'Different oceans, same shore': Another Critique of Bioshock Infinite

Playing Bioshock Infinite for a third time, and now firmly in Easy mode, I couldn't help but wish there was a counterpart to the infamous '1999 Mode'. I imagined a mode which would remove or largely reduce the numbers of enemies in the game so that it could be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, to take in the views and the story, listen to the voxophones, and just generally mill about without worrying about what lurked around the corner. A few hours in, I wished this mode was real; in my third trip through the game I wanted to enjoy the city and the story, and not shoot things in the face.

That got me thinking about whether Bioshock Infinite really needed to be a shooter at all. A critique I read on this very site today (and what prompted this post) asked a similar question. Would this world, and this story, not be better suited to an adventure game or an RPG?

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Why couldn't it be an RPG or an adventure game is a good question. The cynic in me says that it's because first person shooters are easier to sell to the mass market than an RPG or an adventure game would be, but giving them the benefit of the doubt, I'd like to think they wanted to make shooter. They wanted it to be a Bioshock game that felt like the older game(s). And they thought they could make a shooter that could make you think like they did with the original, and to a lesser extent Bioshock 2.

And in that regard I think it was a triumph. Bioshock Infinite brings serious themes and excellent story telling to a genre that is largely populated by meathead space marines blowing shit up and meathead earth marines blowing shit up. Games that are like Michael Bay movies on steroids are dominant, and frankly, I think we deserve better than that.

For what it's worth, I don't inherently dislike meathead shooters. I enjoy a little Call of Duty while not being fanatical about it, and I've felt the thrill of a tightly won Team Deathmatch. Bioshock Infinite aims to bring meaning to that mayhem much like Bioshock did previously, and I'm cool with that. It's nice to see a little intelligence creeping in, without having to go to a nishe game to get it. I like that Bioshock Infinite has taken a familiar gaming genre and tried to do something exceptional, something better than we're used to with it, because not all people who like shooting games want inane, macho bullshit; all high fives, biceps, and dubstep.

I'm not going to defend Infinite blindly here, because it isn't perfect. Narratively, it's quite jarring how many people Booker guns down compared to the tone of the story. Elizabeth expresses horror at Booker shooting some goons early doors, but is five minutes later gleefully helping Booker in his genocide of the population of Columbia. While not defending that (it really is quite jarring) I'd also say that within the genre there are certain requirements. There has to be a level of challenge for it to be a game, and it's a tough balancing act.

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Fewer enemies would make the game too easy and it would be accused of lacking content for the gamer, but too many enemies and the hyper violence detracts from the story. It's a conundrum that isn't new to Bioshock. Uncharted is one of the worst offenders in this category, I think. The storytelling is light-hearted and swashbuckling like a modern day Indiana Jones, but in the gameplay Drake guns down nigh on 1,000 adversaries with no concern. For me, they should curb the gunplay and the body count, but then I'm sure there are others who would complain that would make the game too easy to finish.

Regardless of knowing why Infinite is littered with enemies, I will say that I too found myself hoping that there'd be no villains every time I turned a corner. Every time the sharp violin note signalled that the war was over, I breathed a sigh of relief. But then I think that's less of a commentary on the quality of the combat mechanics, and more of a compliment to the story. I just really wanted to know what would happen next.

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Combat wise, I thought the game was fine. It's not the best shooter, but it's certainly above average. I'd say a very good shooter. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And it has some great ideas.

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The biggest improvement to the combat over the original Bioshock is the inclusion of Elizabeth. Using tears adds a new level of strategy to the game that I found welcome. Activating cover to catch your breath and then maybe a turret or a mosquito to distract your enemies. Revealing a large puddle under enemies so you could electrocute them all, or an oil spill so you could burn them alive. It not only made Elizabeth a stronger character - she's not just the rescued, helpless damsel you need to escort to safety but a powerful ally - it also gave the combat an extra dimension that isn't present in most other games of it's ilk.

As fine as shooting mechanics, opening tears, riding skylines and yes, shooting people in the face is, the real draw to Bioshock Infinite, much like the original game, is the world we explore, our playground, and the story around it.

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The city of Columbia is an absolute joy. One stark difference between Bioshock and Infinite is that we never got to see Rapture at it's apex. All we see is the terrifying aftermath. But with Infinite we walk into the the city at it's best (or worst). We see the idyllic lives that the people enjoy. Anachronistic barbershop quartets, picnics in the town square, and mesmerizing parades. It's a wonderful sight to behold and a delightful way to start the game.

As we continue playing the game, we learn that the beauty of the city is just a mask that covers the true ugliness of the ideals that the land was founded upon, and of course, we watch Columbia fall. I think I prefer this approach to the one in the original game. I really liked wandering Columbia, going to the carnival, taking part in that appalling raffle. It's as memorable an opening to a game that I can remember.

