Kevin: It comes back to the way the arenas are designed. You’re introduced to these new areas and to strategize how you’re going to tackle all these enemies, you have to be familiar with the area. But they’re all brand new, so you would skyhook and go to god-knows-where. You loop around, jump to another one — even the game knows that it’s poorly designed because it gives you a button to tell you which direction to go whenever you get confused.
Elizabeth: I pushed that button so often. At the part where you’re fighting the ghost—
Kevin: Fucking ghost.
Elizabeth: —there was nothing interesting between me and my destination, so I just wanted to get there. I was just pushing that button every two seconds thinking, Take me there, take me there, take me there, this battle is horrible.
Kevin: I really liked the final fight when you’re on the airship. I know a lot of people didn’t, but it was the first time I was dying a lot. And after a while, I started to understand the area that I was fighting in. I was strategizing my use of the Songbird, thinking about which enemies I should take out and which enemies Songbird should take out. What’s kind of cool is that you can do it a lot of different ways. At first, I had Songbird take out the zeppelins, but it’s actually pretty easy to go up there yourself and take them out. I think being forced to play that area again give me an appreciation for the different things I could do. But in the rest of the game, the arenas didn’t have that sort of flexibility or any different strategies I could try.
Nick: In a good shooter, every encounter has a distinct personality. I played Halo 4 recently and there’s one area where you’re in a giant cavern and you have to warp between these portals and the enemies are always unpredictable; there’s another that’s a blasted hellscape that’s dense and depressed, and the combat there has a different tone. I don’t think any of the fights in Infinite, except that last one, feels distinct from one another. The environments felt distinct, but the combat didn’t.
Elizabeth: There’s not a single distinctive environment in BioShock Infinite — maybe some museums and the ship you were just talking about — but other than that, there’s no single arena or space where there was a pivotal confrontation. It all runs together.
Kevin: What’s probably interesting is that if you just look at visuals or screenshots of each different location in Infinite, they would probably look more distinct and unique than any other shooter you’ve played. But somehow the redundant combat reduces all these places to one terrible blur.
But let’s talk about the story. I read some pretty superlative things about the ending, and really it’s just a bland, anime-like ending.
Nick: No, it feels so much like Looper to me.
Elizabeth: I didn’t see that.
Kevin: I think people who like Looper will like the ending of Infinite. It’s really dumb sci-fi.
Nick: Looper is terrible. It is such a bad time-travel movie.
Elizabeth: It may have been because it was five in the morning and I kept thinking the game would be over, but I just didn’t understand the story. I may be a complete idiot, but I wanted it to be something so different from what it was. I was so optimistic about the story when they kept hinting with songs from the future. It felt dark and unusual — and then it turned out it was tacked on.
Nick: I was very disappointed in the explanation for those songs. It was just an audio log where some guy says, “I’m hearing songs from the future.”
Kevin: That was the explanation?
Nick: It was! This guy said he was hearing songs from the future and making a career on it. Like every tear opened to a radio station.
Kevin: That’s super funny. I didn’t catch that.
Nick: The ending was just a deus ex machina wrapped in a lot of pseudo-scientific jargon. When I got off the narrative freight train, I did feel a little bamboozled. At first I thought something cool had happened. But the more I thought about it and processed it, it started to feel completely unsatisfying. The problem was that Elizabeth — a character I really liked — was made to be some mystic cipher who explained everything to you.
Kevin: That’s what makes the new Halo game great. Cortana isn’t just this sexy cyber-lady who is just giving you directions anymore; she’s the emotional core of Halo 4.
Nick: And they seemed to realize that. Master Chief has zero character empathy, so they may as well try to include someone that you vaguely care about.
Kevin: Listening to Elizabeth is a nice break from all the murdering that you do in BioShock Infinite.
Elizabeth: I like Elizabeth on her own (and not just because the TV kept yelling “Elizabeth” at me), but I thought the voice acting on the whole was really well done. However, I am so tired of the man-protecting-his-daughter story. I am so tired of it. I don’t care anymore. It’s a bland way to create fake empathy. “It’s my child so I love her.” It’s so lazy.
