The Success of Bioshock Infinite: Games aren’t Movies

Having managed to win Civ 5 with every civ available (with an assist from Spawn of Tolly 2), I went looking for a different gaming experience.  Since Spawn of Tolly 1 had suggested Bioshock Infinite, and my Google+ feed had also been positive, I jumped on Steam and started it downloading for the weekend.

I ran through the game in something like 10 hours – it might have been 12.  I really like that experience, but I’m unlikely to play it much more.  Which puts in a very different category from a game like Civ 5.  The narrative portion of the game is very important, and there are many big surprises along the way.

I’m probably going to end up spoiling the crap out of the game, so you have been warned!

Now, the thing is, I just read this interesting review of the game by Peter Bright.   He titled it “The Failure of Bioshock Infinite:  Writing games like movies”  You might guess from the title that I don’t quite agree with him.  Nevertheless, I think overall it’s a good review.

What makes this game so different from Civ 5 is the near-absence of what Raph Koster has called ludic choice  (Ok, I’m not really sure if he made the term or just brought it to my attention. But onward.)

The gameplay of BI is pretty standard FPS.   You have weapon choices, upgrades, reloads, and hunting for stuff.  You have a variety of opponents, and a variety of terrain.  You have some special powers that are granted by finding things, and upgrades that can be purchased with money that’s found.

Fights are in setpieces, which sit between more pure story bits.  One point that Bright makes is that the hatred of QuickTimeEvent (click on this flashing thingy to keep something bad from happening) is very strong in the gaming audience, and BI avoids them.  Even when the game goes into storytelling mode, and there’s only one action you can do to avance the game, the mechanic to do so is pressing the ‘F’ key, which is what you’ve been using all along to do a variety of things.  It’s the all purpose “do the obvious with this thing” key.   This turns out to be important, I think.

I have to agree that the “game” component of BI is somewhat weak.  Not that I don’t like shooting things, I think that’s pretty clearly a universal sort of thing people love.  Remember Duck Hunt (and that obnoxious dog)?  Nevertheless, this is a far, far cry from Civ 5.  The choices I make in Civ 5 affect what the outcome is, it is quite easy to point to the map at the end of the game and see the consequences of one’s decisions.  You put a city there, but not there.  You burned down this city when you conquered it, but not that one.

This is not the case with Bioshock Infinite.  There is only one outcome, and all choices boil down to one choice – keep playing or stop.  Yes, you will end up with dead bodies, but they were always going to end up dead, because you can’t progress without killing them.  The scope for choices exists, but is much more limited.  There are, for each fight, multiple tactics that can be effective.  There are multiple weapons available.  You can choose which upgrades to buy, and there are audio recordings called “voxophones” scattered about the game that you can pick up and listen to.  These explain bits of world setting and backstory.  These are second-order, because there’s a predetermined story, and all paths converge to the same endpoint.

I feel I must mention that I hate definitional squabbles and for all purposes I’m happy to accept that Bioshock Infinite is a game, a video game.  It’s quite different from Civ 5, though, and I need a way to talk about those differences, that’s all.

There is a powerful story in BI, and it’s placed in a powerful setting.  And one of the messages of that story is that some points in life seem like choices, but they don’t change anything.  In one of the final scenes, you walk along boardwalks that branch before you, seemingly infinitely.  But the branches are probably meaningless, they would lead to the same outcome.  So the medium aligns with the message, it seems.  I think this is an important point that Bright misses utterly.

But I get ahead of myself.  I was talking about pacing.

The game is a game.  It is not a movie.  It is not supposed to have movie pacing.  Bright is trying to make applesauce with oranges.  The mechanic of “press F to let the story progress” has analogs in other computer-enabled art.  For instance, if you go over to Thrillbent.com  you will see lots and lots of “comics” – serial art that tells a story – in a particular format that has the reader clicking a next button to reveal the next panel in an overlay fashion.  This is not at all like the paper comic book, or even like many of my favorite online comics (Order of the Stick, I’m looking at you.)  The theory behind this format is discussed by John Rogers here, particularly the quote “The reader controls the flow of information”.

Rogers develops this them in this piece at comicbook.com:

“The cool and tempting thing, is that ability to hold back or to make the stuff that he and Stuart [Immonen] did in the [AvX: Infinite] initiative, where you’re able to have different people changing faces on the same page and changing reactions,” Rogers said. “Once you turn the page in a physical comic, that page vomits up everything on it. Even now, I’ll be writing something and I’ll realize, ‘Nah, that’s an odd-numbers page; it’s going to be sitting right there on the opposite side. I have to change this reveal over to an even-numbered page or else it’s not a reveal.’ There are certain storytelling advantages to this experiment that we think are going to be cool and exciting.”

