Warning: May Contain Slight Spoilers
BioShock Infinite. The words still give me a nervous sense of excited anticipation when I hear them. It has possibly been the most anticipated game of the last few years, and I know I, along with many of you, waited impatiently for March 26th to roll around so we could play. It, therefore, saddens me to have to say that BioShock Infinite was a good game. It could have been a great one and had the potential to be so, but it stopped short of that and remains for me firmly in the ‘good’ category. Reviews have been overall positive, but I can’t help but feel that perhaps others played a different game to me? I enjoyed my time in Columbia, and I even went back for a second visit, but the game simply didn’t inspire me as much as I had hoped it would, and I left it feeling mildly confused and a little let down.
The world of Columbia is a perfectly rendered piece of 3D art. It is visually flawless, with thematic visual cues there for anyone with enough insight to understand them. In design, it had the potential to surpass even Rapture, (the underwater dystopia from the original Bioshock), but while the city was a visual cornucopia of beautiful design, it fell short in a number of ways. We entered the city of Rapture after its demise. The player had a dead city to play around in. We had the chance to experience a living world through audio logs and visually immersive game design. Much of the life of the city was left to the imagination, but the storytelling was executed in such a way that despite Rapture’s dystopian feel, the metropolis and its inhabitants felt alive, and the player felt invested in the city and its people. I truly felt like I was in Rapture while playing the original BioShock. BioShock Infinite problematically suffers from the opposite. In an attempt to create a living city, one on the eve of its destruction rather than a pre-rendered wasteland, Irrational has created a city that lacks depth and prohibits player investment.
Our first view of Columbia is a sprawling urban city in the sky, inexplicably populated by racists! We see street vendors, couples on dates, are serenaded by a barbershop quartet (I laughed out loud when I first spotted them on the platform and stopped to listen to the whole song), and yet there is no interaction between these people and the player. The effect it creates is that of a living museum, in which everyone is staged for viewing pleasure rather than giving the feel of a living, breathing, functioning city. I know it’s unfair to compare BioShock Infinite with its predecessors, but the comparisons are there to be made purely by virtue of its branding. This has proven both a blessing and a curse.
As a BioShock game, I feel that Infinite was forced into a mould which it should have risen above in order to become a truly exemplary game. Many of the decisions made to keep it a ‘BioShock’ game felt arbitrary and unnecessary. In Rapture’s game world the plot was detailed with an immersive depth which made the player feel like they were part of something bigger. Every weapon, plasmid, and enemy made sense in the game world. Why can you shoot bees out of your palms? Why, because of Stem Cell Secreting Sea Slugs of course! (Try saying that ten times fast…) In the world of Rapture, every decision had a consequence, and every technology had a back story. Infinite lacked both these. Why can you shoot ravens out of your hands? Why does Booker DeWitt feel the need to just gulp down every liquid in sight without questioning its contents? Even the decisions which made the world of Rapture so immersive were completely unrelated and unnecessary in BioShock Infinite. Within ten minutes of entering Columbia you are given a choice between being an insufferable racist and stoning an interracial couple with a baseball, or choosing to stone the actual racists with the same said baseball. What difference does it make to the game? None whatsoever. Your decision-making potential is completely arbitrary.
A choice is offered at various points in the game but never makes any difference. There are vague distinctions between ownership, so you can choose to steal, or not steal someone else’s belongings, you are even warned not to harm those fighting alongside you. Ultimately, however, it never matters, as the game never punishes you for any of your actions. What was most glaringly obvious to me was when choice should have been an option, but was omitted. The most stand out moment of this for me was when you come across two people who have been placed in the stocks for an unjust reason. I spent ten minutes running around them trying to find a way to free them, shooting at the stocks, and seeing if I could get Elizabeth to pick a lock (apparently all she’s good for). There wasn’t any way I found to free them. For a game that placed so many choices before me, I felt like this was one I could have embraced! There was so much visual attention to detail that the mechanics of choice could have used some more of it.