Nick: I agree, and I became less connected after I learned she was Booker’s daughter. I thought, Oh, this again. Before that, you’re thinking, Who is this? She could be anyone. She could’ve been an exciting new character archetype, but instead, it’s the same old trope. Have fun with this.
Kevin: That’s the problem with Infinite. It promises so much: it sets up a lot of interesting things, and by the end, it succumbs to easy tropes or dumb narrative loopholes. That’s the problem with the game as a whole: everything about it is smart and well done until a certain point when everything you’re doing becomes very stupid.
Elizabeth: It’s also hard to talk about the narrative taking a turn for the stupid without mentioning Daisy Fitzroy.
Kevin: Oh god.
Elizabeth: That is such a textbook example of “what the fuck were you guys thinking?” She started out as this mysterious, strong woman of color who was a leader — so unusual in games, or all media. And you think, I need to know more about this woman. And then it turns out she’s just a thug who wants to murder a child for no reason.
Nick: It’s a tremendous missed opportunity in the whole history of gaming. The fact that they have this populist uprising, the Vox Populi, and you’re going to join them — I was like, fuck yes — and then the game takes a turn and says the leader is crazy for no reason and now you are fighting the rebels. It is a catastrophic failure of logic and writing. It’s so disappointing.
Elizabeth: That pinpoints the moment the game takes a turn. When you start shifting between realities, you think this will be such an interesting mechanic. I’m gonna get to move between two realities a la Chrono Cross. And suddenly it’s like: No, you have three things to move, so let’s just abandon that new mechanic, and now we’ve rigged the plot so that it has this lame platitude that everyone who is in power is evil. Which, as you were saying, is a total catastrophic failure of writing. Apart from it being lazy, it’s false. There are ways of organizing people and society that are less evil than the KKK. Why the fuck do I even have to say this?
Kevin: At some point, I forgot what was going on. You’re one of the Vox Populi, and then suddenly you’re killing them, and at this moment I had totally forgotten why I was killing anybody — which people was I supposed to kill? It got confusing! My motivation for shooting people was confusing.
Nick: How are you even supposed to know which is which? All the enemies look the same.
Elizabeth: Well the Vox Populi are black. Only shoot the black people. Or use the Undertow vigor and bash their heads in.
Kevin: With the story, at first you think there are two universes. But then it turns out there are a bunch of them. There’s as many as universes as there needs to be to make the story convenient. You never move anything: you go into a version of the universe where something is already done for you.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of The Golden Compass books in that way (I recently listened to the audiobooks). At first, the books have this tight logic where there were alternate realities, which were fascinating. Then, it’s like, “Actually, there are a million realities and here they are!”
Nick: I feel like writers think that if they want to do alternate realities, they have to do infinite realities. Which is so uninteresting.
Kevin: But which reality are we supposed to care about then? At the end of the game, the answer is none of them.
So is BioShock Infinite worth playing?
Nick: If you’re interested in videogames, yes. Even though ultimately I came away disappointed, I couldn’t not play it.
Elizabeth: I think if you want to be part of the conversation about it, you should play it. But as a game itself, I don’t think it progresses the medium, or even its genre within the medium enough to recommend it. I’m glad I played it because a lot of the issues it brings up about game design and what we expect versus what we get are interesting. But we’re edge cases. I didn’t enjoy most of the game. With the original BioShock, I’m not even sure if it holds up mechanically. But I would still recommend it to everyone because it made huge advances for the medium. This game is a product of its time and it’s interesting right now.
Kevin: I think it can’t be discounted just how impressive Infinite is as a triple-A production. The game is beautiful, extremely well voice-acted, and the entire presentation — especially the architecture and imagining of Columbia — is enough to recommend it. I guess everyone should play that first hour.
Nick: The environments are unbelievable. Visually, the most appealing I’ve ever seen in a game. Games are so mired in ice worlds and that shit, the visual distinctions in this world without relying on cheesy themes is impressive.
Elizabeth: I would recommend playing the first portion of the game and pretend the rest doesn’t happen.
Kevin: Maybe there’s an alternate reality where the game is only three hours long.