SPOILERS FOR BIOSHOCK INFINITE
“There’s no point in asking.”
“Because he doesn’t row.”
“He doesn’t row?”
“No, he DOESN’T row.”
“Ah, I see what you mean.”
My appraisal of Bioshock Infinite sits roughly in the same place that it did when I finished it a couple nights ago: it is a game that should be praised. There are peaks and troughs–after all, it is a game that lasts for hours and hours, and an expectation of pure and unadulterated quality is a ridiculous thing to put onto any experience that lasts for a minimum of seven hours by default. My final calculation tries to have some fidelity to this reality: did the peaks outclass the troughs? Were the highest points so well done that I can forgive the missteps?
My experience with Bioshock Infinite started before I even plugged the Steam key into my client. I imagine that most of you reading this are in the same boat. I played both previous Bioshock games, and I enjoyed them. Years after the fact, I think the twist of the first game is worth the player’s time, and the development of Rapture in the sequel with its political move into a communitarian cult of personality and redemption has sadly been ignored. So I went into Infinite with goodwill toward the franchise. More importantly, I went into the game knowing nothing about it.
This is a new thing for me as far as games are concerned. Over the past year I have made a significant effort to avoid information about films that I am interested in seeing. Take 2012’s Prometheus as an example–while the release of that film featured various videos made by characters from the film, “sneak peeks,” and enough teasers and full trailers to choke a xenomorph, I avoided all of it. I think I saw an initial teaser before a film during the previous year–Transformers: The Dark of the Moon, maybe?–but other than that, I was radio silent. I had no idea what the film would be about. I thought it was great. I did the same with The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers.
I’m getting back to games, I promise.
So I watched those movies, and I formed opinions about them. In the case of all of them, I immediately went home to watch the trailers and videos that I had purposefully been ignoring. The trailers absolutely ruined them. Plot developments, action scenes, and even jokes were all deflated by being telegraphed–and even sometimes just directly stated–in the trailers. Our current time period is characterized by a saturation of images (thx Baudrillard lol). More than that, and maybe more harmful for my enjoyment of media, is that we are also saturated by Youtube videos. And I think that isn’t so great. In response, I have pulled (with AAA games) the same move that I have with films. If I hear about something I might be interested in, I wait it out. I don’t read previews. I don’t watch promo footage (and holy shit was there a lot of that for Infinite, as I have learned today). I don’t do anything that puts a sales narrative in between me and the game.
To be clear, this is less a move about “you gotta play it to really know it, mannnn” as said in a faux Tommy Chong (although there is some of that in there.) It is more that we are all being burned constantly by the promises that are being made to us by video games. The sales narrative fueled by the desire of huge companies to sell millions of copies in a very small window is actively selling us on concepts and images that cannot ever be delivered on. We are being sold a dream that can’t ever match up with reality. We’re being given a taste of wonder via prerendered trailers that will never be present in the game.
I’m purposefully, methodically trying to get a little of my wonder at video games back.
Bioshock Infinite has given me a little bit of faith. And this, mind you, is really a case of a game coming up from behind–every single time I have ever read an interview with Ken Levine over the past few years, I’ve cringed. As a friend said over gchat, Levine is our Spielberg or our James Cameron; he’s constantly selling us the bullshit of video games as magic, as being some privileged medium that delivers something wonderful right into the hearts and minds of players (the end of this video is a prime example).
Despite my gut reaction to Levine having his directorial thumb right in the middle of the Infinite pie, I enjoyed it immensely. There are three primary reasons. I will try to get all of them without ballooning this post up to 3,000 words.
1. The narrative
This is a painful admission to make: Bioshock Infinite might be the first time that I was not embarrassed to explain the plot of a video game to my partner. Even the most special of critical darlings have stories that are painful to explain to anyone who doesn’t hold Warhammer 40k novels to be the peak of writing in the world. To reflect: Spec Ops: The Line literally turns on the ableist trope of “welp, you were crazy the whole time!” Braid is “you are an asshole, time traveling Mario!” Hotline Miami? “I bet you feel really bad about doing all of that stuff that you had to do in order to play the game, DON’T YOU!?”
