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Friday, May 10, 2013

I played through BIOSHOCK INFINITE. Once again Irrational Games has created a really fresh and clever and convincing world, with a freaky and surprising narrative. This time, instead of an Ayn Randian dystopia under the sea, it's a racist apartheid state floating in the clouds around 1912. With a film noir anti-hero trying to complete a dubious mission that gets more complex as things go along. And you can jump on these "sky-lines" and zip around the clouds at high speed, which is pretty awesome.

Most of the game you're with Elizabeth, the feisty heroine, who you are initially trying to rescue from her captors -- except that you are rescuing her in order to deliver her to some guys you owe gambling debts to. I did a MIGS talk a few years ago about how games need flawed characters, because flaws are what make us care about characters. I liked that in BI, I care about my hero because he's kind of a rat, and I'm hoping he'll redeem himself. And I care about Elizabeth because she didn't always help me, and didn't even always like me. She's not always the helpful sidekick. She can be very helpful, but she has a will of her own.

The slaughtering is a bit tougher to take than the first two Bioshocks. In those, you're primarily slaughtering "splicers," deranged zombie-like people who are no longer really human. In this one, you're primarily slaughtering cops, guards and soldiers. You know, ordinary guys with jobs. It bugged me a little that this is one of those games where the hero's goal -- in this case, clear a gambling debt -- is so completely out of proportion to his means -- kill hundreds of people who have nothing to do with the debt. If he's that badass a dude, couldn't he have just killed the dude he owed the money to?

It seems unfortunate to me that with all the effort Irrational put into this world, the only way you can interact with it is to kill people. An FPS should have lots of ways to kill d00dz, yes. But I think it's more interesting if there are other interactions you can have with NPCs, and I prefer if there's at least some opportunities not to kill some people.

What I regretted most about the game is how linear the flow is, and how free of consequences. It's not sandboxy at all. You're sent on your basic scavenger hunt: find the gunsmith. What, he's not here? Find him there. What, he has no tools? Find his tools. There aren't a lot of different ways to play the game, except for which weapons you wield and how you use magic, er, "vigors". I'm into the epilog, and there are maybe three or four permanent choices I can remember. (Throw the baseball at the couple or not; which pendant Elizabeth gets; whether to draw first on the shifty teller; euthanize an NPC or not.) The consequences for most of them seem trivial, from what I can tell from articles and forums. Considering the mammoth amount of resources that went into this game, it's a shame that there are so few decisions to make beyond which ways to slaughter NPCs. Considering the budget of a AAA game, these days, there ought to be room for at least one real moral choice.

Of course it's possible that there was an intention to make these choices more meaningful, and that got triaged out as the game moved toward completion. I suspect a lot of teams talk about putting consequence in their games, but in the end they figure they absolutely must get the gameplay and the environment polished and working, whereas the game doesn't absolutely NEED consequence, so out it goes. I've seen that happen. It's a shame our industry is so secretive, because we could learn more from our mistakes if it weren't.

So, all in all, it's a good game when I feel the urge to kill some dudes at the end of a day. And it's a beautiful game. And the world is truly original and convincing. And the story gets reasonably mind-blowing in the finale. But for me, it missed its chance to be a great game. It's just very hard to have your main character's moral choices carry emotional weight when the game makes those choices for you. So for me, the game mostly left me cold.

I remain convinced that injecting real choice into a game like this, if done cleverly, could add no more than 5%-10% to the production cost, while leaving the player with a much deeper emotional commitment to the ending. (I mean, even at the very end ... do you accept baptism, or not? Do you become one, or the other? And that wouldn't require much programming at all.)

And now I'm wondering -- would PAPO & YO have been even more powerful if you had a choice in the end?

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