Wednesday, April 3, 2013

There's Subtlety, Then There's Cowardice | BioShock Infinite

No, you shhhh.
Let down again...

...much less than I became with BioShock admittedly, but still---I can hope that Irrational will now devote their talent towards other venues at this point. I'm personally hoping I never see another System Shock 7 and I've officially resigned myself from wanting any more from a BioShock title. Infinite has given me some closure at least, and I'm thankful for it.

Did I hate Infinite? Of course not. In fact I enjoyed it more than its two predecessors overall. That said, what I walked away with has become too similar to what I felt for the original BioShock, which is a progressively terminal state of apathy. So, let me go ahead and get this out of the way Elizabeth, it must be said.


TropeShock

After completing everything there is to do in the original 2006 game and finally sampling my copy of BioShock 2 (the latter of which I'm far more interested in now), Infinite almost comes off as entirely disregarding its own namesake, and it's telling for this franchise as a whole. Plasmids and ADAM for example, were an integral part of the Rapture's tale and world. There's almost no acknowledgement as far as I've seen for Salts and Vigor's place in what I assume is the same 'universe' (which means fuck-all given Infinite's conclusion). Even if they're simply serving as precursor(s) to what will eventually become Plasmids, again---they have almost zero acknowledgement outside being obvious analogs for the the previous games' manifestation of powers and abilities. One Voxophone from Fink (and a few advertising signs) just doesn't explain their place in the world. It just reads as an excuse to stick it in. 

The series also seems to have adopted similar mechanics and themes that are becoming more and more jarring with each entry. Finding a reason to listen to the audio recordings for example has become a transparent novelty (or fanservice if we're being nasty). Infinite's story wouldn't have been hurt at all if all of the Voxophones were taken out entirely; perhaps some slight degradation would have occurred in its world building, but that's about it. To this game's credit, a sense of place and time is accomplished so effectively in other places, I don't need a tacky touchstone shoehorned in for 'Shock' value.
"Now that you're out of yours, you might realize that cages have their advantages."
"A choice is better than none, Mr. DeWitt. No matter what the outcome."
"Yeah? What if you woke up one day and realized you didn't like what you chose?"
- Elizabeth & Booker 
Sooooo, don't listen to them right? It is optional after all. Good luck with that if that's the stance you're gonna take. The fact that they're there at all is indicative to what the mindset was for this game. Either they are there for fanservice or they're a genuine attempt at building Columbia's world. I don't buy the choice in gameplay argument I've heard Ken Levine trumpet either. Freedom and choice is a primarily PC gaming tenant that has been blanketed over various franchises with no regard for the design. BioShock Infinite is merely one of them. This is just a carryover in that tenant as BioShock is where the console audience jumped into the fray. I'd sadly be more comfortable if it were just the fanservice as the other two I'd personally have to peg as a failures. This bleeds into the combat as well (and in some case even the narrative), and there could have been dozens of alternatives to how combat should play out, but it also becomes just as formulaic in Infinite. I'd go out on a limb and state that just without Voxophones, Vigors, or the name BioShock being present, I'd be far more forgiving of these types of things, but they are there, so I have a problem.

The Shark

I enjoyed how Elizabeth was handled mechanically, but narratively it was often a touch and go experience. The writing for her in certain sequences ranges from outright awkward to endearing. I usually found myself irritated with her when the writing was overstepping its boundaries or simply out of its element. Let's take when Elizabeth first hears Booker's motive for 'rescuing' her. The character first stands there nonplussed as a scripted gondola ride conversation plays out only to have her burst into tears not five minutes later when the same conversation takes place in what is essentially a cutscene. It gives the impression she's meant to be dynamic in relation to where she's at, but oftentimes it just winds up becoming goofy or presenting wonky. While not a frequent annoyance, it's not exactly a rare occurrence in the game either.


And while we're on that...

I'm very much over Western-designed first person adventure narrative points too. They're effectively worse than cutscenes (it doesn't help that you can't even skip Infinite's in subsequent playthroughs). I'm all for embracing video games' defining characteristic (interactivity), but just because I can move my damn head around doesn't automatically denote engagement.


Where Elizabeth did become engaging to me however, is exactly how she accompanies you
Our pinkies are all that limit us.
throughout the entire game. She's never a burden, and the development team seems to have taken great pains to actually make her useful in both a narrative context and a tactical one at the same time which is impressive to an extent. In combat she often finds the nearest bit of cover and hides behind it, throwing you ammo and other needed items at regular intervals.


