Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Enrich or Expand? | BioShock Infinite

I enjoyed you BioShock---really, I did, but I never loved you. I apologize for leading you on.

You see, I'm one of those people who played System Shock for the first time afterwards, tracing Rapture's lineage 'through the looking glass' and subsequently having my prior enjoyment of the game irreparably damaged because of it.

This is so much in fact, that I've still not seen it fit to try out BioShock 2 yet. It's also in spite of the frontlash (for lack of a better term) I've recently seen for it as well. This means I've been in a consistent position of apathy with the 'Bioseries' since 2008 (i.e. when I played System Shock). Of course I have my biases like anyone else, idiosyncrasies that dictate why such a 'robbery of affinities' would even occur. Yet, I do find my reaction towards the new BioShock: Infinite rather---bewildering.

Mostly this is because I actually liked what I saw. I have my usual complaints of course (we'll get to a few of them in a bit), but for the most part, the things that have troubled me about the prior games have taken on a new form now. This new form is somewhat enduring to me. So, first let's look at three appeals---the ones to my emotions.

1. Not only does this game take place in the skies, but there's a sense of infinite scale that the original BioShock was pretty much cut off from entirely. That game's entire modus operandi was in a failed underwater utopia, which pretty much enforced claustrophobia at all times. Columbia however, looks to be expansive, with some sense of placement that allows the player to 'feel' beyond their immediate surroundings. This doesn't exactly seem like a hard thing to do with a first-person game of any type, yet I see it so rarely (especially outside the realm of RPGS). This makes Infinite stand out to me.

2. It also takes a very industrial aesthetic and lays nationalism all over it. I suppose I could share in the descriptions some have drawn up here, most notably calling it a Steampunk-looking game (which isn't necessarily wrong or anything), but that's not what it shouts to me---not first anyway (it's personally not Victorian enough from what I've seen). It takes a more general retro-futurism approach and almost cleverly splashes 'America, fuck yeah!' all over it. This gives it a bit more breathing room visually and distances the look from just being generically in-tune with a commonly seen look that inspires nerd-boners these days.

3. We're now using an actual character (who is ironically voiced by Garrett's voice actor, whom I've often complained about not speaking enough in the Thief titles)? To be fair here, I have to reiterate that I haven't played BioShock 2 in any form, so I don't know exactly what players are controlling in that game. From what I gathered with today's released footage however, I'm going to make a guess and say that this is not a generic form we're meant to transpose ourselves (in that lazy free-form way) to accommodate for. It's always going to be more appealing to me to have a character who is written into his or her own world.

Where'd You Come From?

One aspect of the original BioShock that I found disappointing (which was exasperated exponentially by System Shock 2), was the placement of a single emotion:


I felt fear in System Shock 2, whereas I simply felt in place 'doing what I was supposed to do' whilst playing through BioShock. One of the initial trailers for the game that I still kind of love is also one that I kind of tag as being a bit misleading now.

Now, while Infinite doesn't really look like it will pick up on that horror-thread to any mentionable extent (I'd be an idiot to expect that), it also looks like it could instill in me what I was supposed to get from two other games that I'm a bit 'against' these days. These two other games (and my complaints about them) are not new if you've known me for over a year, as the revulsion occasionally builds up and spills out at fixed points now. If you don't know what these two games are yet, bear with me for the next few paragraphs while I have a little fun (assuming you don't just scroll down to see what they are). I've only seen the correlation in one other place today, so hopefully it hasn't been spoiled for you yet.

What BioShock (as a general series) and 'those games' seem to have in common is an excess of weaponry, a distinct quota of control that's never taken away from the player. For me personally, this kept all moods in a rather close proximity to one another as I played through the original BioShock. Be it plasmids or firearms, I was always able to customize everything to my liking, which ironically---I don't always happen to actually like. There's also the question of who's opposing you in these games as well. In 'those games', there was an easily dropped (and stupidly controversial) ball, concerning the color of the pursuers' skin. With Infinite, I see something else... I don't see mutilated and mutated 1950's mascots wearing ball masks and shouting incoherently. I don't see the depiction of third world fodder slinging primitive weaponry at me (did you get it yet?). What I DO see is a gaggle of ultra-nationalist white people, and lo' and behold---that actually DOES kind of leave me unsettled.

It doesn't help that Infinite appears to be at least a partly 'tag-along-girlie' experience either, further relating itself to 'the other games'. Elizabeth's importance mirrors that of an equally important character in one of 'those games' (though fittingly enough, the other one features a permanent tag along).

Though I think Corvus, Kate, and Michael's commentary were fairly healthy given the abundance of shooters we already have, its this title---probably one of the few, where I'll welcome the presence of firearms in such a manner. Depending on how the game turns out to be designed, I'll even extend that argument to encompass the above mentioned aesthetics as well. I can't firmly take this position quite yet though, as there's a lot that's still left to be seen, and this game is well over a year from being released. In short, I think the sentiment against guns were far more fitting for BioShock, BioShock 2 (possibly), and yes---Biohazard 45. You're a tad late there guys. =p


If Infinite does in fact degenerate too far into that Post-Biohazard: CV state, I'm going to have a problem (and judging from the trailer, it looks like that line will be easily crossed too). I suppose it's a good thing that Irrational inspires such a problem with me now, but it's still a problem nonetheless. The way the player interacts with denizens of Columbia looks to be very similar to Leon's first hour or so of Biohazard 4. If Infinite can somehow manage to keep that specific form of resident evil (no pun intended), it will actually do what those games failed to, inspire a newfound sort of tension in me.

Despite another personal appeal dealing with some of the game's 'supposed political thematics', I really hope it doesn't mishandle the theme which appears to be the popular 'addressing' speculation at this point, anarchism. If it does do this, I'm hoping it doesn't juggle the concept akin to what BioShock is called forth for constantly in terms of Objectivism.

Another thing troubling me at the moment are the potential for 'safe roads' in this game. Infinite seems to be contingent on building somewhat elaborate thematics around extremist politics. The worry here is what certain circumventions will be made, be it its writing or just in general milieu to avoid certain 'controversies'. A video game making a funhouse mirror out of American nationalism is a desire of long odds at this point, but still something I'd love to see.

Yes, it could turn out to be a bitchy and rather nit-picky complaint, but the transport systems are going to weigh down down on me, as will any other spectacle moments and enemies (e.g. apparently the Big Daddy was replaced with something that wouldn't look too out of place in Fallout). I'm simply hoping they're kept to a moderate level at this point. Gaming has enough roller-coaster rides, it doesn't need a popularized literal one too.

All that said, I'm actually looking forward to this game. It's far off enough that I don't simply feel pressured and annoyed by its release (as well as its fans), and perhaps I'll even find the will to pick up the second game now as well.