Let's discuss Avengers: Infinity War -- a movie BOUND to make you feel so good!

May 2, 2013

Let’s discuss BioShock Infinite (Part 2).

Before we keep going, there’s something that I want to bring up.  Something that’s…well, not critical, but I think it’s an important distinction to keep in mind.  Basically, the word of the day is “preference”.

In the last part, one of my biggest issues with the game had to do with Elizabeth.  Not because she was a bad character (she isn’t), but because I wanted her to take the leading role instead of the steely private investigator Booker DeWitt.  That desire is still within me.  I still think there’s something to be had if Elizabeth was the star -- and while I can’t quite come up with a way to tweak the gameplay to suit her, it’s still a possibility that might have worked with a little elbow grease.  But here’s the thing: even if they COULD have made the game from Elizabeth’s perspective, I’m not saying they SHOULD have.  Nor am I saying the game is any worse off because of it.

That’s the thing about preference.  In the case of Infinite, virtually everything that’s on display here is objectively good.  Mechanically airtight, intellectually satisfying, sensually appeasing…like I said before, the high marks it’s earned from magazines and websites are more deserved than with dozens of games released this generation.  Granted a TENOUTTATEN only means so much, but surely you get the point.  In the case of preferences, people prefer what this game has to offer.  There’s not much for them to complain about.

Except for the ending.


Okay.  Now let’s have ourselves a little --


All right.  Is that everyone?  Is there anyone out there who has any intention of playing the game for themselves still here?

…No?  Anyone?  Everyone’s gone?

Okay then.  Now let’s have ourselves a little summary of the premise.  You play as Booker DeWitt, a cool-headed, no-nonsense private eye that’s down on his luck.  Just when it looks like he’s about to get crushed (or maybe broken) by some less-than-savory men, he’s given a proposition: “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”  Essentially, washing his hands of the nasty business comes down to tracking down Elizabeth -- located somewhere in Columbia -- and handing her over to his employers.  Naturally, it’s not that simple; ignoring the fact that Booker gets launched into the air with only a vague idea of how to get back, he’ll have to face off with the hidden horrors of Columbia, the forces who’d prefer to have Elizabeth locked away, and his own troubled past on his rail-riding, Vigor-slinging, rip-snorting adventures.

That’s the gist of it.  And with that all in mind, let me go ahead and say…

11) Booker is actually a character (though Elizabeth is still better).
“The main character makes or breaks the story.”  I’ve said it (and variations of it) before, and I’ll keep on saying it for as long as I need to.  And with that idea in mind, I hope you can understand if, prior to release, I was more than a little worried about what place Booker would have in the game.  Would he be bad?  Would he be amazing?  Would he be clichéd?  Would he be original? 

Having finished the game, and having thought about it over a few days, I think I have my own answer.  Booker is…well…yeah, he’s good.  I think the worst thing about Booker is that he has to share the spotlight with Elizabeth -- or more appropriately, so much effort has been put into Elizabeth that Booker’s a little anemic by comparison.  Not to say that he’s unimportant or anything; as you’d expect, he is INCREDIBLY vital to the story, and in ways you certainly wouldn’t expect. 

But how is he as a character?  In my opinion, he’s clichéd.  There’s no way around it; Infinite may have an overwhelmingly amazing world, but its devs have still got a little work to do when it comes to characters.  The nature of Booker’s character is one we’ve seen before.  His character arc is one we’ve seen before -- going from a callous, selfish gofer carting around cargo (Elizabeth) to someone who legitimately cares about his charge; it’s the perennial “and his heart grew three sizes that day” story.  Even post-character development, he’s pretty much the same character.  A bit nicer, but due to the game’s events he’s also much wearier -- he’s colder, and more determined to bring the adventure to an end.  In a way, it almost negates his development.

The biggest part of Booker’s character is both something that -- if you can believe it -- is one of his major flaws and vital to the story.  It’s part of why I was worried he’d be a lame character, and while it’s a notable consequence, it’s used in such an intriguing way that I can’t help but be impressed.  Not quite enamored, but impressed.

Booker doesn’t give a shit about anything.

