Rosalind Lutece is arguably the best character in Bioshock Infinite. She’s certainly the only self-actualized female character. Ironically, she would be aghast at the… pardon the pun… irrational lunacy that has gripped the gaming community regarding the title that birthed her. No scientific mind would be able to accept the pseudo-intellectual sycophancy that has gripped numerous well-placed fans regarding this game. Unfortunately, I have a scientific mind.
I’m going to be very clear, I do not think Bioshock Infinite is a bad game!!!! I just don’t think it’s a perfect game. I would rate it a solid 8, maybe even an 8.5, which is top notch. Unfortunately these days, the only acceptable scores range from 8 to 10, so an 8.5 ends up in the bottom 50 percentile of games worth paying attention to. Compare this with film aggregate services like Rotten Tomatoes, who grant positive status to combined scores of 60% and higher. That sort of playing field denotes a mature industry with a wide variety of tastes and opinions. Metacritic is more like the Maxim Hot 100: take the most plastic, overhyped status symbol with the biggest promotional push and artificially convince the world that she’s impossibly hot.
Andrew Sztein did the official review of Bioshock Infinite for this site, and he gave the game a 9.5. Which, somehow, is vastly more sane than a perfect score, because it admits there are some issues with the title. I’m not intending to override his review here, only to offer a second perspective, because gaming is not a monolith. Andrew and I disagree on some points, but we agree on one thing: It’s terribly frustrating that Infinite is so close to being an excellent story, especially an excellent story utilizing the steampunk aesthetic*.
Only through the combination of speculative techno-fantasy and retro-futurism, with a diversion from history at the end of the Victorian era, could a flying city suspended by quantum particles be plausible. It’s a very clever twist on the steampunk aesthetic, and really does create a 1900s parallel in physics to the work in modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s that the original Bioshock used in harmony with its Art Deco dystopia.
Where our disagreement come is that for me that, while the game mostly succeeds on aesthetic principles, it’s notably lacking polish in the areas of gameplay, story and character. It’s the Anne Hathaway of video games: full of legitimate talent and very attractive, but many average people hate it because they’re constantly told to like it instead of being allowed to decide for themselves. I think the steampunk is selling Bioshock by smoothing over the weaker elements, just because it’s so darned perty.
Our job as reviewers is to connect individual games to the audiences who are most likely to enjoy them. This requires us to temper personal enjoyment with an objective analysis of potential red flags. The closest parallel I can make is LA Noire: It’s more impressive for what it attempts to do than what it actually does, with an ending too similar to other games of similar theme. But Infinite isn’t currently selling on its merits. It’s selling on hype, and a spot at the online water cooler.
We except as industry chaff the predictable and useless 5 star reviews from TV programs that need ad dollars. But otherwise good services, like Polygon, the Escapist, and Joystiq, lost their minds in equal fashion. These perfect reviews from respected services aren’t serving game buyers: reviews aren’t written for fans, they’re written for everyone else, then fans troll them to show what dedicated fans they are.
But I’m shooting some pretty big fish here, so, as others online have pointed out, I’d better have facts to back up my opinion. So here’s a lengthy breakdown of where, objectively, Bioshock Infinite falls short of a perfect score. There’s a lot here, and there has to be, because I’m saying Emperor Ken Levine has no clothes.
Er… forget that metaphor. Sorry. It’s a bit like Robin Williams in the Fisher King. Moving on.
Firstly, when gamers see a 10, they expect a game that will not only amaze them once, but continue to do so with repeated plays. This requires alternate endings, real player choice, and in some cases, multiplayer -- Infinite has not one of these elements, which is an artistic choice I support if a developer is prepared to take the consequences. A lack of replay value is, at minimum, a one point deduction.
Then there are the myriad technical issues. The game’s visual strength is its backgrounds, although the overuse of light bloom is, in places, less cotton candy and more “Argh my eyes!” More importantly, many of the random citizens of Columbia move like marionettes after a prostate exam.
