A few more thoughts on Bioshock Infinite

Back in April, I started writing what was supposed to be a gushing, three part Bioshock Infinite review. I never wrote the third part because, while I thought I had a lot to say about the story I actually didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: the final plot twist blew me away. When I finished the game I sat through the entirety of final credits (that featured clips from a recording session of one of the musical themes from the game) in a bit of a daze. It was a hell of a mind-screw, and there was a lot of information to process. The story seemed really deep to me at the time – worth of a whole post discussing all the implications, ramifications of existence of the Bioshock multiverse and the way Elizabeth’s actions were influencing it.

But the more I tried to wrap my head around it, the less impressive it became. It is still impressive, and still really solidly written but as my the honeymoon period with the game passed, I started to realize a lot of the magic was just smoke, mirror and sleight of hand. The depth I felt when I was blindsided by the ending and at my desk slack-jawed, dazed and confused, simply wasn’t there. Complicated doesn’t always mean deep. Conversely, lack of great depth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It definitely didn’t make the game any less fun, or any less impressive. But, it didn’t really give me much to write about.

That, and I distinctly remember feeling a little bit disappointment and disillusioned by the direction the story took when Elizabeth started dimension-hopping. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but it felt wrong. I figured it had something to do with the deus ex machina nature of just altering reality at whim to suit your own needs. And then I promptly forgot about it, because… Well, this damn ending:

Many Elizabeths

Really powerful stuff, this ending.

It had all the right elements to be truly memorable: a huge revelation of a mind-screw plot twist, amazing visuals (all those light houses) and a heap of fan service (OMG guise, we’re in Rapture!). It was overpowering, grand and spectacular. It overshadowed every other aspect of the game. But it was the journey – the bulk of the experience that really made the game worth while. The ending was just a cherry on top, and while awesome I just didn’t have enough to say about it to warrant a whole post.

But seeing how Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea came out recently I figured it might be worth revisiting the game once again and tie up a few loose ends finally writing about the story and storytelling. Especially after TJ pointed me towards a rather interesting negative review of the game:

I found it interesting, because there are very few negative reviews of the game are rare. Critics have praised it for many different, often contradictory reasons but most agreed that it was a good game. And by critics I of course mean internet bloggers and independent journalists unaffiliated with industry sponsored gaming publications. Mainstream “video-game journalism” as it exists right now is a joke, but everyone knows that already. It’s pathology is mainly driven by the fact that the only time companies buy advertising space in these publications is when their games are being “critically reviewed” creating a very clear-cut conflict of interest. Well that, and almost criminal lack of diversity in the ranks of mainstream reviewers. When 99.9% of what is being called “video-game journalism” is produced by white dudes in fedoras and dickwolf t-shirts who give Call of Booty 10/10 score every six months when the new version comes out it is kinda hard to get a real picture of what the market looks like.

But even among more diverse crown of non-professional reviewers, we frequently get a massive echo chamber effect. Especially when popular games are concerned. I won’t pretend I’m immune to that kind of hype because I’m not. As evidenced by my review of the game, I was one of the people who couldn’t seem to type enough words to say how wonderful Bioshock Infinite was. This is why I’m always happy to read negative reviews of overly positively received games, because chances are they might be onto something we all overlooked.

In his article, Phil Hartup claims that Bioshock Infinite is not only a bad game, but also bad for the video industry as a whole. I know what you think: this is a blatant link bait. And you are right. It is, but despite being intentionally inflammatory the article makes some points that are worth discussing. Hartup outlines two key areas in which the game has, in his eyes, failed to deliver.

First, and most obviously, it’s a first person shooter and it’s a conspicuously bad one. Everything takes place in a series of arena battles, with the plot occurring in the times between them. This is a really bad sign. It tells us that the story is written and the game, that bit that you’re paying for, the bit that really anything calling itself a game ought to be focused on, that’s just filler. That’s the stuff you do to pad the running time out. That the actual game part of the game has been relegated to the fringes of the experience is evidenced by just how below-par the combat actually is. The mechanics, the arbitrary limitations, the repetition of it all . . . on a mechanical level this is the sort of thing that was done better in Half Life back in 1998.

