Sunday, March 24, 2019

RetroDEX: When creators look in the mirror (Bioshock Infinite)

This has always been the one in the series I liked. Returning to it for a second playthrough, I understand why it has held a special place in my heart. Irrational returned for the development of Bioshock Infinite. Unsurprisingly, the game is a better sequel to the original Bioshock rather than its sequel. Much as I enjoyed the second game, this series isn't a trilogy; it's a two-act play, with the second game being a stand-alone spin-off of the original game.

Bioshock Infinite ditches the claustrophobic Rapture for the flying city of Columbia. Its quantum-based technology and sky-rails have always been a draw for me. The game is visually familiar, but the change in the setting brought with it a change in color and lighting. Everything is bigger and brighter, which contributes to the feeling of a 1930s adventure serial.

Bioshock Infinite's popularity has waned post-release. It's not without reason: it's somewhat pretentious and superficial in its thematic approach. It can also get repetitive, slow and boring, from a gameplay perspective. Additionally, the game's the poster-boy for luddonarrative dissonance, more so than Bioshock. I can sing its praises, but Irrational remains a worse developer than 2K Marin.

To their credit, they improved. The gunplay is smoother, albeit simplified. The player's arsenal is conventional but vast and, overall, it's simply fun to shoot at things. There are no more alternate ammo types and the game features a more streamlined progression system. Not all simplification is good, however. The developers introduced a two-weapon-carry limit. In retrospect, it's a baffling decision; this design was already obsolete when Infinite released. The restriction, though popular, doesn't work with all shooters either. For Infinite, a lot of the weapons are situational. It's not practical occupying one of two slots with RPGs or sniper-rifles in the off-chance you need them; especially when ammo becomes an issue.

Vigors, the new version of the Plasmids, are a lot better as well. They offer variety and ease of access, through a standard radial menu. Some mirror the Plasmids of Bioshock 1 and 2, but there are some fresh ones that are a blast to use (Bucking Bronco is tons of fun). There's less of a focus on environmental kills and more on combos with weapons. On the flip-side, they contribute to the aforementioned dissonance. Plasmids were integral to the framework of Rapture, but Vigors exist in a vacuum. They are there simply because this is a Bioshock game.

Infinite touted its brand new "skyhook" feature prior to release. The idea behind it is solid; you get a handy tool to cling onto rails and hooks in the sky for moving fast and for strategic positioning during combat. Sadly, the game never makes the most out of the feature. The most use the skyhook sees is in scripted sequences. During the combat free-flow, there aren't enough rails or wide open areas to make the feature useful.

Gone are the thirty million different vending machines that sell the same things. This time, you get three. The frustrating, flow-breaking hacking mini-game is entirely absent. You need not hunt and eat children for ADAM anymore either. Everything that dragged down the first two titled has been removed, and the game has much better pacing as a result.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of the most noteworthy additions to the game: Elizabeth. Similar to what Half-Life 2 did with Alyx, Infinite gives you a useful companion to aid you in your adventure. Elizabeth doesn't do combat, but she also doesn't need protecting. She's there to provide the player with ammo and health/salts, as well as revive them in the event of death. This makes her a glorified vending machine/vita-chamber, but she can save some encounters in the nick of time. Her ability to "phase" turrets, weapons, and health/salt stations at the push of a button adds tension and energy to the game. Shooters are always best when they require snap decision-making and Elizabeth's abilities provide that. She is not vital to gameplay, but she helps make it more memorable.

Besides, she is nice to have around for that illusion of humanity and comradeship during combat.

The game is still very flawed; it's linear and the difficulty curve is all over the place. Around the half-way mark, most of the encounters are filler and the pacing suffers as a result. Much like the original Bioshock, this one suffers from "running out of game". Indeed, despite all the improvements, Bioshock Infinite is a game only by necessity; it's still all about the story.

Bioshock Infinite's story is convoluted and juggles a lot of topics and angles. It does politics and social unrest, quantum physics and science fiction. With its early 1900s setting, it draws from the politics of that era. Columbia is an isolationist theocracy with a vendetta and delusions of grandeur. It reveres America's founding fathers but corrupts them to a narrative steeped in religiosity. The leader, Comstock, fashions himself a prophet. Columbia is a cult, basing their entire society around the messianic figure of "the Lamb". Biblical symbolism, iconography, and allegory mark every important piece of scenery in the flying city. The white man is the only good man, as long as they're not Irish. Columbia seceded from the United States because they thought the Union corrupt. Still, Columbians took early 1900s American prejudices with them, when they ascended into the clouds.

