I figured the BioShock Infinite Short Script would be a sizable one and as it turns out, it's officially overtaken Deus Ex: Human Revolution as the longest one on the blog. There is evidently a lot to say about the game, which is obvious from even the most cursory search for critical articles. I reviewed the game for BeefJack and declared it a masterpiece, which it really is. The imagination and the production values to back it up are palpable and I was more often than not flat-out amazed during my playthrough. That said, there are some problems with the union of story and gameplay in Infinite. Much like Columbia itself, you'll find plenty of things wrong with it once you peel back the shiny veneer.
I've seen the three dollar term 'ludonarrative dissonance' being thrown around a lot, especially when it comes to Infinite's focus on violence. Destructoid's Jim Sterling has already done a stellar job in pointing out why the violence is actually pretty fitting. If there really is a ludonarrative dissonance, it exists between Booker as a man with a mission and the player who eats garbage sandwiches and is always off looking for coins. Adrian Chmielarz has properly illustrated how these gamey elements hurt the overall experience here.
Infinite also trips over itself when it comes to the ruleset of its game world and what gets lost in translation to gameplay. Going as far back as all the preview guff and even the game's opening quote, Infinite makes it obvious that it deals with the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
This manifests itself in the game with tears, which are gateways between different universes. Tears are used both to drive the story forward and as a gameplay mechanic, but Infinite plays it very loose when it comes to what rules they follow. This is worsened when new rules keep getting added on top of an already nebulous foundation. Depending on what is needed from one moment to the next, tears can either represent parallel universes, time travel, wish fulfillment, or any combination of the above.
Here are a couple of ways in which the story establishes rules that the gameplay then subverts:
- Travelling between universes overwrites a subject's memories pertaining to whatever the new universe changed. This mental strain is accompanied by a nosebleed, which is used for dramatic effect at certain points in the game. However, Booker never suffers from nosebleeds whenever he is resurrected after dying in combat, a gameplay feature which is clearly handwaved by the same multiverse explanation.
- Elizabeth can see and manipulate tears, which allows her to transport various objects between universes. In combat, this is limited to useful items like weapons, freight hooks, water puddles, and the like. But when Elizabeth is being chased by Booker, she suddenly manages to bring in a much more imaginative array of items to slow his pursuit. This is admittedly more a matter of technical limitations, as it would be a logistical nightmare to take a Scribblenauts-like open gameplay approach to Elizabeth's tear abilities.
- Going over the edge of Columbia is a non-threat, as the game immediately spawns you back right where you fell. It seems ludicrous that a city in the sky won't let you fall off it, but Rapture wouldn't let you drown either, so there you go. But in this scripted sequence, the fall suddenly is something to worry about and Booker needs Elizabeth to bring in a zeppelin to catch him (which ties into the previous bullet point).
So there's some discrepancies there. When asked by Edge what, if any, Irrational's mission is, creative director Ken Levine replies: "It's to figure out how to integrate gameplay and narrative so it's one consistent experience, and to make the player a participant in the narrative and not an observer." The former point falls short of proper consistency and the latter one isn't all there either.
Levine has often been quoted as saying that he abhors cutscenes because they take away immersion and player agency. In my opinion, BioShock Infinite still has cutscenes in the sense that they take away control from the player, they just do it without leaving Booker's first-person viewpoint. That might safeguard immersion, but you're still sitting back while the game does something for you. It all boils down to a case of 'Press X to story'.
To be fair, there's only a couple of such instances (usually reserved for pivotal plot points) and like its predecessors, Infinite truly excels at environmental storytelling. As implausible as the idea of a floating city seems, there's such a sense of place to Columbia that it's easily accepted. It reminds me of how the nature of Rapture was justified by a single memorable line from Andrew Ryan: "It was not impossible to build Rapture at the bottom of the sea. It was impossible to build it anywhere else." Bam, good enough for me.