BioShock: Infinite, It’s Controversial
It’s been a good few months since BioShock: Infinite has released and we’ve reached a point in time when people are either no longer sick and tired of talking about the game, or finally past the initial honeymoon period of adoring the game and shunning any who would dare to criticise it. So with that in mind, I feel it’s about time we got controversial.
Before we take another step in the metaphorical journey that is this article, which you may call a Second Look if you so desire, let it first be known that I quite enjoyed BioShock: Infinite. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I only went and played it a second time directly after completing my first playthrough. This, of course, over and above concurring with our site review, thanking Irrational for catering to the intellectual, talking about the game’s hidden multiplayer component, and dedicating an entire podcast to it.
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You could almost say that our coverage of BioShock: Infinite has been… extensive. And Infinite. Okay. There.
Know also that this article, and the entire intro segment above, was created many months ago with the hopes of getting this out roughly two months after the game released, but due to timing issues and a host of other things, it went onto the backburner. Still, there were enough people asking about it and so I decided to finally get around to completing this and putting it out there. I just ask that you guys understand that it’s been a few months so a lot of my memories of the game are not quite as raw as they once were. But I will do my best!
Obvious spoiler alert here: There will be spoilers, so if you’re saving yourself and haven’t yet played the game then would you kindly exit stage right? Thank you.
Now. Let’s do this in sections, shall we?
There were some areas of the game where I thought that Elizabeth was characterised really well. The moment you meet her and see that she is considered to be an object, held in captivity and observed like a caged animal, for example. But that just serves to annoy me when later on, you’re asked to press X to interact with Elizabeth, and what does she do? She either carries the story or supplies you with items or opens doors or whatever else that involves progress. Effectively, you press X to ‘use’ Elizabeth, the great plot-progressing mechanic with boobs. The object she always was, in her prison in the sky.
This contrasting juxtaposition goes even further when you consider that throughout the game, which is effectively one really long escort mission — and not the only such game this year to do this — you are expected to keep Elizabeth safe and protect her from harm, only she is practically invulnerable. Not that it matters too much since no enemies ever actually attack her. There were points in the game where I shot at a guy who was standing right next to her as she hid ‘out of danger’ and that guy did not even so much as sniff in her direction.
The final straw with Elizabeth was when, during probably her most emotionally climactic moment later on in the story, you watch her recover from being tortured, having finally freed her, and you can see that the experience has left her scarred and damaged as a person. Then you need to unlock a door so you ask her to pick the lock for you and bam, happy scripted response, completely breaking the immersion of that scene. Rookie error of note, Irrational.
It’s such a shame because Elizabeth really is an endearing character. She’s not the most well-imagined character in the world but over the course of the game she shows a definite sense of growth from the naive girl who hasn’t experienced the world to a woman who has made tough decisions because those were the cards she was dealt. It’s a story of empowerment, when you consider Elizabeth as a character, but that just all goes down the trashcan the moment the game asks you to press X to ‘use’ her again.
Do you know what makes a world interesting? Why was Fallout 3 considered to be such a great game? Why do people speak of ‘getting lost’ in a world all the time? Well, kids, it’s because that world is interactive. It has layers and depth and dimension and you can look but also touch. Stumble upon an area full of burned buildings? Well, why don’t you go and explore those buildings and see what you can find! BioShock: Infinite did not have this, with Columbia. Oh sure, there were a few places to explore here and there, but all you really got for it was a few Voxopohones and maybe an upgrade.
Columbia is effectively a theme park. It’s as simple as that. You can look, but you can’t really touch, and it’s quite upsetting. It’s further upsetting when, if you’ve played the game on console, like I have, and then seen it on PC, like I have, you discover that it’s not even the best rendition of a theme park either.
It’s not as if Irrational haven’t gotten this right before. They did it perfectly with Rapture. The levels had an objective marker but for the most part, they were open to your exploration and really felt like an atmospheric and structured world that could have existed. In Columbia, much like the moon landing with conspiracy theorists, it feels as if it’s a bunch of cardboard cutouts and they’re holding your hand through it, forcing you to go only where you’re allowed.