On the flip-side, there are the working class warriors, the inclusive societal "disruptors" of Daisy Fitzroy. Their revolution is aggressive, violent and also adheres to a narrative. They never specifically cite Marxism or Communist theory, but it's obvious they are an offshoot of the very real Bolsheviks that were forming and revolting in Russia around the same time.

Many have criticized the game for its approach to politics and for a good reason; it's superficial and kind of dull. The theocratic setting of Columbia lacks nuance. The bigotry (particularly the racism) may be era-appropriate, but it's too overt. It doesn't leave much room for any form of philosophical or political discussion. The Vox Populi fare none better. The game tries hard to portray them as heroes early, only to pull a "both sides" argument. I don't have a moral problem with such arguments, but there's just nothing there to think about. As such, the entire framework appears hopelessly pretentious.

See, Objectivism in the original Bioshock was interesting. Objectivism is not widely known among the mainstream. It has gained traction in later years (in terms of sheer awareness, if not popularity), but unless you dabbled in political theory/philosophy, you probably weren't aware of it. Ayn Rand's dream society was foreign to most people. Seeing it realized in the first game helped with forming a connection to the world of Rapture, the city and its people. From the player's perspective, it was "their thing". They had nothing to compare it against and nothing to interfere with their perception of Rapture society. But the Comstock's theocracy and Daisy Fitzroy's Bolsheviks aren't new or interesting concepts. We've seen both realized in our history, in some form or another. We know far more about them because we've seen them in practice. We know their successes and failures. If the game sought to deconstruct these ideas, it could work. Instead, it merely touches upon them in a manner that is both superficial and pretentious.

It doesn't help that the game presents itself as more self-aware and important than it actually is. Irrational couldn't help themselves and added the illusion of a choice system in the game. If Bioshock's binary morality system was poor, Bioshock Infinite's is insulting. The game offers few decisions and they only affect minor dialogue or aesthetics. Your choices never amount to anything of value. One could argue this ties to the larger narrative about the meaninglessness of choice, but that is giving the devs too much credit. The game doesn't ignore the player's choices "according to plan", it outright forgets about them. After all, "constants and variables" has little to do with choice and more to do with tropes. It's a story of tropes and choices with consequences would not have changed that.

To Levine's defense, he and Irrational probably knew as much. When you break it down, the subtext has little to do with politics or philosophy. These serve as the framework, but it doesn't appear as if the developers set out to make a statement with this installment. There is a subtle element of humor about the socio-politics in the game that makes it hard to take them seriously. These moments are sparse, but once noticed, the story feels less like commentary and more like satire. Not very intelligent satire, but satire.

This isn't to say they're in the clear. The problem is the structure of the thing. The ideologies of Comstock and Fitzroy monopolize the narrative throughout most of the campaign. Additionally, Levine set the bar high with Andrew Ryan in the original and then failed to meet the audience's expectations. There is something interesting about Bioshock Infinite, but it's beneath the surface. As a writer, Levine fails to communicate that to the audience, until the final act.

Then the question becomes, what is really so interesting about it?

I have a friend who is very science-minded. He especially loves the reality-bending stuff. He loves this game because of that and I see where he's coming from. Alternate realities, the multiverse, time and relative dimension in space (totally a real thing, shut up) are cool. Bioshock Infinite offers that in spades. It doesn't delve into the specifics, but it presents the science in a fascinating way. The Lutèce siblings are very effective in that; arguably more so than Elizabeth herself. Their banter and their sparse but key appearances in the first half of the game, all contribute to the mystery behind Columbia.

This is why I was also drawn to the game at first, but it doesn't do enough of the science to maintain my interest. Fortunately, there is something much more intriguing about it. I favor approaching stories from a more literary standpoint, compared to my friend's hard scientific angle. For me, it's less about the context and more about the subtext. Bioshock Infinite is meta. It is not a story about politics or quantum physics; it is a story about creating stories.

The politics is the framework and the science is the tool, but the core is about the art of creation. There is always a man and a lighthouse, Elizabeth states. Socio-politics, philosophy and parental dynamics inform Levine's writing. Science is the connective tissue that ties the above into a coherent narrative. Whatever his intentions or his meta-narrative, Levine ultimately falls victim to his writing's tropes. Constants and variables. It's not the lack of free choice nor the similarities between peoples and places. It's the failure to escape one's creative comfort zone.

Bioshock Infinite mirrors the original game a lot. It's about a fictional city that shouldn't exist. A narcissistic zealot leads that city and his word is the law. The local society runs on the essence of little girls. Mechanical monstrosities protect these children. A younger, unspoiled version of the leader will be the catalyst to undoing it all. It is a quest about free will and tearing the chains of destiny. Booker is Comstock and Comstock is Andrew Ryan. But Andrew Ryan is also Jack and Jack is also Booker.

