Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in. I hail from the now-defunct 1UP and am looking for a new home/community for the grand reopening of my blog. Why I didn't think of Destructoid earlier is anyone's guess, but it seems like things will be a good fit here...or at least I hope they will. If you like esoteric ramblings on small, nitpicked issues in gaming, you've come to the right place. Maybe I take things a little too seriously, but I like to think of it as passion rather than pretention. Please to enjoy.
I love BioShock Infinite. When taken as a complete package, It absolutely deserves every word of praise it's received and every perfect score. Yet as I go through my 1999 playthrough, some of its blemishes have begun to show. The old adage of no game being truly perfect remains as apt as ever, though Infinite's strengths make what few qualms I have with the game little more than nitpicks. One nit I found particularly interesting, though, isn't one I've seen as a common detraction from the game. I have little problem with the game's combat, the frayed ends of its interweaving narrative, or the disappointing contextualization of Vigors in the world of Columbia in comparison to that of Plasmids in Rapture. Rather, I take issue with the conflict between its BioShock gameplay and its Infinite narrative, which compelled me as the player to simultaneously adopt two contradictory play styles in attempting to compliment each one's strengths. A change in altitude wasn't the only distinction Irrational Games attempted to make between BioShock and BioShock Infinite, and unfortunately, some of the more promising changes were ultimately hampered by a reliance on series convention.
There are two essential ways one can play video games such as BioShock Infinite: one can either move rather linearly and therefore relatively quickly through the experience, or one can stop and smell the roses at any given opportunity. Some will split the difference between these two, while others will fall rather squarely under either camp. While neither approach is objectively wrong, certain games are clearly designed with one style of play in mind rather than the other. The campaigns of most military shooters fall under the first category, technically giving the player control over her position within the game world while almost constantly encouraging her to push forward to experience the next big set piece or spectacle. Role-playing games often fall under the second category, giving the player control over her position within the game world while constantly encouraging her to explore the world for loot and quests. While RPG purists may scoff at this assertion, the original BioShock is often considered a hybrid between an FPS and an RPG, with elements of survival horror added in for good measure. Accordingly, the game embraces both philosophies of agent progression in its design: there is always a clearly-defined objective to propel the player forward, but there's also ample reward in scouring every corner of Rapture in the form of both supplies and information. This hybridity would come to be a defining characteristic of the series, replicated by 2K Marin in BioShock 2 and used again in BioShock Infinite. Given the similarities between BioShock 2 and its predecessor, again allowing players such freedom in its ultimately directed experience worked similarly well. BioShock Infinite's departure from many of the first two games' defining characteristics and its retention of certain others, however, made this hybrid approach to agency far less effective its third time around.
One of the major ways in which Infinite departs from BioShock and BioShock 2 is when it takes place along the dystopian timeline. When players assumed the roles of Jack and Subject Delta, the respective protagonists of the first two games, and entered Rapture, its idyllic, utopian golden age had clearly already come and gone, leaving behind only the corrupted remnants of an ideology taken to its logical extremes. When the player, as Booker DeWitt, reaches Infinite's Columbia, however, the windy city is still thriving in many regards, only just beginning its ultimate dissolution. By shifting back the game's timeframe, Irrational is able to explore a lot more narrative threads in Columbia's thriving streets than was possible in the ruins of Rapture. This is due in large part to the explicable presence of non-combative NPCs, allowing the actions and conversations of the residents of Columbia to happen in real-time, rather than relegating them to posthumous audio logs the player happens upon throughout her playthrough.
Irrational had a vision for Columbia all their own
Unfortunately, the manner in which Infinite presents these NPCs strongly encourages rapid forward momentum on the part of the player despite the environments strongly encouraging the opposite. The actions and dialogue of Infinite's NPCs, like in many games without a consistent input method for character interaction such as a "talk" button, are based on player proximity. Events and conversations are triggered by the player steering the vessel of Booker DeWitt into designated areas carefully selected by the designers to ensure that the player's attention will be drawn to the action. Approaching an NPC from behind, for example, despite being well within their personal bubbles, often won't trigger the same event that approaching them from the front would, as it isn't clear whether or not the player's attention is focused on that NPC. Since most NPC events can only be triggered once per playthrough in Infinite, it makes sense that the developer would be particular in determining when and how they should be triggered so that as many players as possible experience that content during their playthroughs. If it was the developer's intent to create the illusion of bustling city life through their NPCs, though, as seemed to be the case in Infinite, it doesn't make sense to encourage the player to scour every environment, including those heavily populated with NPCs, for resources and audio logs as Infinite is wont to do.
