As usual, there will be spoilers. Also as usual, I’m sick of putting the warning in the video, so this bolded text is all the warning you’re getting.
I’m going to say this upfront: there’s a lot to love in Bioshock Infinite. The game is one of the most jaw droppingly gorgeous games in recent memory, thanks mostly to some deft art direction. It evokes a turn of the century charm with an almost Norman Rockwell sense of idealism. And the visuals are steeped in a three pronged soundtrack that has original scores, licensed period music, and old timey covers of pop songs from the past 50 years. It’s hard not to be moved at some point during the game either by a jaw droppingly gorgeous vista or cleverly rearranged cover of a song.
To top that off, there are moments of real genuine human empathy here. Elizabeth and Booker’s song in the basement of the Shantytown Bar (name?) is obviously a highlight of the game, but there are smaller moments – hearing how Preston Downs moves from Comstock’s pocket to a member of the resistance, a Titanic-style scene with a woman sobbing that she can’t make the jump to the lifeboat, Booker’s sudden panic and rejection of his baptism – these are emotionally charged scenes that feel like real things that real people would do. They’re effective. Grounded. Honest. They give the game a much needed sense of humanity, because so much of the game is, well, this: (heads asplode footage)
Which wouldn’t be out of place in most games, but Bioshock Infinite doesn’t want to be most games. It wants to be Important, it wants to Say Something. But it thinks it can do that without addressing its absurd, stilted, floaty, gory gameplay, and more than anything that is why it fails. Sure, we could wax philosophical about the game’s ending. But that’s twenty minutes of barely interactive play made memorable by a plot twist. And while it is neat it does have some of the best moments of the game, it doesn’t justify the seven hours that came before it any more than making people watch a good Twilight Zone episode can justify making them watch seven hours of home made snuff films. About a fifth of the game seems to stem from a place that at least has ambitions of being artful, of saying something that connects with people. But the remaining 80% is gunshots, explosions, and magical space booze that gives you colorful superpowers as you slaughter racist religious zealots in a city in the sky with your nine-fingered companion who can take you to alternate dimensions. Do you see how that might conflict with the grounded emotions and empathetic truths a little bit? One fundamentally opposes the other and you can’t have both.
It’s not even that the game suffers from some severe disconnect between its play and its story, although it that’s certainly there – Booker will be mourning his time as a Pinkerton agent keeping the unions down or lamenting his involvement in Wounded Knee one minute, and the next he’s exploding the heads off of one person or jamming his skyhook straight into the neck of another. But more than just dissonant, the the combat feels like empty, pointless filler designed to pad the game to Official Retail Game Length ™. The violence is never at any point sufficiently justified. In Bioshock the splicers felt like monsters but in a way they actually were. They were certainly no longer human and were driven mad either by their genetic modifications, living in a tin can at the bottom of the sea, or simply witnessing the horrors of Rapture’s fall. Here, though, there’s no justification for why everyday townsfolk will bumrush Booker with a suicidal fervor and insatiable bloodlust. Rapture felt like a place where Adam addicts were stalking you for their next fix; Bioshock Infinite feels like a game that puts enemies in your way because it’s a video game and that’s what video games do.
The Handiman fights are a great example of this – they’re Bioshock Infinite’s equivalent of Big Daddies (it’s even implied that they’re based on Fink overhearing Tenenbaum’s research). In Bioshock Big Daddies would roam the halls and warn you away if you got too close – but you had to actively transgress to start combat. These fights were (at least until the end game) major events that you had to gather resources and plan for. But when you were ready you could attempt to slay one of these huge beasts, and once you killed him he’d let out a tortured moan as his Little Sister would sob over the body. What happened to her then was up to you. Big Daddy fights had a sense of anticipation and player preparation leading up to them that climaxed in a combination of victory tinged with a bit of sadness. In Bioshock Infinite, Handiman attacks are just scripted events that come whenever the designers think they’d look the coolest. A big guy in a metal suit shows up and wails on you like he’s a stock miniboss from Double Dragon. There’s no tension, just a war of attrition as you try to whittle his health down before moving on, indifferent to the whole affair. These monsters don’t have a meaningful place in the world the way Big Daddies did; your fights with them don’t have any emotional stakes the way your fights with Big Daddies did. The result feels hollow and clumsy in comparison – they’re just a particularly frustrating generic badguy that prevents you from getting to another quiet conversation with Elizabeth or small moment with a Columbian citizen. And that’s to say nothing of the infinite spawning ghost mom boss or the protect the generator levels or the giant scripted airship takedown or the transparently scripted chase sequence leading up to Comstock’s ship. In a very palpable ways Bioshock Infinite is far more contrived and artificial than Bioshock ever was.