There are some dissonant portions here as most people have noted how the enemies seem to disregard her entirely, and she will often 'warp' around while off-screen to take whatever position seems most---cinematic I guess? Buuuut the pluses generally outweighed the minuses here so I was willing to suspend disbelief some. If I turned and saw her crouching behind cover I could often buy it more than the times I couldn't.


To be honest though, how Columbians coulda/shoulda/woulda reacted to Elizabeth sounds like a complicated problem to me as their aim isn't to kill or harm her, but subdue and capture her (she is after all the daughter of the city's hero and savior).  Rather than making her become a nuisance that needed to be rescued from this situation, Irrational seems to have just ignored the problem for the most part, and I can't exactly fault them for it here.


If this is a character tale about primarily Elizabeth and Booker though, then I become far more critical of it than if it were about Columbia which the two characters just happen to be in. It's been interpreted and stated that this is 'Elizabeth's story', that she is 'the shark' 1, but I've yet to find anything in the story that would suggest that this isn't a tale about yet another screwed up Caucasian male protagonist and how the world around him lies in ruins because of his own selfish choices (blown up tenfold by the game's conclusion by the way). If this game is making me Booker DeWitt then fuck you game. Fuck you. Making a character 'interesting' these days seems to have become synonymous with just making a screwed up asshole.


Sadly, Elizabeth's main charm relies on an almost Disney level redundancy as a sort of coming to age story. She's a pretty and hyper-intelligent young woman with cosmic level abilities yet being locked inside a tower for twenty years has had almost no effect on her other than giving her a childish fascination with the world she's apparently been barred from experiencing. Remember the Gondola ride conversation? Well, Elizabeth's first words to the player/Booker reach similar levels of awkward juxtaposition when she flies between terrified rage to wonder and fascination in .02 seconds flat.

"Are you real?"
- Elizabeth
Are you serious...? The game went so far out of its way to make me like her that I was actively indifferent to her for most of it. Only one thing partially salvaged it...

When she's broken.


The one area in the entire game that I was sort of impressed with narratively is when Elizabeth gets taken near the ending of the game and tortured. Her character ironically becomes the most compelling to me here as well. After being brainwashed and experimented on, she becomes the very thing she set out to avoid. There are tears scattered around this part of the game which give audio to her indoctrination over the course of at least six months (which were more effective to me than the entirety of the voxophones in the game). Admittedly, I had to ignore that the game unfortunately goes on to undermine this sequence by using her time and space ability to completely backpedal the dilemma and save the day (which wouldn't be so irritating if the damn thing didn't reshuffle its ending almost three times). 


It also only partially works at all as the aged Elizabeth nonsensically goes from a Face Heel Turn to a Heel Face turn, coming a full 360 degrees (the first of which is only explained by 'time, Booker' and nothing else). She falls deep into regret in order to achieve redemption in her twilight years, and this redemption seems to be a prominent theme in the game for whatever reason. While I mostly bought it for Booker, it just came off as forced for Elizabeth which in turn hurts what's shown for Booker when the game spends so much of its time tying the two inextricably together. That the Comstock House only serves as a sort of window into a world where the player fails is a fundamental fault I can't look past, despite it being my favorite area in the game. The Boys of Silence (exclusive to Comstock House) were also the only higher level enemy in the entire game which I liked in visual design and mechanical function in-game (even though they're functionally just security cameras). Fireman, Crows, and Handymen are kind of embarrassing in comparison and they are what compose the majority of the game otherwise.

A Form of Wish Fulfillment

"Why do you ask what,
 when the delicious question is when?"
It's common for me to be exasperated with narratives that bring time and space manipulation into the equation because none of them really focus on anything but the end result, which is only the short and lazy way to fun. Plotholes, paradoxes, and contradictions are endemic to these scenarios as well and although Infinite goes to some lengths to wrap its narrative up in such respects, it can't solve all the problems created by Elizabeth's powers. As a result, it ends up only supplementing the quasi-nihilistic take I came away from the game with. I just didn't give a damn anymore after the third time me and her jumped into an alternate world.

This is done first when the player gets to Finkton (really it's done before the game even fucking starts) and at least three or four other times depending on how one looks at the events transpiring. A sort of disregard for these worlds led to an odd indifference to what I was actually fighting for as they kept jumping between alternate realities. Booker is dead in one, Elizabeth just disappears in another, Comstock is somehow an antagonist in all. The disregard for this is exacerbated by the goals that led the player to jump spacetime to begin with. Initially it's done to honor a deal with the Vox Populi to get an airship back. There's no questioning at all to what degree they can honor that agreement between a jumped reality, it's just an accepted leap of logic. 

