Do you remember playing Wolfenstein 3D? Yes, the one before Doom. Okay, now do you remember gliding indiscriminately along walls, hammering the space bar repeatedly as you sought for those hidden rooms and their piles of gold and treasure? While some secret room locations had visual cues in the level design, a ten year old doesn’t have patience for that sort of thing, so slowly disintegrating the space bar was always the best option when I played it. The problem is, after a while this sort of thing loses its appeal. After a while, Bioshock Infinite loses a lot more.
One of the most glaring issues, for me, with Bioshock Infinite runs parallels with Wolfenstein 3D – looting. Whether it was bodies of enemies not even cold, rubbish bins, desks, safes, etc., I realised later in the game I wasn’t even paying attention to what the hell it was I had just picked up. Ammo? Money? [shrug] There’s this girl who keeps throwing all manner of bullets and money at me, instead of picking up a carbine and, I don’t know, helping out every now and again by nailing a bad guy between the eyes. Don’t ask how we know each other; I suspect it’s overly complex and I haven’t had a drink today. Yet.
I wanted Bioshock Infinite to be good. I needed Bioshock Infinite to be good. The original game set in Rapture was the sort of game I looked forward to – good story, great twist, beautiful aesthetics, claustrophobic settings and enough mystery to drive me constantly forward. Tragically, I realised towards the end of the game, as I resisted chucking the controller, that it had become a grind. Perhaps this is the time to confess I didn’t actually finish, I just couldn’t be bothered, and I found that disturbing. Luckily, I have the attention span of a goldfish when I’m not getting along with a game and got friendly with Naughty Dog’s masterpiece instead. Bioshock Infinite is not Game of the Year.
Before you start spitting venom at your screen, rejecting the unworthy opinion of the non-completer, you need to remember that this is the whole point. Any Game of the Year needs to be so good, so compelling, so utterly addictive that you deny all knowledge of having any family, a job, basic nutritional requirements or the need for sleep until you have completed said masterpiece. And the world of Columbia didn’t step up to the plate.
Bioshock Infinite looked pretty, but only when used in a sentence with novelty. During Booker’s early time strolling around the streets of the floating city, everything looks Nice, with a dash of Pleasantville and while I know this is partly designed to accentuate the contrast with later goings-on, the world had flatness, a two-dimensional tang to it. It seems as though the more detail goes into a videogame, the more its restrictions stand out – unexplorable buildings with unopenable doors should be banned with extreme prejudice. At least The Last of Us (and I will try not to mention this game too much lest my biased fanboyism causes mushrooms to sprout from my ears) gave a credible context to areas you couldn’t access, you could see where people had made desperate last stands, where entry and exit points were reduced because otherwise you were dead.
Unlike Rapture, whose dystopian society mixed horribly well with confined spaces, Columbia contained the grand architectural spaces, both indoors and externally, that seems to be permanently super glued to communism and totalitarian regimes. It might look good on paper, but the AI is damn good at picking you from a distance and I don’t see any of my enemies cursing at their DualShock controller, their clearly decaying reflexes in just their mid-thirties, or wondering why there isn’t a BFG for moments such as this.
Narrative is tricky; there is no denying that the best delivery of a videogame narrative can be sheer genius. Half Life did it by cleverly staying with Freeman at all times, and only allowing the story to be told through what he observed. Bioshock made clever use of audio communication and isolation. The Last of Us (there I go again) through amazing interaction and economy of words. But Columbia was a floating city, where the antagonists would float past or shout over the intercom, sprouting their propaganda, and for someone like me who is as politically aligned as a rainbow trout, I couldn’t give a stuff. I didn’t care about Comstock’s justifications or his political mantra, I just wanted to shut him up. Booker himself was also kept mysterious for the sake of a twist later on. It was a successful ploy in the first Bioshock that felt more like a hindrance in Columbia – I find that seeing a character’s motivations and how they deal with the conflicts they encounter to be far more captivating.
Save damsel in distress? Right. Escape the facility that is about to explode, because you wandered in and pressed the big red button? Gotcha. Shoot the undead thing so it doesn’t eat my face off? Locked and loaded. Anyone who knows me knows not to leave me in a small room with a member of the Young Liberal Movement. Philosophy makes my hands itch. Time travel makes me furrow my brow and look stupid. The original Bioshock was probably the one time that I went to throw a chair after the Andrew Ryan incident, then thoughtfully sat back on the chair and carefully retraced events. It may have required a map, some vigorous note-taking and some coffee, but in the end I continued the game, satisfied.
Anyway, the point is the more convoluted a plot gets, the quicker you lose me. And combining some seriously deep political rhetoric, multiple dimensions and time travel will always, always, make me want to punch a kitten. And I love cats. I am a cat person. This is how much it irritated me. I’ve read through the end of the game and I think if I had kept going, that kitten would have preferred to be sharing a box with hydrocyanic acid.
So as a videogame, I didn’t feel that Bioshock Infinite carried the industry forward, nor did the first-person shooter evolve. There was certainly an intensely detailed inspection of topics such as racism, xenophobia and nationalism, which speaks levels for where gaming has gone over the past couple of decades, so I have to commend Irrational Games for pushing these boundaries of storytelling, ultimately it serves us better in the long run. But it didn’t have the same impact as the original and other games have since come along to showcase how, when it comes to storytelling, less can be so much more.