In a game that’s at least 50% guided tour, Booker doesn’t have much to say about the environment he’s in besides a bemused “Huh.”  He matches Elizabeth’s optimism and cheer with rigidity and cynicism point-for-point, believing everything to be either quaint but inoffensive, an enemy, or something vaguely in between.  He soldiers on without a care in the world, focusing solely on the mission.  Ideology?  Racism?  The threats and consequences of revolution?  Pshaaaaaaaaw!  Just bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.  That’s all that matters.  Even his troubled, inevitably plot-relevant past can hardly slow him down; in spite of being a war veteran who committed atrocities at Wounded Knee, he doesn’t much feel like having a bit of time to reflect.  (To be fair he’s probably done that off-screen, but I’ll get to that later.)  He’s a vaguely-reactionary character, but he’s more likely to rationalize or just plain shrug off his environment than have much in the way of a meaningful interaction.  In a way, he’s a lot like Master Chief -- and you know how I feel about that non-entity guy.

But here’s what separates Booker from Chief, and what makes the former better than the latter.  Everything that went into Booker, I assume, was intentional.  He’s supposed to be this type of character.  You may be watching and playing the game through his eyes, but whereas you’re supposed to be Chief, live vicariously through him, and delude yourself into thinking you’re a badass, you’re NOT supposed to be Booker, you’d BETTER NOT be living vicariously through him, and you’re deluding yourself into thinking you’re the hero of the story.

Like I said before, you know it’s only a matter of time before Columbia ends up getting ousted as a nightmare world -- and likewise, that everything will end up going to hell.  It does, of course, and I have to applaud Infinite for giving us a living, breathing world instead of just another pre-ruined dystopia.  But here’s the thing: part of Comstock’s propagandist brainwashing suggests that Booker -- or at least “the false prophet” with AD inscribed into his hand -- is an anti-messiah that’ll lead The Lamb (Elizabeth) astray, and bring about Columbia’s ruin.  And he’s right.  You do lead Elizabeth astray, and you do end up destroying Columbia…by way of supplying the Vox Populi with weapons, but it’s still guilt by association, and Booker ends up becoming a martyr that pushes them past the bounds of sanity. 

Columbia isn’t exactly a perfect place -- me going there would be a bad idea, and for more reasons than one -- but damn it, that city worked.  The people there might have been paranoid and brainwashed, but they were happy.  That was their city.  Their utopia.  And you completely ruin it.

If the main idea behind Infinite is “think for yourself,” then the more you do, the more you start to rightfully divorce yourself from Booker.  You’re supposed to be impressed and affected by the wonders (and horrors) of Columbia.  You’re supposed to be thinking, so you can both sort out the plot and preempt the inevitable plot twist.  In a sense, you’re supposed to align with and identify with Elizabeth.  Not Booker.  His callousness, his “get the job done” mentality, his lack of concern over the wanton violence…he’s like a parody of the generic action hero.  Or more precisely, a deconstruction.  He’s there to make a commentary, or a meta-conceptual statement -- and in that regard, he succeeds.

I just wish it didn’t have to come at the expense of his character.  Booker may be an extrinsic hit, but Elizabeth is an intrinsic one.  You could argue that Elizabeth is clichéd as well (connections have been made), but even if she is she plays her role effectively and offers some potent twists to the archetype, defying expectations.  Booker also plays his role, but I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s ultimately not as satisfying as Elizabeth’s.

That all said, I don’t think he’s a bad character.  It’s just that he’s standing in a pretty big shadow…though the fact that he’s voiced by Troy Baker works wonders. 

We’ll come back to Booker later on.  For now, let’s move on to a different topic -- namely…

12) “This game’s fuckin’ with you.”
So said my brother countless times throughout my playthrough.  And he’s exactly right -- the game is fucking with you several times per hour.  And that’s awesome.

First and foremost, there are the Luteces.  They’re a pair of kooks -- one male, one female -- that are constantly popping up throughout the story, offering you “hints” in the same way the Cheshire Cat might offer “advice”.  Almost immediately, you know something’s up with them.  And there is; it turns out that they -- or one of them, at least -- hold the blame for making Columbia work via some wild experiments.  Thing is, Comstock ended up trying to assassinate them by staging an accident with their equipment; because of that, the Luteces are hyper-dimensional beings, aware of and capable of existing on all timelines and all planes.  In spite of all that, they’re only tangentially related to the game’s events, and likewise keep a relative distance from the ending.

