The Kingdom Hearts series has a mythos which is often nonsensical, complicated, and deliberately vague. ...Is that what makes it so compelling?
After a several-weeks-long vacation in which I had nearly zero time to devote to gaming, I finally managed to sit down and polish off Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep. Once the credits had rolled (for the fourth time, actually, due to the multiple-campaign story structure), I came to a realization about why I continue to be invested in the series despite the fact that I find myself frequently rolling my eyes at its absurd, nonsensical mythos.
Japanese RPGs that are plot-centric have (almost) always operated with a certain structure in the way that they reward their players: the payoff, plot, comes after the player has conquered a certain amount of gameplay (often in the form of one or more dungeons, a couple boss battles, etc.). With the advent (no pun intended) of Final Fantasy VII, these plot rewards were often paired with the promise of a visually-impressive cinematic sequence: Finish this dungeon, beat this boss, watch something awesome happen that totally wouldn't be possible to communicate within the confines of the game's engine.
As someone who grew up with JRPGs, Final Fantasies in particular, I don't agree with those who believe there's something inherently flawed with this system of rewarding the player. Though I'll certainly grant that there is a purity, a compactness, an immersive ideal that is possible when the gameplay itself is the reward and plot development never wrests control from the player, I certainly don't believe that all games need to strive for that ideal.
I don't mean for this to be a discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of cutscenes. What I want to point out is the particular quirk that Kingdom Hearts puts into this formula, a unique and engaging (though sometimes frustrating) spin on the idea of rewarding your player with plot.
When I monitor my engagement with games in the Kingdom Hearts series, I don't find myself more engaged in the story than I do in the gameplay. Whacking on Heartless/Nobodies/Unversed/whatever with a keyblade is an absolute delight, and each new entry into the series has further refined and deepened the game's core mechanics.
Birth By Sleep, which not only sports smooth and fabulous swordplay but also adds some cool character-progression mechanics swiped from Crisis Core and Final Fantasy IX, is probably the best-playing game in the series. It's also high-energy enough that when cutscenes come along, they feel like an appropriate breather from the frenetic action of battle.
As in all of the Kingdom Hearts games, though, story sequences are dramatically divided into two different categories: interactions of the protagonists with the characters in various Disney worlds, and developments exclusively concerning the original characters created by Square Enix.
Almost exclusively, the former are boring as all-get-out, while the latter have the potential to be intriguing and dramatically potent. In almost every case, Squeenix uses each protagonist's encounter with Disney characters as an attempt to hold some mirror up to them in an effort to show them realizing something about themselves or their friends. Such revelations are usually something along the lines of "never stop believing in your dreams" or "remember the importance of your friends." Occasionally they are even more abstract, like "never give in to the darkness" or "protect your heart," which... Ugh.
The Disney characters are almost exclusively reduced to flimsy, weak pantomimes of the events of their original stories, which have neither narrative potency nor any real interest to the player. Seldom are they given any kind of depth.
And so in a Kingdom Hearts game, rather than play through partly-engaging gameplay in order to get to the more-engaging story, the player plows through uncompelling Disney narratives they've encountered before in order to get to the original material that they might actually care about.
(As a sidenote, there is some pleasure in setting foot in new Disney worlds for the first time, but Kingdom Hearts II does this much better than anything that's yet followed it. Going into the worlds of Tron, Steamboat Willie, and Pirates of the Caribbean was delightful.)
There's another level of plot-centric reward that the series offers the player, however, and it's on a much different level than the gameplay-plot cycle on which the rest of the game operates.
However absurd the mythos of Kingdom Hearts may be, it's a series which does have a mythos--and which loves to tantalize with elements of that mythos that are as-yet-unrevealed to its players. Playing the Kingdom Hearts games to completion, sometimes on harder difficulty settings, offers players glimpses of connections between entries in the series, hints at the nature of the cards in the hand that the developers have not yet shown. If you are the least been invested in the world, as I am, then these narrative bridges become the greatest reward of all for playing the games.
This has been going on since the first game, in which, if players had fulfilled certain criteria, they were greeted with this upon the game's completion:
This, in a game which ended on something of a cliffhanger, from the people who made Final Fantasy (not exactly a series known for direct follow-ups. …Well, not at the time, anyway).
The secret video at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts drove me absolutely bonkers. Was there going to be a sequel? Why was it so aesthetically different from the entirety of the game? Who the heck was that blonde kid?
When Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories came out, I snatched it right up. Tangling with the plot of this one was even more divided than the first game: not only had I already dealt with the Disney plots in the original movies, but I had already seen them through in the first Kingdom Hearts game! Talk about a snooze-fest! The card-based battle system was pretty engaging, though, and enough to keep me interested between scenes that involved the new original characters, Organization XIII, who were not only intriguing but offered some truly spectacular boss fights.
When the game concluded, I was pretty satisfied at having enjoyed some new plot material, though I wasn’t surprised that they employed the trope of having Sora’s memory wiped at the end. It was a handheld game, after all, and I was pretty sure that they weren’t going to expect people to have played it when they dove into the sequel (which, at that point, was definitely on its way).
Imagine my surprise when, upon booting up Kingdom Hearts II, I found all of that narrative information not only pertinent, but perhaps essential. I still didn’t know what was going on, of course, but the first hours of KH2 were replete with tantalizing clues.
Hey, don’t I know that kid from somewhere…?
I have no idea how many people out there in the world of gaming are as captivated as I am by this meta-game of piecing together the mythos. I’m sure that many, if not most, adult gamers don’t have the time to invest in a series with a younger audience in mind, especially one that’s spread across at least five different systems.
What I do know is that the final epilogue of Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep contains individual scenes which make no sense if you haven’t played Chain of Memories, the original Kingdom Hearts, Kingdom Hearts II, and 358/2 Days, and it delights me to no end. I’m not sure I can think of another series of games that invests that much time in establishing connections between its different entries, with the possible exception of Metal Gear Solid (talk about a self-referential mythos, yikes).
Though it’s obviously not everyone’s cup of tea, I think that the Kingdom Hearts series should be applauded for the way it rewards the series-faithful. There is great joy to be found, as a player, in gradually uncovering the pieces to a larger puzzle. I wish more games offered us this pleasure.
This article originally appeared on The Lost Levels.
Sony's getting a lot of credit for its phenomenal showing at E3 last night. It's worth it to note, however, that this isn't Sony's first rodeo--and they've had some big wins at E3 before. In fact, their success last night eerily mirrors a victory they claimed 18 years ago, at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo.
Immediately after the reveal of the Xbox One, I was reminded of an anecdote I'd read earlier this year in Steven Kent's "The Ultimate History of Video Games," a text I've referenced before and cannot recommend highly enough. If you've any interest in the history of the industry, it's both enlightening and wonderfully entertaining.
The anecdote that occurred to me after Microsoft's reveal is this:
When Sony presented the PS2 at E3 2000, they weren't just advertising it as a gaming system. They boasted about its DVD-playing capabilities, its ethernet support, and its space for a hard drive. According to Kaz Hirai, the PS2 wasn't "the future of video game entertainment, it [was] the future of entertainment period."
Doesn't that sound a little like Microsoft's angle at the Xbox One reveal? And in contrast, Sony's major competitor at the time was Sega--which had just launched the Dreamcast--had an adamant focus on games. As Kent records in his book, Peter Moore, then the president of Sega of America, responded directly to Hirai's boast: "They also said they are not the future of video games, they are the future of entertainment; and God bless them. We're the future of video games."
And yet! Who won that round of the so-called "console wars?" The Dreamcast was dead in the water within two years, and the PS2 ended up being the best selling console of all time.
Thinking about the parallels here between the respective outlooks of Sony/Sega and then Microsoft/Sony, I was very hesitant to dismiss the much-mocked "Xbone" because of its attempts at tackling the broader market, its restrictive DRM, or its "often-on" internet requirements. There is a chance, I thought, that Microsoft really is selling the future of entertainment. We should observe the lessons of E3s past.
...and then Sony had their press conference yesterday. Ben Kuchera, over at the PA Report, says that Sony effectively "won by standing still." For my part, I realized that E3 2000 wasn't the expo I should have been looking to for answers.
Instead, I should have been looking at the very first Electronic Entertainment Expo, in 1995, and the announcement of the PSX.
Sega, which was scheduled to launch the Saturn in September of that year, had a morning press conference in which they outlined the price of the system--$399.
Later that day, it was Sony's turn, and... well, and then this happened:
(Due to Destructoid's YouTube embedding issues, you'll have to skip to the 3:10 mark manually, where the good stuff is.)
