28 3 / 2013

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I’m about 2/3rds through BioShock: Infinite and I’m of two minds on it. On one hand, I’m really enjoying the world and the story. And on the other, I’m disappointed in the game part of it. I finished reading Tom Bissell’s interview with Ken Levine and read through the “high brow” vs. “low brow” exchange a couple of times. I see the merits of a low-brow interface like a shooter (it’s fun; it draws a wide audience), but I think in the case of Infinite, it actively harms the story end of things.

The story of BioShock: Infinite is about rescuing a unique woman from a floating city in the sky built by a right-wing religious cult that claims to be more American than America. The game part of BioShock: Infinite is about killing scores of people in continually new and diverse ways to progress the story. (You can’t even leave an area if you have any enemies left alive.)

You play Booker Dewitt, a former soldier who participated in a historic massacre. He quit the Army and now is a Pinkerton private detective who busts up labor strikes. But when he gets to the floating city of Columbia, he drops all pretense of being a Pinkerton and becomes a full-on super-soldier who kills at the drop of a hat. There’s exchange midway through the game, where you are asked “How do you forget [that you’ve killed]?” All I can think of is, “Forget? Hell, I’m keeping track.” The game after all counts every kill with every weapon and gives them clever names like “Big Game Hunter” or “Industrial Accident”. 22 of the 50 Xbox Achievements are for killing. By the time I was asked how I forget killing people, I was up to 200+ kills. This isn’t a problem just for BioShock obviously, but I think a) the conflict is starker in Infinite than in other games and that b) Infinite, with its world and story, is better poised to avoid.

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I wish Booker had behaved more like a Pinkerton, even a nasty, washed-up one. The only way I can interact with this world is by shooting things and magical destructive vigors. A world like this where I can sneak, bribe, beat up, and intimidate would be so much more fascinating to me. Killing would be a last resort and Booker would always be outmatched in a straight-up fight. There would be chases and escapes. (How great would chases be on that Skyline rail system?) The story would stay the same, but I would be permitted more ways to interact than just my gun.

Booker instead becomes a gunman, and that would work for me more if the game had commented on the choice to return to being a killer. He evidently felt bad enough about killing to leave the Army (and more). (To its credit, it does acknowledge his appalling violence occasionally with Elizabeth’s little remarks like “You scare me, but you are handy in a fight.” And one antagonist remarking at the death of his men, “That’s the Booker I know.”) But the story doesn’t dwell or investigate why Booker so easily slides into massacre mode and the game continues to gleefully introduce more ways for you to kill.

This is absolutely a case of higher expectations. BioShock 1 is, after all, frequently touted in the “Can games be art?” discussion. However, I can’t expect Levine to solve all of video games’ problems. And I can’t fault another person’s story for not being the story I want it to be. I was just shocked that how much violence was in the game and how brutal it is. Once I saw that it was there, I hoped it would be addressed, but it isn’t and it undermines the story at large.

I’ll keep playing. The rest of the story is grand, unique and unpredictable. I want to see how the story finishes, but I really was hoping for a different way to be a part of it. 

P.S. Tom Bissell touches on some of these same issues in the excellent 13 Ways of Looking at a Shooter.

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