I Have Played: BioShock Infinite

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Bioshock Columbia

Jake played BioShock Infinite and has now sat down to write most of the things that he could think to say about it. This isn’t a review. There will be spoilers in this article.

The important thing to know about BioShock Infinite is that it is, first and foremost, a shooter. When it comes to what you will be doing over the course of the game – it’s shooting men in their faces. Sometimes with magic electric hands, sometimes with old-timey rifles, but shooting all the same.

So what makes this game different from all the other games where you shoot loads of men? Largely, where you’re doing it, who you’re doing it with and a little bit of why you’re doing it (but only a little bit).

Let’s start with the where. Colombia. Before playing the game I was expecting it to be the star of the show. How could it not be? A floating city in the sky, straight out of a warped 1912 America. And it is an impressive place – it’s bright and colourful and a well-researched reflection of America at that time (especially in terms of what it changes and omits as much as what it includes). It’s a work of art, in itself.

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However, as a believable world it falls somewhat flat. It’s all surface. It’s painted scenery. Beautifully painted, sure, but it doesn’t feel alive – it feels like a set, like a series of tableaux vivants. The streets, beaches and plazas of Columbia are filled with people, but they’re only set-dressing. Look closely and you’ll notice that one in three of them has the same face, the same voice. They’re only to be looked at and never touched. The same is true of the rest of the city.

It feels utterly bizarre that the only interaction you ever really have with it is to rifle through its bins for ammo, cash and food. And boy, what a lot of bins there are – it’s as though, stuck for any other ideas for how to make the city feel less two-dimensional, Irrational decided to make everything a container, to stuff it to the gills with old apples, sandwiches, bottles of salt and cash. It detracts somewhat from the experience when you enter a new, beautifully designed and detailed room only to spend five minutes turning the place over as though you’ve lost your passport.

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It’s only really in the opening moments of the game when I really got a sense of Columbia as a city in the sky. The verticality of it all was rarely used to its fell extent, nor did it ever really elicit any vertiginous feelings. It felt closest to Dishonored’s Dunwall in terms of size and space.

If Columbia isn’t the star, who is? Elizabeth. She’s a believable and well-acted presence throughout. On the few occasions that she wasn’t by my side, I genuinely missed her. She never got in the way and I didn’t have to worry about protecting her, which immediately makes her one of the best companion characters in any game, ever. She can look after herself.

She also represents one area in which BioShock Infinite really shines. She’s mysterious. She’s mystery incarnate. It’s refreshing to be joined by a character who also has no idea what’s going on, to feel as though we’re solving this thing together. She’s the driving force behind the whole game and to have that riding on one character and to pull it off is a real credit to Irrational.

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It’d be easy to forget, with everything that has been said about BioShock Infinte, that it’s a game and therefore has to have something for you to do. Shooting. It’s not enough for a game this big, this eagerly awaited and with this much money behind it for it to be only about walking around, talking to people and exploring a magical world. It comes so close to being a game that I’d be able to show to a non-gamer without being a little bit embarrassed.

I live in a house with three girls. My desk and computer are in the corner of the living room, so people often hang out in there or walk through on the way to the kitchen.

‘Are you playing your new game?’ asks a politely dis-interested house-mate.

‘I am.’

‘Is it a shooting game?’

‘Well it’s sort of about revolution and religion and fate and it’s set on a floating city in an imaginary 1912 America.’

‘That sounds great!’

It does, doesn’t it? But notice how I didn’t answer the question? Because yes, it is a shooting game. It’s a shooting game with very pretty bits and clever talking in between the shooting. But if my house-mate were to play it, all she’d be actually doing would be shooting. Which presumably wouldn’t appeal as much to her as what I described. Hell, it doesn’t appeal as much to me, either.

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It’d be more forgivable if the combat in BioShock Infinite were a bit better too, but as it stands, fighting is reduced to incredibly chaotic and contrived ‘arenas’. You know when you’re about to get into a fight because there are suddenly lots of very convenient ‘tears’ all around you for Elizabeth to pull into the world and aid you in your man-shooting. Not to mention that the levels immediately becomes ghost-towns once the shooting starts, with NPCs just disappearing. Not running for cover and hiding behind bars like in a cowboy film, but literally disappearing.

