One of the comments scrawled on a friend’s book manuscript after proofreading was “Has anyone ever EXPLAINED paragraphs to you?” I remember being in his kitchen and helpfully offering the advice: “Every six lines just do a line indent and you’re sorted…”
I’m telling this anecdote because that seems roughly the same approach BioShock Infinite has to fight sequences. Every, I dunno, six minutes here are some dudes in an area for you to deal with in a shooty punchy fashion. These encounters quickly stop having meaning, they feel like road blocks in between chapters of a story.
At these points the game sneaks off like an irresponsible substitute teacher going for a cigarette break after asking you to colour something in. It doesn’t matter what colours or weapons or vapours you use or whether you do it particularly well or poorly. Did you kill a man without going outside the lines? No-one asks. All that matters is that you have something that keeps your hands busy lest anyone look in to check. Then the game comes back, claps its hands and moves on to the next bit of the story except you can’t quite remember which page because the colouring in disrupted everything.
I don’t think BioShock Infinite gave a damn what I did during those sequences. It didn’t matter how I played as long as everyone’s head fell off in the end. As a result I played how I wanted.
I get that one of the overarching themes is that it doesn’t really matter what you do because what you do is what you always have done and will always do. You are moving towards a predefined end point both in the game and the game conceit. I feel like perhaps you could make an argument that in that scenario it is appropriate that the game feels no need to react to your methodology or player agency, but it’s an intellectual exercise rather than a real answer which translates into the game experience.
I found myself not exactly bored, just completely uninspired by the combat. Shock jockey, shotgun, punch, whatever. An edge of brutality is necessary to so many of the stories BioShock Infinite seems to want to tell but it only comes through at rare moments – the baptism at the beginning, the first time I used the hook to smash someone’s face in – but the rest rapidly becomes a kind of aggressive shouty porridge. I wondered whether it was on purpose. A comment on becoming desensitised to violence or on being Booker? I can’t remember the exact phrasing but Elizabeth asks something like “Will we ever be able to wash away these sins?” – so maybe the fact they don’t feel like sins or have an emotional or personal impact is supposed to tell you that this Booker doesn’t view them as such. What sins? Why should I want to wash anything away?
Again, it feels like an argument you can make if you want to and there’s logic to it but not an emotional truth. The repeated sensation is that you’re playing across a divide. There are the bits where the game is telling you the story and where the environment and mechanics are geared towards you caring about particular things or paying attention to particular things, then there’s a confection of battles which lack that focus and care towards the player. Regardless of the intention, it felt jarring – like I kept falling through a tear in the game and out into a world where it had no gravity or pull.
The lack of investment in the player’s repeated battles manifests itself most obviously in the final sequence where you’re defending Comstock’s airship from a Vox Populi attack – if your existing play style lends itself to the battle Irrational have created then fine. If not you’ll suddenly experience a bizarre difficulty spike as vapours you completely forgot existed and the weapons you didn’t upgrade leave a gaping hole in your skill set. This fight rears its head like a remnant of an older draft where the systems made sense and fights hung together.
Obviously you can still succeed, but my point is that I don’t think the game does a good job of showing or teaching you the variety of combat or of prodding you into experimentation. As a result the end doesn’t feel like an exercise in earned skill, it’s just: bang bang whoosh aim the Songbird oh wait you can’t because Elizabeth wants to chuck pennies at you and it’s the same button and what the hell does she think you’re saving up for at this point and then ACTUALLY aim the Songbird and then more bang bang whoosh until the story comes back and takes you to the end. The closest BioShock Infinite came to caring about my gameplay was having achievements for using different kinds of weapons or attacks (I was playing the Xbox version) and if you’re relying on Xbox cheevos to spice things up then something has gone horribly wrong.
Violence is important to the game but for the moments when it creates a sense of shocking brutality, not the blanket of inculcated indifference and gore it spreads over everything.
I am sitting in a chair strumming a guitar and Elizabeth is coaxing a terrified child out from under the stairs by rolling an orange to him across the floor. It’s a moment which should stand out in my mind for its sudden gentleness. Instead I remember it so clearly because I spent the scene wondering whether I had missed my chance to shoot him in the face. To get the fight over and done with as quickly as possible. To spam vapours and bullets as quickly as possible. To slaughter this child as quickly as possible.
Then: clap, clap, children. Let’s put our colouring books away and get on with the next bit…