I understand that sometimes some features must be sacrificed in favour of others, so, exploration in favour of narrative, but really, it was a golden opportunity to really sink yourself into this new ‘city in the sky’ world. Instead we got to watch it go to shit, but we could only really watch it. Gone were the avoidable fights or areas you could rig to your advantage, if any other hostiles came snooping around. Gone are the interesting little alcoves and twists and turns in the world which led to little mini-stories within the stories, such as the Sander Cohen saga of BioShock.
Here, you got Columbia, the theme park. Hands inside the ride at all times. Don’t forget your ticket. You must be this tall to ride. Etcetera.
The Civil War
So at the beginning of the game you see that blacks and, for some reason the Irish, are oppressed because the white American man is operating under the assumption that if allowed to join the ranks, the lesser civilians would bring about chaos, death and destruction. Later, a civil war erupts where the lesser civilians bring about chaos, death and destruction.
The great hypocrisy of the entire Vox Populi movement is that, in the spirit of the French Revolution, they actually are the problem. Thus, any semblance of exploration into the undertones of the game was stillborn, dead from the very start. Not that it actually is explored since it seems as if they had this really cool idea about a civil war and real repurcussions depending on the side you take, but got distracted by the shining lights over at the Sea of Doors.
The thing is, it’s never resolved, either. We understand why the Vox Populi started their war with Columbia and Comstock’s armies, but why did they continue after Daisy Fitzroy, their leader, was dead? Didn’t she use, as her motivation for killing Fink and trying to kill a child, that if you cut off the head, the body whithers? So what gives? Was it just about revenge, then? And speaking of Daisy, did Irrational just paint a black female character as the secondary villian of the story while the white lead characters won the game? How’s that for racist undertones?
Ah, we finally come to my biggest gripe with the game. Pretty much my only ‘real’ gripe with the game from the very start. See, I’ve played a lot of shooters in my time, and I understand that games tend to progress in a sequence of shooting gallery, narrative progression, repeat. So naturally, I was willing to forgive BioShock: Infinite for feeling a little like a watered down Call of Duty with oddly shaped weaponry and a deep reliance on your ability to pull off headshots from a distance. But then I realised, this isn’t Call of Duty, this is BioShock. This is Irrational Games. Where is my deep and unique style of gameplay?
BioShock sure had it. Remember? Do you know how difficult it was to hit a target in that game, initially? Sure over time you got used to it, but BioShock had gameplay that needed to be self-taught and mastered over time, and it mixed in some interesting, although not entirely original additions, with plasmids. BioShock: Infinite is the next game in the series, so you would be forgiven for expecting some innovations here. Valve only went and redefined the FPS genre when they put out Half-Life 2, after all. But no, BioShock: Infinite is just guns and vigors but this time they’re not even that interesting. So no real innovation at all, then. And it’s quite boring, too.
At times the game started to feel as if, adding to the fact that Columbia was in fact a theme park setting, it was trying to take me on a ride but only if I played along. As part of this ride, I got to see a beautiful city in the sky, but first I had to clear the area of hostiles, each time. It’s not that it wasn’t fun but rather, it wasn’t BioShock, if that makes sense. It was obvious that Irrational were going for that Call of Duty crowd with the gunplay and mechanics involved. And they’re not even that well-executed because there are certain combinations of vigors that will obliterate everything, whereas others are completely useless and will waste your salts and get you killed. Even tears weren’t really that impactful, either serving as minor changes to the map or as narrative progression, which we’ll get to.
The only really great innovation that I can think of is the Skyhook, but again, it was never really something that allowed you to really interact with the world. Sometimes it was forced on you, meaning you had to use one to get through the level. Other times they were just there and the choice was left entirely up to you. They added an interesting vertical take to combat, which worked well given the setting. I’ll grant that if they maybe explored this a bit more, they could have had some really interesting systems in play. As it is, a Skyhook was basically a sign for me that maybe this next battle with fifty Patriots would actually be fun instead of annoying.
