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Bioshock Infinite [Mar. 29th, 2013|08:23 pm]

I'm writing this is the immediate aftermath of finishing the game. A lot of the emotions I had at the end, mostly anger, are going to dominate the tone of this review. I shouldn't be doing this, as I have work to do, but I know that this is going to distract me until I finish. So here it is.

I really, really like the first part of the game. The whimsy of walking around Columbia before the shit hits the fan, and the periodic reintroduction of these sequences throughout the earlier part of a game, are a joy that I find breaks up the gameplay nicely. The visuals are frequently stunning.

And now that I've said that, I'd like to say that the game ultimately betrays everything it sets out to do.

The "super science" present in this game is quantum physics, specifically ideas about accessing different timelines where things happened slightly differently. So, during many fights in the game, you have the opportunity to ask your support NPC to summon various useful things from other dimensions, such as certain weapons, health kits, cover, or even mechanized assistance like drones or turrets. You can only have one of these things present at a time, but by looking at them and holding down a button you can freely switch back and forth between them.

This eventually becomes a major plot point, where you must leave your original dimension behind for good in order to travel to one where an NPC gunmaker is not tortured to death. This point is, incidentally, when the game completely jumps the shark in every way that matters, but I'll get to more of the implications of that later.

Anyway, at the point where you cross over, it becomes immediately apparent that things are different, and for a while you have to figure out just how different. You don't exactly have time to get comfortable, however, before you do it again. And, after all, why not? The NPC you spend most of the game with has the ability to merge and travel across dimensions, and so to proceed in the game she eventually needs to find one where things happen in a particular way. The ending of the game is basically a long sequenced explanation of this, where the girl's powers come unfettered and she is able to move freely across the multiverse...which, for the reason of nostalgic cameos, is first symbolized by the lighthouse from Rapture, endlessly repeated across a landscape.

And here's where the writing takes its dramatic, shitty turn. The first reveal is that the villain is simply a different version of the hero, who underwent a baptism and changed his name after participating in the massacre at Wounded Knee. The problem I had with that particular reveal was immediate. The character had earlier confronted this other version of himself, and beaten himself to death on a baptismal font. Maybe I'm mistaken here, but I doubt a heavy beard would be enough for me to fail to recognize myself...especially since it is later revealed that this isn't the first meeting between these two alternate versions. The main character, who is not a silent protagonist, is overcome by rage in the physical presence of his alter ego (for somewhat justified reasons) and kills him without seeming to understand who the man is-his face is deliberately obscured afterwards. Also obnoxiously overlooked is that there is at least one NPC who has a history with both the hero and the villain, and apparently never makes the connection between the two. To the end of his role in the story (at least for me), he apparently never noticed the resemblance, or at least didn't comment on it.

Throughout the early part of the game, there have been several instances where Comstock, the villain, has expounded on what kind of society he wants to build and has built. Even if that isn't entirely the truth of the matter, it should let us know where the character stands on a number of issues. While Booker as the PC doesn't exactly lay out his comprehensive worldview in the same way, there are circumstances where it becomes clear that he does not hold the same characteristics or views as Comstock. Booker, whatever his other flaws, does not seem to have the cunning, vision, or intolerance that Comstock displays. Certainly, a changed worldview could account for some of this, and the social power Comstock wields could certainly have encouraged him to more callous and underhanded manipulations of his fellow men, but I still can't say I buy it. Booker never seems to worry about anything beyond the completion of his mission, and the removal of Elizabeth from Columbia. Comstock is constantly focused on the big picture. A key reference for me here is in a non-combat section, where Booker can stumble across a couple of black men smoking somewhere they shouldn't. Booker's response is entirely unconcerned: "smoke 'em if you got 'em." Comstock, meanwhile, has gotten on racial purity diatribes in voice logs found earlier in the game. Either Booker is lying, or these are people that have come to very different conclusions about race.

