Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bioshock Infinite: A Flawed Masterpiece

I recently found myself with time on my hands again, and I decided to use my renewed freedom to play Irrational Games' Bioshock: Infinite. In some ways the game is a remarkable achievement that deserves a lot of the accolades that gaming media have been throwing at it, but it also deserves some serious criticism. Infinite is definitely not the best game of all time, in fact it might not even be the best entry in its own series. However, it is most certainly a game that demands discussion, especially in terms of its narrative, and that's what I intend to do here.

tl;dr: I really enjoyed Infinite but had serious issues with the game's mechanics and their separation from the storytelling, as well as the game's handling of American history. Infinite is less of an odyssey into America's past than it initially appears to be, and more of a sequel to the original Bioshock than expected. Ultimately, Infinite is a step backwards from the original and its predecessors in terms of gameplay and political discussion. What's more, the game both demands that players keep up with its story about stories while at the same time letting that audience off the hook in terms of the racial issues it raises.

I'm structuring my review into three separate but related sections on Infinite's A) gameplay mechanics, B) sci-fi narrative (because, yes, alternate history is science fiction), and C) use of racial politics. There will be spoilers in my second and third sections, but the first should be spoiler free and I'll give another warning before I get to the spoilery stuff.

The Setup, In Brief

For anyone who's reading along without prior knowledge of Bioshock: Infinite, it's a sequel to Bioshock, the "highest rated first-person shooter of all time" and a spiritual successor to the System Shock series. These "Shock" games have each been hailed for their immersive environments, complex narrative themes, interesting villains, and varied game mechanics. Infinite is a narrative-driven shooter set in a fictional version of 1912. The game takes place in the city of Columbia, a city-in-the-sky that seceded from the United States after the Boxer Rebellion. The now independent floating-city-nation is deeply patriotic and religious, seeing itself as a purer form of America -- in every sense -- and worshiping some of the Founding Fathers as saints. The whole society is led by Father Zachary Comstock, a supposed Prophet who makes more than a few comparisons between Columbia and Noah's Ark.

I've described the place as "a jingoistic Laputa," but that got me called-out as a pretentious jerk. I still think it's a pretty apt description, but then so is the pretentious jerk bit.

Anyway, the setup for the game is simple: you play Booker DeWitt, a down-and-out former Pinkerton who's made a deal to have his gambling debts wiped away if he can get a girl from Columbia. Whether he's on a rescue or kidnapping mission is not entirely clear, as his motivation seems to begin and end at solving his own problems. However, as the game progresses it becomes clear that neither Booker, Columbia, nor the mysterious girl, Elizabeth, are what they initially appear to be.

Two Steps Forwards, One Step Back: Infinite's Self-Contradictory Gameplay Mechanics

Infinite doesn't seem to have a clear sense of what kind of game it wants to be. In one sense, Infinite is much more a modern console shooter than any of the "Shock" games before it, as the new game restricts you to having two guns at any given time where the previous games did not. Whatever you find yourself faced with, you'll either have to have the right guns for the situation going in or else hope to find the right tools on the battlefield. Additionally, Irrational has taken a Halo approach to life, giving the player an auto-recharging shield in addition to the persistent life bar from previous "Shock" games. However, in contrast to how regenerating health or stronger regenerating shield encourage experiment and play in other games, Infinite's shield is gone so often and suddenly that you'll be running for cover so it can recharge, and in the likely case that your health has been drained then you'll also want to heal. On top of this, Irrational took an extra step and removed your ability to store healing items for later use this time around, so when you're low you'll be running for the nearest vending machine or trashcan. The net effect is that Infinite emphasizes the scavenger-hunt gameplay of previous "Shock" games by forcing you to constantly be on the lookout for health/mana/currency/ammo even more than in the past. This in turn encourages either conservative or frantic play, especially during battle, as anything you use/lose is gone until you find replacements in the game world.

