Archive for category Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock: Buried at Sea

The final piece of DLC for Bioshock Infinite came out this last week, and after banging my head against the terrible storytelling of Diablo 3, I picked it up for myself, because I have been waiting for this for a while.

I didn’t actually get the first episode for Burial at Sea when it came out in December. Reviews came in saying that it was short and rather unfulfilling, clearly the first half of a story… which I do rather agree with, after playing it for myself. Running around Rapture in its prime was fun, and the ending was gloriously awesome, but everything in between was woefully short and wanting.

That said, Episode 2 has gotten some much better marks from the press, and I definitely see why… but in a sense, it left me with the opposite feeling as I had with Episode 1: The bulk of the game was gloriously fun, but the ending… left a lot to be desired.

What is Burial at Sea?

If I had to describe Burial at Sea in one sentence, it’s a prologue for Bioshock, set in pre-shit-going-bad Rapture, using Booker and Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite to set up things… and that makes sense.

Bioshock’s biggest strength, after all, was Rapture. It was a city that existed entirely as a metaphor for Objectivism. A city in a unique environment, where the richest prosper and the poor must suffer, where industry is allowed to do as however it wishes to do, where empathy is not merely a weakness, but a cancer upon the noble, inquisitive mind.

The big problem with Bioshock, though, was that this attitude extended to the characters. Suchong is a scientist unbound by the petty trivialities of morality, Steinman is a doctor more interested in profits and scientific advancement than he is in treating his patients, Ryan as the true believer… but one that assumes that he’s among the best destined to rise to the top and infuriated when that proves not to be the case… and Fontane aka Atlas as the reason why Objectivism won’t work: Because once someone comes along who knows how to cheat the system, everything falls apart.

The only real characters who don’t fit this are Tenebaum, who does little and basically counts as the “Good Guy” NPC for much of the story, and the player character, Jack, who… has no personality to speak of whatsoever, because he’s a blank slate avatar that the player can easily slip into.

The result of all these characters as metaphors, though, is that they’re just metaphors. You gain allegory, but you lose reliability and complexity, and there’s no one clamoring to see more of these characters.

By contrast, the one of the biggest weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite was that it did little with its American Exceptionalism centered city of Columbia… but did a ton with the protagonists, Booker DeWitt and Elizabeth Comstock. To go into what made those characters so grand… would be difficult to do, let alone without spoiling every major plot element of Bioshock Infinite. Let’s just say that these two characters aren’t metaphors or examples or strawmen or anything. They’re living, complex people that grow and change over the course of the story.

All that is why Burial at Sea had such a huge draw: Taking those two beloved characters from Bioshock Infinite and placing them in the city of Rapture? Who could ask for more?

Did it work?

I want to avoid major spoilers… but I really can’t, because the big problem with Burial at Sea is the end.

So, spoiler time.

In Burial at Sea, Episode 1, Elizabeth comes to a version of Booker DeWitt in Rapture and hires him to help find Sally, a little girl that went missing… and a little girl that Booker sorta adopted for himself, but lost. This leads them down a merry path of bloodshed until they reach the girl, whereupon its revealed that she’s been turned into one of Rapture’s creepy Little Sisters… and that this Booker is actually a version of Father Comstock that has been trying to hide from the things he’s done, including to his own verison of Elizabeth… and he promptly gets killed by a Big Daddy, just as Elizabeth had planned.

(Look, I’d go into the Booker/Comstock thing… but lets just say its complicated, and quantum, and move on, because it really doesn’t matter much after this)

In Episode 2, we actually play Elizabeth, as she realizes that she used a little girl as bait to kill a completely monster, and goes out to try to rescue her, although devoid of her powers from the previous bits, because… she died in god-mode, and now is a regular girl.

…look, this series is kinda weird, okay?

Point is, Atlas has Sally, and Elizabeth needs to do all sorts of things that build up to the events of Bioshock, kickstarting the revolution, all while wondering what god-her was thinking with this, and being aided by the voice of the Booker from BSI, the good Booker, although its stated that he’s just a voice in her head or something… until she realizes, just before the end, what god-her was thinking: By doing this, she can save Sally, the girl she put in danger, and set into motion the events that will culminate with Jack coming to Rapture, killing more or less everyone still alive over the age of 10, and saving all the Little Sisters… but killing Elizabeth in the process.

And that last part is the big problem with Burial at Sea: At the end of it all, it becomes about Bioshock, not Bioshock Infinite. It stops being a story about Elizabeth’s struggles to save a young girl and becomes about Elizabeth sacrificing her godlike powers, immense perspective and even her LIFE in order to enable the admittedly heroic actions of a… nobody. Such a sacrifice for the sake of Bioshock’s lackluster ending doesn’t build the ending up, it tears the wonderful story of Burial at Sea down.

