As you might imagine, the following post contains many spoilers. Read at your own peril.
I did want to get two things out of the way first (and help create some extra spoiler insulation). The first is to reiterate, as I did in my review, that I very much enjoyed certain aspects of Bioshock Infinite. The characterizations were quite good; Elizabeth in particular was fantastic. I also enjoyed the art style and the music. The combat was particularly weak in my opinion (and others), but not terrible enough to preclude suggesting the game to other people, at least at a lower price-point.
Secondly, there is almost nothing in this world more personally maddening than when people suggest a given narrative is good (or the best ever) simply because it appears complicated. Why is convoluted nonsense confused for depth? I had to turn off this Kotaku audio spoiler discussion because the hosts actually suggested that not thinking about (for example) time travel paradoxes makes time travel plots better. Well… yeah. That works because you are taking away the bullshit plot as it actually exists and then substituting your own, better version in its place. And odds are that your own version doesn’t make any more goddamn sense, cobbled together as it is with your vague, unexamined good feelings rather than the jumbled pieces presented by the original writers.
I am not asking for a happy ending. I am not asking for Saturday Morning cartoon simplicity. Hell, I am even completely fine with leaving things up for interpretation; Inception’s ending was perfect, for example. What I am not fine with is when vague nonsense is elevated to absurd heights. If Bioshock Infinite’s plot is actually any good, then surely it can stand up to some peanut gallery criticism. Right? Right.
And by all means, if I am talking out of my ass on any of the below points, or you want to provide a different perspective, call me out in the comments below.
Redefinition of what Alternate Universes mean.
First off, this may seem like a minor quibble, but I think a lot of the confusion and suggested paradoxes stem from the fact that Bioshock Infinite is inventing its own version of multiverse/time travel theory. Levine is basically saying “I’m going to take this hackneyed, impossible-to-do-right concept and solve it with three words: ‘Constants and variables.’” What about the Grandfather Paradox? “Constants and variables.” What about all the universes in which Comstock is a good guy, or those in which Booker doesn’t sell Anna? “Constants and variables.” Why couldn’t Elizabeth just stage an intervention to keep Booker from drinking and gambling? CONSTANTS AND VARIABLES.
I’m sorry, presenting a multiverse theory in which there are “millions and millions” of other Comstocks and yet certain outcomes are arbitrarily 100% set in stone is simply lazy storytelling. I mean, it is not even inconsistent for there to be universes in which Booker never sold Anna! It almost feels like Levine crafted the “constants” based entirely on being able to railroad the player in that one room with the baby. You can still have an impetus to stop Comstock in any of the universes in which he turns into a bad guy, even if it is not ALL universes. Or, hell, add some moral ambiguity to the story by suggesting eliminating the bad Comstocks is “worth” killing all the good ones too.
“Constants and Variables” might be a novel “solution” to the problems of alternative universe storytelling, but only because no other writer thought anyone would actually buy into it. This feels like deus ex machina ^ ∞.
“There are a million million other Comstocks”
This was my literal reaction to Elizabeth’s line about why the game wasn’t technically over after killing Comstock:
Seriously, so what if there are a million million other ones? There are a million million other bad things in alternate universes too – not to mention real life in 1912 – but we don’t seem to be solving those. Was what Comstock did in the Columbia period so bad that killing him at the point in the timeline which we did, was not good enough? Let’s drown him a million million times in that same fountain, as god only knows our conveniently omnipotent Elizabeth can time travel us there; there isn’t even the Constants and Variables bullshit to get in our way. Elizabeth and Booker quite literally have all the time in the world.
When did the drowning occur?
Speaking of drowning, when did Booker get drowned by the Elizabethes? Before or after the baptism? If before, why did that not kill off all Bookers/Annas/Elizabeths, e.g. make the after-credits scene impossible? If it occurred after the baptism, as the extra scene seems to convey, why is it so important for Booker to come to the “smothering” decision? Why is the player’s Booker smothered, instead of watching a new Comstock get smothered? Narrative convenience?
At first, I thought the answer was easy. In the game proper, it seems as though Booker shares the memories of any universe he has been in. For example, after bringing in the weapons, Booker has memories of being a hero of the Vox. In this way, by traveling to the past (time travel and alternate universes, this is so deep u guyz) and presumably merging with the post-Baptism-yet-pre-Comstock Booker, we can have a scenario in which a not-yet-Comstock Booker realizes what is going to happen and accept the need for his own drowning.
Which is… a pretty shitty moral scenario, if you think about it. More on that in a moment.
Of course, if the above is actually the case, then how is it possible for Booker and Comstock to exist in the same universe in the first place? Why doesn’t Booker have Comstock’s memories the moment he wakes up in the row boat, or when getting into Columbia, or when physically drowning Comstock in the baptismal fountain (ooo, foreshadowing) in the game proper?
