Thursday, August 6, 2015

Some Thoughts on BioShock Infinite

I’ve been tossing BioShock Infinite around in my head for the past week or so since I completed it and I just can’t seem to decide whether I think the game is annoyingly overrated, something I actually enjoyed quite a lot, or something I overall liked, but was underwhelmed by in several ways. So I thought I’d hash it out with myself here for a few paragraphs and if the game is still relevant to you, maybe you’ll find some food for thought or perhaps want to add something after reading this. I mainly want to discuss the game’s atmosphere and narrative, as those are the points which I find myself thinking about the most.

Like its predecessor (the original BioShock), Infinite excels in world-building and saturating the player with its potent atmosphere and sense of place. The floating city of Columbia is a fully-realized world full of details and its sights and sounds would often stick in my mind long after I’d stopped playing the game. To put it simply: Infinite is an engrossing experience. The opening of Infinite is reflective of the original, except instead of descending below a dingy lighthouse to a grim, murky city beneath the sea, players ascend a dingy lighthouse to a beautiful, sunlit city above the clouds. This feeling of familiar yet contrasting themes is prevalent throughout the game. While this aspect works to the game’s benefit in several ways, it’s also somewhat of a double-edged sword because I believe that much of the reason why Infinite didn’t impress me as much as it could have is because the original BioShock impressed me years ago with similar material. That said, Infinite still stands on its own much more than BioShock 2, which felt redundant and unnecessary to me.

All that said, I find the ways Infinite does differentiate itself to be interesting. For example, protagonist Booker DeWitt’s first steps in Columbia proper are not spent fending off deranged maniacs with a wrench, but simply strolling through sunlit streets and a fairground lined with gift shops, carnival games, and people relaxing and chatting jovially. I find this to be a unique strength of Infinite that sets it apart from the original: that we arrive in Columbia when the city is still living and breathing, instead of after its downfall. Indeed, many of my favorite sections in the game are the ones where you can just walk around and take in the world around you without having to shoot at anything. I think one of the smartest sequences of events in the game follows Booker as he explores the mysterious Monument Island Tower, which concludes in a thrilling escape sequence, followed by Booker waking up in a beautiful beach environment. A rosy late afternoon sun, a self-sustained “ocean” that ends in waterfalls that tumble into the sky, a Ferris wheel off in the distance, and people wearing old-timey swimming trunks (the game is set in 1912) relaxing among the sand set the scene. I was free to walk up to people and get some amusing commentary, eat stray hot dogs and cotton candy, or focus on the main task at hand of searching for Elizabeth (who Booker was sent to Columbia to find), who happens to be gaily dancing at the end of a dock nearby. Later on, as the sun further sets, Booker and Elizabeth go for a twilit stroll around a boardwalk environment complete with an ice cream shop and a bookstore, and even though there were people sitting on a bench having a contest about who could be a more racist white person, the atmosphere and visuals (the game’s luscious, stylistic art direction definitely stands out) were lovely, and I was fully immersed in the world. In these moments, I thought about how I’d like to play a game like this, where I just walk around and talk to people and further a narrative. When soon after this same area is suddenly turned into a gunfight arena, with soldiers who yelled garbled insults at me before I electrocuted them and summoned a murder of crows to pick away at their flesh before blasting their head with a shotgun into a fountain of blood, I couldn’t help but sigh a bit, even if I was having fun. Often, it felt like the combat just gets in the way in BioShock Infinite.

Of course, as pretty as Columbia looks, through its white citizens’ racist, xenophobic mumblings and their troubling devotion to “the prophet”, among other details here and there, it’s clear that this city has something ugly bubbling beneath the surface ready to pop. Earlier on in the experience, Booker’s sunny stroll through the fairground comes to an abrupt end when he jams a guy’s face into a spinning hook-blade, followed by murdering the local police force in a hail of cartoonish blood. I’ll admit, this abrupt change to ridiculously over-the-top and unnecessary violence was incredibly jarring at first and it threatened to shatter my immersion completely. And while I’m still mixed on Infinite’s portrayal and use of violence, the more the experience went on, the more I found a grim appreciation for the contrast between the ridiculous mass murdering and the colorful, almost whimsical visuals. On some level, this combination of the cartoony art direction and absurd violence works and since our protagonist is a violent man who seems to solve all his problems by bashing someone’s skull in, at least it fits his personality (and also the theme of Columbia looking pretty on the outside, but being ugly underneath). The contrast between the more calm walks around populated areas of Columbia and the wild, chaotic combat sections also lends the game an entertaining pace, even if at times it feels like the game falls into a repetitive formula of “shoot a bunch of people, loot a bunch of trash cans, rinse and repeat”. At the same time, some sections are soiled by the game’s incessant need to throw chatty soldiers at Booker, such as one of my otherwise favorite parts of the game, which is the spooky, slow-paced Comstock House environment, which didn’t need the soldiers and would have done just fine with the creepy searchlight creatures and brainwashed inmates wearing pajamas and ceramic masks.

