Deeper In The Pile: Bioshock Infinite, Part II

I’m continuing my discussion of Bioshock Infinite, moving on from our previous discussion where I defended some interesting ideas, and talked about a fundamental element of style. Something chosen about the story, and an issue of taste. This is what we in the writing business call ‘the thin end of the wedge,’ where I’ve talked about how the game is pretty good, and has flaws, without saying anything too controversial. What follows is therefore a spoilery ‘middle of the wedge,’ in which I’m allowed to bitch, because anything mean I’ve had to say will be ameliorated by what I had to say beforehand. Okay? Okay. Okay.

A Feeling Of Distance

Now, past the personal feelings about the style of story and onto the greater point of stuff that anyone can consider shitty. In Shocks prior, you were stalking through empty, ruined places, the desolation of the survivors and the events that ruined them making the whole place feel very dead. That’s totally fair, since, after all, the place is dead. It’s a problem though because we have games that make a setting feel real and alive, interconnected and natural, while still making enjoyable, fun experiences in those cities. Just to use an example of a game that was developed in less time than Bioshock Infinite, let’s look at Dishonored. In Dishonored, people move from place to place. Even within one area, people move and do a variety of different things. Perhaps that was a byproduct of Dishonored’s stealth mindset – of avoiding line of sight – that meant they knew you’d be seeing even the enemies in their day-to-day experience, which forced the developers to make them seem alive and natural.

Some deviations from reality make a story better, because a city of Columbia full of people in rebreathers and cold protection suits creates an entirely different perspective to the wonderfully warm and glowing, 1920s-era Perfect Society does. When you deviate enough, it starts to make little lines that draw your attention, cracks you’re meant to skip over on the way to the story. Cracks that become more and more prominent as the game continues. Normally, the only purpose of these cracks is for smart-arses like me to look funny when we point them out in reviews later (like the idea of steam-driven AI in Bioshock), but this time around, in Columbia, there are enough cracks that rather than being ‘acceptable breaks in reality,’ these problems are strong enough to pull me right out of the narrative.

Columbia, on the other hand, doesn’t feel real. Oh, of course it isn’t, and there are some breaks from reality that have to be acceptable. 25,000 feet above the world, people wouldn’t be able to breathe unassisted, they’d be freezing cold, they’d be unable to light fires, and the buildings wouldn’t be able to look like what we understand buildings to be. That’s okay, because what I see when I step out is a place that is familiar and alien. It wants to give you that feeling, it wants to be safe-seeming but utterly creepy. That’s why a well-intentioned priest almost drowns you, and a grateful man immediately afterward excuses the behaviour. It’s why when you see a towering white marble statue of a prophet, people talk about how it doesn’t properly capture how virtuous the prophet is. It’s why you hear in your opening, glorification of the Battle of Wounded Knee. The game wants to tell you a story, and – well, I think at this point it’s old news to say that the opening forty-five minutes of the story are where the place feels the most real. It breaks down after this point, with the sort of strange, sullen feeling that made me wonder if it was simply a byproduct of not enough time, and the first DLC will just be breathing life into Columbia if they could get away with it.

One example of this oddness comes in the brotherhood of the raven’s headquarters, when you have a large group of men dancing and prancing around, paying attention to a man waxing rhapsodic for quite some time, and who are willing to lapse into a dance to entertain themselves, while surrounded on all sides by a large bannistered walkway and multiple avenues into the room. You could go left or right to get down, but no matter which you do, the effect is the same: The room is symmetrical, and the enemies are just as symmetrical in their arrangement. I have tried this room four or five times, thinking that there may be some method I’m missing, but you cannot continue through this room without engaging – and killing – these men. Then you find another room, where a doorchain is present and prevents you from acting until you watch someone being murdered by crows, introducing an enemy type. In both situations, the simplistic, uniform nature of your progression reduces the feeling of interacting with a world. Instead, you are moving Booker between locations. The game is full of small detail effort, like the variety of different drinks and food, the alcohol and cigarettes and the many different ways objects just sit on the ground, in different positions. What’s strange then is that this detail could be done, but then much more obvious opportunities for interacting with objects are passed by. You encounter men in the stocks, but you can’t even talk to them. You encounter stores conducting business, but you can’t do business with them. Basically, the more you spend your time interacting with Columbia, the more you try to interact with Columbia in any way that isn’t just shooting things, the more you notice how unalive and unreal it is.