However, in contrast to this are the new elements Infinite brings to the table: Elizabeth and skylines. The former gives periodic supplies in the midst of battle and opens up new tactical options via "tears" that dynamically change the environment, while the latter presents an unprecedented opportunity for verticality and momentum on the battlefield. There's quite simply nothing like your first fight in one of the skyline arenas, and the joy I felt in the fight immediately following the "Hall of Heroes" section justifies playing the game all on its own. Likewise, having Elizabeth in tow is the exact opposite of the game-long escort mission some people feared. Instead she provides a real sense of partnership and backup that I can't recall experiencing in any game before this one; you genuinely miss her whenever she's gone from your side, as the odds feel distinctly stacked against you alone. These elements just beg for you to push the envelope and try your odds at the new methods of traversal and combat on the battlefield, to change it as you see fit where needed, and to rely on a helping hand from Elizabeth in a pinch. However, this stands in contrast to the conservative impulses brought on by the two-weapon arsenal and strange approach to your lifebar. The possibility of frantic play is there, but the consequence for death of losing money -- and with it the ability to expand the potential of your arsenal and thus the possibilities for experimentation -- reiterates the wisdom of playing it safe.

The cumulative experience of playing through Infinite is equally frustrating and inspiring, as its advances encourage a form of gameplay that its changes to the "Shock" formula betray. The adherence to tropes from two branches of earlier games -- modern shooters and the previous "Shock" games -- feels self-contradictory, as the elements cribbed from both add up to something that isn't quite as fun as either. There's something anachronistic about the combination, it's just not clear which part feels out of place: I kept wanting Infinite to let me be more tactical and experimental, like the original Bioshock, but the game seemed to encourage a pace more in line with something like Halo; at the same time though, the new elements opened up combat possibilities that the health item, scavenger-focused gameplay discouraged me from really diving into. It wasn't constantly a problem, but a few notable points (specifically a few fights with a certain ghost and the climactic shootout) really emphasized the disjunction of Infinite's constitutive elements.

If all this sounds overly negative it's just because the high-points in Infinite are so incredible and unique that you become acutely aware of the parts that otherwise hold it back from being that way all the time. There are moments in Infinite when the team at Irrational capture lightning in a bottle and deliver something that lives up to and exceeds all the hype behind the game, there's also just enough -- if not more -- instances where it feels like they're holding themselves back. Even beyond the promised single-player DLC, I hope this isn't the last time we see combat arenas like Infinite's skyline playgrounds, because there's simply nothing else like them.

I should acknowledge that I played through Infinite on the Hard difficulty after numerous reviews said it was too easy on the default setting. However, now that I've played through the game I'm hearing other people complain of balancing issues on the Hard setting (note: spoilers through that link). In the end it's all just more reason to play through it again, if only to see if the kind of experimentation I hoped for is more possible on the easier settings. But I do feel like Infinite's basic mechanical design tries to go in two distinct and contrary directions at once, and hence fails on a fundamental level where the original Bioshock succeeded by having a more coherent focus.

However, that does make sense given the extent to which the actual gameplay in Infinite is secondary to its narrative as opposed to complementary, which brings me to my next point...

Infinite's Uneven but Brilliant Approach to Alternate Timelines

One of the reasons this review of Infinite is being written in three separate chunks is that "the core gameplay is entirely separate to the narrative," as Jake over at Scripted Sequence points out in his spoiler-filled review. Likewise, Joseph Bernstein at Buzzfeed says "the rules of the [first-person shooter] genre are at odds with the very magnificence of Irrational's game" and concludes that Infinite "is so terrific that it feels diminished by a genre that it is better than." This distinction between Infinite's purpose and its form led Jake to wonder "what would happen if we replaced it with another genre of gameplay. Or even stripped it out entirely?" It's a valid question because, for all of its uniqueness and high-points, the combat in Infinite is entirely secondary to its narrative. Irrational games has something to say and Infinite was the vessel with which they chose to do so, the fact that it's a shooter is frankly incidental to that thesis. Both Jake and Joseph point towards the argument that the game is a shooter just because that genre sells well, and honestly that's probably not even a point of debate at this point. However, that's also beside the point of what I want to say here, which is that Infinite is a fun (albeit lopsided) shooter that's intended to tell a story.

