Thursday, April 4, 2013

Schrodinger's Bioshock.

So, yeah, I played it, I beat it, and you know what? I'm not going to talk about the story. Not right now, anyway. Or maybe I will, and maybe I won't. I guess you'll see at the end of the post.

What I want to talk about tonight, ladies and gentlemen, is gameplay. To begin with, Devin's side of this review pretty much sums up everything I thought about actually playing the game. Combat, as it starts, mostly felt grafted on, clunky, and in the way of getting to the next part of the drama I am here to see. Which makes it a real shame that the presence of the combat is the only thing that actually makes this a game.

(Are there spoilers under the cut? The only way to know is observation.)

Not that there's anything wrong with that in the abstract... a linear story interspersed with battles and cutscenes is a tried and true format that ain't hurting anyone. The problem is that from this franchise, I expected more.

Ken Levine was interviewed in an article for Mashable that focused on the illusion of choice in Bioshock: infinite, where he talks about, well... how choice is largely an illusion. To quote:

Levine is not so much interested in how choices change gameplay, but how the player feels in that moment of choice.
"It's interesting that people put value in things that actually have no real world meaning," Levine says. "But that's the wonderful thing about fiction; people sort of hook value to things in their head that don't actually exist. Attaching emotional value to things that don't exist is the joy of art — and the definition of insanity."
This bugs me, and it bugs me on a lot of levels, because the thing that defines a game as a game is that you get to make choices. Otherwise, it's reading books, or watching TV, except instead of turning a page, you're pressing X to see the next bit. There's an arcade game the name of which I can't remember, except pretty much all you did was press a button and watch the next part of the animation. And there's swaths of Bioshock Infinite that feel uncomfortably like that. You don't have any choice in whether you do most of the things in the game, but in a way that is not so wonderfully enfolded in the narrative as it is in Bioshock 1-- possibly because in the first game, the moment where the linearity is lampshaded for you occurs right in the middle of the game, and is wrapped in some brilliant story. In the third installment, you know that _some_ explanation for it will be coming, but it's not until pretty much the end when it's slathered on you with a trowel and some high-minded cosmic-meta stuff: a divine justification for Why It Had To Be This Way, and you've been kind of limping through, frustrated by enegmatic, mostly contextless "choices" that don't actually change much of anything about the game in any meaningful way. Which is all part of one of Levine's apparent points: Choice is an illusion.

Yeah, sure, but as game players, we know that on some basic level. We know that we can only play the game we're given. To moralize about that is depressing and results in what looks like sloppiness. Putting actual choice points that give the feeling of interaction with, and meaningful response from the world is much harder, much more rare, and to my mind, was much more successful with the first two bioshock installments.

Yes, I loved Bioshock 2, and I don't get why it was so broadly panned... though I didn't fully understand what I loved about it until finishing Infinite. it boils down to this: I always felt like I was playing a game _while_ I was ingesting the story, and I as making choices that mattered to me, largely about combat.

Devin has this to say about the combat in Bioshock: Inifnite, which, as I've said, I could not have put better:

"At one point I entered a town square with Elizabeth at my side and I saw the familiar flickering of ‘tears’ that would give me skyhooks or cover or automatons or weapons and I groaned. I just groaned. I knew what was coming next - a couple of waves of samey enemies who would come, seemingly, from nowhere. I would have to try and triangulate their location by listening to them screaming “I’ll murder you!” and also by seeing from which direction their bullets hit me. I knew there would be about four or five minutes of repetitive spamming of my triggers, running in circles and spamming the X button to quicksearch corpses and to grab stuff from Elizabeth. And I knew I wanted no part of it anymore..." [much later in the article] "...I do wish I liked the game as much as everybody else; I think that if I found the gameplay more satisfying I’d be happier with the game in general. As it stands the on-rails nature of the game turned every combat encounter into an irritating halt in forward momentum."
And this is pretty much every single combat in the game. There's none of the awesome, 'set up your area, then trigger the combat' play that made the Big Daddy fights so much fun in Bioshock 1 (everyone had a different recipe for success there), and that was improved upon with the Big Daddy Fights and the Defend the Harvesting Sister fights in Bioshock 2. Even the Big Sister fights you could reasonably anticipate and trigger, through creative choosing of when and how often to have little sisters harvest ADAM. This gave a whole level of tactical complexity to your weapon and plasmid loadout choices that I enjoyed immensely. In addition to that, and the return of the Little Sister moral choice points, you had three additional choices to let spare or kill someone which had an effect on the ending, and which were reasonably interesting. And no, maybe the story wasn't _as_ good as the first game (when it was new, and also had Sander Cohen), but in its way, Infinite is a re-tread of the second game's story, except with Comstock instead of Sofia Lamb (because we can't leave the blood of the lamb metaphor alone, can we?), and a much more victimized and less interesting Saviour!Girl character in Elizabeth, instead of the impressionable badass we had in Eleanor.

