Being a Shooter Is BioShock Infinite’s Downfall

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Posted on April 4, 2013, Phil Owen 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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