Full Narrative Spoilers Ahead (If you read on, I’m going to assume you’ve finished the game)

Unlike its predecessor, Infinite places a great focus on a compelling central narrative that everything else seems to revolve around. In BioShock, there is a central story and it’s quite interesting, but I remember the true focus of the experience being all the smaller stories and side characters that serve to flesh out the true star of the game, the incomparable setting of the undersea city of Rapture. In Infinite, it’s the opposite: the city of Columbia and its inhabitants serve the story of the game’s central characters, and the star here feels like Elizabeth and the personalities that surround her. For me, BioShock Infinite is ultimately an experience with a lot of fascinating elements that does well enough with what it has, but fails to truly live up to the potential of any of these elements. I feel so much more could have been done with Elizabeth’s jail-keeper, the Songbird, for instance, both from a gameplay standpoint and a narrative one, and that’s where BioShock mainly falls short of its potential for me: it’s narrative.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of multiple realities and the idea that doorways could be opened between them, and Infinite does a decent enough job exploring the concept, but so much more could have been done outside of chasing a gunsmith around and making machine gun turrets appear out of nowhere. I was intrigued when the narrative first took Elizabeth and Booker into an alternate version of Columbia, but just when it really starts to have fun with the concept (introducing a reality where a different Booker DeWitt is a martyr of the Vox Populi), this idea sort of falls away. Later on, time travel of sorts is introduced into the mix as an older Elizabeth pulls Booker into a far future where Comstock succeeded in brainwashing her to be his successor, and the resulting Comstock House sequence, as I already mentioned, is one of my favorite sections in the game, but this event only served to remind me of how much more could have been done when the ability to traverse multiple realities and timelines is involved. Several of my favorite works of art have tackled time travel and multiple realities and took the concepts way further and in more interesting directions than Infinite; Chrono Cross and The Dark Tower novels to name a few.

But perhaps the reason I feel this area was underutilized has more to do with Infinite saving its most interesting concepts until the very end, and ultimately having a good story with fascinating ideas, but a messy delivery. Chrono Cross introduces the existence of two parallel realities where two versions of the same person can go down very different life paths at the very beginning of the game, and proceeds to explore the concept for the remainder. Infinite chooses to introduce us to such a concept in the last five minutes in order to produce the “gotcha!” effect and no doubt prompt the player to replay the whole thing to see how all this adds up. Perhaps there are merits to this approach, and perhaps if I do replay the game my feelings will change, but I can’t help but feel a bit cheated. I love the concept of basing a story around two versions of the same person from different realities who went down very different life paths, and who ultimately conflict with each other, but I feel that so much more could have been explored here. Furthermore, I question how much the revelation of Booker and Comstock being two different versions of the same person really adds to the story outside of “huh, well that’s interesting”. Perhaps one might argue that the multiple realities and all that jazz aren’t the focus, but just devices used to tell the heart of the story here, which is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. But in this regard, I feel the game also falls a bit short of its potential. I love Infinite’s themes of redemption and self-hate and the idea of Booker being a father trying to redeem himself for giving up Elizabeth puts a fascinating lens on their relationship, which given more time to sink in, may have left an incredible emotional impact. Maybe it would have been better if the revelations of Booker being Elizabeth’s father and also of Booker and Comstock being related came earlier and the narrative had some time to play with these ideas and build on them and use them to its advantage. I can think of another game (which I won’t spoil) that has a similar theme of someone with buried memories trying to redeem themselves for hurting a loved one that is much more emotionally resonate because not only is the relationship between the two parties clear from the outset, but after the big revelation the player has time to take in the weight of the truth and the ending lets it simmer, providing more emotional closure for both the game’s protagonist and the player.