It is subsequently revealed, when the plot is being explained by your unfettered and therefore omniscient companion, that the main character has been an unreliable narrator from the beginning. Some of the supporting NPCs give the impression that the version of this character that is eventually sent to Columbia has suppressed and even rewritten his own memories, which is why he lacks context. Except that that doesn't fucking square. The character is presented throughout the course of the game with plenty of things that should trigger psychotic breaks, but the game doesn't want to go there. It has too much quantum craziness to allow the main character to have hallucinations or suddenly changed memories, even when he should. That may be a blessing as far as storytelling is concerned, but it also means that the main character has his humanity stripped away as the game progresses. He has forgotten the villain, Comstock, he has forgotten the (potentially equally villainous) scientist(s) that assist him, and he has forgotten, or at least doesn't elucidate for the players to understand, why he has branded his hand with the letters 'AD'. There are others. Things that should be major life-defining moments ultimately must be forgotten because the story requires they be forgotten, no matter how in defiance of sense that may be. And a character with no sense isn't a person, it's just an actor on a stage.

The game ends when the character is able to "go back" to his first baptism, and allows himself to be drowned, thereby removing hero and villain from the realm of possibilities. This solves no problems and makes no sense. Possibility across such a multiverse can not be destroyed through self-sacrifice: it only creates other possibilities and, I presume, other dimensions to accommodate those possibilities. Now there are just a branch or related dimensions where Booker does not sacrifice himself after all of his experiences. There are also possibly a group where Elizabeth murders him. Other, stranger possibilities abound. Given what descriptions I was given in the game of her powers, I see no reason to believe that Elizabeth has the ability to selectively destroy dimensions that exist.

And all of this is why quantum physics make a shitty thing to base a plot around. Although, if there is a community shitstorm, it will be very easy for them to release DLC saying "this is what happened in a different universe".

Now let's talk about the racism and classism. Throughout the early part of the game, there is evidence that the game might actually have some understanding of the suffering that minorities and working class people endured during the time the game is set in. There are obvious differences in how the background NPCs treat each other and discuss different groups, and there are signs that do the same, especially since you pass through a servant's passage at one point. There is also racist art. And a black servant is framed by the villain for the murder of his wife, a crime he committed.

There is also a level set in a museum, where the demonization of "others", specifically Native Americans and the Chinese, is the point of the displays. It is so over the top and cartoonish that most players should be able to make the connection that these are not accurate representation of the events. Especially since there is an NPC ranting about historical revisionism during the level.

If you go back much earlier, you may remember that there was a point where I mentioned that the game jumps the shark. That happens when you have to go find a different dimension where a chinese gunsmith is not imprisoned (on no charges) and subsequently tortured to death by thugs in the employ of the city's major employer. Doing so, you come to one where you have helped lead a proletariat revolt against the labor abuses of their employer. The workers and disenfranchised in the city have gained access to firepower through your previous actions, and they turn them on their employer, the police, and eventually the innocent citizens of the city.

So, the workers and the poor are given access to physical power, and the immediately turn upon their oppressors in nihilistic fury, destroying the city indiscriminately. The justification given, through the voice of the leader of "Vox Populi" rebels, is that the only way to eliminate the systematic evil that she has encountered is to destroy it stem trunk, and root...meaning that everyone who has benefitted from oppression, down to the smallest WASP babe, must die. It presents two starkly differing visions of the city: one where a minority is oppressed but many people prosper, and one where there is no law, no prosperity, and rampant murder. I frankly see no way to misconstrue the game's intentions: reinforcing the notion that the poor and destitute can not be given any power, or they will destroy society and leave nothing behind. This is a betrayal of the history of social protest and labor organizing in this country. Those who have fought for human dignity and fair treatment have rarely resorted to violence and destruction, and have never sought the complete destruction of society as the game depicts.

Also of interest is the treatment of Wounded Knee. As I mentioned, the massacre is referred to in the game as a battle, with the main character apparently having been present. But no one ever indicates how one-sided this "battle" was. At no point does any character that was apparently there ever express the slightest bit of remorse about what they did, or offer any explanation of what happened. A player could easily be left under the impression that it was just a terrible battle against the Lakota Souix, rather than a massacre of mostly defenseless people where some US soldiers died to friendly fire.

At best, the elements of race and class presented in the game might cause a player to consult outside sources, which could do a better job of educating them about the truth of race and labor relations in American society at this time. But it doesn't stand on its own, and frankly there are no good excuses. So much work was put into this game that they should have been able to get these things right.

As much as I enjoyed playing through most of the game, and for all of the good moments it has, I can't recommend the game. It makes too many critical missteps on too many important issues to be praiseworthy.