Here I will I try and reconcile the fact that I didn’t enjoy Bioshock Infinite at all against its warm reception amongst reviewers. There’s an extent to which I can see the appeal of this game, but the qualities I see in it are what I’d expect to be a niche appreciation, and not the kind of stuff that drives a game to the level of love it receives.
This is NOT me trying to say that Bioshock Infinite is “overrated,” because I think that term is bullshit—my point here is to explain what I experienced with this game, and how it doesn’t line up with what I’ve heard about it.
If I had to put my finger on the core conceit of Bioshock Infinite, it would be the flying city, Columbia. More than anything else, the “point” of this game seems to be exploring the history and machinations of this interesting and beautiful location.
A hell of a lot of work was put into the art design of this game, and one of the things it does best is to organically lead the player into visually splendiferous moments. The game manages to weave shot composition into the flow of play, rather than take the player into a cutscene—and sometimes it does this very well.
A lot of the time, though, the game fails miserably at organically weaving play and story, because of the failure of its level design. In terms of what the player actually does in Bioshock, there are primarily three things: walking around; shooting at things; and looting like crazy. Whenever I entered an environment in Bioshock, my first instinct was to loot absolutely everything, because there’s just so much to loot.
However, the game didn’t seem to expect this of me. Oftentimes, Elizabeth would start talking to me when I entered a room, but by the time I realized it, I was already on the other side of the room looting shit. Her voice would be distant, making it difficult to hear the conversation, and because of her weird penchant for teleporting everywhere, I’d lose track of her. For some reason, rather than having Elizabeth follow alongside and talk to me, she usually would stand against a wall somewhere and talk into the room, and I would never realize where she was until I was leaving.
Actually, Elizabeth’s teleporting was one of the most jarring things in the game. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be written off because of her powers that let her manipulate space-time, or if it’s some kind of meta-joke, but Elizabeth will often run out ahead of me into a battlefield, only to show up behind me seconds later to throw me some ammo.
All of these hijinks with Elizabeth lead me to believe that Bioshock Infinite didn’t expect me to act the way I did. This was never more apparent than in the big moments wherein some important character was talking to me, but I was given free reign to run around a large area. My instinct was always to explore the room, looking for things to loot, only to realize that something dramatic was supposed to be happening. Then I’d jump around like a fucking idiot, shooting at everything, because I just didn’t care.
It always upsets me when a game wants to give me freedom, but still wants me to pay attention to its bullshit. To me, the most ideal method of storytelling in a game is a skippable cutscene. This gives me the option to engage with the story on a level of my choosing, and it allows the story to make contextual sense. A dramatic moment generally feels ridiculous when someone continues looking at me and talking seriously, while I’m jumping around like a psychopath, shooting boxes across the room with a gravity gun(oopswronggame, orisit?).
Another game I’ve been playing in the past few days is Tomb Raider, in which I’ve been skipping every cutscene because I just don’t give a fuck. The storyline in Tomb Raider isn’t engaging—the mechanics are. It doesn’t matter to me that the story isn’t engaging, because I can skip it. In Bioshock Infinite, the narrative wasn’t engaging, AND I had to sit through it, which just compounded my annoyance with it.
This is really the heart of the problem. Bioshock Infinite is narratively driven. Most of the praise for the game is for the immersion that players felt with Columbia, and with the narrative—and I felt none of that. I went into the game knowing that the best way to experience it was to take my time; explore everything, listen to the audiobooks, watch the slide shows, etc. However, I quickly got tired of all that shit, due to a staggering level of, “yeah, I get it.”
The background of Columbia was immediately obvious. It only took looking at the place to get that it was a sort of dystopian euphoria white-driven religious state. It was obvious that I was going to be the heretic, that the people were devoted, that there would be a rebellion… these are all well-worn tropes. The problem is that all of the extra crap only reinforces the same ideas. We keep learning the same thing about Comstock and Columbia, and never get much deeper than what is already obvious.