The idea is to enjoy Columbia and the regular firefight, but the narrative -- and what you know is coming, given the pedigree -- constantly has you on your toes.  Paranoid.  Looking for any clues that’ll give you the right to say “Ha!  I knew it!”  And the devs were waiting for it.  Even if you’ve got your eyes open, you still have to deal with spatial tears, audio logs from Comstock, Fitzroy, Elizabeth, and even Booker, Elizabeth’s role in Comstock’s plans, Booker’s past, the mysterious room he steps out of after he dies, the meaning of bring us the girl and wipe away the debt (which is repeated way too often to be meaningless), and the fact that you cross over from one dimension to the next with little more than the occasional bloody nose.  Not to mention the weird distortions during some of Booker’s conversations.  You know something’s going on, but there are so many ways the plot could go that in my case, I gave up on guessing. 

I just figured that I’d go along for the ride, ignoring the joking predictions I’d made beforehand.  I wasn’t just playing Infinite for the plot twists.  I was playing so I can experience the world, the characters, and all for myself.  Plot twists are a useful tool, to be sure, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all.  They’re not the sole reason why a story should exist.

Remember that for later. 

13) Villains!  Oh wait, no.
You know, I’m starting to wonder if I waited too long to write this post.

I try not to write on a game or movie immediately after finishing it -- unless I’m absolutely driven to -- because I prefer to give myself time to stew a bit.  Gather my thoughts, sort out the issues, intuit what I liked and didn’t like, and why…you know, the sort of thing I should be doing if I want to make a good post.  And I’d prefer to do it by memory, though the occasional wiki probing does help.

I’d like to think that I’ve got a good memory, but like with everyone else I think that my mind works best when I have a strong impression to go by.  And in the case of Infinite, I have them.  I’ve got an extremely strong impression of Elizabeth.  I’ve got a pretty strong impression of Booker.  I can even say that the Luteces -- loopy as they might have been -- left an impact.  But in the case of the antagonists…well, I’m sorry, but I’m drawing a blank here.

If you weren’t aware, Comstock is an old (or old-ish) man, presumably with no powers besides the ability to persuade the masses.  A firefight with Booker is right the hell out, and throughout most of the game you don’t get to encounter him.  You do get to take him down eventually, but it’s done in the context of a cutscene -- and it’s not as much a moment of glory as it is bullying an old man.  It’s almost kind of depressing; I wasn’t expecting a boss fight or anything, but the conflict between our “heroes” and the main antagonist still feels eerily hollow.  Part of the problem is that, while Comstock has a cult of personality around him, the words he speaks all sort of gel together.  It’s ranting and raving, without anything really worth grasping.  I don’t even think he has the graces to speak a meme-tastic line like “A man chooses, a slave obeys.”  It’s just spewing words…and taking the easy way out by going with the good old “religion is evil” trope.  Maybe Ken Levine and company are big fans of Final Fantasy 10…?

Joking aside, part of the reason why I feel like Comstock’s effect (and Fitzroy’s by extension, and even incidental enemies like Fink and Slate) is diminished is because of what I call “The Borderlands Problem.”  Basically, you’ve got these amazing villains with lots of potential, but for one reason or another keep the villains split off from both the main characters and the majority of the plot.  Now, I admit that this is a matter of preference, and what’s an issue with me won’t be an issue for you (potentially).  But the problem I have is that characters that should be more active and intersect with both the plot and the heroes -- especially the heroes -- end up not doing so. 

Borderlands, I feel, has this problem bad; Handsome Jack might have been a competent and even fearsome foe, but his effectiveness is hamstrung from the outset by making a hefty number of his actions background noise.  In exchange, we get to have foreground noise that goes out of its way to explain why the villain is so great, or why your efforts are pointless in the face of his awesome power/brilliant tactics.  Basically, they can talk to you, but you can’t talk back -- and it’s that lack of interaction that does some serious harm.  The villains remain static, the hero (largely) remains unchallenged, and all the jibba-jabba the baddie spews can come off as blustery dick-waving.

