BioShock Infinite has been getting a lot of somewhat less than glorious press lately for its over the top violence. Kotaku calls it insane and ridiculous, a reviewer at Polygon argues that its too offensive for his sensitive spouse, and Slate says that the violence kind of just drowns out any meaningful interaction in the game. I think all of these folks are right, but each of them also somehow manages to apologize for the game, as though there were a kernel of an amazing game once you dig out the buckshot from the wounds inflicted by its horrible and boring “play” design. Mind-bending finale aside, I don’t think there is a patient to “save.”
I genuinely feel bad trashing a game like Infinite because its clear so much time, artistic talent, and money went into creating an immersive world. I mean, how can you fault the vision of a game designer who places hundreds of cultural artifacts all around the world, includes amazing details in the environment like a small orphan child hiding under a doorway (who Elizabeth hands an apple to), and has such a weird and evocative world to share with us? In light of these strengths, I think that Infinite should have been a short film, and not a game.
If I were to compare BioShock Infinite to a movie, it would likely not be the Dark Knight (as some have suggested), but rather Inception. Like Nolan’s mind-bender, Infinite bookends traditional fare with surrealist interpretations of reality. Infinite fails, however, because it has almost nothing interesting to say about the medium in which it is published. This failure of meaning starts with Infinite’s core mechanics of gameplay, which are ultimately tedious (apart from occasional spurts of thrills), vicious, and fail to interact with the game’s more polished artistic conceptions. This is in stark contrast to the original BioShock’s mechanics, which served to advance the story in key ways, while preserving an engaging and thrilling type of combat.
I mean, I’ll admit I was quite surprised the first time I decapitated someone in-game. This is in part because of Infinite’s odd cartoony graphics, as well as the disembodied feel of the violence itself (I always felt like I was shooting skeet, instead of people). Infinite has the “feel” of old-school shooters, rather than a modern FPS. Another reviewer compared it to Doom, and I think that the modern versions Time Splitters or Serious S.A.M. are probably more apt comparisons.
I started playing Infinite at the highest difficulty, having recently become acclimated to the satisfying combat of Tomb Raider and Dark Souls, but I almost immediately turned the difficulty down to medium – I’m simply not a polished FPS player, so I was dying alot. But soon, I turned the game’s difficulty down further to easy, not because I was dying, but because I was just so damned tired of the uninspired murder-marathons which involved killing huge numbers of random people with my relatively unexciting arsenal of vigors and weapons.
It started taking forever, and, well, I just didn’t care. Not that the combat was too boring to continue, but I just didn’t feel invested in anything that was happening – I felt like I was peeling potatoes in between segments of a particularly boring Saturday morning cartoon.
Eventually the game’s combat and collection mechanism started to feel like Borderlands 2, and not in a good way (2k was involved in both Infinite and Borderlands so this is not surprising). At least in Borderlands 2 the collection-mania had a lot of purple excitement, whereas in Infinite I am constantly picking up fruit or coins to buy upgrades. The upgrades are of course super boring themselves – enhance damage, clip-size, firing rate, etc. But generally, even assuming that you wanted to play a vanilla-flavored mash-up of Borderlands 2 and Serious S.A.M. (with a Half-Life 2 partner-AI character thrown in as a bonus), this is not that game.
I mean, I thought that Borderlands 2 had more character in its opening scene than Columbia has in its whole beginning-to-mid-game (amazing art design aside). What I mean is that once you get past the dull repetition of enemy invasions into your game experience – when all of the people disappear and 20 dudes start trying to kill you – the meat itself doesn’t offer an interesting experience. Even assuming that tacking on a boring shooter game to an actually interesting story is somehow a legitimate way to conduct a gaming experience (its not, though I quite like the reverse, I’m looking at you Borderlands 2) the story-parts of BioShock Infinite are utterly uninspired and fail to redeem the actual “game” parts of of the game.
The first thing you will note about the social interactions in the game (apart from Elizabeth) is that people are constantly yammering all around you on a megaphone or on a voice recording. Unlike Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2, I didn’t care about what these people are saying, because (a) I hadn’t met them, (b) they are difficult to understand, and (c) oftentimes the megaphone’s blare meant that another group of indistinguishable baddies was about to appear out of nowhere, start shooting at me and totally interrupt my progress in the story and my exploration of all the visual treats of the world. I wish that at some point the megaphones would shut up, people would stop communicating with me via tape recorder like some sort of illiterate roommate mad about my bathroom mess, and have someone come down and engage in an actual conversation with me! I seriously got lonely in the game, and not in the Dark-Souls-Despair-For-My-Plight-Lonely way, just plain old boring-lonely.