To be honest, I might have missed the explanation for why Booker wasn’t a drooling, nosebleeding basketcase like the other dead-now-alive soldiers. Or why those soldiers were having such a hard time when, at best, they were “remembering” alternate universes in which they were dead. If the dead soldiers were now alive due to us changing things in the past, what does that really mean for the great swaths of population we killed across Columbia even in a no-Comstock scenario?
Negating all events that were experienced
Let us pretend for a moment that the ending makes perfect sense, there are no plot holes, and everything is wrapped up with a neat little bow. Hell, let’s pretend the ending is even happy, despite the fact that Booker is still a murdering, gambling, union-busting alcoholic single father with enough debt to legitimately consider selling his own daughter to the first person who opens a checkbook. And let’s further assume that he retained the memories of all that he accomplished in the game, perhaps giving him an impetus to try and set everything right instead of dropping baby Anna off in a basket at the closest orphanage.
In this best case scenario, Bioshock Infinite is a game in which all your actions are voided. Everything you struggled to accomplish is erased. None of it happened. Every moral choice you made, every time you refrained from stealing from cash registers, every interracial kindness you demonstrated never matters because those people/scenarios never exist. It boils down to a “it was all a dream” scenario, which is the most pernicious storytelling mechanic in the history of narrative.
If I had no other problems with the story, this alone would be enough to throw my hands up in disgust. Do you really feel like a game in which you endeavor to negate everything that happens is deep and meaningful? You can accomplish all the game has set you out to accomplish by simply not playing. As prophesied by WOPR in 1983: “the only winning move is not to play [Bioshock Infinite].”
Moral of the story?
Finally, let me kind of wrap all these various ingredients up into one complete shit sandwich. What exactly is the message being conveyed here in Bioshock Infinite? What is the theme, the moral of the story?
At the beginning, I almost felt like Booker was trying to make up for his sins, to seek forgiveness and redemption, to put things right. But what is Booker’s actual crime that he is repenting? To stop a person he never turned out to be from entrapping the person he is into a crime a third version must now stop? Booker choosing to be drowned seems a noble sacrifice until you realize what exactly he is undoing: choices he never made. Or, even worse, stopping a man (Comstock) he had no choice into becoming. There is never any “good Comstock” because apparently being bad is a constant. Fate. Predestination.
What is the message here about personal responsibility, free will, and choice? You have none because Constants and Variables. And suddenly, infinite universes means you are implicitly responsible to consequences that you never chose and never happened in your own universe. Do you remember when you donated to charity instead of setting a baby on fire? Well, you should feel real bad anyway because the not-you baby-arsonist is running amok and it’s up to you to stop yourself like you already did by not setting the baby on fire in the first place. GUYZ, DEEPEST PLOT EVAR.
Even worse, apparently Booker is the one on the hook for what the Lutece twins are ultimately responsible for. Who invented the Tear machine? Who gave it to Comstock? Why isn’t this game about the Lutece twins stopping themselves from transdimensional kidnapping, extortion, and/or human trafficking?
Ah, right. “Constants and variables.” And when the Lutece twins invent the Tear machine anyway and give it to the next megalomaniac – a real shortage of those in the early 1900s, let me tell you – it will once again be somebody else’s alternate-reality problem.
Fake Edit: After “playing” through the ending sequence again, I believe the drowning question can be put to bed. Elizabeth(es) specifically say:
Preacher Witting: Booker DeWitt, are you ready to be born again?
Booker: What is this? Why are we back here?
Elizabeth: This isn’t the same place, Booker.
Booker: Of course it is, I remember – wait. You’re not… you’re not… who are you?
Elizabeth: You chose to walk away. But in other oceans you didn’t. You took the baptism. And you were born again as a different man.
Elizabeth: It all has to end. To never have started. Not just in this world. But in all of ours.
Booker: Smother him in the crib.
Elizabeth Esemble: Smother… smother… smother..
Elizabeth: Before the choice is made. Before you are reborn.
Preacher Witting: And what name shall you take my son?
Elizabeth: He’s Zachary Comstock. He’s Booker DeWitt.
Booker: No… I’m both.
In other words, it was not Comstock that was smothered in the crib, it was Booker before he made the choice to be baptized or refuse. Meaning, both Booker and Comstock are dead. Meaning, the after-credits scene is either a vision of an afterlife, or a cheap plot hole to make you feel better while masquerading as deep storytelling.
Please, tell me I’m wrong about any of this. Tell me there is a legitimate reason people are praising this plot, as if it holds even the slightest of candles to the original Bioshock. Am I missing something? Perhaps, you know, the Tear into an alternate universe in which Bioshock Infinite’s plot is any good?
