Being a Shooter Is BioShock Infinite’s Downfall


RELATED: Check out our BioShock Infinite review, and our analysis of the game’s ending.


In the first-person shooter genre, we tend to see traditional shooter gameplay with story bits in between the action sequences. That formula is no longer satisfactory, however, but BioShock Infinite uses it like it’s gospel.

I recently wrote a feature story on the people who write games. One such person, Haris Orkin (Dead Island, Call of Juarez), told me that of all the different types of media he’s written, writing for games is the most complicated affair because “we’re still figuring out how to do it.” The problem these writers have comes from the conflict between plot and gameplay, which often don’t go hand-in-hand.

As we all know by now, Infinite is a game with quite a heady story, and for a while it crawls along at a slow pace, allowing you to soak in your surroundings and ponder events. Even so, the game only has two modes: shooting and walking around observing. There really isn’t anything else going on in this game. That is the nature of the core shooter, but Irrational is intent with Infinite, at least early on, to strike a balance. It gives you time to breathe.

But the game abandons that balance without any sort of grace, and as you progress you’ll find the story ramping up in a very significant way while shooting segments become longer and longer. This is not unexpected.

In an interview with Kill Screen, Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett discussed the sort of gameplay mandate that leads to such an eventuality. “When players get a gun, they generally want to use the gun. We were brave in going such a long time without giving players a gun in a game where you end up doing a lot of shooting. We tried to innovate a little bit, but narrative can’t always win. Ideally if you can find a sweet spot, that’s great. But sometimes combat, or gameplay or whatever, has to win out.”

Whether it’s because the money men demand it or simply because the studios making these sorts of game like making them this way, games with shooting seem to have a requisite body count. You simply can’t, according to conventional wisdom, deliver a game that gives your player character a weapon without letting the player use that weapon a lot. And while BioShock Infinite definitely has a particularly ambitious artistic vision, it is a big-budget product of a major publisher. Irrational, then, delivered something that is well within the norms of what we expect from such a game by having it devolve into a seemingly endless and emotionally tiresome series of firefights.

This becomes a problem because the game stops letting you catch your breath. Going anywhere in Columbia in the second half of Infinite means you’re going to have to shoot at least ten or fifteen enemies, and much of the time you’ll have three or four such large fights between each reminder that this game is also a narrative experience. And when such reminders do pop up, you have to try to absorb all the really wild details Irrational is trying to throw at you before you enter the long, drawn-out fray once more.

That Infinite is so limited in the types of gameplay opportunities it gives you ultimately frustrates what should have been a really interesting overall game experience. What we get is an all-out shooter game with a story stapled on haphazardly, and the two facets of the game don’t meld at all. Even worse: forcing you to trudge through epic battle after epic battle takes your eye off the ball. Gameplay overwhelmingly trumps plot, and it becomes easy, in all the mayhem, to lose track of what’s actually going on. Some of the details become lost in the ridiculous struggle to progress.

In this case, too, it becomes apparent that gameplay is taking the place of story. Instead of packing Infinite full of plot that is presented to you outside of the detestably passive audio recordings, Irrational gave us lots of shooting to do. A segue into Fink’s territory becomes an excuse to have you fight more bad guys rather than a way to tangibly develop the world of Columbia. The quest to steal Lady Comstock’s hand becomes a painful obstacle instead of a touching character moment for Elizabeth.

BioShock Infinite is a shooter. It does not exist to tell you a story. That plot you find so intriguing is just bonus content. That is its flaw.

Someday, developers will figure out how to bring gameplay and story together. But today, as Orkin said, they’re still figuring that whole thing out. Infinite is not even a noble failure in that regard. It attempts to give you interesting art to mull over, but it certainly does not do so in any sort of progressive way. What we get out of it, in fact, is an old experience. Irrational and the people championing its effort here (to the tune of a 95 Metacritic score) are leading the charge for keeping games the way they are instead of encouraging them to become something better. Woe is me.

Follow Phil Owen on Twitter: @philrowen

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13 Comments on Being a Shooter Is BioShock Infinite’s Downfall

thejfather1

On April 4, 2013 at 5:10 pm

i see the argument, but i liked the games story so much i dont care. Bioshock 1 was similar, but that games storytelling was still considered awesome right?

Ed

On April 4, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Would have to disagree on a number of these points. Starting with the headline itself, ‘Being a Shooter Is BioShock Infinite’s Downfall’, I think that’s too dismissive of the FPS genre as a concept whereas it’s more the rubbish state that the FPS finds itself in at the moment that is the problem. In my opinion, Irrational could well have made Bioshock Infinite a truly outstanding story while keeping it as a FPS, they just didn’t innovate nearly enough. The gameplay was very dated. Not bad, just dated. And a lack of variety made this much worse as the game went on. But I would argue that it was not simply by being a first-person shooter that Bioshock Infinite failed, it was by not even attempting to reinvent what that genre does.