And that goes for the environmental design, too. The entire game feels less like a trip to a city in the clouds and more like a trip to Walt Disney World. No small part of this is due to the all of the turn of the century Americana, but the sense of artificiality goes quite deeper than that. The entire game is suffocatingly linear, and you’ll find yourself wondering why a city of free-floating islands has only one path in and out of any given area or whether men, women, and children all use Skyhooks to get around. There are plenty of doors to nowhere and environmental design meant to funnel you down the intended path. Giant signs label Shanty Town and The Factory and the Hall of Heroes to announce that you’re crossing into a differently themed area the way signs might point out how you’re entering Frontierland or Tomorrow Land. You’ll see crowded beaches and city streets one moment – and as soon as combat begins they’re curiously empty, as though Columbia also has the ability to transform itself into a gladiatorial arena at a moment’s notice. The experience is one of playing a first person shooter themed after the Magic Kingdom’s Mainstreet USA – it’s a gorgeous, lovingly crafted homage to turn of the century smalltown America, but it’s also very obviously a scaled down facade (and instead of emptying out for a parade it empties out so you can throw fire grenades at people). Columbia may be beautiful, but it also feels artificial.
But while the emotional tone of the game may be lacking and the setting of Columbia may be flawed, it’s the gameplay that ultimately tipped the scales against Bioshock Infinite for me. At this point just about the entire soul of the game’s legacy has been stripped away. You can play System Shock, System Shock 2, Bioshock, and Bioshock 2 and chart how their Ultima Underworld influence has lessened as they’ve become more and more of a stock shooter with every iteration. With Bioshock Infinite that transformation is more or less complete. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Human Revolution simplified or removed a lot of Deus Ex’s mechanics but still felt true to the series yet modern. But the mechanics they’ve settled on haven’t transformed the game into a streamlined version of itself – arguably that’s what the first Bioshock did when it modernized System Shock 2. Instead they’ve taken a game franchise that has been traditionally about resource management and planning with an action twist and boiled it completely down to a stock shooter. What little inventory management Bioshock had left is gone. Crafting is gone. Hacking is gone. Security systems are functionally gone and replaced with boring turrets and guns that attack on sight. Bioshock had 3 independent systems you could play against each other, like having a turret hit a Big Daddy to make them fight or throwing enrage at a Big Daddy to kill splicers – none of that is left. The photography research minigame is completely absent. Combat, research, and hacking tonics have been replaced with a nonsensical clothing system where depending on what hat or vest you wear your skyhook can set people on fire or get health on kills.
You no longer have multiple ammunition types for each weapon. Weapon upgrades are here, but they’ve made the entire system broken and pointless by doubling the weapon count and then letting you pick up at most two guns at a time. This means you might spend $1000 upgrading a pistol that you then drop when you realize two other weapons are situationally more advantageous right now, but the only way you can get your pistol back afterwards is to find another one laying about in the world. Exploration is all but dead – Bioshock had plenty of nooks and crannies and back alleys to rifle through, Infinite occasionally gives you a closet. But more than the lack of spaces to explore, there’s just not all that much to find – Bioshock had health kits and EVE hypos to horde, one-use weapon upgrade stations, tonics, crafting supplies, autohack tools, and more. Infinite has boiled everything down to two core resources you carry – money and lockpicks. Even the number of audio logs are cut in half from Bioshock; there really is just no incentive to poke around the already linear, simplified levels. God, and this is just stuff that’s been removed, we haven’t even gotten to how it actually plays yet.
And, well… look, the combat in the Shock series has always been sort of bad, but that’s okay because it’s always been backed by more interesting systems than how the guns feel in your hand. System Shock 1 and 2 were very much about resource management and rig building, and Bioshock tried to get you to play the different factions of Rapture off of one another with traps and securty hacks and plasmids. The fact that the gunplay was loose and flaccid never really mattered because that wasn’t what the game was ever about at its core. But here, the shooting is all that’s left – yet it still feels like you’re firing nerf guns and pea shooters at unflinching bullet sponges. The core gunplay was one of the original Bioshock’s biggest criticisms, and it has not been improved here despite the increased focus.