This is actually a very valid criticism. The FPS genre is actually getting a bit long in the tooth, and has become stale and formulaic. It doesn’t really lend itself to storytelling because it is nearly impossible to advance the plot while the player is busy circle-strafing, rocket jumping and spraying machine gun bullets in all directions. When the players two main modes of interaction with the game world are “shooting” and “pressing buttons” the story, by necessity has to be delivered in the quiet moments in between pitched battles. If the FPS genre in it’s classic run, gun, cut-scene, repeat format was retired today, I wouldn’t even be upset. I’m all for creating new gaming experience and exploring new genres.

Hartup follows up the above with the following:

What video games need now are new ideas, not the same old thing with a different set of backgrounds and a new story. This is what video games promised when they first appeared, when people were not just inventing games but inventing genres of game. Somewhere along the way this seems to have stopped happening.

This is absolutely true. I wouldn’t call it the most astute observation (no offense to Mr. Hartup) because we have seen this in the making for precisely about a decade now. The age of innovation in the video game industry ended around the time triple A game budgets ballooned into billions of dollars, and voice acting and motion capture became commonplace. It is easy to take risks when you are working with a team of six to eight people, and all you stand to lose is a few thousand dollars. But betting everything on a wild card is much, much harder when your team consists of two thousand people from six different companies, and you have to sell eleventy trillion copies of your game just to break even.

What we know about FPS games is that they sell like hotcakes. They are the is the simplest, and probably most accessible type of experience you can find. They are precisely what appeals to the most coveted 18-30 white, male, /r/games subscribing, Penny Arcade reading dude-bro demographic. That’s the one type of game that has been proven to squeeze the maximum money from their wallets. This is precisely the reason why Mass Effect 3, the cover-based shooter sold vastly more copies than Mass Effect 1, the space-opera RPG. So can we blame a company for investing into a format that they know is going to return profit?

Of course, there is a follow up question here:

Why are video game companies catering their product lines solely towards adolescent and young-adult males, when they actually are not their main customers. According to the 2013 ESA study, the average age of a self described “gamer” is 30, and nearly half gamers are women.

Gamer Demographic

Gamer Demographic

Statistically this means that large chunk of the customer base is composed of non-dudebro people of both sexes who are currently in their 30′s and 40′s. Obviously I can’t speak for all 30-somethings (especial the women, being a guy and all) but personally I’m kinda sick of FPS genre. I liked Bioshock Infinite precisely because it chose too mix a little bit of interesting narrative into the story. I played the game on Easy because I wasn’t really into challenging pitch-battles – I just wanted to find out what happens to Booker and Elizabeth and see if Daisy Fitzroy’s uprising is going to succeed. That said I have no interest in the annual re-packaging of the Call of Duty series and similar titles. I’m sure a number of people my age think the same. I would love to see the major publishers take more risks and experiment with new formats, and I definitely have more reliable stream of disposable income than your average 18-year old. So how come these companies are not catering to me?

Well, perhaps one of the reasons is that they still haven’t figured out the magical game formula that would simultaneously appeal to the over-30, crowd. Perhaps there isn’t any. Perhaps they are not even looking for it. I guess it helps to keep in mind that the pathological lack of diversity in the game journalism is more or less mirrored in the game development industry. These guys have their biases, preconceived notions about what games are supposed to be and it will be hard to change that overnight.

The industry being what it is however, I think there is a place for games such as Bioshock Infinite and Mass Effect which mix the tired, old and limited cash-cow genres with actual compelling story elements. For one, these games show that people are at least trying to make games that tell stories in addition to being shooters. They also help to expose the Call of Duty players to more complex, broader and more nuanced narratives and hopefully leave them yearning for more. If we feed these younger generations of gamers a steady diet of smarter, more story-oriented, narrative-driven games then perhaps when they grow up and become game developers themselves they will want to tell their own stories, rather than figure out new ways to do more efficient bump-shading on gun barrels in the latest brown military shooter.