I think the problem is that the narrative wants to remain mysterious, so it never gives much away. The same is true for learning about Booker. We keep getting the same tidbits about his past, but we never learn anything really meaningful about him—just more reinforcement of the same cliched mysteries that he’s built on early in the game.
None of the characters in Bioshock Infinite are interesting or engaging in the slightest. I have no idea what anyone sees in Elizabeth, other than that she’s actually useful and central to the plot. Yeah, this makes her above average as a sidekick and a female character in a video game, but her personality is poorly realized and explored, and her attitude is inconsistent as shit. One minute she’s pissed at Booker, and the next she’s being chipper about opening locks and tossing him coins.
Possibly the most ham-fisted moment in the entire game is when, after committing her first murder, Elizabeth retreats into a room, and then re-emerges some time later with her hair cut and and outfit change. A change in appearance to mark character change is a well-worn trope that has been done fantastically in other places. To see several remarkable examples, look to the anime series Eureka Seven, or Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.
Elizabeth’s transformation is the worst use of the trope I’ve ever seen. We don’t see any of what she goes through in that room, and when she emerges, her attitude isn’t significantly different from her prior one. It’s not really a mark of transformation at all, it’s more like she cut her hair and changed her outfit to somehow get over what she’d done. Any meaning that could have come out of this symbolism has been completely sapped away.
While I’m still on the topic of the narrative, its progression and pacing is completely haphazard. The game moves between a bunch of idea it wants to cover like its going down a checklist, and feels completely unnatural. There’s an introduction to the world, which is very abruptly turned into a huge action scene as the whole place turns on the player. Next, the player has to go rescue the girl in the tower, and once he does, she of course is enamored with the idea of the outside world. If you’ve ever seen the movie Tangled, which did this trope as perfectly as it can ever be done, you’ll appreciate just how ineffectually and poorly this trope was handled in this game.
Once you reach the hero’s memorial, a subplot that was hinted at in some audio recordings comes front and center, as the character Cornelius Slate takes over. He provides most of Booker’s backstory, which is never really explored before or after this section until the very end of the game, and even then is handled with a lot of confusion and mystery. Slate’s idea of sending all of his soldiers at Booker so that he can give them a true soldier’s death is silly, and comes out of nowhere. When did Slate have time to set up and plan for this? And how does he always hear Booker over those intercoms that he uses to talk to him? This is a kind of common game trope, and I’ve always found it fucking awkward.
Once the game leaves Columbia, it only ever becomes more jumbled and confusing. The resistance movement seems like it’s going to become a major factor, but the whole subplot of the workers rebelling against Fink doesn’t amount to much, and by the time the Fink section of the game is finished, the game has suddenly opened up a shitload of alternate universes and other metaphysical bullshit that leaves whatever semblance of sense the plot made up until then in the dust.
There was a pretty definitive moment when I decided the plot was becoming stupid, and that’s when Booker and Elizabeth reach the stash of equipment that they need. Elizabeth opens a tear, and they realize that the equipment isn’t there in this alternate universe. Booker says, “then it must be…” and they both conclude, “back at the shop!” Why? Why, out of all the infinite possibilities (oh hey, I just got the title), would they assume that this would be true? And how am I supposed to feel like I’m making any kind of progress when I’m now two dimensions away from the plot I left behind?
After this point, everything is kinda off the rails, and the story only goes further and further in this direction until it reaches its insane Evangelion-esque climax. Only ,the end of evangelion actually had an interesting message that was cohesive with the story that it had been telling up to that point, whereas Bioshock felt like a bunch of nonsense on a runaway train.
Anyways, regardless of the game’s clumsy narrative, I had mostly been indifferent to the game over the course of playing it, with a positive lean because it’s at least a game with great production values in terms of art and sound design, and the combat was inoffensive, if not engaging.
The one big hook that really sold me on a positive outlook for the game was the rail-gliding system, which is a phenomenal mechanic that I’d love to see put to use in a better game. By far the coolest parts of Bioshock Infinite were the ones that involved massive battlefields with enemies, rails, and guns all over the place. Scoping enemies with a sniper rifle while gliding on a rail was easily one of the most batshit feelings of satisfaction that I’ve had in a first person shooter game.
