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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Late to the Game: Bioshock: Infinite -- The Wrap-Up


It's not been too long since I wrote my "Initial Impressions" but I had some vacation, and this was a much shorter game than I thought. I've had some time to think about it, and I don't think I'll be saying anything new, but here's my two Silver Eagles anyway.

Why do I keep playing games like this?

Here's the thing. Bioshock games are well put-together. You can tell someone thought about them. A lot. You can tell there's a singular vision behind them, an author's voice. You are promised a story that's more complex than "Save the Girl, Kill the Big Bad", and it is delivered. But that's all content that could be put into a novel.

The thing about a video game is that you play it. You interact with it. You make decisions, judgements, and choices that affect the outcome. I don't even care that the storyline is linear, but don't pretend to give me the illusion of choice. I'm smarter than that.


What am I talking about? Well, I'm talking about a few things, which I'll get into. But here's what I'm not talking about. I'm not talking about the racism thing. I'm privileged, but I think it was handled plausibly and realistically for the situation. The thing is, with historical fiction, I think you can't use the present to judge the past, even when it's fiction.  No matter what Courtney Stanton says.

Box art that's apparently controversial

I don't care about the box art. I didn't even buy the box -- I bought it from Steam. Box art is determined by a Marketing Department.  By people who are trained how to deliver a message in a single image. As far as I could see, the box art delivered the game it promised (keyword: game, not story).

I don't care about Elizabeth. I don't care that she acts like an immortal idiot in battle -- ducking right in the line of fire. Better that than she gets killed every 20 seconds, through no fault of my own, and I have to start over. That's like the computer playing and beating itself. I'd rather fudge realism in the interest of fun. When you've got a city in the sky, you've forsaken your claim to realism. In fact, I'm rather endured to Elizabeth. Anyone who'd stay with me after she saw me shred a guy's face off with an industrial meat grinder is okay in my book.
Said book

No, what I care about is the "ludonarrative dissonance". Big fancy word, eh? Let's break it down. Ludo is from "ludology" which means "video game theory" (not the mathy kind). Narrative means "the telling of the story". And dissonance means "a harsh, disagreeable combinations of sounds". In other words, it's when you mix your peanut butter and your tomatoes. Its when the game pulls you out of the experience with indications that you are playing a game.

All games have this, to some degree. You can take a rocket to the face and run around like nothing happened. No one questions why people burst into song during a musical -- it's part of the genre/style. Dying at the first bullet would take the fun out of the game.


Here's a Bioshock Infinite example -- skylines. The skyhook is your melee weapon. You can separate someone's spinal cord with it OR you can use them to jump onto zip lines at certain points around the game. I thought they were great fun, especially when you can drop fifty feet and launch someone over the side of Columbia. Does it matter that I'm certain my player's kneecaps would shatter, his shoulder pulled out of socket? No, because the coolness of the act makes up for it. It pays for its ludicrosity by the fun factor.

Another one: the game is filled with linear levels that feel like Disneyland. That's fine. I like Disneyland. I like the idea of being transported to a totally different world, even if it's a guided tour. Disneyland is beautiful, it's alien, it's full of wonders and horrors that stimulate the senses. But the theme park can be grand as cake, and it won't matter one whit if the rides are crappy.

I don't need to see Booker eat a bag of potato chips. I don't need to see him pick up each one and crunch it. I don't mind that. What I do mind is when A) potato chips repair bullet wounds B) you eat massive amounts of them, and C) you found them in the garbage, along with live grenade rounds, a pack of cigarettes, and a bottle of wine. I've tried this in the real world. Maybe I combined them wrong, but the Pringles + Night Train + Kools recipe had, in fact, the opposite effect.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or... hot fudge?
Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy... precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.
Dr. Melik: Incredible.
--Sleeper (1973)

Of course, it's a video game staple that food = health, but that's the thing. Bioshock: Infinite's gameplay is full of staples that remind you this is a game. Not just from previous Bioshocks, but all kinds of cliche features. Keep in mind, I'm talking gameplay, not story (we'll get to that).

I played this game on easy because as I get older, my VG skillz go down. In the middle of playing Black Mesa, and jumping onto the same tiny railing, falling, reloading, falling, reloading, etc. for the 27th time, I just cheated. (Why did anyone put platform jumping in a 3-D shooter? How can you measure your jump if you can't see your feet?) I realized that I didn't really want to play the game, I wanted to see the sights and experience the story.


I wonder if that makes me partially responsible for those hand-holding mechanics. As part of the gaming populace, am I the guy who's making it so the game's so easy it feels like it's playing itself? You've got a regenerating shield, gobs of ammo and weapons, highlighted targets, a magic system that stuns enemies, a helper that throws supplies at you when you run low, and magically appearing cover/depots.

It's a game that promised innovation and delivered Bioshock with a different coat of paint. There's no difference between Vigors and Plasmids, Gear and Gene Tonics, EVE and Salts, Elizabeth and Little Sisters, Handyman and Big Daddy, skyhook and wrench/drill. I'm not sure why this game got the hype it did.  Especially when it uses some of the most basic cliches like bullet sponges, "teleporting" enemies, convenient plot items, fetch quests that pad the game (what did Finktown have to do with anything?).

All I'm doing when I'm not shooting is running around, hammering space-space-space, grabbing anything that flashes. None of it hurts me, and Booker leaves it if my inventory's full. I don't even see what I'm picking up (which is a waste of code).


Why can't Ken Levine make a game as well as a story? Because this is really just John Steinbeck combined with Call of Duty.  Actually, strike that. It's more like a Christopher Nolan movie. It's a puzzle where you can't solve it, unless the author spoon-feeds you the pieces. Then you put them in and wait for the next piece -- there is no process of intuition/deduction/solving. The easy parts are easy and the hard parts are so damn incomprehensible (the "infinite" part) that it goes over your head.

Hey, you got a little something on you there.

But my biggest beef is with the illusion of choice. I know that's supposed to be part of the theme, but the way it's integrated in gameplay is even worse. Even Bioshock 1 wasn't as bad as this. Even though it only gave you the option to be messiah savior or cold-blooded child-killer, it gave you the option. Here, they just provide you a stopping point until you press a button to perform some inescapable action. And the narrative doesn't proceed unless you do. That's not a choice, that's making me turn the page.

There's plenty I wished I could have seen more of too.  I love the Songbird.  It's apparently supposed to be an icon of the game, but it's barely in it.  I would have loved more interaction with Elizabeth.  You're supposed to bond with her, why not little events where you can buy her a cotton candy, or dance with her, or some kind of Mass Effect dialogue tree?

Here's the thing: if people want to consider video games as art? Things like Bioshock: Infinite -- a penny dreadful disguised as great literature -- are not going to help. Bioshock: Infinite is Inception. It's great, until you pause the game, go to the fridge for a beer, and say "...That didn't make any sense!"  The story and game seem so separate from each other. It's a Taco Bell burrito in a Don Pablo's restaurant.
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