Ken Levine’s Bioshock series rides a Skyline from the bottom of the sea to the top of the sky. Does it deserve the acclaim it has garnered, or should you take the hype with a grain of Salt? A spoiler-free review, after the jump.
Bioshock Infinite (PC)
Look. After the dust settles, and we’ve all calmed down and agreed upon the potential for interactive entertainment to be a legitimate art-form, the question will be which specific games actually deserve to be counted as such. There is art, and then there is media, ‘content’, mass-produced filler created simply to be consumed. Most critics resistant to gaming’s place in life’s rich tapestry or whatever base their bias on the the fact that a lot of the games floating around out there are just that: a one-dimensional framework designed to scratch a common (and sometimes unsettling) itch in its players. (The late, great) Roger Ebert’s famous stance on gaming hinges on the same basic attitude that one would use in delineating Art vs. Porn: while art is defined by its ability to emotionally connect the viewer on a personal, mutable level, pornography uses the many of the same techniques to elicit a very specific, predetermined reaction (i.e., boners). Any media that manipulates the viewer in such a mercenary way rankles one looking for deeper meaning, and as such tends to be held at arm’s length artistically.
In the same way, many games use every aesthetic trick in the book, and are structurally sound from a technical perspective, but are really only capable of delivering one possible spectrum of emotional response. It’s key to remember that art and artwork are not the same thing: Crysis of Modern Duty 5: The Shootening may be visually gorgeous, but its only real function is wish fulfillment and satisfaction of one of humanity’s darker urges, namely blowing the fuck out of bad guys. There are many games where the developers’ ambition to immerse the player in a story falls flat as it simply gets in the way of getting to the next shooty bit.
Bioshock Infinite's greatest failing is exactly the opposite. It sends the player soaring through the clouds in a gorgeous multilayered story, but falls to earth whenever fulfilling the obligatory “kill a buncha dudes” stage in the gameplay. Maybe this is unfair: it is technically a 'Shooter', after all. But it crafts such a rich world and presents such nuanced interaction with its characters that it could have easily stood on the strength of its narrative. If I were to wave my magic wand over the title, it would be more of a 'First-Person Adventure”, leaving the story intact (or even explored to a greater depth) while retaining a few set-piece battle sequences to satisfy the rocket-jumpers. The action is fast, messy and visceral, but despite a few pallet-swapped magical powers does little to evolve the action from that of its older brothers (or Big Sisters, as it were). We still talk about the original Bioshock; we still use it as a watermark in FPS games even six years after its release. But it’s the narrative, it’s the incredible sense of place that we remember fondly. Games have come and gone that have done action just as competently, if not decidedly better.
Ken Levine has always crammed as much emotionally evocative content into his games as meddling executives have allowed. In Infinite’s case, one can sense a complete coherent narrative was laid down first, and then had an FPS crammed into it. That’s not to say that the action is unsatisfying. In a perfect case of ’don’t fix what ain’t broke’, the action is practically unchanged from that of the earlier games. Battles tend to fall into a basic format:
1. Wander into a gorgeously appointed, if eerily empty open space. Elizabeth hopscotches over and flips you a coin, which is actually 42 coins.
2. Walk past an invisible trigger. Elizabeth begins to say something that sounds important—
3. AAAGH FUCK THEY’RE EVERYWHERE AND THEY’RE ALL SHOOTING AT ME AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON THEY’RE COMIN OUTTA THE GODDAMN WALLS
4. I’VE KILLED A BUNCHA DUDES BUT THE MUSIC HASN’T CUT OUT THERE MUST BE ONE LAST GUY SOMEWHERE OH THERE HE IS EAT CROW SUCKER IS THAT IT ARE there any more… Oh.
