There, now I’ve got your attention.
As part of my loose effort to write something every day this year, I’m reflecting on my experience playing Bioshock Infinite in a single game session while I was sick, on the first day of 2014 (Yes, I have a huge pile of shame full of acclaimed games I’ve not played.)
There will be massive spoilers.
Now, I want you to know that this is just my opinion, coloured by my perspectives and whatnot. This doesn’t invalidate your own experience, or your own personal opinions about how amazing this game is. Do we understand each other?
Good. So now let me explain why you are wrong to like this bad game.
Can’t hurt to get this brief section out of the way, right?
Bioshock Infinite is a beautiful game. I only played it on the XBox 360, so I’m sure it looks even better on a proper gaming computer. Beautiful like a painting.
The voice acting is pretty good. Courtnee Draper did an amazing job with Elizabeth.
The world building alternative history thing is pretty cool, except of course that because of the premise of the game there really is no point to anything (see next section).
Alright, let’s get into it!
I’m not even going to address questions of the handling of racism or anything related to that in the plot, as I’m not qualified at all to do so. Please read this:
After all, it would be easy to think, “Columbia sure is racist. And, man, America sure was racist too. But that’s not what my society looks like now, so we’re not racist.”
If only that were true. Racism is a much quieter force than what is portrayed in Bioshock Infinite, and it’s all the more pernicious for it’s quietness. [sic]
Some will view “BioShock Infinite” as a cruel social commentary, others as a relentless action shooter. But ultimately, it’s a cop-out, where complex questions about injustice, hatred and right versus wrong can be forgotten by simply jumping through a rip in time.
…if you want some good insights.
This quote from Shamus Young’s explanation of Bioshock Infinite’s terribly underwhelming, convoluted, sophomoric plot is a good starting point:
The most important thing to note here is that the world of BioShock Infinite uses the many-worlds interpretation where everything that can happen, does happen, along one of the endless branches of an ever-splitting set of possible realities. (This is a real theory, and it was popularized by theoretical physicist Bryce DeWitt.)
It’s important to note that Shamus’s good breakdown of the events that happened in chronological order in that game just made me angry again. Then I discovered there was another post-credits ‘interactive’ cutscene, which I hadn’t seen because I was so infuriated by the ending that I didn’t watch until the end of the credits. When I watched that on YouTube I got even MORE infuriated.
See, the problem with plots that use multiple universe theory is that NOTHING YOU DO MATTERS. EVER. EVER.
Ah, I got sidetracked.
Perhaps I’m unfairly going to compare this game to Bioshock, which I did enjoy. My criticism is levelled more harshly at this game because everyone said it was just so amazingly fantastic and great on every level. Well, I deconstruct that opinion here crudely.
The game is an interesting, barely-interactive movie for the first 30 minutes or so. This is where the glory of Columbia really shows, and the utterly dead and sterile NPCs that are scattered around it like mechanical puppets aren’t too distracting yet. As you have no weapons at this time, the game’s only means of interacting with NPCs (shooting them in the face or ripping their head off with a skyhook) is sadly not yet available to you.
This really is just your standard multi-verse nonsense. Worse, you have absolutely no agency in this game. The Lutece ‘Siblings’ harangue you throughout the game like the G-Man from Half Life, but are actually annoying more than anything. As the game starts with a quote along the line of ‘trans dimensional travelling can damage the memory and travellers will construct whatever they like from the fragments that are available to them’ we already know we’re some sort of trans-dimensional traveller and the game will feature lots of trans-dimensional travelling and we have a Dark Past that will be revealed to us at the very end.
Tragically, it’s nothing new. If you’ve never read any multiverse work then the notion that everything that could possible happen has and will happen might be mind-blowing, but if that’s the case I humbly suggest that it is no cleverer than the ideas in movies like The Matrix and Inception, and should’ve been explored properly, not as a briefly amusing game gimmick and lazy way to ‘because plot’ the narrative.
Rhetorical questions galore (in no particular order)
– Why don’t the Lutece siblings open a portal and simply steal Anna from her cradle, instead of creating this ridiculous repayment deal nonsense. They should’ve shown Booker casually walking into the baby’s room and seeing a portal and Comstock stealing the child, then reaching through to stop them and falling in, then stumbling through multiverses until the Lutece siblings (now multiverse ghosts) find him and deliver him 20-odd years later at the start of the game.