While I do agree that Infinite is a flawed game, I think that ‘what we get is an all-out shooter game with a story stapled on haphazardly’ is a bit unfair. The story is extremely well told and works fine with the standard FPS idea of your protagonist taking on masses of enemies to save the day. Where I felt it did fall down in melding the two (and you definitely make good points in covering this) was in the lack of ability to just roam and slow things down later in the game. But I’d argue that Inifinte’s opening hours are among the best ever in video games and actually prove that storytelling and world creation can certainly merge with the FPS. Maybe developers should have more faith in gamers being able to handle a handful less big battles. Other big helps for the experience would have been letting me put my gun away and reactive NPCs as the citizens of Columbia.

Your last point about the Metacritic score is a solid one but honestly could be a applied to many, many games across all genres. Games journalism in general needs to lower scoring systems and embrace intelligent criticism. My overall feeling towards Bioshock Infinite is hugely positive: I loved it and it will likely remain one of my favourite games of this gen, but if marking out of 100 I feel that on balance an 85 is fair. 90+ is getting a little generous.

Where I disagree most with the article is probably just going to come down to personal preference in what different people prioritise in games but I would definitely say that, while the uninventiveness of Infinite’s gameplay should not be ignored, the creation of Elizabeth (one of the all-time great video game characters), the overall story, the stunning presentation and the intelligent employment of themes of racism and discrimination really should give Bioshock Infinite a little bit of a pass, no? Just a tiny one? Because I definitely felt that for a not inconsiderable period of the game, FPS and interesting storytelling had something real nice going on.

P.S. This kind of thing is why I admire gamefront and the like. Great, measured article that encourages a good discussion (hopefully!), even if I don’t 100% agree.

Phil Owen

On April 4, 2013 at 5:46 pm

While Infinite is the case study, what I say here can be applied to any number of games. What I’m talking about here, really, is a fundamental flaw in the way developers make games, namely that they don’t write the stories before starting production. They create stories to go alongside gameplay, instead of making gameplay that is appropriate for the story being told.

Swcloud99

On April 4, 2013 at 6:23 pm

What we need is a single person who is the author of the game. That person works on both the gameplay and the story and makes sure the two work together has one.
Not unlike author theory in cinema. If games want to evolve, they have to give more power to a single indivual’s vision and give that individual the freedom to create it the way he pleases. Don’t completely remove the concept of peer review but do award the title of main creator to someone.
We seem to have very few people who can truly be called authors in the gaming world and most of them are indie devs. At the same time, indie games are much better at blending storytelling and gameplay, I think.

Michael

On April 4, 2013 at 6:25 pm

LOL.
Writing a game is easy for me. So far I have wriiten about 12 games. Half of which are RPG’s and sidescrollers.
The real difficult part in any game has to be the programming.
As for story all you have to do is focus on what the story is about and the endings. Once you do that everything else will fit in its place.

Axetwin

On April 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm

Ok Phil, I gotta ask, what is your beef with the FPS genre? This is at least the 4th article in as many months you’ve published where the topic pretty much comes down to “FPS games are destroying gaming as we know it”. I know you never actually said that, but the strong implications are there and that would be the end result of a natural evolution of articles you’ve been publishing.

Maybe instead of focusing on the genre like it’s its own entity, you should be focusing on the power behind the genre; the people. Each new generation of gamer is getting dumber and more impatient, each new generation of developer seems to think that if players go for a shorter and shorter amount time without killing something, they’ll turn off the game in frustration. THESE are the elements that bring down a good game like Bioshock Infinite, not the specific genre it belongs to.

Kevin

On April 5, 2013 at 5:00 am

I don’t think it’s just Phil.

Kotaku is running articles saying the same thing: they loved this game, but the gimmicky nature of the FPS genre really damaged this game when it didn’t need to:

http://kotaku.com/bioshock-infinite-is-insanely-ridiculously-violent-it-470524003

Then you had another game blogger who Kotaku references stating:

“Brilliant as the game is – and as earnestly 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 does (and tries to do), but still feel smothered by its insistence that so much of my experience is delivered staring down the barrel of a gun or other destructive weapon. The issue for me isn’t about being pro or anti shooting 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 hard to overcome.”

Infinite shows what is possible with the narrative in an FPS game, but also shows where the genre needs to go as the gamer culture matures.

DaveTheJackal

On April 5, 2013 at 5:14 am

I think your fault is wanting Bioshock Infinite to be Bioshock. The centre of the story is not Columbia but Elizabeth/Dewitt.We realise that in the middle section where they are tearing between worlds. How can Columbia be the star if we visit so many?