This thing that Bright complains about, is, in fact a story-telling advantage.  That advantage, it turns out, is critical to the emotional impact of Bioshock Infinite.

Suffice it to say that the first-person character, Booker DeWitt, is not a nice person.  We meet him at the end of a long string of unfortunate choices, and in the course of the story, we travel in time and try to undo some of those choices.  We find this difficult.  At one point Elizabeth, your plucky sidekick, and the girl you are supposed to “rescue” (This relationship gets really complicated by the end), tells us, “You’re not going to get out of this room until you do this.”  It’s something that, I think, most players will not want to do, but the choice is:  tap the F key and do it, or stop playing the game.

This is powerful.  It makes the player complicit in the action, rather than a detached spectator.  This is exactly what Marshall McLuhan talked about when he distinguished “hot” from “cold” media.  This happens many times in the game.

So that’s one answer to the question, “why isn’t this story told as a film instead of as a game?”  I think there are some other answers, too:

  • The story is complex, and very dark.  Hollywood probably would never touch it, given the amount of SFX that it would take to make it happen.  But the gaming audience is far more accepting of things like strange steampunk floating cities with temporo-spatial rifts in 1912.
  • The story is longer than the usual film 2-3 hours.  
  • Other game mechanics can be used to evoke particular feelings.  For example, your sidekick Elizabeth will find things like ammo, health kits, and salts (think of them as mana potions) during fights and toss them to you (when you press the F key).  But there’s a critical point in the game where you are separated, and you set out to find her again.  You must fight your way past some people in an environment where ammunition and salts are not really available, so the loss of Elizabeth’s help gives you a sense of loss on the level of the game mechanics, not just the story.
It’s not a film. It’s not supposed to be.  Complaining that it doesn’t have the pacing of a film misses the point.  I think Bright actually missed where the game is, because of comments like this:

When playing Infinite there’s an uneasy tension. You can either respect the pace and plotting ofBioShock Infinite‘s story, or you can set the story to one side, killing any sense of urgency but giving you the time to explore.

And this:

For example, I discovered one minor secret “backwards”; I came across a locked chest after visiting the area in which its key could be found.
The first time I went through the location with the key, things were relatively quiet and peaceful—the perfect mood for hunting for items. However, between finding the chest and backtracking to retrieve the key, I unleashed hell in the service of advancing the plot. The result was that rather than hunting for the key in a quiet lull, I was opening boxes and searching the floor in the middle of all-out warfare.
It was incongruous. This was meant to be an exciting, action-packed part of the game, with significant implications for the game universe, and I was walking around looking for a key, completely disregarding the mayhem around me. 

So the issue is that Bright was never really in character.

I have a long, long history of tabletop RPG (some might say a 3000-year history!).  One of the fundamentals of tabletop RPG is “playing in character”.  Speak in first person.  Tell the GM “I search the room” or “I shoot the sniper on the rooftop”, not “My character searches the room” or “Booker shoots the sniper on the rooftop”.   Sometimes, I have to ignore the fact that I have fabulous red hair, and be in character as someone with short, ordinary black hair.

Likewise, when you say things to the other players, you do your best to speak in the characters voice.  More importantly for our purposes here, you do your best to do things that seem consistent with what your character’s motivations are, or to find a way to solve problems in-game.

This makes all the difference, even though it doesn’t necessarily dictate any other action.  If you felt anxious about advancing the plot, then don’t drop everything to search for secrets.  Ignore them.  (This is pretty much what I did, I got stuff when I saw it or could, and mostly just kept going forward.)

But if you want to search around for stuff, then perhaps, in character, you can find a motivation for that.  Perhaps you, Booker, are really curious about what happened and you want to find as many voxophones as you can to solve the mystery.   (By the way, contrary to what Bright says, you don’t need to find all of these recordings for the plot to make any sense.  I found many, but by no means all of them.  And the plot made sense.  Well, as much as it can.)

Or perhaps you, Booker, are really worried about whether you’ll have enough resources to make it through (it quickly looks like you’ll have to battle an entire city) and so he will stop and search out other resources.   There’s nothing that says you can’t first kill the guys shooting at you and then search for more loot, after all.

Those kinds of considerations are something that I consider fun, which is perhaps an odd word for such a dark-hued game.

So I’m afraid that some of the immaturity that he complains about is not in the games, but in the gamers.  There are still choices that matter here – but they matter to your experience of the game, not so much to it’s in-game outcome.   And getting into character, identifying with Booker and his past, is what makes this game work so powerfully.