BioShock Infinite: An Alternate View

Let’s get this straight from the beginning – BioShock Infinite is a fantastic experience. It builds a world that you can invest in, emotionally and intellectually, with well-written characters that you can believe in and connect with. I’d go so far as to say that it’s perhaps the first game since Half Life 2 to completely immerse you in its world.

And yet… and yet. Something doesn’t quite sit right; there is a fly in the ointment, if you will. Having given myself some time to reflect on the game, on everything that happened, on that ending (don’t worry, no spoilers here), I feel that there is a blot on the score sheet. As stated earlier, BioShock Infinite is a great experience… but I’m not convinced that it’s a great game.

The first hour or two had me rapt; Columbia is beautiful – there’s no other word for it. The way that the light spills lazily over the landscape, softening the surroundings to an almost-heavenly vision, the slight over-saturation of the colours giving the world something of a dream-like quality… it’s stunning, and this immediate prettiness drew me in like nothing before. Technically speaking, the engine is nothing to write home about (frankly, the faces of the NPCs downright scare me), but the art direction carries this to another level.

“But Ian”, I can’t hear you say, “We know all this! You said there’s a fly in the ointment, but you’re waxing lyrical!” Well yes, but I’m building up to it. I am painting a picture!  Hush now, and all will become clear.

You see, this easing in to the game encouraged me to invest in the world; it made me want to know what happens next. The first fight came and went (‘melée executions – cool!’), and I was introduced to Elizabeth, this most enchanting young girl, naïve yet fiercely intelligent at the same time. I immediately wanted to know more. I wanted to know her story.

This is where I introduce the bugbear. The game kept getting in the way. I realise this may sound a bit silly, but think about it. To me, the strength of Infinite is in its building of the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker, the backdrop that Columbia provides, the background of the proletariat rising up against the establishes classes, and the overt discussion of religion’s place in society. Those were the things that drove me on, yet I nearly didn’t get to experience them all, almost giving up on the game half way through.

I may now start to overuse the word ‘disconnect’, because this was the overriding thought I had after a few hours of Infinite. I’d spend a little time wandering around Columbia, interacting with Elizabeth, observing life going on around me… and then, suddenly, everything changed.

Now, instead of the convincing world of Columbia, I was in an arena-shaped area… all the NPCs had suddenly vanished. Enemies were running at me from all angles. ‘Ahh’, I thought, ‘this must be the game part.’ Realising this brought a jarring disconnect between the world I’d become so invested in, and the parts that had to be included to justify it as a game. The transition between game and narrative was stark, shaking me out of my immersion in the world, back to thinking, ‘right, hit Q, switch vigor, fire at that guy, take cover, reload, RELOAD!’

This disconnect (told you) happened again and again, to the point where I became bored with the game. Story, interaction, arena, shooting, recover, arena, shooting. I could go in to some specific criticism (Handymen!), but it would be unfair, because I did thoroughly enjoy Infinite… just not the game part.

It felt to me as if the shooty-gun-explosiony bits were designed by a completely separate team to the talky-narrative-emotiony bits – in fact, it felt like it had been outsourced to the Quake team. “Hey, Team Quake! We’re really busy crafting one of the finest game experiences of the decade and are too busy to make any actual gameplay. Could you knock together some generic shooty bits that we can stick in between our talky bits to justify this actually being a game? Thanks!”

Don’t get me wrong… the gunplay was fairly enjoyable in and of itself, but it was nothing that hadn’t been seen before. If it hadn’t been married to the rest of Infinite, it wouldn’t have come close to being acclaimed. Think about it… of all the pieces you’ve read about the BioShock Infinite, how much has actually been written about the game part?

The problem here, though, is that without the jarringly-out-of-place shooty bits, the terrifically-realised narrative wouldn’t live. This isn’t a narrative that would have seen the light of day in a film, and certainly wouldn’t have had the same impact. For Infinite to work, you need to be alongside Elizabeth; you need to be in the world, to be experiencing it first hand. Perhaps Infinite shows that gaming has finally reached its awkward growing pains phase where it’s maturing, trying to present compelling experiences, yet still shackled by customer expectation of what ‘a game’ is.

Is there a solution to this? Probably. Do I know what it is? Not on your nelly. What I do know is that there has to be an evolution. For all that made Infinite excellent – and I am incredibly glad that I stuck with it to the end – it also felt like watching Citizen Kane, while pausing every ten minutes to play a round of Angry Birds. Until narrative and gameplay can be successfully merged together, this disconnect between interaction and narrative will remain.

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  1. Bex says:

    I haven’t played the game and I’ve heard a lot of good things about it, and of course ‘the bad’. I’m intrigued about the story but reading about the sporadic bang bang, duck and cover moments put me off. I love being immersed, it’s like being in a dream world as you put it and it sounds like you’re yanked out of it every so often like an ice cold bucket of water thrown over you by an angry mother of sorts. Thanks for the read.

  2. Adam B says:

    The last ~25 minutes of the latest PC Gamer UK podcast has a very interesting discussion about just this topic; how do you make a compelling, story-driven game with wide enough appeal to be profitable that doesn’t rely on combat in order to drive the game forward?

    I highly recommend listening to it if you haven’t done so already:

  3. Nicholas Rishel says:

    Johnathan Blow gave a talk on the conflicts of game design and story which sounds very similar to what you’re describing. You might like to check it out:

  4. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever played a game where the story suddenly fell away to make room for gameplay, although it could be that I just put it out of my head so it didn’t continue to annoy me. I know of so many GREAT games where the gameplay was excellent but the story was as shit as you could possibly imagine, such as the first Borderlands and Two Worlds games… but nothing where immersion is suddenly lost because of a jarring leap to an out-of-context combat mode.

    In musical terms, it reminds me of Van Halen, or at least their earlier material. They’d wright a really driving song, catchy as hell chorus, hooks all over the place… but then when it came to the solo it would change tempo, change key, and sometimes even change style completely. It was almost as though Eddie Van Halen had this GREAT idea for a solo and decided “It’s going in this song” and just forced it in regardless of how much it killed the flow.

    So yeah, I think I’ve been lucky enough to escape this in terms of gaming… but I’ve certainly experienced it in music, and moreso with Van Halen. Was good to see your name on the site again.

  5. Ian Ian says:

    Thanks for the comments guys – it’s good to finally be contributing properly to the site :)

    I’ll take a look at the podcast and youtube video in time.

    I had someone say to me in a private comment that gaming can marry story and gameplay in places such as RPG, but again I’d still say there’s a bit of a disconnect in that area too. There are far more talented people than I approaching the problem in unique and interesting ways, but I think progress will be slow all the time that the industry is dominated by the big boys churning out their penny horrors to keep their cash swimming pools nice and topped up.

    Man, I wish I were Scrooge McDuck.

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