My first guest post, from the awesome Lee Landey!
Given the overriding concept of this blog, I rarely get to comment on games while they’re firmly in the zeitgeist. Since I started Playing the Canon last June, my life has basically been that xkcd comic where the dude plays games six years late and sings “Still Alive” to all his friends in 2013. (Note: I think xkcd is often sorta problematic in its worldview, but that one got me.)
Few games in the history of the medium have been as thoroughly zeitgeist-y as Bioshock Infinite, so my good friend Lee Landey graciously volunteered to cover the game here while I stumble my way toward the end of the Mass Effect trilogy. Lee is a great dude, a fantastic writer, and one of the most sincerely passionate game-lovers I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. You can read more of his thoughts on his own blog, Last Boss (which he should update more frequently because it’s great!).
I haven’t played Bioshock Infinite, but the discussion surrounding it has been simply incredible and fills me with hope for the future of games writing and the industry in general. At the risk of hyperbole, this feels like the games community’s first genuinely mature, nuanced conversation about a mainstream, big budget action game. (Mass Effect 3 had a shot, but unfortunately entitled whiners hijacked the discourse early on.) People who love it, like Lee, are approaching it from a philosophical angle and still questioning certain aspects of the game’s design; there is little of the IGN-esque, “10/10 OMG AMAZING STFU N00BS” one-sided nothingness that haunted past releases’ praise. On the flip side, people who were more lukewarm on Infinite are still largely praising its ambition and finding aspects of the game worthy of a real discussion. (Check out Tim Rogers’ take for a Homerically long but largely brilliant counterpoint. And the excellent blog This Cage is Worms has a pretty solid linkdump that covers all sides and angles.)
I’ll let Lee take it from here. His enthused contribution to Playing the Canon (which — full disclosure — I’ve only read in part, because spoilers) makes me incredibly excited to take Infinite for a spin. Regardless of where I fall in the debate, for once I can’t wait to take part in it. – Joel Newman
Too many words. There are too many words to say about this game, but I’ll do my best. First, let me just say that while I will try to stay away from major spoilers, particularly regarding the specifics of the events that take place in the game’s final hours, it is pretty much impossible to talk about this game the way it needs and deserves to be talked about without bringing some of those things into the conversation. So if you haven’t played the game yet, beware. In fact if you still haven’t played Bioshock Infinite fuck off away from here and go play Bioshock Infinite what in the shit have you been doing with yourself.
I’ll first say this, and one more time SPOILER ALERT GO PLAY BIOSHOCK ALREADY: I never thought that the first game to maturely handle racism, patriarchy, nationalism and how those ideas factor into the overarching American ideal – and the first game to maturely handle the ideas of the multiverse, quantum determinism, and, in a greater sense, cosmic awareness – would be the same game. But here we are.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a review so I guess I’ll do some of that stuff. Bioshock is a shooter. A very solid first person shooter, and if that was all it was it would still be a damn fine game. You play as Booker DeWitt, a veteran of Wounded Knee and an ex-Pinkerton, who, in his alcohol-fueled depression, has fallen into debt with the wrong people. This is all made fairly vague from the game’s start, and for good reason as we later find out, but essentially you have been informed that if you travel to the floating city of Columbia and retrieve a certain girl (Elizabeth), your debt will be wiped clean. And so to Columbia you go, a floating city in the sky where the founding fathers are worshipped as Christ figures and Lincoln is the devil, run by an old war-hero-turned-prophet, Father Zachary Comstock, who decided to secede from America because it wasn’t American enough.
Obviously the game draws many parallels to its predecessor (which is part of what makes the final hours so ingenious), in that Comstock is Andrew Ryan, Columbia is Rapture, Songbird (Elizabeth’s protector/monster/creepy thing AKA deus ex machina anytime you’re about leave Columbia) is essentially a Big Daddy, and Elizabeth, particularly in the last shot of the game, can be seen in many ways as a Little Sister. And while Rapture was a dystopian picture of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, and laissez-faire, free-market capitalism taken to its logical conclusion, Columbia explores principally the idea of American exceptionalism. In this regard, I’m genuinely surprised at how radical a view Ken Levine and his team were allowed by their publisher to portray. Without trying to put words in Levine’s mouth, and while the game’s indictment of the antagonists’ views rests behind the flimsy guise that this is all happening 1912 and not in “today’s” America, Comstock and his followers can very easily be seen as a thinly veiled analogue to the Tea Party and other American right wing extremist political groups. Black, Irish and Jewish citizens of Columbia are essentially treated like dirt, only a minor notch or two above slaves. In the game’s opening hours, before you are discovered as an imposter in the city, you are even tasked with throwing a baseball at an interracial couple, bound to posts with rope (you can, thankfully, choose to chuck it in the face of the guy who’s asking instead). My personal favorite, most on-the-nose example, is the giant badges on the walls of the Columbia police station which read “PROTECT OUR RACE.”