Columbia also too frequently feels like a surprisingly empty place, something that Dragon Age was hammered for, but Bioshock somehow got a pass on. Rapture was a dying city. Columbia should feel alive, but frequently doesn’t. With the Hitman series showing what games can do with crowds reacting to battles in public places, you have to take leave of your senses to claim a game is flawless when crowds of people disappear completely at the first Skyhook melee, but don’t react at all when gunfire erupts in a slum.
But, okay, I can accept that the “Ooh shiny!” overpowered the “D’oh!” factor. This is reasonable. Visually, achievement should be rewarded.
But then there were some annoying, ongoing audio issues – it should have been easy enough for the game to stop playing a voxophone recording when Elizabeth and Booker begin an event-triggered dialogue. But nope. The recording just keeps on going in the background, serving as nothing more than an irritating distraction. Meanwhile, one Voxophone recording is so overloaded with digital scratch that it causes my ears physical pain. Patch that Lady Comstock tape in the first Columbia level! Please!
But perhaps you’re willing to reward Infinite’s incredible soundtrack, so you ignore the audio issues in favor of a related outstanding achievement. Fine, I can support that. I’d absolutely buy a Bioshock soundtrack album. It’s phenomenal. We’re not done, however, and this is my second free pass. On to gameplay.
The infuriating lack of a hard save option and checkpoints that are often too few and far-between are inexcusable design issues. Then there are some game balance problems that you’d expect this franchise would, by now, have overcome… because they happen in every Bioshock game! Murder of Crows is a noticeably overpowered Vigor and the hand cannon is an overpowered pistol that can’t be tempered by a lack of ammo, since Elizabeth tosses you plenty of bullets during brawls.
Furthermore, the navigation function goes out the window on the Skylines, the default keyboard configuration on PC is so very bad that my left arm hurts from the contortions it required, and the tutorial has some noticeable holes… like referring to a “gameplay menu” without realizing there are two: one via the pause screen, and one accessed by pressing “O’. Why O? I have no idea. Furthermore, combat too often feels like an inelegant bombardment of bullets, and I played on PC. I can’t imagine how annoying it is on a console. So, being generous, I’d say we’ve lost another half point off the score. We’re already down to 8.5, and that’s with so much charity that we should qualify for non-profit status… and we’re just getting to the story and character issues.
Strong characters were a hallmark of the original Bioshock. In Infinite, they have more holes than swiss cheese. An example? The weak mid-game character development of Daisy Fitzroy.
Rapture’s descent into madness had an internal logic: the plasmids’ side effects explained why everyone was nuts. There is no such clear explanation for Fitzroy’s descent from an embittered slave to a bloodthirsty psycho who kills kids just because they’re non-Irish whites. As written, Fitzroy just falls into the “crazy equals violent” stereotype, which is privileged and lazy. I won’t even touch the drift into the stereotype of the angry black woman… on second though I will: no one caught that in playtesting?!
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite so bad if Booker wasn’t constantly moralizing in voicework more wooden than Bro-Shep’s from Mass Effect. Too often the game spoon feeds you an official decision on a character’s morality instead of letting you decide for yourself.
So it’s really not surprising that the game’s villain, Zachary Comstock, is a horrid cliché and a terrible orator. It’s hard to believe that an entire society would follow a man whose sermons have the rhetorical quality of bad fan-fiction.
I also ended up not caring about Songbird – Infinite’s version of Big Daddy -- because of the emotional dissonance created by the game yanking control away from me every time he appeared. Furthermore, the culmination of Songbird’s story is lost in a much bigger, better moment. But even then, in an apparent attempt to ignore all of Bioshock 2, Irrational Games missed a huge opportunity to link the series’ multiple scientifically divine children, the “Lambs”. As is, the only link is Tanenbaum being Fink’s original source for the vigors, and some blathering deconstruction of the conventions of the series. During the unending exposition near the end of the game, I actually muttered “Elizabeth, Would You Kindly shut up.” The entire middle of the game has almost no critical thematic development, and then it empties like an enema at the very end.
