One of the last things I wrote on here was from just after finishing BioShock Infinite. It was a piece about the frustration and the disconnection I had in the world of Columbia. I could see a beautiful thing and an interesting thing and a thing built around concepts I actively enjoy thinking about or exploring. It was a game which said “we made this for you”.
Then I played it.
Columbia was a closed world. Sure I could wander round and shoot men or pick up voxophones but there was no space for me to exist. It’s a concept central to the game’s story but one which repelled. Here I am, you made a game for me to play and interact with except it isn’t a game, it’s a movie crossed with a museum and that made the sections where it required sustained active input seem so hollow. Don’t get me wrong, I like the FPS side of things and I think the game actually benefits from the violence. But between the combat sections and the wandering about sections I couldn’t find a foothold through which to insert myself into proceedings and engage with the ideas.
Last night I booted it up again, determined to find something different, a way in and a way around.
It’s a decision which has been building for a while but I didn’t act on it because I was enjoying the state of anticipation. The weeks or months between the first play and this one have been marked by a peculiar sensation — that of knowing, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I will love so much about the game this time around. Delaying that gratification has been a tease and a pleasure and I wanted to hold onto it as long as possible. But a few nights ago I needed to fact check something and since then it’s been just a matter of finding the time to hit “new game”.
Maybe this will sum up the differences between playthroughs so far:
After the lighthouse, your first experience involves a flooded church. It was astonishingly beautiful the first time round but something bothered me and that was the lack of repercussions for any of your actions. As with the rest of the game all you can really do is pick up things that are glowing and interact with people in pre-determined ways. During the first playthrough I did as my trained monkey game brain desired. I picked up everything I could find, sat through the conversations and headed towards my brutal baptism. My engagement with the space was then disrupted – where was my punishment for stealing from this religion or cult?
Obviously, one of the points of BioShock Infinite is that you’re not the first Booker to have trodden this path. The Lutece coin toss set piece hints at dozens of other Bookers all unable to effect a change. With that in mind, the only interactions the game can offer you are those which can’t actually make a difference to the story. That’s the problem with the first playthrough – before the game offers you a broader hint at the difficulties of determinism and free will it signposts trashcans for you to snuffle around in and loot to pick up. The lack of censure feels bizarre and takes hold, persisting well into the rest of the game and cultivating a disconnect which is then exacerbated through the oddly punctuated battle sequences.
In terms of the flooded church, the consequence-less theft can represent both your ultimate inability to have an impact on the flow of the story and Booker’s relationship with religion. That’s not to say I now think the execution isn’t problematic. Regardless of why it happens, diminishing the player’s agency will affect their experience of the game – it definitely affected mine.
So what of this latest Booker in this latest flooded church? He picked up one single solitary coin through force of habit and then left the rest alone. He looked at everything, listened to the voxophone about sinners in relation to a redeemer, and drank in the atmosphere. That was the extent to which I knew I could exert my own agency and so this time it counted for far more. The expectation of repercussions is because games frequently encourage an externalised view of morality. It is they and their systems which will determine how good or bad you are so you behave slightly differently. This time, in response to the previous playthrough, I’m finding the tiny points of difference (moral and otherwise) where this Booker can become my Booker. I can’t change who he is overall but I can build a bridge over which we can communicate.