Monday, April 22, 2013

Notes on Bioshock Infinite

[This is a new format I want to experiment with. As I rarely write reviews these days, I feel like I'm rarely actually writing anything about specific games that I play. To fix this, I want to try to write a Notes post about a game after I finish it. This will be a series of points about that game that may or may not connect to any of the other points. Points may be musings on something thematic or just one-line observations. I'm not sure how this is going to work, but I guess we will see. Also, there will be spoilers.]

1. I appreciate how Infinite situates itself in the Bioshock series. I like how it starts on the surface of the ocean, where Bioshock 2 abandoned me, and takes me to a similar lighthouse. I like the nods and the reassurance that this game will be thematically tied to the previous games in the series, even if it is geographically detached. As you ring the bells and summon the city, the thundering call of the city vibrating the clouds is a wonderful thing.

2. The lights and the sounds and the ascension into Columbia are just one example of the wonderful worldbuilding the game does in the opening scenes. An overheard conversations of buildings docking late was perhaps my favourite of the many snippets that these early stages gave me of how Columbia works. This was a fantastic and fantastical city I had just fallen/risen into, of course I want to understand how that city works. So, for a time, I was happy.

3. Infinite's biggest problem, then, is that it is not about Columbia. Not at all. Columbia is nothing. Columbia is the facade of a city painted onto a leaking helium balloon. For precisely one act of the game, Columbia matters. As Booker makes his way to Monument Island, as Booker and Elizabeth make their way through the Hall of Heroes on the game's most tolerable (well, least intolerable) fetch quest, we are given insights into Columbia's history and ideology. But then we travel to the smoke-covered factories of Finkton. Then back to the streets of Columbia proper—but now it is covered in storm clouds. Except for that opening act, Columbia might as well not even float.
After the Hall of Heroes, the game no longer cares about the Columbia it put so much time and detail and devotion into. Columbia is left behind with the first tear that Booker and Elizabeth walk through. On the other side, there's just some streets and buildings and bad guys.
Bioshock 1 and 2 were about Rapture, before anything else. They were about this impossible city—how it came to be and how it came to die. Bioshock Infinite is not about Columbia. It would be a far more interesting game if it was about Columbia. Even in Rapture's slums, you could never forget the ocean. In Columbia, air is just something you breathe.

4. Right before I lost all interest in the game (that is, when I first entered Finkton), I had the most enjoyable single skirmish of the game. After picking up the electricity vigor in the Hall of Heroes, Elizabeth and I returned to the previous area to summon the gondola to the airship. As we waited for it to arrive, we were attacked by airships full of police. This area, with its multiple levels and skyrails, provided a perfect playground for Infinite's gunplay to shine. I would jump on a skyrail, launch myself at an enemy on a distant airship, launch him into the air, take out the other two, jump back onto the skyrail and continue moving. There was an effortlessness to my movement, and a verticality. In this area, I didn't just feel like I was running-and-gunning. I felt like I was performing in a way befitting Columbia, falling sideways through the air with a satisfying ease.
When the gondola arrived and all the enemies died, it was the last moment that I truly enjoyed my time with Infinite.

5. It was also the time that Infinite forgot it was about anything. In the opening hours it alluded to themes of racism, manifest destiny, religious fundamentalism, and then it forgot about all of them. It stopped being 'about' racism and just started being racist. I already wrote about this while I was playing the game. Nothing that happened after that point altered my opinion.
Once the game (apathetically, lazily, boringly) decided that the Vox Populi were as bad as their oppressors, once the game opened a tear and stepped us from all-out-peace to all-out-war, anything that could have been interesting about the game was lost. The nuance of racial power politics was obliterated. The most interesting part of any rebelling (where the first spark starts smoking) was skipped over. Rapture was a distopic city already dead. Irrational knew how to do dystopias. Columbia started as a city still living before Irrational dashed back to the dystopia setting they already knew. And it was boring. It was well-trodden. It was uninteresting and about nothing at all.

6. The depth of Infinite's meaningful engagement with any of the themes it brings up is essentially, "Racism. Boy, I don't know."And that is why so many critics decided to kick its arse. Someone on Twitter (I forget who) asked why so many critics would tear into games like Infinite that at least aim for the moon, even if they fall short. My response at the time, having not yet played the game, was that those are exactly the games we should be tearing into if we ever want to get to the moon at all. Now, having played the game, my response would be that Infinite doesn't aim for the moon; it cuts props out of cardboard and stages a moonlanding in the basement.

