turns out that the place I’ve beverage-aided-telekinectically machine-manipulated my way into is a raffle for a prize. A timely telegram earlier informed me not to pick number 77.
Booker, of course, picks number 77. We the player are offered no choice in the matter.
The number 77 is written on a baseball. Booker has the baseball in his hand. The presenters unveil the prize: an interracial couple, a black woman and a white man, rise slowly from the stage. Booker’s prize, you see, is that he gets to throw a baseball at these “criminals”.
So it is that “the racism thing” comes completely out of nowhere, after the game has warmed you up with a cheerful celebration and a gorgeous atmosphere. This is what story-writers call “timing”.
The aiming crosshair is stuck frozen equidistant between the couple and the carnival barker. We see two control labels: the left trigger will throw the baseball at the couple. The right trigger will throw the baseball at the announcer.
Now, here’s where we have a conversation about racism.
No — that’d take too long, and be too interesting. It’d be more interesting than Bioshock Infinite’s story — which conveniently drops the racism ball at the speed of sound the moment it starts yanking the drop cloths off its metaphors — deserves. Suffice it to say that racism, in Bioshock Infinite, isn’t a “theme”: it’s part of a theme. I can wholly understand many peoples’ reaction to the scene, and subsequent similar scenes — Anna Anthropy called Bioshock Infinite “a whirlwind tour of Ken Levine’s privilege”; Daniel Golding likens the presentation of “racist or not?” as a “choice” of “would you rather be Abraham Lincoln or the Ku Klux Klan?“, and I understand those reactions with vigorous thumbs ups. Meanwhile, I understand the intentions of the author — and, furthermore, I understand the way the partial theme of “racism” fits into The Big Story Reveal, and you know what? I sort of respect the heck out of the game for even trying to have a mature: “racist scene early on” is a heck of a bullet point razor blade to purposely leave sticking up out of your mainstream videogame’s proverbial Snickers bar. It’s a “talking point”, sure, and hey, it is a problematic piece of a theme that ripples out and eventually rots the narrative down to a termite-chomped stump, though hey, at least they’re trying something new . . . -ish. I could go on for tens of thousands of words about why using racism as a theme is a terrible idea unless you’re Very, Very Smart, and if I did that I’d also have to write tens of thousands of words about how we never, ever need to stop talking about racism, because if we ignore it it will never go away, and I don’t have time for that today, so Bioshock it is.
Let’s talk about choices in videogames instead.
It’s vaguely, slitheringly disgusting that Bioshock Infinite presents this hate crime as a “choice” — the way Bioshock presented us the “choice” to kill or save the Little Sister characters after murdering their murderous protectors, the Big Daddies. Little Sisters were, of course, helpless little girls who, if saved, can go on to be perfectly healed of their weirdness. So not killing them isn’t a “moral” choice — it’s a not-psychopathic one.
Meanwhile, and interestingly, Bioshock Infinite has, up until The Baseball Scene, presented the player with a few non-choices:
1. We have to press the action button to “accept baptism” in order to enter the city. Failure to role-playingly submit to the in-world religion results in literal inability to advance into the game.
2. We have to press the action button to “flip coin” — which Booker calls “Heads” in the air, without asking for our input. Of note is that we have to press the button to flip the coin.
3. We’re asked to take a baseball out of a basket full of baseballs, after earlier being told to not pick #77. Booker’s hand magnetizes toward #77.
Now the game asks us — who do we throw the baseball at?
We’ve already submitted to a Christian baptism, despite Booker’s vocal protests. Maybe Booker has learned to play along? Maybe, if we ask ourselves, “What Would Booker Do?”, we’d come to the conclusion that he’d subscribe to the “When in Rome” theory of doing things. Outside of his hating being baptized and his massive debt which he wants to wipe away (by bringing them the girl), we know close to nothing about Booker — least of all his shoe size (epic burn re: us being twenty years Beyond Doom and still FPS heroes have no feet) — so how do we know he’s not such a die-hard believer in civil rights that he would throw that ball at that dumb racist jerk, and risk causing a police incident? According to the cigar box that contained his pistol, he fought at the Battle of Wounded Knee, participating in the slaughter of many Native Americans. So maybe we take the time to role-play, and consider that Booker has such a horrible gambling debt and is in such a sad place that in order to keep his cover, he’ll go ahead and pelt those sad innocent people.
As with so many other things in Bioshock, it’s only interesting if you talk about it, and only enthralling if you talk way too much about it.
Whichever option you choose (I bet the game remembers, and keeps the data on a server somewhere . . .), as soon as Booker winds his arm back, a police officer spies the tattoo on the back of his hand. Booker is identified as “The False Prophet”, and the onslaught begins. Booker rips a chainsaw grappling hook blade-gauntlet thing off of the first attacking police officer’s arm, and then digs it into the guy’s face. He rips those blades right the heck through that guy’s face. He just about tears that face half off. The face-skin pulls back and ripples like a waterbed. Blood the texture of spaghetti sauce and the trajectory of Jell-O flops out of the cop’s head like worms having seizures. When the cop is all the way dead, Booker’s got a pistol.
The next thing that happens is, you kill cops for ten hours.
Several hours thick into Bioshock Infinite, a skirmish erupts in a hallway similar to other hallways — only lit and colored differently. Elizabeth is with Booker, and they are evading the police the only way Booker knows how: by killing the police. Four armed and angry men pop out of doorways and down staircases; you, the player, guide Booker DeWitt’s hands with your mouse or analog stick. You aim, fire, and murder. These four murders occur at perhaps the midway point of a dozen-hour-long parade of murder. When the last bullet icepicks into the last face and the last corpse smacks the marble floor, Booker DeWitt exhales a line of dialogue which is neither a sigh nor a groan nor a one-liner:
“This job’s gettin’ worse all the time.”
