BioShock Infinite, as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite games of all time. It is also a game rife with problems. How can we reconcile this discrepancy? Despite the game’s critical and financial success, it’s no trick to find the same handful of criticisms repeated over and over again, blown up out of all proportion, and left to stew in some concoctive regurgitant of gaming journalism. And some of them are even true!
Those that are less so often feel like they’re coming from the wrong place to begin with. Take for instance the complaint that you can’t interact with most of the game’s non-player characters, despite the token dialogue they occasionally offer you. What were people expecting on this front? BioShock Infinite never advertised itself as an RPG. When I play Halo, I’m neither surprised nor upset that Master Chief can’t have a conversation with any of the nameless Space Marines standing around in Sergeant Johnson’s briefing rooms.
The first BioShock was not only completely devoid of dialogue trees, but the protagonist was also mute. If anything, someone looking for their player character to be more interactive with the game world should praise Infinite for delivering an FPS protagonist with extensive scripted dialogue and a personality more defined than “player surrogate.” If I wanted to know the life story of every generic NPC standing on the street corner I’d play a BioWare game.
Moreover, parts of the game that do offer greater interactivity are often met with indifference or derision. When the player has the option to play a guitar he or she might come across, it’s ridiculed as pretentious, annoying, too on-the-nose. The ability to buy food from vendors on the boardwalk bears no consideration, nor does Elizabeth plucking a rose and wearing it in her hair while you explore the next area.
It’s even possible to trigger a scripted dialogue sequence with some NPCs just by walking up to them, but because BioShock Infinite is a shooter without selectable dialogue options—just like almost every other mainstream shooter—it supposedly fails to establish an immersive game world. I’m all for integrating RPG mechanics into shooters, but why blame the game for lacking something its genre, developer, franchise, and marketing all suggested it wouldn’t have?
This same frustration extends to things as mundane as not being able to free two men in Shantytown from their imprisonment in a pair of stocks. You have a gun and a hook-hand, so why can’t you get them out? Terrible game design! I would guess that the reason is probably because it isn’t feasible to code every possible action the player could take that isn’t connected to the main plot or its side quests. You also can’t shoot the lock off a door, break open a vending machine, or escape Columbia by constructing a parachute and leaping over the side of the city. Should the specific action of freeing these specific prisoners have been coded into the game? I don’t care, but the game is full of people in jails, and it wouldn’t have hurt to be able to help some of them. Really, though, it’s just an example used by critics to illustrate their discontent with the game’s interactivity, a complaint that is due more to the limitations of video games in general than to any shortcoming unique to BioShock Infinite.
That said, it’s true that the game didn’t completely live up to its pre-release marketing hype. Elizabeth’s unscripted tears can do little more than spawn turrets, weapons, ammo, health, and, more rarely, environmental hazards. It’s a great help, but not exactly a highlight of the gameplay. Furthermore, this is a far cry from the wide variety of tactics and applications the tears were talked up to have while the game was in development. I gladly would have waited through another year of development if Irrational Games had been able to implement her powers to the full extent they discussed in the demos, creating doorways to escape from combat and forcing the player to use Elizabeth’s ability more tactically by giving it a recharge timer.
One demo showed Elizabeth being accosted by a homeless man begging for food, and I wish the developers had been able to make the environment come to life and interact with the player in little ways like this. I’m just as disappointed that the final game doesn’t allow you to interfere with the actions of the Vox mob, and it’s completely fair to feel a little cheated that these advertised aspects of gameplay didn’t make the final cut.
But only a little. The fact is that few games fully incorporate everything their overambitious developers want to include. It’s disappointing, certainly, and arguably even slightly dishonest not to admit which advertised features didn’t make the cut, but it’s hardly a game-breaking flaw. Would BioShock Infinite be more fun if Elizabeth could summon a freight train from another universe to run over enemies? Yes, definitely. Does the lack of this ability impair the gameplay in any way? No more than the absence of any kind of tears in the first BioShock impaired that game.