If anything, The Borderlands Problem is even worse in BioShock’s case, because at least in the former game what’s related to the villain is at least relatively well-distributed between past and present.  The audio logs (or voxophones, if you prefer) have recordings of Comstock’s teachings and some explanations of who he is/how he built up Columbia and this cult of his.  But that’s all indirect.  There’s a difference between hearing about Comstock -- and Fitzroy, and Fink by extension -- and seeing them in action with your own eyes.  And given this guy's facial hair, I'd say that's a missed opportunity.  

While I can see why they did it the way they did, here’s my question: if you didn’t collect all the audio logs, can you really say you’ve gotten the full story about Comstock?  If you missed even one of those logs related to Comstock -- and indeed, Comstock’s are just a percentage of the collection -- then doesn’t that mean you’re risking a discarded element?  Unless you’ve got a guide in your lap (or are just that determined to find everything), I would assume that there are going to be logs you don’t grab.  And because of it, pieces of the puzzle are gone -- pieces that don’t need to be gone. 

I know the alternative would be to have Comstock and the others hover over and escape from you like Dr. Eggman, and that there IS something to be gained from piecing together Columbia’s history via your detective work, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s unnecessary at best and harmful at worst.   IIRC you meet Daisy Fitzroy twice, and she’s dead by the end of the second encounter.  Fink and Slate both do most of their action via broadcasts in whatever locale you’re in (though to be fair I do think Slate was one of the more interesting villains -- a soldier who’s been wronged, but in his search for justice reveals just how corrupt he really is).  Lady Comstock -- or her alternate-dimension ghost, at least -- gets a proper boss fight times three along with proper discussion and reconciliation with Elizabeth…while Comstock doesn’t get much in the way of anything except his head busted open.      

Long story short, I think that while the baddies are competently handled, they could have (and maybe should have) offered more than that.  But that’s enough talking about that; as a part of my creed I find it absolutely necessary to bring up this song whenever Dr. Eggman is mentioned.   

Now then, what’s next on the li-

No!  Get it away!  Get it away!  GET IT THE HELL AWAY!

No, no, no!  Don’t embed a video!  Don’t you do it!  DON’T YOU --!

Great.  Now I need a new wardrobe.  Le sigh…

But back on topic.  You remember what I said last time (and before) about how video games should try to create the illusion of immersion?  As an audiovisual medium, there are lots of little tricks the devs can use to make masses of polygons exciting, endearing, infuriating, or even horrifying.  And guess which category ol’ Big Bird falls under?

Bear in mind that outside of one or two examples, I don’t really watch a lot of trailers.  I knew The Songbird was in the game, but I had no idea what to expect when it came down to meeting it for the first time.  So when it starts tearing apart buildings and poking its head through who knows how many layers of steel, you can just imagine the sheer level of horror on my face.  Hell, I even started firing wildly at it when it poked its head in.  It’s a scripted event, no question -- as is every encounter with it, and so are plenty of other scenes throughout the game -- but it’s an effective scripted event.  The only time you encounter The Songbird is in cutscenes, (outside of the endgame where you command it to take down enemy ships), but then again a boss fight against it seems unnecessary.  It’s semi-loyal to Elizabeth, it’s just doing its job, and you don’t stand a chance against a creature that can tear through zeppelins at mach five.

15) Utopia?  If you think you can…
So here’s my question: can a utopia work?

Historical evidence (or the lack thereof) and human nature suggest that no, no they can’t.  From a storytelling perspective, I’d assume there’s an inherent problem: a utopia would suggest an absence of conflict, and part of what makes or breaks a story is the presence of conflict.  Having an antagonistic force around does wonders, and if a society has reached a point where all’s well and there’s no need for fighting, making a good story out of it might be tougher.  Not to say that it’s impossible, but tougher at least. 

Infinite and Columbia put up a compelling argument for a utopia, though -- with some caveats, of course.  I’d argue that the idea here is to say that, yes, it IS possible to create a utopia if you’re willing to make some sacrifices.  A central idea; unerring order; zero deviation; there’s a strong argument to be had that the people of Columbia have sacrificed their free will and conscious thought for the sake of an eternal amusement park of a world -- barring the seedy underworlds tucked out of sight.  (Indeed, there is something off about the people of the city -- though whether that’s an intentional effort by the devs or just a mix of oversights and limitations is hard to say for sure.) 

