Bioshock Infinite - Constants and Variables
I have many thoughts, and feelings about Bioshock Infinite, having finished it over 24 hours ago. As I’m late to this analysis party (even though this is the shortest time between release and completion I have ever achieved - normally years pass before I complete a game) many people have expressed these thoughts and feelings already.
I’m a huge Bioshock fan. I loved the first game for the Deco nightmare that was Rapture, despite having the twist spoiled for me, and the weak ending. I loved the much maligned sequel for the emotional pay-off of Eleanor and her emergence. There was even the ‘Minerva’s Den’ DLC that has come the closest of any DLC I’ve played to exceeding the scope of the original.
I have never been so excited for a game release in my life. When the trailer was released, I was amazed. When the ten minutes of gameplay video appeared, it blew me away. I remember gushing over it to a friend - even then I must have been wary, as I worried about how scripted the action would be: “If that’s actual gameplay mechanics, and not a script I will be amazed. If you can play like that it will be the defining work of the artform.”
Sadly it was true - none of the mechanics I’d admired made it into the finished game. However, I still loved it. The visuals are breathtaking, with so much detail crammed in, from the patina and cracks on surfaces, to the advertising and propaganda posters. Columbia is a wonderful city creation, like Rapture, that I feel priviledged to have spent time in. I just wish my time there had been different.
In evaluating how I feel, I have realised that much of the niggling dissatisfaction I felt in some moments, and for much of the last half of the game, stemmed from one thing:
I wished I was playing the game I’d seen in the trailers.
You know, the one with the actual birds flying at you, and the artillery, and the populace that seemed alive, and would engage you in conversation or combat depending on how you acted.
Most especially though, I wanted the Elizabeth I had met in those 10 minutes of gameplay. The terrified (and terrifying) girl, who was so determined to escape her captivity that she would help Booker despite the huge cost to her physical wellbeing. There were shadows of her in the Elizabeth I got (and I really loved the Elizabeth who journeyed with me through Columbia) but I felt she could have been better, and better utilised in the mechanics as well.
There are other issues, mostly with the gameplay. No savegames, and no carryable health? Really? For the first time, the combat was jarring - why was I shooting all these people… It was also too easy. I’m terrible at games, and I managed to complete it on normal without really getting stuck at all. The fact that Booker cannot die obviously helped tremendously.
The oddly hyped ‘1999 Mode’ turned out to be almost exactly everything Ken Levine had said it wasn’t going to be, which in an age of YouTube and ready digital recall of anything you put out as part of the marketing machine, seemed a little odd. It was never a key thing for me, so I don’t feel I can complain too much.
I liked the story, it had things to say, even if it didn’t have as much to say as it thought, and couldn’t quite make up its mind how to say them. Some characters were wasted, like Fink and Fitzroy (I honestly thought Elizabeth would open a tear later on and we’d be back in a reality with a breathing Daisy Fitzroy) and I’d liked to have seen more Songbird (although not fighting him was the correct design decision) but what it lacked in intellectual weight, it more than made up for with emotional impact.
It says something about the emotional bonds that the experience creates, that the greatest impact, for me at least, came from the death of the game’s ‘Big Bad’, an enemy you know almost nothing about (compared to Rapture’s Big Daddies) and have barely interacted with. I’m tearing up now, just thinking about it…
The ending itself was hard for me to take at first - the Booker I was playing was turning into something horrific, making choices I didn’t want him to, and was powerless to alter. Throughout the scene at the font on the airship (which I had to play through three times because of subsequent game crashes on the bridge) all I could think was “No Booker. No.” The following solidification of the timeline, the inevitability of it all, and the utter lack of choice, of agency, became difficult. At the end I was angry, and very sad. Angry at the lack of choice, even though I knew it formed part of the message the game was telling me, and sad for the fate of the characters.
Mostly though, I was sad because I had finished it, sad because it wasn’t the game I had hoped it would be, and sad because I don’t think there will be another Bioshock for me to explore.
It was later, after I had thought on the story, and the game itself, and taken in some of the reviews and commentary I’d been deliberately avoiding, some tearing the game apart as if it was the devil, and others raising it up as the second coming, that I came to terms with what it was, and what it wasn’t.
What it wasn’t was perfect, not by a long stretch, but what it was, was an example of a computer game that had many people discussing not only it as a game, but making deeper explorations of the themes it only skimmed the surface of: American Exceptionalism, racism, class warfare, American history, quantum physics, and above all, agency & choice (or the lack thereof.)
I think that’s a testament to a game that if it didn’t actually achieve true greatness, at least had the temerity to reach for it. I want more of this in my games, and for that if nothing else, I will remember Bioshock Infinite.