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Bioshock Infinite Review: Part 2

Bioshock Infinite Review: Part 2

This article is the continuation of my review of Bioshock Infinite, and will now bring spoilers to the table. Areas discussed in part 1 have been the world of Columbia, combat mechanics, characterization, storytelling through exploration and interactive progression, and some thoughts on morality. Part 1 is also geared towards those who have not yet completed the game and is spoiler free, so please do check out Part 1 if you haven’t completed the game.

Please do know that the following spoiler tag is not intended as an excuse to geek out over the ending as a form of catharsis. Following my part 1, I still wish to address several components of the game – not just its story – however in doing so I find that certain story elements, themes, and actions are required to complete my thoughts.

What I do hope you’ll gain from this portion of the review is an appreciation of how the game reveals its story between the combat, the unique ways in which the game toys with our gamer-grown suspensions of disbelief and logic, and how it makes us question the very way we critique a game based on proven design concepts.

**As has been foretold, there will be spoilers. This prophecy shall be fulfilled**

Storm before the Calm

I assume most reviewers are also in the habit of this, but when I play a game I intend on reviewing (and if the game warrants it), I take notes. When something I like happens, I make a positive note. When I come across something I think is wrong, or should’ve been handled differently, I add a negative note. I have a lot of negative notes about Bioshock Infinite. So do a lot of people, it seems, despite the overall review scores remaining so indisputably high. At certain points during my playthrough, I became angry over how things were progressing, and had the game continued on like it was in Finkton (featuring an uninspiring wave of room assaults), this review could have been wildly different.

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to call out a few of those negative notes here:

  • Shop docks at certain times of the day; cool! Linear game is linear
  • Searching is getting repetitive
  • “must be magnetized!”
  • Oh, these people like John Wilkes Booth; they must be the bad guys!
  • Vigors do same thing: stun/hurt. Needs more interactivity with world to differentiate
  • No drawbacks to opening tears, can always open more
  • Elizabeth is super clippy
  • Do I need surround sound to figure out where these enemies are yelling from?
  • Stop turning my head to look at stuff.
  • Searching is getting repetitive
  • Comstock – character or caricature?
  • Exactly how much of this is going to be explained away by time travel and multiverses?
  • Number of times vigors aided in exploration: 2

Really any number of those criticisms should dock Infinite a few points, and taken together they depict flaws in virtually all measurable characteristics of the game, barring music (which we’ll get to in a bit); characterization, combat, graphics, exploration, story – nothing comes across as perfect.

Now some of these I still rate harshly, as I feel they could have been implemented or bettered with no real consequence to the overall message of the game. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with pickups, excessive looting is only valuable towards exploration when the game world isn’t enticing to explore on its own; which in most cases the world of Columbia doesn’t need it – I’m not interested in the corpse at the back of the transport ship because of his bullets; I’m interested in the way he’s positioned implying that he committed suicide. And I love the spectacle each of the vigors bring to the table, but when that spectacle is devoid of meaningful separation from the rest in certain situations (which I see as inattention to level design, not inventory), they just become another throwaway combat tool in a game already overflowing with them.

Other criticisms I had diminished over time with greater understanding; chief among them my complaints about the game’s treatment of racism. Story be damned, the game does a pretty poor job at relaying any sort of complexities or subtleties of racism; it’s simply there in all of its bombastic glory (African, Asian, Irish, Jewish, and Native American prejudices are all portrayed as simple caricatures within the collective populace). Equally annoying is the middle-ground underpinnings of the Vox Populi rebellion, ultimately attempting to dismiss both sides of the coin as equally terrible. They’re not equally terrible. Racism is racism; it’s ok to dig your feet in there.

John Wilkes Booth

Subtle!

This all may be true, but on the other hand, racism isn’t really what the story of Bioshock Infinite is all about; it’s merely part of the setting. Likewise, Comstock isn’t as understandable or psychosomatically inclined as Andrew Ryan for he doesn’t have to be; he is merely a means to an answer. Bioshock Infinite is ultimately the journey of a man and a girl as they attempt to correct an error across infinite space; an error they both played a part in – it’s their story; not Comstock vs Fitzroy, and the racial implications over the game’s morality are more or less a red herring.