I felt like this deserved a genuine, loudly spoken reply: “No duh, jerk!”
Booker has killed at least two hundred men by this point in the story. He’s blown up airships. He’s shot clouds of telekinetic ravens into the vulnerable gears on the backs of many automated George-Washington-headed robocops. He has seen explosion, fire, bathtubs of blood, shattered stone, burst zeppelins, a corpse-pile in a theme park attraction (literally), sad racism, and evidence of the existence of time-travel or transdimensional travel. So he kills four more cops and . . .
“This job’s gettin’ worse all the time.”
It doesn’t compute from a narrative perspective.
Nor does it compute from a game-design perspective: we’re only fighting a handful of enemies of varieties we’ve fought in literally dozens of previous skirmishes.
What computes is the explanation that the developers were dead out of ideas for any way to differentiate this encounter — for any way to snap it into adherence to the creative writing rule “show, don’t tell”. So what they could not show with inventive level design or enemy formation in this cramped, perfunctory encounter, they told:
“This job’s gettin’ worse all the time.”
Bioshock Infinite, unfortunately, prohibits ignorance of its combat. I say “unfortunately” for various reasons.
One of the reasons is that I agree in part with the many writers complaining that the game was “too violent“. Here is a story about a man infiltrating a fantastic place — a place so magical it sells itself to any fan of interesting destinations — to rescue an interesting girl from a bizarre prison. In its opening hours it proves in quadruplicate its ability to populate astounding environments with tiny, medium, and huge details, so much so that we derive immense pleasure just from looking at another cool thing and figuring out where it belongs in the grand mystery of the plot. This game is — to borrow a phrase I’ve already used many times — a unique and weird interactive Disneyland. The story eventually grows dark, though we don’t know that at the point the violence spikes toward sensory assault. I can allow the maybe-mistaken conclusion that the game would have been good enough without gore and shrieking — it could have been a nice little Disney story.
Of course, “I agree in part” allows that I disagree in part, and I disagree in quite a large part. What literary value Bioshock Infinite grips in its fist would slip through its fingers if not for the dark themes and hideous violence. Ninety-nine percent of the big story reveal revolves around Booker DeWitt being a guy who’s killed a whole lot of people before, and feels horrible about it. It’s tough to cite that as a “sort-of positive”, because, I tell you what, I sure am getting tired of games that make me kill a bunch of people in order to proceed and then have a bad guy — a bad guy, of all people! — tell me that I’m a murderous psychopath. If I had any sort of work ethic re: writing, I’d establish a “Start To ‘You’re A Murderous Jerk’” rating system for action games. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (review forthcoming, I promise) would score a “Twelve Minutes”.
I dare say the violence fits in Bioshock Infinite. The game, after all, has a guy with a gun on the box.
When I say I sort of agree that the violence doesn’t fit, what I mean is this:
It’s not an argument anymore. It is absolutely one hundred percent totally not an argument: games don’t need to be violent to be interesting.
The world is “the best narrator”, as Ken Levine himself once put it, and that’s barely rocket science anymore.
Last year’s Journey was an epic adventure in which the action purely focused on the joy of navigation; in a move that severely outclassed any multiplayer action game in recent memory, it went one step beyond the call of duty, by pairing players with other real, live, human players with whom they had to cooperate without speaking.
Journey is a weird example, however. Gone Home is a non-violent game in which the player explores an environment bursting with visual clues. The game involves a mystery of sorts. You could play it if you like playing good games.
Like Gone Home, Bioshock Infinite features environments bursting with tiny visual details, and it features a mystery of sorts. It’s huge and it’s amazing to experience. It’s got probably a hundred times the budget of Gone Home, so it goes without saying that it’s a hundred times the size and complexity, and it has infinity times more shooting.
Once upon a time, game design genius Clifford “CliffyB” Bleszinski said, in an interview, that because raycasting is such a simple function in 3D simulations, it’s easy to make a game understand when any given point is geometrically aligned with another. Bleszinski said that entertainment experiences, in general, are about reaching out and touching people, and that because of the ease of raycasting and its natural similarity to aiming and pointing a gun, games, as entertainment, are more often than not about “reaching out and touching someone with your gun”.
I believe in Bleszinski (“Cliff”, as he’ll let me call him . . . someday), and I also believe that the abundance of violence in videogames is spillover from the parts of the brain that the original Grand Theft Auto poured lighter fluid on: “here are objects on my screen, and they resemble objects I’ve seen in my real life, and I can do things to them that I’d never do to anyone in the real world.”
What I mean is, games are power fantasies — and it’s easy to make power fantasies, because guns are so powerful, and raycasting is simple, and raycasting is like a gun.
Most likely, the only worthy conclusion here is that when you’ve spent One Hundred Million Dollars building the densest game environment in history, if shooting games are the only ones making billions of dollars, you probably want shooting in your game.
It is the greatest compliment that I can conceive of when I say that I would enjoy a game like Bioshock Infinite, only without the shooting. It’s a way of saying they made a game environment so thick and full of character that I wouldn’t mind if you lobotomized one of the game’s two core elements (shooting). I await the day — maybe not too far off, now — that Rockstar announces it’s making a Grand-Theft-Auto-sized romantic comedy. And for the record, if I had a hundred million dollars, I’d find the team that made Raw Danger, and I’d pay them to help me make my game about a young boy . . . who grows up to become The Greatest Basketball Player Alive.
Until then, I’m going to flip-flop: in addition to reading books and drinking fine coffee, I also enjoy videogames about shooting people. They often present me pleasant exercises in honing my reaction time, spatial awareness, and ability to read the tactics of intelligent opponents.
I played Quake in 1996, okay?
So I have no problem with violence, and I have no problem with shooting.