Speaking of absence, what about the puzzling critiques of the game’s civilian AI during combat sequences? If you’ve played the game, you may have noticed how anyone who doesn’t want to kill you hightails it off the map when the bullets start flying. Apparently this was a confusing programming choice that needed to be singled out for censure. Did it really, though? These aren’t enemy types, they’re just civilian NPCs. When the fighting starts, they run away to avoid being shot, set on fire, blown up, or pecked to death by crows. Is this really such an unusual game mechanic? It makes more sense than programming them to run around haphazardly in the middle of a firefight.
Certain criticisms of the characters ring similarly hollow. Critics often compare Infinite’s dramatis personae to that of the original BioShock, and end up looking down their noses at Columbia’s villains for not writing any poetry about rabbits. While it’s true that the first game’s supporting characters did tend to be more flamboyant and memorable than those in Infinite, it was because they had to be. The main character of BioShock, Jack, has almost no personality or character of his own. He is intentionally left as a blank slate, a pawn of the game’s allegorical meta-commentary on video games. BioShock is more about the city, the madmen who live there, and what they represent than it is the story of any one character.
This is not the case in BioShock Infinite. Booker DeWitt is no stand-in for the player; he is a fully fleshed out and realized character with a detailed past. The player may control his actions, but his identity is his own. Some will argue that comparisons between BioShock and BioShock Infinite are fair game because they both take place in decaying dystopian societies, but this isn’t an apt criterion.
The heart of BioShock Infinite is the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth. While the game is packed to the brim with big ideas—perhaps even bigger ideas than filled its predecessor—the narrative is blatantly character-focused. Jeremiah Fink and Daisy Fitzroy, while interesting characters in their own right, are no Sander Cohen or Dr. Steinman, and Zachary Comstock is certainly no Andrew Ryan—but they don’t need to be, and it’s a mistake to expect something old from a game that’s so obviously doing something new. BioShock Infinite is Booker’s story from beginning to end. Which type of narrative is better is a matter of opinion; that they are intended to be different is not.
The relationship between Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth is the heart of BioShock Infinite.
Regarding combat, some will assert that the game provides few opportunities for strategy more complex than shooting enemies in the face until they die, and that your variety of vigor powers doesn’t come into play at all. This is not entirely accurate, however. On lower difficulty levels, it’s true that the different vigors function as little more than fun ways to switch up your method of execution.
On hard difficulty or 1999 Mode, however, the tactical advantages of different vigors against different enemy types do come into play. The best way to stop a rampaging Handyman in his tracks is with Murder of Crows, for instance, and the massive battle at the end of the game is nigh-unwinnable unless you’re able to chain lightning between Motorized Patriots with an upgraded Shock Jockey. Possession in particular becomes invaluable when used tactically to clear rooms full of enemies without engaging them yourself.
But by and large, BioShock Infinite’s combat is not the high point of the game. While the vigors are fun, the weapons are mostly interchangeable and offer no interesting upgrades. The ability to carry only two weapons at a time discourages the player from experimenting with different combinations once they’ve secured something as powerful as the Hand Cannon or paired the shotgun with the vigor Undertow.
This raises the question, however: is combat really one of the main draws of a BioShock game? The answer is almost certainly no. At their most basic level, the games are shooters, but thematically, philosophically, contextually, they’re much more than that, and fans of the series expect much more than that from them. Was the combat in the original BioShock particularly revolutionary? Not really; while perhaps more complex than Infinite’s, it was a pretty standard strategic FPS in a survival-horror environment, plus the ability to shoot magic from your hands. The basic shooter portion of its gameplay may not be particularly inspired, but with its implementation of sky-lines and tears, BioShock Infinite has really only evolved and streamlined the combat mechanics of its predecessors.
A Motorized Patriot, part of the game’s “Heavy Hitter” class of enemies.
Perhaps BioShock Infinite’s most hyped advancement was the AI for Elizabeth. And for the most part, her AI is extremely impressive. She almost never behaves in ways that break game immersion or that make her a burden to the player. In a strange catch-22, however, her coding sometimes calls attention to the fact that she’s not calling attention to the fact that she’s a video game companion. While assertions that she is a weak character couldn’t be further from the truth, Elizabeth’s inability to be detected by enemy AI is a bit of a programming oversight.