The game doesn't establish too many rules (convenient, huh?), the concept is just there to serve the tale and nothing else. Elizabeth seems somewhat competent in her ability in a sort of semi-progressive arc over the course of the game, but starts saddling regret after the first jump when she sees the results of her actions with the Chinese gunsmith, Chen Lin. To the character's credit and how she's written, she is willing to fess up to the responsibility of her actions---something Booker seems to be unable to do (which I guess becomes important to his character towards the end?). These inferences however are presented in such way that seems counter-intuitive to their very nature. Such things should have caused far more friction between Elizabeth and Booker, but outside of her berating him in an elevator back to Fink's factory, nothing is ever seen or produced of it.

By barreling forth with this subtle form of ludonarrative dissonance, the actions of both Booker and Elizabeth simply become two children putting a porcelain doll back together with Elmer's glue after smashing it before their parents get home. 

Uncanny Violence

"How do you do it?" 
"Do What?" 
"Forget." 
"You don't, you just learn to live with it..."
- Elizabeth & Booker 
0451, we meet again.
While I'm not opposed to the violence within Infinite, I do think it reaches multiple points where its overlap with what it's trying to convey as a story is just silly. Again, this existed in the prior Shock games as well, but the issue was hidden much---well it was at least hidden, as the Von Braun's inhabitants were errant robots and biologically infected crew members while Rapture's population was mostly genetically mutated drug addicts. Columbia is full of bigoted white people and that's about it. The trouble is that the action itself is virtually the same between all these games sans context. Later on in the game some angry Blacks and Irish get added to the mix, but it ends up further hurting the game. It sure as hell doesn't help. Hell, even Resident Evil 5 could hide behind Africans being infected with Las Plagas. The worst you could say about Columbians is that religion has turned them into what most Atheists and other non-believing perspectives would love to generalize them as, just nutty and dangerous conservative caricatures. 

I recall in a recent Interview Levine did with NPR 2 with the general sentiment being that it's a game so the violence was necessary. Conflict is indeed necessary for a game such as this, the level of violence however is up for debate. Levine has also yet to acknowledge or answer why the game comes off so much as a shooter adequately outside of anything that can't just be summarized as 'it's a game, so deal with it'. So many times in just the past week I've seen Infinite touted as a great argument for what video games have to offer as an artform and as a narrative. I couldn't be more confounded by this. Not only could 'we' do better than this, we already have and with much less money churning behind it.

The level of 'shootery' violence in Infinite and the degree and frequency to which it occurs is an absolute distraction in my eyes 3. It doesn't serve anybody or anyone, and it sure as hell doesn't serve its narrative in any long term sense. I suppose one could give merit to it by praising the combat system itself, but I could only personally do that by disregarding everything else in the game, which I obviously view as a substantial and more importantly---detrimental issue.

The Lighthouses
"No one tells me where to go." 
"Booker... you've already been." 4
- Elizabeth & Booker
The narrative at large I took as an insult. Not necessarily because it was offensive or racist or anything of the matter (I couldn't even get past all this other shit to even look at it in that sort of context), but how little respect it shows me and more importantly---itself intellectually. The only thing the game remotely does clever involves the Luteces and their role in the story.
"You see the problem with Bioshock Infinite is that it wants to blow your mind, rather than encouraging you to use it." 8
The overarching tale plays out like an episode of Doctor Who (a show which I detest by the way), which while not going completely batshit insane with a time & space narrative, it doesn't really do anything special with it and again---there are two conflicting tones that shift around violently from the likes of Half Life's heroic quagmire to something akin to Far Cry 3's unintentional skydive into a very ridiculous branch of nihilism. The latter stems primarily from how unlikable the game makes Booker and it exponentially explodes by the time the game reaches its conclusion. That mixed with how callous the game runs through 'tears' doesn't help matters either. Watching Elizabeth explain the lighthouses is slightly undercut by her deity-level omnipotence at that point, which is implied to have been granted by merely having her pinky finger cut off.