After every NPC event is triggered and exhausted in a particular environment, which doesn't take long when hunting for Silver Eagles in every last barrel, crate, and register one can find, the game world quickly looses the sense vibrancy those events were meant to imbue it with. The inevitable silence that befalls each environment is disquieting to say the least, and the utility of each NPC to the narrative begins to overshadow their credibility as autonomous inhabitants of Columbia. Having the player witness a man and woman expressing their concerns about the Vox Populi can be a great way to flesh out the nuances of Columbia and its people, but when it becomes clear to the player that their conversation ends after four sentences, the man and woman no longer lend credence to the assertion that Columbia is a living, breathing world. At that point, what information they provided could have been presented equally effectively through kinetoscopes and voxophones. Moving through a crowd of people with whom one can't converse, all standing about in absolute silence causes such unease for the attentive player that one can't help but feel removed from the experience whenever that silence falls.
One way to remedy this could be to simply move through environments faster. After all, if the brevity of NPC interaction is never revealed to the player by maintaining a brisk pace, the NPCs themselves would seem more person-like in that player's mind than in the minds of those who moved slowly through the world. Doing so would be a concession made to the game, sure, especially for those of us who prefer exploring at our own pace through game environments, but it's one we often make for games designed to be played speedily. The problem with this plan is that BioShock Infinite simply isn't one of those games. Moving swiftly through an environment could cost players valuable resources which could halt one's progress, especially on higher difficulties. Or worse, it could cost players valuable information, some of which is integral to understanding even the central arc of the story. In order to experience NPC events in a more organic fashion, the player risks hampering her overall enjoyment of the game by making combat unnecessarily difficult or missing vital information.
She's upset you two don't talk much anymore
Another way to address this issue is to remove the need for extensive exploration in environments which have a higher event density than others. In an effort to avoid writing and recording hundreds if not thousands more lines of dialogue for these NPCs, this is perhaps the best option available to Infinite while still keeping the experience relatively tight. There are actually a few instances in the game when Irrational does this, propelling the player through environments with little to nothing to search for that her attention may be focused on the narrative elements of the world about her. One such instance happens midway through the game when Booker is chasing after a character through a series of hallways. At certain points through the chase, certain events would happen that any player looking forward would easily be able to see, and during my second playthrough, knowing this chase was coming, I kept my view forward and my movement brisk. During my first playthrough, though, I didn't. The hallways in which the chase take place are littered with barrels and crates, containers which the game typically loads up with resources like ammo and food. The barrels and crates in these hallways, however, were all unsearchable. As the game provided no cue for me to know this, since I had been conditioned to search every barrel and crate the game populates, especially on the Hard difficulty I was playing on, my focus wasn't on the person I was chasing as the game expected. Instead, I was looking downward at each and every crate to see if perhaps the next one would have a sniper rifle round or a silver eagle inside, missing almost completely every event I was generating by progressing through the environment.
Had BioShock Infinite approached non-combative NPC interaction in a similar manner throughout the experience, keeping areas laden with events and dialogue sparse while loading up those without many non-combative NPCs with the necessary supplies and voxophones, I'm positive I wouldn't have had the issue I did during that chase sequence my first playthrough. I would have been conditioned to expect character interaction to be paramount during that portion and would have moved at an appropriate pace to account for that, knowing that it would only be a matter of time until I'd be able to scavenge to my heart's content without fear of missing vital content. In that way, the playstyles associated with both halves of the BioShock gameplay hybrid could be fostered in Infinite while changing as little as possible to the core experience. If this alternate version of Infinite were to exist, though, something tells me a small change in level design ain't the only thing that'd change.