The Illusion Of Choice
Which will you pick? Heads or tails? The bird or the cage? One of the running themes of BioShock: Infinite was that of constants and variables. Some things are different each time but other things remain the same, always. The thing is, the game went a lot further than just showing that sometimes your choices don’t matter. No, the game absolutely encompassed this mentality by taking choice entirely out of the equation.
There is a point later in the game when you will need to speak to a man about a weapon, and in the current timeline that’s not possible, so Elizabeth opens a tear to one where it is possible. You jump timelines and enter a world where Booker was a martyr for the Vox Populi and rallied civilians to his cause, and so on and so forth. The thing is, throughout the game you’re never the one actually effecting any of this change yourself. You’re always watching what other versions of your characters have done. Old Elizabeth did this. Evil Booker did that. But what of the Booker and Elizabeth you’re playing? What are their choices?
They make none. They only climb through yet another tear when the choice has already been made and they are simply dealing with the consequences. Which then begs the question, why don’t they just keep jumping tears until they reach a nirvana situation where everything has magically worked out alright? Oh, right, constants.
That ending, hey? Probably one of the most rewarding moments of my entire gaming existence (career?) and I could not have enjoyed that any more than I did. I sat there practically gawking at my screen, with this look of pure excitement. It was a wide-eyed feeling of reward that only comes at the end of a really good story, and that’s what BioShock: Infinite was. It also helped that I actually managed to understand all of what was going on, the first time around. Without needing to watch copious amounts of YouTube videos explaining it.
The thing about the ending is that it quite literally has infinite possibilities. Do I think that there could have been a better ending? Yes. Definitely. I mean, couldn’t Booker and Elizabeth break the circle just by going to Paris and leaving Columbia the fuck alone? Sure enough, Irrational did a great job of covering many of the paradoxes and plot holes that might occur but Occam’s Razor applies once more and sometimes the simplest and most obvious choice could genuinely be the best one. Why was death necessary?
But I suppose that in that way, the game had finality. It had resolution and so you got to witness the conclusion of something, which I would say is a hell of a lot better than something that serves the purpose of sequel-baiting, alluding to an end rather than presenting players with one.
Or: “The end… ?”
I’m glad that Irrational didn’t dumb down that ending, and even though it was twenty minutes of being blasted with revelations, effectively making most of the ten-plus hours leading into that point somewhat void, I felt as if it was a fitting reward to anyone who was patient enough to sit through the game in its entirety, and unlike the first BioShock which dropped its plot twist, I felt, a little too early, Infinite left everything for one massive end-of-scene climax. Like that last episode of Breaking Bad. It was great.
Before you fuckers even start with your comments about how you enjoyed the game and everyone is entitled to their own opinion and all that bullshit, stop. Just stop. Breathe. Go ahead. Now, read: I’m not trying to convince anyone that the game is bad. My overall experience with BioShock: Infinite was positive. In fact, I’d rate it as one of the best experiences I’ve had this year. But, as I’ve mentioned before, when I see a game getting perfect ratings (10/10, 100%, etc.) then alarm bells go off in my head and the critic in me must critique. This is what that is.
Thus, it’s not something meant to slander the game or attack your personal opinion of the game. I’m not trying to do that and if you think I am, then congratulations on completely missing the point. I understand that there are those of you who indeed do think that it’s a perfect game. I know also that, for example, our very own Rudolf holds this game in the highest esteem because it was there for him during a tough time in his life. I would not take that kind of attachment away from anyone. No, I’m purely in it for the academic debate.
I want to get people talking and thinking and discussing critically. Not just skimming the headings and then commenting with, “Well I liked BioShock: Infinite and thought it was great, so I guess everyone’s entitled to their opinions.” I disagree with that notion as well, actually. You are not entitled to your opinion if it is an incorrect one, but I am not actually saying that it’s incorrect, here. The great thing about games is that we can enjoy them but still see their faults. It’s called growth. Maturity. Whatever else you’d like to label it. It’s important to know what we’ve done wrong in order to improve for the future, even if the present is not that bad at all. That’s what this is, and I’m hoping that now we can get some discussion going.
Assuming it’s not too late and I haven’t completely missed the (air)boat, that is.