The Good end of Bioshock was disliked by many, largely because it’s so saccharine after such a dark and brooding game, and Burial at Sea just tries to raise the stakes on that even further. Keep in mind, because of Elizabeth’s actions in starting the revolt that will end up destroying Rapture, all of the following things will happen:

  • All the residents of Rapture, excluding the Little Sisters, will either be killed horribly, or turned into the psychotic murders known as Splicers, many of whom Jack will end up killing. It’d probably be fair to say that the death toll would be in the tens of thousands, if not more.
  • Included in that total are all the children that live in Rapture that aren’t turned into Little Sisters. Just because you didn’t see them in Bioshock (…because gruesomely murdered children is hard to pull off without an AO ESRB rating), doesn’t mean they weren’t there.
  • A passenger plane flying over the Atlantic ocean is hijacked and crash-lands into the ocean, likely killing everyone aboard with the exception of Jack.
  • Elizabeth, a woman explicitly defined as being omniscient of the present and future, with powers beyond knowing, gives up her power to become mortal, do all the above, and die.

And yet, the ending tries to play this all off as a good thing. That this living god found the Little Sisters to be more important than everything else, and that there was only one way to save them: By killing tens of thousands of people, most no more guilty of abusing the Little Sisters than 1850’s Georgians were guilty of abusing slaves, including probably hundreds of innocent children, and dying herself. There are justifications one could make, explanations, ideas about how this could all logically make sense, sure. The limits on Elizabeth’s powers, and the nature of Bioshock’s multiverse, are so ill defined that there’s certainly an explanation somewhere in there. But Burial at Sea makes no real effort to explain it.

I don’t want to say I disliked Burial at Sea, far from it. One of the first things I thought after finishing it was that I would be a very happy man if all DLC was as smart, well written and tightly focused as Burial at Sea was.

The problem is that, in trying to bridge the gap between Bioshock’s Rapture and Bioshock Infinite’s Elizabeth… in the end, it gave up on Elizabeth, and just focused on Rapture’s downfall and, arguably, the weakest part of Bioshock. Despite everything wonderful that had happened before… the ending just drags down what could have been a nearly perfect experience.

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Focusing on Bioshock Infinite

(Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite spoilers abound, of course)

So, it’s been a while since my last post, mainly because nothing’s really grabbed me firmly by the ears and forced me to fling my thoughts into the endless void. In this case? Bioshock Infinite hasn’t done that, exactly, but it instead left me with a massive question-mark in my mind.

It’s not that I don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t, not fully, but that’s partially because it’s not made to be fully understood by us mere mortals (at least, not without buying every bit of DLC!). It’s not that I didn’t like it, because I do. It’s certainly one of the most gripping games to come out this year, and there’s a reason I powered through it like I did, and why I fully intend on going through it again, because the nature of the story nearly requires such a treatment.

So, why the question mark?

For the sake of an analogy, lets take the movie Independence Day. The movie that kinda introduced Will Smith: Action Hero to the world, a blockbuster smash, a huge special effects showcase, one of the classic popcorn flicks and a plot that can be charitably described as “Kinda dumb”. Easily Roland Emmerich’s finest work, throughly enjoyable despite the flaws.

…now, let’s say that, in an alternate universe (of course), it was Orson Wells who directed Independence Day. Same actual movie, same acting, same script, same alien-ships-that-run-a-Mac-OS, every single moment in the film the same… but with Orson Wells behind the camera, instead of Roland Emmerich. Instead of being the one crowning moment of glory for a pedestrian director, it’s a blemish on the career of one of the defining artists of the medium, every flaw with the piece a great disappointment instead of a triumphant success.

That’s kinda the problem I have with Bioshock Infinite: Stripping out everything I know about the people behind the scenes, BI is a great game, fun combat, engaging story with great characters and a wonderful female protagonist (shut up, Elizabeth’s the protagonist, it’s her story, Booker just comes along for the ride and does the shooting), not to mention the amazing setting.

But… I was expecting more.

Far, Far Under the Sea

Now, Bioshock was hardly a flawless game. The final third of the game, after the masterpiece “A man chooses, a slave obeys!” scene is complete drek. The story falls apart, the villain is only a few steps above a Captain Planet bad guy, the final boss fight is devoid of the symbolism that the rest of the game was engrossed in, and it has one of the worst escort sequences in video game history. It’s not merely a poor ending, it’s an abysmal train-wreck that goes wrong in nearly every conceivable way.

But everything up to Andrew Ryan’s demise was amazing. The city of Rapture was gorgeous, fully developed and a masterclass of how to create an engaging world. Learning about how the amazing city fell to ruin was thrilling, if somber. The combat was a great combination of gun-play and a diverse set of not-magic powers, and most of all EVERYTHING felt tied into the narrative theme of Objectivism and the flaws inherent. It was positively dripping with atmosphere, and it felt like every area, every section of the city, every enemy boss was carefully designed to embody an aspect of this failed dream. Even the not-magic powers, aka Plasmids, which were a symbol of the ultimate reach of the Objectivist philosophy of “I should be allowed to be as strong and grand as I possible can be!”, and how it brought the city down around it.

In short? The story was about Objectivism, and every element of the story, the gameplay, the setting, the characters, EVERYTHING was tied into that.

A Tale of Two Games

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have that feeling, though, largely because it doesn’t HAVE a central theme that binds everything together.