Conceptually Columbia had a lot to offer. It is a city in a parallel version of our own history. Potentially it could have given some deep, insightful experiences regarding racism, fundamentalism, and gender politics. It appeared to be where the game was heading, and I was excited to see what it could show me and how thought-provoking it could be. The character of Elizabeth was meant to be a strong, capable female character, but ultimately she is relegated to the role of the lockpick who hides behind boxes and occasionally tosses you coins. She had the potential to be so much more, and I would have liked to see her utilise her own powers in combat and have the player use them when they became available, rather than having her wait for instructions; she seemed, ultimately, to be a product of the time in which the game was set, rather than breaking any new ground. Even the white supremacist setting proved to be essentially arbitrary. It is soon forgotten once the combat kicks in properly halfway through the game, with only fleeting mentions of an essentially immigrant slave labour force, the seizing of assets, and unlawful execution without trial. I feel the games industry has come far enough not to shy away from deep and confronting issues, and while they are hinted at, there are never any moral statements made on the inclusion of these topics, and they are used purely as that, a statement. In and of itself I guess this should essentially be enough, but the game never seems to choose sides, or even suggest that these things might be morally reprehensible. The protagonist took part in the Wounded Knee Massacre, and the Boxer Rebellion, with ties to Colonialism and Nationalism, and yet these themes are not explored in any real depth or any statement made on the protagonist’s involvement in them. BioShock Infinite was a step in the right direction as far as raising these issues but shied away from going so far as making a statement on its themes. Even the game world of Rapture, while thematically a little less ambitious, still made a statement at the end based on player choice. The endings served to tell you exactly what kind of person the game developers thought you were, however in BioShock Infinite the ending is ultimately the same, no matter what you choose; although ironically this might be the very thing that the game was trying to say.
Overall, I found the plot was under-developed and slow moving for the first half of the game, and too fast-paced and racing by the second. The pacing felt off and there was very little explanation given for anything in the game without finding all the often-too-difficult to discover voxophones (I still haven’t found all of them). What are vigors? Who are we battling half the time and why? What exactly is Songbird, or any other stronger than ordinary enemy for that matter? What is a Mechanic, and why is it half man, half machine? Why can Elizabeth control tears in the inter-dimensional fabric? It has been suggested that many of these questions will be answered in the upcoming DLC’s, however if the plot can’t stand on its own two feet straight off the shelf, then it seems to me that it must have been greedy game development to take out salient plot points only to sell them as DLC in a few months time. BioShock Infinite simply left too many questions unanswered, meaning the game world made very little sense, once again serving to make it seem ultimately lifeless. I never truly felt what I was fighting for because I had no real context for it. I know what my objectives are, but never why I should be inclined to carry them out. It was thematically grand, with concepts that could have given the game such a depth of experience, but the plot had such a shallow development, that it simply doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.
Controversially, I truly feel that BioShock Infinite would have been a much better game had there been more focus on the plot details and development, and less focus on combat. The combat often felt added in to artificially extend gameplay. It didn’t present enough of a challenge, even when played on hard. I believe that Columbia’s game world would have benefited from a more plot focussed and detailed approach to gameplay, like puzzles and problem-solving. The plot extended like a mystery novel, with constant hints at what was to come without giving anything away all at once. Because of this, I think gameplay should have been far more cerebral, and less action oriented. The skylines could have been utilised much better to achieve this, and the ciphers which were used as side quests could have played a far bigger role in the main bulk of the game. For such a thematically ambitious project, I think a more cerebral approach to game development would have given the whole experience a depth which it lacks in its current form.
Overall, BioShock Infinite was enjoyable and certainly worth a second playthrough. It gets many things right, but in my opinion, simply failed to execute them to their highest level. I find it difficult to look past the potential for this game to have been so much better than ‘good’. I do however look forward to the three upcoming DLC’s, as they may help to build on the strong foundations that have been laid by the game in its current form.