I’ll discuss some more of the game’s choices in a bit, but for now, let’s look at your very first one; your decision to throw a ball, either at an interracial couple, or at the announcer (Whom I think is Fink, but I’m not sure…memorable characters, right?). Now, if you think that this choice was a simple racism check to see if the person holding the controller was a heartless bigot thinking “Finally, a game that lets me be me!” I’d encourage you to think a bit deeper. Everyone (fingers crossed) will recognize that the announcer (or perhaps not throwing at all) is the morally correct choice, however the decision itself is far more jarring than if the event were scripted; not only casting a shadow over the sunny utopia you’d just trudged through, but immediately prompting you to participate in their violent belief structure.

Alternatively, some players will debate throwing the ball at the couple for different motivations; either the logical “to see what happens” trump card, or perhaps debating the benefits of blending in with the masses to not set off any alarms. If you’re thinking like that, you’re thinking like a gamer, and that’s where Infinite shows its true beauty.

The False Shepherd

In a game of prophecy, fulfillment, and predetermination, it should be noted that Bioshock Infinite behaves in a manner that is ridiculously cognizant of how we, the gaming community, play video games, and what we expect from them. It knows how to appropriate information, and disseminate situational awareness unto the player in ways we don’t fully understand, but still accept, only for that acceptance to be later called back into question in brilliant ways.

The decision to throw at the couple is one that has more “gamer logic” behind it than moral logic, thinking not about how right or wrong it is, but what will benefit the player if that outcome is chosen. The decisions in Bioshock, after all (to save or harvest the Little Sisters), had benefits on both sides along with their immediate moral implications. By prompting a choice even though one option is heavily favored on moral grounds, Infinite pulls back the curtain to show us that gamers are effectively betting on the house to provide for them an outcome stemming from either choice (in this case, I believe it’s whether the couple provides you with a gear piece in Battleship Bay, but that’s beside the point).

Racism

Well this escalated quickly

The rest of the game’s decision points yield similar experiences. Stop the man behind the counter or get stabbed; the only change will be Booker’s hand. Kill Slate or save him; he’d just turn up catatonic later if you did (heh, a clean Slate). That leaves the bird and the cage, but we’ll get to that one later. Point being, that there is no dramatic outcome beyond these decisions doesn’t just push the game’s own narrative of constants, variables, and a predetermined outcome, it’s a step that’s contradictory to how we as the gaming community value the choices we make, and for my money that’s a step in the right direction.

The mentality of choices within video games is reward driven as standard, with players not focused on the decision at hand, but focused on their end goal. Morality within these choices is an illusion (a real “False Shepherd” if you will) with questions like “What will get me the best equipment?,” or “How do I reach the alternate ending?” as the driving forces in discourse behind choices. In deemphasizing the rewards, we can approach the moral choices as exactly that; choices that pull us directly into the narrative to make, and ones that speak to our own morality.

Seeds of the Prophet

Of course, decision points are not the only way the game plays with the player. Irrational has constructed a masterful example of how effective foreshadowing can be towards emphasizing a twist, even against a readied audience.

For another example, let’s talk about the music in the game (which is positively gorgeous, since I haven’t mentioned that yet).

Here’s a question: When you came across a barbershop quartet singing the Beach Boys “God Only Knows;” what did you think? If you were like me, you teared up first, marveling at the 4-part harmony, but I mean after that. You most likely continued on, taking yourself back to the world of 1912, and writing the event off as a “non-canon” inclusion from the developer. Games are known for easter eggs and little 4th wall breaks from time to time (to be honest, they’re pushing towards requirement at this point), and the quartet’s appearance emits little more than a playful “what’s this doing here?” in response.

Beach Boys Quartet

References with purpose

I don’t think anybody expected it to matter. It’s not a secret or easter egg. It’s not even non-canon. We later find out that this was by no means a 4th wall break, and that the dimensional tears were being utilized by Albert Fink who in turn was plagiarizing songs from the future. This was not simply “The Music of Tomorrow… Today” courtesy of Ken Levine and Irrational; it had meaningful ties to the events of the game. Suddenly the fantastic renditions of “Tainted Love,” “God Only Knows,” “Fortunate Son,” “Shiny Happy People,” and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” get an even greater boost in value on top of their already enjoyable presence; what a beautiful way to toy with the player’s understanding!

The same can be said for the Luteces. One can discern by their 2nd or 3rd encounter that there’s definitely something beyond normal with them, although soon after their appearances can either be written off as a mediocre video game plot device, or possessing some sort of lazy justification like “they’re ghosts” or something similarly unremarkable (although not wildly inaccurate). As gamers, we’re so accepting of their recurring nature, as we ultimately see it all the time, and have grown accustomed to devaluing its awkwardness, so when we receive the ultimate reveal that not only is their apparitional behavior justified by the story’s logic, but they are in fact representative of the narrative’s final destination, its reveal is compounded. Infinite was (perhaps unfairly) put in the difficult position of delivering a twist to an audience eagerly waiting for one, and by changing the rules to be oriented around player intuition as opposed to the narrative itself, Irrational succeeded.