Tactics in these fights are pretty shallow. Enemies are very good shots and attack from all directions, so your best bet is to fire off a ‘vigor’ (your magic hand spells that generally act to stun enemies) shoot as many men as you can, then run away for a bit. Repeat until all the men are dead. That’s about as varied as it gets.

The shooting would also be more forgivable if it had any bearing on the rest of the game. There is a stark disconnection between the world and your actions within that world. In fact, the vast majority of the combat sections could be taken out of the game and it would have no effect on the story at all. Fighting sections are only ever obstacles in the way of more story or more exploring.

Tellingly, the most important acts of violence in the game – Daisy Fitzroy’s death at the hands of Elizabeth, Comstock’s death at the hands of DeWitt, both happen in scripted sections where the player has no control. It seems that meaningful violence can only be handled by the game, while the inconsequential killing is left to the player. The one time that you can choose to enact violence on a main character, it’s presented as a ‘push button X to kill Slate or button Y to spare him’. We’re not even allowed to ‘pull the trigger’ ourselves.

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In other words, the core gameplay is entirely separate to the narrative. And if that’s the case, what would happen if we replaced it with another genre of gameplay. Or even stripped it out entirely? Surely the moments where the story results in violence would resonate a whole lot more if there wasn’t a gun floating in the middle of the screen for the whole experience? Would that game sell?

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[ 4 comments to read... submit another ]

  1. While I absolutely agree with your assessment of the weak combat, a lot of the vigorous murder seems as though it is in place to characterise Booker – he is a very vicious and violent bloke. Elizabeth even reacts to the more spectacularly gory kills with gasps and horror.

    This may also partially explain the scripted sequences. Booker isn’t a player agent – he’s a vehicle for the combat, and the decisions you’re offered are mostly just to serve to highlight the parallel-reality constants-and-variables nature of the setting.

    This is all just an uneducated opinion, of course.

  2. “In other words, the core gameplay is entirely separate to the narrative.”

    This seems to be a common problem with games nowadays; they don’t seem to have figured out, on the whole, how to tell a story with gameplay serving it. The gameplay’s almost there as an apology – “we’re sorry you’ve had to listen to all that plot stuff, here have some fun shooting things for a bit”.

    I only really started noticing that disconnect with Uncharted 3 – Nathan Drake’s easygoing, wisecracking everyman in cutscenes is a far cry from the gun-toting sociopath the player controls – but once you’ve seen that dichotomy in one game, it’s everywhere you look.

  3. First I don’t agree that Colombia fails as a setting or star of the game. (Or at least I felt you implied so to some degree) I do though totally agree that it’s not lifelike or living. It’s a set, but the most well crafted and most beautiful set I have ever played through/seen. I have heard the game being compared, to not a film, but a play. This is very much issue of personal preference, but I had no problem with the linearity, with how guided I felt through the game. In particular I liked the parts of the game that really toke advantage of the set like nature and the first person perspective the most. The beginning, The Museum, all the elevators, and of course the ending. I think there’s something very artistically and poetic in the games approach to level design. And I would much rather this, than much more open but less well realized and detailed areas.

    Kieron Gillen at RPS had some very interesting things to say about this as well:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/04/06/about-a-girl-assorted-thoughts-on-bioshock-infinite/

    But about the violence The parts of the game that actually takes notice to your violence, and make it impact full. (You mentioned the death of Comstock and Fitzroy, I would also mention the first kill, and the first kills after Liz is with you) Worked great for me, and helped define the characters and the themes of the game. I will though agree that the game had a lot of unnecessary violence as well.

    • I agree with you. Especially about it being like a play (at least the parts where you’re exploring, or where the narrative takes over). Do you think that those deaths that are impactful would be more so if you hadn’t spent the rest of the game killing waves of anonymous men?

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