The best & worst of gaming’s potential, via Bioshock Infinite

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Although it’s not the flawless masterpiece that PR lapdogs say it is, Bioshock Inifinite is a brilliant game that you should buy if you can. This piece was originally going to be a counterweight to the relentless gushing praise found in most reviews; but lately, the game has suffered something of a (largely undeserved) backlash from a vocal minority. That in itself is partly what pushed this article in a new direction. You see, when viewed from the right angle, the latest Bioshock game is a perfect example of the powerful contradictions that sit side-by-side within developers, critics, and consumers alike.

I don’t want to talk about the ending which seems to have split opinion right down the middle. At time of writing, I haven’t even finished the game yet. In fact, everything I want to talk about – both the good and (especially) the bad – can be found in the first few hours of play. Bear in mind however that one of my hours of Bioshock Infinite may well be just 20 minutes of yours. When I come across a game like this I take my time wherever possible, exploring every nook and cranny and stalking every NPC lest I miss a few words of optional dialogue. I peer through every telescope, I play every fairground game (until I win first prize, of course), and I do my best to steal everything that isn’t nailed down or breathing.

I long ago reached the point where I’m utterly enamoured with the world of Columbia, transported to a world of wonder just by staring at a TV screen with a joypad in my hands. The first hour, however, failed to draw me in completely. The photonegative reproduction of Bioshock’s introduction was painfully self-referential to my eyes. It was at least over fairly quickly, but that wasn’t the only problem. As you’re slowly but surely led to your first moral choice (unexpected and memorable yet a tad cack-handed), the world strains to create an atmosphere at every opportunity. Strains too hard.

Put a decent sieve/strain joke in, and don’t leave the placeholder text in the caption box like you did last time.

Couples and small groups have conversations which hint at the details of this strange new place you find yourself in, but these conversations only begin at the exact moment you step into earshot. Then nobody says anything at all; their lines have been acted out, and they stand around waiting uncomfortably for you to leave. One NPC that stood out for me was a young boy standing on a box selling newspapers. He stood there, waving a paper in his hand in an effort to get people’s attention, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. I stood right in front of him and stared him in the face for a full minute, hoping that he would do something – anything – else. Though he looked at me, he never even said a word. Nor did he stop waving his newspaper.

To step back just a little, the intro ensures that when you enter Columbia proper, you’re missing some of your health. There’s no immediate way of filling your health bar up to maximum, but you can find and eat pieces of food, and in this way gradually heal yourself. I’m playing on the hardest difficulty, and didn’t know when or how I might find myself in my first fight. As a result, when I was supposed to be staring mouth agape at robot horses and perfectly orchestrated mid-air docking of entire streets, I was more concerned with scouring benches for bananas.

And there’s the rub. Bioshock Infinite is in its opening stages – and it is of course by no means the only title guilty of this – a game trying to be a movie. I certainly did feel like I was in the middle of a movie at this point, but not in the way that the developers intended. With static citizens both (mostly) oblivious of my existence and with only ten seconds worth of dialogue per conversation, I felt like an unseen ghost drifting through the dress rehearsal of a big-budget Hollywood film. It didn’t help that I found a concrete-solid row of flowers in the middle of the street that I couldn’t walk through. Immersed I was not.

As I’ve already said that changed later, but the game’s early stages exemplify the insurmountable nature of the desire for a perfect marriage of interactivity and perfectly controlled narrative. If everything up until the moral choice had been on rails, the narrative would have had more impact; but at the expense of player agency. If the player were let loose in Columbia and allowed to do absolutely anything – include interact fully with NPCs – and go absolutely anywhere, the narrative would have had to be dissolved in order to allow this to happen. Thus we have an uncomfortable compromise, not as successful (for some, at least) as Irrational would have hoped – but strengthened by the glorious art design and direction.

It’s not just developers who find themselves, intentionally or otherwise, trying to marry an immovable object with an irresistible force. Consider the surprising volume of complaints about the artwork on the box. Ken Levine was admirably candid about the situation; in effect, he readily admitted that the gun ‘n’ hero art was designed to draw in a wider audience, as so much time and money had gone into the project they needed to do whatever they could to maximise profit without compromising the product itself. He even offered a fig leaf by way of a reversible cover with arguably superior art (reversed and sold as “rare” editions of the game by unscrupulous ebay sellers), something that nobody was under any obligation to do. We, as consumers, need to take a deep breath and look at the state of the industry before we decide what to complain about, and how we complain about it.

Remember the many developers and even publishers that have been closed over the last few years. We’re not talking about no-name startups who never got anywhere, but some of the industry’s biggest names attached to some of the world’s most famous titles. Only recently, bosses at both EA and Square Enix have hit the ‘eject’ button on their seats at the top – and, notoriously, Tomb Raider’s sales of 3.4 million – three point four million – weren’t good enough. I won’t dwell on this subject as there’s an excellent piece on it at Eurogamer that you ought to read, but the point is that nowadays every major release is something of a financial gamble – and with the next generation, things are only going to get worse. We can’t celebrate the appearance of an imaginative pseudo-sequel like Bioshock Infinite, and simultaneously cry about the picture on the front of the box. It’s possible – likely, even – that there were many arguments between publisher and developer about exactly what should and should not go into the game. If Bioshock Infinite had been pitched exactly as it’s been released in a world without the first two games, and without journalists’ love for Ken Levine, it almost certainly would never have gone into production.

Ah yes, the journalists – or as I tend to call them, ‘journalists’. I make no secret of my disgust at the state of games ‘journalism’ and those who perpetrate it, but there are still a handful of top-quality sites employing top-quality writers. Even there, sadly, you will tend to find Bioshock Infinite reviews bloated to literally twice the size of many of their other reviews, which mostly say little more than ‘this game looks nice, and Elizabeth is a great character who doesn’t get in the way while you’re shooting people to death with guns’. Many reviews of this game are in fact difficult to classify as reviews; often, they’ll read more like a paper-thin mask the author is wearing while screaming ‘See? See? Games are art! I told you I’ve got a proper job, mum!’. The Bioshock Infinite reviews at many (certainly not all) sites are yet another symptom of what almost seems to be an industry-wide disease. If a game aspires to something more than blood and breasts then it must be placed on a pedestal at all costs, no matter what. I can’t help but think that this attitude stems from self-interest, in that many ‘journalists’ are uncomfortable about the fact that videogames are toys. Perhaps that’s why so many of them move from critiquing games to selling them.

Despite nurturing a culture where one particularly po-faced site dismissed Lego City Undercover’s pop-culture references because children won’t recognise them (it’s like The Simpsons never happened), today’s industry has much to be praised. It’s brilliant that a title with Bioshock Infinite’s vision and quality execution can not only be made, but also universally celebrated; even if not always for the right reasons. However, people on both sides of the curtain need to think more carefully about their compromises if they want to move forwards rather than backwards.

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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