Posted by: Chris | October 14, 2010

On Bioshock Infinite

One of our co-bloggers has taken it upon himself to unsubtly proselytize Ken Levine’s/Irrational’s upcoming release, exuberantly emailing me the initial trailer and displaying the ten-minute “gameplay” footage on the big screen lieu of Netflix one evening.  When I responded to these overtures with something less than overawed praise, this was interpreted as revealing a whole spate of character flaws, most notably that I possess an unreasonable fetishization of the new and dislike traveling on trammeled ground.  Even putting aside the obvious counterexamples (searching this site for the word Sonic should suffice), it is a patently ridiculous charge for this specific case.  My objection to Bioshock Infinite is not that it reiterates things Levine and Co. have done before, its that the game reiterates things mindlessly and thus the game is utterly without purpose.  What we have seen thus far is an incoherent, anachronistic and flat-footed mess that shambles about with billowy and thoughtless excesses, and the utterly uncritical reaction Irrational has received thus far is a greater indictment than any lobbed my way.

Whatever its other flaws, Bioshock was a game that made sense.  It worked because Ken Levine was an objectivist for many years and had a decent grasp of the movements tenets and flaws.  Thus he had Rapture incarnate the persistent libertarian fantasy of building a wholly new society predicated on freedom (principally drawing on Rand’s Galt’s Gulch from Atlas Shrugged).  Irrational then used Bioshock to demonstrate how this vision could naturally unspool into a hellish dystopia because man is inherently imperfectable and freedom/choice are illusory (or some such).   All of the constituent elements of the game (the Big Daddies, gene tonics, splicers, Andrew Ryan, the retro vibe, and even the idea of Rapture itself) flow from this premise.  You cannot just gather up all these disconnected bits and scatter them in a new context and hope for things to make sense.

And naturally, they don’t.  The premise of Bioshock Infinite is that, around the fin de siecle, some private individuals built a giant city on air balloons designed to travel the world and open up distant markets to American goods.  Said giant floating city goes missing and then goes to hell in a handbasket.  But all of this is completely insensible.  Unlike with Rapture, a flying merchant city was and is nobody’s dream and really does not relate at all to turn-of-the-century American politics.  Even accepting this farcical premise, unlike with Bioshock, there is no reason for things to break down internally and become some crazed stalking ground for behemoths and magic users.  Ken Levine tried to justify things through empty references to Perry’s trip to Japan and the Spanish-American War, but even these two unconnected events have no real relation to Columbia and her mission.  It is simply the case that Bioshock Infinite had to have a giant, retro-fantastical city because Bioshock had one, and Columbia has to disintegrate because Rapture did, and Big Daddies and powers and crazed crowds and everything else make their incongruous return, regardless of merit, because of what has come before.  And it all ends up looking absolutely ludicrous, especially the digital odes to colonial Philadelphia or Boston, cobblestone paths and all, teetering about on zeppelins connected by electric rails as giant gargoyle people scramble around their Neo-Classical facades.

Adding to the blatant absurdity is the ham-handed political commentary Irrational slathers about Columbia.  One of the reasons Bioshock Infinite looks so out-of-place in 1900’s America is because it is not about 1900’s America.  Instead, it is a pedestrian “satire” of the current American right, particularly the Tea Partiers.  As stated earlier, one of the reasons Bioshock worked was because Ken Levine understood Objectivism well and likely still had lingering sympathies for the cause (perhaps why Andrew Ryan transforms from menacing to tragic over the course of the game).  This new fascination, though, is an obvious and jumbled caricature of Tea Partydom (admittedly a much murkier target than Ayn Rand), with haphazard and overdone critiques of imperialism, nativism, and American mythology strewn about.  It might have cohered better if appended to a more fitting structure, but with much of the game mechanics consumed by a senseless Bioshock retread, the sloppy jabs at American exceptionalists come off as even more tacked on and anachronistic.

One gets the sense that Irrational, at some level, understands that Bioshock Infinite’s center will not hold, as they decided to overwhelm the viewer/gamer with a seemingly ceaseless torrent of inexplicable over-the-top set pieces.  Towards the opening of the trailer, a Cressbecklerian politician, in the midst of a stump speech to literally no one, manifests an armory of old-timey guns and a bird-shooting (as in one who launches birds) stooge to attack you on for no particular reason, and, when that fails, he pirouettes across the sky on one of the aforementioned electric rails (using his robot arm, naturally) to a distant giant cannon, in order to spray your brick balloon spit of Columbia with man-sized shells.  This confrontation builds to the conclusion, where a giant mechanical Batman Big Daddy flails the protagonist and his buxom weather-controlling lady-friend with a horse carcass while stumbling about a collapsing bridge.  All throughout, explosions rip through practically everything, bodies go flying, and faux Neo-Classical Disneyland collapses extravagantly, like a Michael Bay movie on the Freedom Trail.  Irrational has fully embraced this aspect of the game, too.  Levine excitedly revealed, in full Molyneux-mode, that if said horse carcass were not present, Batmandaddy would have grabbed at something else to beat you with.  It is, in a word, retarded.

