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April 2013

Shooter apotheosis


Elizabeth: I can't believe you did that. They're all dead. You killed those people.
Booker: Elizabeth, I...
Elizabeth: You're a monster!
Booker: What did you think was going to happen?
                                                                                    --Bioshock Infinite 

Bioshock Infinite is a shooter with a problem, but the problem isn't the shooting. The problem is that Bioshock Infinite has nothing to say about the shooting. A game that earnestly tries to explore morality and personal responsibility ducks those questions by placing the player on a conveyor belt of hyper-violent sequences, shuttling the player from one narrative set-piece to the next. The shooting is what you do. The story is what you (mostly) hear. The two have little to do with each other.

The violence does have a function. Elizabeth realizes one demagogue is no less monstrous than another because she (and the player) witnesses the human toll of violence first-hand. Like both previous Bioshocks, Infinite guts empty ideologies that rationalize violence and unbridled power. No games portray "world gone wrong" better than the Bioshock series, plunging us into environments littered with loaded imagery: a defaced statue; a toppled champagne glass, a bloody surgical tool; a child's apparently innocent drawing. We taste brutality born from polluted ideas because these games make us navigate their debris. Whatever their limits, shooters like Bioshock, Fallout 3, and Metro 2033 can fly us directly into the eye of dystopia.

But as valiantly as it tries to explore social-political issues, Infinite is tethered to its mechanical nature as a shooter in ways that undermine its aspirations. It's possible to love the game for all it tries to do, but still feel smothered by its insistence that so much of our experience is delivered staring down the barrel of a gun or other deadly weapons. The issue isn't about being pro- or anti- shooter games; it's about how standard FPS design limits the narrative possibilities of a game that clearly aspires to dig deep. How might I have behaved, and how might I have reflected on Infinite's provocative world, had I not spent so much time shooting or avoiding being shot? The game's story isn't really about shooting at all, but the player's lived story is, and that collision is impossible to overcome.

I'll do my best to keep you supplied with remedies. --Elizabeth

LizMuch has been made of Elizabeth's role as a companion character. It's true that her story frames the narrative and delivers some punchy reveals along the way. But Elizabeth's primary function - her most direct impact on the player's lived experience in the game - is to keep him fed with ammo, scrounge for supplies, and open locked doors/portals.

Elizabeth's own needs (e.g. her desire to reconcile with her mother) are highlighted in Infinite as major dramatic events, but they rarely connect on an emotional level because the player's relationship with Elizabeth is constrained to physically protecting her through dozens of shootouts, ambushes and vessel upheavals. In between the gunplay sections, Elizabeth may share a fear or question Booker's motivations, but these moments feel no less mechanically triggered than the gunplay, and no less insulated from meaningful player response.

Ironically, when Booker points his gun at Elizabeth, she admonishes him to "Put that away." I yearned to respond "If only I could, my dear." In fact, the player has no authority over Booker's gun, aside from firing it. There is no option to holster it. This leads to moments of absurdity, such as when a mother and daughter stare at me blithely as I approach them, gun drawn and ready to fire.

I can behave no other way because Bioshock Infinite is resolutely a shooter, which is a fine thing to be, but I must surrender any illusion that I matter in this world. The game decides where and when Booker draws his weapon and when he puts it away. My only important job is to aim and shoot. Practically and experientially, I'm more gun than man, even when I'm not shooting.

When the shooting resumes, Elizabeth waits in the wings until bullets or salt run low. "You need this!" she yells, tossing Booker a magazine of ammo. "Much obliged!" he replies. When the shooting pauses and our enemies are properly mutilated, we'll pick up the conversation where we left off.

ComstockstatueInfinite delivers characters and drama like Epcot presents world culture. In lieu of dramaturgy, Infinite showcases its characters and themes through shorthand devices (signage, memorial engravings, diaries, confessional audio logs, etc.). These essentially function as narrative dumps, sketching out a handful of key points about each place, person, or conflict for the player's convenience.

Loudspeaker propaganda stands in for philosophy, and binary ideologies divide everyone into groups locked in antagonistic conflict. Columbia is a fun-house depiction of a broken society, which makes the player's travelogue through it feel sumptuous and memorable, if not especially meaningful.

It's as if Bioshock Infinite's creators have kept the full renderings of these characters to themselves, and we're left to peer at sketches through layers of production. This is a common problem for playwrights and screenwriters. Sometimes a writer knows so much that he forgets his audience knows so little.

Despite my misgivings, the team at Irrational probably exceeded any reasonable expectation, embedding a crafted narrative inside a game that's mostly about shooting things. The nearly uniform praise the game has received suggests I'm on the outside looking in with my critique. Maybe this game really is convincing proof (I'm reminded here that Far Cry 2 didn't sell) of the "true power of the medium to engage and inspire us." Perhaps it truly is "a breathtaking achievement in videogame storytelling."

I have a feeling that Bioshock Infinite will finally be seen as the apotheosis of the FPS genre, a culminating achievement that signals both a peak and an end. I'm sure other designers will take their shots, and I wish them well, but it's impossible for me to read quotes like the ones above without amending them in my head with "...for a shooter." That doesn't mean shooters are empty experiences. Not at all. It simply means that staring down the barrel of a gun as a default point of view may not leave your possibility space wide open.

Every genre has conventions that limit and liberate, and artists inevitably breathe new life into old forms. But I can't help wondering how much longer we'll mistake being a gun for being a person.