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LONG BLOG

What I Want in 2012: Bioshock Infinite

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So I see the week's question and immediately go "holy crap I can actually write about that," but before I can finish my second paragraph, somebody's already posted an entry on Bioshock Infinite. Curses! With my usually-disarrayed thoughts already whipped into a coherent form and my typing neurons already warmed up, though, I figured I might as well go ahead, since the backup option would've just been a two page long Half-Life 2: Episode 3 joke.



Ordinarily, this first paragraph would be the part where I'd explain 2007's Bioshock to the potentially unfamiliar, but if you're not already aware of Irrational's masterpiece, you're missing out on one of the most singularly intelligent, compelling, memorable, unique, gorgeous, haunting, thoughtful, and intensely entertaining experiences in gaming - one that's among my top picks for best game of this console generation. So, instead, I'll do that thing where I tell those sadly deprived individuals to go and play it while the rest of us wait.

Done?

For me, Bioshock stands tall as, quite possibly, the most complete representation of all the different factors that make video games so goddamn awesome. The shooting is tight and varied, mixing with the delightfully satisfying and visceral Plasmid powers to form a beautifully intertwined, constantly developing system that keeps on giving and never gets old. The art direction and sound design find the sweetest of spots between Art Deco, 50's American culture, dystopic steampunk, and good-old-fashioned bump-in-the-dark horror influences, creating a setting that's as original and engrossing as it is nostalgic and unsettling. The writing and acting, despite being presented almost entirely through grainy audio-logs, constructs complex and relatable figures, giving us one of gaming's most powerfully tragic figures in the form of the impossibly willful Andrew Ryan. And, to top it off, the entire thing is presented from an (almost - that ending, man) unbroken first-person view, creating the sense of personal presence in its captivating world that you simply can't replicate in any other kind of media - along with an illusion of choice it gleefully deconstructs.

Its premature (though brilliant) climax leaves the third act wanting and the balancing can get a bit wonky, but with everything else in Bioshock feeling so completely, cohesively right, where do you go? How do you improve? I wasn't sure a significant leap was possible, and the good-but-underwhelming sequel by 2K Marin merely solidified that belief. But then my monthly issue of Game Informer (hey don't be hatin' it's a good magazine) landed in the mail, and its freshly laminated pages held all the answers.


One look and you instantly know what the game's setting is like. That's impressive stuff, man

Yes, it has a gorgeously twisted, sci-fi-infused take on a major waypoint in the American cultural zeitgeist, this time selecting the imperialistic self-aggrandization of the early 1900s. Yes, it features a devilishly entertaining-looking combination of supernatural powers and shooting goodness, spiced up with its new world-altering, interdimensional "tears." Yes, it indulges in heady themes, using its crumbling dystopia to communicate the destructive potential of ideological binarity and the need to let those we love grow up and flourish on their own. But the things that really excite me about Bioshock Infinite aren't those which Irrational has already proven its mastery of in the first Bioshock - it's the uncharted territory they're exploring, and all the riches and dangers that lie within.

The "Skylines" that let you zip across the floating city of Columbia look like both a super-sweet gameplay mechanic and a hugely impressive technical feat; bringing the kind of fast-paced freedom of movement you'd usually only see in a Tribes CTF match to Bioshock's more cerebral style seems counterintuitive at first, but, if done well (and if the E3 demo is at all indicative, it definitely is), the role of movement and positioning could be amplified to become a central piece of the tactical puzzle, further diversifying what already looks to be a well-rounded package. Combined with the aforementioned "tears," Infinite's gameplay has the potential to completely sidestep the complacency issue, constantly offering new and exciting reasons to mix up one's approach.


This could be you!

At the same time, the demos we've seen haven't really given a good indication of how free the game's level design is. If it's going to adhere to a similar layout as Bioshock, presenting a handful of largely open environments connected in a linear sequence, I have to wonder how they're going to "close off" each area from Skyline access until it's time to go there. The sense of freedom the mechanic offers would dissolve the instant you run into some obstacle (no matter how well-contrived) that prevents you from landing on a perfectly healthy piece of land simply because the story says you shouldn't be there yet. On the other hand, were Infinite to choose an open-world approach, I have to wonder how they can keep the narrative pace flowing smoothly while staving off the feeling of artificial emptiness we saw in last year's L.A. Noire and Mafia II, whose faux-sandboxes arguably negated any advantage they would otherwise have over a more linear model.