The use of the socio-political ludicrousness of 1912 is implemented in the same way that BioShock used its quasi-Objectivist utopia---which means my respect for it flew right out the window very early on. I was already wary of this happening, so it's not as disappointing---but I mean geez, I'm tired of being right about crap like this.
"There was zero pressure on the creative design." 2
The whole racial component is used as a backdrop and not as anything particularly relevant to the player's goals. This is a deal breaker for me as it automatically says the game is sidestepping something actually relevant for either artistic vanity or safety for sales. If there's anything approaching a morale buried in the background in this facet of the world it's that power corrupts, no matter race, class, or creed. The loading screens will suggest as much as well, as they give text to Booker's thoughts, one of which happen to be that Daisy Fitzroy (a black female revolutionary for Christ's sake) is a welsher. Coming from this blog and its namesake, I have to say---stating that everybody just sucks is a lazy ass lesson to teach. 


Yes Elizabeth, Booker will pointlessly and nonsensically
moralize to you across the entire game. I'm surprised it
took you THAT long to notice it.
I'm also not sure I can see this train with saccharine daddy/daughter motifs that Levine seems to be on, but I sure as hell keep missing out on the ride. As I've heard from multiple sources as well as Levine himself, this is a game about Booker and Elizabeth. Okay then. On that note alone, the game is just another mediocre roller coaster ride with admirable artistic design scattered all over the place. Recalling my initial impression on this game's reveal, the laudable areas where I expected to find some innovation kind of vanished altogether, as a lot of the pre-2012 footage seems to have been cut from the game entirely. If you recall, I was looking for fear at the time 5

This is something absent from both BioShock and of what I played, BioShock 2. The only time a slight unease crept up in me during Infinite was the portion I mentioned above featuring Elizabeth's capture, which is a forty-five minute sequence at most in a game that spans well over ten hours. The kinetoscopes, sense of dread, and even the weather all take a turn for the worse in Comstock House (in an almost fantastic way), but like I said above, the game is only sampling this reality, and it becomes a warped ball that eventually gets dropped entirely.

There was also a moment in the beginning of the game where I tricked myself into feeling a sort of manufactured anxiety towards being in a sea of white faces looking back at me, but it was immediately quelled by the fact that I was Booker, not me. So, that lasted about all of ten minutes before I got to throw #77 at the raffle, at which point the game becomes a great example for the "Well that escalated quickly" Internet meme.

The one thing I did genuinely love about the game is Rosalind Lutece's character. The machinations surrounding her do just enough to breach outside the slightly amoral wandering archetype she falls into. That she serves as the player's sort of unreliable mentor and ally mostly works to her credit for this game, and she's somewhat of a refreshing presence for a Shock game in the narrative context to begin with. She's the one breaching the game's fourth wall in the best ways possible and provides a refreshing sense of snark relative to all of Columbia's otherwise screwed up population and madness. The Quantum-particle bit that comes with her was a take it or leave bit of nonsense to grant time travel 6.

I wish I had more positive things to say about BioShock Infinite, but it seems I have to relegate it to the kind of twisted hatred I have for Resident Evil 4+ now. I can play both of them for days on end, but they've both effectively ruined my appreciation for the things they originally pioneered in earlier titles. The only difference between BioShock and Resident Evil though is one is trying to play dress-up as an intellectual exercise in what video games can accomplish. One is notHow the game managed to avoid being trenchant or incisive using such charged American cultural themes is nothing short of well-designed cowardice.

1. Elizabeth Is a Shark: Ken Levine on BioShock Infinite [Link]
2. BioShock Infinite And The Future Of Gaming [Link]
3. Opinion: Violence limits BioShock Infinite's audience — my wife included [Link]
4. A white dude saying fate doesn't control him? SURE HAVEN'T BEEN THERE BEFORE.
5. Enrich or Expand? | BioShock Infinite [Link]
6. That it's a slightly amoral and sarcastic female physicist so involved with her work, she jerked an alternate and contrasting version of herself from another world to relate with speaks more to my own affinities. I have no qualms with admitting that. I made some very obvious concessions to love 'her'. =p
7. "There’s never going to be a System Shock 3. We really should be glad. No matter what you made of Bioshock, it’s better we got a spiritual successor than an actual one. Take Shock’s approaches – the closed environments, the brooding horror, the environment-as-storytelling – and applying it to a whole new situation. It’s better this way. Just leave the poor girl a lone." - Kieron Gillen, The Girl Who Wanted To Be God [Link]
8. Kind of disheartening that the critics of the game are all essentially winding up in roughly the same place, despite this being a title people specifically went out of their way to remain blind to media-wise for enjoyment's sake. 'Everything Bioshock Infinite Gets Wrong' [Link], 'BioShock Infinite: an intelligent, violent videogame?' [Link], 'Nobody at the tower' [Link], 'Shooter apotheosis' [Link]

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