And what a story it is. Spoilers from here on out.

The narrative in Infinite is, on the whole, dazzling. It takes storytelling in games to places it's never gone before and demands a lot more participation and work from gamers than we're used to. Bioshock put forward a challenging and complex political discussion that was unprecedented and justly hailed at its time. Now, Infinite outshines that achievement with a similarly detailed plot that likewise uses the medium to subvert our sense of agency, but creates that revelation from a deconstruction of narrative driven video games.

I'll admit that's kind of a big statement, and in attempting to justify it this post briefly got away from me. For now it's suffice to say that I believe the use of Elizabeth as a guide through Columbia, and a source of power to slip between worlds, is ultimately a symbol for Irrational's imaginative role as the creator of narrative video games. I'm going to follow up this piece with a detailed analysis of Infinite's ending, but here I'd prefer to focus on evaluating Irrational's approach to the fiction.

It should be clear from the foregoing that, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the narrative in Infinite. My reading of how everything adds up very closely aligns with Tom Phillips' explanation over at Eurogamer. The notion that there are three significant -- or at least relevant -- branches of Booker's history across the infinite worlds makes sense to me: we play through the game as Booker from the timelines in which he attended but rejected the baptism, and was then racked and defined by guilt for his actions at Wounded Knee; Comstock represents the timelines in which Booker attended and accepted the baptism, and hence cast off his guilt and moved on to support Lutece and found Columbia; the game concludes with both these branches being cut off as Elizabeth changes the timelines so that both Bookers drowned at the baptism; finally, the only surviving Booker is from the timelines where he never attended the baptism, and so never became Comstock or gave up Anna (as signaled by the post-credits epilogue). As someone who grew up watching Sliders, this all makes perfect sense to me. Infinite different timelines, sure, I get it. And really, when you put it all down on paper it is a very '90s-esque, Jurassic Park-style chaos theory kind of plot. Infinite's concept is not what makes it succeed, but rather the way that concept it slowly revealed to the player -- and, I intend to argue, how that concept is used to launch a meta-discussion of creating narrative games.

However, all of this is not to say that Irrational is completely successful in their storytelling. On the contrary, Infinite's greatest stumbling point is precisely when the story shifts gears from an escape-narrative to an adventure across multiple worlds: the moment where Elizabeth opens the tear to a world where Chen Li is not dead. In an apparent attempt to keep the player in the dark as to precisely what's going on, Infinite consciously fails to clearly establish the differences between the world that you leave and the one that you enter. Booker himself notes that it's hard to imagine that the only change could be Chen Li remaining alive, and yet we are not given a clear sense of what these differences are. This is in contrast to the section later in the game when you are suddenly brought forward in time to the dystopian future in which Booker never saved Elizabeth; throughout the incredible journey through Comstock House, we are treated to a series of tears and voxophones that provide a clear sense of what qualities make that timeline unique and the consequences thereof -- specifically the old Elizabeth's attack on New York in the 1980s. It's one of the best parts of the game, and the clever way in which Irrational immerses you in an unfamiliar world and then teaches you about it demonstrates how poorly the game handles your first jumps into alternate timelines.

The problem with failing to establish the differences worlds is that your dimension hopping makes Infinite's story feel disjointed and structureless. When you first enter the world where Chen Li is still alive, the narrative thread of Jeremiah Fink's attempts to hire Booker is suddenly cut off; what's more, the Vox Populi suddenly seem to be a more aggressive and successful force. No concrete reasons for these differences are provided, and the player is left to wonder, "What else is different about this new Columbia I'm in now?" This instantly removes our sense of forward momentum through a consequential narrative, and throughout the remaining portion of Fink Manufacturing I felt more like a powerless visitor to Columbia than at any other time in my play-through of Infinite. My actions as Booker seemed to have some effect on Chen Li and his wife, on the people I killed, and on the Vox Populi, but it was never clear what it all meant. To top it off, I suddenly heard Booker telling me that Daisy Fitzroy was just as bad as Comstock, but for no discernible reason besides that she was leading a violent revolution as opposed to simply planning one.

