Apr 092013

One of the things I found most striking about BioShock Infinite is how sloppy it was. The ending, as I discussed yesterday, is a self-contradicting mess held together only by sharply-timed revelations and plonky piano music. The quantum morass of its final moments is only one of the game’s problems, though. BioShock Infinite has mechanics, world-building, and narrative elements that don’t work together, or simply don’t make sense. Often it feels like the team making it forgot what they were doing, or how all these elements were supposed to fit.

Many of the game’s secondary mechanics feel like irrelevant additions made to satisfy the expectations that come with the name BioShock, but the one that really stood out to me as poorly executed was Elizabeth’s lockpicking ability. When she first reveals that she can unlock certain optional doors and safes, lockpicks are very rare. I’m not even sure it’s possible to find enough lockpicks to unlock everything before reaching the Plaza of Zeal. By the time Booker and Elizabeth reach Emporia, however, lockpicks are in absurd excess. As I walked through the burning town, Elizabeth constantly pointed out lockpicks that I couldn’t even grab, because I had already reached the inventory maximum. So, lockpicks go from extremely precious to essentially valueless over the course of just a few levels.

In addition, the locks themselves go from being primarily a way to obtain access to new side areas to being a mechanism for regulating advancement. The proliferation of “hairpin” locks nominally integrates the mechanic into the narrative, but functionally these locks exist to keep Booker in a spot until something desired has happened. Most of the time this is a fight, since Elizabeth will not pick locks during combat, but it’s also occasionally used to prevent Booker from moving forward until a conversation has been completed. As a result, the lockpicking feels like a bait-and-switch: a mechanic that promises new areas to explore, but in fact serves to restrain the player’s motion. The stinginess and carefulness that the sharp resource scarcity teaches early in the game quickly become irrelevant, and lockpicks, once an exciting environmental find, become an active irritation. It’s a system that feels like it was never tuned at all, or tuned to serve one purpose and then used for another.

If the lockpicking feels superfluous, the world-building feels like it left something important out. As in the previous BioShock games, Booker DeWitt has various magic powers he can use alongside his guns. In Rapture, these powers were called “plasmids” and their existence and dependence on ADAM formed a critical part of the story of that city. In Columbia, these powers are called “vigors” and how they came to exist is not mentioned even once. Even Booker, who manages to summon up enough curiosity to interrogate Elizabeth about her tears and consider the mechanism that allows the city to float, never bothers to ask exactly how it is that he’s now shooting fireballs out of his hands, even though this newfound ability obviously freaks him out. This strikes a bizarre character note, calling to mind something Roger Ebert said about The Fantastic Four movie:

This is absolutely stupendously amazing, wouldn’t you agree? If you could burn at supernova temperatures, would you be able to stop talking about it? I know people who won’t shut up about winning 50 bucks in the lottery.

While the Columbians’ blasé attitude towards vigors could perhaps be explained by years of exposure, it’s amazing to me that Booker doesn’t constantly run around asking what the hell these things are doing to him. Instead he merely shrugs and decides to chug every bottle he sees. It’s a weird character beat, but it’s even weirder world-building in a game that’s otherwise very careful to say at least something about its other fantastic aspects. Failing to explain this, even tangentially, makes it seem like the game forgot something important.

Of course, this is a game that forgets an entire Elizabeth. To understand what I mean, consider the universes the game plays out in:

Universe 1: Booker is pulled into this universe and ascends into Columbia. He finds Elizabeth in the tower and travels with her to the Good Time Club, finding Chen Lin dead.

Universe 2: Booker and Elizabeth leave the Good Time Club and find Chen Lin alive in his shop. They go to the shantytown with the intention of (somehow) carrying off his industrial tools.

Universe 3: Chen Lin had his tools and armed an uprising of the Vox. Elizabeth and Booker fight their way through Finkton and Emporia, but Songbird attacks them and carries Elizabeth away. Booker never rescues her and she destroys the world, but pulls him forward in time to give him a way to save her.

Universe 4: Booker re-enters the timeline of universe 3 several months after he was removed from it, creating a new branch. He rescues Elizabeth and destroys the siphon.

Universe 3 differs from universe 1 in several important ways. The version of Booker that tried to infiltrate 3’s Columbia came too late: Elizabeth had already been removed from the tower and taken to Comstock House. Booker-3 then joined the Vox and perished in an attack on the Hall of Heroes, becoming a martyr for their cause and inspiring their successful revolution.

In this universe, Comstock-3  lays a trap for Elizabeth-1 at the mausoleum in Emporia and scolds her for following a false shepherd (Booker-1). This is a universe in which Songbird is still searching for Elizabeth-1. It captures her at the bridge to Comstock House – a building where Comstock-3 already has Elizabeth-3 in his clutches! Strangely, nobody remarks on his good fortune at suddenly discovering he’s a proud father of twins. Instead, BioShock Infinite and its characters completely ignore the existence of Elizabeth-3, and the game treats the Vox uprising itself as the only difference between universe 1 and 3 (and ultimately 4).

This may not stick out in play for a couple of reasons – the Voxophone recordings that explicitly lay out this universe’s scenario can be skipped, for one thing. Also, the behavior of Comstock-3 and Songbird-3 comports with what the player has come to expect of their universe 1 counterparts, even if it doesn’t make sense in their particular timeline. The Booker-centric continuity experienced by the player can paper over inconsistencies like this to some extent (this is also why it doesn’t immediately seem odd that the city is still burning when Booker returns and saves Elizabeth several months after the initial Vox uprising). Looking at it carefully, however, it seems like Irrational lost track of what was going on, or what universe the story was taking place in at any given moment.

BioShock Infinite had a long development cycle that included many delays and major revisions, and each of the problems I describe here seems like it stems from an attempt to pull something together after it had gone off in many tangents that didn’t necessarily work well together. The oddities of the lockpick economy may have emerged from a game that previously had more side areas to explore, or required lockpicks rather than hairpins to open plot doors. Both the vigors and the fate of Elizabeth-3 might have been described in Voxophones or scenes that didn’t make it into the final game and weren’t replaced. None of what I’m describing represents a devastating flaw in the game or a plot hole that ruins the narrative. Yet, careless plotting, incomplete world-building, and ill-tuned and irrelevant mechanics constantly rear their heads in BioShock Infinite, and as a result, for all the polish that it has, it feels sloppy.

  2 Responses to “Nobody at the tower”

  1. For those using this post as a resource for following Infinite’s universe-hopping, I want to add that Universe 1 takes place on 7/6-7/7 1912, Universe 2’s date is indeterminate, Universe 3 is set on or after 7/16/12 and then in 1984, and Universe 4’s events take place on or after 12/23/12 (dates obtained from Voxophones and environmental cues).

  2. […] some good critiques of the game on a narrative level, how it is potentially confusing and basically a well-presented mess.  In a way, I think he’s […]

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