Let’s get this straight from the beginning: Bioshock Infinite is a fantastic experience. It builds a world that you can invest in emotionally and intellectually, with believable characters that you can believe in and connect with. I’d go so far as saying that it’s the first game since Half Life 2 to really, completely immerse you in its world.
And yet…..and yet. Something doesn’t sit quite right; there is a fly in the ointment, if you will. Having given myself a few days now to reflect on the game, on everything that happened, on that ending (don’t worry, no spoilers here), I feel that there is a blot on the score sheet. As stated earlier, Bioshock Infinite is a great experience…but I’m not convinced that it’s a great game.
The first hour or two had me rapt. Columbia is beautiful – there’s no other word for it. The way that the light lazily spills over the landscape, softening the surroundings in to an almost heavenly vision, the slight over saturation of the colours giving the world a slightly dream like quality…it’s stunning, and this immediate prettiness drew me in like nothing before. Technically speaking, the engine is nothing to write home about (frankly, the faces of the NPCs downright scare me), but the art direction carries this to another level.
But Ian, I can’t hear you say, we know all this! You said there’s a fly in the ointment, but you’re waxing lyrical! Well yes, but I’m building up to it. I am painting a picture! Hush now, all will become clear.
You see, this easing in to the game started to invest me in the world. It made me want to know what happens next. The first fight came and went (‘melee executions – cool!’), and I was introduced to Elizabeth, this most enchanting young girl, naïve yet fiercely intelligent at the same time. I immediately wanted to know more. I wanted to know her story.
This is where I introduce the bugbear. The game kept getting in the way. I realise this may sound a bit silly, but think about it. To me, the strength of Infinite is in its building of the relationship between Elizabeth and Booker, the backdrop that Columbia provides, the background of the proletariat rising up against the establishes classes, the overt discussion of the place of religion in society. These were the things that drove me on, yet I nearly didn’t get to experience them all – I nearly gave up on this game half way through.
I may now start to overuse the word ‘disconnect’, because this was the overriding thought I had after a few hours of Infinite. I’d spend a little time wandering around Columbia, interacting with Elizabeth, observing life going on around me…and then suddenly, everything changed.
Now, instead of the convincing world of Columbia, I was in an arena shaped area…all the NPCs had suddenly vanished. Enemies were running at me from all angles. ‘Ahh’, I thought, ‘this must be the game part.’ Noticing this brought a jarring disconnect between what I was so invested in, and the parts that had to be included to justify this as a game. The transition between game and narrative is stark, shaking me out of my immersion in the world, back to thinking, ‘right, hit Q, switch vigor, fire at that guy, take cover, reload, RELOAD!’
This disconnect (told you) happened again and again, to the point that I was bored with the game. Story, interaction, arena, shooting, recover, arena, shooting. I could go in to some specific criticism (Handymen!!), but it would feel unfair, because I did thoroughly enjoy Infinite…just not the game part.
It felt to me as if the shooty gun explosiony bits were designed by a completely separate team to the talky narrative emotiony bits – in fact, it felt like it had been outsourced to the Quake team. Hey Team Quake! We’re really busy crafting one of the finest game experiences of the decade so we’re too busy to make any actual gameplay. Could you knock together some generic shooty bits that we can stick in between our talky bits to justify this actually being a game? Thanks!
Don’t get me wrong….the gunplay was fairly enjoyable in and of itself, but it was nothing that hadn’t been seen before. If it hadn’t been married to the rest of infinite, it wouldn’t have been close to being acclaimed. Think about it…of all the pieces you’ve read about the game, how much has actually been about the game part?
The problem here, though, is that without the jarringly out of place shooty bits, the terrifically realised narrative wouldn’t live. This isn’t a narrative that would have seen the light of day in a film…and wouldn’t have had the same impact. For Infinite to work, you need to be alongside Elizabeth, you need to be in the world, you need to be experiencing it. Perhaps Infinite shows that gaming is finally in its awkward growing pains phase…gaming is maturing, trying to present compelling experiences, but is still shackled by customer expectation of what a game is.
Is there a solution to this? Probably. Do I know what it is? Not on your nelly. What I do know is that there has to be an evolution of this. For all that Infinite was excellent – and I am incredibly glad that I stuck with it to the end – it felt like watching Citizen Kane, but pausing every ten minutes to play a round of Angry Birds. Until narrative and gameplay can be successfully merged together, this disconnect between interaction and narrative will remain.
– Ian Cox