I understand Infinite as (ironically) the completion of what Brendan Keogh has called a post-Bioshock game. In Killing Is Harmless he writes:
The Line delivers what is almost a post-Bioshock commentary about videogames. That is, a commentary that only works because of the previous commentary Bioshock itself made. Whereas Bioshock’s protagonist mistakenly thought he had a choice, Walker mistakenly thought he did not. As long as Walker stayed in Dubai, it was true that he didn’t have a choice. But could’ve he just left Dubai? As long as I played The Line or Bioshock, I didn’t have a choice, but could’ve I just stopped playing the game? Unlike Rapture, Dubai is not at the bottom of the ocean. It is a system and a society that Walker can walk away from. “There’s always a choice,” Lugo once said. Perhaps not. But, at the very least, we have a responsibility. I may not have always had a choice in my actions in The Line, but I was still responsible for being present in those choice-less situations. Or, put another way, what I chose to do doesn’t matter so much as what I did.
For Keogh, a post-Bioshock game is one that understands the formal qualities of games that are on-rails and then holds the player accountable for the actions that she took, even if those actions were forced on her with no alternative other than turning off the game. I like to think about the concept of post-Bioshock in a different register, however. Instead of the “post-” meaning a trope trap where players are constantly implicated, I instead prefer to think about it as a recognition that we’ve had these games and that maybe, finally, we can start to get away from them. Keogh’s post-Bioshock ultimately views the player as the real enemy–without him, none of this terrible shit would have happened. Infinite is a moment of reconciliation and cooperation–not “we are glad you are here to save us all” in a classic (and non-reflexive) games sense, but instead a “we are all in this together” mode.
Infinite, by overcoming its predecessor, ultimately gets to where so many games gesture toward and fail: maturity. I don’t mean that the narrative is covered in blood and guts or sexual violence or whatever the hell else the word “mature” has been coded as over the past twenty years in shitty AAA game development (and all of that is there in any case.) Instead, I mean that it is very apparent that someone spent time thinking about what was going to go into the game. The plot’s central focus around Booker Dewitt and his possible becomings is all internally consistent (although hotly contested) and foreshadowed throughout. This shouldn’t be shocking and it shouldn’t feel like someone gave me a present in the form of a considered plot, but here we are.
That isn’t to say that it isn’t predictable. Somewhere around the halfway point of the game, I realized that Booker was probably Comstock. When Elizabeth opened a tear into 1980s Paris in the world of the player, rather than the Rapture or Columbia world, I knew that dimension hopping and time travel were up for grabs. A prophet who can see forward in time and a man with a troubled past seemed like something solid to connect up to, and anticipating the Bioshock-style twist keyed me into the whole affair.
But that doesn’t mean that it is bad. I’ve read enough Philip K. Dick and other New Wave science fiction writers for this to be the kind of plot device that I am attuned to in some way, but that doesn’t mean it is bad. I want to stress that a 1960s/70s-science fiction style plot executed well in a video game in like manna from heaven, and when the end game and the power of all those Elizabeth’s dunked me underwater, I appreciated it.
Wipe away the debt. Everything was right in the multiverse.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am in love with the narrative here. Like most games, Infinite falls far short of the narrative capabilities of older, more solidified storytelling media. The reveal of infinite possible worlds didn’t make me gasp, and I didn’t find anything especially profound about it, but I also want to be real here–the fact that this game grasped at something more than “we killed the terrorists” or “fuck those space aliens” deserves to be pointed out and appreciated on some level.
Bioshock Infinite only works because Elizabeth exists. I don’t mean that in a purely technical sense–the narrative is all about her after all–but rather that everything in the game operates through its proximity to Elizabeth. I’ll try to explain.
If the player is close to Elizabeth, which is most of the game, everything works smoothly. Darius Kazemi commented the other day that the combat in Bioshock Infinite feels very close to Doom (I think Quake, but same thing, really). Most of this has to do with speed. Unlike the slower Bioshock and purposefully clunky Bioshock 2, Infinite allows the player to actively be moving at all times. Being mobile is rewarded–only by being mobile can you jump from skyline to skyline to cover to freight hook dodging ten enemies, a Handyman, and an enemy who is made of pure fire.
This mobility is only possible because of Elizabeth. From the standpoint of mechanics, she dodges and dives and searches tears for objects to help the player. It operates like a dance; there are moves, but there are also hard rules, and one of those is the finitude of resources. At some point during crow summoning and fireballing, the player is going to run out of salt; chaining thirty headshots with the pistol will eventually lead to running out of ammo. When that happens, Elizabeth is there. “Booker, here!” she yells, and you press the button, turn, and she’s throwing what you need to you. There’s no down time. There’s no pause. Just a short animation and you are back to doing what you were doing before: shooting people.
