Infinite Musings

There you have it, a hat-trick of Bioshock Infinite posts!

So I just finished Bioshock Infinite last night. This is a game that people are likely to want to talk about for a long while yet, and for good reason. I’m no exception, so here I’m just going to post some of my freshly spun thoughts on the game. I see no point giving it a serious review, if for no other reason than to avoid confusion on the site later on. It’s wall o’ text time.

I’ve separated my helter-skelter thoughts into positive, neutral and negative categories for, well, just for the sake of categorising them really. I will keep all mentions of the game’s ending in their own section at the end for people who don’t want it spoiled.

POSITIVE

–> I just want to start by saying that the game’s Premium Edition contains one of the most fascinating art booklets that I’ve ever actually taken the time to read through, due in no small part to the creativity of the art direction itself.

–> The brilliance of the very name of the game struck me in full just after I had finished playing it. Despite having virtually no narrative ties to either of the first two Bioshock games, the game is quintessentially Bioshock not only in the way it plays, with vending machines, pseudo-superpowers etc., but also in the way it tackles competing philosophies and worldviews and also its very narrative structure (it hits similar story beats throughout). Of course, it’s Infinite because of the philosophical territory it starts to tread in the final act of proceedings.

–> What an amazing fictional setting. Columbia is beautiful. Even on PS3, where the overall visual polish of the game is obviously inferior to the PC version, every aspect of the floating city really soars. Forgive the pun.

–> The varied, thematically rich and well performed dialogue snippets that litter the world of Columbia, particularly noticeable in the game’s first hour, are gloriously well realised. Who knew just walking around in the hopes of catching some seemingly banal conversation could be so interesting?

–> It has been a great month for female videogame characters, as following Lara Croft’s excellent reinvention in the new Tomb Raider, the characterisation of Elizabeth is a similarly impressive triumph. If anything, it is even better. The voice and motion capture performances that bring her to life are excellent, her development feels as natural as can be expected of a game that plays with time and space as relentlessly as Bioshock Infinite does, her interactions with the game’s environment and NPCs feel dynamic and keep surprising, and perhaps most miraculously of all, she not only doesn’t once get in the way during gameplay, but she is actually useful in combat to boot! I cannot remember a non-playable videogame character whose existence is so obviously the result of so much work. I’m predicting that she’ll be at the top of many a videogame character list come the end of 2013.

–> I’ll confess to not really knowing who Troy Baker was before playing this game. My recognition of his voice pretty much went “Oh hey, Kanji from Persona 4 Golden is voicing the protagonist!” However, after this performance (and he was pretty good as Kanji too) I am a real fan of his. Finding out that he will also voice Joel in the upcoming The Last of Us was a very pleasant discovery indeed.

–> “Elizabeth, why is your mother a ghost?” Best line delivery ever.

–> Songbird is an awe-inspiring creation that sadly isn’t used enough in the game if you ask me. After all the hype surrounding his (its?) role and his surprisingly prominent presence in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale, I was expecting to see a lot more of him throughout the game. He goes missing for around seven hours of gameplay around the middle, which serves to dampen the “fear factor” surrounding him a little when he shows up again, although his last three scenes thoroughly and completely redeem his relevance. What a badass.

–> The game’s approach to racism is handled well, I think. I didn’t think it too remarkable at first, given I recently saw the unflinching Django Unchained, but then I realised that this is the first videogame to tackle these sorts of issues head-on, rather than as a side-effect of other themes. Several sequences shove it right in your face, no less. Bravo.

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NEUTRAL

–> I finished the game in 17 hours across a period of four days. I have friends who finished it in as little as 8-10 hours and reviewers online seemed to be of the consensus that even a playthrough dominated by obsessive collectible searching would only take 12-15 hours. I guess I either died a lot, or I’m just really thorough.

–> … except I only finished the game with 51 out of a possible 80 voxophones and 23 of the 37 kinetoscopes, having cracked only one cipher and failed to max any of my three infusible stats. I also missed one of the coolest easter eggs in the game (the guitar and vocal duet between Booker and Elizabeth in the slums). I finished the game with a surplus of 26 lock picks, without having bought a single one.

