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A Year Later, Did Bioshock: Infinite Matter?
Bioshock: Infinite was one of the most talked about games of 2013 (See our Review and our Top Ten Games of 2013). The game’s been praised for its ambitious storytelling and gameplay as much as it’s been panned for its linear design and racially charged content. One year later Fergus Halliday and Tim Gruver sit down to take a look back at one of last year’s most talked about games and ask themselves – Did Bioshock: Infinite matter?
Just to recap, how did you feel about the game on launch?
Fergus: As someone who doesn’t necessarily gel with things like Steampunk, the vibes I was getting from Bioshock: Infinite towards launch were cautious ones. Although I was a big fan of the first two Bioshock games, I wasn’t sure what bringing the same style of gameplay that originated with System Shock into a more whimsical setting would really add to the Bioshock formula. That said, my opinion of the game quickly turned positive once I got my hands on it. I found the story of Booker and Elizabeth and the city of Columbia to be more compelling and engaging than the original Bioshock’s and I thought that Irrational Games had nailed the gameplay this time around – finally offering up enough fun and powerful weapons that you didn’t always stick with the path of least resistance.
Tim: For a time, Bioshock Infinite consumed my life. From eagerly devouring every preview and interview surrounding the game to the day I sat down to play it, I thought about it fiercely. Every play session was like a TV episode, asking me to strategize about every possible plot scenario that might come in the “next episode” that would come only hours after I took an ill-fated break. Infinite was my life for a short while and not for the reasons I entirely expected.
There were a variety of elements that I found compelling, but the most immediately gratifying were the performances of its characters along with the sheer size and scope of the world they inhabited. Elizabeth was as charming, and at times alluring, as I was legitimately surprised to see, and though Booker satisfied his purposefully simple-minded role, I enjoyed the deeper mystery behind his past that I had long suspected. The rest of the cast did an adequate job in their respective pop-in appearances and I most admired the beauty and horror of Columbia blended seamlessly. The gunplay and biotic powers were genuinely as routine as I expect from FPSs, yet the rich detail and depth of that world itself made up for where its gameplay was lacking.
Has that opinion changed a year later?
Fergus: While my overall feelings towards Bioshock Infinite are still definitely positive, they have refined themselves a bit in the year after its release. Some of the game’s narrative and mechanical shortcomings have definitely been made more apparent and while I acknowledge those, I still had an absolute blast with the game when I revisited it a few months ago to get those 1999 mode achievements.
Tim: I would say my opinion of Infinite hasn’t changed so much as it’s intensified on all accounts. While I still recall the same strengths and faults as I did originally in Infinite, I’ve come to recognize them with far greater criticism.
In retrospect, the world seemed even more linear than I remember it, often worse than Final Fantasy XIII when its endless amount of hallways and repetitive forward or backward design were concerned. The game seemed guided in how overtly simplistic the level design was reduced to, maybe to a fault.
Since the VGX, I’ve shook my head how it deserved “Best Shooter” when I went through the entire game shooting 90% of Columbia’s brainless AI with just my pistol against the same brainless AI. The vigors were greatly entertaining on a superficial level, but looking back on them, few if any of my hellfire balls or storm of crows ever made a real dent in combat. I’d say it earned, “Most Shooting” of the year at best.
That said, I look back on Infinite even more fondly when it came to its cast of characters and superb storytelling. Elizabeth’s song has haunted me ever since and I’m still impartial to her and Booker’s fine chemistry. Infinite was a stellar experience still, but not in the definition of a very good “game” I suppose.
Do you think it was worth the hype or over-rated?
Fergus: I think that while there’s definitely something to be said of Infinite’s hype-building through features and content in demos that never made it into the final product, it was still probably worth the hype. I came in expecting a cool world, fun characters, stylish combat and got all of these. When the late-plot revelations like Elizabeth’s pinkie and Booker’s past came to light, I was pretty impressed with them and when the final note played in the game’s ending, I felt pretty satisfied. So satisfied, in fact, that I still haven’t picked up Burial At Sea.
Tim: In many ways, I’d say that Bioshock is a series that means something to everyone, and it’s one that’s split into two narrow camps: one of gameplay and one of narrative. If you’re privy to solid shooter mechanics and an engaging action experience, than you’re probably going to be bored with Infinite and reduced to scratching your head over its impossibly complex plot. If you’re fueled by science-fiction laced, character-driven stories (as I am), you’ll probably feel more fulfilled, albeit it with more questions than answers. It depends on what you seek to take away from your time in Columbia I suppose, as it’s never meant to be one thing, but often juggling too many of them at once.
How did you feel it compared to previous Bioshock titles?
Fergus: Although, I do have a soft spot for Bioshock 2 – I feel like Infinite is probably stronger than the original two in a number of ways. Something that I really felt the original Bioshock faltered in was its combat and with Infinite, Irrational really sat down and refined everything that worked about that combat and added a level of viability to the more obscure powers and weapons that the original Bioshock lacked. Storytelling-wise, the pinky-reveal has nothing on ‘WOULD YOU KINDLY’ but overall, I found the characters and world of Infinite a lot more engaging than the underwater metropolis of the first two games. Even if the white-supremacist ideological aspects of Infinite are definitely pushed to the side too often for my liking.