I felt the lack of Elizabeth when she wasn’t around. In the few story segments when Elizabeth was away from me (when she is running from Booker and when Comstock has captured her), I was constantly scrambling from cover to cover. My mobility was hampered and I was always in the red on ammunition. Maybe this is a personal problem on my part–it is no secret that I am terrible at video games. For some reason, I don’t think so. Elizabeth is a part of a tapestry that is laid out for a player, and when she is missing, it resonates throughout the work. I think this is a significant achievement for games, period.
3. The politics
I’m going to come out with this at the very top here: the politics of Bioshock Infinite are bad.
Daniel Joseph has succinctly pointed out, via tweet, that those politics rely on some tried and trite poses: everyone gets their day in court, the new boss is the same as the old boss, etc. Politics in Bioshock Infinite aren’t interested in change. Rather, they’re interested in mixing things up to prove something that’s taken as a law of the Leviniverse: power, when gathered, is abused.
The Bioshock games can’t help but repeat this mantra over and over again. To be fair, it could be that Levine and the writing team are making a point about humanity; in a multiverse in which things could shake out in a number of ways, people will always abuse power.
However, the actual moves that are being made by the writing team suggest a foregone conclusion. I think it is safe to say that Infinite acts, in some capacity, as a critique of conservative culture both in the past and over the past ten years. Father Comstock is a prophet, a man of God, an imperialist war hero, and has a penchant for portraying history in a very particular way in order to frame the terms of existence. It is a American Conservative greatest hits, as has been pointed out.
It is amazing to me that in a game where the developers are able to think something to the effect of “there are infinite worlds in which anything could occur” it is impossible to think of a world in which an underclass of people of color could successfully revolt against their oppressors and rule a flying city of which they already seem to have a extensive control over.
Instead of that, we get a revolution that is absolutely divorced from any real history of racial and political revolt at the time (other than anti-labor nods via Booker’s job history). We don’t get research and reality mixed into our fantasy of revolt, or at least not to the degree that we get it in the case of Columbia and its founding narrative. Instead, we essentially are presented with Ken Levine standing on a hilltop with the sun rising over his back screaming “straying too far from the norm in any direction is baaaaaad, brrrrooooo!”
And that’s bullshit.
So why does the politics make this short list of peaks? Bioshock Infinite sets the stage for games to begin performing better critiques of ideology. I think that Infinite makes people a certain kind of angry–not just angry at representation, but angry that Irrational could clearly do something amazing and chose not to because of a fidelity to some grand, internally consistent finger-wagging narrative. I hope there will responses to the ideological posturing of the Bioshock series as there was to the narrative climax to Bioshock itself: “Hey, we can do this choice thing better than that, can’t we?”
Infinite‘s position as a AAA game, and the most AAA of AAA games, means that its spillover effect is going to be huge. These systems of play are going to be coopted and perfected by both the indie and AAA worlds, and I hope (probably foolishly) that some team, somewhere, will look at the successes and failings of Infinite‘s conclusions about humans and their politics and think “we’re doing that, but better.”
It is a high hope.
This has gone on far longer than it should have; I’m sorry. There are plenty of things that I didn’t like about the game. Here’s a convenient list!
- Almost every scene of Dewitt touching Elizabeth was disturbing. She says she wants him to kill her before she is captured, and she puts his hand around her throat instead of verbalizing it. He also tightens up her corset for her, which is a particularly disturbing and bodily form of imprisonment.
- There is an asylum level where mentally ill mask wearers attack the player. Why? Who knows?
- Daisy Fitzroy becomes a savage child murderer for seemingly no reason.
- Vigors make absolutely no sense in the context of the setting.
- It is very clear that some sections of the game are the product of “hey, we need to extend gameplay for a little while.”
- It is also clear that other sections of the game are the product of Ken Levine saying “yeah, but THIS IS PART OF MY VISION.”
- It is impossible for me to believe that Elizabeth is a seventeen year old girl.
- There is very little internal consistency with rules of tears–some people exist in both worlds and are ghosts, some people are half dead, some people get to fly around with their memories. There’s no rhyme or reason to it.
- The balance of the vigors is strange–the first one you get is expensive and overly-useful; the last one is nearly pointless. You are rarely rewarded for altering your tactics.
- Elizabeth kills a person after watching Booker murder dozens of people and immediately takes off some of her clothes and cuts her hair. I understand the symbolic move to maturation, but I don’t know why that translates to more cleavage and a bob.
I will write more about specifics at a later date. This is my broad strokes move, my way of trying to get as much down right now as I can.
Or the cage.
Or perhaps the bird?
Nothing beats the cage.