Having said all of that however, I fully agree with Phill Hartup that Bioshock Infinite could have been better. In my own review I praised the game for how well it managed “combat fatigue” – which is just a fancy way of saying “getting sick tired of shooting dudes in the face all the time”. It’s actually very telling that I have a term for this particular phenomenon. The whole point of an FPS game is that it is supposed to be exciting, adrenaline pumping, edge-of-your-seat type of experience. But you can only sustain this kind of vibrant energy for a limited about of time. Good FPS games take that into account and provide convenient breaks between battles that break up the monotony of constant violence. But the very fact that “combat fatigue” exists, and it must be managed to keep player interested is perhaps an evidence that we are building these games wrong. That the FPS genre, while popular is actually a dead end from a design standpoint.

Phill is right when he says that the violence in Bioshock Infinite seems largely divorced from its overarching plot. You could probably cut out majority of the encounters in the game, leaving only the scripted events and cut scenes without actually loosing much in terms of the story. You basically have to grind enemies to get from one story element to another. So perhaps it is not “combat fatigue” that we feel, but just plain old boredom and annoyance.

But Bioshock isn’t the only game that does this. In fact, I can’t think of a linear FPS or cover based shooter that doesn’t do that. Max Payne 3 felt like this. So did Dishonored and Darksiders 2 just to name a few that I played recently. Unless you make your game a sandbox, you are going to have this issue. But sandboxes are riskier and more difficult to balance. So this is an interesting thought to ponder: is the linear FPS a dead end? Because we seem to have reached a limit of what we can do with it artistically. And if we can’t do anything else interesting with it then the sooner we ditch it, the better.

This is however only the first of Hartups two main gripes of the game. The second one goes as follows:

In terms of story and themes, what are we really learning here? That racism is bad? That religious fanaticism is bad? A huge amount has been talked about the Bioshock: Infinite story but the elephant in the room is that if the story is written before you even install the game then it is a bad story. This brings us back to the idea of the game as a game.

This is something I can’t really agree with. Firstly, I think Phil is mixing up two concepts: linear FPS format and linear narrative. The former, as discussed above, is broken because of how it’s mechanics divorce the core game-play from the story dividing your experience into story/exposition rooms and grind corridors that connect them. There is however nothing wrong with linear narrative. This is something video games have been using since the start, so I really don’t see why it would be a problem now. Yes, games can be non-linear but they don’t have to be. In fact, we really, really suck at telling stories in non-linear ways, because by definition our narratives are typically single thread and serial progression. Even pure sandbox games tend to funnel you into linear instance dungeons in which you can only move forward along predefined path so that story can be told through scripted events and cut scenes.

The truth is, most of our stories are completely predictable: the protagonist wins, the antagonist loses, everyone lives happily ever after. And yet we tell them anyway. We have been telling and re-telling “the heroe’s journey” mono-myth for thousands of years now and it is still one of our most popular, most enduring and most beloved arcs. A good storyteller knows that ending is not as important as the journey itself. An occasional plot twist or surprise ending can spice up a story, but you can’t build a narrative around it. I think the career of M. Night Shyamalan is a good object lesson here: no matter how good your plot twists are, they simply won’t matter if your audience is not invested into the story. And if you can get people really invested – if you can make them care about the characters, then plot twists aren’t even necessary.

It’s great when games have multiple endings. Hell, it’s amazing when you can play a game more than once and end up with a very different experience. But a linear story with a predictable ending can still be rewarding and worth while. Especially if it is a story about something important.

Phil goes on to narrowly define what he thinks games should be like:

What makes games special is that you are not supposed to know the outcome. Take a football match for example. If you’re playing football and you don’t know how the match will turn out, but you know you can affect it, that’s fun. That’s really the joy of playing a game.

I think this is an awful definition because football games were not designed to have narratives, whereas some video games do. Bioshock Infinite especially since it has a classic three act structure. But yes, according to that narrow criteria it not a true game but rather an interactive story. And it is bad because it has an easily predictable ending? Which ending is that? Did he mean it in general sense as in: protagonist’s success brings about the downfall of the antagonist? Or did he predict the Booker/Comstock relationship and all of the alternate world clusterfuck just by glancing at the cover?

But let’s rewind this discussion a little bit. I want to talk more about this particular statement:

What are we really learning here? That racism is bad?