I have no problem with the violence in Bioshock Infinite, and I’d have no problem with the shooting in Bioshock Infinite, if the shooting was any good.
A loading screen tip occasionally tells us:
“TIP: Consider not shooting first. Not every situation needs to be a fight!”
Yeah, so i counted literally two out of nine trillion situations that didn’t need to be a fight, so . . .
After four years in development and less than a year before Bioshock Infinite’s release, reports surfaced that Bioshock Infinite’s multiplayer modes had been canceled.
The public relations spin was that the developer didn’t want to take on a half-baked multiplayer mode, and that jettisoning the task allowed them to focus one-hundred-percent on the singleplayer game. The original Bioshock didn’t have a multiplayer mode, so they felt confident not making one in Bioshock Infinite.
The consensus of internet commentators was “good riddance”. It seemed that fans near-universally agreed that the game was better off without any sort of multiplayer. I recall seeing a comment suggesting that maybe multiplayer could have been cool, and a response to that comment told him to “shut up and go play Call of Duty”.
In a way, the response is right: if you want multiplayer, you will not find a more thriving community full of competition of all skill levels than Call of Duty — or Team Fortress, or Halo.
In another way, this response is frightening, because that guy probably genuinely considers Call of Duty some plebeian pastime that is culturally beneath him as a Bioshock fan.
In a third way, it’s sad that The Typical Game Person thinks so lowly of online multiplayer games — or so highly of Call of Duty (or so absent-mindedly of creativity) — that they automatically presume that any game which has guns in it would necessarily have to play exactly like Call of Duty or Halo. Don’t they realize that we have Forza and Mario Kart in the same world?
And here’s where I, again, remember that Bioshock is a game about shooting people in the face with any of a variety of guns.
Play Bioshock Infinite for an hour and, if you’ve ever played the original Bioshock and also any Call of Duty, you’ll immediately notice the snap of the guns. Bioshock’s guns felt like otherworldly gummy bear toy objects — in a quaint-enough, weird-enough, interesting-enough way, that is. Bioshock Infinite’s guns feel like Call of Duty’s guns. They’re hard, sharp, cold, and precise.
In Bioshock, every enemy encounter was a miniature event. The most typical enemy was a drug-addicted aimless psychopath scrounging for cash and smack in a ruined underwater utopia. Every battle was a weird little puzzle imbued simultaneously with catharsis and some situation-design-centered role-play (the enemy is standing in a puddle of water, with his back turned: fire your electricity power into the water, etc).
In Bioshock Infinite, the fights are fast, furious, and plentiful. The enemies are able-bodied, sound-minded police officers with weapons as hard and fast as yours. They swarm you, they corner you, they converge down upon you.
You can kill most of the enemies in Bioshock Infinite by finding the safe zones in the level designs. Usually the safe zone is the far side of a wall. You can stand against these walls and let guys come to you one at a time. It’s like playing Call of Duty against thousands of clones of your mother. Conquering any given skirmish in Bioshock Infinite is about as thrilling as finding the bathroom in a restaurant you’ve never been to before without having to ask a waiter.
Sometimes you’ll hear a guy yell, “Moving into cover!” . . . and then he just runs around and rotates a bit until you shoot him.
Sometimes the last enemy on the battlefield will be like, “DON’T MAKE ME HURT YOU!” . . . as he runs in slow-motion away from you as you walk behind him, shooting him in the backs of his legs.
Sometimes you fight a big enemy. Mixing up enemy formations is how Bioshock Infinite reuses areas and keeps the game feeling “exciting”.
Bioshock Infinite introduces each of its big enemies as mini-bosses. Kill one, get a power-up from it, and then freak out when you see it again. Well, they only fool you once: eventually, you realize that every enemy you see in Bioshock Infinite is going to be something you see again — many times.
The first of the big enemies is the Fire Man. He lobs fire grenades. He takes many hits to kill.
Then there’s the . . . Crow Guy. He shoots crows at you. He teleports. He takes many hits to kill.
Then there’s The Mechanized Patriot. He is the robotic George Washington. He fires long clips of gatling guns. It takes him a few seconds to reload. He moves slowly. He takes many hits to kill.
Then there’s the Handyman. He’s huge. He’s fast. He attacks physically. He takes many hits to kill.
You don’t need thirty years’ experience on The Detective Squad to locate the pattern here: these guys are bullet sponges.
Bioshock Infinite’s battles — even the ones where the goal is “kill all the dudes” — are invariably endurance contests. Sometimes, it’s your patience that must endure, particularly during the Crow Guy fights.
Lord, the Crow Guy: he fires crows at you. He makes “crow sounds”. He turns into a cloud of crows and hover-teleports around. For the love of god, can we stop it with teleporting enemies? You just stand there like an idiot watching this cloud zip and bobble around, eventually turning into a guy you can shoot.
Attention Game Developers: this is advice I usually charge $128 an hour for:
1. No teleporting enemies in your shooting game
2. No levels where it’s dark and you need a light — they call them “video” games for a reason
3. If your game’s big plot twist is that OH MY GOD YOU’RE PLAYING A VIDEOGAME I will call M. Night Shyamalan and he will show up to break your pet’s neck with his bare hands and be like, “How’s that for a . . . twist?”
In fights with Crow Guys, I remember Dynasty Warriors, where the boss characters’ only challenge is that they slash furiously and then leave a window which is precisely the length of 4.8 of your spear-slashes, and sometimes you are so bored you want to slash five times, and you end up taking damage. We call this “Red Light, Green Light Game Design”, and it’s basically the game design equivalent of cheating on your spouse. It’s gross. Don’t make the player wait for something.
