Cults of personality, whether the person be Stalin, Comstock, or Andrew Ryan, all involve a yawning disparity between the myth the society believes (or pretends to believe in) and the truth that lies behind the curtain. A personality cult is not imposed upon unwilling subjects, it is invited into existence by them. It fulfils a need. Andrew Ryan provided proof of the triumph of Man’s Will over Nature and confirmation to the strivers that their efforts will be rewarded. Comstock represented safety and order for fearful whitefolk over the chaotic and dangerous: the natives, non-whites and poor. Ken Levine is a personality for the gaming industry to believe in, someone who can prove to the sneering outside world, through His will alone, that a video game can be a magnificent work of art. Gaming journalists awaited the release of Bioshock Infinite like the Israelites awaited Moses at the bottom of the mountain. When he revealed unto the world His creation, the response was, fittingly enough, rapturous.
The first half hour on Columbia sees you experience a pseudo-baptism, observe religious zealots and enjoy a lovely racist fair. The propaganda posters and NPC utterances give us a sense of the values of this society and the filmsa touch of its history. It draws you in, shows you the delights and you begin to fall in love with it. But what you are not aware of is that, unlike, for example, a Rockstar game, where the richness of detail is maintained throughout the world and game duration, this is the games highpoint in world description. The beginning is, in fact, a facade, a colourful front to lure the discerning gamer in. You enter Columbia expecting a rich and novel gaming experience. Instead you are assaulted with 15 hours of banal, repetitive, arena shooting. It is 200 million dollar bait-and-switch.
Irrational Games decided to devote all of Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay to a quite conservative and easy to handle (from both the level designer and player standpoints) First Person Shooter mechanic. In an attempt to pretend that some kind of innovation has been carried out by the Irrational team two simplistic gimmicks are introduced – one a little fun, and another simply pointless. The first is the rails. Ripped from a Sonic The Hedgehog game these rails are Booker’s main mode of transport from one shooting arena to the next. Some of the arenas themselves have the rails circling them, allowing you the novel experience of being shot at while flying around in circles. When playing on 1999 mode these rails are sometimes a way to flee imminent death or if “battling” a handyman, a way to paralyse its AI.
The second gimmick, and this truly is a gimmick as it has no strategical depth, nor does it add anything to the gaming experience, is Elizabeth’s ability to open tears during battle. Here, a potentially interesting gameplay mechanic is utterly squandered in Irrational’s hands. Essentially, objects you would normally expect to find in a shooting arena (eg guns, medipacks, turrets) now require two button presses to interact with as opposed to the traditional one button press. You can see these greyed out objects but need first to press x in order for Elizabeth to fetch them into our universe. You then press x a second time to pick up or use said object in the traditional way. That is it. Elizabeth’s other influence on play is to randomly throw ammo and health at you.
It has been asked how Elizabeth finds these items when she spends the duration in a duck and cover posture. Perhaps she has a tear in her blouse, but the matter brings us to one of the most important and hyped aspects of Infinite – Elizabeth and her AI. The amount of pre-release hype this virtual entity received was quite dramatic. Our imaginations were allowed to fly into gaming heaven wondering what marvels this one character, worked on for years, would bring. But why indeed imagine, when Irrational Games themselves gave the world video evidence of this programming phenomenon, showing her resurrecting dead horses and wielding powers to fight alongside Booker as an equal. So bafflement overcame me when I played the finished product to find Elizabeth nothing more than a Disney princess skin over the Fable 2 dog’s AI brain. She would trot ahead of you, scrutinize a prop (desk, poster, potted plant), but instead of sniffing out loot and barking, she would say forgettable things at predetermined map-points. Other than that she opened locked doors, but only after you had suffered to completion, the slaughter of every living thing in the current area.
So her AI was nothing new after all. But what about the character. Irrational Games tried so hard to make her likable – hence the Disney looks, Disney run, and Disney character-development – that over time she began to grate. The difference between her and the rebooted Lara Croft could not be more stark. Both start with a certain level of innocence and inexperience, and for both women, their first murder is a notable step in their “maturing”. However, Lara kills a man who is about to rape and probably kill her; Elizabeth murders a black woman who has just led an uprising of the working class, united across lines of race and gender, against a white-supremacist dictatorship.
When Elizabeth happens upon Daisy Fitzroy the latter has just that moment killed Columbia’s leading capitalist and now threatens his son with a gun. Elizabeth does not attempt to reason with Daisy, to show her the futility of killing a child, or trying to understand why she has so much pent up anger. (it’s no stretch of the imagination to assume she has been abused over the years by her racist masters) Booker distracts Daisy, and Elizabeth sneaks up on her. Elizabeth could use the element of surprise to disarm Daisy but instead chooses to kill. Afterwards the child is left behind, abandoned by Elizabeth, Booker and Ken Levine.