A lot of people will be shocked and offended that this kind of imagery is even being shown, and will not look past that to what’s actually being said. And that’s fine, those people can fuck off and die in a ditch. But the fact of the matter is, in any medium, without being able to depict these things for what they are, we cannot indict them. And while I’m sure Levine and his team were only allowed to go so far based on the financial success of the previous games in the series, still, thanks 2K. Realistically, things as heinous as those depicted in the streets of Columbia have not been left forgotten in 1912, but in many parts of America and the rest of the world still exist today. Bioshock Infinite airs that dirty laundry for all to see, and lets you shove your spinning hook hand into the bloody meat of the faces of its practitioners. And damn does it feel good.
Mechanically, the game definitely holds up. It’s a solid shooter through and through, relying heavily on the basic formula of its predecessor, with one hand wielding a weapon, and the other any one of a variety of powers (in Rapture they were “plasmids,” in Columbia they’re “vigors”). The most major difference in combat between the two games is that while the original Bioshock stuck primarily to smaller, more claustrophobic encounters in the confining corridors of Rapture, pitting you generally against no more than five or so Splicers, most of whom would be strapped with melee weapons, the expansive set-pieces of Columbia (as well as an improved game engine) allow for much larger scale encounters. It gets to a point where you’ll be consistently getting bum rushed by like 40 guys, and they all have goddamn machine guns. These types of encounters, while having a very different feel from those of the original, still certainly create their own type of tension.
Another new addition, since the ability to hack into turrets and cameras and the like as in the original Bioshock has been nixed, is they’ve granted you the ability to use Elizabeth’s “tears.” Basically these are explained as small windows into parallel realities which Elizabeth can open one at a time. They contain anything from health and ammo, to new weapons, flying gun turrets, and walking automatons.
While in the original Bioshock I stuck to one or two main plasmids, in Bioshock Infinite I found myself experimenting a lot more. As I understand it, the order in which you obtain the vigors is at least partially random, which encourages each player to have a different experience. Personally my favorite combo was a fully upgraded Bucking Bronco, which allows you to levitate a swath of enemies into the air, during which time they take extra damage, into a fully upgraded Shock Jockey, which sends bolts of electricity from your fingers, chaining between enemies, ultimately frying everyone in mid-air as they flail helplessly. From talking to other friends I know Murder of Crows is a popular one, which slightly damages and temporarily disables a group of enemies by sending a flock of crows to peck at them, and when upgraded turns the corpses of enemies into traps that trigger the same. I’ve also heard approaches as varied as someone who fully upgraded Charge, which allows you to physically ram enemies from a distance, and ultimately makes you temporarily invulnerable when you do so, and then paired that with a piece of gear that sets any enemy on fire after they’ve been meleed, allowing him to ping around the room from enemy to enemy setting everyone ablaze. The weapons are all upgradable, and there’s a decent number of them, though I found myself sticking to two or three main preferences.
The skyline, which is essentially a giant trolley rail that runs around all of Columbia which you can grapple onto for easy coasting and chill times, also has a fairly extensive set of its own combat mechanics. To be honest, I never really experimented too much with these, but that’s what’s so great about Bioshock: it’s one of those rare games that says you can play it how you want, and then actually lets you play it how you want.
Just so we’re clear that it’s not all sunshine and gender neutral rim jobs, there are a couple flaws mechanically that shone through during combat. Firstly, the game sticks to the same philosophy regarding player death as its predecessor, meaning that there is essentially no Game Over screen, and that when respawning, even when mid-encounter, all of the enemies you’d taken out before your death remain dead. The only real penalty is a little bit of subtracted cash, which can easily be recouped by pilfering the game’s many suitcases and trash cans, which are also inexplicably lined with fresh fruit and hot dogs. While this certainly does streamline the gameplay, and I understand why they did it from a design perspective, it still occasionally feels like the game is perhaps holding your hand a bit much. In the original Bioshock I actually rarely if ever used the Vita-Chambers (that game’s respawn mechanism), and would most often just load my previous save. Infinite however has no manual save function, and so this approach has been essentially neutralized. Adding to this hand-holding sensation is the fact that Elizabeth will conveniently find whatever ammo, health or salts (the game’s “mana” system) item that you need mid-battle, and will toss it to you as long as you hold down a button for a second or so to catch. While I’ll admit this greatly reduced my stress level during a particular few encounters, it still ultimately felt a bit like being spoon fed.
Additionally, some of the game’s larger enemies felt like they lacked any real strategic approach to being taken down. Most of them, especially the Handymen, basically require you to run backwards and empty clip after clip into them, hoping you don’t get killed in the process. There’s also a certain ghostly boss battle that felt particularly poorly designed.