On the surface, the (very intentional) similarities can be interpreted as social commentary. "Constants and variables" could refer to humanity's tendency for repeating patterns, for great achievement and terrible evil. This interpretation of the material is certainly valid. It is also likely the intended reading.

But it is also a reading that is small in scale, unengaging in substance, and hollow at its core. If humans repeat patterns of both greatness and terror, surely the same is true of writers. It is more useful to break these tendencies down to a smaller scale. Much like the characters and the worlds he has created, Levine intentionally repeats pattern. He follows tropes (constants) to which he adds flavor (variables). He has the freedom not to do so, but perhaps he is limited in his scope. In his return to Bioshock, he regurgitates the framework of his original work. The coat of paint is new, but the core experience is the same.

Much of Bioshock Infinite reminds me of Metal Gear Solid 2. Hideo Kojima used the constants in his creative process as a means to subvert player expectations, then expand into a larger point about conditioning behavior. Levine lacks the skill or finesse of the Japanese developer, but he can be profound if he is critical of himself. The driving force of his story isn't the constants, but rather the variables. Booker De Witt is the series' first protagonist with an actual voice and a personality. His character is neither deep nor engaging; in fact, he's consistently clueless about what's going on around him. Elizabeth, despite appearances, is his actual guide throughout the story. She's the one that informs him, challenges him and, ultimately, judges and executes him.

In giving Booker a voice, Levine gives himself a voice. In making Booker clueless, he comes to terms with his limitations as a creator. From a gameplay perspective, Booker is a cipher for the player, but in the story, the player's role is best served by the citizens of Columbia. They are the ones that revere the city and its savior (Elizabeth). They don't act; they consume. They have expectations. Booker acts, he makes things happen. Comstock (and by extension Booker) creates Columbia. He sets the pieces; he allows both the city and Elizabeth to grow into something bigger than himself. Comstock doesn't fail because Booker kills him. Comstock fails because he can no longer control his own creation.

After all, much like Columbia, Elizabeth is also Comstock's creation. This is both literal (as he is her father) and metaphorical (as he is also her prophet). The most damning part of the story is when, in the third act, Elizabeth submits to his will. He uses her and corrupts her. The result is invasion and war, death and destruction. In a self-aware story, this means criticism of oneself.

Booker's relationship with Elizabeth starts out like a romance. She sees a savior in him. She crafts an entire reality, in which he is a hero, a martyr for the Vox Populi. But the Vox Populi isn't good and neither is Booker. He is a killer. He manipulates her. He lies to her. He abandons her. He is a deadbeat, selling his creation, his only child, to pay off his debts. He carries her initials carved into his skin. He can't escape his sin. He has to atone for it. Levine is a developer with years of experience in the industry. But not unlike Booker, he lived for a long time under the weight of Bioshock. The brand had gained so much traction; it was a shadow cast upon him. He couldn't escape it. He had to return to it and atone.

It's interesting to me that the way Bioshock Infinite ends is with Booker's death. In the linear narrative, this means that Comstock never exists. But if Comstock never exists, neither does Andrew Ryan. Ryan is Comstock in another reality. The role is the constant; the face is the variable. Beyond that, it means that the Bioshock series doesn't merely end, it is erased from existence. It doesn't conclude; it is uprooted, ripped from the ground and thrown into oblivion. Elizabeth turns against father, creator, and protector and ends them before they corrupt her.

For whatever reason, in Levine's mind, Bioshock doesn't simply end. He deconstructs it and then destroys it from the ground up. His antagonist is in the mirror, staring back at him. And you can't just kill a reflection.

There's nothing more to contribute to this series. It will always be the same. Same tropes, same flavor. Constants and variables. Whatever the story, it will start with a man, a lighthouse and a city. But there's no value in this. So it must all end where it begins.

Bioshock Infinite is not remembered fondly by most. Hardcore Bioshock fans never took to Columbia and shooter fans saw through the cracks of the game's mechanics. I maintain that the second game plays the best out of the bunch. Having said that, that game isn't one I have reason to return to. It's a solid shooter, but there are better alternatives that offer richer worlds. Bioshock Infinite plays well and the characters keep it moving. Levine's directorial style remains impressive in terms of photography. It is a very flawed game, and it is not beyond being pretentious.

It is also too possible that the things I read in the game aren't really there. It is probable I have misread the intentions of the creator. Considering the stupid dedication to the binary morality in the original game, Levine was probably repeating his usual pattern of this childish outlook on "good and evil", "heroes and villains". Be that as it may, I hope I have at least provided a different perspective on the work. At the end of the day, the sum of all these parts worked for me. Bioshock Infinite isn't great, but it is a game I will probably return to for another playthrough.

No comments:

Post a Comment