Wednesday, April 3, 2013

EXP Podcast #218: BioShock Infinite Debrief

Almost six years after BioShock took the world by storm and forever changed our relationship to video games, the esteemed Ken Levine is back with another work of fantastical and historical fiction. At last, after several delays, BioShock Infinite is in our hands. Columbia might be in the sky, but is the story grounded? Are the systems tight? Does any of this even make sense? Join us this week as Scott and I mine the richness that is BioShock Infinite.

As we always promise with debriefs, we will give you plenty of notice before we spoil anything, so feel free to jump in, whether or not you have played the game. When you have finally seen an end to the story though, be sure to come back and leave your thoughts on the game in the comments below (and when you do, spoiler warning tags are always appreciated.

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Show notes:

- Runtime: 66 mins 32 secs
- Music by: Brad Sucks


  1. Great discussion as always guys, but it's interesting how your division of the mechanical and thematic aspects was appropriate this time. I enjoyed the fiction of Infinite very much and grew to have a fairly good time with its combat dynamics, but never ceased to view them as conflicting halves of a confused whole. This is a very large problem in my opinion, but that is not what I want to talk about now.

    What I wanted to ask you was how you engaged with the looting mechanics of this game, which is easily the part I dislike the most about both Bioshocks. Here a couple ways (amongst others) in which I could describe them as detrimental:

    - Looting both makes no logical sense in the way that the items are spread throughout the world (chips in candy boxes, etc.), and no physical sense in the way that the collection is depicted (dozens of cabinet drawers emptied without a frame of animation, and so on).

    - Looting diverts the player's attention away from the "reading" of the environments, of their contents and atmosphere, and towards a maniacal "scanning" of their containers and trivial miscellania.

    - Looting does not seem to befit the character of Booker, who is not a hapless scrounger but a sturdy man of action, nor the setting of Columbia, which is a thriving state as opposed to a dog-eat-dog wasteland.

    - Looting in these games requires no skill, care or active comprehension of the environment; only the methodical execution of time-consuming, agency-devoid and even physically tiring maneuvers.

    A single or couple of these strikes would not be enough to bring the game down, but together they add up to what I view as a bloated, all-absorbing hole in the gameplay dynamic. You might say that one could simply ignore it if it helps them have a better time, but I would not agree as that would imply locking away large portions of the game's mechanical appeal (the upgrades earned through money), if not making it virtually impossible to play on the harder difficulties (as I am finding out in my current looting-free replay).

    To be sure, I think there is something tragic and monumental about both the universe presented by the game and its very existence as a finished product. I want to applaud that vision and force of will. But every time a game so impressive in most regards practically begs the player to engage in such mindless and blatantly compulsive activities (those button prompts simply will not go away), I feel less esteem for its value as a whole.

    This is especially frustrating to me as it is almost certainly the thing that the majority of players spend the most time actively doing in these games AND something I never hear criticized in any sustained way. Couple this major caveat to an overall tone which, in my opinion, largely unnecessarily goes out of its way to achieve brutality (the way Booker basically screams "GAME TIME!" by slamming that hook in the officer's forehead after such a peaceful and deliberate introduction, are you kidding me?), and you have a work I cannot honestly bring myself to admire : (

    P.S. Thanks for telling about that alternate box cover, I would've never known otherwise! A much better fit for sure.

  2. I've thought a lot about the looting aspect of not only this game, but all the Looking Glass bloodline (Thief, all the "Shock" games, Dishonored, etc.)

    I think you're right that there's a fundamental tension between the weird, traditional video game-y scroungefest and the high-minded story in the game. At the same time, like it or not, I'm not sure it would feel right if that stuff wasn't there, as it forced me to really explore the environments. Were I not rooting around through all the drawers, I probably would have missed a lot more audio logs and skipped over the small bits of environmental storytelling that makes the game special.

    I'm kind of talking myself around in circles here. My version of Booker acted like crazed hobo who was eating bananas during the heat of battle because it made him temporarily invincible. This seems pretty silly, but it's a kind of silliness that Ken Levine has been pretty honest about. It would be interesting if you could all that stuff off and see how it affected the story.

  3. Hey Louis,

    I just had a long conversation, though not long enough, about looting. I hadn't thought about it until you made this comment, but I think I've settled on hating it. You're spot on in your comment.

    I think there are a few reasons for looting the way it is, none of them necessarily good ones. First, by having stuff in drawers, you at least imply some sense of believability in the world. Trashcans are used, drawers hold stuff, etc.

    Second, it's an easy way to achieve some level of homeostasis. You can give the player a huge wad of cash at a few points in the game, or you can create more variability by doling out lots of little wads of cash as they loot stuff.

    Lastly, looting incentivizes exploration of the environment. If you're looking for another bit of salt by poking around a level, you might find an audio log you would not have normally stumbled upon. My main problem with his is that if you have to incentivize exploration, for whatever reason, you've already failed somewhere along the way. Or at the very least, there are other, less narratively disruptive ways to give players incentives to explore.

    But of course this comes from someone who enjoys exploration for exploration's sake.

  4. Hey guys,

    While normally I really appreciate your short thirtyish minute podcasts, I am really glad you let this one run long!

    I just finished the game a few days ago and am still trudging through the immensely large response from the internet, which all seems to follow the same structure of 'yeah it was great but . . .' This is, of course, fair regarding aspects of the mechanics or story elements.

    Your discussion of the overall themes of the game through, as seen through the environment and occasional interactions with the different characters was quite welcome. Not enough people have been discussing what seems to me to be the greatest success of the game: a complex, historically motivated reflection of the some of the darkest sides of American history and culture. It is impressive how the game seems to wrap players in its various themes through the environment of Columbia as opposed to the main narrative. Certain chapters certainly dealt with it more directly, like the Wounded Knee and Boxer Rebellion segment, but much of the time it was just the foundation for the main plot development.

    I cannot fully decide whether this makes it a more sophisticated experience, one which requires the player to draw their own conclusions about Columbia without explicitly tying it into the narrative, or an experience where the designers couldn't choose a message they wanted to focus on. I would like to believe the former. The richness of the environment is really a wonder of the medium. It is a great accomplishment in the realm of digital tourism, which games like the Assassin's Creed series present quite well, but one with a honed barrage of criticisms as opposed to a crafted, historically accurate digital copy with no refined commentary behind it.

    Anyway I am avoiding my job, back later with more

  5. Thanks Ian! Like you, I have to believe that someone at Irrational either did a lot of reading or has a pretty good working knowledge of American history. I think the fact that the game just lets it sit there is what makes it so compelling.

    I'm still wondering how folks who grew up outside of the U.S. related the story. So much of it felt like a distinctly American story.

  6. I think the fact that the story of the game can be discussed to level is a testament to how great it was. But as soon as you bring in infinite timelines, you make the story pointless because everything happens so your actions are pointless, therefore they lose all emotional weight. Following the games logic, wherever you have a choice, there's 2 groups (in cases when you have 2 choices) of timelines. Therefore, drowning DeWitt changes nothing because there will be one group of timelines where DeWitt drowns, but there will be a group of timelines where DeWitt was not drown (perhaps one Elizabeth saves him from the others) so Comstock will exist. This isn't even factoring in that there's timeline where DeWitt stopped the massacre at Wounded Knee and is a hero and there's one where Colombia is a real utopia and Comstock is a good person.