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On the surface, Bioshock Infinite's main themes are American exceptionalism, overt nationalism, the purity of the race, plain racism, religious extremism, the line between revolutionary and terrorist. But there's other things bubbling under the surface that only comes to the forefront the further you progress in the game, and only truly becomes noticeable as the main themes of the game on your second play through the game. The themes of fatalism, choices, consequences, constants and variables, and destiny.

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I remember playing the game and being a bit shocked by the sudden arrival of parallel universes and how what I thought were the themes of the game from the early stages seemed to be put on the backburner. But once you know what you know, it becomes apparent that the main themes of the game, the ones explored towards the end, are always there - right from the beginning.

The first thing we hear in Bioshock Infinite is a conversation between two characters exploring some of those themes without ever explicitly telling us that they're doing it. It comes across, or at least it did for me, as a bit of a comedy double act. The Lutece 'twins' bicker about rowing, and who rows, and who doesn't row, and who doesn't row, and I took the entire thing at face value much without giving it much thought.

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Playing the game a second time (which if you haven't done it, is absolutely worth it just to see how much you missed) reveals just how ingrained the themes are in the story and how the racism and Americana at the forefront of the game are almost like a smokescreen to distract you from secrets the story holds.

Bioshock gave the player choices, but they were the annoying kind of binary choice that grieve me so. The "help an old woman across the street" or "push her in front of a bus" choice. There's no shades of grey. You basically just have to pick whether to be reasonable or whether to be a shit. It could just as easily have been a character select screen at the beginning of the game.

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Infinite does something far better with choices, I think, in that it gives the player choices with no clear cut right and wrong (except for the obvious one, although there's still a case for that) and then fails to elaborate on those choices or their relevance to the story until the final minutes. We pick the bird or the cage (surely we all picked bird, right?) with no knowing whether what we've picked matters or not, or what it means, and it isn't expanded upon until we reach the end.

The choices also tie in nicely with another aspect of the story.

One thing that Bioshock did quite well was provide a commentary on the nature of video games through the twist in the story. I always liked the "Would you kindly..." scene in Bioshock because it worked on two levels. It worked in the narrative as a shocker of a plot twist, but it also talked about video games in a way that no other medium could. Gamers are taught very early that they have to follow instructions by a disembodied voice, or by text on a screen. We're told by our commander on the radio, or by our buddy on the codec, that we need to go to point A, collect item B, shoot person C, and head to point D.

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We do those things without thinking because we're told to. And at the twist, it's revealed that we've been tricked by this disembodied voice and by the text on the screen. Our character has just been controlled by this man like we're controlling him with our pad. We've been taught to play along with instructions, and this development turns that on its head. It's at this moment, when we want to make a choice to defy him, that choice is taken off us as a player. Our avatar has to kill Andrew Ryan to progress. We realise that we've been duped, but we can't change the narrative. We're as helpless as the character we control; unable to defy our instructions despite now knowing we've been played.

Infinite provides another commentary on games which I assume was intentional, and I assume was a reference to the original Bioshock, and many other games. Infinite gives us choices, as I mentioned before, that don't have a clearly defined right and wrong. We decide to give Elizabeth the bird pendant. We decide to ask the clerk at the station to hurry up with our ticket and we get stabbed in the hand.

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At the end of the game, when we see the millions and millions of lighthouses and alternate Booker and Elizabeths, the nearest couple to us show Elizabeth wearing the pendant we didn't choose, and Booker with his hand bandaged if ours is not. It's a comment on the nature of choice in gaming, and how ultimately, we all play games differently but end up at the same point. It's saying that our journey is personal to us and that's more important than any binary moral choice system that forces us into playing as Mother Theresa or Hitler to get the good or bad ending.

All the choices we make, be it the pendant, throwing the ball, or even just whether we burn or electrocute our foes, make the story ours, while another person will experience the same overall arc with minor differences - like the difference between tea and coffee, as Elizabeth says.

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Bioshock Infinite says a lot, I think, and most of it I didn't "get" until I'd been through it a second time. It's easy to think the game is about one thing after a play through, but a second play through lets you see how there's more to it than that.

The Lutece 'twins' are a big part of that. One is a fatalist, and the other isn't, and that actually mirrors the story and what the player can take from the game. After my first completion of the game I felt that it was making a point about how our choices will ultimately define us as people. How a fork in the road of our past could have led us to two wildly different presents. How if we'd just chosen something else years ago, our lives could be completely different.

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Admittedly, the canyon between gambling drunk and floating city building religious extremist is pretty vast, but it works in getting the point across. Have we not all had decisions to make in life where we think about how amazingly different it would be if we'd done the other thing?

