Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Infinite Possibility... a couple of criticisms

Such was the presence of Ken Levine throughout the marketing truncheon of Irrational's Bioshock Infinite that I was a little surprised not to be greeted by his muscular face finally introducing me to the finished game. The numerous interviews with Levine were, for those who had eagerly followed the game's development, the main inroad into the vivid imagery which Irrational was putting out. It certainly looked like a striking game; but, for me, it was Levine's suggestions of how those visuals would function within a narrative that really excited  me. His descriptions of the game's radical imagination; of how the character relationships would develop depth and significance with the player; of the game's unique perception of history, of reality. All of these ideas simmered in the endless interviews with Levine - acting like a one man sales team, showing a sincere passion for his product as nothing short of an incredibly important work. And, in a way, that is what Infinite is: important.

While playing through Infinite I was surprised, on the usual rounds of games websites, by the amount of critical praise that the game was receiving. Not just from the mandatory review score of 8+, but in terms of critics truly expressing something close to gratitude towards the game. Kieron Gillen's article draws close to calling Infinite poetic, while Robert Florence goes all dewy eyed, writing: "the true wonder of Bioshock Infinite is that it speaks to all of us on a personal level, about so many true and painful and beautiful things". And yet, despite admiring both of these critics, I personally found myself entirely unconvinced by the game. And, while I can see how Infinite might be all these things to Gillen and Florence; how it might just be that shimmering inspiration behind Levine's marketing binge, for me it was, more than anything else, problematic.

Infinite undeniably displays a level of visual flare which is beyond commendable; comparable, as Gillen insightfully notes, to the musical film and theatre. It is a truly grandiose statement of what a team of game developers can display. But, for me, Infinite entirely fails to translate its infinite imaginings into anything succinct. Not that it doesn't try, but the inconsistency - and I'm not talking specifically about alternate realities here - which comes from drawing so heartily from this abundant well of ideas is a price the game eventually has to pay. I'd like to raise just a few problems I had with the game as a whole. 


While Infinite's emotional, character driven story might be the antidote to Bioshock's despairing pedagogy Infinite is still intent on addressing equally serious issues of racism, nationalism, and the violence of human endeavour. All of these are interesting and admirable topics to broach, but the problem for me occurs in the representation of these issues and their integration into almost everything else in the game.

Like Rapture, Columbia is a theatre of grotesquery - an imagined world in which a belief system is pushed to its absurd, and in these cases extremely violent, conclusion. Columbia directly references the absurd theatricality of turn-of-the-century American culture; the side-show, carnival quality of U.S. nationalist posturing. For example, the enemy type known as The Motorized Patriot makes a comical - even Simpsons-esque - stab at satirizing these ideals. As a mechanical exponent of Official American History displayed in Columbia's museums, The Patriot is pushed to the absurd conclusion of donning a Gatling gun and shooting the living stripes out of those opposed to its pre-recorded spiel.

What complicates these mechanical caricatures in particular is the way that they change function all too quickly in the game. They initially exist in the same reality as The Hall of Heroes: a level in the game dedicated to examining how history can be turned into a set of images and sets. The infamous Battle of Wounded Knee becomes a diorama of terrifying, boogeymen native Americans - a culture without depth, just violence; the stuff of bedtime stories to scare children. The Patriot exists as a manifestation or a turning inward of this approach to history: if the native Americans exist as boogeymen what does that make the culture which usurped them? Gun toting robotic George Washingtons, that's what!

Once you've exited the Hall of Heroes, and the statement made in that environment by the game, these satirical Motorized Patriots then become a staple troop-type for the remainder of the game. Out of that context the initial satirisation, which criticises the falsity of official History, feels like it becomes trivialised into a mechanic of the shooter mode of play. The Motorized Patriot ends up first and foremost one threat to the character's life (or wallet - more on this later) in a menagerie of other threats. It's an essential overuse of the idea. "More Patriots!" Elizabeth shouts in the game's final showdown. Yes, more of them, and this time they're not here to satirise. By the end of the game I felt like these enemies had as much to say about nationalist societies as Wolfenstein 3D's mechanized Hilter.

One thing to be said for Bioshock's admittedly  limited line-up of baddies is that they represented something which was key to what the game's story was trying to say about violence; they were of course the citizens of Rapture, everyday folks like you or I - murderous and wild. Combat therefore became a savage struggle between these manic individuals and yourself (the player) for the game's resources and it wasn't a particularly difficult leap to question what differentiated yourself and them.