It’s a negative context for the idea, as you’d expect…but even so, it’s an interesting one.  Columbia IS pretty much working perfectly before Booker saunters in.  So maybe this is the only way to create a utopia.  Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale of what could happen if you tried to build a utopia based on such shaky tenets.  Or maybe a utopia is possible if you do the exact opposite?  Could it be that social upheaval is the nature of man?  Or maybe the true nature is comfort-bred complacence, like a soma that dulls the senses?   If that’s the case, then is it possible that making a better world -- one headed by someone NOT batshit insane -- is possible as long as you unite humanity under a single ideal?

Holy shit, that would make for a great story.  Man, this is a good game.

16) What exactly is the plan here?
You know, the more I think about the plot, the more I start to wonder if it’s as airtight as I would have hoped.

Example: one of the key thrusts of the plot is for Booker and Elizabeth to score an airship.  Fair enough; the only issue is that in order to do so, they’ll have to get involved in some dirty dealings with Daisy Fitzroy (i.e. supplying the Vox with weapons).  Now, here’s my question: why do they need an airship strictly from Daisy?  This is a city that’s got no shortage of flying machines large and small, so taking one shouldn’t be all that tough -- especially if they want to travel incognito, and I’m pretty sure that the airship Daisy’s promising is more than a little grandiose.  Is it because Elizabeth wants to help Daisy?  Or is it because Booker doesn’t give a shit, and he’ll take any offer he can get?  It’s not exactly a major point against the game, but considering that it’s an action that completely alters the landscape and the plot, it’s more than a little worrisome.

What’s more worrisome, however, is that Comstock’s plan is iffy -- especially in light of the ending.  In general, I’d argue there is absolutely no reason that Comstock should have lost to Booker.  As the prophet, he’s a man who accurately predicted Booker’s appearance, accurately predicted him leading Elizabeth astray, and accurately predicted Booker bringing ruin to Columbia.  Comstock knows the score -- so why is it that he never capitalizes on his knowledge of Booker’s presence?  It’s one thing to build up this religious movement around him and cast Booker as the devil, but there’s setting up a mentality and there’s acting on practicality.  Letting Booker within ten feet of Columbia is silly.

You could make the argument that, yes, it’s a part of Comstock’s plan.  He wants Booker to show up so people could spot him, and realize that the prophet’s words have come to pass and breed paranoia.   But here’s the problem I have: even if that was Comstock’s objective, why the hell did he let Booker go any further than needed?  Is Booker just mowing through every one of Comstock’s forces?  Why do people only know the false prophet by a pair of letters on his hand, instead of any other distinguishing details -- and why doesn’t Comstock just put up a wanted poster, since he’s absolutely certain of what Booker looks like?  Did Comstock want Booker to come to him?  If so, why not just invite him?  And if so, why let him not only carve a warpath through Columbia and end up realizing the exact thing Comstock would presumably have preferred to prevent? 

See, this is why I wanted more Comstock in the present instead of Comstock in the past. I need to see his justification for his current actions, so I can better understand the plot and all its threads.  Conjecture does not equal confirmation -- and in many cases, it’s confirmation that any audience needs.

But even with that stuff in mind, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  We’re getting close to the end, but before we tackle that let’s focus on something else.  Namely, my favorite part of the game.

17) “Rescuing Elizabeth” MEANS something here.
So, show of hands: who here expected Elizabeth to get kidnapped in at least one point of the game? 

Well, it happens.  Of course it happens.  But in a late-game sequence, Infinite manages to create one of the most harrowing sequences that I’ve ever experienced in a game.  Ever. 

The gist of it is this: The Songbird swoops in and smacks around Booker just as he and Elizabeth are making strides towards bringing their adventure to an end.  In an effort to save Booker from an unwinnable fight, Elizabeth offers herself up as a sacrifice -- a bargaining chip, where she’ll return to Comstock’s nurturing embrace as long as Booker’s left unharmed.  The Songbird approves, and carts a teary-eyed Elizabeth through the sky, leaving Booker to black out.  As you’d expect, when Booker comes around he starts marching toward in an effort to save Elizabeth (because his heart threw three sizes that day); his next destination is Comstock House, AKA a research institute.  Or arguably -- or more appropriately -- an insane asylum.  