So this is Bioshock Infinite, home of the bullet sponge. Eventually, we meet a new epic monster character. I won’t spoil anything, though let’s say this epic monster happens to be a ghost. It’s the kind of boss I wanted Big Daddy to be in Bioshock. I didn’t like that there were dozens of Big Daddies and their Little Sisters all looked exactly the same. I wanted just one Big Daddy, and just one Little Sister. I wanted fighting or running to always be a choice; I wanted huge rewards for axing the beast early on . . .
. . . well, I might not get that for a long time, and I might have to make that game myself (HINT: it’s called “ZIGGURAT” and it’s coming to PC in 2015). For now, Bioshock Infinite’s “ghost” boss is only half of what I want. The “ghost” shows up late in the game and stars in three key extended skirmishes, during which it animates corpses with ghostly power and flings them into battle against you.
These battles, in addition to being the sort of thing I like — I like fighting a single boss repeatedly, in changing venues — also suck like a Dyson Ball.
Here’s your for-the-record, Dear Reader: I played most of Bioshock Infinite on “Hard” difficulty. I was like, “Dude, I played Quake in 1996,” and then I felt old, and then I picked “Hard”.
Bioshock Infinite lets you change the difficulty level at any time in the game. When the ghost rolled around, I said, “I played Quake in 1996, and I get it already.” I flipped the game over to “easy” and stamped the life out of it in one quiet sitting.
In this next chapter, I want you to understand why I think the combat in Bioshock Infinite is bad, because it’s bad in a complicated, multi-layered way. It’s boring, for starters, though it’s also simultaneously too easy and frustrating, which is an innately interesting combination of complaints. So, while it’s boring, it’s also interesting, so here I am, hip-deep in my own critical mess. Lots of people are going to disagree with me, though those who don’t disagree can probably go ahead and friend me on Facebook.
Bioshock Infinite begins with a thrilling, atmospheric Disneyland theme-park-riding through a breathing, believable environment ridden with tiny details pointing to sinister politics and dangerous social unrest. The first climax comes during The Baseball Scene, when the player has to choose to (pretend to?) be racist or not, at which point the police recognize the main character and unleash an onslaught upon him.
For the next hour, the game teaches you its combat. You learn how to point guns and pull triggers. You fight your first mini-boss — the Fire Man — and you earn his power, Devil’s Kiss. (It’s a flame grenade, only it runs on psychic juice.) You learn about sky-lines — to which you can attach with your stolen grappling-hook-chainsaw-arm-thing, and slide along at high speeds. You learn about freight hooks, which you can hang from, earning an enviable vantage point. You learn about dismount attacks — aim the crosshair at an enemy from a freight hook or sky-line and then press jump to “dismount”, crashing into the enemy and killing him. And you also learn that, basically, just pointing and shooting dudes is usually the best way to murder them.
After a whirlwind tour of carnage — across sky barges, down streets, up avenues, into back alleys, and through multi-level houses (which are claustrophobic in a cozy, airplane-toilet sort of way) in which rich people shriek in fear at you and progressives offer you shelter in a room where they’re printing pro-civil-rights fliers while they distract cops in the other room — the game crash-lands into an extraordinary atmospheric set-piece in which we meet Elizabeth, the game’s emotional / spiritual center.
This set-piece sees us climbing an enormous tower; on each floor a great big sign warns us of the quarantine level, and it all feels really exciting.
We get to the top of the tower, and now we’re close to Elizabeth’s quarters. We can see through two-way mirrors, at Elizabeth’s day-to-day goings on, and we feel like a creepy voyeur. We see her open a portal to what appears to be Paris in 1984, the song “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” is playing on a radio, and a cinema marquee displays the information that “La Revanche du Jedi” is coming soon. (That’s the original title of”Return of the Jedi”, yes. So, if you were on the fence about Bioshock Infinite, rest assured: yes, it contains a smart, direct “Star Wars” reference.)
We finally meet Elizabeth. We talk to her for a few seconds. She didn’t like being trapped in this tower. She agrees to come with us. The big scary robotic Songbird now attacks the tower, ripping it to shreds. We escape with Elizabeth, headed for the nearest zeppelin.
Just before the next gunfight pokes its happy head back into our gleeful atmospheric world-narrated Disneyland moment, the action freeze-frames, and massive tutorial text informs us (and this is a paraphrase):
This was a red flag. This was as red and flaggy as red flags ever get.
I imagined the scene at Irrational Games a year before the release of Bioshock Infinite — four years after they started developing the massive thing.
It’s just after one PM. It’s a Thursday. The lead level designer steps into the room, and puts his or her hands on his or her hips:
“Okay everybody: we’re making Elizabeth invincible.”
The ensuing collective relief-sigh could push a ping-pong ball across the Sahara Desert.
This is an imaginary scenario, of course. I am not sure if Elizabeth was ever not invincible. Something — tells me she wasn’t.
Shooter fans hate “escort missions”, it’s true. Escort missions are difficult to make well. Nobody ever does an escort mission correctly — is what every level designer is going to say two seconds after someone uses the word “protect” or “defend” even once during a game design meeting during the development of a first-person shooter.
Ico, for example, was one big escort mission, and people didn’t hate it, right? What if you make the escorting part fun?
I feel like Bioshock Infinite takes wild stabs at being an “American Ico”, with its magical female lead who can, mysteriously, open doors (Yorda in Ico uses magic; Elizabeth picks locks (oh my god if that is a Resident Evil reference I am going to stab myself in the knee with a fork)). And given the Pac-Man-maze-like, simple, “iconic” geometricality of nearly every skirmish zone — they are all quite square and delightfully symmetrical, which is not at all a bad thing in itself — I feel like the game could have possibly worked if Elizabeth occupied a “hiding place” somewhere in each one of them. I feel like, maybe, one of the game designers working on the title thought something similar, and that’s why we have the vigor trap “Return To Sender”: place a magnetic field that catches enemy bullets fired in that direction, and throws them back at the enemy. It’s a curious power that only proves super-convenient in one battle — the very, very last battle.