That’s not to diminish the work that went into the game’s more focused narrative plot twists; I feel they were just expected to be there. The team still does an impressive job at foreshadowing the eventual conclusion, with enough confidence in their writing skills to even offer end-game spoilers within the first 5 minutes of play.

To Thine Own Land I Shall Take Thee

3rd floor of the lighthouse, the ending is blown.

Irrational can so effectively hide their spoilers as they are relayed with dual meanings, using misleading context clues to distance themselves from their more secretive implications. For another example, we can look at the first tear we see Elizabeth open up. Did you see that you were looking into the future? Likely; but did you realize you were looking into an alternate reality as well? The tear Elizabeth opens up is into the 1980’s, but a few things are amiss; for one, “La Revaunche du Jedi” was the planned title of Star Wars: Episode VI before Lucas changed “Revenge” to “Return.” We also hear an original clip of the Tears for Fears song, even though it came out two years after Jedi hit theaters. It’s not an inaccuracy as some are claiming; it’s an alternate reality! Within 2 scenes of Elizabeth on camera, we’ve already seen that she can’t just peer into the future, but she can for all possible futures, and yet by the time we encounter Chen Lin’s beaten corpse we don’t feel as though we’re treading on pre-established concepts. Such is the construction of Bioshock Infinite, where Irrational can go as far as to sneak in a Star Wars reference and still be contributing to their overall message.

Deconstructing the Ludonarrative

The ludonarrative refers to a game’s narrative elements that are controlled by the player. As video games are a medium that is at times both passive and interactive, a ludonarrative is ultimately unavoidable and can either be coupled with the game’s fixed narrative (the narrative being fully controlled by the developers), or more often than not, placed in opposition to it.

“Ludonarrative dissonance” was a term used to describe the latter, coined by then-Ubisoft employee Clint Hocking in response to a narrative conflict within the original Bioshock. While the story’s fixed narrative places Jack in opposition to Andrew Ryan’s model of Randian self interests, the gameplay decisions made throughout the story are well aligned with the objectivism Ryan preaches. While not a dealbreaking experience in any sense, the notion of ludonarrative dissonance was certainly one of the most interesting criticisms levied against the original, and it seems as though Irrational may have taken that criticism to heart.

In terms of the overall narrative, I do not feel as though ludonarrative dissonance is present in Bioshock Infinite, and that is because Irrational has pulled apart the components of what feeds the ludonarrative, and has interspliced the ludonarrative across the video game as a whole with its own fixed narrative in mind.

As mentioned in Part 1, Columbia is a world driven by fatalism; the mindset of the populace driven by the guiding voice of the prophet. This extends to Booker and Elizabeth’s journey as well, for no matter how much they may try to fight it, their path is set on a linear track to the narrative’s final outcome. This does get a bit cloudy considering their actionable goals at one point are essentially a fight against their own fated narratives as well, however with the intervention of Old Elizabeth, the other Bookers and Elizabeths wandering the lighthouses, and the implied finality of the game’s ending regarding Comstock (which can be understood as a correction to a variable, not a removal of a constant), we can understand the game’s narrative as possessing a predetermined success.

The ludic contract is ultimately very similar; navigating the game, changing any number of given variables along the way (collecting as much or as little as desired, choice of weapons and vigors, minor decision points), but still reaching a pre-defined end. No choices you make during the game will lead to an alternate ending. In fact, in many cases, the player is even prompted without choice at all, further forcing adherence to the game’s final destination. Booker will take the baptism to gain entry to Columbia, he will flip the coin, he will take the letter from Old Elizabeth, and in a manner that openly mocks the player for their lack of options, he will give over his daughter to Robert. For both the story and the gameplay, no subset of variables will ever amount to a change in a constant.

This is not to say, however, that the applied use of fatalism is a lazy justification of having only one ending, or that choices, and even the prompts without choices, don’t matter along the way. Many writers have already pointed to the Lutece coin flip as an accurate foreshadowing of the major themes of the game; showcasing the idea of constants and variables from a narrative perspective with the Lutece’s inability to break fatalism (each of those chalk notches is a past Booker), and from a gameplay perspective in Booker’s limited choice in the matter (all he does is press to flip).