Phill throws this statement out there as if was something trivial. As if racism was a solved problem that is not worth talking about anymore. Yes, we all collectively agreed that racism is terrible. This is a good thing. This doesn’t mean the topic is closed. In fact, I don’t really think the above-mentioned 18-30 dudebro demographic to which this game was marketed actually understands what racism even is.

Seriously, go to reddit, open any thread on the front page that has a thousand comments or more, and then Ctrl+F for the n-word and see how many hits you get. Regardless of the topic of the discussion, I can almost guarantee you there will be some vile racist shit there – especially in the gaming subredits. If anyone can benefit from a little bit of perspective on the subject, it’s the stereotypical FPS enthusiasts.

Unfortunately, Bioshock Infinite is not going to be a game that will provide any valuable lessons to these guys, because it completely botched that subject. If you are scratching your head wondering what the hell am I talking about I highly recommend reading Soha El-Sabaawi’s excellent review of the game. It is another negative review. I told you I like these, because they typically bring up things that I might have missed.

This one drops a bomb-shell:

The Vox Populi, led by Daisy, had a cause to which I was committed – fight the oppressors. In Columbia, black bodies were enslaved, passive, villainized and discarded. I could not have been happier to arm them and assist their revolt against the horrific racism rampant through the city. Then, for the sake of a plot twist, I found myself having to fight them instead. As I fought them to progress Booker and Elizabeth’s stories I kept asking out loud in my empty apartment, “Why? Why am I doing this?” With every member of the Vox Populi I murdered, I was erasing their history and oppression one bullet at a time. They aren’t the enemies. They aren’t my enemies.

I believed in Daisy. I believed she had a right to this land as much as the Founders of Columbia, and suddenly I was forced to put her down.

I was crestfallen and ashamed, but mostly I was angry. I could not believe how poorly oppression and racism was handled simply to advance the stories of a white man and woman. Daisy and the Vox had been robbed of their voices to shout for their rights and freedoms.

At the beginning of this review I mentioned that I felt some discomfort and wrongness to the story when Elizabeth and Booker started dimension hopping. Now I realize that this was actually about the exact moment where the two went from being unwilling allies of Vox Populi to their enemies. This was the beginning of the sequence of events that culminated in Daisy’s death. Like Soha I was invested in Daisy’s cause and I looked forward to helping Vox Populi to overthrow Comstock. When the sides suddenly flipped and I was forced to gun down the freedom fighters and kill Daisy I felt robbed of the satisfaction of being on the right side of the conflict, and achieving something meaningful.

But while I sympathized with her cause, I didn’t identify with Daisy. I was more invested in the story of Booker and Elizabeth and I promptly got over, and forgot about this betrayal. It left merely a bad taste in my mouth, which I was only vaguely aware of. Now that I think about it though, I believe this is in fact the biggest problem with the game as a whole.

It’s not that it is a bad FPS, which it isn’t. Not really. Not by any metric. I is far superior to anything else in it’s genre both mechanically and story wise. Whether or not FPS format is a good storytelling medium is a whole other discussion, and I’m pretty sure we all agree that it is not. The game is neither innovative, nor revolutionary – but still an exemplary specimen in it’s own domain.

It’s problem is not that it is predictable because it is not. If you can predict that Booker is Comstock just from glancing at the cover, you might be Sherlock Holmes or one of those precogs from Minority Report or something. The problem was that Elizabeth and Booker selfishly chose a solution to the Comstock problem that did not actually address the grievances of Vox Populi. Their story got a high-brow, heady and satisfying mind-screw resolution. Daisy’s story got unceremoniously dumped by the wayside. She and her followers were un-made.

One could argue that by manipulating the multiverse to prevent Colombia from ever existing in the first place, Elizabeth prevented the racial oppression from ever occurring. But is a workd without Comstock and Columbia really better than one in which the black population is emancipated? In which the will of the people triumphs over an oppressive regime creating a nation that could be held up as a shining beacon for budding civil rights movements all across the world?