Infinite fails, however, because it has almost nothing interesting to say about the medium in which it is published.
Even the main character is an obnoxious and silent narrator who only engages with his female companion in cursory conversation (like omg are you sad, let me comfort you), and this dullness means that the big reveal at the end of the game is totally and utterly hollow – Booker/Comstock’s death merely enhanced my already ambivalent attitude towards the whole enterprise.
The exception that proves the rule is the touching scene where I play a guitar and Elizabeth sits and sings. I mean, that was the most human thing that happened in the game’s main narrative, but about 5 seconds later I mowed down like 50 more dudes, and me and Elizabeth NEVER SPOKE OF IT AGAIN.
One of the first characters who you actually interact with is the leader of the Vox Populi – an opposition leader to Comstock’s, well…racist regime? What follows is a series of unintelligible quantum activities on the part of Booker and Elizabeth in search of certain “gun technologies” for Daisy (wtf was up with this storyline? It is seriously the most hackneyed and dumb way for our character to interact with the coolest new person on the block – the revolutionary), leading to Booker’s transformation into a revolutionary and Elizabeth’s violent turn.
This entire storyline is discarded in significance once the Vox become simply another group of men that I must murder with my murder-skills.
As an aside, Bioshock Infinite never really explains the racism of Columbia, other than, presumably, the religious nature of Comstock/Booker’s rebirth.
These developments, in addition to being poorly scripted and poorly integrated into Booker’s story (itself boring until the very end), fail to compensate for the lack of an intelligible game structure outside of the murder-sprees. Thus they are further drained of any emotional significance, and the game comes full circle when you begin murdering both Vox and Comstock’s men. There aren’t even any mini-bosses to enable me to gloat and cheer about my ruthless bloodshed! (Lady Comstock does not count).
Infinite has no puzzles, no blocks to manipulate with my mind, and even the most interesting mechanic – RIPPING HOLES IN THE UNIVERSE – is wasted on creating ammo and other boring stuff. Really? The closest thing to interactivity is when I zap a SINGLE ELECTRIC switch (literally) which Elizabeth tells me to zap (and by the way, getting the electric power to zap this switch takes forever and constitutes a huge section of the early game). The other mechanic that approaches interactivity is the roller-coasters, but these are basically just advanced grappling hooks/ziplines (ala Arkham Asylum/Tomb Raider/Every Other Game In the Last 5 Years). Its not like I can go anywhere interesting on the roller-coasters (It would have been cool if they had a roller coaster that went all the way around the game’s environment!).
As an aside, why is it that every time I interact with the environment my hand has to come out and slowly do something, like I was a weird animatronic puppet masturbating a woodland creature? I mean, is it necessary for me to ACTUALLY CATCH EVERYTHING THAT ELIZABETH THROWS? Did the game developers think that if I saw Booker’s hand pop-out occasionally it would somehow substitute for the lack of meaningful character interaction? Was there a point in having my hand push open doors? They didn’t add quick-time events (like Arkham City), but even this small amount of immersion would have been a welcome change.
I think the lack of interactivity/exploration is the rot at the core of Infinite’s failure. Not only does the game have zero choices that matter (or maybe there is one? I don’t really know), the structure of the environments themselves are linear and discourage exploration. The lack of choice, of meaningful interaction extends to the plot. It is highly ironic that a game purportedly based on quantum dynamics and choice, contains no actual choices. Think about that – by the end, I literally did nothing in the game except move from one scene to another. While lots of games are like this, exploration and discovery form a significant part of the emotional core of a game. Even a game like Tomb Raider, which is similarly linear in plot, at least at times made me feel like there was a world to explore. An actual masterpiece like Dark Souls permits the brain to map out an entire world, and traverse through it with reckless glee, discovering and letting the plot unfold around you.
The lack of interactivity, the abandoned storylines, the weird boring, never-ending violence all stand in stark contrast, however, to the final 25 minutes of the game, which are pretty fascinating and very well produced. Still, while the odd salvation of Elizabeth is a bright spot in the story, it was wasted because I simply didn’t care about her or myself by the end of the game. Oh I’m her dad and I’m Comstock? This outcome, nominally shocking, only demonstrated to me that my time with the game – which already felt pointless – really amounted to nothing.
Top image courtesy of stickergiant.