What Bioshock Infinite does very cleverly is that it actually presents the other argument at the same time. It would be just as easy for someone to play the game and come away with an entirely different perspective. There's a line in one of the voxophone's that sums up the differences in how the Lutece twins think, which also, is an excellent representation of the different ways we can take the story. "Where I see a blank page... she sees King Lear".

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It's talking about free will against fate. The ideas that a blank page gives us infinite choices against the idea that those infinite choices (and thus universes) mean that everything is pre-determined - if every choice is mapped to a new universe, then do we actually have any choice at all? Is King Lear special when we know it's just one of an infinite number of possible outcomes when randomly writing letters onto a page? Monkeys, typewriters, Shakespeare.

I think you could quite easily play Bioshock Infinite and come away from the experience thinking that the game was telling us that our choices don't matter. The coin. The pendant. "Swimming in different oceans but landing at the same shore". The Lutece 'twins' systematically working through Bookers to find the right way to stop Comstock and reset the timeline. Even us, as players, at the end of the game are funnelled into one ending regardless of how we played and what we chose.

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Do our choices matter at all? If Booker chose to reject the baptism, does it matter, since it creates a universe where he accepted it? Is Comstock what happens if we choose to ignore our guilt rather than be haunted by it, or is he just one possible destination for an infinite number of pre-ordained paths? Are our choices massively important or is free will just an illusion of the mind? I think Bioshock Infinite does a really good job of presenting both sides of that argument, and leaves us with something to think/talk about, allowing us to decide what we believe.

As we touched on before, the game also serves as a commentary on video games themselves (like the original Bioshock) which ties both of those ideas together into a new whole into a third way to view what Infinite tells us.

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As gamers we play all our games differently. Just the other day I started playing Metal Gear Solid 4 again aiming to get all the emblems. Aiming for the 'chicken emblem' I had to play the game in a way completely different to how I usually play. Gunning people down left, right and centre, I thought to myself, "Does anybody actually do this as opposed to stealth?". Sure they do. That's something that the medium of video games allows us. It's something no other medium can truly claim.

The experience is unique to us playing the game, and where I stealth, you might blow shit up, or vice versa. In Bioshock, even small things like whether we used the shotgun or the machine gun make our experiences unique, but ultimately, we'll end up at the same place. An infinite number of journeys lead to one (or at least a small number) of possible destinations. Many oceans, one shore.

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How many of our video gaming experiences end in failure? How many universes in Sonic the Hedgehog resulted in Robotnik winning while Sonic fell into a pit of spikes? How many times did Commander Shepard go through the suicide mission before (s)he managed to keep the whole squad alive? How many times did the Lutece 'twins' try to guide Booker to reset their mistakes only to have him stopped by Songbird? One hundred and twenty three, by my count.

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The themes of fate against free will, choice, constants and variables, and all that jazz, are far more interesting to me than what I thought were the themes going in. That's not a slight on them at all. I loved the absurdly pro-American city and the shocking depictions of racism and nationalism that it provided.

I like the idea of Comstock/Booker representing faux religious rebirth, and the idea that brushing off your misdeeds rather than dealing with your mistakes is a dangerous path. I like that the revolutionaries are shown as just as depraved as the people they seek to overthrow. I like the idea of the baptism used for selfish reasons at the beginning of the story caused the problems of the game, and that the baptism (well, drowning) at the end of the story being done for selfless reasons leads to redemption. And I like that the conflicting celebration/shame of America's coloured history ties nicely to the conflict between Booker and Comstock in the game.

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There's an awful lot to like in this game, and I love how many different parallels and metaphors we can draw from the cleverly weaved narrative.

But what I like most of all is that Irrational took an increasingly ordinary video game genre, and did something extraordinary with it. I like that when I finished the game I felt I had to immediately text all of my friends that I knew had the game to see if they'd finished it so we could mull it over. I like that over a week later I'm still thinking about it and making connections that I didn't see before. I like that this game made me think.

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Bioshock Infinite isn't a perfect game by any means, but I don't remember the last time I played a game that left me needing to talk to people about it, and what they took from it. That Irrational created a narrative that manages to give the player two diametrically opposed schools of thought and let's them both be 'right' is a credit to the team. That that mirrors the 'no right or wrong' nature of the choice system in the game is genius. And that it gives us an opportunity to talk about video games like this is a treat.

I love video games, but it does seem that often we don't get rich narratives that I think we deserve. So I thank Irrational for giving me a game that I enjoyed playing so much. But most of all, I thank them for giving me a game that I've enjoyed talking about so much. A game that, like a great movie like Memento, actually benefits from repeated playing. Bioshock Infinite is a gift.

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