5. Elizabeth is finishing whatever she was saying. She flips me a coin, which is actually 67 coins.
There are refinements to the action, but they sometimes are at odds with the narrative structure, and even trip over themselves. The former is regrettable, the latter harder to forgive. There are a number of times the tried-and-true ‘kill everything, loot loot loot’ tactic puts the player in the wrong place in terms of the reveal of a key plot point, or at the very least breaks the pacing of a scene. More troubling is the fact that some of the game’s core mechanics are at loggerheads with the way the action actually plays out. Each Vigor (this installment’s Plasmid-analogue) has a nifty secondary trap mode which sounds great on paper, but is almost never useful in battles that don’t derive from the ‘frantic ambush’ format. The physical weapons, too, are varied, beautifully designed, and pack a satisfying punch, but are nothing we haven’t been familiar with since the original Quake. One the whole, the actual ‘FPS’ part of this FPS feels competent, but we’re at the point when ‘old-school’ is starting to be read as ‘creaky’.
It might sound as if I’m calling Bioshock Infinite [BI] lackluster. This is far from the case: Infinite is an exquisite, fascinating game, one that accomplishes the rare goal of compelling you to immediately start a new game upon completion. This is wholly due to what (and how much) it gets right. So many of its components work, the ones that don’t can (usually) be forgiven. First and foremost is its story, and the characters with which you interact throughout. Every future game will use BI as the acid test in making their characters living, three-dimensional entities in the game’s world. As harrowing as it is to realize that the whole game is (literally) one big escort mission, Elizabeth never once becomes a weight to drag around, as she would be in virtually every other game ever made. It might be a cheat to make her essentially bulletproof, but it’s cheating to a purpose: she is the story, and it’s your job to keep up with her/it. Her much-discussed support abilities are sometimes a bit wonky, but much is forgiven by the fact that she never functions as an arbitrarily annoying burden (again, like she would have been in any other game (*cough Ashley cough*)). Even Booker, who would have been a bizarrely silent walking gun-platform in lesser games, is fleshed out to an amazing degree considering the genre. His relationship with Elizabeth is the soul of the game, and it’s obvious that this was kept in mind throughout development. ‘Relationship’ is the only word to use here, and it’s a bittersweet joy to watch it wax and wane throughout the story. These are some of the most memorable characters ever presented in a game, ones you yourself will come to truly care for.
(One indulgement, in the clothes of an example: at one point in the story Elizabeth is abruptly whisked away by malevolent forces. Wide-eyed with fear, she reaches out to Booker’s outstretched hand, only to close on nothing as the vanishes. Booker claws impotently at the empty air, a note of panic breaking into his cry of rage. CUT TO me at home, my hand stretched toward the monitor, with what is almost a sob in my throat. I DEFY you to name a game that has done that to you emotionally.)
This attention to character is not the game’s only triumph. The story itself is a living, breathing thing, actually set upon its most truly memorable character. The world of Columbia, seen as a whole, is just just as vibrant and nuanced an entity as any of the people and machines skittering around on it. It is an organism, a behemoth created out of brass and rosewood, of sweat and quantum mechanics. It has tyranny for blood, and when that blood is spilt the city itself lashes out as hard as any dragon. The interaction between the protagonists and their environment goes beyond anything we’ve seen before. Much in the same way that Shadow of the Colossus gave us an environment which was itself the main character, BI challenges us with the fact that Booker’s simple act of setting foot in Columbia sets the mind-bending, emotionally wrenching story in motion. Ebert famously said that a game is not art, because you can’t “win” at art like you can in a game. I modestly propose that his criteria would have been fulfilled here: just as in Colossus (again), you can in fact win the game, but you have to “lose” to do so.
This might not feel like a game review. I have purposely refrained using the standard game-review tropes of graphics, gameplay, etc. All of that (and a fascinating amount more) already exists in the hundreds of pages already written about this game, much of which better written than I could have done. My choice is in honor of the game itself: BI is not just a game, at least not the way we currently define them. It’s an important, necessary work, and one that cannot be judged by the criteria we have available today. Judging it as a shooter is actually the easiest way to pay it a disservice. BI deserves to be discussed over wine in a cafe, it deserves to be presented in a class about narrative structure. (“It belongs in a museum!” Sorry.) I am thrilled at the amount of thoughtful, lively discussion happening around the gaming world over this game. People like to hem and haw about which games we’ll still be talking about in ten years, in a hundred. This is absolutely one for the ages.