Melancholy and the BioShock Infinite Sadness



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.

The Key and the Gate (oh wait, that's something else entirely)


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.

High Hopes for Early Game


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.
The ultimate combination.

Thou Shalt Not Kill-But Pretending Like You Are Is Totally Cool?


The opening video for Fallout: New Vegas features a sniper shooting someone from behind the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.  From the very beginning, the player understands that even in this world where society has reformed and grand cities are being rebuilt, violence, death, and indeed, killing, are facts of life.

I hate killing things.  I value life greatly, and ending life, for any reason, is distasteful to me.  I’m a pacifist, and I often play games as a pacifist too.

Some people call this completely pointless.  “It’s just a game!” is the response I usually hear.  Well, let me explore that notion.

Games are simulations of life.  They are constructions of realities.  Games have rules, and are all virtual systems.  Now, that doesn’t mean that games are real; but it does mean that games function within reality.  Obviously the consequences of the player’s choices are only affecting a lot of ones and zeros within the system, but outside the system, games affect the player.  There’s a lot of anthropological evidence that the  more violence in a culture’s art, the more violent the culture.  I think that the more violence you participate in virtually, the less likely you will be phased by violence in the real world.

Now, obviously I’m not against video games, as most people that hold the above view are.  And I don’t even think that people shouldn’t play video games as killers.  I think the problem runs much deeper than just video games.  Current media and culture desensitize us to violence.  However, I’ve deliberately tried to distance myself from some of that, and whether by removal or just a deliberate consciousness on the issue, violence bothers me to the point that I don’t want to perpetuate its existence (well, sort of, because I still do watch violent things rather often, I’m just increasingly disinterested in those parts).

But as I said in my last post, I didn’t want this character to have to be anything just because that’s what I want a character to be.  I’d like this character to be a unique creation.  However, within this simulation of reality I’m not going to do something that to me is distasteful in favor of expediency.  So, to continue with this character, I will not kill my fellow virtual human beings.

Courier wouldn’t consider himself a pacifist, but he doesn’t like killing things.  Like most people with retrograde amnesia, oldest memories tend to remain intact, and he can remember a childhood where although farmed brahmin (two headed mutated cattles of the wasteland) were his major food source, he cried whenever one had to be killed.  He “grew out” of that, and will hunt giant geckos for food and leather, but still doesn’t enjoy even killing animals to be part of an ecosystem.  However, early on he’d seen brutality in the fights and arenas that others enjoyed so much, and it left him with a serious doubt he’d ever be able to kill anyone.  Now, he’s been in some bad scrapes, and if by his getting help someone dies, he doesn’t feel at fault, although he still mourns needless death.2012-12-09_00011

Obviously that will make parts of the game harder, as the game wasn’t designed with the player unwilling to kill a human in mind.  Already I’ve had to run from an angry enemy, limping back to a friendly town doctor, hoping for my life in the process.  But there are a few possible solutions.

As someone who has played this game quite a bit before, and as someone who substantially prefers the PC for video games, I know that games can be “improved,” or at the very least tailored to your personal preferences, through mods (short for modifications).  Some mods improve graphics, fix bugs in the game, or do other things that don’t affect gameplay at all.  Other mods can add content to the game, ranging from entire towns and quest lines to individual characters or weapons.

This mod added a few stun and tranquilizer effects.  This means that I will be able to deal with truly unreasonable people that just want to kill me and can’t be talked out of it under any means without killing them.  I haven’t tried it yet, but as of writing this, I expect that it will be a somewhat reasonable way to fulfill my (as a player) complete disinterest in killing people.

And so, soon to be armed with a stun gun, I can now further explore both the starting town of Goodsprings, and virtual reality ethics.2012-12-09_00009

Self-Identification in the Post-Apocalypse


Who am I?

Video games often begin with this question, and in games like Fallout: New Vegas, the question of identity goes far beyond a name.  In fact, in a way that makes the post-structuralist inside of me jump up and down with joy, my name and appearance are only important within the game insomuch as they are important to me.

But I’m a Romantic, and like my name to echo who I am, so with the first choice the player makes after deciding to start a new game–even though it has no real significance on the future of the game–I like to have a good idea what I intend to do with my life.  Obviously this presupposes that the player is familiar with the game universe; a newcomer to the universe would not know the outcome of many choices they would make in the first few minutes of this world.  However,  since my computer tells me I’ve already played this game for over four days of my life, I think it would be naive to assume otherwise.

I’d compare that assumption to the assumption of artists that deliberately reference the canon of art history in their work.  The Mona Lisa is a painting of a woman and while further knowledge is useful, it can be understood and taken in by a truly uninformed viewer to a greater extent than a print by William Hogarth, which is far more full of symbolism and subtle references than that da Vinci.

So, I know the basic implications of some choices, and know about the world to which I have awakened.  In fact, I think the developers assumed most players would too, as is evident from the first moments of the game.  Fallout: New Vegas was released in October of 2010, two years after Fallout 3 was released.  The later had received incredible critical reception, and as the first Fallout game to be developed by Bethesda, critically acclaimed developers of the Elder Scrolls games.  Two years is not much time in the video game world for the next game in a series to be released, and it seems likely that those who had purchased Fallout would be likely to then purchase the new game set in the 2200s.  Furthermore, Fallout: New Vegas is titled such (and not Fallout 4) because unlike Fallout 3, it returns to the setting of the first two Fallout games: the American southwest (and in this case, the broken beauty of a repaired Las Vegas).2012-12-09_00002

Although it used the same game engine as Fallout 3Fallout: New Vegas was far more similar to its predecessors.  Most immediately, the setting: although this may seem superficial, the setting meant not only location, but also political factions and gang rivalries.  Fallout: New Vegas is far more rich in “history” than its predecessor, whose setting in the Washington D.C. area estranged it from the other games (despite sharing a global history of nuclear war and such).

And most importantly, all Fallout games to date have emphasized complex moral choices.  What rights do the dead have?  Do I do things for profit, or simply to help others?  Can you take things from people who need it to survive?  Do you save people who are dying, if those people are murders?  What if they are just extremely powerful xenophobes?  What makes someone a human being?  And all of these questions were made overly simplistic in Fallout 3, where when someone told you their life story you could insult them for no reason, ask a reasonable question, or offer all you have in sympathy, which, while presenting moral choices, had minimal complexity to it.

So, this game makes the player make complex choices, and usually I try to sort out all my ideology from the beginning.

But that’s not how life works, and I don’t think that’s how the game is supposed to work either.

So, rather than naming my character anything special, I will go with the default name: Courier.  That’s an occupation, not a name, and in the story, the player plays as an amnesiac whose doctor was only able to inform him that he was a courier, on a mission to deliver a strange object when things took a turn for the worse.

My character Courier will have to figure out his morals as he figures out his past, and as a player, I will not use my name as a crutch to define how I act.  As a player, I will try to make actual choices, and figure out my ideology as I play, a unique move for me as a player, something I find rather special.2012-12-09_00006