Sure, that would’ve meant he didn’t have the scar in his hand. That would’ve meant they couldn’t use the ‘deliver the girl’ bullshit red herring nonsense. A half-competent writer could deal with that though.
– Why does Comstock know about the AD False Shepherd nonsense when presumably he has no idea that Alterna-Booker is able to come back across time and space to hunt him down? I know the proper answer is: ‘Because he can see into the future using the Lutece science dimensional device’, however because the game has established that all futures are true at the same time, this would’ve given him exactly zero reliable information. Again, the multiverse as a basis for plot is a huge fucking disaster in the making, and you can only get through it by ignoring the fundamentals of your premise, which is lazy, and which is what Bioshock Infinite did.
– Why did the game developers use a different voice actor for Comstock when he is Booker? That’s really sneaky deliberate bullshit to throw us off the scent.
– Why do we care at all about Stade our whatever his name was, who sends boring waves after waves of uniformed men at me to ‘die a soldier’s death’, when obviously we should’ve all just ganged up together to fight Comstock.
– Why can I not make any decisions at all in this game? Saying it’s a clever technique to show me that all choice is illusory is bullshit. They did a much better job with that using ‘Would You Kindly’ in Bioshock, where I, the player, followed the instructions blindly (because that’s what happens in a game), and only when my personal/my character’s goal conflicted with the ‘Would You Kindly’ did we see that I had no agency and was being controlled.
In Infinite BS, I simply can’t do anything at all. Whenever a decision is made that takes the plot forward, it’s made for me. I watch Booker take the airship to New York, but there’s no way I would’ve chosen to do that. I have a fucking airship and a girl who has magical powers. Who gives a fuck about clearing any debts now?
A competent writer might have filled the game with seemingly important decisions which all lead to the same inevitable disaster, through my own doing. For example, I could choose to take the airship to New York, and Elizabeth clocks me on the head and knocks me out. If I choose to take the airship to Paris, the Vox Populi attack, the ship rocks from the attack, and I’m clocked on the head and knocked out. Net result is the same, but the person supposed to be playing the game feels that they tried, at least.
It’s not like Elizabeth stays angry at my brutal betrayal of her for long, so it doesn’t matter, right?
– Why, after training me to be careless with ammo and supplies, because Elizabeth is always filling me up and/or every bad guy and trashcan and flowerpot is stuffed with ammo and supplies, do they turn the game into a survival horror game for the asylum level? I have no ammo because I’m not being careful with it; I can handle Elizabeth being gone now, but not the fact that every bad guy I kill now has nothing and there are no weapons.
The game only lets you carry two weapons, and I learned very quickly that it was designed to be played by emptying your weapon and swapping it out for the thousands of other weapons lying around. So that’s how I started to play it, utterly against my usual frugal, sniper/stealth approach (see below). This means if you just happen to have no decent weapons when you hit that level (heater and RPG, anyone?) you are busy skyhook-clubbing Ben Franklin robots. It’s a bad pacing decision, and could’ve easily been done better.
– Why can’t I play the shooter elements of this game in any other way except the FPS equivalent of button-mashing? It’s like the game was designed as a series of multi-player shooter arenas, and then they added in the interactive walk-through movie elements. And by interactive I mean you can walk around and open doors or press ‘X’ when instructed. I would’ve liked to have some options there. Find some cover, pick bad guys off, etc. The FPS elements are so bad they amount to ‘faceless mob of 2 or 3 enemy types, with an optional boss enemy, swarm you’.
– Why where the Handymen, so creepy and effective, so terribly boring to fight. They take a lot of damage and need to be shot in the heart or something. Well, the way they operate is to simply jump (teleport) right in front of you and start pounding you to pieces, no matter where you are. Shock slowed them down a bit, I guess. But they were boring and tedious and you had to revert to the button slamming RPG launching to get rid of them. It would’ve been more fun to make them a challenging obstacle, like the Big Daddies of old, not just some windmill of fists. I guess maybe I should’ve used those stupid sky rails more.
– Why does no one use vigors against me? The fucking things are lying all over the place.