Rjcb

On April 5, 2013 at 10:28 am

I see. So it’s narrative and gameplay don’t mix well, they are melded in the beginning, but not equal. It’s no wonder I was hesitant to buy the game. I prefer to have the story’s narrative deeply influencing the gameplay as a part of it. If it’s story… then action sequence that doesn’t so much involve story as it does just shooting people… yeah that would disparage the story and how it is supposed to tell it. I will be getting the game later, but I think I can officially wait. Thanks guys for giving me a better indication as to what my initial thoughts were on the games of today.

56KModem

On April 8, 2013 at 5:20 am

Personally, I don’t understand this particular criticism about Infinite.

If I wanted to play Myst, I would have done so. Infinite should not be measured to any other games’ standards, but to its own. Here is an analogy, hating a new car that comes out just because it has four wheels; all cars have four wheels. The car manufacturers are not doing enough innovating right?

Well, the reality is that Infinite is fun. I was too busy having fun when apparently many others were thinking about circumventing it. Combat in Infinite is extremely fun. What is the complaint here? That combat gets in the way of story? Really? Personally, I didn’t like the story, but enjoyed the hell out of combat, especially on the 1999 mode, where its intense. That’s what I expected going into Infinite. Just like my second sentence stated, if I wanted to play Myst, I would have. Obviously many others expected something complete different when they started up Infinite.

The review on Metacritic is fair. The game is worth more than 95, I think, because it is good ol’ fashion shooter and fun. I found no real flaws in it. Infinite was polished and well paced. Also, what do you mean by “keeping games the way they are instead of encouraging them to become something better?” So Infinite should have gotten a score of 30, that would have shown them how to make a fun game, huh. How dare people like fun games!? They should hate fun games to teach the developers and publishers a lesson… to take gaming community seriously! Why is this game expected to reinvent the wheel again?

Anyway, though I did enjoy the article and the review, I don’t agree with it at all. You are criticizing a fun game based on the wrong criteria. Infinite is a shooter and a really fun one at that. Its like criticizing food not on the way it tastes, but on sound it makes when you chew it. The story in Infinite is told well, and if not, then why don’t you provide suggestions to make it better. So far the only thing I have gotten out of any critiques regarding Infinite’s success was… too much shooting. So all you want to do is remove some of the shooting?

No, you know what, I agree. It would be a ton more fun if there was no shooting. Booker does not get a weapon, and instead Liz and he walked around Columbia for twenty hours. All the story you can handle without that fun gameplay part that plagues games, right? /sarcasm

Final words. I am not saying that Infinite is without its flaws, but a lot of these reviews are looking and finding them where none exist.

Wapuni

On April 9, 2013 at 12:06 pm

I have to agree completely. While I really loved the game it often occurred to me that the shooting sequences were more of a burden than fun for me. In the end I really dreaded the moment the next wave of enemies would rush me while I was busy trying to immerse myself in the story.
I have to repeat: I really love the game, but I also realised while playing that there was so much more that could have been done with it. And… in the end the shooting sequences did not feel like a game anymore. They felt like work.

Gattsu

On November 29, 2013 at 12:38 pm

I got to agree. The writers for Infinite were just really trying to create something amazing, the art is certainly on par, but it seems the gameplay department consisted of the same guys from 6 years ago, with their archaic mindset unchanged.

Why would anyone even get the idea, in our modern times, to restrict the gameplay of a videogame to just walking and shooting?
There is only 1 reason, because it made them rich in the past, since they already knew how to do it 6 years ago.

The main reason imo why pure shooters are still successful is that the customers just don’t know better. Well most of them don’t… haven’t yet experienced or they can’t or don’t even try to imagine what would be possible.

Personally I watched the story (and some shooter parts) on youtube and I really, really liked it. Especially the ending was just superbly done which is, in my mind, the reason why this game has a 90%+ metascore and a high user score. The ending is what got stuck in the minds of the reviewers, the experience and also the process of putting all the pieces together at the end were just so satisfactory.

We have seen what happens if the majority of customers love the game but hate the ending. (Mass Effect 3)

P.S.:
I hope my english is sufficient to get my point(s) across.

Drachehexe

On January 5, 2014 at 7:55 am

This is why I refuse to get into the game business. People like this who just have to over-analyze every single piece from every single game to come up with why a game so many like that sells so bloody well isn’t as good as we think it is.

Sorry, dude, but you’re an idiot. I found this one of the best games ever. Awesome shooter, a story that rocks and wasn’t as difficult to follow or comprehend as you mak eit out to be.

The game review industry is ruining games because game reviewers have forgotten how to enjoy games. Even in the Gamefront review of Bioshock the reviewer give it a 80 out of 100 which puts it into an elite product category but complains so much about how it fall short of this or does that wrong which suggests is shouldn’t be in the elite category. Reviewerd tend to forget that an averagege game, not great but not bad, is a 50.

But bottom line is a game is only as good as how much fun you have playing it. Take games at face value an dyou’ll enjoy them a lot more.