Outside of the rail battles, though, the shooting mechanics were pretty tired and boring. I kicked the game up to hard mode early on, once I got used to the controls (having not played a first person shooter in years), and most of the game was still shockingly easy. My stratregy in almost every gunfight was to stand either in the doorway or behind the first piece of cover that I saw, and pick off every enemy with a hand-canon.
There were battles that gave me trouble later in the game, but these were made easier by Bioshock’s interesting deaths system. In Bioshock Infinite, dead enemies never come back. Only the living enemies are healed, and even then they aren’t always healed entirely. The player is given a little bit of ammo back, at the cost of a bit of money.
There were actually battles in the game in which I ran out of ammo, was killed, and came back stronger because I had been refilled and half of the enemies were dead. Ultimately, I can’t say I disliked this mechanic, though. I didn’t particularly WANT the game to be more challenging, because the combat wasn’t that engaging to me in the first place, that I’d want to spend all day mastering a fight. I’m not a big fan of the first person controls in general, so having the fights continually get easier wasn’t that problematic for me.
However, where the game fell apart was when it introduced battles that weren’t just more challenging, but were in fact BULLSHIT HARD. For instance, the fight at the end of the Fink section of the game involves fighting a giant Handyman in a small arena. The handyman is insanely fast, can jump the entire arena in one bound, has a huge hit range, and even has an area of effect attack that hits for an insane distance. Moreover, if the player attempts to use the rails to fly around him, he will jump up and shock them.
But all of that’s not what made this fight impossible. It was the fact that I could come at him with full ammunition in two guns, land half of them on his weak point, and still not kill the bastard. Near as I could tell from switching the difficulty down to normal for this fight, the only difference between the difficulties is that on Hard mode, the big enemies take a shitload of hits to kill.
By far the worst fight in the game was the first time I had to fight the ghost of Elizabeth’s mom. In this incredibly bullshit fight, the ghost constantly summons minions that charge at the player. Killing them is pointless, because the ghost will constantly spawn more. The best strategy is to run around like crazy, take out the minions that follow, and try to land as many hits on the ghost as possible. However, on Hard mode, the ghost takes more hits to kill than all of the fucking ammo that the area provides. If that wasn’t enough, all of the guns available at this part were shittacular, and trying to loot enemy equipment just meant time for other minions to attack. Again, I switched the difficulty to Normal mode, and ripped the boss to shreds.
After this point, I was ready to be done with the game, and the next nearly two hours seemed to drag on forever. For some reason, even though the game was happy to provide supply stores constantly, it was stingy with giving me the guns I that liked, so I had to play through a long stretch using shitty guns.
Somewhere around here, I should probably also mention the salt powers, which are a variety of overpowered super moves that the player can break out. I almost never used them. Managing salt and powers and shit seemed like a headache, and I would never think about it in time before I’d murdered everything in the area. The game kept getting mad at me, and after each battle a prompt would come up saying “remember to use your powers!” at which I’d say “no u.” In retrospect, the flock of crows power probably would’ve helped with the ghost bitch, but oh well.
The final battle was one last crock of absolute shit. It involved defending a power generator against wave of enemies, in a weirdly designed stage. Because the enemies were all attacking the generator and not me, I would sometimes have a hard time locating them, and the generator would get destroyed stupidly fast. In this battle, there’s a giant bird that the player summons to take down airships, but for some reason it was horribly unresponsive. I’d highlight a blimp and hold X and nothing would happen, and it would take up to three tries to make the bird appear, which was crippling for taking my attention off of the fight.
It wasn’t until I switched down to easy mode that my friends reminded me about my salt powers, and it quickly became apparent that this was how the game expected me to handle the fight. As far as I’m concerned, though, suddenly necessitating these powers at the end of the game, when all throughout it had been a cakewalk without them, was bullshit.
So, that about sums up my unexpectedly lengthy and totally disorganized thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. This was the game I played, and it certainly doesn’t sound like the same one that others are playing.