Instead we get a dreadfully disingenuous scene in which Daisy threatens to kill an innocent, wide-eyed white child. This scenario is contrived because we really don’t know what pushed Daisy to this. She is a background character and we didn’t take this journey with her. In fact, the Daisy who takes the child hostage is not even the same one we meet earlier in the game because of Elizabeth’s dimensional shenanigans. At that point she nothing more than a plot point whose sole function is to further Elizabeth’s story and give her some a character defining traumatic experience. And that’s all kinds of wrong. Daisy’s story was a big deal after all. Putting an end to discrimination, oppression and violence against thousands of non-white Colombians was much grander and worthy cause to fight for, than liberation of Elizabeth from her ivory tower or Booker/Comstock’s personal redemption, repentance and absolution.

When people of colour don’t write their own stories in games, they end up in hands that will be neither delicate nor fair. The stories end up as botched as BioShock: Infinite where the oppressed turn to extreme violence and act like animals in the guise of creating a morally complex narrative where ethnicity disappears into the wind of white guilt.

I guess Phil was half right when he asked what are we really learning from Bioshock Infinite? I guess it does make a pretty good case that cartoonishly overt, mustache twirling, villainous racism is bad. But it’s not like anyone was ever trying to dispute that. But the game also kinda goes to show that deeply internalized prejudices are still deeply rooted in our society. That even the best intention can’t sometimes save a story from being exploitative and insensitive towards racial issues. Instead of humanizing the plight of the oppressed minorities and empathizing with the freedom fighters Bioshock Infinite manages to completely marginalize their uprising. It makes their fight a plot point and the death of their leader as character development moment for a white protagonist. And that’s bad. That doesn’t teach us anything at all other than that this is a problem. Not only with the game itself but with the industry as a whole. I doubt this was intentional. I don’t think the writers specific goal was to marginalize Daisy and Vox Populi. But that doesn’t make it any less problematic.

It is hard to believe that there was no one involved in making this game to mention this and try to guide the story in a more agreeable direction. Perhaps there was, and they got overruled because this industry is a gigantic echo chamber. White dudes make games specifically for white dudes, which then get reviewed by more white dudes. This is why pointless brown military shooters keep being made. This is why video game women don’t seem capable of wearing normal clothes, and have biologically impossible bodies. This is why there is virtually no canonical human video game protagonists who are not brown haired, white men. This is why Daisy gets shanked with scissors for the sake of Elizabeth’s character development.

Does any of this make Bioshock Infinite a terrible game? No, not really. It’s still enjoyable and worth checking out. It is just tainted by the problems that plague the entire industry. And I think it’s important that we talk about these things, because mainstream “video game journalism” sure as hell won’t. Despite what the internet would lead you to believe, is entirely possible to like a game, while accepting it is flawed, and discussing said flaws and shortcomings.

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2 Responses to A few more thoughts on Bioshock Infinite

  1. Max NETHERLANDS Google Chrome OpenBSD says:

    You seem to think of games as mainly story-vehicles. But I think that’s what Phil is complaining about, the game wants to tell a story, and the game-play (what he considers the actual video game) is just tacked on as an afterthought. One way to fix that would be to integrate the story more with the game-play. Then, there’s the exact opposite. Give the player some goal to solve before the story advances. That goal should of course be somewhat non-trivial, so “kill a wave of bad guys” does not count. Then let the player figure out how to solve it. I’m no big FPS fan, so I’m using an example from a different genre:

    In Thief, in most levels there’s one main treasure you have to steal, and you have to steal a certain amount of other treasures. Which path you take to the main goal and where you go looking for other treasures is up to you. That’s not exactly a sandbox, but neither is it the 100%-scripted game experience that Phil complains about. You don’t know where every guard is right now. You don’t know if/when/where you will fuck up, get spotted and have guards chase after you. I don’t see why FPS games can’t be like that, except with more action rather than stealth. Probably there are some, but I don’t know them.

    And in some games, stories just arise out of the game mechanics. I think that 4X strategy games are particularly good at this which is one reason why that’s become one of my favorite genres. As you might already have guessed, I don’t think that story-oriented and narrative-driven games are necessarily “smarter” or better than other games.

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  2. Max NETHERLANDS Google Chrome OpenBSD says:

    Huh, Chrome? Does it default to that for an unknown browser?

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