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Monday, April 8, 2013

[Review] Bioshock Infinite; Spoiler Edition

So as promised here is part 2 of my review. This part is getting into the meat of the game, but as a result will be almost entirely spoiler so is not recommended for those who have not yet played Bioshock 1, 2, and Infinite. The break is your last warning, do NOT progress below it if you do not want to know. Truth be told, I could fill volumes discussing various aspects of the game, but I have forced myself to narrow my scope to several important topics, and address them somewhat lightly in an effort to stimulate thought rather than come to a conclusive answer.

It began at a lighthouse...

Your first two are free, after that it's cliche.
Once more, and perhaps fitting, I'll begin at the end. Is this a fitting Bioshock iteration, or has the game gone Call of Duty and forgotten its principles? I would say the former, but I would also say that it is not the masterpiece that Bioshock 1 was. That begs the question, what makes a Bioshock game so fantastic? What did the first do that this version did not? To me, there are two big factors in a Bioshock game outside the basic gameplay elements. The first, is that the story leads players along the entire time, often throwing a twist at them right at the end. The second, is that they take one or more ideologies and magnify them to create the world the player engages in.
This is what magnification looks like
The true mastery of Bioshock 1 was that it manipulated the player in a way only a video game can. As I say of video games, “Experience, don’t show." Novels and Film can show instead of tell, but they can't make the player truly experience something. In Bioshock, every time you did a “Would you kindly...” request it made sense for the player to do them, most players (you’re on your honor here) probably complied with them because it felt very natural and like the right thing to do at the time; not just because you had to in order to progress. You experienced the manipulation, and when you went back to play the game again your perspective had completely changed. Infinite did this too, but it’s more of a “show” story than an “experience” one. Going back through Infinite, I see the foreshadowing better, but it does not change my perspective on things I was shown through the game (such as in Bioshock, when the corpse of Jack's real mother is found and an image of his fake mother is flashed before his eyes). For Infinite, the narrative is linear and unabashedly so. The game flat out admits that your choices did not matter. Perhaps it felt clever to write, but as a player I reached the end thinking "Ok...and?" This might be a withering critique of modern video game storytelling, but much since they've donned the same clothes, even in an ironic way, they aren't making it any better.
Elizabeth wasn't impressed with it either.
Bioshock has established itself about creating a semi-sci-fi world in which a philosophy has been taken to an extreme in a sort of video-game version of reduction ad absurdum. In that regard, it does well with the scathing critique of nationalism/conservatism/American-Exceptionalism with Columbia, but somewhat fails with the Vox Populli. The latter we don’t get to see the devolution of; you open a tear and suddenly they’ve gone from resistance fighters to mass murderers, apparently driven on by anger. We’re supposed to suddenly perceive them as having become that which they hated, but the shift feels hollow and forced. Why do they go this way? The snowball effect of a riot? The cautionary portion of the tale seems to be too brief, too sparse. The idea seems to be that once the snowball rolls, it can't stop and will just amplify...and yet, when I reached the portions of the game where Vox are slaughtering people, I found it hard to feel too sympathetic. 
They also kinda brutally murder the Chinese gunsmith who was helping them...because RAGE!
The Vox meant nothing to me because I did not witness their devolution; like I said previously, it has no gravity to me because I did not experience it, I was merely told how things were. The cautionary tale falls on its face because I get snapshots of a snowball without a good reference point. At the pace I played through the zone, you literally go from "Fighting for equality!" to "Kill the white folks!" in a span of about 10 minutes.
[Insert clever pun about them 'dying' to catch the train]
At least with Fink and Comstock I got the impression that they were real...both were trying to hold on to power and would concoct any narrative to hold it. A friend told me he found Fink unbelievable, but I think that was exactly the point; Fink is a liar and a cheat (he got his technology from tears his brother showed him after all). He makes up the whole "Bee" thing and the rhetoric about being a happy worker to try and keep people under control, he doesn't actually believe it. 

Will the Circle be Unbroken?