What you’d need for a first-person shooter to work on such a system is to ratchet the action-density down — slowly! gently! — from “Halo” toward “Mario Kart Battle Mode”.
Let’s start, hypothetically, by saying our guy should die if he takes one hit.
Now let’s say we have a gun — just one gun. It’d probably feel just like the “repeater”, which is a hybrid of the carbine, the pistol, and the machinegun: zippy, peppy, fast repeat rate, and precise aiming all rolled into one, it’s clearly The Only Gun In The Game.
Let’s say our gun has unlimited ammo.
Let’s say the enemies all have simple behavior patterns — and that they die if they take one hit. Maybe they all require that hit to be in a different place.
Maybe the Patriots’ predictable, loudly signalled “firing” cycle (and contrastingly silent “reloading” time) is a remnant of this ghostly system, in which enemies behaved predictably and in fashions that were enjoyable purely based on their geometrical exercise.
Maybe instead of the Patriots’ back being the weak point, it could be the only place you can hit them to kill them.
A combat system like this would require more than guns; it’d tempt players to use re-pick-uppable, limited landmines to protect areas and create bottlenecks. If the general rule of the game is that the bad guys want to take Elizabeth alive and thus won’t risk shooting her, a landmine could serve as a perfect gating mechanism.
And once the bad guys captured Elizabeth, it’s not an immediate game over — you can still shoot them to get her back. Maybe we could create a little Stranglehold-like “standoff” mini-event out of this, wherein aiming at the enemy carrying Elizabeth away and aiming down your gun’s sights grinds the game into slow-motion, and lets you take one good shot at the enemy’s head. After saving her, she retreats back to the “hiding place”.
A simple system like this would lend itself well to a fast-paced arcade-style puzzly hardcore action game that just happened to incorporate mechanisms from acclaimed best-selling first-person shooters. It’d be, quite frankly, A Weird Game, though it’d also be heck of unique. This is the kind of thing I’d have insane fun with as a player, though as a level designer it’d probably drive me half insane. (Just half. I could pull it off — eventually. So, mom, no, you’re wrong: I could have a job if I wanted one.)
All this theorizing is not, I believe, pointless: it’s clear to me that Bioshock Infinite changed much, as an action game, between conception and a year ago, and it changed a whole bunch between a year ago and release. Something happened wherein they rebooted the entire nature of the game as an interactive action experience, and though I’m sure I could ask someone what happened, I have a real “use it or lose it” policy about my imagination, so I’ll pass.
I imagine that the game was going to be an escort mission, and also that Elizabeth wasn’t totally helpless — that she helped you fight, in some capacity. Maybe she created cover points and hid behind them as you advanced forward. I’m guessing that the designers really wanted to bring a slam-bang innovation to the experience of protecting a tastefully beautiful girl who is, at the same time, protecting you in a different sort of way. Maybe they had aspirations toward making a cooperative asymmetrical multiplayer experience.
This didn’t happen.
What Bioshock Infinite’s combat system ends up being is standard first-person shooter stuff with the toilet paper of “Role-Playing Elements” stuck to its boot heels.
Let me phrase that more clinically: Bioshock Infinite’s combat system is a first-person shooter atop which converges roughly a basketball-sized mucus clump of systemic superfluity.
Here’s a list of the game design systems vying for supremacy within Bioshock Infinite’s bullet-spongy first-person shooter combat:
1. Vigors: You collect these magical abilities over the course of the game. You can equip two at a time, and switch between them with a button press, and fire them with the left trigger. Most vigors have two modes: pull the trigger to fire an elemental bullet of a sort (fire burns, electricity stuns, etc); hold and release to create a trap, which has roughly the same effect as the projectile, only it triggers when an enemy walks into it. I managed to make it through the entire game on hard difficulty without using traps more than twice. (I’m told that if I hadn’t changed it to easy, I would have likely had to use traps in the final battle.)
2. Sky-lines: In some battles, the arena is equipped with sky-lines that you can jump onto, grab with the grappling hook, and slide around at high speeds. Except for a few battles which require you to use them to change location — including some thrilling set-pieces that take place aboard multiple airships — the sky-lines are rarely more than a gimmick.
3. Tears: Elizabeth can open “tears” in the fabric of space-time. She summarizes them as “a form of wish-fulfillment”. The “tears” bring objects from one dimension into another — I think. The explanation isn’t airtight. We’ll critique the science-fiction in a minute. The catch with “tears” is that you can only bring one otherdimensional object into the current dimension at a time. So you have to make a choice. You can always reverse this choice, by highlighting another tear and opening it instead, closing the other tear. Tear-able objects include freight hooks to hang on, gun turrets, friendly Patriot automatons, large cover objects, and boxes of health kits. Some of these sound like great ideas — letting me choose to build a wall of cover at the expense of a high-ground freight hook births an interesting thought in the middle of a heated battle. Then, sometimes, it’s like, “Oh, I can materialize those health kits there,” and when that happens, I’m just pressing a button to make a health kit appear.
4. Upgrades: Between battles, you sometimes find vending machines, at which you spend the quite interestingly limited currency (“Silver Eagles”, a classy, historically accurate-ish name for a seceded ex-American nation’s currency) on permanent upgrades to your guns or vigors. These might make your guns reload more quickly, do more damage, increase the clip size, or increase the reserve capacity. You have to upgrade each type of gun individually, and man, it’s a lot of guns. (I stuck to the repeater and the carbine, myself, though a quick sweep of the internet shows that, interestingly, no two people seem to agree about the best two-gun combination.) Vigor upgrades are more decision-paralyzing: you can make them cost less “salt”, you can make them more powerful, or you can add special effects — such as crows turning enemies into crow traps when they die. The bulk of the game’s Big Decisions happen at these vending machines. Also, the bulk of my mechanic-narrative-laziness-related ponderings happened at these vending machines: I’m carrying a bunch of guns, right? Can’t I just blow these things open and get All The Stuff?
