BioShock Infinite has been met with almost universal acclaim from critics. As someone who highly values critical opinions, I would not have purchased this game had it not been so highly praised. However, after my first play through of the game, I was left with dissatisfaction. Overall, the game is quite enjoyable, but I needed to describe the problems that I had with this game that I would have wanted other critics to point out before I had purchased it at full price (well, a pre-order bundle with other games too, but still).
I wanted to insert a few quick thoughts before I get going. As a deeply religious person, I was not bothered by what many are calling anti-religious themes in the game, and actually thought the game did a good job of showing some amount of complexity within the subject. Additionally, I was quite pleased with the lead female character’s representation in the game, as games rarely have non-sexualized highly capable female characters. But this article isn’t about the themes of BioShock Infinite, but rather my criticisms of the game that I wished other reviewers had brought out.
As you may or may not know, I’m not a fan of shooting games. I play them on occasion, but I don’t enjoy games where I run around killing things. Generally, as a pacifist in the real world, if a game makes me kill things, I will feel really bad about it, and will quit most shooting games if I don’t feel like there’s a real reason for me to do so. Yes, I think that video games have actually made me less violent.
However, the BioShock franchise has historically been a shooter game that forces you to make moral choices, and if there’s one thing that I love in video games more than I dislike killing, it’s moral choices. Gamers often claim that killing people in the game world has no effect on the real world, and so it shouldn’t matter, but when human engage with art, the individual is affected. So, if I’m going to kill, I need to be edifying myself some other way from engaging with the game. The first BioShock game, released in 2007 by 2K games, was largely the creative product of Ken Levine, who has made a number of games that engage the individual in a moral way. In 2007 I was playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and the first Wii games, but I remember BioShock being released and being the talk of the gaming world. I didn’t play it until a few years ago, and when I did, I was relatively satisfied. The twisted aesthetic and horror-genre tension made simple moral choices seem important. In BioShock, you are constantly choosing between saving or killing potentially dangerous but incapacitated enemies, and although the game encourages what I think of as a pre-set moral choice (once you choose “good” or “bad,” most players will do exclusively that all game and there is little complexity confusing the two), it was a successful introduction of morality into the shooter world.
So I came to BioShock Infinite with great hopes. This game is a prequel to the other BioShock games, and once again Ken Levine was a chief developer. Released March 26th, 2013 (three days ago), the game is set in giant city in the clouds. This city is a highly American patriotic 1910s steampunk-ish world. What does that mean? It means you see giant Benjamin Franklin balloon floats and massive robot-filled zeppelins. The game is beautiful aesthetically, and fits the thematic universe quite well, for the first few hours of gameplay.
Which brings me to my first complaint. The game is relatively short. It won’t take a player very long to complete. Even on the hardest difficulty while trying to find every secret, it’s a matter of hours, not hundreds of hours. The game had a beautiful aesthetic in the first few environments, but there were only really 3-5 environments in the whole game. And, as so many games do, the final environments were the first ones covered in the fire and smoke of war, which made them rather uninteresting. It seemed to me that there was a far greater variety of world in BioShock, which despite being set in an underwater city had forests, medical offices, and more flavors that BioShock Infinite seemed to lack. Aesthetics are very important to me, and the small number of environments that decreased in quality over the course of the game was a disappointment.
My next complaint has to do with combat. Because I don’t play shooting games very often, I’m fairly bad at them, and I die a lot (note, all of the BioShock games have clever ways of bringing you back to life to continue after you die, so death is not the end, but you still die). However, the best shooting/fighting games I’ve played have made me feel like I had to remain calm and think tactically during combat, as opposed to freak-out button-mashing that in good games spells almost instant demise. So, I’m judging the game’s combat system as someone who is generally bad at combat games, so understand I have minimal authority on this point. However, fighting in BioShock Infinite seemed more like a random brawl than a controlled, tactical choice. I’m sure that people that are good at shooting games on hard difficulties would use the extreme flexibility of the game effectively, but I generally found that just running into my problems and clicking frantically worked better. Some people might argue that this is acceptable, because it allows casual players to still play a game with a deep combat system, but I will point to Arkham City, what I think was the best game of 2011, and possibly the best fighting game I’ve played. In this game, even the bad combatant that I am was forced to remain calm and careful, and the difficulty affected how good I had to be at combat, not whether or not I could just go crazy, so that it was actually playable at a difficulty level appropriate for the player. So, my final point is this: if you are bad at fighting games, this game won’t strike you as particularly innovative or force you to improve your critical thinking or self-control.
Finally, and my true problem with the game, is the relative lack of choice. As I said earlier, I like games that make you make moral choices. BioShock Infinite is a game that could have, but was unable to do so. In earlier game demos, using your companions abilities caused her visible harm. If you had her help you too much, she’d get a nose bleed or some other ailment indicative of how hard it was for her to aid you. Thus, the player would have been forced to balance their need for aid with the consequence of damaging a companion. That would have been a complex moral dilemma that would have played into every combat. (Note: I have been unable to confirm that this was actually in a prior demo of the game, and it might have just been conjecture, but regardless, it shows a way that they could have implemented moral choices into a game that ultimately had very few). Also, although the game initially had my hopes up with the promise of situations solvable without battle, ultimately there were only a few situations that could avoid fighting, and not game-wide choices of aiding this group or that because you supported their cause.
The game’s whole story lacked any real sort of moral involvement. Now, I’m not trying to say I liked/didn’t like the story. I’m trying to say that the story didn’t involve the player. BioShock Infinite felt more like a film with button-mashing fests between scenes than a world where an individual was challenged to make change from within. I nearly laughed whenever the game required you to press a button to progress the story, when there was no real alternative, just sitting there until you are ready to press the button. This did have the effect of making the game seem like a story about fatalism in an infinite universe theory world (and that’s as close to spoiling the game as I’ll go), and while that’s a perfectly valid thing for the game makers to decide they wanted to do, it lacked the moral complexity that I really want from a game.
But, I see others pointing out, does the game need to make you make choices? No, it doesn’t. Most art doesn’t let you make choices within it. You aren’t supposed to add a few brushstrokes to a Bruegel. In most genres of art, people make their choices after engaging with the art. In games though, individuals get a rare opportunity to make choices within the realm of the medium, and then explore what the designer wanted the outcome of those actions to be. This game is a story, not a world. This is a powerful story, and an intriguing world, but it is not using the medium to its best potential, which is what I had expected from a game with nearly universal perfect reviews that spoke of moral complexity and dark themes.
I will end by saying that I did enjoy the game. I would recommend it my friends who enjoy fighting games. I would not recommend this as a piece of art that challenges the individual with complex moral choices, but rather as a powerful narrative. For many people, that’s probably all they want from a game. Personally, I’d rather have a game that actually let’s me play as a pacifist anarchist, instead of using those words as slanderous propaganda.