Thursday, July 4, 2013

Video Game Assessment: BioShock Infinite (2013)

Hello all!

Now this is going to be a spoiler-filled review, analysis, and interpretation of BioShock Infinite. Don't say I didn't warn you, and don't read on without heeding that warning. I have some ideas that will probably prove to be unpopular, but since I've never personally seen them raised, and I've played the game four times, I think I have very valid reasons to raise them myself.


It starts with a lighthouse.

And what is a lighthouse? A way to keep pesky travelers away. A warning. And what happens when one fails to heed a warning? I think that the answer must be: nothing good at all.

There's always a man.

But he barely matters. He's simply a man. Nothing more. Kind of generic really.

And there's always a city.

Columbia in this case. A city in the clouds. Kind of like Cloud City on Bespin except... uh... not centralized.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We have to start at the beginning or we're never going to get anywhere. So, let's begin.

What is this video game?

BioShock Infinite is a multi-faceted, complex, and brilliant game brought to us by the developer Irrational Games and Publisher 2K Games. It is a follow-up (or spiritual sequel) to BioShock and BioShock 2, which in turn are spiritual sequels and homages to the old System Shock games. Everybody knows that. It's a tired thing to say, but I have to start somewhere.

I personally can't stand BioShock. Not this game, we'll get to my feelings on this game later, but the first BioShock was a game I really did not enjoy in any sense of that word. It called itself  horror game, but had no horror. It attempted to parse Objectivism, but only ever touched the surface. It tried to create a new kind of narrative, but only fell on its face. My opinion on that game is fairly negative. It was one of my least favorite games that I actually bought in this gaming generation (alongside Alan Wake and possibly Mass Effect 3). I can't think of anything besides the stunning visuals and designs that I actually liked about the game. And the end of that game is one of the worst fetch-quest things I've ever seen in a non-JRPG. So, I don't have fond memories of BioShock, so much so that I had no further interest in the series.

BioShock 2 came out. I never played it, never even cared to play it. I heard it was more BioShock, a tired sequel in a generation of tired sequels. I didn't care. I was done with the series. A horror series that isn't horror that thinks it's more intelligent than it actually is? Yeah, not my cup of tea. And when the teasers and trailers started coming out for Infinite, I simply let them pass right over my head. How could I care about a series I never liked? And what did it matter that it would have nothing *really* to do with the other games? All I saw was fluffy pretty nonsense.

And I wasn't interested.

I didn't care.

Then a beacon, a light from across the sky. A review and a damn good one at that. Adam Sessler posted a video review that drew me in, and made me need to play this game. I hadn't had any inkling of interest before this, but in that moment, on the Tuesday this game came out, I knew I needed it. The game was my lighthouse, and I was like a moth to its brilliant light. I bought it, and I played.

I saw the true face of what brilliance could be.

And I was glad.

But I'm not talking about the game yet, about the rowboat, about the barely understood conversations with what seem like two crazy people, about the lighthouse, the mystery, and on, and on, and on ad infinitum...

It wasn't just that the game was brilliant. The game also touched on things never brought up in video games, played with ideas that were always left rotting in the attic of a creator's brain. It wasn't just that the game was intelligent. It was that the story was saying something other than: go shoot this, go save the damsel, and go get the reward. It was a deconstruction to be sure (and I love those), but one without pretext. And certainly one that didn't seem that way from the outset. It is a game that ages well with time and playthroughs, being confusing the first time through, and gaining traction with every subsequent journey through Columbia and its avenues.

I'm not going to waste your time and mine saying what people have already said. Go read other reviews if you want to hear dull praises and claps on the back for this game. It's a great game. Hell, in some ways and to some people it is goddamn near-perfect. It is for me. But saying that does not make it so. Yes, the visuals are stunning. Yes, the gameplay is like some crazy high-octane roller coaster ride. Yes, the narrative is good. Yes, Elizabeth is a wonderful character. But those are empty statements without something to back them up.

While the visuals are stunning, there is nothing in them that makes or breaks this game. Yes, pretty graphics can be fun, but this game could have easily been another BioShock if it didn't have more than just pretty things to fall back onto. Columbia is a gorgeous world, but the visual porn will always be there. it doesn't go away, but is also frankly one of the worst and weakest parts of the game. And that should be read as elevating the other parts of the game, not denigrating the visuals. Columbia is gorgeous, and it only looks better the longer the game goes on. The character designs get better with time, the enemies become more compelling, with larger enemies having more unique designs, and even the smaller ones looking more interesting.  The absolute high point for visuals in the game would be after the final battle when Columbia is nothing more than a memory, but that could just be me.