Remember how Bioshock’s plasmids had three types of elemental damage, various plasmids to get the enemies to play off one another, bees and decoys for crowd control, and cyclones to let you set traps? Pretty much all vigors boil down to some combination of crowd control and direct damage and trap – which means each vigor is effectively interchangeable. Each can be quite powerful, but that’s the problem – spamming Bucking Bronco as a crowd control and damage amplifier isn’t all that different from spamming Murder of Crows as a crowd control and damage amplifier. This doesn’t take what Bioshock did and move it forward, it drives it way way back. About the only one that has any unique utility is tossing people off Columbia with Undertow, and if I’m being honest it’s too little too late after Dishonored’s wind gust power.
That game was only half a year ago and it did the magical powers and gunplay thing so much better. You get a sense of controlling the environment, of planning your attacks, of having powers that genuinely have utility and play off one another – freezing time to set up multiple arrow shots or tricking guards to run into a springwire trap. I said in my Dishonored video that it created a ludic language to let players express themselves in, and if that’s true then Bioshock Infinite is a toddler’s illegible scribblings. It’s not a series of systems that let you plan and execute brilliant moves by combining useful powers in interesting ways, it’s simply a bedlam of spamming your favorite vigor and whatever two guns you have. Quite frankly it plays like a generic, derivative, unfinished, compromised mess and I’m astounded that people can spend seven hours shooting the same four enemy types with the same generic ineffectual guns and utterly uncreative plasmids and then hail the game a triumph.
I’ve mentioned this before, but the modern shooter has a problem with health mechanics. Way back in the days of DOOM getting hurt was a sign that the player screwed up – most of DOOM’s damage was dealt with avoidable projectiles or the melee hits from the monsters themselves. Completing a level was an act of balancing the amount you screwed up with the amount of spare health kits in the level; easier levels and easier difficulties had more health kits that let you screw up more often. As the genre’s matured, though, we’ve moved away from projectile avoidance and toward systems where most enemies have hitscan weapons that instantly go from the enemies to the player. This is ostensibly due to the trend away from magical imps with fireballs and towards more realistic weapons like machine guns and pistols. This presents a problem for the player, though – now that you can’t avoid the bullets you will get hit. It’s not a sign that you screwed up, it’s an inevitability of moving around when there’s an enemy nearby.
So designers have taken to addressing this in lots of different ways. Halo’s approach was pretty successful – players have strong shields that when finally broken cut away at core health, and only then are they in trouble. A few stray bullets hitting your shield doesn’t mean anything permanent or dangerous. This allows you move about and position yourself before attacking without constantly resource monitoring your health. Dishonored had long, telegraphed animations that let you know when bullets were coming to give you a chance of teleporting out of the way. Call of Duty has a full-on health regen system where players could get hit as much as they wanted as long as they hunkered down and took cover before reaching absolutely zero health. And Gears of War combines that with a cover system that lets you avoid most fire and control when you’re exposed. Finally, the original Bioshock continued the tradition set forth in System Shock 2 – death isn’t permanent and simply costs resources. Meanwhile, you can carry health kits with you to stave off death but they’re rare and also cost resources so you need to use them wisely.
So with this myriad of combat options available as precedent – and arguably plenty more mechanics left to be discovered – I am aghast at why they chose an incredibly awkward merger of Halo shields, DOOM item pickups, and a dice roll. They’ve adopted Halo’s shield system, but part of what made that so successful was that it was a strong shield and you had to screw up pretty bad to start taking damage against your core health. Here in order to balance and feed their upgrade system it starts as a tiny sliver of overall health, making it effectively worthless until it’s been substantially upgraded. And unlike the rest of the *shock series you can’t carry health kits with you anymore; you have to scavenge for them in the middle of combat as you need them like in DOOM. But that works far better in DOOM because:
A) You can avoid most damage as they’re projectiles instead of hitscan weapons
B) You just walk right over health and ammo to pick them up – in Bioshock Infinite you have to actually look at them and hit a key to get them.
The result is that combat in Bioshock Infinite has players running around trying to scavenge resources in the middle of battle from bodies and drawers while getting hit by damage they can’t meaningfully avoid. These “look at something and interact with it to pick it up” mechanics have their roots as far back as System Shock and Ultima Underworld, but they have no purpose being mechanics that you’d want players to absolutely rely on in the middle of combat. Ultimately I found myself running out of health and not being sure I could survive the run to the closest health pickup because hitscan weapons would tear through my mediocre shield and kill me.
