Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Above and Beyond

Hello dear readers. I apologize for the lack of posts last month. For the past fifteen years, I have been that guy who is "writing a novel," but since December I have actually been doing it. For real this time, and I am over 120 pages deep in it. Balancing that with work and a social life has left me with very little time for blogging. I will do my best to have at least one of these a month, but my first loyalty is to fiction. 

I also needed some time to digest one of the best videogames I have ever played. Bioshock Infinite is the best game I played since Braid. For my personal tastes, it may even be better. You can read most of this article without suffering any grave spoilers, and I will give you plenty of warning before I get to the big reveals, but you would be well-served to play it now if you haven't.

I agree that Elizabeth would have been a better choice for the cover, but I don't doubt that they will sell more games by featuring Booker. Just the world we live in.

I would like to begin by talking about the characters because they are so damn beautiful. Almost every video game has you play as a guy who can (and must) slaughter a hundred people before breakfast. Master Chief. Nathan Drake. Hell even Link and Mario. The weird, constant incongruity though, is that these are all supposedly "good guys." Bioshock Infinite takes this trope to task and imagines what that guy would be like in real life. Meet Booker DeWitt. Veteran of both Wounded Knee and the Boxer Rebellion, and Pinkerton strikebreaker. The guy is quite literally, a career murderer, but historically perfect for the 1912 setting. He has a gruff, down-to-business personality to match his bloody past and you would be inclined to think that would make the game relentlessly grim.

You'd be right, if the player you controlled was actually the main character. But the soul of this game is the woman you must rescue: Elizabeth. Many people, including the boys of Penny-Arcade, have likened her to a Disney Princess. Belle specifically. And it is an apt comparison, because she is plucky, beautiful, bookish and occasionally headstrong. But those qualities aren't forced on you. She does not come across as saccharine or hapless like so many Damsels from the House of Mouse. This is primarily achieved through her support role: in combat, she can rip tears into alternate realities that benefit her and Booker. She can pick locks and solve coded ciphers for you. And you never actually have to worry about escorting her or guarding her in combat because she's invulnerable, like Alex from Half-Life.

There are other characters. The Lutece siblings, who randomly appear throughout the story have the eccentricity of Portal's GLaDOS, but the unsettling otherworldly quality of Half-Life's G-man. There is the bloodthirsty leader of the vox populi rebellion Daisy Fitzroy. And there is the villainous, charismatic leader of the floating city Columbia,  Father Zachary Comstock. As with the audio files found throughout Rapture in the original Bioshock, these characters are developed steadily through found footage. And they are the most complex characters you will find in any video game to date.

The floating city of Columbia is a character itself as well. The magical powers you gain (called Vigors instead of Plasmids, and powered by Salts instead of Eve) do not dovetail with the game world's central thesis quite as well as they did in Bioshock, but I found the game's tale of racism and zealotry more compelling than the original games examination of Objectivism. People said the game would deal with racism, and I was skeptical, suspecting it would do a mild, toned-down presentation of racism, but it is presented in a refreshingly raw and ugly way that evokes genuine disgust on behalf of the gamer. Sadly the game does not allow you to deal with the issue in a meaningful way, save for one choice near the beginning. Ultimately, you do feel like you are in a racist theme park as opposed to an actual utopia, but Columbia still felt more alive to me than Rapture did.

But what of the actual gameplay? I am a big fan of combat in the Bioshock franchise. The addition of a recharging shield has been derided by a few, but I like the give-and-take rhythm it affords fights. I've talked about videogame violence as a canvas for creativity before, and this is a game that really lets you paint. The mix of magic, firearms, melee attacks and environmental features first introduced by Bioshock is still satisfying, but Infinite spices things up by letting you zip around on skylines and using Elizabeth's dimensional tear powers to alter the world you fight in on the fly. This is a beautiful mechanic that simultaneously develops the game's core concept and spices up fights. The depth available in any given encounter makes Halo's "Holy Trinity of Guns, Melee and Grenades look positively quaint, and Halo has much more variety than most of the shooters out there. That said, it is very easy to understand why 2K canned Infinite's multiplayer. Trying to realistically balance a system like this, especially using the bog-standard COD unlockables and load-out system would be a nightmare. Interestingly, the only FPS that gives Infinite any serious competition is also single-player only: Dishonored. Admittedly, The tone of the two games couldn't be more different, with Dishonored focusing on melee, stealth and careful resource management, while Infinite is pure, bombastic, cartoonish mayhem.

There are so many other little details to talk about. The way buildings bob in the air. The numerous corners, stuffed with well-hidden secrets that reward thorough investigation. Infinite also does ingenious and devious things with anachronistic music. You will hear 1912 versions of songs from the future. Little haunting whispers reminding you that the game's multiverse is coming apart at the seams.

Know this: Infinite's ending is the most satisfying, emotionally gripping and maturely written of any videogame I have played to date. Yes, including Braid. Including any Final Fantasy you can think of and all the Zeldas put together. The final twist not only subverts your expectations and understanding of the overall quest, but transforms your appreciation of specific moments throughout the game. It the videogame equivalent of a movie like Memento, or Inception, where you want to watch it again just to pick up on all the subtle details you missed. So before you read any further, go buy the game and beat it. I'll wait here. Trust me, you don't want this spoiled.


Are we good? Did you finish it? Amazing right! It blew my mind, even though I guessed pretty early on that Elizabeth might be Booker's daughter. Let's talk about that first before I move on to the bigger reveal. As I mentioned, Elizabeth is incredibly charming. Like a Disney Princess, she was made to make you fall in love with her, and throughout the game, the player's almost inevitable attraction to her is at odds with Booker's gruffness and distance. He grows fonder of her as the game continues, and you are left wondering if he is falling for her too. But instead of giving you the obvious, magical castle ending, you find out she is his daughter. And you also find out that you are your own greatest enemy. The dashing rogue, Booker DeWitt is also the heinously racist religious zealot, Father Comstock.

Simply spelled out like that, the ending sounds lame. So does the entire plot of Memento, but the game, like that movie, is masterfully executed. It gives you ample evidence to guess the truth ahead of time--in fact, in many ways it is obvious, and the only logical explanation for the way things are. But it still manages to sneak up on you. And the whole yarn is undone by the smallest plot thread: a severed pinky finger. Think back to the moment at the hall of heroes, where you are confronting Slate. Isn't it odd that Slate and Booker are war buddies, even though Slate looks as old as Comstock? Isn't it odd that Comstock proclaims himself the hero of all these encounters?  The game gives you a hint that misleads you.You think, maybe Comstock was Booker's commanding officer, never suspecting that they are the same man.

Bioshock Infinite is not perfect, but it is the most brilliant title I've played in a long time.

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