Infinite requires that you accept the notion of different worlds and timelines, each separated by more than mere superficial / minor details, but then demands you find narrative coherency across these disparate timelines without providing sufficient context to do so. The clearest victims of this approach to storytelling are Fitzroy and her Vox Populi, whose revolution suddenly becomes "bad" the moment the bullets start flying.

The Revolution Must Be Violent, Otherwise Who Would You Shoot? - Infinite's Trivialization of American Racial Politics

One of the earliest draws to Infinite was that it seemed poised to examine American political culture with the same critical lens Bioshock turned to objectivism. The very notion of a city in the sky with aggressively patriotic leanings was fascinating, and seemed like the perfect platform to examine American exceptionalism and isolationist politics. Infinite was marketed with this image in mind, with preview videos showing off the Motorized Patriot enemy and a brilliant trailer intentionally set to a song titled "Beast of America." All early accounts seemed to indicate that Infinite's narrative would focus on the history of American politics, following Bioshock with a critical examination of a specific nationalist ideology.

However, this isn't quite the case with the final product. Certainly the advertised elements are present in the foreground during the earlier portion of the game. Infinite is an aesthetic masterpiece, and nowhere is this more evident than in the opening hours when Booker first arrives in Columbia and begins his search for Elizabeth. Through Booker's eyes, we witness a deific approach to America's founding fathers, an unnerving racial hierarchy, and jingoist politics. This focus continues on through the great Hall of Heroes section of the game, where the Boxer Rebellion and the Battle of Wounded Knee are portrayed in jarringly stereotyped images; as Tom Bramwell writes, "Wounded Knee wasn't a famous US victory, it was a massacre of women and children, and the Boxer Rebellion was a politically complex conflict," and Infinite's focus on these events makes good on all its promise to examine American political history.

However, at just about the same moment that the narrative stumbles into its first alternate timeline, Infinite drops its examination of American political culture. From the point when Booker and Elizabeth start trying to save Chen Li from his fate, the game's focus becomes Elizabeth and the nature of her powers. As I've mentioned above, the outcome of this plot is an incredible and unmatched deconstruction of narrative gaming, but it comes at the expense of the a more Bioshock-like critique of American history and ideology. This wouldn't be a problem in and of itself if it weren't for how the elements established earlier in the game are used to inform the narrative in its latter sections, particularly the Vox Populi and their rebellion against Columbia's racial hierarchy.

Although the earlier portions of Infinite present an unsettling vision of race in America's past, these elements ultimately serve as window dressing for its meta-game narrative in a way that trivializes them. The white supremacist ideology that informs Columbia's segregation is more or less relegated to informing our understanding of Booker and Comstock's character arcs. It's also intriguingly hinted that the racial hierarchy is informed by Fink's capitalist pragmatism, but any potential examination of this idea is suddenly cut off by the timeline hopping: as mentioned above, when we step into the first tear Booker's interactions with Fink cease, effectively terminating any direct interaction with the character; more conclusively, Fink and his politics exit the game entirely when Fitzroy executes him. But it's in Fitzroy that Infinite's swept aside examination of racial politics becomes troubling, as her Vox Populi rebellion is transformed in an instant from a desperately needed response to the racism of Columbia's rulers, and becomes simply a bloody excuse for combat.

