Monday, April 15, 2013

Infinite Struggle

Bioshock Infinite is an astonishing work of imagination and storytelling until it decides to be a shooter instead. The introduction of the world of Columbia is one of the most stunning sections of gaming in recent memory. The haunting walk through spiraling stairs. An unexpected launch. A city in the sky. A baptism. The constantly surprising presence of two of my now-favorite characters in gaming: Rosalind and Robert Lutece. For the first hour of the game I was stunned at its beauty, its meticulous architecture and ability to so immediately create a compelling, dense fictional world filled with history and secrets. And then the game handed me a gun.

Michael Abbott over at Brainy Gamer recently wrote: “Bioshock Infinite is a shooter with a problem, but the problem isn't the shooting. The problem is that [it] has nothing to say about the shooting” and I don't disagree with him. After the game introduces its violent side (in an actually-rather-stunning scene featuring a mock slave auction) we are still graced with moments of brilliant art direction, memorable performances and intriguing storytelling, but we must look at these things quickly—we're only ever five minutes away from another violent set-piece. But my main issue with the game differs from Mr. Abbott's. Shooting is par for the course in a game about violent revolution, if not exactly original. Thematically, at least, it makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the game's use of “vigors”. And vigors have nothing to do with anything at all.

What are these things, anyway? About an hour into the game (depending on how much you linger—I'm the lingering sort) you come across a kiosk at a festival where a woman is selling a potion. A “vigor,” she calls it. You drink it and immediately get the ability to possess machines into being your ally. You use this new power to force a robot to grant you entrance into a locked gate.

Now think about that for a second. It is an incredible fact. You, Booker DeWitt, an old-fashioned, grizzled war vet, drink some random potion at a random festival that some random woman is just giving away for free, and you get the ability to control machines with your mind. The game looks at this and says: Eh. Not long after that you drink a similar potion—vigor, sorry—that allows you to shoot fire from your hands. Eh. Not long after that, you get a vigor that grants the ability to summon a murder of crows with your mind or something to peck your enemies to death. Eh.
This would be fine if the Eh were the point, but it isn't. The game isn't trying to create a world where everyone has access to crazy, mind-altering potions. Because apparently, everyone does not. Most people don't seem to be aware that these Vigors even exist. This creates a disconnect that threatens to distract from the whole danged experience. You have these abilities, and the enemies have these abilities, and that's it. But, why? How? These potions that grant people the ability to essentially perform witchcraft are just lying around like dirty laundry. Heck, I got my first one for free.

Why didn't everyone take a free sample of the Posession Vigor and trick that robot into opening the gate?

What's stopping one of the black slaves from picking up that Murder of Crows Vigor off the ground where I found it and starting a bloody revolution to free the slaves?

Why do we need these things? 

How are they making the game better?

The answer: because vigors are cool, bro. They're totally awesome. The ability to rip your enemies to shreds with crows is effin' beast. Brooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

The game is at a crossroads. It wants to be an intelligent piece of sci-fi that features commentary on the political and social issues of today. It wants to create a compelling fictional universe filled with dense mythology. It wants to tackle issues of gender and race. But it also wants to make money. Ain't no one selling games about the Tea Party and slavery without some good old fashioned blood and guts. Here's a game about slavery and feminism where you play as a boring white guy who shoots fire out of his hands.

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