BioShock Infinite: A Feast for the Senses

With BioShock Infinite, Ken Levine of Irrational Games said he wanted to reshape storytelling in games. That’s a pretty ambitious goal to say the least. Did they even come close? In my opinon, yes, yes and a thousand times yes. It may have its flaws, but BioShock Infinite is a breath of fresh air in an industry that needs it.

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I’ll keep the description of the game very brief, because as I explain below, the story is the best part, so I absolutely don’t want to spoil anything for you. The protagonist is a man named Booker DeWitt, a private investigator, mercenary and veteran. All we know at the start is that to honour a deal he’s made he has to go to Columbia, the floating city in the sky and find Elizabeth. It turns out that Elizabeth has been imprisoned there since she was a child and seems to have inexplicable and powerful supernatural abilites. Columbia is led by Zachary Comstock, their religious and political leader and a self-proclaimed prophet. Most of the white citizens of the city live quite well, but there is clearly unrest among the working classes (essentially made up of anyone who is not white, other than those of Irish descent) and we hear much around the city of the Vox Populi, a revolutionary movement that’s gaining momentum.

To me, the story and the art were the best parts of the game. The twisting, complex plot of BI is by far the best I can remember in a long long time. It’s an intelligent game that doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. In fact, the very premise of the game is built on philosophical, political and theological questions that were undoubtedly going to be controversial. However, BioShock never tries to make up your mind for you. It merely presents the situation and the characters to you and asks you to judge them for yourself. There are no easy answers and like with real life, good and evil are often difficult to distinguish from each other. More than anything, the people in the BioShock universe are presented as human and even the racist and often casually brutal people of Columbia have their own redeeming qualities. They too, like Booker, like everyone we meet along the way, are simply looking for redemption. Even Booker, the ‘hero’ of the game is presented right from the beginning as a man with too many flaws to count. I applaud Ken Levine and Irrational Games for making a game that tries to be something more than just entertainment. There are many great cities that were built on the backs of slaves and there have been religious dictators throughout history. It’s a fact of life and are issues that have been explored in film and other forms of media, so why not video games? I don’t believe that BioShock Infinite is anti-religion at all, as some might have feared. It doesn’t try to make any statements as sweeping as that. If anything, it’s simply pro-human.

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I agree with the sentiment expressed all over the internet that it’s the story and the portayal of the characters that make this game so exceptional. There is a depth there that is lacking in most games (of any period) that I’ve played and a believeability that I think is difficult for any creative piece to achieve. You feel emotionally connected to the characters, even sometimes passing NPCs. You can’t help but feel the emotional impact of many of the events that happen in the game, which I think speaks for this game’s storytelling prowess. At one point, I actually restarted from a previous checkpoint and lost progress simply because I had taken some coins lying next to a few slaves while they were sleeping and I just couldn’t live with that. I’ve looted hundreds upon thousands of video game containers and chests in my life and this may be the first time that I really stopped and thought about it, the first time that it was more than just a device for me to get more money and equipment. It didn’t really matter whether it would change anything later on. I felt myself getting sucked into the story and I can tell you, that was not the last pile of coins I pointedly left untouched. There are some genuine surprises and plot twists. Most importantly, it kept you thinking and obsessing over it and combing over every detail of the game long after you’ve finished playing. Whatever your opinions of the ending, that I think, is a huge achievement. 

The beautiful city of Columbia was, as the title suggests, is truly a feast for the senses. That first panorama you see when you enter Columbia is one of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen in a video game. There is a staggering amount of detail and Columbia is one of the most interesting game worlds I’ve experienced, with every single inch of it providing you with interesting sights and sounds to devour. I often found myself standing still in the middle of the city just looking around and soaking it all in. Exploration is also rewarded with kinetoscopes and voxophones, which allow you glimpses into Columbia’s turbulent history and into actually quite important elements of the main plot. The art style is a deliberate fusion of many things – past and present, realism and fantasy, technology and tradition. The result is not only a visually appealing game, but one which feels like a stolen look into a fantastical world that has enough similarities for you to feel a connection, but enough differences to feel like you truly have stepped into another world – an Eden, as they refer to it. That inevitable clash between that idealistic vision of Columbia and the horrific, brutal and often gruesome reality that exists beneath its shining exterior was jarring and beautifully executed.