God, I hate April Fools. I hate it so much, in fact, I took the day off of work, so I would not be so bored out of my mind with the gaming site (and Reddit too, apparently) nonsense. The celebration of insipid deception is so pervasively perverse, I do not even bother believing any news for a full 24 hours. New PTR notes? A release date for X game? Nope, can’t hear you, lalalalalalala~.
Anyway, I beat Bioshock Infinite over the weekend. Were the 14 hours worth the $45? You will have to wait for the review; a review I most certainly will not write on April Fools, lest it not be believed.
Of course, if you have been around here for any length of time, you will probably believe it.
I am hoping things get better than this.
Granted, I do not consider myself “in the game” quite yet; given how prominently Elizabeth displayed, I’m guessing everything up to her will still be considered tutorial. Of that tutorial though, some things are becoming more and more clear to me:
1) Fantastic visuals have the opposite effect on me.
The visuals, objectively, look awesome. The visuals are also immensely distracting. When I am trying to shoot a guy with a pistol, seeing a particularly well-done cumulus cloud in the background adds nothing positive to that gameplay experience. I had the same issue with Battlefield 3 in the beginning – it was difficult to “see” enemies amidst the Ultra-High settings – so this is something likely to get better over time, e.g. when I start tuning out the visuals.
Incidentally, I never had this problem with Borderlands 2, and I think that is because the moments of cel-shaded beauty are more spaced out, and act as breaks inbetween more functional battlefield back-drops. I don’t want ugly games, of course, just games where you are not overloaded with visuals at time when precision and quick reflexes are called for.
2) Thus far, the theme isn’t all that compelling.
In the original Bioshock, the theme was taking Libertarianism to its extreme conclusion – a gaming subject matter particular novel for its time. Bioshock 2 introduced the opposite, showcasing the nefarious side of Collectivism. While it is still early yet, Bioshock Infinite’s theme of religious extremism slash Isolationism slash historical fetishism is… somewhat rote in comparison.
Bigoted religious cults in videogames are right up there with zombies, Nazis, and demons when it comes to stereotypical bad guys. This might be the first time we have seen such (intentional) overt racist imagery in a game, but I feel like I can already plot the rest of the story from here. There is still plenty room for surprises… yet Bioshock Infinite is going to have to surprise me, lest its thematic message be no different than the one you have seen dozens of times in the 32-bit era, or watching Glenn Beck for more than ten minutes.
Also… aside from some nice clouds and sunsets, so far the underwater motif of the original Bioshocks feels worlds better than open sky of Infinite. There was implicit danger at all times in the ocean, along with a sort of fantastic plausibility; underwater buildings are more impractical/expensive versus impossible. Conversely, in Infinite, sometimes it is not especially noticeable that you are in the air at all. Just look at that screenshot up there again.
3) Console Port
The very first sign a game is a console port is when it is Checkpoint-based. My dismay at discovering there was no Quick-Save was both immediate and visceral. Technically Borderlands 2 is also Checkpoint-based, but the difference is that A) those Checkpoints are a known quantity (you know where they are), and B) you can still save at any time when you Exit the game.
I am going to trooper on, of course, and perhaps it is a little unfair of me to expect brilliance from Minute 1. But given that I broke my Day 1 Embargo for Bioshock Infinite, I am a little bit weary of Buyer’s Remorse. I mean, I passed on Far Cry 3 for $30 for god’s sake!
Here is to hoping that I get blown away in the game proper, instead of musing as to whether I might have more fun playing Recettear like I was two days ago.
I was not going to purchase Bioshock Infinite on Day 1, for a variety of reasons. Between the delays, the abortive multiplayer aspirations, and the high profile resignations, the deck was stacked against an early purchase in my mind. Plus, I already have dozens and dozens of games I have yet to play/install, so why get a brand new one when I can instead wait for the price drop in 2-3 months? Also, First World Problem alert, I already owned all of the games being offered as bonuses for preordering.
And then… I watched this review by Adam Sessler:
I bought my “preorder” at 1am through Green Man Gaming, whose cash-back promotion technically means I got it for $45 (plus some Steam keys for games I already have).
By the way, “Infinite” might be referring to the amount of hard drive space required to run the game: 17 gigs. That is nearly 3 times the size of Skyrim, and almost as big as WoW by itself. I have some games still installed that I probably should clear out from lack of use, like Guild Wars 2 and Fallout: New Vegas, but it’s still a lot of hard drive real estate.
When I got to sit down with Infinite‘s creative director Ken Levine on Thursday after playing the game and asked for his thoughts, I got an extensive, thoughtful answer that in a perfect world would put an end to all of the bellyaching.
“I understand that some of the fans are disappointed. We expected it. I know that may be hard to hear, but let me explain the thinking.”