Coin Flip

I like these odds

The scene doesn’t end in value there, however, as some players may have also discovered. In actuality, the scene isn’t just demonstrating a constant; it demonstrates a variable as well. While players have no choice in the matter, Booker may in fact say Heads or Tails. The coin is the constant, while Booker’s choice is the variable, only existent in the programming to demonstrate that a variable may exist alongside predetermined outcomes. It aligns with the narrative, but why would Irrational only limit this discovery to those who play the game multiple times (thereby witnessing Booker say both heads and tails)? I would suggest it’s because the ludonarrative has moved beyond the confines of the story itself, taking into account all aspects of interaction players may have over the game, including the act of playing and replaying the game. For such a simple variable, it possesses a great deal of value for the industry as a whole in understanding how  linear narrative exposition can be achieved through choice, even when choice is seemingly absent at first glance (in this case, the “choice” was the player choosing to replay; their own test against the game’s fatalism under an alternate set of variables).

Equally (if not moreso) impressive is the choice between Elizabeth’s bird and cage pendants, and its effects over the larger story. As with each of the other choices, this choice does not alter the course of the game, nor should it; to force a different outcome based on such a trivial decision would be ridiculous. As with the game’s music and secrets, rationalizations towards the choice at face value are reflective of dual implications that later present themselves more thoroughly within the narrative (at first blush it would appear the bird should be free of the cage, but in context of the story, the bird is the oppressor, and the CAGE controls the bird!). And as with the ludonarrative, its lack of consequence towards fatalism does not render it devoid of meaning, for in the context of the narrative, the act of choosing a pendent takes on a new significance; not one focused on a particular outcome, but of the choice itself. It’s not what choice you made, but that a choice was made that is important.

While there’s no escape from drowning at the hands of the Elizabeths, you may have noticed during that scene each of them did not have their pendant on. A few scenes prior, you may have noticed rowing up to the lighthouse that the Elizabeth you were with had on the wrong pendant, indicating that it was not the same Elizabeth you’ve been running around with all this time. While the pendant does not offer any game-altering scenarios, it does further the game’s narrative by providing a subtle visualization that the infinite worlds are beginning to merge together to form that one final fate.

By forcing players to choose a pendant, the game bestows a variable on the game’s Elizabeth players are invested in, allowing the player to notice if and when that variable has changed (and in her final moments, being dissolved completely). The “reward” for the player’s interaction is one that is to be observed, benefitting the player within the narrative, rather than the gameplay, for in accordance with the game’s established themes, they are two sides of the same coin.

Conclusion, part 2

It is worth acknowledging again that Infinite is beyond universal praise; it’s debatable qualities and flaws each becoming one critic’s blank page to another’s King Lear. In my own opinion, while not being a perfect game, or even necessarily a top tier performer within its own genre of games in terms of gameplay alone, Bioshock Infinite offers a type of innovation that few games can present beyond mere mechanical achievements; it offers a shift in methodology towards how both passive and interactive experiences within a game can be melded together to each further the same goal. At the same time, Infinite provides some key alternate viewpoints to common industry standards in terms of rewarding the player; valuing knowledge and integration of self more than tangible upgrades. It also demonstrates first-hand the practice of treating every component of the final product (no matter how small) as possessing a purpose that can be somehow tied back to its overall message, as opposed to playground insertions of developer fancy.

It achieves all this, but at the same time, it does not force the player to reconcile these acts, nor outright call them to the player’s attention. Infinite treats the player with a commanding amount of respect to discover all it entails on their own, despite the game’s unnecessary compulsion to twist the player’s head every now and then. Overall, the game concedes that although many gamers will reach the game’s end, not all will have arrived in the same way, again drawing parallels to the events of the game itself.

For better or for worse, Bioshock Infinite offers several alternatives to criticisms levied against many games today, delivering artistic curiosity on a grand scale that poses many questions to players and industry professionals alike. What does the player gain by being in control of a scene? Is such level of control expected, and for what motive? How does violence fit into the bigger picture? Can choice exist within linear circumstances? Infinite provides several answers, although not all may prove agreeable, and none completely overcome the game’s own inherent shortcomings in other areas. Even so, the game offers an experience that is absolutely worth having, both for its intrinsic value and its inspirational metacommentary. While many gamers will move on, either enjoying or detesting Infinite for a variety of valid reasons, I feel that Infinite’s methods of feeding its own narrative will fuel much discourse from developers, publishers, and enthusiasts for years to come.

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