Another praise-worthy aspect of the game was Elizabeth’s AI. Irrational set out with the ambitious aim of creating a living, breathing entity and not just your standard annoying AI companion that doesn’t do anything other than get in the way. The result? One of the best AI companions, I believe, in video game history. She is much more than just an NPC who follows you around. She interacts with the environment, she runs ahead in excitement, she turns away from you when she’s upset and she spots things and calls you over. Not to mention the fact that she’ll actually help you out during battles by bringing supplies and allies into your world. You also can’t get through locked doors without her, because she knows how to lock-pick and you don’t. You’d be lost without her. She’s far more than just another NPC you have to rescue and she’s no damsel in distress. As she says at the beginning of the game “don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”

The gameplay itself was decent, though not particularly inventive. The fights were fun and there was huge amount of variety in how you could take out your victims. There was a range of vigors (supernatural abilities in a bottle) and guns, all unique and providing many options to suit your playstyle. The selection of weapons though, I thought was fairly mundane. If you’re a regular FPS player you can probably guess what most of the weapons are, with a few exceptions. I was expecting a little more inventiveness on this front, considering I’m in a flying Steampunk-esque city and they certainly had the potential for some exciting new weapons. The sky-rails, however, were an excellent addition. They were not only a fun way to travel, but facilitated some of the best fight scenes in the game. There was nothing more exhilarating in BI that hurtling through the sky on those rails. The view as you might expect, was incredible from up there.

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I only had a couple of complaints. I agree with the sentiment expressed by some critics that it’s a shame that BI is a first-person shooter. Don’t get me wrong, I love first-person shooters, but I just didn’t think it was the best fit for BI. The gore didn’t bother me like it did some. It was shockingly gruesome at times and definitely at odds with your surroundings, but to me that’s the point. It’s supposed to be jarring. It should shock you and make you feel uncomfortable. As much as Columbia looks like a peaceful, idyllic city, the truth is it’s not. It’s a city that’s seen it’s fair share of blood and pain and where oppression is a daily fact of life. Violence has also become part of who Booker is. It’s something that he can’t seem to escape from. It follows him and haunts him wherever he goes. Personally I applaud the brutality of many of the scenes. I don’t think BI would have been what it was without them. That said, I agree with this critic that it was the frequency of these incidents that threw me. After a while that emotional impact that’s so important in BI faded and it does start feeling like your regular shooter. Personally, I think it’s an inevitable consequence of making BI into a first-person shooter in the first place. It was not only fairly mediocre as a shooter, but it did detract from the severity of the plot. The waves upon waves of enemy and your mechanical dispatching of them felt out of place and made it into something it wasn’t. I thought more focus on the intellectual elements and less on the action would have benefited BI. Sadly, most games these days seem to go that way and though it is probably true that Irrational may not have sold as many copies if it wasn’t a first-person shooter, I think BI and the responses that the game has received show that there are a large number of gamers that aren’t put off by the idea of something different and more serious.

Another thing that bothered me was the checkpoint system. Most of the time it wasn’t an issue, but occasionally the checkpoints were quite far apart and in a game with as much exploration as this, that can be a problem. There were times when I lost at least half an hour of progress this way, by quitting without checking when the game was last saved (which is something I highly recommend you do). As I said, it was just a minor point of frustration, but was something I felt they should have done differently for a game like BI.

As others have said before, I do feel the pacing did drop off near the middle of the game and some of that wonderful tension that had been built up in the first part was somewhat dissipated. Personally though, I didn’t find it to be a huge problem and I did think the pacing fixed itself during the latter parts of the game when it was most important. Also, although I thought the political and social themes had been set up well, it felt like those themes fell by the wayside by the end of the game. I didn’t feel there was enough exploration of those themes and the ramifications of many of the events that happen throughout the game. Still, the story stood up despite that, so that’s saying something about just how strong it really was.

BioShock Infinite is a brave foray in the world of story-telling and sets the bar high for the rest of the industry. This game is intelligent, fun and doesn’t spoonfeed you, but allows you to interpret their world for yourself. That may not be for everyone, but I believe that there are enough gamers out there who do want games like this – ones that really make them think. All I have to say to you, Ken Levine, is more of this please.

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10 responses to “BioShock Infinite: A Feast for the Senses

  1. Agree with you on most of your points.

    As for the violence specifically, I think it’s over the topness threw me so much because it never felt like it really fit. At times, it made sense sure, but for some examples (such as the very first guard you kill) it was so sensational that I felt it hurt the character. At times, it really felt like watching an anime. After you ignore the fanservice (in this case, buckets of gore and violence), you get a pretty decent story that doesn’t make you feel terrible for loving it.