The transition of Fitzroy -- and by extension the Vox Populi -- from a freedom fighter to a villain is poorly handled, to say the least. In the space of just a few minutes, she goes from being the kind of force that Booker acknowledges is needed to fight back against oppression, specifically "because of people like [him]" (i.e. Pinkertons and other such suppressors of dissent) to being little more than Comstock spelt differently; the only things that changes in all this is that the Vox Populi begin a military assault on Columbia, specifically its institutions of hierarchical power like Fink Manufacturing. The act of simply fighting back against rigid, racial oppression is presented as though it is enough to transform Fitzroy from a hero to a villain, and the Vox Populi from allies to foes to shoot. We're shown nothing to disenchant us with the Vox's revolution beyond possibly an execution of soldiers, and frankly that is not enough to justify the sudden turn. The revolution against Columbia's racial oppression becomes the last vestige of Infinite's political examination, and by immediately discounting it as equivalent to its target institution the game trivializes the motivations behind it. Rather, the ongoing battle throughout Columbia provides little more than an opportunity for new types of guns and enemies to shoot at, an approach that in turn begs the question as to whether or not it was all in service of having the game be a first-person shooter.

Anjin Anhut's article, "Bioshock Infinite - Infinite Privilege," makes a decent argument against the problematic approach to race throughout Infinite. Though I don't entirely agree with their analysis, Anhut makes a very good point in saying:
And even if your white guilt absolving moral play is just meant to be a piece of fiction and the american racism is just a stylish backdrop. Even if Bioshock Infinite is not commentary, not analog to what you think is going down today or has been going down in the past… …how dare you abuse that still relevant conflict, that pain and sacrifice of people still living and still suffering from it… and turn into some sort of joke, like nazi zombies or something?
I agree that, despite how the early parts of Infinite and its marketing focus on the world of Columbia, in the end that setting -- and its contents -- are simply backdrop for the aforementioned sci-fi meta-narrative on storytelling. In one sense that's perfectly fine, as the ultimate outcome is an incredible achievement in its own right. However, it's also disappointing to see the examination of America's past -- and present -- racial issues so pointlessly raised only to be cast aside, and deeply troubling to note that this move seems purely in service of providing typical first-person shooter guns and targets. To put those elements into focus just to then transform their revolution into an excuse for violent gameplay seems downright exploitative, and it's definitely not up to the standard Irrational has set for itself. It's intentionally deceptive, and though that's not inherently wrong, the way it's done trivializes very real struggles with racism and intolerance that continue to this day. The Vox's motivations never disappear, but their sudden recasting as villains renders the meaning of their struggle irrelevant, and for the rest of Infinite they provide little more than resistance in your path towards the game's conclusion.

"It's all a matter of perspective" - My Final Thoughts on Bioshock: Infinite

As per usual, I've managed to critique the hell out of something I sincerely enjoyed. Bioshock: Infinite is an incredible game, one that should be enjoyed by anyone who appreciates good narratives, in video games or otherwise. Granted, there are significant issues with the gameplay, and the handling of American culture and politics is ultimately disappointing, especially in how Infinite casts freedom fighters against racial oppression as villains. However, all of that is not to detract from the game's incredible accomplishments. Infinite is unquestionably an aesthetic masterpiece, and you're likely -- even encouraged -- to just stare at the background and soak in the atmosphere of the world Irrational has created in Columbia. There's just nothing else like it, and it is both beautiful and intellectually stimulating. Moreover, the narrative is an incredible feat for the medium, and clearly takes inspiration from some great works of fiction, both sci-fi and otherwise. The mind-bending ending just adds to the already densely layered and intriguing story that unfolds throughout Infinite, and though I'll be touching on that specifically in my upcoming ending analysis it bears stating that the entire story of Bioshock: Infinite is worthwhile and compelling. With all this positivity in mind, the problems with Infinite don't so much hinder the experience of its best aspects, as much as they beg the question, "Why is Irrational still making first-person shooters?"

The answer is "so they can keep making more," and while there's a whole spectrum of possible debate on that point, that's for another day. For now I'm just going to play through the ending of Bioshock: Infinite again to see if I can glean any new insights for my ending analysis. It's truly a mindbender that just keeps on giving, and though I don't think there's any definitive word to be said on its meaning I do think it's going to be good fun to discuss what it means to me.

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