Ha ha ha ha! That Steve Race! What a card!
Did the rest of the conference even matter? Sony shows a system of equal or greater power to its rival, then undercuts them by a hundred bucks, drops the mic, and gets off the stage.
This is very nearly what they did last night--and when you add in the bit about preserving the architecture of used games to which the gaming community is accustomed, well... Sony killed it.
Which, it's worth it to note, they've done before--more than once.
Here’s a game I’m willing to bet that none of you have encountered before: Lost Eden.
I’ve been thinking an awful lot lately about my youth as a gamer, partly in response to reading Steven Kent’s excellent history of the game industry (The Ultimate History of Video Games), and it’s been a real pleasure to compare the milestones of the industry with my own experiences as a young’un: getting my Game Boy at the tender age of six, being on the Sega side of the Great 90’s Console Wars, choosing a Sony PlayStation over an N64 in a moment of blind prescience. I’m beginning to understand the global context in which my own history as a gamer has occurred.
One of the eras I’ve recently been reexamining is the mid-90’s, at the tail end of the 16-bit generation, just before the arrival of the PlayStation, the Saturn, and the N64. I have been thinking about the time my family acquired our first computer with a CD-ROM drive and the bizarre and foreign experiences that were now available to me, a kid who had grown up entirely in the realm of consoles and handhelds. I remember playing Myst and marveling at how different it was from anything in my previous experience. What were you supposed to do? It was intriguing. It was mysterious. It was, it is to be admitted, a trifle dull.
Nevertheless! The enormous success of Myst in 1993 opened a floodgate of adventure-game imitators, and at one point, at the house of a friend, I encountered Lost Eden. “What’s the deal with this game?” I asked my friend. I was eleven.
“It’s kind of like Myst, but with dinosaurs,” he explained. He had captured my interest.
“What kind of dinosaurs?” I asked, no doubt raising a discerning eyebrow.
"All kinds," he replied. Upon learning that the game featured a talking, psychic parasaurolophus, I knew I had to have a copy for myself.
Lost Eden tells the story of Adam of Mo, a young human prince tasked with rebuilding the severed alliances between dinosaurs and man and uniting the world under a single banner in order to defy the evil Moorkus Rex, leader of a tyrannosaur army threatening to subjugate the entire world. Except... he didn’t really look like a t-rex? That part was a little weird.
The point is, the t-rexes were the bad guys, and the velociraptors were the good guys. As a youth devoted to the point of obsession with Jurassic Park, this was clearly right up my alley.
Lost Eden was not a particularly great adventure game. It didn’t have the unique humor of a LucasArts title, nor did it have the compelling arhitecture or attention to detail found in Myst. It didn't even really possess the charm of a King’s Quest. What it did have was dinosaurs. A generous helping of dinosaurs.
While the gameplay and puzzles were not particularly interesting or challenging, there were a couple of elements that worked well. Its narrative, while mostly predictable (it’s called Lost Eden, you play a guy named Adam... is anybody surprised when Eve shows up?), does have a couple of poignant moments: the reaction of your dinosaur companions to the discovery that their culture’s great prophecy for the future spells doom for their races has the appropriate gravitas, and a moment in which the hero poisons himself to journey to the land of the dead is pretty cool.
The game also had a really interesting new-agey score by Stephane Picq. Some of the tracks sound like B-sides from Pure Moods, but on the whole, they contribute greatly to the game’s excellent, brooding atmosphere. Also there is a track called “Velociraptor Ride,” which, come on. It was compelling enough that I actually tracked down the soundtrack on the internet five or six years after playing the game and had it shipped from France. Importantly, because CD-ROM games were a relatively new phenomenon, the music sounded unbelievably different than anything else I was used to hearing in games.
Here are a couple tracks, to show you what I’m talking about:
The main theme:
Would I recommend that other people track down Lost Eden and give it a go for themselves? Eh, probably not. We’re busy people, and it isn’t what I’d call a forgotten classic. It’s important to me, however, because it demonstrates just how varied our gaming histories are--none of us can claim to have played all of the classics, for one, but all of us--especially those of us who have been gaming since we were very small--have played many, many games. As children, when we were less discerning, we exposed ourselves to a higher-than-usual proportion of flawed-but-interesting pieces.