Oh yeah, and there was a lockpicking minigame. Even though it was a simple dial, you could fail it, and that mattered to me, much more than, "run around trying to find lockpicks, which, by the way, you won't in the early game, when you need them, so your NPC buddy can open the door." For, you guessed it: the price of a clicked button. Code ciphers work pretty much the same way... it's pretty much a scavenger hunt for ciphers and vox codebooks, which would be fine if the rest of gameplay had any flavor to it whatsoever, but at the end of the day, I wanted agency to do _something_ meaningful apart from choosing which weapon/vigor combo to use to kill which round of pointlessly (being unspliced) enemies to-day. And I already have my preferred scavenger hunt minigame with the Voxphones and the Kinetoscopes, which were awesome, atmospheric, and interesting.

And so I ccome to another thing that bugged me, and a place where, whatever the creators say, I think that raw gameplay won out over and sold out the story in kind of an egregious way: the Vox Populi as eventual enemies.

The game's marketing materials gives you the impression that you will have a faction choice between the rebellious Vox and the oppressive Founders. Even the pre-order minigame, Industrial Revolution, bows to this conceit, allowing the player to get a Vox or Founder banner for their facebook page. Yeah... this isn't actually going to come up in the game. The game will just tell you, flat out, that the Vox are just as bad as the Founders in French Revolution-esque ways (ironic, in a game that's about a hyper-fetishized daydream of post-colonial America, set not quite 50 years after the end of the civil war), creating a semi-false equivalence between the two factions that does not take into account that one of them has a legitimate complaint against the other, and has, in fact, been the subject of criminal injustice. I say semi, because to the player, the equivalence is this: after a certain point, both factions will shoot you on sight.

So why is this a gameplay issue? Because if the Vox didn't suddenly go all shoot-on-sight with you, there goes most of the combat encounters from about the midway-point on, and well, it's supposed to be a shooter, right?

So I've talked some about the story, in spite of my intentions, because the two things (gameplay and story) are integrated at least enough to make talking about the weaker one (gameplay) extremely difficult without touching on the stronger. And the story is compelling and interesting, in spite of its aching flaws. And it has a number of those. The most interesting characters are the Luteces, whose story sets up the whole Schrodinger's Box nature of the narrative... in an infinite setting, where everything that can happen can be theoretically observed by an outside force via the 'tears', each world is a different Schrodinger's box of possibility, where the characters are both dead and not dead, via different means. The genius of this is that in the one storyline that we play through, there is another, non-narrative observer: the player themselves. Because of this observer, by the end of the game, all real uncertainty (in the game itself) is resolved into a firm and definite answer between the two options: Alive and Not Alive. Even the stinger at the end reinforces that-- any uncertainty is not a result of what we observe, but what we are not permitted to observe.

And if you read the above paragraph and think, "well, yeah, but I observed the whole thing and I'm still super uncertain about what happened!" well, consider that a lingering artifact of pondering something that fiction, in whatever medium it is housed, handles very well and which reality doesn't at all: paradox.

Now that we've come to the end of all that, there's yet another thing one may be uncertain about: Did Kainenchen like the damn game?

Well, mostly, yeah. And yeah, I'll probably play it again.

I still have to get all the Voxphones, after all.