Bioshock : Infinite (First Impressions)
Though this blog is often too esoteric for its own good, moving between mediums as my personal interest dictates, the one thing that I don’t normally review is games, but then Bioshock wasn’t your usual game and this, its follow-up isn’t set to be either. I speak in that tense because I am, at the time of typing this sentence (though not those below) still yet to start playing the actual game, but as I do I will share my relatively spoiler-free thoughts with you; they will be rough at first, not formatted as a flowing review, so if that’s what you’re after then read THIS detailed one or check back here later when I’ve written one. Warning: my min is freshly aflood with flu medications, so bare with me if i begin speaking in tongues; I hear though that this game is goo enough to cure all that ails you, lets hope
. Also, I would love to hear what other people lucky enough to be playing this game are thinking as they go, so feel free to throw your own thoughts up in the comment section below. Ok? So grab your Skyhooks and let’s go to Columbia then.
-The very first impression that one can have of a game is that evoked by its cover; they say of course that you shouldn’t judge things this way but I do feel that it can be informative. As has been publicized the game’s cover image is, purely for promotional purposes, a guy holing a gun. It’s pretty lame. However upon opening the case you see that this image is reversible and on the other side sits something much more appealing: an art-deco style charcoal drawing of the Songbird sitting beside the games setting, Columbia, the city in the sky. Rapture, the setting of the original game, was so vital to its success; it, not the guy with the gun, was the main character and so the focus on this side feels far more comforting to me as someone more a fan of the games deep side than its shooting.
-In this vein the rear of the second cover has only two elements, a seal of Columbia and a strange quote that is repeated upon the opening of the game :
“The Mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist…”
Barriers to Trans-dimensional Travel – R.Lutece, 1889
What this means I have no idea, but nor was I familiar with the ideas of Objectivism prior to partaking in Bioshock, that game arguably serving to elucidate them via criticism better than Ayn Rand did via creation. Just as “No Gods of Kings, only Man” remained important throughout this game I think this quote will bear remembering while I play. I will keep you informed on the progression of the games philosophy first and foremost I think.
– To that end, the game’s actionless opening sequence does not disappoint like it very well could have. That first exchange over the black screen, the Beckett-esque banter between the two English rowers, the grisly discovery shown above, the Close Encounter at the lighthouse, the heavenly vista and the scattering of seductively obtuse quotes and philosophical panderings. has already earned it the spot of Game of the Year for me and I doubt anything will top it over the month to come. I must continue.
– God, it seems, is at the core of the games theology: from the literal references to his name, the bathing of sins, the battling of prophets, through to the more obtuse ideas that go along with having a god, like higher-order, heathens, persecution and hymns, oh lord the hymns are as haunting here as the old flapper music was in the original. Rapture was a utopia, the epitome of modern thought, of science whereas Columbia (their names seem almost better beffiting of each other, do they not?) appears to be an Eden of religion, a man-made Heaven built to fill the void left by the lack of a real one. Whether or not it will go astray like Rapture did I will just have to wait and see.
– Epitomising this theme is the first area of Columbia that you visit, a church in which you are forced to be baptised in order to progress. Baptism is traditionally done at birth, Booker DeWitt is spoken to like someone new by the rowers and that quote about forged memories all makes me think that maybe the beginning of the game is the beginning of Booker, or at least the beginning of this Booker. Who was under that bag I wonder now, whishing I could have checked. A familiar face maybe, maybe his own?
– The religion in Columbia isn’t simply that of our own world though, the people here – and yes there are people ad wildlife, all of whom have thus far been peaceful and talkative – worship weird misremembered versions of American Presidents: Father Franklin who with his Golden key beget technology, Father Jefferson who with his golden parchment beget communication and .father Washington who with the wings of angels and golden sword crossed the Delaware and begot freedom. The religion here then is patriotism, the god America; a cutting and incisive criticism of the real United States who have themselves muddied this distinction between church and state, though is a less literal way.
– Wow, still no shooting, this opening sequence is a bit weak in the sword, but as a bigger fan of both the key and the scroll I am very, very satisfied. Seeing a zeppelin rise up in front of me bearing an accapella quartet mid-way through a rendition of God Only Knows as parade floats pass by and citizens merrily make their way to the fair is just fantastic. Those that brought the game for the guy with the gun will, however, be bored by this stage but I am savouring it, going as slow as possible and letting the world sink in.
