God Only Knows: A Conversation About BioShock Infinite

The most impressive videogame of the year is also the most flawed.

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Kevin: Did we like BioShock Infinite?

Elizabeth: A lot of people are talking about the ending, but I think the ending is overshadowing the actual game. Were you enjoying yourself while playing the game?

Nick: Often times I was, but maybe not always where the game wanted me to. The widespread agreement is the shooting is either average or worse than that. And I agree. I never looked forward to combat, but I always looked forward to exploring Columbia. And I liked finding the recordings. It was well written enough to hook me.

Kevin: I think “well written enough” is basically how I feel about the whole game. Even when you set the bar lower for writing in videogames — and I feel like you have to, because it’s a maturing medium — the story was at best mediocre and the environment was great.

Elizabeth: The game is about quantum layers. It’s about non-linear movement in time and space. But the game itself is the most linear action game of this sort I’ve played since Final Fantasy XIII. I felt like I was being pushed through a tunnel the whole game. When you’re in the carnival at the beginning, being able to interact with exhibits and games sets a precedent for the rest of Infinite. But after the first third of the game, it abandons that interactivity altogether.

Kevin: I felt exactly the same way. But that first hour of the game, when you’re introduced to Columbia, that might be the most impressive first hour of any game I’ve ever played.

Nick: Maybe an all-time best moment in games for me.

Kevin: It was extraordinary. I love the carnival because it piques your interest with a sense of awe and wonder. And then you start fighting. The way the game is set up is that you’re thrown into a series of arenas.

Elizabeth: And they’re all round arenas — not even elegantly designed arenas.

Kevin: Basically you’re in these arenas, and you have to kill everyone to progress to the next arena where you will also kill everyone. And I kept thinking, Oh this is the beginning of the game, that’s why the interaction is so limited here. But it never expanded from that, and a lot of the ideas the game introduced never expanded. So I was having a great time in the first third of the game, but by the end, I was pretty worn out.

Nick: What was so cool about the first third of the game is that it gave me the sense that something really new and impressive could happen. When the quartet swooped in and started singing “God Only Knows” — like, holy shit.

Elizabeth: That was a high point.

Kevin: I’m with you.

Nick: It felt like, Oh my god, I may be about to experience the best game ever made. But then it turned into a B-minus Halo.

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Kevin: I will say that a lot of what Irrational Games was attempting to do with the combat was pretty interesting. Most shooters have a horizontal battlefield, they become about duck-and-cover mechanics. But with the skyhook system, you’re able to turn it into a vertical combat system.

Elizabeth: I think the combat was poorly designed in endless ways, but the real problem I had was that you didn’t have any incentive to experiment with these different ways of fighting. You could just choose one thing and do that over and over again. For example, what weapons did you use? I remember exactly which weapon I used because it was only one gun.

Kevin: I just shot people and threw crows at them. Nonstop.

Nick: I used the long-range weapons like the machine gun and the repeater.

Kevin: I think I only used the carbine pretty much the whole time.

Elizabeth: It’s worth noting I was playing on easy difficulty. I didn’t care enough about the battles to want to strategize them.

Kevin: I played it on medium — I’m a really mediocre shooter player — but I wonder if the game was harder it would’ve forced me to think about what I was doing a little more. With the guns and the vigors you could do the same thing over and over and not think about it. With the skyhook system, most of the time, I would be shooting some guys and then run out of ammo and I would skyhook away. Then I would come back once I had found some more ammo.

Elizabeth: When I got the Undertow vigor, the one that pulls guys toward you, I used that and only used that. So I maxed out that vigor, and I would come in and pull all the guys toward me and then bash their faces in. Then I would repeat and repeat forever. So there’s a conflict between how boring it is and how I didn’t take it upon myself to make the game less boring.

Nick: It’s on the game designers to force you to make different choices. They should’ve given you encounters and enemies that didn’t let you sit around and shoot everyone with the carbine. I think they failed at that, because you could use the carbine the whole game if you wanted.

Elizabeth: For me, a good counter-example is, of course, BioShock. That’s a game where you have to be creative and there aren’t swarms of enemies and there aren’t arenas. The Big Daddies are such a good example of intelligent combat design. They are these things that exist and they are clearly menacing and dangerous but you do not have to kill them.

Nick: I don’t think there’s anything in Infinite that’s as interesting mechanically as the Big Daddies. They felt so threatening, but in the moments that they weren’t aggressive and were just walking around, they had this animalistic presence. And the fights with them were incredible. I can’t think of a single thing in Infinite that had that sort of impact on the game.

Kevin: There are so many distracting elements. Like, the tear system is pretty stupid.

Elizabeth: The tears are irredeemably stupid. It’s a missed opportunity for both the narrative and as a game mechanic. The tears symbolize and should represent this wild, unpredictable shifting between realities and dimensions. Instead they are stationary and static. What is the purpose of having them, other than to have to choose between different advantages?

Kevin: I get how they’re supposed to work. Mechanically, it’s resource management on the battlefield, choosing one advantage over another. It turns out they don’t affect the battle at all. I don’t think a tear ever really helped me.

Nick: The funny thing about the tears is that it’s not that different than if all of those things were in the level already. It’s just one more thing you have to push X to do.

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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.

Nick: God.

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.

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Elizabeth: It’s also hard to talk about the narrative taking a turn for the stupid without mentioning Daisy Fitzroy.

Nick: Yes.

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.

Nick Martens and Kevin Nguyen are the founding editors of The Bygone Bureau. Elizabeth Simins is a contributing writer and illustrator.