Then the whole “infinite” theory almost immediately went out the window in a single ending that somehow pulls everything back into a single timeline… then splits it in two again after the end credits. Games should challenge players, but they cannot be allowed to completely abort a coherent story already swiped from 1970s comic books and episodes of The Outer Limits. Oh, and InFamous.
Say Elizabeth’s and the Lutece twins’ assertions about alternate realities are true. If they are, then Booker’s final decision is only one of many possible final decisions, because there already exist realities where he makes another choice, purging the ending of any solid meaning.
Then there is the artistic mess in the game’s protagonist. With a first person shooter, it’s not enough to like a character; you have to immerse in them. Other people have written brilliantly about this, so I’ll move on to my unique personal issue with Booker DeWitt: I felt uncomfortable inhabiting the skin of a white murderer of countless Native Americans while bearing a name evocative of Booker T. Washington, a man the diametric opposite of Infinite’s playable character. To combine this with a potential reference to John L. DeWitt, booster of Japanese American Internment Camps, is an insensitive amount of irony that really goes nowhere. In trying to be smarter than smart, things end up arrogant and offensive. Ken Levine has shown he can do better.
Furthermore, reviews should contain warnings for more sensitive souls, since the ESRB envelopes horrid racial slurs and high-stigma representations of entire groups into their “language” warning. I already mentioned the cheap mental illness shortcut. But there’s another thing happening here too. I know it’s trendy to crap on Christians right now, but that doesn’t make it good art.
The developers did not understand Baptism enough to use it in the way they did. There were moments that were tough for me to deal with because I was playing the game during Passover. I found the whole handling of the religious overtones to be clunky and cheap.
If you are going to use central acts of real-world religions and release the game right before Passover and Easter, then you’d better have a handle on the material. Bioshock Infinite really didn’t sufficiently distinguish between a story about a corrupt man who abused religion and the idea that religion is inherently abusive. “Christianity is corrupt” is just a tired refrain. It’s too easy, and it’s reinforcing the flawed, boring argument that you must choose between a faith in a god and any semblance of rationality or morality. But also, in the time period the game is set, it’s just patently wrong.
Numbering among the few organizations that gave a rat’s ass about all those Lincoln-era freed slaves were churches. The African-American church movement was a revolutionary reaction to racism. Instead of including that intelligently in the game’s narrative, Bioshock Infinite falls back on the old slave song cliché, then goes back to making the Christ/Anti-Christ riff a strictly white man’s game. There was just too much stuff flying around for any of it to say anything new or really thoughtful, despite the heavy-handedness of the pounding it receives. It had the intellectual consistency of Dan Savage’s definition of a Santorum.
There’s about two-thirds of a decent story in Bioshock Infinite, but that remaining third has clear problems. The praise that ignores those flawed elements feeds the perception that games can’t tell good stories, instead of the idea that many games just don’t. Bioshock Infinite’s soaring reviews are, for the most part, reactions to a story that revels in white male privilege without even realizing it.
It’s very hard for a studio to keep a sense of perspective when the media that covers its work kisses its creative director’s ass this hard, and the cult of Ken Levine needs to chill. The buying public is tuning out the worship and resenting it like an overhyped boy band, which is reflected in the number of times the word “overrated” is used in the negative metacritic user reviews . The industry cannot survive at its current level on diehard fans alone, so those of us who get review copies of games for free have a sacred trust to inform those consumers who buy games with real money.
Furthermore, the core gaming media keeps losing ground to mainstream news correspondents who don’t know anything about games. This is happening in part because, at critical junctures, we are completely out of touch with “normal” people. This Bioshock Infinite insanity is a perfect example of that and a gamer who pays full price for a triple-A title deserves better, especially since piracy is so easy these days.
Okay I’ve had my say. Commence trolling true believers, because truly fresh thinking is controversial and not universally accepted. Perhaps, in light of that, you need to consider that a high metacritic score is a prize awarded to a product for being intellectually and philosophically safe.
*Special thanks to Dr. Mike Perschon of Grant MacEwan University, who let me cite his work on the steampunk aesthetic.