Better for the telling

Bioshock Infinite: Irrational Games/2K Games 2013
I’ve written about games here before, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made my preference for fantasy RPGs obvious. I’ve also mentioned how I stumbled upon the idea that FPS (First Person Shooter) games aren’t always just about, well, shooting things. Yes, that is their play mechanic, but it’s like saying Assassin’s Creed was entirely about running round throwing guards off of rooftops just because it was part of the game mechanic.

I’m talking about storytelling.

I only recently played through last year’s Bioshock Infinite, and just… wow. You don’t expect that in a game. It’s taken me a while to get round to posting this because I felt I needed to get my head around it. It’s that sort of game. If you haven’t played it yet, I will give something away here, so *SPOILER ALERT* for anyone planning on playing it.

On the surface, Bioshock Infinite is an FPS set in a beautifully rendered city called Columbia which floats above an alternate reality America circa 1912. You get some exploration, some character interaction, and of course, gun battles boosted with Bioshock’s Vigor system (you find special powers that can be unlocked throughout the game, from being able to hurl fireballs to shield yourself before sending enemy bullets right back at them). However it is also a game that revolves around the idea of choices, morality and fatalism. Didn’t expect that, did you? (Or maybe you did and I’ve just set my expectations really low.)

It tells a story that is as immersive as the world of Columbia, while touching on issues such as historical racism, religious fervour, post-traumatic stress faced by soldiers trying to come to terms with their actions in war, the morality of choices, and space-time physics. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but the myriad of little details are what makes the characters feel cohesive and the world feel inescapably alive. The element of player choice does come up every so often, and as a gamer you want to know what difference to the game your choice has made. This is where Bioshock Infinite could be seen as being quite meta in playing on that desire, as well as using it to make what could be the most forcefully driven home philosophical point I’ve ever seen in a game. Do they make a difference? Does anything we decide to do make a difference in the end?

But that ending… Maybe you saw it coming. Maybe you spotted the plot twist within the plot twist. It’s enough to give you headaches just thinking about it, let alone trying to work out how the Burial At Sea expansion works (which I haven’t played/read about yet so SPOILERY possibilities A: it’s non-canon, B: there WAS another reality where the constants were in fact not as constant as Elizabeth and the Luteces expected, or C: a Dr Who wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey theory that involves time branching out in unexpected ways if someone tries to alter it).

This game succeeded in making me feel uncomfortable. Not just that I’m playing an FPS, but that it puts you in situations that could be more akin to a horror setting, ones which can leave you feeling a little shaken (very much like the first Bioshock, the consistently dark tone of which put me off playing). It also works to make you care. I’ve written about characters being important before, and the leads in this story certainly are. We’re drip fed details through things we discover or snippets of conversations. These details are important rather than just padding out points of interest. By the time we reach one of the big narrative sequences (“This is where we sleep…”) the game has earned the right to make me feel emotionally involved. Some games work too hard for things like this, and it feels forced. But Bioshock gets it right by steadily, subtly giving us everything throughout the game.

I’m not sure if the game has replay value. Knowing what you know after the first play through, it’s difficult to go through it again. I might replay, looking for any special story items I didn’t pick up first time round. I’ll also be on the look out for those little details, the ones that told you everything long before the narrative revealed itself. And perhaps, in a meta sort of way, you are meant to replay the game, knowing what you now know. I’ll think about it.

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