The first real music heard during the game, it ominously foreshadows the game itself and will have me intently listening to music chosen for future games. Actually most of the songs you hear have at least some inkling about what you are about to encounter. Late in the game "Fortunate Son" plays in what has basically become a Hooverville, as minority and POC workers are being ordered to attack the player on the behalf of the rulers of Columbia, the Founders.

Alas, will the circle be unbroken? Will there be a better home in the sky? You'd think the song was written for Infinite. Actually it was nice, it fit nicely with the Christian themes of the very introduction and at the time I did not even consider that it was meant to foreshadow. So there was less a feel of a lampshade being hung on the song and more a "Well that's a pretty song..." Only at the end did it become clear.

This is among my biggest disappointments; I have been following Infinite for a few years now, and Songbird was there from the beginning, billed as an omnipresent threat that could attack the player at any moment. Essentially he was an upgraded version of Big Sister from Bioshock 2; and in early footage showed up because the player had made too much of a ruckus. This never actually manifests in Infinite, because Songbird only shows up for scripted events, in which he breaks some things and acts as a transition from how Booker/Liz get from one area to another. 
This encounter 100% scripted
Despite all the talk between the two characters about having to fight him, I never get the opportunity, and all Booker's talk about killing it seems hollow when every possible chance is scripted away in a cutscene. I suppose I can't entirely blame the developers for wanting to create an enemy you flat out could NOT kill; Dark Souls players have proven that where there is a will there is a way, but it sticks out when all the run up to this figure involves emotional preparation for something that never happens. The sting would have been reduced if occasionally I got to fight him and force a retreat; only to LATER be beaten in a cutscene.
He's also kind of a perv
 Daisy Fitzroy

When I first saw this character I was pleased; a POC character with a well developed background, agency, and a true place in the story!...or so it appeared. Sadly this falls apart very quickly. We learn about her background and hear some legitimate reasons for why she might have garnered such a disdain for Columbia's leaders...she was framed for murder, forced into servitude due to her race, and made into the enemy of Columbia just because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had every reason to be angry.
No one in Infinite makes a good first impression

However, this starts to get a little fishy once she begins to take a major role in the story. From the moment we arrive in Finkton, thanks to her borrowing the zeppelin airship I'd just stolen. As we trot around Finkton doing "good" and helping the Vox for our own interests, we tear through dimensions and watch the Vox snowball as I said before. Alas Daisy seems to be caught up in, and responsible, for much of it. By the end, we get a sort of forced cautionary tale about becoming what you fear or hate most (which is a running theme in Bioshock, but this one seemed weak). Daisy is ready to execute a white child to "pull them up by the roots." Racism ahoy! Suddenly we're supposed to feel bad for the poor white folks. 
See? All socialists want to kill white kids
Daisy is even willing to kill the alternate dimension Booker to "keep the narrative"...yes, this person is willing to re-kill a martyr and one of her best soldiers, rather than do something logical like, proclaim the hero returned, or bend the narrative....there are many ways she could have gone, but I guess we are meant to assume she is too bloodthirsty to think. At least they sort of avoided the White Savior story....
Or not...Move along, no subtext here; that woman is just hanging out, she totally wasn't singing about freedom
Lastly, I find a certain irony that the Vox turn their mechanized soldiers into Lincoln; I understand that it is because of his connection with emancipation, but this is the same president who wrote about how this kind of uprising could be problematic.
Dimensional Stuff
Around Finkton it becomes unclear where you even are, or why opening these tears is changing the world. Even after the reveal, it’s unclear. We jump three times, and each new world seems to have the progress from the last, plus the issue we needed fixed was mysteriously solved. By the end of the area, it starts to look as though we are not so much jumping from dimension to dimension, but we're actually merging them when she opens the super-tears. That would explain the people experiencing conflicting memories...also explains why solving the problem in Universe A matters in Universe B. I found this section extremely confusion (woe is my plebeian understanding), and was about the point the game started to lose my interest.
Now you're thinking with Por-...what do you mean that joke is old?
Then we get into the talk about constants and variables...I follow the basic logic; the dimensions are filled with variables, but each creates constants (the variable of "Booker's Baptism" creates the constants of a Booker and a Comstock). The problem is that these constants and variables feel arbitrary, and it is very unclear how killing Booker before the baptism prevents Comstock.