I suspect this was done to prevent her from inadvertently sabotaging the player’s attempts to use stealth or drawing in a hoard of enemies the player wasn’t yet prepared to face, but it does sometimes detract from the experience. Given the alternative, however, it’s a fair tradeoff. More distracting is when she is occasionally hit by stray enemy fire but has no reaction because she isn’t coded to register hits. I’m glad that you don’t have to protect Elizabeth on the battlefield, but there must have been a way to make her invincible without having her shrug off direct missile strikes to the face.
Despite my objections, however, certain analyses hit the mark more often than not. Columbia’s vigors, for example, are not very smoothly integrated into the game. They made sense in Rapture (well, as much sense as magical sea slugs can ever be expected to make), a society guided by the virtue of selfishness and the unending quest for self-improvement. In a society based around religious fervor, racial supremacy, and good old-fashioned American exceptionalism, however, they just don’t feel like an organic part of the world. But it’s a BioShock game so they had to be there.
Other points stretch from a lack of world-building in the voxophones to the tedious boss battle with Lady Comstock. And why couldn’t we look into the past through any of the scripted tears we encounter? We can hear people talking, but that’s functionally no different from a voxophone. This is such an obvious trick, it’s amazing no one at Irrational thought to put it in the game.
It bears considering, however, that many, if not most, of these and other commonly cited issues don’t appear or affect the game until the final third or so of its length. The point at which the characters start hopping through parallel universes is also the point at which both story and gameplay suffer the most.
Once you enter a world where every faction is trying to kill you, both the previous enemy types and your erstwhile allies, the interactivity issues mentioned above are finally noticeable. Elizabeth becomes less chatty, non-hostile NPCs become less commonplace, and for some reason it seems like the environment itself becomes less organic. You’ll be walking down long, elaborate corridors that, although beautifully rendered, feel like they should be brimming with lootable items or at least stuff that you can knock over or interact with in some way. But it’s all just scenery, and the result is a sense of hollowness and sterility incongruous with the gorgeous graphic design.
I understand it wouldn’t have been feasible for Elizabeth to maintain long-running conversations with you during gameplay, including combat, as she did in the E3 demo, but I also don’t see why she had to shut up completely. In Battleship Bay, she skips stones on the lake, comments on the city’s quantum engineering, and delights in a gift of cotton candy from a vendor. By the time she’s abducted by Songbird and taken to Comstock House, it’s rare to hear her talk outside of combat or cutscenes, and that’s a shame.
So it’s not as if the game is without its flaws. But just because they become more apparent as the narrative enters its home stretch, they don’t retroactively apply to the gaming experience prior to that point. For each disappointing or inconsistent element of gameplay, there are a dozen positive accomplishments to balance it out, and everything that follows the final battle on Comstock’s flagship is as strong as everything that preceded your first journey through the tear. Oh but I guess none of that matters because parts of the magic flying city seem more like a combat arena in a videogame than a place where people would realistically live.
Therein lies the real problem with this flavor of criticism. Instead of evaluating the game for what it is, it condemns it for what it is not. Such points, while cogent, frequently come off as so pedantic, so nitpicky, that they brush aside all the good the game achieves, everything special, memorable, or unique, because it fails to be either the same game as its precursor or a perfect simulacrum of reality. In the Internet age of undeserved negativity and thoughtless criticality, it’s disheartening to see BioShock Infinite, a game that tries so hard and offers so much, be so easily dismissed just because it isn’t perfect.
“The problem with BioShock Infinite,” one critic summarized, “is it’s a game that wants to blow your mind rather than encouraging you to use it.” Ignoring how trite an analysis that is, why can’t it do both? How many people, upon completing the game, immediately started looking for answers, looking to discuss their experience, looking to understand? And yet the game didn’t make them think? Are all of the clues, the foreshadowing, the thematic structure and repetition, the allegory and symbolism, the social and historical commentary so simplistic and obvious as to preclude any consideration from the player? Maybe BioShock Infinite isn’t the greatest game ever made; it has plenty of faults to criticize. But so does the greatest game ever made, whatever it might be—and that doesn’t stop it from being the greatest.
It’s Sneak King, by the way.
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