Similarly concerning to me is Irrational's choice to go with a voice for Booker DeWitt, the player character and protagonist. While I find that this tends to be a more subjective thing, the unique advantages to going with the unbroken first-person perspective - specifically, the transparency between the player and the world, and the consequent potential for increased immersion and personal investment on a non-mechanical level - simply aren't conducive to the necessary depth and complexity required for a well-written protagonist. Having the player character say anything instantly yanks me out of that feeling that I am the one in the story, instead reminding me that I'm just a puppeteer - it feels like the protagonist is getting in my way, saying things I don't think and pushing me out of my own personal place in the story, unlike a third-person game, where I begin and end the experience having never really been in anybody's role (which is fine.)


He may be ruggedly handsome, but he's not me, and that can pose problems in a narrative-heavy FPS

On the other hand, if there's anybody who can pull it off, it's probably Ken Levine & co. Every interview I've read has placed considerable emphasis on the degree to which they're emphasizing the relationship between Booker and Elizabeth, the woman he is charged with rescuing - not merely how they want to make it engaging and believable, but how they want it to nail the sense of seemingly-emergent dynamicism which even the most labyrinthine of RPG dialogue trees have never quite managed to replicate, human interaction being as complex, nuanced, and unpredictable as it is. Combined with more complex NPC behaviors, where Columbia's residents (unlike Rapture's sploicers splicers) are not necessarily hostile to you, but could become so at any time, the systemic certainty that pervaded Bioshock - that Splicer will attack you, that Big Daddy won't unless you harm it, this character will say and will do this at this time - could give way to an incredibly compelling kind of volatility; one just as effectively elevates its characters and its narrative to never-before-seen areas of interactive depth as much as it slides and crawls under the player's skin, implanting the notion that you really never know what's going to happen.

Bioshock hit the gaming landscape as something of a surprise, erasing any doubt that you indeed can make a video game that's original, deep, fun as hell, and able to sell millions of copies. In many ways, it places immense amounts of pressure on Infinite to shake up the medium with another tremor of equal or greater magnitude - and if it lives up to the incredible amounts of potential on display, it quite possibly can, layering on an unparalleled range of dynamic depth to its character development and a breathtaking level of scale and freedom to the already-winning formula of powers, guns, and philosophically-charged dystopias. I can't think of any other game in 2012 that could possess the ability to be as engaging in and of itself as it is healthy and important for the industry as a whole; I can't think of any other game that's primed to both flawlessly execute the trademarked strengths within its own boundaries while simultaneously pushing those same boundaries farther that most people are daring to even look. I'll keep on watching, but I can't think of any other game I'm more excited for this year than Bioshock Infinite.

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About Altum Videturone of us since 11:44 PM on 11.04.2011

My earilest memory is of playing a PC port of Pac-Man on my dad's computer. My next earliest memory is of playing a PC port of Tetris on my mom's computer. I've been happily and hopelessly into video games and everything to do with them since, and while I have my favorites - pretty much the entire Metroid series (except, you know, that one) - there are very few good games I haven't played and enjoyed.

Now that I've been here for a few months I guess something else should go here, so: I've set upon myself a personal goal to write and post a blog at least once per week. Sometimes, meeting this deadline means that those articles are not up to the standards I would like, and I'll simply shove them away unpublished and try again next week. More rarely, they turn out great, and up they go. Even more rarely, I'll actually feel very satisfied and accomplished, and will get all excited for the loads of attention I won't be receiving. The following blog entries are ones that I believe fit into the latter category, preserved here in order of appearance for my (but quite possibly also your!) amusement and enrichement:

Battlefield 3: On Scale, Freedom, and Wookies
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - David Sarif
Bigger, Longer, also Harder - A Counter-Case for Longer Games
Location: Darkest Africa
How About a Mass Effect 3 Article with No Ending Controversy (Spoiler-free!)
Quest for Blood: How Seeking Ultraviolence Showed Me the Best Side of Videogames

Also, I mantain the monthly Cblog Analytics series, which tallies up a bunch of statistics and presents them in a simple and organized format. The results are always interesting and often surprising - all the math is done on my end, so no matter how number-phobic you might be, it's worth checking out! This year's entries are listed here:

February
March
April
May
June
July
August