As someone who’s interested in the whole history of the medium, I’m fascinated by all of the forgotten games of our collective childhoods. How many games have you played that were, by all accounts, not great--but have stuck in your memory anyway, informing your tastes as a gamer and occupying a special place in your heart? I’d be willing to bet that each of us has quite a few.
Anyhow, here’s “Velociraptor Ride.”
This post originally appeared at The Lost Levels.
I have so many issues with Snake Eater that I probably should hate it. Instead, I have a deep affection for Kojima's bizarre, talky Cold War saga. I'm certain that I shouldn't have warm and fuzzy feelings for a game that made me roll my eyes so often and had me cursing at the screen on an hourly basis, but after the credits of MGS3 rolled, all that I seemed to remember were the highlights.
Kojima lost me with Sons of Liberty. I'm not alone in this regard. It wasn't the bait-and-switch that had us playing for 80% of the game as Raiden--I thought that was a bold move, and I have a soft spot for Quinton Flynn (who once voiced Jonny Quest, and would later go on to be Reno in Advent Children and Axel in Kingdom Hearts--who are, let's face it, pretty much the same character). It wasn't the fact that the villains went from over-the-top to over-the-over-the-top. (I rather liked Fortune, though I found Vamp less than compelling. I mean, a real vampire? That's just--Ugh, never mind. Kojima.) It wasn't even the end of the game, where all semblance of proportion and balance are tossed to the side and you are forced to fight wave after wave of Metal Gear Rays.
Okay, maybe it was a little bit of all those things. Mostly it was the La Li Lu Le Lo.
I really enjoyed my time with Sons of Liberty. I may even have played through it twice; I can't recall. When compared with the original Metal Gear Solid, however, which delivered a mostly coherent (though admittedly melodramatic) narrative, the plot of MGS2 was a nightmare labyrinth of absurdity and incoherence.
Consequently, when Snake Eater was announced a couple of years later, I was no longer as invested in tactical stealth espionage action, and felt I could give the game a pass. Even when some friends of mine played it and declared it the best in the series, I didn't feel obliged to give it a go.
It was probably a couple of years ago, when I embarked upon my quest to fill in the gaps in my gaming history and become "well played," that I finally picked up a copy of Snake Eater, and even then it sat on my shelf for a long time. Finally, in a bid to clear out some of the titles in my backlog, I loaded the game up and sat down to play it in earnest.
There's a lot about the game that's hard to swallow. Perhaps the most vexing element is how vague and wishy-washy the stealth is--there's been some talk in the gaming community about how stealth is a difficult thing to pull off in a game because of the challenge of presenting complex systems while still clearly communicating information to the player in a way that makes play feel "fair." Klei's Mark of the Ninja, in particular, which I haven't played outside of the demo, has been recently put forward as an example of how well this can be done--though part of what allows Mark of the Ninja to succeed in this regard is a restriction of perspective: in two dimensions, it's a lot easier to communicate everything that surrounds your player.
Snake Eater, on the other hand, feels more akin to another recent offering: Assassin's Creed III. Though I've been effusive in my love for Ubisoft's latest entry into its series of historical murder simulators, I'll be the first to admit that the game often asks you to do things without being seen and then proceeds to deny you critical, need-to-know information. The result is that you are often seen by bad guys and immediately forced to murder dozens of men.
This happens a lot in Snake Eater.
Kojima's team at Konami made the decision to remove the radar that served, in the first two MGS titles, as your best means of evaluating which actions would result in you being discovered. Instead, you're given a handful of other tools that provide you with incomplete information--the locations of moving enemies (but not their field of view), the location of all living organisms (in a way that gives away your position), your relative proximity to bad guys (but not their location)--and the result is that sneaking involves an absurd amount of guesswork.
This is mitigated by the inclusion of the camouflage system, which allows you to change your clothes and receive bonuses to your stealth--but even this system doesn't give you discrete information on which you can act. Sure, I know that being 50% camouflaged is better than being 35% camouflaged, but what am I supposed to DO with that info? Not once in the game did my camouflage allow me to change my strategy and act with confidence and certitude. Instead, I had to make do with vague assurance that I was in a better position for having hopped into the menu and changed my equipment. Maybe.
Did that guy see me? Damn! I thought I was 80% camouflaged! How close can I GET to a guy who can see 20% of me without alerting him?
I did a lot less sneaking in MGS3 than I did in either of its predecessors. I did a lot more judo.
