I always found Metal Gear Solid 4 to be not a brilliant game, but a fascinating one. A mad ideologue glutted with tech retreads, again and again, the narrative he’s always dreamed of, and has never been able to get quite right.
The metanarrative eats itself, strains the game until through its seams you can see the soul of its creator: The way he feels like an aging relic in an economic landscape colonized by Westernized war deserts. The way he longs to rest, but is called to the mission yet again, for the glory of his country, and for less definable personal things.
I don’t love the game, but the game made me love the man after a fashion, the way one loves from afar the kind of father that just can’t manage to parent right. I have never run out of things to say about it, and I thought I’d never see the like again, and yet. BioShock Infinite is a game like that. Exactly like that.
Everybody wants to rule the world. Spoilers.
Let me talk about the original BioShock, first. It was the first first-person game I would really love in my adult life, after I swore off the mean exercise of trundling through carefully-constructed corridors as a pair of disembodied hands, a hovering barrel, a voiceless narrator. It was a masterful exercise in the careful marriage of level design and environmental narrative — pulling me intuitively through its world, letting me absorb it as observer, interloper or aggressor as I chose — but it owned every beat, unspooled them to you slowly.
A splicer’s flickering ghost sobbing sepulchrally in a bathroom mirror over what she’s become. A madman, in his broken holiday mask, pounding insistently on a door as you lurk in the shadows to see who opens it. You are given to know the Big Daddies and Little Sisters long before you can ever approach them; whale-like sobs in the distance, lamplike eyes radiating from the dark. Those things are iconic for a reason. BioShock was a revolutionary and a singular performance. To try to repeat it is ambitious; to try to outdo it would probably tear a body in half.
I have a memory of visiting Disney World and its adjacent parks as a six year-old child. I have never been able to forget the Carousel of Progress, or at least some kind of idea of it: A collision of nostalgia and futurism, barbershop mannequins singing about how now is the best time. It intends, I think, to be a celebration of our technological advances, but to my child’s mind, as we proceeded through the looming concerto on-rails, I was struck by the mechanical singing automatons, their jaws clacking on hinges, their faces waxen and gleaming with artificial optimism.
Since then what I’ve remembered was how sad I felt at the dissonance — cheerful, lovingly-polished parrots of humanity, voices piping from unknowable places, blank-eyed, terminally optimistic. They were telling me that the World of Tomorrow, of high technology, was right here now, and yet I could see all their seams, the places their charming clothes creased unnaturally over their little robotic bodies. Sad. I still feel oddly sad for them when I think about them, when I think about the engineers that gave them life.
Infinite intends to reek of quaint Americana, the innocence of cotton candy, boardwalks, Independence Day relics. Yet its spark is absent. It’s pale, smudged at its edges, bright in the wrong places. Like a beloved automaton it feels half-alive, or like it’s alive under a veneer of wax. It is a theme park world, it’s Tomorrowland, rich in promising detail, capturing the imagination. Yet every exploration is stymied by a velvet rope, every promising corridor just leads to a restroom, a gift shop. The secret stink of money is all over everything. At every turn, a pile of trunks and crates that let you know a modern war lies ahead. It’s a place to kill and be killed in.
It’s not even that I wish it wasn’t a shooter, or that there was no combat. BioShock the first was a combat game, and even though I think killing is the laziest mechanic known to game creation, it had a weight, a necessary friction. A madwoman in a rotten gown, paralyzed with shock, teeth rattling — the abruptly lethal punctuation of a heavy wrench, the silence that followed — elicited the appropriate disgust. I was part of the ecosystem, not the center of it, not directly. I circled, I hunted. In a way we were all still dancing the New Year, delicate as a bloodied choreography. My fear for my person and my very agency to kill or spare were part of the story. There was a lot of griping in those days about how non-mechanical choices aren’t really choices. I disagreed.