Infinite on the other hand confuses matters by increasing the number of enemies into an assortment of citizens, police, rebels, Motorized Patriots, 'Firemen', crow-people and boss-like 'Handymen' - divided into two factions, either the Columbian forces or the rebel Vox Populi. In all honesty I found it hard to remember which faction I was fighting at any one time (which of course could be a comment of the confusion of such revolutions - but I can't help wonder if that really was the intention). Just like the idea of a Motorized Patriot as a satire of American History, the principle of a cohesive society in disarray becomes diluted by the combat which (partly to the game's credit) becomes increasing intense and confusing. If the everyday Splicer was you or I, who, we could ask, are all these guys? Bioshock, for some, might have served as an example of how conceptual and narrative ideas can be pervasive in a game's very mechanics (that is, shooting lots of people), Infinite, in my opinion, serves as the opposite. The central ideas about nationalism or rebellion, a society in revolt, feel lost to the combat, which is perhaps more fun than Bioshock's but lacks the same sense of purpose.

"It was their hands which built this city, Father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?"
"In their proper place, the depth."

One of the most striking things for me when playing Infinite was its narrative of revolution  which sees Columbia's capitalist elite working their proletariat population into desperation and finally violent revolt. I found it very interesting that Infinite's narrative and imagery appeared to make several references to the German silent science-fiction film Metropolis.

The game's depictions of its struggling underclass especially recalls the theatricality of Metropolis' industrial imagery. The Finkton level especially serves as a strong example of this. When you first come across the working class population they are working to the rhythm of a giant clock, much like the workers in Metropolis. The eventual rise of the underclass in the form of the Vox Populi similarly echoes the misguided revolution lead by the film's  own mechanical villain - the robotic version of the film's eventual heroine Maria. To me both stories share a message of non-violence. Both the violence against the working class enacted by the society's elite and the eventual violence of the proletariat revolution are shown to be immoral or incorrect to a stable society. Therefore in both the film and the game, unfettered capitalism and unfettered revolutionary action (both shown as forms of violence) are equally wrong.

It seems strange to me then that Booker's only punishment for violent action is a few pennies extracted from his wallet. Not only does this seem strangely reminiscent of Sonic's inexplicable ring stash, but surely it doesn't say much for game's comments on capitalism and violence. Fail to enact the precise death of all your enemies without losing your own health and the game charges you a small sum of money. How this fits into the game's narrative of oppression seems opaque. It possibly serves as another satirical remark against the medium - that games can only ever threaten you with point deduction - or perhaps the players' preferential awareness of points over the death of virtual representations of fellow humans. Either way I don't buy it. Booker's eventual martyrdom suggests that there is a price to be paid for violence - but it's not one the player has to pay, rather the character of Booker.

In any case Infinite follows Metropolis precisely enough to present an entirely moot ending. The revelation that Columbia - and all actions therein - are only one of a multitudinous array of other narratives and possibilities surely serves to negate the entire thing. In Metropolis the ending brings the both the working class and the upper elite together, ending with the message that they should work better together; essentially leaving the fictional society's vertical structure intact; the workers are still workers, the elite still elite. The film finally shows no other option. In Infinite Booker's death stops Comstock but does nothing for the issue as a whole. Violence remains, especially within the actions of the central character - for whom have we seen enact the most violence throughout the game? What option therefore do the proletariat have besides violence? To my mind the game ignores such questions in favour of pursuing Booker's own personal redemption, or defensively exploding into a meta-narrative/pseudo-sci-fi notion of alternate realities and narratives.

Like Metropolis, Infinite seems to me to be a great theatrical work of display. Grand settings, impeccable visual design but ultimately uninterested in exploring the complexity of its central issue. This must surely have something to do with economic factors; both are big budget, high concept pieces which must pull in a high revenue. And I am aware that in criticising these two pieces of entertainment I am no doubt doing a disservice to their essential artistry. However, while revolution, nationalism, capitalism and violence are heavy subjects, and while it is clearly admirable that a computer game might approach these issues with such artistic confidence as Infinite does, I can't help feeling that it fails to say anything interesting or clear about them. And crucially it is the game's central mechanics - that is the first-person combat side of things -  which problematise most of the issues that it tries to address. This is a significant issue for a game which hopes to say something important through the specific medium of gaming and interaction.

I have no doubt missed many of the things which make Inifinite a great game. I also realise that many people would completely disagree with what I have argued. I would certainly like to hear more about the connection between the game's alternate reality ending and the central narrative of revolution (similarly the link between personal fatherhood and the nationalist society - links to Nazism etc.).What is undeniably great about Infinite is that it can open up questions about play, narrative and interactivity, all of  which are extremely interesting. This, if anything, is what makes this game so important - not for its ultimate success but for its intention.

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