5. Gear: If you are as obsessive about poking around the gorgeous(, decreasingly interesting ) environments as I was, you’ll end up with a vast assortment of “gear”. These include hats, pants, shoes, and shirts. Each piece of gear has a weird magical enhancement. For example, the first (I think the first) piece of gear you get is a pair of pants that creates a shockwave of fire every time you jump down from a sky-line — which burns nearby enemies. That’s sort of a weird one to give out first, though okay, sure. Later gear pieces will increase the chance of enemies’ dropping health when dying if you kill them with a melee attack. Choosing what gear you are wearing at any given moment is a key part in strategizing any battle . . . in hard mode. At the very end of the game.
6. Guns: You use these to shoot people. If you shoot them in the face, they die pretty much right away.
7. Recovery items: Search dead soldiers — or bookshelves, cigar boxes, hot dog carts, pottery, et cetera — in the thick of battle to view the contents of their pockets or drawers. Press the action button to “Take all”, which will immediately grant you the effects of any healing items contained in the corpse or cupboard of choice. Yes, even if the healing items are cans of beans or whole pineapples, Booker DeWitt can take them without ever seeing them, without ever using his hands, and he can eat them without a second transpiring, and he can obtain curative health care from them within an instant.
8. Elizabeth Finds Stuff: During battle, every once in a while, Elizabeth will shout, “Booker!” Or she’ll say, “I’ve found something!” The action button icon appears on the screen, next to “Catch ammo”. “Catch health”. “Catch salts”. Press the button, and you’re healed, restored, or reloaded.
9. Your Regenerating Magnetic Shield: Early in the game, The Mysterious Twins give Booker DeWitt a “magnetic shield”, which will take damage when enemies shoot Booker. If Booker gets into cover, the shield restores. If enemies shoot Booker while his shield is completely depleted, his health energy decreases. Health energy does not replenish automatically.
Which of these myriad systems wins, in this hunger games of action game systems?
Well, the winners are, in this order:
1. Guns — If you shoot the enemies with these, they die.
2. Vigor traps — those idiotic crow traps! How does that make any sense! How is that The Best Weapon in the game! Can’t I just play a game about guns? I only give these #2 because you need “salts” to use them.
3. Upgrades — your carbine can one-hit-kill just about anyone you shoot in the chest or higher with two damage upgrades. And the upgraded crow trap, which turns dead enemies into crow traps, is a bonafide system-breaker.
4. Elizabeth Finds Stuff — eventually, when you realize that Elizabeth is always going to find stuff during battle, and that Elizabeth will never find health, ammo, or salts outside of battle, and then you realize that god, sometimes that last enemy is a real idiot and I have no idea where he is, it dawns on you that you can hide out on some part of a level until Elizabeth heals, restores, and reloads you, then kill the last guy. And, quite frankly, that’s a weird strategy to have.
On top of all this, we have the endless varieties of between-skirmish pickups — items which restore a trivial amount of health or salts. Some items restore salts while depleting health, or deplete salts while restoring health, or restore both health and salts — though seriously, there are barely enough apples in the game to fill a single life meter. Clearly this is a game heavy with “stuff”, and with its “currencies” of health items, salts items, money, and ammunition, it’s about as unbalanced as a fat kid on a unicycle.
This is a combat system with the weight of the world on its shoulders and, like Atlas, it shrugs again and again. You can understand the pride of a game designer who’d want to not sacrifice a thing; you can think of this as a creative endeavor that snowballed over five long (or short — time flies when you’re freaking out) years and your heart will be still for a moment to consider the frequency and violence of the gut-checks regarding this game’s systemic complexity compared to its predecessor. Players loved the choices in Bioshock; they loved the intimacy of the skirmishes, and the way the environments figured into every psycho encounter. Bioshock Infinite’s enemies — zealous cops or rabid rebels — approach with fever in expansive courtyards of majestic staircases and blinding blue skies. The game is bigger in scale and feel, and they’re focus-testing it with Actual Frat Boys, and they want those Frat Boys to love it, and they know those Frat Boys like sports, and that sports have a lot of statistics and numbers, though sports are also just a reason to drink beer and eat Doritos, though this isn’t a sport, it’s a videogame, and Call of Duty is a popular videogame, and so is Halo, and . . . and . . . the Bioshock fans want complexity or they’re going to freak out so what do we do?
They did what they had to do. They looked at Bioshock Infinite on paper, they looked at it in the software, and they pulled it together the only way that was probably mathematically possible. I salute their fortitude — much as I didn’t wholly enjoy their game — in keeping every one of these god darn systems intact. I personally would have at least made health and salt replenish automatically, over time — and I would have fused “health” and “magnetic shield” into one. If you want to say “auto-recharge health” doesn’t make sense in the fiction of the world — well, does Elizabeth’s invincibility make any sense?
Once you’re acquainted enough with Bioshock Infinite’s combat system to consistently win a dozen long battles in a row on hard mode without dying once, that’s when Elizabeth starts to really get under your skin.
During friendly segments, she exhibits a spectacular range of interesting emotions. She’ll stop in front of a painting, and look at it. You’ll walk up beside her, and she’ll say something about the painting. When you stop into a shop to ransack the desks and cupboards looking for jars of pickles, hot dogs, or cash, she’ll approach a shelf, turn her back to it, put her palms on it, and lean back against it. I like those kinds of little touches.