– ( Potential Spoilers in this point) I had my suspicions about something strange, something purgatorial, going on here in New Eden and that short scene after the fair all but confirmed them. An English couple – the same from the boat? – came up to me, gave me a coin and asked me to call it; the chalkboard he wore had heads marked seven times and tails none, the flip came up heads, they marked it in and wandered away revealing a second board with at least one hundred marks under heads and none for tails. As a fan of Tom Stoppards existential revisionist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead I know that such odds can mean only one thing, a false reality. As a fan of Mind MGMT I also assumes that they aren’t asking just anybody to call these coin tosses, that each mark may have been Booker.
– And then, within the space of seconds, all of Columbia goes to shit. There had been a little bit of casual racism throughout the Funtime carnival section, which along with children smoking specificity branded cigarettes was to be expected from something having a bit of fun at the expense of a past era. Little did I know though that the flippant hatred of a line like ” the cutest white-girl in all of Columbia” would be followed by something as shocking as what came a few seconds later. I don’t know whether the choice I made in that moment was a smart one, or whether it had much effect on the progression of the plot but it was an easy one to make even if it lead to an already uncomfortable amount of deaths.
So the shooting has begun and although its not what I’m here for there is something satisfying about this system. Guns fire slowly, enemies fall with a single bullet, two at best, and altogether it feels relatively real given the fact that you can also shoot fireballs from your scorched and melting fingers. This isn’t the opening I had expected given the trailers, but I’m loving the mystery; I have no idea what will happen next, nor when Elizabeth will even show up. I do miss being able to interact with the living world of Columbia, but making it dead has some sheer pleasure to it too.
– Columbia is such a large and complex place that the game has to offer you a navigation aid and the one they chose is a handy arrow that appears to point in the preferred direction with the simple press of the d-pad. For many this will be an invaluable tool, for some it will be sacrilege, breaking immersion and oversimplifying, for me it is a godsend but for altogether different reasons than one might expect. I am constantly using it and then heading away from where the arrow points, it allows me to explore without worry of accidentally progressing the story or moving so far down the path that I cannot return, missing exciting secrets along the way. That the game inspires me to take the longest road possible is testament to how much I enjoy its world.
– Both the score and the song choice in the game is great: When Elizabeth has her first taste of freedom its dancing on a false beach to an era-appropriate woodwind rendition of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun or something very similar, there was the aforementioned God Only Knows, a number of eerie church hymns and an ever rousing orchestration in between. That it knows when to stop the music, for example soon after that dance the civilians at the beach see some wreckage that eerily evokes a terrorist attack, they stop stare and sob to silence, the song only returning once the moment is over. Games perhaps, but I’m always glad to have someone who knows what they are doing in control.
– Though the iconic Big Daddies and Little Sisters famous from the first game do not return ( or at least don’t seem to) their relationship does in the one you have with Elizabeth: the way that she is introduced – which is so much darker and more mature than I had expected, most triple-A titles shy away from having menses as a part of their main plot line – the way that she acts and your role in her release all effectively force you to feel protective of her. That said though she is not a Damsel like she easily could have been given her role in the story; you want to protect her and she works as a boon to you in this endeavour, she is far from being just an annoying game element to escort from checkpoint to checkpoint.
– The shooting has never been this series strongest point but here in Infinite I am finding it inferior to the action elements of the past, though in entirely suitable ways. The combat in Bioshock, was essentially a hybrid of horror, RPG and FPS: you were always worried about what would be around the next corner because you had so few resources to spare, so few bullets to blast the enemies with. Infinite though tends to live up to its name when it comes to resources and so there is no longer any real necessity to scrounge around after each slaughter to find every last shell and snack, especially when Elizabeth is so willing to give you both for free.
– This change isn’t a simplification for the sake of audience however, I think I’ve already established that the game is as challenging as ever in terms of its art, but one representative of a wider change in mood. Rapture was designed to be sinister, desolate, lonely and limiting whereas Columbia with its wide open spaces evokes a different set of experiences. Instead of horror Infinite gets its pulp thrills from high-adventure, from swinging off sky hooks guns blazing as the world explodes around you. Instead of the intricate inventory system Infinite gets its RPG kicks from those times that you are allowed to simply wander through the still-living centres of the city and see people living their lives first person, rather than just through those haunting secondary sources the original used so well. None of these changes make Infinite inferior, they simply make it its own experience which can take some getting used to given how very similar some of the games other elements can be.
– Going back to that idea of pulpy high adventure the plot takes a real turn into the realm of science-fiction – pushing further even that a flying city – though I will not say how I will say that I’m finding these moments delightfully unsettling and unstable. The game is going so much further with certain things than I expected it to and so I have no idea what that means for the hours to come, they could contain anything yet and that is very exciting. The writers have done an outstanding job with this one; the gimmick of the original is gone but the world here is still just so intriguing.