7. Never make the playable character more ignorant than the player. If the player knows something is going to go bad and the character doesn't, that is a problem. Booker is a dimwit, and it is far too easy to remain several steps ahead of him, making the game's many fetch-quests even more frustrating. When Fitzroy promises to give you back your airship if you go and collect some guns from a gunmaker, it already sounds like an absurd mission. Why can't she send someone else? How is one man meant to carry enough weapons for an uprising? Booker doesn't care, so you just go ahead and follow the green arrow.
And, instantly, the gun fights are boring. The interesting context is gone. Now I'm just killing people for no reason other than the fact that I'm playing a shooter. I am more than happy to play a generic shooter, but the actions of my character still need a justified motive. That was gone the moment I fell into Finkton.
So we go to find the gunsmith. But he has been arrested and killed. So we just jump to a universe he was never arrested in. The most ridiculous part of this is that we then have to walk all the way back to his house. It's a fetch quest without fetching. But now the police have stolen his tools. But the gunsmith we can see is clearly glitching in and out of the world, he says he can't hear us over his tools. He is clearly in a world with his tools. So do we change worlds again to one where he still has his tools? No, we go and shoot more people on our way to the police station to recover his tools.
When we find the tools, Booker says "I didn't think this through." Elizabeth opens a portal to yet another world and we walk all the way back to the gunsmith again. It's a multiverse onion of fetchquests where you don't even fetch anything. Most players will think this absurd before even the first world hop, but Booker never stops to think of it, and the player is stuck driving a stupid automaton of a man, killing three worlds of cops because he didn't think this through.

8. Don't even get me started on the ghost fetch-quest.

9. I don't like Doctor Who. I've never quite understood why I don't like Doctor Who, but I think Infinite helped me figure it out. It's something I'm vaguely calling worldbuilding-as-deus-ex-machina. Every episode has its own pseudo-science explanation for why the weird phenomena is happening, and half the fun of each episode is finding out what that pseudo-science is and, thus, finding out what is 'really happening'. What I think bugs me about this is where the worldbuilding is also used as a convenient solution to solve the plot. I realised this when Infinite started using it. 'Tears' go from parallel universes to time machines to wish-fulfilment to all three at once and forward and back again, depending on what the story needs it to be at any one time. But the story never actually explains to the player what exactly tears are, and half the time their use contradict the way they were previously used. They are never understandable, and never interesting.
Worse, as they take you out of the original world the game spent so long building, as you step through that first portal, you lose any world to care about. From then on, you are just somewhere else.

10. At one point, Fitzroy says to Booker, "You just complicate the narrative." I chuckled.

11. Dead or alive, Andrew Ryan leaked into every corner of Rapture even more successfully than the ocean. For huge chunks of Infinite, Comstock is not mentioned nor invoked nor seen. He is described at the start, then he just disappears until he is needed again at the end of the game. And with him go any interest I have in Columbia or the game's cardboard cutout themes.

12. Okay. I have to mention the ghost fetch-quest. So you are chasing this ghost of Lady Comstock around because you need her fingerprint to open a door. Why is there a ghost? Do ghosts even have fingerprints? Who knows! So you get her to the gate and she is so angry about something or other she just rushes through the gate and blows it up. This ridiculous fetch quest didn't even give me the satisfaction of playing it out. Instead, it just blows up the gate. I could've done that with the RPG on my back!

13. I liked how Elizabeth was useful in combat but not in the road. It made sense why people wouldn't shoot her. (It made less sense why the Vox Populi wouldn't shoot her, but I couldn't even tell which enemies were Vox Populi so whatever). I liked that I never really had to worry about health or ammo while she was around. When she wasn't around, I turned the game down to easy difficult because I realised how boring the combat actually was.

14. The next minute of this video was one of my favourite scenes in any large-budget game in a long time. Especially the traintrack-clanging music.

15. The slow buildup of this scene was also a highlight. If Infinite spent more time on carefully crafted narrative moments instead of fetch-quests through tunnels of generic enemies down generic streets that might as well not even be in the sky, I think we would've got on a lot better.

16. One thing the story did well was flag a few things early on that were easy to forget about: Elizabeth's finger. The name Anna. When these were brought up again at the end of the game, I was like, "Oh yeah! Those things!" I think they were well implemented, at least.

15. Which I guess brings me to the ending. It was a very well implemented ending. I had lost all interest in both story and game by the time I pointed Songbird at the remains of Monument Island. I was composing all kinds of snarky tweets in my head. Then, suddenly I was in Rapture. Then I was somewhere else and somewhen else. Then things kept moving so fast until it clicks who Elizabeth really is. And then it keeps moving until then, even as the screen is fading to black and all the Elizabeths are disappearing, I understand who Booker is. It doesn't sit around for you to figure it out. It just tells you then drowns you. Bam. Just like that. I really liked that, even if it was just Levine overcompensating for regretting putting the twist too early in the first game (you couldn't put it much later than that!). Out of all the illogical stuff related to tears that don't make sense, the relationship of Booker and Comstock perhaps got the closest to making sense. And, for about the length of the credits, it was satisfying. But then I started to think about it again and none of it made sense. Not that I didn't understand. I understood, but what the game said happened didn't make sense. Especially not if there was a million other worlds out there.