During battle, however — and battle is, perhaps, Most Of The Game — she’s a buffoon. She lumbers around, occasionally animating surprise or fear. She’ll crouch down and put her hands on her knees, and then throw her hands up above her head when she hears a loud explosion.
She’s squatting right in the middle of the god darn line of fire.
An all-too-common sight, while you’re in the middle of sliding in and out of cover and capping approaching marauders, is Elizabeth, doing her Disney Princess Run in your direction, weird look of amused morbid fear on her lips, as bullets whiz past her and bombs burst in the air above her.
“You don’t have to protect Elizabeth in battle . . .” the game had told me, earlier, and it stuck with me for the rest of the game.
So, so many times during battle, my bullets’ flight paths intersected with Elizabeth’s buffoonishly positioned head. By the end of the game, I’ve accidentally shot Elizabeth in the head so many times that her head should be heavier than an adult rhinoceros.
“You don’t have to protect Elizabeth in battle . . .”
Oh god — what if they never planned to make this an escort mission at all? What if . . . what if she’s not real, and “Elizabeth is not real” is the cure for the ludonarrative laziness? If that is the case I will steal a car and drive to Boston and throw up perfectly consistent Progresso minestrone all over Ken Levine’s desk–
Eventually, Elizabeth is kidnapped — because of course she wasn’t going to be around forever.
Now a harrowing, gut-wrenching, horrifying sequence of events occurs. My gut tells me this is the end of the game. Elizabeth is probably dead. The way this game is winding down — by winding up and then down multiple times in succession — with how bizarre the story is getting, I realize that I can’t really expect anything, much less The Unexpected.
I’m getting ready for some crazy narrative voodoo to happen, when I walk by a door, hear a nonchalant “chankle”, and see this: the text “Elizabeth Busy — CAN’T LOCKPICK”.
So, there’s that. The game has gone ahead and spoiled its own closing scenes with its game-mechanicky BS jutting in and out.
So here’s where I look down into my notes at the list of “game-mechanicky BS & jerk maneuvers”, in which I pains-takingly cataloged an orgy of anecdotes in which “hilarious” things occurred involving on-screen text or game-mechanics during otherwise poignant story moments. Among those moments was the time I trained my carbine’s sights right on the place between Elizabeth’s eyes while she talked about her dead mother.
Another moment was when Elizabeth was crying, and an on-screen prompt told me to press the action button to “Comfort Elizabeth”. My analog sensitivity is quite high, so the slightest touch of the right analog stick yanked my viewpoint just too far away, so pressing the action button instead resulted in me loading my shotgun, one shell at a time — one, two, three — as the crosshair hovered in the center of a crying Disney Princess’s lower back.
Every scene of Bioshock Infinite carries some narrative weight, be it trivial or crucial. Every crucial scene offers steak-sized clues as to the nature of The Spoiler. As the game grows old, it becomes impossible to ignore that, in this world, something messed-up is going on. Eventually, its narrative and world taper to a point which avid viewers of films and readers of books might literally slap themselves for not seeing coming. Its final moments are thought-provoking, and at least as interesting as the entirety of the film “Inception”.
In “Inception”, they sure do explain the world and the particulars of the story for the first hundred minutes of movie. It’s a slow burn toward a weird payoff. In the end, it looks like you’re watching a bunch of famous people play virtual-reality Call of Duty.
Bioshock Infinite has the added bonus of interactivity. We guide the character toward his revelations, and we participate in key conflicts. We don’t just ride the Disneyland attraction — we jump out of the boat and we body-slam the Pirates of the Caribbean.
Yet Bioshock Infinite (like this review har har) grows long and weary. The game gets its money’s worth out of its meticulously crafted level areas by staging repeat battles with different enemies, grinding its “game length” number ever higher and higher.
Despite their ultimate narrative significance, some of these longest, weariest stages at first appear to have no interesting connection to the mysterious tale. After we’ve received a beverage that allows us to throw psychic fire grenades, and another beverage that lets us shoot murderous crows, the story requires us to find another beverage, which will allow us to shoot lighting, so that we can power up a machine to earn access to an airship.
The quest to get the “Shock Jockey” vigor is long and arduous. During this quest, we meet Slate, a man who fought alongside Booker DeWitt in the Battle of Wounded Knee. This sequence is very important to the true nature of the story, though on first play-through it feels like we’re walking through a theme park attraction (which we are — we’re in an actual theme park inside the game world), shooting psychos while a grizzled war veteran spouts nonsense over an intercom.
At one point, Elizabeth picks up a book, and says, “This is my mother’s diary. Why would Slate have it?” And I speak to my television: “To advance the story, yo.”
By the end of the quest, it occurs to us that we just spent an hour getting a thing so that we could power up a thing so we can ride a boat to a boat. In a game where all of the magic power-ups are elemental-themed projectiles, this whole sequence is about as interesting as “your pistol is blue, so please spend an hour finding a red pistol so that you can shoot this red lock off this red door”.
Bioshock Infinite’s campaign structure is a Frankenstein’s monster made out of fetch quests.
Sometimes, this monster is annoying: like when Booker explains to Elizabeth that we need to get out of this city, and we need to just let the rebels and the police fight each other . . . and then we have to win the rebels’ fight for them so that the rebels’ expert blowtorch guy can get to the door and blaze it open.
Bioshock Infinite made me tired. By the end, I was exhausted. (Maybe that’s because I only played it every day after I was done with work, late at night, with six milligrams of melatonin in my system.)
By halfway through, the battles and the long-form fetch quests were boring me with ebbing and flowing tenacity, so I ended up pausing frequently and taking many notes. Here’s a sample:
Would a district of a town, seriously, have a sign which proudly announced its name was “SHANTYTOWN”? Isn’t that sort of like naming a bridge “Hoboroof Bridge”?