–> Those 29 missing voxophones are the most annoying examples of missed opportunity, I feel. It seems like finding more of them may have helped me to understand the ending a little better.

–> What became of Constance Field, or that sick Hunter guy who joined the Vox Populi? I get that they served a purpose thematically anyway, but I kinda wanted to meet them.

–> My main vigor-weapon combo during gameplay was Bucking Bronco+Carbine. Almost too easy to dispatch foes. It felt a bit like I was playing Bulletstorm. But the lure of trophies and a hint of staleness caused me to lean on some other neat combos later in the game, such as Charge+Shotgun and Undertow+Shock Jockey. Electrifying crows was always fun and Possession never got old.

–> Gear is a pretty useful new mechanic to have, although I kind of wish the pieces you found stacked. The randomly generated nature of the collectibles meant I actually got my favourite shirt in my second Gear pickup. Didn’t replace it once.

–> You may only see her in four variations of clothing throughout the game, but its interesting that as Elizabeth’s character grows more aware and more dangerous, her neckline gets lower. Hmmmm.

–> It’s kinda weird to see Elizabeth’s story role interacting so readily with her gameplay role. She may be horrified, conflicted or depressed one second, then spouting sass at you about her lock picking abilities or casually tossing you a coin (with a hugely satisfying sound) the next. A largely irrelevant casualty of making her useful all the time, to be sure.

–> The clever way that the game reused environments, forcing you to approach from a different angle each time, reminded me of Zelda Skyward Sword and, indeed, the new Tomb Raider. For some reason I just really dig that kind of thing in games at the moment.

–> Remember that first trailer? Next to none of that stuff is actually in the final version of Bioshock Infinite. Trust Irrational to make a game so engrossing that we don’t care.

–> What can the team possibly be planning for those planned story-related DLC packs? Colour me intrigued.

–> Dem Boys of Silence… Damn scary.

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NEGATIVE

–> I found the following bugs while playing through the PS3 version of the game:
~ During my second play session, my D-pad just wouldn’t work within the game. It worked on the Playstation menus, but not in Infinite. This means I couldn’t listen to voxophones or bring up the guide arrow, and had to restart the console.
~ During my third and most lengthy play session, no trophies popped at all. After working through all the way to the end of the “Coins in the Cushion” and “Big Game Hunter” tally-based trophies, the counter simply reset and I had to start over with no trophy to show for my efforts. I realised this all too late but luckily the trophies did pop during later sessions.
~ In the game’s very last section, when you approach the door to the lighthouse, Elizabeth flat-out disappeared before my eyes, leaving me trapped and unable to proceed. I had to reload my last checkpoint to have her appear at the door properly.

–> On PS3, the game can look pretty ugly at times. Rare times, and times where not much is really going on, but they are there nonetheless. During one of the skyline battle phases mid-game it was impossible to ignore the giant blurry building textures right in front of me. But the graphical processing effort is relocated elsewhere in smart fashion, for example in Elizabeth’s rendering and movements as well as during the player’s first visit to Columbia and during the ending, so it isn’t really worth complaining too much about.

–> At least half a dozen times throughout the game I needed to dispatch just one more enemy to activate the next objective and yet had to search high and low for the source of all that regular-interval belligerent screaming. Pretty irritating, especially when it happened during the game’s extended combat segments around the middle of the game.

–> Speaking of which, the entire middle third of Infinite felt a little drawn out as there was minimal exposition, even less meaningful exploration outside of the hunt for lock picks and infusions, a suspiciously fetch quest-y structure and lots and lots of fighting. It’s not that it wasn’t fun to play through, but I was honestly just jonesing for more juicy Columbian story morsels throughout most of the game and all that shooting kind of got in the way a bit. After my comments on Tomb Raider last month I might sound like a broken record here, but the issue is there nonetheless.