Tim: It’s hard to say when previous Bioshocks have aimed to tell themselves in a decidedly different fashion than I believe Infinite was aiming to. I’ve only played the first and don’t have an opinion on the second, but I’m a firm believer that Rapture still had an inherent, philosophical edge over Columbia in its design and place in the series universe.
While Rapture was already in ruins unlike Columbia’s initial paradise, it was more immediately compelling trying to piece together the former’s puzzle rather than being shown the latter’s destruction as it happened. Columbia and Rapture further differed in idealism. Comstock’s heavenly city was essentially opposite Rapture in its inherently conservative, cult society leaning towards totalitarianism, whereas Rapture was a richer, liberal state bent towards anarchism. Thanks to that, Columbia always felt emptier because of its more scripted personality of a collectivist hierarchy, while Rapture’s followed a more opportunistic approach of individualism. One worshiped a god, the other humanity, and I guess I’ll always see humanity as the more empathetic of the two.
I suppose less importantly was the issue of gameplay. I’d say the two handled similarly in most regards without too much difference. Both were fully functional and both didn’t contribute a terrible amount to the immersion other than serving as filler between one area and the next, and neither were highly aspirational of anything more. Bioshock has never been one to lend itself more to gameplay than it does its own sociopolitical commentary, so I wouldn’t say that’s the most game-changing of the two.
Do you agree or disagree with the notion that the game was racist?
Fergus: I think that the criticisms of the game as racist are correct, but I don’t think that racism was necessarily the intention of the developers. Like I said before, a lot of the ideological stuff in Infinite gets shoved to the side by its dimension-hopping drama and this makes the game’s attempts to explore the racism of American supremacism much less nuanced and much more clumsy. Stuff like the way the game presents a world where only the white male protagonist can help the oppressed colored characters rise up and the way it vilifies Daisy Fitzroy is all a bit of symptom of pushing the ideological ideas that the game uses in its premise to the side.
Tim: It’s nigh impossible that a game featuring racist atrocities won’t be interpreted as racist in whatever vein some may see it in. I would nevertheless argue that it still restrains itself from condoning the source material it presents when it doesn’t seek to raise its voice in favor of any particular side.
It’s probably no secret that Bioshock holds back little regarding absolutely every horridly racist, sexist, and genuinely offensive bit of propaganda you can read about from the Victorian era, or even our own right now. Blacks, Jews, Asians, Irish, few were spared a hateful caricature in Columbia’s outrageous intolerance. Yet the game never seems to offer any discernibly biased commentary on either side of Comstock’s elite or the Vox Populi’s radicals, at best accusing both of atrocities and at worst simply staying silent. In some ways I think the game was hurt by its inability or simple fear of providing deeper answers than equal condemnation, but I suppose there are no easy answers to any of the questions Columbia asks.
Bioshock: Infinite had a pretty ambitious and divisive ending – what did you think of it?
Fergus: It’s hard not to be floored by a game that ends as ambitiously as Bioshock: Infinite does. Within the game’s short final sequence, you are greeted with just as much infinite-possibility as you are brutal and definitive finality. Although I would have loved to see Elizabeth end up in Paris, I could see from miles away that Bioshock: Infinite was never the kind of story that was going to end that way. Levine’s final sequences of the game felt right in a lot of ways – it makes some sort of logical sense for the player’s infinite choices be cut down just as Booker’s do in the game’s final moments.
Tim: I would agree that the ending was ambitious, but I don’t know to what end. It admirably tried wrapping up the game’s web of intrigue all in one, monumental sequence that lacked the kind of ceremony I wanted after investing so much time up to that point in both Elizabeth and Columbia. It seemed deliberately ambiguous just to lead me on to a dead end than leaving the story open-ended, stopping on a fragment rather than an ellipsis. I’d say that I enjoyed the visual spectacle of Elizabeth’s dimensional travel without giving away too many spoilers, but I didn’t leave as satisfied as I hoped to be. Maybe I’m better off this way in the great Ken Levine’s vision, but maybe a sequel is in order after all. . .
Will Bioshock: Infinite be forgotten or do you think it’s worth remembering?
Fergus: I genuinely think Bioshock: Infinite is a great game, but I don’t think it will be be remembered in the same way as its predecessor is. It might be a more polished and mechanically fluid experience than its predecessor but it’s not the same kind of game-changer that Bioshock was. On top of that, the racism stuff is bad, but not nearly bad enough to live on in gaming infamy. I mean, when you look at bad games that are remembered for being bad, it’s a pretty select list and possibly-unintentional racism is hardly going to push an otherwise pretty fun game onto that last.
Tim: Bioshock: Infinite probably won’t be a game that the mainstream consciousness speaks of in the same breath as the first, if any of the Bioshocks can be outside of their cult status. It will, however, be something invaluable to anyone involved with video-games as an artistic medium. As a testament to a kind of “art for art’s sake,” it’s a piece that deserves to be looked at from whatever angle you choose to view it with a spectrum of emotion too fascinating to dismiss. It started conversations that won’t go away, and for that, and if it’s inconsistent genius will forever be something flawed as much as beautiful, it should be something every gamer experiences at least once.