The gameplay is unique, interesting, and fun. Yes, it is also kind of generic with guns in one hand and magic powers in another, but so many other games do the same that there is really no way I can complain about this doing what others also do. It would be a ridiculous argument. Some of the fights are pretty well scripted, but I think that works in the game's favor, having amazing areas in which to fight rather than tiny corridors. People have complained about the combat... and I have no idea why. What is annoying about this combat that isn't annoying about other FPS games? I get tired hearing about complaints without any merit. Let's call it personal preference. Or maybe those people were caught up in the hype and it didn't deliver the experience they expected and wanted. Or maybe PC gamers are a fickle crowd and like to be annoyed at everything. I don't know. All I can say is that I liked the combat quite a bit. The gameplay was fresh and exciting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. This is not a horror game (all that much) so why not have some adventurous fun while playing? The sky-hooks are brilliantly fun. Yes, they put you on rails, but rails can be a ton of fun. I loved ninja-ing down on unsuspecting enemies. I could do that all day long. And my favorite part was smacking people with my sky-hook. Man, that was viscerally incredible.

I really think that way too many people talk about gameplay like it's the entire game. I've heard some even say that bad gameplay can kill a game. No. No, it can't. Games have evolved. They are not simply Mario jumping around for a princess or Tetris blocks needing to match up. Games are not just about fighting. How can they be with narratives, characters, and everything else besides filling up the game with so much else? This game has a perfect balance between combat and rest. I wish every game could be like that. It reminds me of Half-Life 2 without physics puzzles. And I don't think that's a bad thing at all. I'm also very forgiving when it comes to gameplay. I loved the original Deadly Premonition and was okay with its frankly godawful combat. So, full disclosure, I guess. Bad gameplay has never turned me off of a game. And it never will. Then again, I'm also good at video games. So, take that as you will.

Something seldom spoken of in videos games is the music and sounds. This game does music and sounds better than any game I've ever played before. The music is near-brilliant, with many anachronistic 1912 covers of radically different songs through time, from Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper. And they're all so good and so worth listening to and being surprised by. The sounds are great as well- everything from vocal work (the Luteces are amazing, Elizabeth is the female voice to be compared against now, etc.) to what characters say, not only in their environment but also on the voxophones. There is an essence to the words and voices in this game that gives the whole thing credence. The rebellion plot in the story is greatly increased by such amazing vocal work. Seeing a Handyman lying killed in the streets, only to find that he still kept a voxophone of his wife telling him that she loved him? That's heartwrenching and beautiful, especially when the existential question of what they are comes up in the game as well.

The voxophones are an interesting way of giving us the backstory of the game. Yes, BioShock did it as well, but much less satisfyingly in my opinion. Perhaps it's the vocal talent here, or all the alternate universes, but I found what was going on in the background much more compelling throughout this game. I even found it more compelling than pieces of our own narrative. Saying that, I also loved listening to people on the street talking, saying weird and oddly racist things at times. It made it all that much better. It made it all that much more an actual world. It drew me into itself that much more.

And does the narrative of the game matter? You better believe it. It's amazing, with twists, turns, and things that don't quite make sense. The ending, I'm looking at you here. But even the things that don't make sense still work. There are questions that still hang over the narrative, and that's a good thing. It makes the story more interesting, more ambiguous, and more likely to be interpreted many different ways. It leads to debate, and that's never a bad thing.

The ambiguity of the story and the ending is what I liked most about the game besides Elizabeth. Yes, the twists were fun. But not knowing what truly happens in the end is what made the game worth playing, and I guess my interpretation of the ending (which seems different from everybody else's) made me love this game. I'll get to it later, but yes, prepare to be upset with me. I'm sure I'll get yelled at for not getting it.


Anyway, Elizabeth is one of the best female characters in video games. Look, if you want to take anything away from this game that's good, it has to be that. She is a non-sexualized, non-damsel, non-escorted NPC, who can take care of herself, interact with you in so many different ways, and has an effect on the way you play the game. I'd compare her to Alyx from Half-Life 2 and its episodes, but Elizabeth is more a natural progression of that kind of character. It's amazing to see that in this day and age when everybody seems to hate women, especially in their video games, and the only women they seem to allow are huge-breasted and vapid wank material. I'm glad for Elizabeth's existence, for her equal status to Booker throughout the game, and for her even transcendence into something near-God-like. To me her progression as a character made the game for me. Seeing her change as she changed costumes, grow as the game grew, become more serious as our situation did, it was amazing. It was compelling. It gave me something to care about within the game, something to get attached to.

So, as the game goes on, and Booker gets involved in a rebellion, steals a girl from her "prison," sees what Comstock (the antagonist of the game) really is, and goes from rugged antihero to broken man, I was entranced. The story was paced so well. It made me care. It made me want to see what would happen next. I didn't want it to end. But it had to. And the ending was... controversial in my brain. I fought long and hard to come to a consensus about what I thought about it. Was it all happening at the end, with Booker and Elizabeth going through the lighthouses, seeing all the untold amounts of universes? Or was it simply another deconstruction?