– Unfortunately though there are still those sections of shooting in between the steps of story and as the game progresses these grow more and more tiresome, the second half of the game introduces only one new enemy type and they are more of a slog to slaughter. The game compensates for this by simply spawning more and more goons per wave (every person encountered in the second half of the game is an enemy) and as there is nothing to be gained from each kill, bar perhaps satisfaction, I grew tired of the gameplay as it went along. Struggling through fights to see what happened next, wading through the blood and guts for the next hit of story, though even this lost some appeal for a while.
– The original Bioshock is a fantastic but flawed game: first it is forcefully fleshed out through too many fetch-quests and secondly it climaxes with a quarter of game left to go; the last few hours a lull, a let down in comparison ( a stellar example of how much story effects the enjoyment of game mechanics). Infinite suffers from something similar, it both begins and ends (more on this later) magnificently but sinks somewhat in the middle as it attempts to earn more hours from you, to supposedly justify the price you paid upon entry. Prior to the release of this game Minerva’s Den, the DLC to Bioshock 2 was my second favorite entry in the series; a stand-alone story told over the space of a short few hours Den didn’t mess around, it simply told its story and was so much more satisfying for that. No-one praises a movie or a book for its length so why is it a prerequisite in gaming?
-Thankfully then during this weak section of the game there are still a number of neat little ideas introduced, nearly all of which work out well in the ending.As a whole though the game that I played today seems a very different one than that of yesterday; as you progress,killing everyone you see, the sky darkens and the world sets alight. The bright and barmy Columbia that you are introduced to soiled by every step you take until it becomes unrecognizable. The themes too change, the Americana is dropped in all but the visual sense and the grander ideas of the science fiction philosophy take over in its place. These are equally compelling but much more difficult to pallette as you play.
It’s simply a matter of struggling through until the final act begins and from there the game resets its course, the narrative retakes control and the game begins to soar again; even returning to those horror roots that I was so sure earlier that the game had tossed off. For a while there I was thinking that the game reminded me a lot of Lost, that it had all of these amazing elements – emotional evocation, compelling characters, fantastic settings an crazy science-fiction concepts – but didn’t quite know how to bring them together. Then it does and the game becomes a work of art (if somehow it wasn’t already).
– So, There Will Be Spoilers from here on out, it’s simply unavoidable to discuss the dramatic conclusion and its meaning without them but i will be somewhat vague just in case some readers can’t resist.
-It turns out that I was somewhat on the money with my early predictions and yet also so very far away from them; two sides of the coin at once. There isn’t a twist here in the same way that there was in Bioshock, no one defining change in direction, there are instead a whole slew of sucker-punches, each of which we should really have seen coming given that the clues were there all along. Some of these twists have happened before, predominantly in the time-travel genre, but not quite like this and never as well. Though the medium is still often scorned as ‘lesser than’ there is something so special about playing a moment that in my mind only the best of those others can match. Hearing about a hard choice is one thing, but being the one to make it is another entirely.
– At its core that word is what Infinite is all about: Choice. It seemingly approaches the theme from seemingly tenuous directions – parallel realities, American Exceptional-ism – but once complete these concepts are stunning in their ramifications. When Elizabeth shows you the sea of lighthouses (the moment from which the game gets its name), each of which is a link to another world (one of those being Rapture, a fitting repetition of events once you break it down) she is showing you not the number of Bioshock games that could be made (how do you follow this?) but the number of choices that are available to you in every moment of your actual life. You can right now do almost anything that you want, every moment is a choice and every choice creates a new reality around you. You have that power and yet as in the game itself regardless of which path you take (you can choose between lighthouses) you will ultimately end up in the same place, the circle unbroken. A morbid but meaningful statement to be sure.
– The Americana plays into this because America, and all democratic nations, are made through the choices of their constituents. Slavery was a choice, so was ending it, continuing prejudice was a choice, so is ending it. Whether we are aware of it or not we are making the choices that shape our realities, we are in control even if it appears at first that the forces in motion are far too much for us to ever move. Small, simple choices can cause ripples that eventuate in revolution, that eventuate in either life or death. America is a nation built on a foundation of freedom but such choice is a weapon that cannot be wasted or misused, that is what the game seems to be warning us about.
– So beneath all the quantum mumbo-jumbo about the clashes between certainty and uncertainty, beneath the soap-operatic plot-twists (that certainly moved me and made the core relationship all the more touching and tragic) there are these really amazing questions that I will be pondering for a long time to come, perhaps as I play through the game again with all this new knowledge in mind, perhaps as I sit and listen to the amazing soundtrack with its parallel versions of different tracks. Is it the best game I’ve ever played? No. Yes. It’s all a matter of perspective.