Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Bioshock Infinite

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: Bioshock Infinite
Developer: Irrational Games
Publisher: 2K
Published in: 2013
Genre: Action
Rating: M

Before this I start this one hour playthrough, I admit I have actually played Bioshock Infinite all the way through. I'm afraid it's colored my opinion a bit in this review. Might end up being like watching the Sixth Sense for the second time around. I'll try not to spoil the ending for those of you who haven't played it.

Let's talk about Bioshock Infinite's manual first because a) it has one (color, nice pictures, actual infomation) and b) writing about later would derail my train of thought. OK, we're done talking about the manual.

I hate to say it, but the cover on the left is more accurate

Bioshock Infinite has two covers - One with the hero Booker DeWitt brandishing a shotgun and another that looks like a turn-of-the-last-century storybook. Apparently there was a controversy over the cover of Bioshock Infinite looking too much like a shooter... but unless I played a different game this is a shooter. You shoot pistols, you shoot shotguns, you shoot ravens out of your hands. It's ironic that Bioshock Infinite has two covers because the game conflicted even from the packaging. Take the start screen for example.

Irrational, you're giving me some mixed messages

The start screen is a serene view of Columbia as old timey music (well, period music as it's supposed to be 1912) drifts through the air to the tweeting of birds. (Do they use their little beaks to peck out 140 characters?) If you let the attract mode play, you get a movie of shooting and burning hands and people getting their faces gouged out to a rockin' modern tune. Just another example of the game's contrary nature. Folksy music vs. hard rock. Calm vs. violence.

I start a new game and here's where I have a beef with the developers. Like I said, I've finished the game all the way through and want to start a new one. The game gives me the option to overwrite the current autosave but not start a new game from scratch. Now, I'm not a "save the game" kind of guy. I like autosave. It saves me effort and doesn't break me out of my game experience. So I guess I lose my previous effort. Oh well, the things I do for this blog. After choosing a difficulty setting (Easy, Medium, Hard) I am shown the Bioshock logo - the wind rips away the American flag trapping to reveal the word "Infinite." A quick load and the game starts with some dialogue between Booker (the lead character) and Elizabeth (the AI character) "Booker, Are you afraid of God?" "No, I'm afraid of you." and a (fake) quote. "The mind of the subject will struggle to create memories where none exist." - Irrational presenting the theme of the game to the player. However it means nothing until you've finished the game and by that point you've forgotten about it.

Actually it's one of the more brilliant things in the game

The gameplay starts with DeWitt catching a rowboat ride from two characters who discuss how their experiment has already already failed. (Foreshadowing - your clue to quality literature) One of them hands a box labelled Booker DeWitt - Battle of Wounded Knee. Inside is a gun and a picture of a girl that reads "Bring to the girl to New York unharmed" on the back. You have to admit, it's a very elegant way to introduce the character - In one stroke we learn who we are, what our mission is, a bit of background of the character, the answer to the first puzzle and even get our first weapon. Bravo Irrational.

The boat rows away leaving me at the steps of a lighthouse. On the door a bloodied message reads "bring the girl and wipe away the debt." Inside we find a basin with the message "Of they sins Shall I wash thee" with "that old time religion" playing from somewhere. I go to use the basin, I see myself in the water. "Good luck with that, pal" says our hero. Already the symbolism being laid on thickly.

When is the answer not "Take All"?

Other than mundane operations (like opening a door or picking up a telephone receiver), the player's only action (other than walking and moving the camera around) is to loot the lighthouse of cash and food. You can also find a cup of coffee to drink that provides salt. Salt? I prefer my coffee with sugar, thank you. IMHO, introducing the concept of health and salt pickups this early in the game is a bit of a mistake. While it populates the world with objects to grab, there's no context or even a need for these items. The player quickly falls into the old videogame habit of "smash everything/take everything." The end result is DeWitt becomes Pac-Man, devouring everything in his path.

Oh, writing "provisions" on the side makes it different

However Bioshock Infinite's rules of interactions are contridictory even on this first level. There's a ladder I can climb at the beginning, but another I can't use in the lighthouse. There's a barrel I can't open on the first floor of the lighthouse but one I can on the third floor. Consistancy is key for these kind of interactions. I'm honestly surprised these rookie mistakes were made. We come across executed dead man has a note pinned to him reading "don't disappoint us" - obviously some bad people are threatening us and they can't be far behind, their cigarette is still smoking... OH LOOK, silver coins I can take!! I loot my way to the top of the lighthouse (this guy left money just lying around!) where the game's first puzzle awaits.

Thanks Booker. Would you just like to play the game for me?

Fortunately, I'm not a moron and realize that the same icons are on these bells as were on the paper in my box. Just in case I am a moron, Booker shows me the card which has the answer on it. The sky grows read and something in the distance honks (like Close Encounters of the Third Kind), the door opens and a dentist's chair unfolds from the ground. The chair converts into a rocket (interestingly for a FPS, I lose my pistol during this event) which blasts me off to my destination - a city in the clouds.