Again, I have to draw a comparison to Ratchet and Clank.  Booker and Elizabeth are a team; two parts of a whole whose skill sets complement one another.  So when Booker loses his partner, someone who’ll toss him ammo/items and open up tears that tip the fight in your favor, suddenly all of those gameplay features you took for granted are gone.  Gone.  And you’ll want them immediately, because Comstock House is by far the scariest locale in the game.  Granted part of that is because you’re alone in a cold and unfamiliar environment, but then again that’s the intended -- and successful -- effect.  The carnival’s over.

It’s here that you’ll face off with some of the most dangerous opponents in the entire game: the Boys of Silence and their entourage.  If you strut around the area too carelessly, you’ll alert one of these trumpet-eared enemies and make them call for support with a horrific scream.  And by “support” I mean rushing asylum patients who are nigh-immune to gunfire, forcing you to rely on your Vigors and your dwindling energy.  Generally speaking, you DON’T want that to happen -- but if you’re as clumsy as me, then it will.  And when it does -- and often -- you’ll really start to miss Elizabeth.  You’ll be scared, paranoid, and alone, stuck in a cold, dank, dilapidated complex full of superhuman harassers.

And then this happens. 

It’s a potent scene, to be sure -- though the fact that it’s almost treated like “it was all just a dream” diminishes the effect, I’d argue.  Whatever the case, the culmination of the Rescue Elizabeth (Again, I Guess) Arc is when you’re finally reunited with the real, present-day Elizabeth.  That is, you find her while she’s in the midst of being tortured, with the only thing standing between you and Elizabeth is the glass of a cylindrical operating room.  Now, bear in mind that I’m watching this with full control over Booker -- watching and listening as she convulses and screams, and I’ve just had a hell of a time fending off bullet-deflecting madmen, and I’ve just learned that if I don’t save Elizabeth the surface world -- and the girl, by extension -- is probably doomed.  Bear in mind that I have no idea how I’m supposed to save her, and the “cutscene” of sorts isn’t even finished yet.  With all that in mind, would you like to know my reaction?  Would you like to know what I did?

Simple.  I switched to my shotgun, rammed the barrel into the glass, and fired as fast as it would allow.  It didn’t work, of course; it just left some cracks on the glass and me with less ammo.  But it was just an instinctual reaction -- like I had to save her immediately, and by any means necessary.  In fact, when I actually got an objective, I ended up running up a flight of stairs to deactivate the machine, and in my haste (and because I was still antsy thanks to a firefight from ten seconds ago) I shot a whimpering scientist in the face. 

The game got me.  For all the talk I’ve offered about the game’s idea being to “think for yourself”, I ended up getting sucked into the illusion.  I didn’t bother thinking; I just leapt into action, and blasted an innocent man just because I turned a corner and got startled.  All for Elizabeth.  All for her.

Damn, this is a good game. 

18) The jump scare.
As far as I can tell, this scene got everybody.  Everybody.

Though to be fair, that’s probably not the only sequence that got people.  I’m willing to bet that a lot of people didn’t see that ending coming.  My joking aside, I sure didn’t.  But was that good enough?  Was it really for the best to have an ending like this?

Well, I’ll give you my own thoughts -- and my conclusion -- next time.  Your eyes are probably tired, and I don’t blame you.  Go take a nap or something.  It’ll do you some good; it helps the digestion, I’ve heard.


  1. One annoying part about this game:

    "Elizabeth? Elizabeth! Elizabeth. ELIZABETH?! Eliz....abeth....?"

    The whole fucking game.

  2. Okay, yeah, that's true. I wonder if somebody made a YouTube compilation of it yet. Seems like something that's right up someone's alley. That or another Sparta remix.

  3. I see you an Elizabeth and raise you a "Jason!"


  4. Now that's what I call smokin' sick. Also, good.

  5. It reminds me of Firefly where the doctor brother would always be like, "River?! RIVER! ....River?" All the damn time, lol