And in the middle of all of this they throw Elizabeth. I’ve played through the game twice and it’s still not exactly clear to me whether she tosses the player actual items that could otherwise be picked up in the game space or if she just randomly generates health, ammo, and salts on her own. Either way, though, the impact to the player is the same – in place of a reliable pool of health kits or salts like in Bioshock you’ll randomly get thrown a lifeline by your companion. I get why they did it – it’s an attempt to develop a relationship between Elizabeth and the player, and it’s actually rather effective when she manages to give you what you need right as you need it. They took away your health and salt inventories because they needed to make you dependent on her in order to make her feel like a legitimate partner instead of a burden, I get it. But it also means that when you’re under fire with a sliver of health left and no idea which way to run you’re entirely reliant on an random number generator to save you, and that sense of player disenfranchisement is really bothersome for a game that’s undeniably trying to be more combat focused and less interested in quirky mechanical twists about emotions.
Especially because there had to be ways of setting up that sense of dependence on Elizabeth that were less reliant on Booker shooting people in the face and hoping she throws him a health kit and more reliant on Booker being dependent on Elizabeth’s super powers. Entire games can and have been made using universe switching mechanics! It dovetails nicely into the game’s story and makes Elizabeth even more cool and powerful! It could open up puzzles or stealth mechanics that might give the game some desperately needed mechanical variety. But instead we have this giant monotonous murderfest with poorly designed and sloppy feeling derivative mechanics trying to pass itself off as meaningful because of a 20 minute ending cutscene and…. *sigh*
As long as we’re on the subject of meaning, the game makes the same mistake that Bioshock did – it thinks that by presenting an idea it’s commenting on or engaging with that idea. It’s sort of like saying Errant Signal is a show about brackets because the damned things show up in every episode. Bioshock had little to nothing to meaningfully say about Objectivism, it was window dressing for the shooting and the big twist. And the pattern repeats here: concepts of American Exceptionalism, racial segregation, economic inequity, religious zealotry, and more don’t really get discussed so much as displayed. Oh, their iconography is brought up plenty, but mostly they’re just used as plot beats. And in a way that makes it all the worse – the game takes something as big and as complex and as serious as institutionalized racism and instead of talking about its root causes or its human costs or the struggle to change hearts and minds and laws it basically just uses it as a shorthand for “These white folk sure are evil!”
If the game attempts to take any political opinion at all it’s a milquetoast centrism that borders on nihilism by making both sides of the Columbian revolution morally repugnant. But to do that the game tries to make some rather creepy false equivalencies between setting up a systemically racist government that persecutes other religions, and being an overzealous revolutionary that takes things too far. It rings false and is honestly a little emotionally manipulative, placing the life of a child right in front of you in direct comparison to the myriad of abstract, unseen crimes and suffering at the hands of Comstock. The result is a game that embarasses itself in its attempts to offend no one, asking only that you find a political position somewhere left of racist dictator and somewhere right of murderous revolutionary. And none of that matters anyways as it drops what little political pretext it had in the rush to put in all the exposition necessary for the ending.
So, the ending. I’m not going to go through the trouble of trying to work out what happened – there are plenty of videos and forums posts where the actual logistics are being torn apart. What confuses me about the ending isn’t what literally happened, but what those events are supposed to mean – what we’re supposed to take away from them, if anything. I’ve got my theories (none of which are particularly flattering to the game), but this video’s run on too long already. I’ll close by saying this:
As much as I hated – I mean, really detested Bioshock Infinite’s core gameplay, I kept playing because of those flashes of humanity. What propelled me forward wasn’t phat loot or awesome headshots or flashy setpieces. It was seeing a sad monster horrified of what he’d become, it was awkward conversations with Elizabeth getting defensive about her finger, it was a father screaming out in defense of his child. There are moments I legitimately loved in this game; moments that will stick with me. But we can’t let games be human and artful in bits and pieces. Honesty and integrity and empathy aren’t like the marshmallows in Lucky Charms, they’re not meant to be the small good parts surrounded by the fluff of machinegun fire and murder. And they’re not like the lollypop we get for being a good kid at the dentist; they’re not the sweet reward we get at the end for putting up with all this tacky combat. They’re things we need to be demanding our games to simply be. Sneaking in a quiet moment or saccharine song between meaningless violence isn’t going to push this medium forward, and no number of ten out of ten reviews can change that. Bioshock Infinite’s ambitions to be an affecting game aren’t core to its experience; instead we simply glimpse them between the cracks in the edifice the way the Fink brothers overheard brilliance through the Lutece Tears. And much like a jazz band cover of a Tears for Fears song, it’s an imitation that strives for success it doesn’t understand nor rightfully deserve.