The bulk of the rest of those notes have become this review.
I realize that some humans might read this article and decide that the game is interesting enough for them to want to experience for themselves, so I won’t spoil the ending. There’s no real reason for me to spoil it. If you want it spoiled, half the internet will oblige you. I’ve read every work of Tolstoy I could ever get my hands on; Anton Chekhov once wrote that Tolstoy “saw everything”; if I’ve read Tolstoy, I’ve experienced the wisdom of one who has seen everything. I’d talk about Bioshock Infinite’s ultimate cute plot implosion if I weren’t so close to the end of this review, and transitioning into thinking about books.
Will a metaphor do? Here’s something ridiculous: Bioshock Infinite’s plot is what would happen if Thomas Pynchon’s mother, aged eighteen, were lying at the bottom of a staircase, and Dan Brown, struggling to tie his shoes (as must happen to him often), accidentally tipped over, fell into a space-time portal, hurtled down the staircase, bursting his pants in the process, and — well.
In summary, it’s thick and heady and deliciously dumb. I recall the time I interviewed Hideo Kojima on the subject of Metal Gear Solid 3, and I asked him what books he liked, and he said, “I’ve just read Angels and Demons by Dan Brown and it was amazing“.
For the record, Angels and Demons by Dan Brown is, in fact, amazing, though I think maybe not in the way Hideo Kojima meant.
Bioshock Infinite is amazing in the way Angels and Demons is amazing, and I genuinely love that about it. However, take this with a grain of salt(s), because Kobo Abe’s Kangaroo Notebook is literally one of my favorite novels, and it’s about a guy who wakes up to find radish sprouts growing on his legs and ends up on a traveling through Shinto hell aboard a magical hospital bed.
What I’m left with when it comes time to rate Bioshock Infinite is my impression of its narrative as attempted sophistication — not the gleeful absurdity of Kangaroo Notebook (which would make a great videogame, by the way). I’m left remembering those jarring moments wherein my jerk brain forced me to stop and process the thought of why they’d sell a beverage that lets people command swarms of murderous crows in a vending machine in utopia. I understand that those vending machines are attempted pop-art, and that — as many naysayer-down-shooting YouTube comments are quick to point out, it is, in fact, “Just A Game”, so I should “Chill Out And Enjoy It”.
I wish I could do that.
The further games cross through this uncanny valley toward the promised land of “ready for primetime”, the more the tiny inconsistencies are going to pop out and touch my eyeball: I can shoot police officers’ heads clean off and I can pop bullet holes in this painting, yet this vase here never cracks, not even under machinegun hail.
And then there’s the constant stop-and-violence, the grueling and unbalanced combat, the goopy, gummy cluster of mutilated or half-formed systems, the popsicle-stick narrative flow, questions like “seriously how is a drinkable porcelain cup of coffee in this garbage can here”, and the lazy science-fiction — like, this story is about alternate dimensions, right? So there are infinite dimensions, meaning we can just, like, go to a dimension where all the stuff is the same except for the one thing which is a little bit different because, uh, we need it to be different for this thing to happen right now? Oh my god if these alternate dimensions are a layer-caked “commentary” on the repetitive nature of side-quests in videogames I will eat every T-shirt in my dresser —
— . . . when I think about Bioshock Infinite, this impression is as big in my mind as a slice of apple pie.
Then there’s the theme-fragment of bigotry. By the end of the game, the rebels — a group largely composed of minorities — has risen up against the elite, and you’re one of their enemies.
I can’t focus on the good things. I can’t focus on the gorgeous atmosphere-em-up of its beginning hours — where it’s neither boring nor Myst — or the (mostly) consistent visual density of the environments.
I keep falling back on the stratospheric (tohoho) price tag — One Hundred Million Dollars for development, One Hundred Million Dollars for marketing. I keep thinking of the amazing games that, in some alternate universe, One Hundred Million Dollars could have bought. I’d love to flip the coin or roll the dice on some of those possibilities.
In short, Bioshock Infinite makes me sad. Bioshock Infinite makes me sad that I’m not offered the choice of a dozen more games like it every year. I want so many games this big, and this weird, and this stuffed full of stuff. I want this game to be successful. No matter how stupid I ultimately decided it was, I want it to succeed, so that we can start breaking the cycle of every triple-A game being about some super-boring regular dudes on earth fighting in a desert or a jungle. I want to go weird places with weird people — in real life and in videogames. I know it’s cool for “people like me” to hate Bioshock Infinite unconditionally, because that’d be the opposite of what everyone else is doing, though I arrive at the end of this critique genuinely conflicted.
I sincerely love that a game as visually and thematically dense as Bioshock Infinite exists. I admire that it aspires to narrative significance, among other games which cannot graduate beyond “shoot all the guys”. It refreshes me to, for once, experience a triple-A game behind which I constantly feel the presence of an author — not a committee, not a focus group: an author. I am weirdly flattered to no end that this sort of experience has grown up into the sort of interactive electronic entertainment corporations will pay Two Hundred Million Dollars for. As Clint Hocking said many years ago, of Bioshock, this sort of experience proves that games really are something. Hocking theorized that the game which “is to Bioshock as Bioshock is to System Shock 2” will be the “Citizen Kane” of games. That game is definitely not Bioshock Infinite, and even though I did not precisely walk away “liking” Bioshock Infinite, I can say with conviction that it is a landmark game, in that it proved to me that intelligent life does in fact exist in a yet-unexplored — though quite nearby — region of videogame history.
In summary — hey guys! If you keep trying, I’ll keep playing.
In closing: I love the ambient sound design. I am not kidding. I played this game with big headphones on. I’d listen to the airship engine thrum on loop for literally eight hours a day (if it were included on my iOS “White Noise” app).