That’s not the case in Columbia. Remember how I described the game as ‘fightbox’ style of combat design? The plot exists in the same design, with points delivered in these separated, contained areas, and travel intersperses them. There’s no use of the mechanics of combat to illuminate the story. Story and gameplay are not interwoven, but are kept in very separate locations. There are ‘fightboxes,’ then there are ‘storyboxes.’

A Lack of Evolution

I once played an FPS set in an amazing, exciting setting which was oddly, starkly empty, beleagured on all sides by danger, scrimping and scavenging in the abandoned homes of others for resources, while picking up audio logs that let me piece together the motivation behind the major characters in the story. The game I’m referring to is, of course, System Shock 2, and one of the strongest and most fair criticisms you can make of Bioshock was that the game was System Shock 2 when boiled down to those elements, and the rest was questions of aesthetics and level design. That criticism was not wrong, by the way, and while they jumped the same pattern on Bioshock 2 (but incidentally made a slightly worse game) Bioshock Infinite is a grand return to form(ula). Whatever else has changed in the ‘prettiness’ box, you are still a character roaming through an oddly empty fantastic city surrounded, scrimping and scavenging in abandoned homes and picking up audio logs that let you piece together the motivation behind the major characters in the story.

Unbelievably, though, it’s become worse. Almost all the audio logs you find are directly related to the primary characters and cast. In System Shock 2, there was a set of audio logs that just detailed janitorial staff’s day to day life. One of those logs wound up being important to a passageway, and another wound up mentioning an enemy, but those details were delivered as part of a narrative. Without that story around it, the audiologs become a kind of key. Now, given that most of the cast of Bioshock and all of the cast of System Shock 2 were dead before you get started (oh, 14-year-old spoilers, I suppose), there was no priority or precedence of the cast. They just were, and some audiologs introduced minor characters who didn’t matter much but added flavour, and some audiologs were major characters exposing the narrative in believable ways. System Shock 2 had the virtue that everyone on the station was a scientist or a security personnel, and that gives characters a great reason to record even mundane things, and that recording to happen at times to reflect their totally mundane attitude. Rapture was full of self-aggrandizing lunatics – also good for making monologues into devices.

The audiologs in Bioshock Infinite – Voxaphones, to fit the style – are both less appropriate (for example, you find Voxaphones left by Daisy Fitzroy, a poor scullery maid, before she becomes a revolutionary), and less illuminating. They indicate very simple information very quickly, with the background information delivered reasonably obviously. While previous Shock games were full of postmortem characters, characters you never met but through their audiologs, and indeed, Bioshock 2 had a character whose significance is a total cipher unless you’ve played a tie-in game, there’s only really one character in Bioshock Infinite explored this way. What’s more, I like him – I think he’s pretty rad, because you see him in three Columbias. By the time you discover the poacher in the third Columbia, he’s experienced very different things, and you hear the story of a man who did meet you, and that experience changed his life. I became very fond of that guy, even though his first appearance was as a total dickrag. He stands out most starkly, then, as an example of well-written, character-driven use of audiolog exposition… that they already did in 1999. That is to say, their high water mark is considered basic competence by the standards they already established in three prior games.

The audiologs are just an example of the problem, mind you. The techniques of storytelling are more diverse, but mainly, Bioshock Infinite‘s writing does not feel like a game that was built on the experiences of Bioshock. Hell, it almost feels like Ken Levine took the marketing lesson from the cover of Infinite (where market research counselled them against making the focus of the game cover Elizabeth for fear of losing the moron demographic) and expanded it to the story and the storytelling. To include all of the Voxaphone depth that the previous Shocks had had would alienate those people, which explains why the game is more streamlined and lacks the depth that could turn off those players.

That’s all for this time. Coming up next is going to be a discussion of character, plotholes, and, of course, the ending.

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