All that having been said, there’s really not much else wrong with this game. The focus here is very much on the narrative, and a reliance on truly superb environmental storytelling. The game’s real joys come with searching over every inch of its world, looting every container you find, and discovering new voxophones (the Columbia equivalent of Rapture’s audio diaries), secret rooms, storefronts, scrawled messages, Vox Populi codebooks, mumbling vagrants and chatty citizens. One particularly memorable segment has you fighting your way through a theme park-like recreation of some of America’s famous battles, with racially stereotyped Native American and Chinese cardboard cutouts jumping out at you amidst flickering paper flames.
It’s also worth mentioning that the voice acting, particularly the voices of Booker and Eliizabeth, is really exceptional. Even in the majority of my favorite games, voice acting rarely goes very far beyond wooden. The stuff here isn’t exactly flawless, but it’s about as close as you’ll get in games right now. They actually managed to sell most of their lines, even the less inspired ones. So that ruled.
The characterization, particularly with Elizabeth, is also pretty amazing. The bond that grows between her and Booker is slow but steady, and really works on a fundamental level. There is a fantastic motif of blood, sexuality, and the loss of innocence, beginning with the ruined sheets from Elizabeth’s first period when confined in her tower, which is then mirrored when she is covered in the blood of her first kill, after which she becomes more sexualized, cutting her hair, slowly changing; this is stuff of a far higher echelon than we’ve become accustomed to in even the best of games. Where Elizabeth’s transformation ultimately ends was, for me, by far one of the highlights of the narrative.
Visually the game is an absolute marvel. The art direction and level design are fanatically detailed and absolutely awe-inspiring, the textures and lighting are pretty much flawless, the character models are beautifully put together. I played this on a PC, and particularly with the ambient occlusion cranked all the way up this thing is a fucking sight to behold. And that’s a good thing, because Ken Levine understands that you’ll want to experience his narrative through personal discovery, and the tech that brings it all to life is a big part of what makes that so enjoyable. Because of that, and I’m not the first person to bring this up, this brings with it the real question of whether this game actually needed to be a shooter. Clearly what Levine most wanted to get across are the messages in the game’s final hours, and I for one would have been content to wander around, solve puzzles and soak up the environment. But to make a game that narratively strays as far outside the box as this one does and still have as high of a production budget as this one has, you need to make it marketable, and in today’s gaming industry that means making a shooter. And as I’ve already discussed, that is more than okay, because the combat in this game is for the most part a joy. Still though, something to think about.
But where Infinite really grabbed me is in that final hour. I still got chills thinking about it a week after I completed the game. I’m going to try to talk about it a little bit, and why it was so interesting to me, without explicitly stating the specifics of what occurs, but like I’ve already said if you have not yet completed the game I would highly recommend doing so before reading this.
First let me just say how refreshing it is that this game sincerely does not treat you like an idiot. The final spoken lines of the game set my brain reeling, and it took me at the very least until the end of the credits to even begin to think about the full ramification of their implications, and what had actually just happened. This game puts a lot of faith in the player, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people needed help untangling what’s revealed in those final minutes. For a big budget AAA action title like this to not attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator is a pretty awesome feat in and of itself.
What Bioshock Infinite does is not just open up a dialogue about the multiverse (which cosmologically is pretty much where scientists are at right now IRL), it shows how that functions when confined to itself, and then by bringing the reflections of itself that we’ve already encountered into that equation, it shows how we can already interact with these ideas on a tangible level. What the original Bioshock did for the question of player agency, Bioshock Infinite has done FOR THE FUCKING MULTIVERSE. Hence the goddamn title. Which I thought was dumb until I discovered it had actual meaning. “Bioshock Infinite” ends up almost equating to a chant in my head, a mantra. It’s like saying “Bioshock Forever.”
I recently read Grant Morrison’s part-superhero-history/part-autobiography/part-psychedelic-encounter-memoir, Supergods, which I highly recommend, and which details at some length the idea of fictions as actual lower dimensional realities with which we can interact. I’ve gotta say, I kind of buy it; and ever since then it’s opened my mind to a host of new ideas. Bioshock Inifinite’s additions to my brain have only complicated matters, but for the better. When watching Game of Thrones on HBO, the changes in narrative from the Song of Ice and Fire series on which it is based can be seen as quantum, multiversal fluctuations, parallel realities of the same form. Where do our choices lead us? How does that change our cosmic footprint? Bioshock lets us explore this idea. Are these organic, self-replicating realities with which we can tinker and have contact, but which ultimately take on a life of their own? Our choices, our lives, are as difficult, as world-rending as Booker’s, even without floating cities. Our narratives are just as significant. We are three-dimensional beings, striving for the fourth by creating, like tiny gods, multitudes of lower dimensional universes to work for us as a lens. We already are everything we need to be.
Bioshock Infinite. Bioshock Forever.
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