The way I see it was that each other Booker and Elizabeth, every other lighthouse as well, they are all other games being played. Some perhaps by yourself, but some but other people entirely. The game can never truly change. The big moments always have to happen. But the small things can very easily change. Each and every game is different. But they all come to the same realization and the same ending. That's brilliant and sad. And it works so well. We go through the game seeing Elizabeth grow as a character, seeing her go from eating cotton candy and talking about childish things to openly wanting to murder her "father." But the biggest and most interesting part of the game is when we realize that we can never find another ending. There is no happy ending. Elizabeth cannot change her fate just as Booker cannot change his. What I find most compelling about the ending is that it is about failure.

Neither Booker nor Elizabeth win in the end because the game was rigged from the start. Things cannot change therefore our game never changes. Elizabeth can try a million times to save Booker and herself or kill Booker and herself, but the game keeps being played, and the failures, each and every game, will always happen. I don't know if Elizabeth is wrong about being able to fix it or if she just wants to end it right there. I don't know. Is she God at the end of the game or some equivalent? Or is she a terrifyingly sad young woman who thinks she knows what to do and cannot? Maybe she succeeds like most seem to think, but that is so far-fetched to me. Killing Booker does not kill Comstock even if they are the same person. Killing Booker does nothing but kill Booker. So, either she kills him for kicks, puts him in the role of a younger Booker, or kills him to make the failure complete. I will mention that if she can put Booker in the role of his younger self, than why not create an entirely new Booker? Or kill the Booker who always becomes Comstock after the choice is made? She chooses to kill the player character, the one who has protected her and cared for her throughout the game. There's a reason for that. And to me the reason is that there can never be a winning scenario. There can never be happily ever after. Some see the stinger at the end being the happy ending of Booker and Anna living happily ever after. I see it as a drunken Booker before the game begins forgetting that he already gave her away. Nothing changes. The game is always the same. And that is why it is very close to perfect.

I can compare it to NieR, another game about failure that I also loved. It is so good so often, and people hating it simply makes no sense to me unless they either don't care about narratives or they simply don't get it. I will never be okay with a person ragging on a game because the gameplay isn't their cup of tea. That is such a stupid reason to hate a narrative heavy video game. It gets to me, this slagging the game off, because I did find it so brilliant and so fun. I can't even see how others cannot also enjoy it unless they are suffering from anti-hype which is literally so stupid it actually makes me angry.

As for real concerns, why doesn't Booker break his legs when jumping off of the sky-rails? Why? Seriously. Portal had the explanation of long falls being okay because Chell has long fall boots. But Booker can die if he falls to far regularly. So, why doesn't he die when he jumps from a hundred feet up onto concrete? Don't even dare say magnetism. I will lose all my mind. Seriously, there is no explanation. It's kind of dumb, but that really stuck out to me.

I wish we could have more than two guns at a time as well. This is something others have brought up as well. I kind of get it from a realistic point of view, but from where I'm standing it just makes me use fewer types of guns and conserve the ammo for the guns I really like. I don't mind it amazingly, but it isn't the best decision ever.

As for other things I liked. Well, the sidequests were fine. The other characters in the narrative were great. The insane asylum interlude was one of the best pieces of a video game I've seen in years. That whole sequence was terrifying and compelling. It was simply so good. I love the murder of crows vigor too. Man, that was a ton of fun to use. And I really liked the multi-dimensional plot, where eventually you have no idea what reality even is anymore. I liked that a lot too. The Luteces were fantastic, characters that give the G-Man a run for original and interesting characters that have an otherworldly presence.

And that's that for the review. There are probably a ton more things I could say, but... nah... not really. I made my big points. I might do a podcast on it eventually if I get the need to talk about it more. I have a few other things to just mention about this blog in general.

I'm mostly just glad to finally be posting stuff again. Over a month hiatus is quite long enough for me. It's been a while, hasn't it? Well, with fifty+ hour work weeks (my job is exhausting and I work six days a week), a long-distance relationship (and I'll be getting engaged soon), and trying to actually sleep some days, I basically haven't had a ton of time or energy to update this blog. I apologize for that, I really do. I'm going to try to update more often, but... I doubt my schedule will change, but I'm intensely trying to push myself to bring some content out. It may be a bit more scattered, but I'm going to try.

I do have many different reviews I'm planning, and October (although months away) is very much on my mind for my next 31 reviews. Anyway, the next Goosebumps/Fear Street review might be coming soon hopefully. And my next game review will hopefully be coming out in a few weeks at latest. I hope everybody is okay with me not putting out as much content as before. This blog will always update, it simply might be slower than usual from now until my schedule frees up a bit.