– How do vigors even fit into this world? They don’t, you know. Bioshock, again, made it believable. Here… There is no place in this world where the idyllic citizens would find a need for these vigors, which are nonetheless sold everywhere. It’s just a cheap hack to add ‘magic’ into the game for your character only.
– Why wasn’t there a single moment when I needed to use my vigors to solve a problem? Lighting oil patches to assist in combat (which I never did even once) or activating some doors/bridges with Shock Jockey, doesn’t count. Where is the satisfaction of finding an ice-bound level or secret room that you can only get through with fire? I found a door filled with flames once, and quickly pulled out my water spray thing and just sprayed and… Nothing. Not even a hiss of steam. The water spray vigor was as dead as the world; a mere coat of paint on a generic ‘push bad guy’ combat game effect.
– Why was the only interesting character just randomly killed off at the end with no closure? I refer to Songbird, the Big Daddy archetype manifested in this game. To be honest, about two-thirds of the game in I thought that Booker was Songbird. That would’ve worked with the ‘Elizabeth, I am your father’ reveal and was still possible using the bullshit time-and-space-travel setting they created. Alas, unless I and the Internet missed something, Songbird is just a random human put into a machine and trained to love Elizabeth and then she kills him the moment she regains her powers (admittedly he is trying to attack her and it’s a good scene, but his character arc is wasted in the process).
– Why did they wave their hands and cram a ghost into this game, that you have to kill three times and ultimately serves no purpose and has no impact on the game?
– Why are none of the characters in this game interesting (excepting Songbird)?
– Why are the tears in reality used to conveniently jump the plot around by going to an alternate universe where the thing you need done is already done (reference, in particular, the gun tools chasing fetch quest.)
– Why bother to go back in time and drown Booker/Comstock at his second Baptism? If you can go back in time to change the millions of millions of worlds, you can find a better spot to fix things. I posit it was done purely for ooh-ah drama because you die. Oh except you don’t at the end anyway. Because multiverse. Except then there would still be a multiverse where Comstock lives. And even if there wasn’t, there will be a multiverse where some other evil dude destroys the world and you can’t stop them. Because everything is true, nothing has any meaning. Ever. Even the Booker you play dies, and the Booker who gets to see his daughter safe in her crib is just another version out there.
There are a bunch of other terrible gameplay decisions, which you can find highlighted here (thanks to Alan Baxter for sending me the link!), in the form of Bioshock Infinite as a text adventure. It’s brutally funny and true: http://www.pcgamer.com/au/2013/12/28/the-text-adventures-that-never-were-bioshock-infinite/
Here is a well-written article that explains the reality and the million versions of events etc in the multiverse sincerely, but in so doing shows how convoluted and messy the entire concept is: http://venturebeat.com/2013/04/19/understanding-bioshock-infinites-ending-ending-explanation/3/
And here, another excellent critique of the plastic dead world that promised so much:
I wanted something more. I am the problem. I wanted my decisions to matter. My decisions may have well been paper or plastic. A paper-thin script enveloped by plastic characters. You are narratively implied to look for voxophones, code books, anything that will help you gain something more than the main storyline presented.
And here, a legitimate critique about how the game is too violent. Ha ha, yep. Gratuitously so:
You grab one police officer and RAM HIS FUCKING FACE INTO A SPINNING BLADE and like, BLOOD AND SKULL-CHUNKS BLOW EVERYWHERE and WOW what in the world and then everyone starts shooting and then[…]
And finally here, an excellent essay on why game reviewing is so bad, and why Bioshock Infinite is bad. I wish I had written this myself: http://tevisthompson.com/on-videogame-reviews/:
A beautiful, corrupt place that I can only see, not touch. That I can interact with in no meaningful way except to shoot or loot. That actively presents itself as fake, a theme park, but offers no mechanics to go behind the curtain.
A game’s visuals cannot be separated into some separate category for evaluation. That’s the old logic of graphics/sound/fun factor. They are instead an integrated part of the entire game experience. Striking images and loving details can actually make a game worse if they draw you in and suggest a world that the rest of the game cannot support. A basic dissonance is created between hand and eye, and you feel more like a viewer than a player. The world calls to you, but you cannot respond.
You are no Game of the Year, Bioshock Infinite. Not even a contender. Go find a universe where you were better.