–> I can’t help but recall Portal 2, the last single player FPS I played this devotedly. That game had a fantastic story laden with twists and it featured absolutely no padding. I mean sure, its environments weren’t nearly as interesting and its dialogue was 90% one way traffic, but its definitely in a similar class of experience.

(THIS IS YOUR SPOILER WARNING)

THE ENDING

–> I have studied a bit of metaphysics at university level in my day and suffice to say whenever you bring the theory of possible worlds into a work of fiction, let alone determinism, things are invariably going to get messy. It’s like time travel in movies; even if you stick to the rules you set up in your universe you are still going to run into logical fallacies. And if the Bioshock series truly belongs to the highest echelon of multimedia storytelling (which it surely does by now) then we must be able to criticise it as we would a movie.

–> Having said that, the ending of Bioshock Infinite is very impressive and it does do an admirable job of drawing attention away from the inherent issues (and there are many) that possible world theorem brings about. The genius of the ending lies squarely in its ambition; realistically, it’s hard to see how else Ken Levine and the rest of the team at Irrational could have topped the twist of the first Bioshock. Throughout most of the final third of the game, when it was fairly obvious that alternate dimensions would play a big part, I was wracking my brains trying to work out what the team could possibly deliver as the final twist. I still didn’t see it coming. Regardless of what holes you may find in the mythology or its explanation, that is a pretty damn impressive feat and applause is in order.

–> There’s an added layer of brilliance when you realise that the way the writers did things allows for foreshadowing to be put in place in the game’s first hour, then for that foreshadowing to be pushed out of the way by the sheer weight of the game’s action-heavy political subplot, only for it to pop up again all at once at the very end, preventing the blindsiding twists from feeling cheap. This is a clever way to avoid the criticism levelled at the first Bioshock‘s lengthy final act, which came after the game’s now famous major plot twist and felt a little slow as a result.

–> For all its dexterity and skillful delivery, there is one part of the rapid-fire ending that I just can’t swallow: how Booker could possibly become Comstock. I can see the benefit of this particular twist from a writing perspective; it wraps up a lot of plot threads that would otherwise require much more in-depth explanation simply by implication, which in turn allows for a faster and more impactful reveal. But it simply isn’t consistent with Booker’s character. Baptism doesn’t change absolutely every strand of your being, symbolism notwithstanding, and I think there’s a reason why this game-changing revelation is given the least attention of all the twists in the plot’s mentally challenging final 20 minutes. It’s kinda weak.

–> As far as “ooohh snap, it’s all connected now” moments go, however, that slow motion tear-closing sequence where Anna’s finger gets sliced off between Booker’s despairing outstretched hands is a real, real humdinger. Wow.

–> “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.” Yeah, I bet Irrational enjoyed rubbing that phrase in our faces all throughout the game’s marketing and then again and again within the game itself, safe in the knowledge that we’d never guess what hidden significance the words actually had. Not to mention it had the balls to stick that fictional quantum mechanics quote on the inside front cover of the game case. In the hands of a less talented studio, such an obviously important phrase could have come off as an unweildly spoiler.

–> Much of the plaudits to come out of the twist in the original Bioshock centred around the fact that it forced a conventional gaming habit onto its head, turning an uncomfortable mirror on the player’s unquestioning obedience to videogame commands. Though that certainly isn’t the focus of Infinite‘s ending, It’s still cool to see a thematic allusion in the form of Elizabeth’s insistence that since Booker, and by extension the player, is simply reliving a past event, he will eventually have to perform the action the game tells him to even if he doesn’t like it.

–> I love what the internet is reading into regarding the brief visit to Rapture. I just saw it as one of the coolest possible ways to give Songbird a worthy end, but plenty of theorists are trying to link Booker to Andrew Ryan and such. Oh, the world we live in.

–> Finally, it’s actually really nice to play an action game that doesn’t just end with a generically beefed up final boss battle. Walking is the most complex thing you have to do at the end, and the final bit of fighting in which you actually have to engage, the hectic airship defense, is actually really enjoyable.

And that’s all I have to say. What a game.

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