A History of Violence – Bioshock: Infinite

There’s a reason I’m so hard on games like Metro: 2033, Far Cry 2, and even Bioshock 2: it’s because of games like Bioshock: Infinite. Games that are not only a step above the herd, but games that raise the bar of excellence and become milestones in their genre.

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That’s not to say that Bioshock: Infinite is perfect. It leans on the short side—even mining it to glean every secret I could, I barely topped 14 hours, and most players I know beat it in 10-12. Why do you acquire superhuman powers (vigors) from vending machines? Because Bioshock had plasmids, and System Shock had psionics before it; there’s no story reason for them this time, though, so they feel tacked-on to keep the game mechanics symmetrical to its predecessors. The ending of the game is a cerebral mindfuck, which is good, but it’s on rails, which will bother some players, and is… well, for the sake of spoilers, let’s say not the most upbeat of circumstances. (Though it’s generating plenty of discussion, which I’m sure was the devs’ intent.) And this is a game whose story excels to the point where the combat mechanics look underwhelming in comparison, where each new combat situation is shorter than the last due to my upgraded abilities and weapons, simply filling time before I’m off to roam the next impressive environment to find more clues about the story and setting.

The sad part about those environments is that, in our age of Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Autos, we expect—want—demand a game to give us open sandbox freedom to explore every square inch. We can explore all we want here in the flying city of Columbia, but its’ narrow alleys and locked storefronts offer limited potential. What we do see is a gold mine of creativity, beautifully rendered in stunning graphics. We have stunning vistas of city blocks rising and falling, the hectic chaos of riding on a metal skyhook on rails during some of the more impressive combat set-pieces, and one of the few new worlds of gaming that’s shockingly original. But I can’t help but wish that a company like BethSoft would come up with a new, original idea half this creative for their next FPSRPG sandbox epic; this world has plenty of depth, but I want to get lost in it and can’t.

By which I mean, Borderlands 2 has fun environments to explore, but c’mon: it’s all rocks and rusting debris and one glittering robot metropolis and you can’t beat a flying fucking city, you just can’t. Meanwhile, Bioshock: Infinite is an illusory sandbox whose freedoms don’t live up to the expectations its trailers set. It creates those restraints to hone in and focus on its narrative, its story.

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The story is what carries the game with the critics, earning its nods and speculation as Game of the Year. It’s immersive, a pressing mystery you and your character have to solve with clues and foreshadowing scattered throughout Columbia’s environs. It’s a highly cinematic game, meaning it’s a tad linear (hence the lack of free-roaming environments) and sticks you in a certain character and set-piece situations. It’s also the best in that field since Half-Life 2. Unlike Half-Life, the protagonist has dialogue, and it’s more than the set-pieces which are scripted; there’s a lack of choice there, but more feel of character and story. Really, it’s trying to re-shape the “game” element into something we’re more used to experiencing as “movies” or “books,” and bind that narrative into the game medium using twitch shooting. Bioshock: Infinite is either representative of the future’s more interactive narratives (“played any good books/films lately”), or it was constructed using the wrong medium.

The reason Bioshock Infinite is a milesone is because it challenges some stereotypical assumption we have about games, re-defining ideas. That shooters can have a better story than combat. That escort missions don’t have to be a chore, and that secondary ride-along characters can be deep and interesting, helpful gameplay-wise, even highly likeable—after this, I foresee secondary/support characters being approached from new directions. And that asking deep questions—about concepts as deep and heady as philosophy, choice, freedom, predestination and fatalism, fate and free will—nothing that dense had really been tried before, so no one knew if it was something gamers will embrace or than shy away from. Instead, they took to the forums and Youtube and created a massive free-flowing dialogue of its elements, looking closely to point out intricate details such as the Lutece connections and the various hidden sounds in the game.

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I realize I’m saying a lot about the game without really saying anything about the game; it released months ago, so unless you’ve been hiding under a rock I’m going to assume you’ve already played it, or have read/watched a review—there are many others more qualified than I to review it. For the most part, the game is a bestseller with high critical praise, but there are several key complaints about trying to write a linear narrative in game form, even some downright hostile criticism. I agree with some of their elements, but am willing to look past them for two reasons. First, the game itself is an addicting experience, sheer brilliance tarnished by a few critical flaws; it grabs you with its immersion and doesn’t let go until the ending. Second, looking past it is looking ahead at how its styles and techniques could impact the gaming medium. Bioshock: Infinite could be a one-off that makes some waves but shows that a more linear/cinematic story-driven game an evolutionary dead end, or it could be a half-formed stepping-stone which foreshadows a paradigm shift in how game developers integrate narrative into gameplay.

Most of all, I’m curious where its DLC will take the game, given that the ending had both a sense of finality along with its open-to-interpretation uncertainty, a lack of clarity that helped opened the pandora’s box of discussion.


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