At this point the writing in the game has hit rock bottom. It is now serving to impose Ken Levine’s views upon the player, rather than creating a believable set of events that may possibly be influenced by the player’s own judgements. The child is a cynical tool to emote instant hate in the player for a character they may otherwise be sympathetic to. The blood-thirst of Fitzroy and the Vox Populii is artificial and strained. The player meets those people early in the game, the porters and cleaners; the workers undercutting each others wage-price in an attempt to be chosen to work for the day; oppressed souls singng folk-songs. Irrational Games shows us a people, surviving in a highly oppressive and violent society (one that lynches mixed-race couples in front of children and calls it a raffle). A few hours later the game forces us to kill these people who have just now found freedom. We disembowel the porters and cleaners, we burn to cinders the cooks and servants, we shoot to death the mums and dads of the children who sung so sweetly to us in the slums. In an interview Ken Levine calls this the middle way. We are meant to prefer it.
And it seems many players do. Here are two typical comments by players about Daisy Fitzroy and the Vox Populii (remember, vox populii is a slogan calling for democracy):
“Vox Populi should have never been established and Daisy should’ve been dead more earlier. Her ruthless revolution did nothing but made Columbia more corrupt than it was before.”
“By the end she even destroys Columbia, attempts to murder a child and practically forces Liz to give up her innocence”
Only a person with utterly compromised morals can equate the violence of Columbian society with the violence of the resistance against it, and say, in Ken Levine’s own word’s “a plague on both their houses”. The violence of resistance is the violence of a strangled man who punches his attacker.
More people died making the film version of the Russian revolution, than the event itself. Oppressed people don’t suddenly become hooligans, burning and killing everything in sight, when the guards are no longer there to flog them. Ken Levine believes they do, and wants everyone who plays his games to think so too. He believes there can be no bloodless revolution, despite history proving him wrong. In his world view, (and I come to this conclusion from his interviews as much as his games) progress is not fought for and won, it is a gift bestowed upon us by a few wise men. Be it the founding fathers or the Lutece twins.
There is a reason why Levine can not envisage the real forces of progress. He has spent his career describing dystopias, showing us the broken remains of societies and their demented inhabitants in great detail. He has given no time over to how just and egalitarian societies are truly created. That vacuum has been filled with fairytales. With his vision filled by statues of founding fathers he is unable to see the mass of ordinary people who are the real driving force of history.
Booker is a mercenary, and in Late Capitalist society the mercenary is the only pure hero: a person uncompromised by religion, politics or ideology; whose only motivation is money. Elizabeth is a surrogate Messiah, whose innocence is the baptismal waters in which Booker can wash his sins away. His pointless death (a contrivance shoe-horned in to give us “that shocking ending”) is the solution to all Columbia’s ills, a fate designed all along by the omnipotent Luteces. Neither Elizabeth nor the Luteces are sullied with such distasteful motivations as politics or ideals. Indeed, if the Luteces had had strong political beliefs of a progressive kind they may not have prostituted science over to Comstock to begin with.
It is remarkable just how much Bioshock Infinite as a creative work embodies the attitudes it purports to be a critique of. The interracial melting pot of the Vox Populii is incapable of producing a civilised society. Fitzroy, a black woman, is incapable of taming her emotions and is swept along by impulse. The white, English, Luteces, on the other hand, are the embodiment of tranquility and reason, using the might of intellect to cure societies ills. The fact that the Luteces manipulate a war criminal into killing thousands of people across universes to achieve their goals is an irony that never enters Levine’s consciousness.
Compare Bioshock Infinite to 4A’s Metro 2033 games. Beneath the ruins of Moscow we walk amongst cooks and merchants, fishermen and prostitutes, the altruistic and the exploiters, murderers and protectors. We witness them and listen to their stories. The game does not force us to kill other humans even when those humans are desperately trying to kill us. And yet the FPS mechanics of Metro are far more satisfying than Infinite, the combat encounters far more varied and thrilling, the entire experience utterly engrossing and enjoyable. Despite good work from the artists the graphics of Infinite are lacklustre, with outdated textures, models and disappointing detail. 4A, on the other hand, built a custom engine that broke new graphical grounds. They achieved this with a fraction of the resources available to Irrational, and in atrocious working conditions.
The Metro goes beyond dystopia into post-apocalypse, yet it is far more sympathetic to human beings. It does not blame them for their fate – only the folly of Mutually Assured Destruction. It does not cast judgement but shows all the different ways people survive in desperate times. The good and the bad. The game rewards thinking before shooting. Even the utterly unknowable monsters who have been decimating humanities remnants, the Metro teaches us, have a right to exist, that they too can be spared. It shows us renewal and hope in a world we may earlier have dismissed as completely destroyed.
Bioshock Infinite then, is an utterly pessimistic game, and I think this unconsciously seeped into the game mechanics, revealing itself in the bland, repetitive, arena shooting. Levine’s gameplay design decisions have become more conservative over time, culminating in him making decisions for Bioshock Infinite based on “fratboy focus groups”. The possibilities for this game were indeed infinite, but Levine lacked the vision to pull anything off other than a conservative shooter with conservative politics. It is a singular failure.