Bioshock Infinite is the carapace of a well-made thing, repurposed without thought and adorned with shiny stupid gaudiness and clumsy politics to hide that it in fact has no soul.  I further suspect my interlocutor, in his deepest recesses, bears no true ardor for this Godawful mess, but is simply going through the motions of anticipations because the vapid twittering twats to whom he listens will ride any hype train with wheels.  This blog has a pretty good track record of calling out overhyped shit as such when everyone else is falling over themselves with praise and I suspect we will be once again vindicated two years from now when Ken Levine drops Bioshock’s renovated corpse on the world.



  1. Take it easy a little man, it’s a beautiful game that a group of people have spent thousands of hours of their lives pouring their creative souls into. Don’t just rip it apart in a few paragraphs. Or in the very least don’t make it sound like you feel you’re entitled to the world making you a better Bioshock game than it’s currently making. Damn dude.

  2. The harshness of tone was directed not at Ken Levine/Irrational (who I am actually quite fond of), but towards my regularly mentioned interlocutor. The post was intended to explain why I reacted negatively to the two trailers we have seen so far and why his accusations re: my motives were of based.

    However, I do think your argument that one should not be critical of a game because “it’s a beautiful game that a group of people have spent thousands of hours of their lives pouring their creative souls into” is a bit asinine. Don’t all games (or really most of anything worthy of criticism) fall into this category? Is it entitlement to expect more than you receive from
    a product? Should we forgo all negative reviews and just give all developers an A for effort?

    Perhaps you could argue that prejudging so negatively is uncalled for, and you might be right. I tried to make it clear that my thoughts were conditional on what we have seen thus far and extrapolations based on interviews given. It remains possible (and even likely) that futher developments would prove my presumptions incorrect.

  3. Right right right, but maybe the “point” is that critiquing anything is a flawed emotion we as individuals should try and lean away from, since at the root of criticism is simply not excepting what is. It might seem asinine to not see all the beauty and time put into a certain artwork, instead just seeing what could have been, but I don’t see why it would. It seems like excepting things and enjoying them for what they are makes life a happier place than thinking that everything could have been better.

    And of course we should forego all negative reviews, and give every development team an A for effort. Video games have moved away from being a “product” long ago, and have since become a combined expression of a development team’s soul. Giving video games a grade or a score, and thus treating them like a consumer good, is underestimating the potential video games now have in evoking emotions and thoughts in the individuals that play them.

    You said that prejudging was uncalled for, but really it’s as called for as judging the final product. You can do both, no can stop you from thinking any way you choose about something, but you might find it nice in the future to turn off that part of your brain that wants to judge and critique and simply enjoy what is in front of you.

    • I have a strong suspicion that this post was written facetiously, but in this case I would rather risk taking a cheeky argument too seriously than let genuine foolishness go unchallenged.

      What service do you provide to those who did work so hard to praise their work no matter the outcome? Irrational (and most game developers) work the long hours they do because they think they are working on something special and above ordinary. It would be insulting to their endeavors to blithely call everything they and everyone else did great simply because they showed up. Earned praise comes with the risk of criticism, but unearned praise only guarrantees no one will truly appreciate the quality of your art when it is deserved.

      What benefit does your stance offer the games industry? That designers are just now beginning to realize the potential of “evoking emotions and thoughts in the individuals that play them” is why we must continue to view their work with a critical eye. How can the industry improve and grow if we turn a blind eye to its flaws? Developers need to know when they err so they can focus on fixing their mistakes and expanding on the bits they got right. The alternative leads only to creative stagnation. Indeed, in every other realm of creative endeavor (novels, paintings, movies, music), criticism reigns supreme, and it is often far more harsh than I have been.

      Finally, as MM suggests, what good does your stance do to you as a consumer? If you take in all entertainment indiscriminately, you might uncover a hidden gem or learn to love something you might have initially rejected, but the law of averages suggests you will be spend much of your time on below average material. Since no one can get through even a quarter of all the games produced each year, it is very likely a consumer pursuing your strategy will miss out on the best the medium has to offer and wade through unambiguous muck just to honor those that made it.

      But I do not think you really do these things, because acting this way is transparently ridiculous. Like I said at the outset, I am pretty sure your little bit was in jest. More likely, you shape your opinions to conform to prevailing hype and personal biases, which makes you roughly as bad as the everybody’s-a-winners only you don’t get to drape your ignorance in a good cause.

  4. I could deliberately thumbs-up everything on Pandora Radio, attempting to enjoy the music, but it’s faster and easier to simply give thumbs-up to the ones that I instinctively enjoy, thumbs down to the ones I dislike initially, and let it eventually suggest more songs that I like right off the bat.

    Admittedly, it narrows my horizons – there are many songs I’ve disliked at first hearing which (on further exposure) I have come to appreciate. So when I’m feeling like a change I’ll try a song, artist, or genre I tend to dislike. And appreciating all music on first hearing might be a worthwhile goal, but it’s hardly one simply or easily achieved; I would certainly not condemn anyone because they don’t want to attempt it.

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