    • That’s a good point and I do see what you mean about the over- the-topness. As I said above, I did think that having frequent bouts of extreme violence actually took away from that emotional impact that that killings had for me at first, so I do agree with you to an extent that they could have toned down the violence in a lot of situations.
      However, I do think that the point with having that kind of gore wasn’t really to cater to the kind of people who like that kind of thing. I love gory games and movies, but to me killing in BioShock was often an uncomfortable experience. It wasn’t simply blood and guts flying everywhere, but was often really brutal on a very human level, like when he snaps their necks. Like everything else in the game killing is often a blend of hyper-realism and fantasy. It wasn’t really the kind of game where you’d snipe someone, see their heads explode and then hear a comical voice in the background saying ‘heeaaadshoooot.’ I didn’t feel there was any glorification to the violence. There wasn’t any rejoicing in having one less enemy to fight. In fact when you kill people, you have Elizabeth in the background constantly being disgusted by your brutality and innocent people whimpering in corners. There’s no doubt that Booker’s a monster in many ways and nothing you see him do is probably the worst thing he’s done (*spoiler alert* he was a ‘hero’ at Wounded Knee after all).
      Especially with that first killing, which was so horrific and made me feel slightly ill afterwards – I thought it was the perfect thing to do. It was completely at odds with everything you’d seen so far of Columbia, which seems like such a peaceful and beautiful place at first (it’s the illusion that’s deliberately and carefully crafted by Comstock). It jolts you back to reality. I felt without those jolts throughout, it would have been simply an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional one as well. Without seeing that extreme violence, which we already know exists (look at how they interrogate their prisoners or how ‘foreigners’ are treated), I feel the experience would have been too comfortable and not as emotionally devastating as some parts were.
      Personally I do think the over-the-top violence was a necessary part of the game, particularly since Columbia is so idyllic, but I also feel that less incidents of it would have been good, so I’m not sure we entirely disagree in practice!

      • I don’t think we entirely disagree. I do believe you are certainly correct in how the violence further highlights the hatred and intolerance in Columbia. The key difference is that I feel that the amount, both in how much gore in a single instance and the amount of instances, was so large that it detracted from the overall narrative rather than really aid it.

        I think that might be where we fundamentally disagree.

      • It does seem that we disagree on why and how much the violence/gore takes away from the narrative, but I do see why you and others feel the way you do about it. Maybe I would feel different if not for my recent gaming experiences and all the examples I’ve seen in the FPS genre of using extreme violence to further plot (Far Cry 3 in particular). As it stands, weird as it sounds, the violence/gore depicted in BioShock Infinite wasn’t actually that much more than I might have expected.

  2. *Spoiler alert* I agree with a number of your points CheeeseToastie. The one part of the game that I felt could have had some further depth was choice, which was not included in the storyline. In the previous games, you could choose whether you saved the Little Sisters or harvested them, the ending changing depending on your actions. In Bioshock Infinite, the ending was absolute and your actions over the course of the game, good or bad, had no weight on the conclusion. Your mentioning of being unwilling to rob certain individuals of their coin (I was not such angel) is genuinely nice ma’am, but the inability for this to lead to any additional positive sentiment by the game’s end I find to be a little disappointing since you, the player, do not craft the ending; it is crafted for you.

    • *Spoiler alert I hope you don’t mind, but I added a spoiler alert to your message, since you do mention how choice affects or rather doesn’t affect) the ending and I think that may be a bit too much info for some people who haven’t finished it yet. Sorry about that!
      Hmm, well I think the point of the whole of the game and why it’s called BioShock Infinite and not just BioShock 3 is because it’s exploring that very notion of choice and eternity/infinity. As Elizabeth says, ‘we swim in different oceans, but land on the same shore’. As long as you abide by the constants, it doesn’t matter what else you do in the game, but the constants must remain. Like Booker, the player is completely powerless to change those constants no matter what they do. Time has a way of adapting events to suit it, so that even if the basic components have changed, the end result will be the same.
      Like Booker, in real life we have no way of telling if anything we do really makes a different or if everything is already set out – ‘lives, lived, will live.’ Certainly a lot of people do believe that or they believe in the similar concept of fate. Yet like Booker we don’t know that and even if we do know it’s futile, do you still try to be a good person even if you think it won’t make a difference?
      I think the choice he made at the end is literally the only choice he could have made and one he eventually had to have made anyway (what with there being infinite lighthouses). He knows that this is the only variable that has allowed a different choice, the only choice that would allow them to break out of the circle that they’re stuck in. Ironically, it’s a choice that’s taken out of Booker and the player’s hand and I think that’s the point. Even at the end I don’t think it’s clear whether the ‘problem’ has really been solved or whether the circle really has been broken. Even the Luteces don’t know for sure. Sure Comstock no longer exists, but there an infinite number of lighthouses and as previous games show, there are still many variations of the same events.
      I see what you’re saying, but to me the whole game, it’s structure, everything is based on that idea of choice and to an extent futility. You’re supposed to feel bereft of that decision that you so want to make. Like Booker you’re just floating on the ocean of time. I don’t think it would have been the same game if they added in real choices. Anyways, that’s just my thoughts on the matter! Thanks for sharing!

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