Infinite ends with Booker deciding that drowning himself will wash away all his sins, but how exactly does that work again? And how exactly did Booker redeem himself? Initially, he felt guilt for committing atrocities as a Pinkerton agent and a soldier. Later, he feels crushing guilt for giving away his daughter to pay off a debt. So he atones for all this by…going to Columbia and committing even more violent atrocities and finally deciding to drown himself to cancel out Comstock’s existence (who he blames for the whole thing), but wouldn’t that also cancel out Elizabeth’s existence? And maybe I’m missing something here, but how is this one version of Booker DeWitt dying supposed to prevent other Bookers from becoming Comstocks again? Or does Booker know this won’t accomplish anything, and just wants to end his life due to his guilt and sorrow? Also, the coin flip instigated by the Luteces early in the game as well as the alternate Booker who became the martyr for the Vox Populi seem to suggest that the Luteces have recruited many other Bookers to rescue Elizabeth, but the Elizabeth that lost her finger is the daughter of only the Booker we play as, right? Are the Luteces recruiting different versions of Booker to rescue different versions of Elizabeth? And if there are other Comstocks who kidnapped other Elizabeths from other Bookers, that means there are other Luteces who created machines and if the Luteces we know are “scattered across the possibility space” then how do they reconcile with their infinite other number of selves? Or...wait! Did it ever explain why Elizabeth has reality manipulating powers? And what exactly was the Luteces’ goal again? For that matter, if they have the power to go anywhere and traverse time and space as they see fit, why do they need Booker’s help? Is doing things themselves against the “rules”? Are they just trying to help Booker? And if people get nosebleeds and remember dying in alternate realities, wouldn’t Booker have had a nosebleed in the other realities since he died in the one where he’s a martyr? How does that all work again? And what about that ghost? And what about…

Ok, I’m done now. You see, my final point is that I feel like BioShock Infinite has a compelling narrative that’s more concerned with telling an engaging story, a page-turner if you will, than it is with having any kind of consistency or holding up under scrutiny of all its rules (or lack thereof) and details. I’m not saying I’m against a story that makes me think, I’m just not sure Infinite’s narrative is worth all the thought. To the game’s credit, I was engaged all the way through and kept wanting to know what would happen next, especially during the game’s ending sequence, which I found to be both beautiful and captivating. The scene when Booker and Elizabeth are gazing out across an endless ocean at an infinite number of lighthouses with an infinite number of doors is a beautiful sight, and this coupled with the mystery and compulsion to keep wanting to know what was behind each consecutive door made me reflect on why I love video games and the unique things an interactive medium can do so much. Even still, when all was said and done, I couldn’t help but look back and think about how the game plays with several fascinating ideas, but doesn’t really go the mile with any one of them, instead gluing them all together and turning out something good, fine enough, but not great like it could have been and not, in my eyes, something truly special. I’m sure there are countless essays, videos and diagrams out there that will tell me how wrong I am, how all of Infinite’s many threads align perfectly and how its narrative is truly a work of genius, and I’m curious to check them out, but right now, all I see is an otherwise engaging narrative that fails to live up to its potential, both emotionally and intellectually.

In Conclusion (Narrative Spoilers End Here)

BioShock Infinite immersed me, entertained me, and engrossed me. I overall like it, but I don’t love it. It’s not an experience that I feel is absolute required playing, a glorious achievement for the medium, a triumph in interactive storytelling, or whatever other bombastic praise I’ve seen critics heap on it. If others consider Infinite a masterpiece on their own terms, that’s fine and I’d love to hear their thoughts, but for me it’s an overall good game with several strong points, but I guess I’ve either seen better or can imagine better or maybe both. Also, many of the game’s strong points owe a great deal to the original BioShock, which is the game that had a much greater impact on me. Perhaps it’s because Infinite followed that game six years later, and fails to really do anything as ambitious or “wow-ing” as its predecessor that I’m just a little underwhelmed by it. But perhaps it’s unfair to criticize this game so heavily based on expectations of what it could have been or might have been because Infinite is certainly worth playing and ultimately a good successor to the original that does a lot of things well; I just don’t think it’s worth peeing your pants over, and I don’t think it’s as spectacular and forward-thinking for video games as I’ve heard some claim (the original BioShock deserved such praise at the time, but what does Infinite add to that legacy that’s so significant? This is what I’m missing). Where Infinite does deserve praise, however, is in its ability to mostly successfully mix so many different components such as strong art direction, great world-building and atmosphere, a well-realized AI companion in Elizabeth who I did find myself quite attached to by the end, ambitious storytelling that is flawed but nonetheless engaging, and exciting (though repetitive) combat mechanics. Infinite does all of these things and admittedly does all of them well, just for me anyway, I suppose it ends up being an experience less than the sum of its parts.

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