It’s that Infinite’s is a sterile, mechanized system that could have been ripped from any other listless hyper-modern game like a bloody spine and grafted messily onto this vision, obscuring it. It doesn’t even do it well; I wouldn’t even say competently. Its inconvenient clutter obscures the vista, depersonalizes it, without even the grace of providing meaningful cover. Ever. The game’s grasp on level design seems limited to Superbowl Sunday arenas and a repeating paradigm of twin staircases looping to some higher platform.
Men yell at me from uncertain directions, sounding distant, and yet suddenly there’s someone behind me. I don’t know who he is or where he came from, but I open his skull like a reflex. Not more than two hours in I had seen the waxen inside of tens of anonymous skulls, without having had any reason to invest in them. I enter an area, the swarm begins. All sentiments but tension, tedium, dissipate in the onslaught. I am desperate for the sharp violin note that tells me it’s over. I will hear that note countless times, and feel nothing but mechanical, empty relief.
The game is in its own way. It is at cross-purposes. Of course it’s full of tears and flickering glitches. It’s tearing itself in pieces.
The guns are tuned beautifully. The vigors are so cool, bro. But they’re means to an end. If I’m going to entertain myself with weapons and vigors, I need coins, salt. The world glitters madly with them. They’re everywhere. It’s not long before I stop seeing Columbia, and start seeing only levels to be strip-mined, chasing the blink. My revolution is a mad jangle of coin-clutching and cake crunching. I no longer care to listen to the voxophones. I don’t hear what Elizabeth is saying to me. Kaching, crunch, hiss, the clunk of objectives and ill-timed interface intrusions. People yell things at me as they assault me but I haven’t got the time for it. I have never sprinted so much in a shooter as I sprinted in this one. I just want to keep it moving. If I stop, I’ll realize I don’t want to play anymore.
The original BioShock proposed a world that made us think about what we were doing to ourselves with every wincing injection. We saw what Plasmids did to others, thought about what they might do to us. It submerged us slowly. Infinite presumes it can strip the idea, reskin it, throw us at it thoughtlessly. It’s quite presumptuous. It unapologetically demands an immediate, overwhelming buy-in to the BioShock souvenir theme park, this monument to something you love that wants sixty dollars worth of your memories at the door.
We were promised an ecosystem, morals, a message, and given thin reasoning at every juncture. I enter the Founders Lodge, a seat of purist disease. I remember Rapture’s marketplace, the sumptuous decomposition of prosperity, and feeling a pang at a poster of pets for sale reading, naively, “BEST FRIENDS.” In Infinite‘s world here, the propaganda feels over-wrought, self-conscious (though the Twin Peaks Black Lodge carpeting was a cute touch, maybe slightly too cute). Maybe because there is never any reason to believe the world’s politics mean anything.
And then I come upon a lavish spread of rotting fruit, fine china. A raven is disturbed from the Dickensian tableside, spores and insects circulate in the silence. As I admire it, a man in a suit and a bowler hat enters. He’s not dressed like a policeman. Who is this person, and what does he do in this place? Oh. He pulls out his gun. I shoot first. It’s the end of a story that never even began.
Politics. This was supposed to be a game about the nuance of fundamentalism, exceptionalism, Occupy and some other slurry of ideals I can’t hear over the noise of my own bullet-addled grunting. We’re at the war museum. I cannot recall ever having lost my place in a narrative before, but I barely grasp my relationship to this man, Slade, or something. I’m so busy killing I can’t hear him talk to me, either.
Back to BioShock the first, because this is a game fundamentally about how bad we want to (ought to?) go back to BioShock the first — its lesser characters were monarchs of their own intricate domain. We felt inexorably drawn into their orbits, piecing through the dusty artifacts of who they used to be and what they’ve become, until the inevitable confrontation was striking, cinematic. Columbia, on the other hand, is a world where little-heard voices speak grandly at us from afar, and then send waves of uniformed clones to do their bidding. And then they send more. And then it’s over.
We confront Slade in some kind of racist museum tour; all of Infinite is a racist museum tour. I’m sure someone has said this before, although I’ve insulated myself from any games writing on Infinite until now so as not to bias myself, but it’s the Quentin Tarantino school of social issues — present a world full of prejudice so you can feel progressive, “adult,” for using racial slurs. This strikes me dull. I’m insulted. It’s opening a wound just so we can feel that it hurts, and then leaving it there.