The setting of Columbia is another grand city, this time in the clouds, just as detailed and having just as much wonderful imagery and gorgeous design-work as Rapture. This time around, the city is the supposed pinnacle of America, the embodiment of American Exceptionalism. The Founding Fathers Franklin, Jefferson and Washington are all deified, the city has a firmly set and mostly ubiquitous religion (not exactly Christian, and although there are allegories of Mormonism to it, I’m in no hurry to open up THAT can of worms) where purity and freedom and cheerful people are everywhere…

…well, if you’re white (and not irish), at least. Because there’s plenty of wage-slavery, segregation, racism and classism on display here. It’s every aspect of the turn of the 1900’s compressed into a city, including all of the darker aspects on display, enhanced to the point where it’s given rise to a Communist-like rebellion against those ideals. With the Founders, led by the Prophet and leader of the city Father Comstalk, on one side, and the rebellious and hated Vox Populi, led by Daisy Fitzroy, on the other, it’s fertile ground for an honest, fair look at 1900’s America, both the good and the bad, and how those excesses and triumphs might reflect on our own future…

Of course, the actual plot doesn’t give two shits about that. It’s all about quantum mechanics, bitches!

It’s a little hard to describe (…as any plot based around Quantum Mechanics should be), but the basic nature of the story is a discussion of the shape of the universe, based on the power that your companion Elizabeth has to see tears between realities and open holes to summon things from elsewhere to come to your aid, and through the course of events you and Elizabeth will end up going through at least 5 different realities, and ends with a fantastic ending, answering most of the remaining question and throwing one twist right after another at you.

It’s actually a rather brilliant exploration on the matter, requiring very little knowledge about the subject, and truly being one of those games that encourages you to discuss it and its implications with others. I really just wish the rest of the game was also about that.

Coherent themes

As I said, damn near everything in Bioshock was about the expoloration of Objectivism. The gunplay, the enemies, the setting, Andrew Ryan’s booming voice, even the Little Sisters and the somewhat-hamfisted moral dilemma involved in dealing with them.

Bioshock Infinite doesn’t have that same treatment, though. Columbia, the Founders, the Vox Populi and all the people in the middle? That’s just setting in the end, no different than New York in a Spiderman movie. Columbia’s story ends about half-way through the game when, after several missions of the American-Exceptionalism-Story and the Quantum-Mechanics-Story clashing and stealing attention away from each other, the American-Exceptionalism-Story just curls up with a whimper and dies (along with two of the major players), leaving the two sides on the war over Columbia to be little more than differently colored enemies you need to kill, a fetid, rotting corpse of the tale that just about everyone had come to see in the first place.

And even then, it wasn’t like things were that consistent to begin with. So many of the fascinating questions about Columbia do end up getting explained, but more as a resigned shrug, without any actual connection to either major theme of the game. I mean, let me put it like this:

Me: What are these amazing powers, Vigors? Where did they come from, how do they work?

Bioshock Infinite: Oh, uh… Fink cribbed the notes about it from the alternate-universe Rapture and ADAM.

Me: Oh, okay. Wait, why is no one else using them but like two different special bad guys?

Bioshock Infinite: …because. They’re limited use for everyone but you and something something plot hole?

Me: Well, everyone gets a few. Oh! What about that Barbershop Quartet in the beginning, singing “God Only Knows” 44 years before the Beach Boys wrote it?

Bioshock Infinite: Some songwriter heard it through a rift. Man, wasn’t that scene cool?

Me: Well, yeah, but… what does it mean? (NOTE 10/08/2013: After rethinking this, the song DOES have a meaning, about the whole “Who would I be without you” aspect of quantum mechanics, so you get a pass on this one, Bioshock Infinite!)

Bioshock Infinite: Mean?

Me: Well… okay. But what about the Songbird? Surely that big guy, the focus of half the story, has to have a huge purpose behind its origin, fitting into one of the themes that-

Bioshock Infinite: It’s a really big Big Daddy. Fink cribbed those notes from AU-Rapture too.

Me: …huh.

Bioshock Infinite: Yeah, and you only see him like five times. Wasn’t he unique though?

That’s the problem with Bioshock Infinite. It has ideas, wonderful, grand ideas, but it doesn’t do much with them. There’s no real overarching theme throughout the game, almost like it either got bored of the Columbia plot and wanted to try out that other awesome idea they had kicking around the office. In the end, the city of Columbia is wasted. The plight of the Vox Populi, and the legitimacy of their revolution? Completely irrelevant in the end. The symbolism of Columbia as a sort of representation of how 1900’s America really was? Ignored outright. The religious themes only get by by having a huge role in the ending (and in the creation of Columbia), but even then are really just set aside until the end arrives. There’s so much they could have done here, and it’s disappointing to see Ken Levine and the rest of Irrational Games tossing most of it aside half-way through.

It does make sense, though, given the five years of development the game had. If it came out that they were aiming for a take-down of American Exceptionalism, and changed their plan a few years into development because the story just wasn’t wrapping up like they wanted it to, and so whole sequences were cut that would have slotted into the game early on? It would hardly surprise me. And it’s a shame, because that would have made for a wonderful, poignant piece with a timeless message on the errors of nostalgia.

And instead we got a very well made, above average game.

#firstworldproblems

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