16. In 2007, the very presence of themes made Bioshock a relatively 'smart' game to an audience of players who had never had to deal with these things before. Stuff like objectivism and the idea of being financially rewarded if you are mean to people and not being rewarded if you are nice really felt like a big leap in maturity for games to make. Bioshock convinced a lot of people that games could be smart not because it was the smartest game ever made, but because it was the smartest game a lot of us had ever played. Bioshock Infinite's biggest problem is that it is not 2007 anymore.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Bioshock Infinite's Racism

This is going to get a little bit tumblr, sorry. I'm still playing the game but I have opinions that I want to get out so here I go. Probably some minor spoilers for the first bit of the game will be present.

The first act of Bioshock Infinite is a splendid setup. I love the ascension from the surface of the ocean (where Bioshock 2 last left me drifting) into the skies of Columbia. I love those opening minutes walking through Columbia on a festive day. The environmental storytelling is a bit heavy-handed (please just stand there as these floats drive past with our history plastered on the side) but it paints such a magnificent and layered city. A beautiful city with an obviously dark heart. This is a racist society, and, for a while, I was excited to have a videogame that wasn't afraid to depict a modern, American society as a racist society. These weren't futuristic humans or aliens from another planet or Arabs or Nazis. These are Americans—Westerners like us—who are racist, who base their entire ideology on a racist other and manifest destiny. Here was a game, it seemed, that was going to confront the racism entrenched in our own societies.

We see the racist underpinnings of Columbia everywhere. We see posters of George Washington radiating a heavenly light that casts away Monkey-faced Africans and bright-yellow Asians and Irish drunkards. We see the fearful black man serving cool refreshments to the kids in the penny arcade, self-effacing in the way that only an utterly broken man could be. In the Hall of Heroes we walk through the propagandist displays of the Boxer Rebellion and the Wounded Knee Massacre. The message is clear: this racist society is afraid of the savage Other. The savage Other needs to be controlled, contained, managed. Or else they decapitate our womenfolk! The racist society of Columbia justify their own cruelty to other races by telling themselves that if they did not treat the Other like this, their entire way of life—not to mention their actual lives—would be at risk.

For a while, this is great! We can see that the society is, clearly, built on some terrible and horrific fallacies that are used to justify slavery and cruelty. We know, and the game seems to know too, that these people are wrong, that the Asians and the Africans and the Irish aren't one bloodthirsty mob that want to kill everyone. The game isn't racist; it is depicting a racist society.

But then some stuff happens. You end up in another world or the same world changed or something (I imagine the game will explain the tears better later but at this point it actually doesn't matter. Videogames take us to different worlds all the time; it doesn't stop them being racist.) and now the Vox Populi—the underground movement of the oppressed minorities—are fighting back. They are burning down the factories that they were previously slaves for. Great! You go, oppressed people!

But then you get back to the streets of Columbia. There is a barge that is taking fleeing citizens away before the Vox Populi forces attack. Not everyone can fit on it and tragic music plays as it flies away. Suddenly, the game wants me to feel sorry for these racists as though suddenly they are the poor, innocent victims.

And soon we see why. The Vox Populi are killing everyone. They are scalping people are nailing their scalps to a wall. Fitzroy, the black woman in charge of the Vox Populi, slits a man's throat and rubs the blood all over her face.

Bioshock Infinite showed me a society not that unlike my own where the everyman was terrified of a horde of savage Others being given equal power and then killing everyone in an inhuman bloodlust.

Bioshock Infinite then showed me a horde of savage Others given equal power, killing everyone in an inhuman bloodlust.

Bioshock Infinite went from knowingly winking at me, telling me that it knew this society was racist, to telling me that this society was right. This society was justified to treat non-whites how it treated them, because look at how they behave when they are set loose. They are animals, smearing blood on themselves and pinning our scalps to a wall.

This isn't simply a violent uprising. There is nothing wrong with depicting a violent uprising!

But neither is this simply 'power corrupts'. When the Vox Populi revolt, Bioshock Infinite says, intentionally or not, that Columbia—that America—is right to fear and oppress the non-white person because these people are naught but savage beasts. Bioshock Infinite says that Columbia's racism, built upon a fear of the Other, is justified.

And that is pretty racist.

Pre-emptive disclaimers in case this post is spread further than I anticipate!

Yes, I'm white.

People have probably said this way better than me but I haven't read anything on the game yet. Well, I've read Dan Golding's great critique that pretty aptly talks about a veneer of racism, but that's about it.

If you want to tell me how the later parts of the game justify depicting a collective of non-white people as a savage horde far more violent than their oppressors, go ahead, but I probably disagree.

If you want to tell me why you think the game is, in fact, not racist, bear in mind that the best counter to someone saying "X is racist/sexist/whatever-ist" isn't "Allow me to tell you why you are wrong," but "Allow me to try to understand why you see it that way." But whatever.