Jennifer Hale, still in everything, and I LOVE it
The way I understood it, the universe fragments like a tree from these initial choice points, and by hemming them at one point, we cut off all the other possibilities. However this does not explain how it outright prevents these possibilities from ever occurring...what about the universes in which Booker did not allow himself to be drown by Elizabeth? That's the problem, the interpretation feels too "light" but acts very erudite and sophisticated. Let me remind aspiring writers of one important point; complexity is not BAD, but it is not a substitute for quality. Just because a story is complex, does not make it deep, or good. We can quibble about which do it well and which do not, but just because people are confused at the end, doesn't mean it went over their could just as likely have been poorly written.
Wait for me! I want a spot on the bandwagon!!!!
"Indoctrination Theory"

Some are hypothesizing that Infinite is just a retelling of Bioshock 1. I am afraid I have trouble with this interpretation, especially when the characters are so different, and the main evidence, the bathysphere, has so many other possibilities. Booker and Liz being able to use the bathysphere does not necessarily categorically prove that Booker is Jack. Elizabeth has by this point shown that she’s unfathomably powerful and can bend reality based on her needs. In addition, we don’t know that the bathysphere is not under her override. Or we could be in a universe in which the bathysphere is not yet on lockdown; recall that the bathyspheres were locked down due to the Fontaine/Atlas threat. Prior to that they were accessible to everyone, as shown by people protesting near them and the stations being built as mass transit areas. It's a nice idea, but I think it's speculating a little too much with too little evidence.


As my previous review stated, I loved the portrayal and mechanics of Elizabeth, but they were not without their faults. Elizabeth is one of the better characters I have seen in a game in a long time. She shows character development, genuine emotion based on her experiences, and acts like she could be a real person. Yes, she basically exists as a combat support, lockpick, and rez mechanism as far as the mechanics are concerned; but all these things fit the character. They are explained, and none of them have anything to do with her being “weak” or incapable. She is clearly disturbed by violence and knows her skill limitations. It would have been strange for her to suddenly become a hardened soldier.
Yes, she kicks him in the pills. Yes, I laughed.
The interaction with Songbird did feel awkward though, because of my reasons mentioned above...we don't see enough about her interactions with her cyborg protector. 
Whatcha readin'? Oh, speaking of subtext...
Then there is another sticking point; that big personal transition after she kills Daisy. Some are troubled that Liz shows more skin after the change; in a way, it is perhaps pandering…. though it could also be that as part of her change from na├»ve tower-shut-in to an adult. Now, that could be sending a strange message of, “Being an adult woman means being more sexy!” Prior to this, Booker is the one who deals death in protection of her and she at one point is upset at him about it. She's repulsed by the violence; but then she kills Daisy and this triggers a personal change. The outfit certainly is more sexualized; that I wouldn’t disagree with, but I am not sure it’s entire purpose was that. Is it excusable? Really not for me to decide. She goes from this clean conservative look, to something a bit more mature. This is the sticky issue to me...I can see both sides, and I am not yet sure how I feel about it. It's not as though she lost 90% of her clothing, but she did lose some rather specific coverage . I would need to know more about the clothing of the time period to say if it is consistent.
Your "character development" looks wonderful...
Final Thoughts

So I stand by my ruling from my previous post, I think the game is good, but I am not sure it deserves a rating higher than its predecessor. I'd give it a solid 90 metascore were that up to me. I don't want to discourage the team, they had great ideas, I just wish they'd developed the story a little more; and tried to have a big reveal with the same punch as Bioshock's.
Cleavage discussion aside, the level of emotive detail in her face was phenomena

Addendum: A few more images from my playthough I decided to share

She slips through bars you can't, yes I was jealous
"May I ask why you felt little Tiffany Elizabeth deserved to die?"
I want to visit this alternate universe...

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