We visit Fink’s machineworks. This man, the force behind all of the assembly lines that have yielded the building blocks of Columbia — it’s not him we really get to see, it’s yet another fucking litany of combat variables. I am supposed to feel for the Firemen, the Handymen, but they harry me so quickly I don’t have time. I just want to kill them. Like any confrontation in this game, it’s a wave of combatants sent by some figure at a literal and an emotional remove. There is no choreography, only the immediacy of brutality.
Contrast the end of the “Fink fight” — anemic rain of confetti, forgettable conversation — with the confrontation of Sander Cohen, haunted, spotlit, made up in decaying stage pancake, waving dramatically to ghostly applause and the glory of a lost career. I once found Cohen so piquant that a younger me once wrote an entire essay only about him. When he called me a moth, I was unsettled. Fink’s presumption of me as a bee is just a cynical cliche. One is a character, the other a caricature.
There is Elizabeth, a Disney princess who flicks coins at me, who glares glassily whenever I face her, the eye of my weapon always bisecting her face unflinchingly. That fucking gun is always hovering at her, whether I want it to or not. I hang the crosshair lazily over her eye while she’s speaking. I know I’m supposed to love her. I try. I’ll try until the game is finished and be left with, at best, a sort of absent pang for her parent. This game is really about the people that made her. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Keep reading. There’s only a few more waves ’til you get to the good part. The ending is the best part, I promise. Dig in, soldier on.
Elizabeth is asking me about my past as we leave the Wounded Knee memorial. Flickers of noise intrude, reminding me I can pull battle strategies through tears. I’m trying to tell her about myself. She interrupts. She wants to flick a coin at me. Later, alongside a shady little bridge, she wants to know about herself. She falls silent; shotgun and I trundle under the bridge, ready to fan the area for the next assault. You’re Comstock’s daughter, I reveal to her. Oops. I turn around to try and have the conversation to her face, but she isn’t looking at me.
I tell her her mother didn’t love her in an elevator where I presume she’s standing somewhere behind me. We will ride a lot of elevators together, as she glares stonily, maybe lost in thoughts about how I never stop rifling through discarded bags for salts when she’s talking. I am always chasing her attention just as I am always chasing her to the next bannered objective, through the places where we never manage to spend time. We’re in a prison that’s supposed to horrify me, but it’s just assets on top of assets. My Elizabeth jogs off into the dark gamely, having spotted a lockpick.
I’m in the land of the Vox. Some shantytown. A man stands on a crate, preaching about the misfortunes of the working class. I want to snap a picture of the juxtaposition between the way I always want to listen to him and the way I am always waving a gun in his face, and so I put the controller down and held my phone up to the screen. As I am picking the controller back up, my finger slips, and I shoot him by accident.
He screams, falls silently blooded. All around me the Shantytown residents continue to stand attendant on no-one, fixing me with waxen faces. I raid a crate. Take All, is the option offered me. Elizabeth stands waiting by a sign reading “Why Have You Forsaken Us?”
Later I see poor people huddled round a vending machine, trying to break it open. I wonder if I can help, so I take a shot at it. They swarm me so fast that I can’t even think much before I’ve beheaded them all. Wasn’t what I wanted. I raided their bodies, and they were loaded down with ammo. I didn’t want to savage this little land of barefoot poor, and yet I had to. Because that’s how games are. Because ‘that’s the way it is.’ Because it’s ‘still better than every other shooter’ — why, because I can murder whoever I want?
They are calling my name. I’m finally a hero of the revolution. Because magic. Because this reality wasn’t working, so we opened another one. I have a brief time to enjoy it before the Vox are waves of enemies to be killed, too. Daisy Fitzroy, who I had no time to admire before she became a caricature of an Angry Black Woman, tells me I “just complicate the narrative.”
Clearly, but to what end? When does a supposed essay on the purposelessness of conflict simply become purposeless? Racism, corpses, endless slaughter — all the things that are supposed to remind me of how horrible Columbia is only makes me think of how horrible games are. There are more dead bodies in this world than live people, and ever moreso as the game progresses. Their deaths don’t matter. This is a dead world.