I'll happily admit that using the Close Quarters Combat system feels delightful. Throwing a guy to the floor is immensely satisfying. It was a little weird that the most viable strategy often seemed to be charging a guard who was filling me with AK47 rounds and knocking him out with kung fu.
Unfortunately, the result of the loosey-goosey stealth in the game is that a lot of the environments either feel too full or too empty. One of the final areas, a giant warehouse in which you must plant a number of explosives on fuel tanks, felt so empty that it wasn't a challenge. In areas with lots of enemies, it's impossible to make your way through without being noticed and being forced to kill a bunch of dudes. In areas without many enemies, one doesn't feel as though much is being asked of them. I kept wishing, throughout the game, that there would be areas chock full of baddies that I was able to navigate without ever sounding the alarm. I don't think that ever happened.
Part of my frustration stems from the combination of overheard perspective and first-person shooting. Jumping back to a nearly ten-year-old game from an era of over-the-shoulder shooters, I found being forced to move in one camera position and shoot in another (a system which felt liberating and empowering when it was first introduced in Sons of Liberty!) jarring and uncomfortable. Likewise, gathering information about your environment in the first person and then popping back to the overhead camera in order to move is a very disorienting business.
And those are just gameplay elements. The narrative, well... The narrative is just as absurd as a story told by Hideo Kojima has always been. There's some gratuitous sexuality, fetishization of weaponry, and plenty of long, (theoretically) meaningful glances between characters in which not much is really communicated. The plot doesn't run completely off the rails in the same way as the plot of Sons of Liberty, but there are still a dozen times when characters improbably monologue about Cold War politics and half-baked philosophy for the benefit(?) of the player and not the other characters.
One doesn't expect a narrative about a walking, nuclear-capable supertank to be particularly grounded, but come on.
And yet--and yet. I forgive it. I acknowledge the weaknesses, the absurdities, the broken elements, and I set them aside and love the game anyway. Why? Why, when a game has frustrated me and made me roll my eyes, when I am frequently kicked out of the narrative by the producer's bizarre predilections, do I still think of my time with it fondly?
I think, probably, it's because of how clearly Kojima loves what he's doing, and how clearly it shows in every aspect of the game. The dude loves the characters he's created, and he wants us to love them too. He loves dramatic showdowns, and he packs his game full of absurd, awesome boss fights. He loves pop culture and a good laugh, and so there are dozens and dozens of conversations Snake can have over the codec that are patently absurd. Kojima loves self-reference, and breaks the fourth wall often to wink at his audience and remind us that we should be having fun; after all, it's just a game.
So what did I take away from Snake Eater? I remember the first time I did kung fu on a guy. I remember each time I ate a python and Snake's comments about how delicious they were. I remember the sniper duel with The End. I remember eating glowing mushrooms to restore my batteries. I remember Snake revealing to Para-Medic that he was terrified of vampires, and Major Zero's indignation upon learning that Snake wasn't a fan of James Bond. I remember how many times we got to laugh at how much of a dork Revolver Ocelot is, and how he turned out to be pretty cool when all was said and done.
I remember the fight with The Boss.
So, nine years out from its release, is it worth it to go back and revisit Metal Gear Solid 3? It depends, in large part, on your ability to forgive a game for its faults. There are parts of Snake Eater that feel old and creaky as it approaches its tenth anniversary, and Kojima's rambly melodrama has always been an acquired taste. But the game is a labor of love, and if you can pick up a controller and feel that love, well... it's hard to step into the shoes of Naked Snake and not feel like a badass, even when the game conspires in so many ways to undermine it. And when you get to that final showdown in the field of flowers, it's a hardened gamer indeed that won't be thrilled.
[Note: This is an article primarily about the ending of Bioshock Infinite, and as such it contains numerous spoilers, as well as spoilers for the original Bioshock. Probably you shouldn't read it if you haven't finished these games. There are also some references to other games--the new Tomb Raider, Mass Effect 3, and Red Dead Redemption--but they're less explicit. Nevertheless, fair warning.]
There have been a number of essays written recently about the strengths and weaknesses of Bioshock Infinite. It is a hugely significant game for a number of reasons, and it deserves most of the praise (and most of the criticism!) that it’s receiving from the gaming press. I can certainly go on record to say that I enjoyed my time with the game thoroughly, and despite a few criticisms, I’d easily call it one of the best games I’ve played in the last couple years. But the final half-hour of the game, after the final battle has been fought, in which all of the game’s secrets are laid bare before the player, left something of a sour taste in my mouth.
