And It Makes Us Think: Impressions of Bioshock Infinite
The Setting & The Stage - by Jarrett Poole
Bioshock Infinite hasn’t reminded me of what a good game plays like; instead, it’s reminded me of what is missing in today’s gaming market place.
In terms of gameplay, gunplay in this case, Bioshock Infinite doesn’t do anything groundbreaking – there’s a different aspect that elevates it above other recent titles. It stands tall because it flourishes in something that most games fail at. Developer Irrational Games succeeds in creating a world – a place, the city of Columbia – that feels natural.
And it stretches beyond this, too. The city of Columbia feels as if it expands past the player’s small window of presence. Social hierarchies, political unrest, and intertwining characters exude past the stage set for the viewer. Many developers meticulously set up their worlds to the point of artificiality; worlds are created that guide the player as if in a museum. Irrational Games has crafted a setting that doesn’t seem established for you. Instead, it’s as if it’s always been. Existing around you, and not for you, the world breathes.
Columbia isn’t just a place; it’s a crucial component of the story. It weaves the narrative in such a successful manner that it ends up feeling as if it’s a character itself, even stronger than Booker and Elizabeth combined. Unlike many other games, the setting isn’t merely a stage for the characters to act on. Rather, the characters and the setting lend to each other, creating an almost symbiotic relationship.
It’s unfortunate that a setting with such liveliness and naturalism is a rarity in the spectrum of gaming. It’s garnered extensive praise for this, but it shouldn’t be something that is put on a pedestal. Authentic worlds should be something that are commonplace, because in a medium that warrants such a high level of immersion, developers should always be thinking of building believable worlds. Bioshock Infinite proves that they go much deeper than just aesthetics – they need to exist before you and beyond you.
Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys Who Like Girls – by Jason Rice
Bioshock Infinite asks you to do a lot of things. While there are the obvious This or That choices that the series is known for “(Press X for Evil Bastard)” it also poses a wide range of more somber and subtle questions, such as “What would turn of the 20th century America look like if it was divorced from any social conscience?” or “Where does all the poop go?” Almost as a matter of course, it demands that you unleash hot molten hell on a wide range of guards and automatons, never really admonishing your brutality outside of certain scripted sequences.
What it doesn’t ask you to do is care about Elizabeth, your young female charge and ally throughout the vast majority of the game. You care about her, but it’s not because of the way you’re introduced to her. It’s not because the thinly veiled hand of Ken Levine demands it of you, either. It’s because you’re her only hope of escape – her knight in shining armor come to steal her away from a clockwork dragon and the terror of tradition.
You care about Elizabeth because of the way she casually looks over at you in an elevator or the way she holds her shoulders when she sees something horrific. It’s in her hopes and dreams, her willingness to escape a flaming monument and then go dancing on the beach, or even something as simple as the fact that she spends more time looking at the world than at you. More than almost any other modern NPC, she’s a very real person, and she needs your help.
Now, imagine that she’s a boy. Do you still care about her as much?
It’s easy to clam up and say that you would, of course, but I implore you to stop for a moment and honestly consider it. If Elizabeth were a fresh-faced, educated, and precocious young man, would you still have that mama bear instinct that drives so much of the relationship between her and Booker? Or, would you be waiting for the inevitable scene where he finally takes up arms against his foes, discovers his inner warrior, and stands at your side – two burly men against a tide of oppression?
The same question could be asked about Clementine in The Walking Dead. Would we have felt as attached to her if she were a Chris or a Quentin, or would we have simply expected that he would pick up a pistol and defend the homestead alongside us?
The idea that boys are independent and strong while girls need to be protected is nothing new; the idea goes back to the beginning of time. I’m sure, at some point in the next year, Anita Sarkeesian will address it in one of her amazing videos. Any first year college student can probably expound on the idea for hours, flinging outrage at any manner of fairy tale where the dutiful daughter stays at home while the brave young man forges into the great beyond.
“My GI Joes always escorted my sister’s Barbies through hostile enemy territory.”
But does this built-in drive to protect those with the lady-bits come from my having man-bits and being socialized as such? My parents didn’t load me down with camouflage and toy guns when I was a child, they even went so far as to attempt to raise me as genderless as possible, replacing the blues of boyhood with pastel yellows and greens. Yet, still I fell in love with jet planes and fire engines, and my GI Joes always escorted my sister’s Barbies through hostile enemy territory. It’s a message that boys in our society find inexorably woven into their identity: we need to use our big muscles to protect the frail little ladies, even if the ladies are neither frail nor little.
It’s not a good thing, or even a necessary thing, yet it’s still a thing. Even when my wife passed me up in terms of income, I had to stop for a moment and ask myself: “Should I be upset about this?” I wasn’t, but the question was still there, a sinister reminder of long-held ideas of gender that still rest just below the surface of rational thought.
That said, it’s not like Elizabeth is a weak female character, or that Bioshock Infinite does itself a grave disservice by portraying her the way it does. If anything, her power of creation is supremely maternal, an example of the kind of feminine badassery that men have been trying to co-opt for generations. Ever wonder why Zeus kept giving birth to people? Greek men were desperate to lay claim to the main thing women had on them: propagating the race. Elizabeth has that power and Bioshock Infinite freely acknowledges it.
Still, there’s some base-male part of me that says, regardless of whatever awesome power she controls, it’s my task to watch over her because she’s a her and not a him. Had I not spent years paying attention to these issues of equity and expectation, I probably would not have even noticed, simply taken my emotional attachment for granted, and ignored the unseen machinations of social expectation that underwrote my relationship with Elizabeth.
Even then, with all that thinking and rationalizing, all those years spent questioning what it means to be a man or a woman, I don’t think I would’ve been able to escape the trap set by all the generations before me.
I don’t think I would’ve cared as much about Elizabeth if she were a boy.
Every Night in History – by Joshua Dennison
Every night, my two beautiful daughters fall asleep watching TV on the couch; it’s kind of our thing. And each night when I carry them up to their beds, there’s a part of me that thinks it will be the last time. Eventually, they’ll be too old for this. I’ll have had that satisfaction for more years than I may deserve, but I’ll miss it something fierce.
I feel this way when I play Bioshock Infinite. It’s a superb, thrilling last gasp for this console generation, but by the same token I also fear that it’s the last in the dying breed of single-player experiences. And those are the kinds of experiences that shaped who I am today – not only as a player, but as a “creative” person.
Seeing those kinds of experiences fall by the wayside as multiplayer games find their footing is difficult. I love the new Tomb Raider title, and I think there are design decisions at work in that game that are more interesting than any other game released this year (Bioshock Infinite included), but I can’t help but think that the small gripes most have with that game could’ve been eliminated if resources weren’t wasted on a substandard multiplayer component.
I’d like to think that the extraordinary reception to Bioshock Infinite will show publishers (please note: I was careful not to say developers) that focusing on a solid, single-player experience has its benefits. After all, single-player games are gaming history. We have to preserve them, because I think we would all miss them something fierce.