Elizabeth enforces that we are responsible for this gruesome reality, but it’s just been impressed upon me that this is only a second reality? How am I responsible for this version?
Elizabeth’s response to killing someone for the first time is to change into a new dress and cut her hair so that she matches the promo art.
The spectre of Lady Comstock has loomed over us for this entire game, in legend and in portraiture, but we have no intimacy with her cartoonish corpse before we are literally chasing a spectre. This is not a game about American exceptionalism and the choice between obedient prison and chaotic freedom. This is a game where you have to chase a ghost among parallel realities. This is a game that lives in its own alternate universe, is in love with its own cleverness, instead of being genuinely clever. There are tears everywhere. And in the game.
The Levine-led Irrational team has birthed a universe, now, of games about a dominant idealogue enforcing a slavish devotion to fearful systems, even after those systems have become irrelevant. It gives us worlds plunged into the stress of compartmentalized factions where teams don’t communicate, where promises are grand and lovely, but terrible on execution.
I think to some extent every game must be a reflection of its creative environment, its studio culture. Infinite strains its framework so fiercely you can see through to the flickering reality behind it. I would love to do an interview: Not a grand portrait of Levine, but with his soldiers.
It’s the story about a man who sold his child. A man who wants to be a savior, but cannot do so without also being the dread prophet who will doom us all. Which do you want, the game or the idea? The bird or the cage? This limited understanding of “gameplay” can’t support Infinite’s higher (admirably higher) aims. BioShock the first can end with the grown little sisters all reaching for your hand, accompanying you as you pass on into the quiet death of old age. Infinite ends with the grown-up ideas smothering their creator, because there’s no other way they can live. Because there’s no other way the man can have mercy from treading an ambition, retreading, retreading.
And yet you can see how many of us are indoctrinated to these systems. 94 Metacritic. It’s the same score as MGS4.
Because we believe in it, too. We want to so badly that we can’t see it doesn’t work, that this idea of games is doom to games. I posted a picture on Twitter from my time in the Shantytown, when I’d scared its innocent residents by mistake. The screenshot was of a newsboy-capped child, cringing before my ever-waving gun. And almost all the responses I got assumed what I took issue with was that the child’s finger was clipping through his cap. They can’t even see that this discussion — that BioShock Infinite — should be about so much more than a clipped little finger.
It has something to say, certainly. It just says more about its own self than about the ideas it wanted to explore. The discussion about it is a turning point for the culture of games development. From the credits: “Born to crunch. Thanks to all my friends and family. To my wife, for the amazing support. For supporting me through this. Your infinite patience and irreplaceable love kept me sane. The love, support and patience. Wouldn’t have been able to do this without you. Tequila and coffee. Coffee. Would you kindly?”
Oh, yeah. Back to BioShock the first, again. Because the game quite literally takes us there in the end. The only thing I loved about Infinite, The Songbird, drowns in front of me, and then we’re back to Rapture. I suspect that’s where this team wanted to go all along. I was so glad, and so sad simultaneously to see it again. I think that’s the strongest emotional response I felt in this game.
“This is where we have to go,” Elizabeth says, running past the Gatherer’s Garden. She talks to me about constants and variables. All this talk about systems, lately, the rightness of systems. The systems failed this vision. There is so much more to be concerned with in the making of a world than constants and variables.
We can do anything, now. We were promised everything. Why didn’t we mind “ludonarrative dissonance” so much before? Because that was before and this is now. What happens without the cage? Are you as obedient as ever? That question underlies everything the game’s done with the resources it’s been given, and answers itself. This can’t be the way forward, at least.
Phew. Okay. That was the violin-note. My last thought is to emphasize that I think a thorough critique is the highest compliment I can pay to any work. This vision deserves it. And I’d rather have a hundred imperfect games aching with the hollow voices of their strained creators than the loveliest cover shooter ever made. This is a crucial moment in our canon, and I honor it.