6 min read

Seeking the Heart of BioShock: Infinite

BioShock: Infinite delivers a comic book experience instead of insightful commentary. Its narrative core is a cheap trick instead of eternal truth. So was it a missed opportunity? Or is something deeper going on?

The nature of my work gives me great freedom in choosing where to plunk down my laptop. Often, I choose our local library, with its vaulted ceilings, huge windows, and soft quiet owed to millions of dormant pages. I mentioned this during conversation at the card shop, as its myriad denizens wandered about between play. One of them I knew already, often unshaved and wearing plaid pajama pants in the daytime. College student? Dropout? I couldn't tell. 

But when I mentioned the library, he excitedly jumped in. "I love to spend time at the library!" he said. My face lit up: a fellow devotee of the written word! Had I unfairly mischaracterized this man as a layabout?

"Yeah, I spend all my time in the comic book section," he continued. My face froze. No. I had not. 

We'll return to that in a bit.

Liberty isn't all it's cracked up to be anymore
It can't be fun to put out something you've worked very hard on, over a number of years and with many talented people, and have it earn anything but praise. Of course, BioShock: Infinite has carted in accolades by the wagonload, which the team at Irrational should take justifiable pride in. It's at home with the best our industry has to offer in this modern age, where majestic production values are equal in cost to that GDP of a small country: the stratospheric heights of quadruple A.

And yet, the internet ankle biters are alive and well, aren't they? Nothing of this magnitude gets by without having its entrails torn out, examined, and judged. I played this game because it sits on the small heap of New Narrative Kings, and I had to know: was it true? Would BioShock: Infinite be good enough for me to side with the glowing reviews and breathless Facebook posts?
Well, you can gain health by eating cake out of a trash can, and there are two kinds of people in this world. I'm the kind which finds that ridiculous.

Those same trash cans inexplicably have sacks of cash. I've taken bullets from the pockets of dead ladies with parasols. (Mrs. McReady, I didn't know you were a sniper!) I've chugged hot coffee yanked from smoking corpses to get salt to power my non-magical magical powers… all without seeing a single coffee shop! You call this a floating paradise built on a heart of evil? Then where's the Starbucks?

But this isn't a diatribe about game design. I won't even call it lazy: nothing with these sorts of production values could be called lazy. Of course, through another lens, Columbia and Rapture are the same at a fundamental level, as are the game designs of BioShock and Infinite, its spiritual (?) sequel. If that's not laziness, it's at least a bored acceptance of a system that works so the "fun stuff" can be given the team's full attention. At worst, it's a presumption that the ultimate, commercially viable expression of FPS storytelling has been unlocked, and all that's left is the doing. Or maybe it's just another entry in a long-form artistic statement about the nature of games, one that started with System Shock fourteen years ago. You have to wonder: is there an achievement unlock for that?

Now, about those comic books...

A New Year's To Remember... Or Maybe Forget
The illustrated story medium covers a broad spectrum, from comic books on one side to graphic novels on the other. I would not call The Walking Dead a comic book, nor would I call X-Men a graphic novel. Both have a powerful premise that is an expression unto itself, and both are delivered as testosterone-friendly soap operas. They might have endings, but there is no End. They are franchises. They are story-telling vehicles. They do not exist to communicate a deeper understanding of our lives: they exist to entertain. 

In a word, the term "comic book" to me means "shallow." Not inexpertly crafted, simplistic, or boring: rather, its interactions between troubled individuals have no deeper meaning. A comic book is a vessel of vicarious and disposable entertainment, a sugar-coated combination of mis-matched fables we all know, infused with a new flavor to keep things fresh.

The first fifteen minutes of Infinite promised anything but that. From the tantalizing, confusing dialog at the start of the game ("it'll make sense later," I excitedly told myself), to the repugnant aberration of baptism minutes later, to the truly inspired "new trinity" of Sword, Key, and Scroll, I felt a lifting sensation: it's a brave new world! Here's an adventure worth having!

An hour later, after going on a grindhouse murder spree through a battalion of officers, I was stuffing my face with cake out of trash cans, sipping on coffee from dead bodies, and wondering how I'd stumbled into an airborne re-telling of The Beach. I was wondering if other people playing this game ever second-guessed their actions, and if that had a pre-requisite of sonder. I was deeply disappointed to find Infinite was merely a lavishly produced Modern Shooter with an exciting premise. 

I don't have a lot of leisure time: mostly it eats into my sleep. But this game was declared Important, so I soldiered on. How tantalizingly close it came to being a true escape! And when it was over, all I could think of was interviews with Ken Levine, and how much he loved comic books. And how Infinite, in illustrated form, would have been a bad-ass graphic novel, with every clearly delineated scenario its own book. Hell, that may be how Levine visualizes his stories. And where there's action in the story, he hands control to the player, only to wrest it back when it's over, so he can get back to spinning a yarn and impressing his audience with the cinematic visuals trapped in his head.

Bioshock: Infinite is an ancient game with modern production values. It could have been incarnated on the SNES with little lost in the translation. It's an author's world, where we walk through its gates and gawk at its amusements in the order he sees fit, enjoying them in the prescribed manner, stumbling back into the parking lot when the day is over and the lights are out, wondering if the memories will hold, asking each other why there was always fresh cake in the trash.

Couldn't miss this opportunity, could I?

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