It's like Rio, San Francisco and Liberty Square had a baby

Through my porthole window, I spy Zepplins whizzing by and a giant portrait of Comstock, the prophet. It's a lovely introduction to the world in the same vein as the descent to Rapture in Bioshock. As I descend, I am bombarded with religious messages about a "new eden" and the door opens up into a room filled with water (?) and glowing stained glass image of a John Brown-looking gent pointing to a city in the sky.

Steal from a baby's shrine. That'll get me in good with the good citizens of Columbia

This is obviously a church with its candles and stained glass and heavenly music. Growing up Catholic, I recognize the trappings of saints and prayer candles. I come across two shrines - one for a woman and another for a child, complete with someone's gifts of dolls, toys, wrapped gifts and coins on an offering plate. Here's where I think there was a lost opportunity - in a game that's supposedly frought with morality, there's really no moral choices to made. There's no punishment for taking the money and no reward for leaving it be.

I also find the first Voxophone - recordings that give the player background on the world without interupting the gameplay. It's a method of storytelling first introduced in Bioshock and quickly adapted by just about every other game since. A man tells me I've arrived in "heaven" and I make my way down some watery stairs (how come I don't slip?) to a water and candle-filled chamber (where is all this water coming from? That's a mystery Bioshock Infinite never bothers to answer) where a preacher offers baptism in exchange for passage into the city, Columbia. DeWitt reluctantly accepts baptism (his near drowning leads to a flashback of a black and white office. Someone pounds on the door - offering a deal, the girl for the debt. Opening the door shows New York in flames, being attacked by a fire-belching zepplin.

If I choose Franklin, can I shoot lightning from my hands?

DeWitt finally gets his first view of Columbia - three statues of Washington, Jefferson and Franklin offering keys, scrolls and swords - imagry we've already been exposed to up to this point. Here's another missed opportunity. Unlike Dragon's Dogma which uses the three items as a class selection system, Bioshock Infinite could have had the player pursue three different paths of play - warlike Washingtonian, vigor-powered Franklin or knowledge-based Jeffersonian.

I make my way through a tranquil garden (complete with a "look! Isn't this a cool hummingbird?") - past praying supplicants, coin-filled fountains to reach New Eden square - a Main Street USA city complete with nostalgic music filling the air as cargo trains roll by on arial tracks. Fireworks (who shoots off fireworks during the day?) fill the sky beyond. There's even a hot dog cart though I'll bet their dogs aren't as good as the corn dogs on Main Street. Here's something else that I wish Bioshock Infinite did more of. While populated with people, they don't really have much to say and seem to exist just to show that people actual live here. You don't learn much by evesdropping on them and they never say anything more than once after you approach them. The boy selling newspapers (he isn't even hawking them, just silently waves them around) doesn't give you any information past that "all of columbia celebrates" (the newspaper's headline) For a world so lush and rich, it feels awfully empty and sterile. I would have liked to have seen a little less city and gotten a little more interaction.

Two dollars for a hot dog in 1912?

I enter a store and come across a man getting his shoes shined. "Never hire an artist" he rants. (Is he talking on behalf of the producers of the game?) Nearby is the game's second information delivery system - a kinetoscope exactly like those found in the Crystal Arcade on Main Street. This one tells us about Father Comstock's gift of prophecy. It's charming, but I'm getting the feeling that there's only one development company in Columbia - and it's all owned by Comstock. This guy has giant statues erected of him, has kinetoscopes about his "gifts" and has a massive church in his name. It breaks the illusion of a real place, making it a hyper-real world dedicated to Comstock as designed by the set designers of Batman Forever - heck, even Disneyland only has one statue of Walt in it. It's about this point that I reach the hour mark and I haven't even fired a single shot in this first person shooter.

I think it says it all

So, do I continue exploring the flying city of Columbia or get my feet back on the ground?

What I'd do differently: Most of it I mention earlier - the feeling of blindly collecting up everything in the world without context or need. Other reviewers have mentioned how strange it is for DeWitt to be eating sandwiches out of garbage cans and I found it poignant that after violently killing a man the only object I found on him was cotton candy. And while I appreciate Irrational's desire to create a game with meaning, I feel like I was beaten over the head with it. Look! This game has MEANING! It's DEEP! Unfortunately, it all gets to be a bit too much and ends up feeling like parody. I agree that subtlety has no place in games, but there is such a thing as too much symbolism.

Would I keep playing? Yes, but with a caviat. There's no doubt that any scholar of gaming should play Bioshock Infinite. Irrational has raised themselves to a position of being an "important" game developer. Their games will be discected and analysized for years to come. However that might bite them in the butt down the road. I already feel like Irrational has a "responsibility" to create "important" games and they're trapped in a prison of their own making. (The ending of the game wryly hints at this) I feel like the first hour of this game is the game they wanted to make, the rest of it was the game they had to make. To be honest, I'd rather play several hours of rambling and exploring the interesting world of Columbia than blasting the hell out of it's occupants.

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