“We went and did a tour… around to a bunch of, like, frathouses and places like that. People who were gamers. Not people who read IGN. And [we] said, so, have you guys heard of BioShock? not a single one of them had heard of it.”
“And we live in this very special… you know, BioShock is a reasonably successful franchise, right? Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly. I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business.”
“For some people, [games are] like salad dressing. Or movies, or TV shows. It was definitely a reality check for us. Games are big, and they’re expensive, I think that’s very clear. And to be successful, and to continue to make these kinds of games which frankly, of the people who make these types of games, there’s not a lot of them, and they haven’t exactly been the most successful with these types of games that have come out in the last few years. I was thrilled because I love them, and I hope that we had some small role in getting those games greenlit… But they have to be financially successful to keep getting made.”
“I looked at the cover art for BioShock 1, which I was heavily involved with and love, I adored. And I tried to step back and say, if I’m just some guy, some frat guy, I love games but don’t pay attention to them… if I saw the cover of that box, what would I think? And I would think, this is a game about a robot and a little girl. That’s what I would think. I was trying to be honest with myself. Trust me, I was heavily involved with the creation of those characters and I love them.”
“Would I buy that game if I had 60 bucks and I bought three games a year… would I even pick up the box? I went back to the box for System Shock 1, which was obviously incredibly imporatnt — that game was incredibly influential on me, System Shock 2 was the first game I ever made. I remember I picked it up… looked at it and I said, I have no idea what this game is. And I didn’t have a lot of money back then. So, back on the shelf. And I was a gamer.”
“I wanted the uninformed, the person who doesn’t read IGN… to pick up the box and say, okay, this looks kind of cool, let me turn it over. Oh, a flying city. Look at this girl, Elizabeth on the back. Look at that creature. And start to read about it, start to think about it.”
“I understand that our fan says, that’s great Ken, what’s in it for me? One, we need to be successful to make these types of games, and I think it’s important, and I think the cover is a small price for the hardcore gamer to pay. I think also when we do something for the hardcore gamer, there’s something we’re talking about and something we’re sure about. The thing we’re sure about is that we’re going to be releasing a whole set of alternate covers that you can download and print. We’re going to be working with the community to see what they’re interested in.”
“We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending our marketing dollars. By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists — that’s for the fans. For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for.”
I like this excerpt for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I think its useful to occasionally be reminded that the majority of the games we like playing couldn’t have been made without a bunch of other people paying for them too; people who “don’t get it,” or otherwise are incapable of appreciating the game for what it is or what it represents. There are some outliers as always, high-profile titles exclusively geared to its niche, and thankfully the positive PR around the indie movement has made it possible to break the AAA budget straightjacket.
But sometimes the “dumbing down” is, in fact, necessary. Or at least useful in ensuring that you see more development from that studio/those designers.
It’s fascinating to me reading this Kotaku article about how BioShock Infinite’s Actors Berated Each Other to the Point of Tears to Get the Scene. Although I would agree with some critics that Bioshock 1 was worlds better than Bioshock 2, I was already pretty excited about Bioshock Infinite from its first trailer (assuming I can actually play it on my PC). Seeing the lengths (depths?) the voice actors go through to paint a scene makes me want it more.
But then… how important is good voice acting to begin with?
Games have had voice acting for decades now, and I am not entirely sure I can even remember particularly good performances. Sure, bad voice acting tends to stand out, if only because it pulls us out of the narrative flow. But is that not the paradox of good or even amazing voice acting? The better the voice acting is, the less we remember it. This lies is stark contrast to amazing soundtracks which you tend to vividly recall.
Perhaps this is some sort of physiological thing insofar as in these games we are not concentrating on how well the actor sounds, but rather what sort of information they are conveying – we remember the words, the story, the way the narrative makes us feel, but we lose their voice in the process. And maybe that in itself, the ability of spoken words to immerse you in the narrative instead of jarring you out of it, is the mark of quality acting. That just seems… cosmically tragic, as opposed to how other forms of art usually work.
Honestly, I am trying to remember any of the voice acting in games I have played.
- “War… war never changes.” Fallout narrator.
- “James!” The wife of the protagonist of Silent Hill 2, but mainly for that one specific (but hidden) exclamation.
- Thrall and Aggra during the Call of the World-Shaman questline. The dialog is pretty bad (aside from Thrall’s Fire speech clips), but the emotion got through. In fact, Thrall’s voice acting and dialog during the Flame segment is the best I have heard in WoW and many other games.
- Well, I thought King Terenas’ acting was rather brilliant in WotLK’s intro and ending segments.
I am starting to wonder if I remember WoW’s actors more simply due to repetition than quality (although they have it too in the above examples); the Fallout narrator is the same from all the Fallouts, and each time he says that catchphrase. In any case do you typically remember quality voice acting in the games you play? Do you have favorites?