Bioshock Infinite has one of the most frustrating endings of any game that I can recall. It gains much of its emotional impact by being deliberately dissatisfying to the player, and it thwarts a player’s sense of agency in a way that few other games dare to--for better or worse.
Inevitability is at the heart of Bioshock Infinite’s narrative. It’s a theme that is brought up frequently throughout the game, most often by Robert and Rosalind Lutece, who show up periodically to remind Booker of how little choice he has in the events of the story--and, simultaneously, to remind the player of how little choice THEY have in influencing the narrative. None of the minor choices present throughout the game have any significant effect on the events of the plot, and indeed, some of them are even decided for the player.
An early scene in which the Luteces ask Booker to call a coin toss always comes up heads, but Booker can actually call it either heads or tails. Importantly, however, it is Booker, and not the player, who makes this decision. This scene accomplishes a couple different things: first, it reinforces the overarching theme of the game, that the events of the world will play out in a certain way no matter what the player does; second, it creates dissonance between the player and their avatar, Booker--”why,” the player must ask themselves, “does the game not offer me input on this binary choice, when I have already been asked to decide between two courses of action earlier in the game?” (The scene is also, as Kevin Wong points out at Gamasutra, a nice little hat tip to Tom Stoppard.)
Booker tells Elizabeth, on a number of different occasions throughout the game, that there’s nothing he can do to wipe away his past. Ultimately, of course, that turns out not to be true--not only is Booker able to atone for his sins, but he is able to literally prevent them from ever having occurred--and all it takes is allowing himself to be murdered.
This is an exceptionally powerful ending to the story, but at the same time it’s very frustrating to the player--neither Booker nor the player have a complete picture of the situation until the final moments of the game, and by that point it’s too late. Once all of the pieces are in place, there’s nothing left to do but watch yourself be killed and watch the credits roll. The inevitability of the narrative hits you hard, and you have to sit by yourself on the couch for a while and sort things out in your head.
The question that was left ringing in my head, for days afterwards, was: “If the whole point of the exercise was that there was nothing I could do, why did I play the game?”
Bioshock Infinite’s comment on player agency in games seems to be that, at least narratively, it’s an illusion. None of the choices that you make have any real consequences. There is nothing you can do to affect the outcome of the story. Just like Booker, you are brought into the world of the game in order to play your part in events over which you have no control. Even death can’t stop you from playing your part: die outside the company of Elizabeth (who would otherwise resurrect you), and you reappear inside Booker’s apartment, only one door away from picking up where you left off. (And is it the same Booker? Does it matter?)
Like everything else in the game’s story, Booker’s ultimate demise (or is it a willing sacrifice?) is thrust upon the player without ever allowing them to take ownership of it. It’s not clear that it’s a choice Booker is making, and it’s not at all something that the player can make the decision to undertake--we don’t even really know it’s coming until a moment or two before it happens.
In no other medium could you so powerfully confront the player with their own narrative impotence, and that makes Bioshock Infinite very potent! In some ways, however, it makes me wonder whether the plot of the game wouldn’t be more satisfying in a different medium. Someone’s edited every story sequence in the game into a 3.5 hour film. Would the same messages about inevitability be just as compelling if the story weren’t interactive? Is the impact of the game’s ending dependent on the player’s belief that they might have some agency, or is it weakened by the player’s expectation to take ownership of the actions of their avatar?
"Nobody tells me where to go," Booker says, close to the end of the game, and it's an ironic statement on a number of levels. On the one hand, we as the player are telling him where to go. And on the other hand, there's really no choice in the matter. As Elizabeth points out, the game brings us to the same place no matter how we try to fight it. And in the end, what happens to us? We are, as the many Elizabeths so appropriately echo, "smothered." Frustrating! There's nothing we can do. There was never anything we could do.
In the original Bioshock, one of the greatest twists in gaming plays heavily off the fact that you can’t progress in the game without following its prescribed, linear set of objectives. "A man chooses. A slave obeys." And you have, of course, been unwittingly obeying the entire time. One of the great elements of thematic dissonance in that game, however, is the fact that the second act involves ridding your avatar from another character’s mind control, and yet the linear progression of objectives remains--you’re just taking orders from a different character, and though you’re no longer under the influence of “mind control,” you cannot deviate from the narrative’s path without bringing the wheels of the game to a screeching halt. You are, essentially, still a slave, and not a man. Players ask themselves: what have I really freed myself from, in the end?
I was always fundamentally disappointed with this element of Bioshock, and I think that I’m not alone in that assessment--the game’s ending is generally considered to be less compelling than its mid-game climax. I’m re-evaluating that assessment in the wake of Bioshock Infinite, however. My dissatisfaction with Bioshock’s second act was only retrospective--in examining the themes of the game once I’d finished it, I felt like there was a bit of hypocrisy there. While I had the controller in my hand, I didn’t feel any of that dissonance, because the narrative was aligned with my interests as a player: Tenenbaum wanted me to take down Fontaine, and she gave me instructions as to how I might do so. That was fine. After the betrayal I’d just experienced, I wanted to take down Fontaine, and I was willing to follow her “suggestions” as to how I might proceed, "would you kindly" or no.
Instead of asserting the player’s narrative impotence halfway through the narrative and then falsely “freeing” them from that impotence, Bioshock Infinite uses the last thirty minutes of the game to show us just how much of a pawn we really are, and then drive it home by murdering us and letting us watch the credits with slack jaws and a vague sense of betrayal.
As gamers, we’re willing to suspend our disbelief about how much agency we have in a linear narrative in order to see that narrative through to the end--as long as the game gives us a compelling reason to do so. Playing through the Tomb Raider reboot, I didn’t care that I was helping to turn Lara into a mass-murderer, or that so much of the narrative (and indeed, the gameplay!) was “on rails.” The premise of the game is that Lara’s in a terrible situation and that she and her friends will all die if she doesn’t resort to some extreme measures. (Kirk Hamilton calling out the game’s homages to The Descent over at Kotaku underscores this pretty well.) Tomb Raider isn’t a game that’s particularly concerned with issues of player agency, and so players don’t feel too compelled to consider moral culpability as they play it. I think that’s just fine.
There’s a reason, however, that there have been some good arguments raised about whether or not Bioshock Infinite’s ultraviolence undermines its narrative (and, of course, its accessibility to non-gamers or casual gamers). When a game strives to remind us, throughout its story, both that our character cannot wash the blood off his hands and that we may or may not have any choice in the actions that we’re taking, we start to look a little more critically at the slaughter that we’re perpetrating. This isn’t Yamatai--we’re not forced to choose between helping Lara slaughter thousands of men or watching her die. This isn’t even Rapture, where we’re forced to put down scores of Splicers that want to harvest us for our ADAM.
In Columbia, we kill hundreds of men because... Booker’s a bad guy already, and that makes it okay? Because we’ve been brought here by fate (or the Luteces) and because we have no choice? Because if we let them kill us, we’ll wake up back in our apartment and step out the door and... keep on killing? That’s a sort of WarGames scenario, right there. The only way to win is not to play. In Tomb Raider or the original Bioshock, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel--kill all the bad men, and eventually the killing will stop, and you’ll be safe. In Bioshock Infinite, if you kill enough bad men, then... none of it will ever have happened? Well, that’s cool. I’ll tell you how else that could happen, though: don’t play the game in the first place.
Obviously this isn’t a course of action I suggest anybody take. The game is awesome. If you don’t play it, you’ll be missing out on all sorts of wonders. I only mean to highlight the ways in which the game’s ending makes you reflect on your experience throughout the narrative and ask yourself, “why?” This isn’t Mass Effect 3 or Red Dead Redemption, games which also involve inevitable final sacrifices but allow the player to internalize, come to terms with, and follow through with those sacrifices as though they were their own decisions. Nor is it Shadow of the Colossus, which telegraphs its protagonist’s fate within the first hour of the game and dares the player to continue anyway.
Bioshock Infinite, by keeping the player’s blinders on until the final sequence, never allows players to understand the full import of their situation until they’re waist deep in the river and the only thing left to do is drown.
It’s a bold, powerful choice. Is it a good one? I’m not sure I’ve figured that out yet. Maybe the fact that I’m still sorting through it in my head means it was a good decision. Not all art needs to be cathartic, and sometimes brilliant pieces are deliberately dissatisfying. Nevertheless, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to Columbia anytime soon. The game aims to frustrate, and it succeeds! I will go and play some other things, and perhaps when my frustration has subsided, I will return. I’ll let you know how long that takes.